Now What Episode 10: Trash Powered

This episode of Now What is, on one level, a story about All Power Labs. APL is a group of genius misfits - Burning Man artists, brilliant engineers, and welders with a rebellious streak - and to properly understand them, a bit of backstory is required. Originally, they ran an illegal art compound on the outskirts of Berkeley, CA. The city didn't like that much and cut their power in an effort to evict them. Rather than cave in and move out, they built their own power generators based on old World War II technology.

It's a pretty impressive municipal 'fuck you,' and an even more impressive scaleable power solution when you consider a) its carbon negative footprint and b) its reversal of top-down power dynamics by using portable generators to build a grid from the ground up.

Pretty soon, the APL gang was growing their power experiments beyond their own lot and far beyond Berkeley, manufacturing biomass generators at scale and working with organizations around the world to put them in the hands of folks who wanted to find sustainable power solutions or, even more pressingly, simply wanted reliable access to power and electricity where there was none.

And so in that way, this episode is also a story about power. More specifically, access to power, and most specifically, a lack there of. Around the world, about 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity and the development benefits it brings. 1 billion more have access only to unreliable electricity networks.

And the thing about those truly stunning numbers, is that power is a backbone resource: it's the underlying asset that allows you to educate, to have healthcare, to cook, to socialize, to communicate. The list is endless. And make no mistake, resourceful folks will find power elsewhere if they need it, which can be dicey; smoke from polluting and inefficient cooking, lighting, and heating devices kills an estimated four million people a year and causes a range of chronic illnesses. And of course, for a final little sprinkling of awful, these emissions are also important drivers of climate change and local environmental degradation.

And of course, this is a story about Liberia. A country that has just been through sheer and utter hell and back a few times, with a deeply complex and complicated relationship with America. A country where today, coming out of civil war, incomprehensible atrocities and brutal leadership, and, most recently, a vicious battle with Ebola, only 9.8% of Liberia's 4.39 million citizens have access to electricity. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but it's pretty fucking tough to rebuild when you can't turn the lights on.

And really, this episode is a story about people. I tried writing that sentence 20 different ways so it wouldn't seem so rote and awful and cheesy and tired. I failed, obviously, but the sentiment holds. This episode is about a group of people in Berkeley, California, and how what they do changes the lives of another totally separate group of people in Kwendin, Liberia, and about how the way the people in Kwendin accept these new ideas and people with a warmth and kindness that borders on otherworldly.

The biomass technology is really cool, the aid organizations that facilitate this kind of work deserve our undying respect and admiration, and of course the APL Power Pallets are awesome. But that unlikely Berkley-to-Kwendin storyline is what sticks with me, as I sit on a flight back to London from Monrovia, as not just the most interesting narrative, but one of the best human experiences I've ever been so lucky to witness.

As we wrap up 2015 and get reflective and eggnog-emotional with our toasts and hopes for the new year, we'd all do well to hope for a bit more of this brand of basic human goodness. It's tricky to find out there at the moment, but in small pockets of this planet, people are making other people's lives better not for glory or fame or money or prizes, but simply because that's what they think they should do.

Thanks for watching Season 1 of Now What. Happy holidays.

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