“Look at this house. See how lucky we are today?” I overheard a mother saying to her eight year-old daughter at the National Colonial Farm. I understand the impulse to teach children not to take for granted the conveniences we have today – electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing, and so many others. As any colonial historian will tell you, life was brutal and short in those days. We should appreciate the advances that allow us to live longer, healthier lives.
But there’s another side to the story. For all of those technologies that make our lives easier, there is an environmental cost that we often don’t think about. The unfortunate reality is that we contribute to climate change every time we flip on that convenient light switch. We dump endless supplies of plastic and other non-degradable disposables into landfills and waterways. I began thinking about mother-daughter conversations fifty years from now. . . . one hundred years from now. Would they say, “See how lucky we are today?” This became one of the inspirations for new kind of weekend visitor experiences on the National Colonial Farm that began in October 2014.
Using colonial history to provide a context for conversation, we want to get people thinking about the environmental choices they make.
November’s Theme: Artificial Light and Energy Conservation
Nature’s rhythms undoubtedly governed the lives of colonial people more than they do today. In 2014, we turn on a light when it’s dark. We turn on air conditioning when we are hot. We take every opportunity to “conquer” nature with our technology. But colonials had fewer options. They headed off to bed shortly after sundown. Candle light was available, but too dim to accomplish much work.
With coal burning providing almost half of the energy produced for electricity in this country, maybe it’s time we explored the benefits of letting nature take charge once in a while? This is the question we are exploring this November and December.
Even in colonial times, the cost of staying up late was an issue that could cause a family squabble. Candles, often purchased rather than made, would have been costly for a struggling tobacco planting family. So to help the Bolton family save a few pence, visitors have had the opportunity to dip candles with costumed interpreters as they invite discussion on the merits of being thrifty with energy.
Meanwhile, in the Visitor Center, we’ve offered a connection to present-day conservation with a light bulb comparison activity. If you’re a night owl, which light bulb will help you save the most on energy? Incandescent, Compact Fluorescent (CFL) or Light Emitting Diodes (LED)? Visitors can see for themselves by cranking our hand-held generator to power each bulb. But the answer is not clear-cut. There are several environmental impacts related to recycling and producing the bulbs that may affect decision-making. We’re here to start a thought-provoking conversation about an object that everyone uses.
I’m looking forward to seeing if combining colonial history and environmental issues is something that visitors respond to. Are we sparking meaningful conversations? Are people talking about light bulbs and candles on their ride home? This is what we’d like to know. Please write us if you have feedback!
–Written by Andrea Jones, Director of Programs and Visitor Engagement