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The great mystery

Jackie Mirandola Mullen | Monday, November 9, 2009


A few weeks ago, I met with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission with a group of fellow Notre Dame students. For those of you who may not know, FERC is an executive agency that oversees interstate energy transport, be it in the form of electricity, natural gas, oil pipelines or hydroelectric power.

The meeting was interesting and the bureaucrat with whom we spoke knowledgeable. I would have left the hour feeling intellectually satisfied, perhaps complacently, were it not for the final question she entertained:

Student: “How do you know exactly what the generated electricity is used for?”

Her answer?

“Well that’s the great mystery, isn’t it?”

What? The commission responsible for regulating energy flow doesn’t know where electricity goes?

Her answer was not intended to leave such an esoteric takeaway. She was referring to the notion known among electrical professions that electron flow moves water-like along the path of least resistance. Because of this “fluidity” of electrons, it is impossible to track one electron as having been made in this particular generating plant and reaching its end destination at that exact streetlight.

Yet, her large-scale response couldn’t help but lead me to a similarly capacious framing of the situation. Since when are we so big, so complex, that we don’t fully understand the functions of a system that we ourselves have created and made essential for modern human life? How can we create pathways that are too complex to track action, too tangled to trace movement and instead require faith in a “great mystery” that everything will turn out okay?

Hold up. Is this article about our electricity or our economy?

It could be either. We are huge. Our economic markets are huge, our personal and national spheres of influence are titanic, our resource use is colossal. Our nation’s economic and political systems sit lost in their own obesity epidemic, so complex that even the very commodity we rely on for heat, cold, light and food storage remains a mystery to those in charge of regulating it. 

It’s a lot like gaining weight, this acquisition of national bulk. Mass accrues so gradually that only ten years down the line do you look down and realize your gut has expanded to the point where you can’t even see your feet anymore. You know they still exist down there, you can usually feel them, but it sure takes some effort to take care of them.

If stimulus money really is impossible to track, if certain companies truly are “too big to fail,” then why is the solution to throw more money at them, hoping some morals will stick? Parents anywhere will tell you that handing out money to a child doesn’t improve his/her/a national conglomerate’s character.

Being large, advanced and far-reaching obviously does afford some benefits. In America, we feel limitless in our pursuits, we have access to mass amounts of information and we don’t struggle with the basic necessities of life in the same way that so many other countries do. Yet, how do we reconcile this ease with the waste of our huge lifestyles? More importantly, how do we tame the Frankensteins of our massive culture?

Most huge civilizations of the world grew and grew because of their successes, but too much success has historically tended to lead to epic failure. Rome couldn’t control its expansive northern territories from centers in the south and Britain eventually couldn’t keep its colonies in line with only a Navy. Our ingenuity advances us, but also creates capable monsters, systems that we administer but cannot track.

I’m not sure if I’m advocating for secession, ruralism, Amish lifestyles or the apocalypse. Maybe all four, but probably none. What I do know is that we need to slow down and scale back. How can we retain and check up on the “great mysteries” of our inventions if they stay so great and mysterious?


Jackie Mirandola Mullen is a senior history and German major. She uses electricity. You can contact her at    [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not 

necessarily those of The Observer.