On Galiano Island mobile phone coverage is at best spotty. Around Sturdies Bay, where the ferry lands, coverage spills over from one of the nearby islands and the tiny graph in the upper corner of my cell phone window shows four bars, but just two kilometres down the road that signal is almost non-existent. Our cabin lies in a complete dead zone. A couple of years ago a phone company was proposing to erect a tower on the ridge above our place, but ‘opposition grew’ among the locals. My neighbour came by, wearing a battered straw cowboy hat, holding a petition opposing the tower. He knew the phone company claimed the tower would be entirely safe, but he felt they couldn’t be trusted.
At the co-op where I live with my family in Vancouver, there was a similar spate of opposition that arose against the addition of ‘smart meters’ to the building complex’s electrical system. Those meters would send out a signal, much like a mobile device does, and it was felt by numerous of my neighbours that that signal might be harmful to human health. According to BC Hydro, the corporation installing the new meters, exposure to radio frequency during the 20-year life span of a smart meter is equivalent to the exposure of a single 30-minute cell phone call, which would suggest that I should be a lot more concerned about the installation of the cell phone tower on Galiano than I should be about the installation of a smart meter in my Vancouver home. Regardless, my Vancouver neighbours were at least obliquely aware of such safety claims on behalf of BC Hydro, but they were not about to be swayed in their opposition to the meters. They too brought round a petition.
My neighbours are quite right to not trust the corporate agenda. As the documentary The Corporation has so nimbly pointed out, that agenda is about one thing and one thing only, to the exclusion of all else—the maximization of profit, and the resultant increase in share price. That focus is amoral, in effect sociopathic, but then one can hardly expect it to be otherwise. Corporations exist in a world of other corporations.
And certainly there is no shortage of examples where the corporate agenda had a direct and deleterious effect on human health. From big mining to big pharma to big finance, corporations have regularly pursued profits at the expense of our collective wellbeing, there’s little doubt of that much.
Thomas Edison himself once opposed the installation of the electrical grid in America. Go figure I know, a man who was after all the father of the electric lightbulb, but here’s what he said: “…I have always consistently opposed high-tension and alternating systems of electric lighting… not only on account of danger, but because of their general unreliability and unsuitability for any general system of distribution.”*
In 1891, at a village meeting in Bradford, Vermont, there was a contentious vote taken regarding a proposal to purchase an electric light plant for the purpose of replacing the local gas street lamps. The vote was not in favour. Here’s what Larry Coffin, President of the Bradford Historical Society, wrote in his blog about the successful opposition at that meeting: “That opposition seems to have come largely from those who disapproved of a government-owned enterprise, although there were those who were just opposed to change.”
The fear of new technology is indeed linked to a more generalized fear of change. Change, especially when it’s cloaked in the ‘hardwear’ of unfamiliar technology, makes us uneasy, makes us aware that the new, coming situation may well be open to exploitation by others, exploitation which might put us at a disadvantage, or do us harm.
And petitions are rather like referendums, as I’ve written about them elsewhere on this site. They bring out ‘the opposition’ in us, opposition that comes with the empowerment of opposing, whether it be out of fear, or resentment, or simple contrariness. We oppose because it makes us feel safer, or more influential, or that we have at least temporarily beaten back the forces that seek to gain advantage upon us. It’s an attitude that rarely contributes to the greater good, that is rarely healthy.
I didn’t sign either petition.
*Source: Edison, Thomas A. The Dangers of Electric Lighting, North American Review, November, 1889. pp.630, 632, 633.