A community in American Samoa leapfrogs into solar energy

I have been reading several books on anthropology recently and decided to revisit a classic, the 1928 book Coming of Age in Samoa by Margaret Mead. This was Mead’s first book, published in 1928 when she was just 27 and was based on nine months field work in 1924 on the island of Tu’a in American Samoa and it made her famous. She was investigating whether the conflicts that seemed to arise in the US between adolescent girls and their parents after they reached puberty was biologically based or was because of the cultural context in which they grew up.

Mead was part of the anthropology program at Columbia University and Barnard College directed by Franz Boas that claimed that evidence showed that race, sexuality, and gender were not fixed, biologically determined categories but were fluid and a product of culture. Boaz expanded on these themes when he wrote in the Foreword to Mead’s book, “Courtesy, modesty, good manners, conformity to definite ethical standards are universal, but what constitutes courtesy, modesty, very good manners, and definite ethical standards is not universal. It is instructive to know that standards differ in the most unexpected ways.”

Mead spent her time studying the life of the people, especially the women and young girls, in three small, almost contiguous, villages on the island of Taʻū and her conclusion was that Samoan girls had a much less turbulent transition to adulthood than American girls and thus the issue was cultural, not biological. In her last two chapters, she speculated as to possible factors and suggested that American youths were faced with a bewildering variety of beliefs and lifestyles, even within their families and small communities, and subjected to too much pressure to choose and thus had to make difficult decisions about what they were going to do with their lives and what they should believe, whereas in Samoa there was much more uniformity and what was expected of young people changed gradually as they got older and reached adulthood, making the transition smoother. Another factor was the casualness of the society since she wrote “Samoa is a place where no one plays for very high stakes, no one pays very high prices, no one suffers for his convictions, or fights to the death for special ends”. A big factor in reducing stress was the ease with which young people, if they felt they were being treated badly at home, could simply pick up and move to the nearby home of a relative. This possibility tended to prevent adults from treating children too harshly for fear of losing a valuable source of labor, while in the US young people in difficult households felt trapped.

Mead’s work in Samoa came in for some criticism decades later with some suggesting that she had idealized the lives of the villagers and that Samoan girls had sometimes been pulling her leg with their stories of sexual freedom and experimentation. But in general her work seems to have held up and the many communities she studied in the Pacific seem to have held her in high regard. She received a very warm welcome on her return to the island in 1971 and her death in 1978 was commemorated in Manus, Papua New Guinea with the kinds of ceremonies that are normally only given at the deaths of high chiefs.

I decided to look into how much Samoa had changed since Mead’s first visit nearly 100 years ago. One major change is that the old-style beehive houses with thatched roofs have been replaced with modern homes. But what was most impressive is that the entire island, which once depended on kerosene lamps and wood for light and energy, is now completely powered by solar energy delivered via microgrids, completely bypassing the stage that the developed world now finds hard to shake off, with most of the power coming from fossil fuels.

I expect that those parts of the world that are currently not reached by traditional power grids will also likely go straight to solar energy and microgrids. It is an example of ‘leapfrogging technology’, where communities that were once technologically behind, are suddenly able to move ahead of the developed world because they are not burdened with legacy technology and infrastructure and can more easily adopt the latest technology.

Mobile phones are another example of leapfrogging. In an article on climate change in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert describes what happened in India.

In 1947, the year India gained its independence, telephones were a rarity in the nation; there were fewer than a hundred thousand in the entire country. In the decades that followed, they remained scarce; as late as 1989, India had just four million phones for eight hundred and fifty million people. Three-quarters of rural villages lacked any phone connection at all; the official wait time for a line was almost four years, and, when one was finally installed, service was often dismal.

Then, practically all at once, phones were ringing everywhere. In 1994, the country auctioned off its first round of cellular licenses. The auction process was deemed “a mess”; nevertheless, cell service exploded. By 2010, six hundred million Indians were subscribers. (The country’s 2011 census revealed that more households had phones than had toilets.) In 2015, cell subscriptions hit a billion. India effectively skipped fixed-line phones and went straight to wireless, a process that’s become known as leapfrogging.

I recall visiting Sri Lanka some decades ago when cell phones were just starting to make their appearance in the US and being startled to see that most people in Sri Lanka were already using mobile phones, including the drivers of three-wheelers and street fruit and vegetable vendors. This was because the old landline phones were limited in their availability and it took years for people to get one and were expensive. My family always had one but that was because my father’s work for the state bank required him to have one and so we got one immediately wherever we moved. Our phone became the one that the neighborhood used when they had an emergency. When mobile phones came along that did not require the laying down of physical wiring, suddenly phones were within reach of everyone. The same thing happened with TV. Sri Lanka did not adopt TV until the late 1970s and went straight into color TV, bypassing the black-and-white stage.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    “Sri Lanka did not adopt TV until the late 1970s and went straight into color TV, bypassing the black-and-white stage.”
    One time I lent my DVD of “A Christmas Carol” (1951, originally titled Scrooge) starring Alistair Sim to a friend. She watched it with her little boy who said, “Mommy! There’s something wrong with the picture -- there’s no colors!”

  2. billseymour says

    Your mention of TV in Sri Lanka reminded me of another example:  the NTSC standard for color TV, which is used mostly in the Americas, came along first; and the later standards, SECAM (developed in France) and PAL (developed in England), give much better quality.

  3. Erk1/2 says

    India’s leap-frogging in telephone technology is interesting considering the last telegram in India was sent in 2013. I think the last telegram in the US was only 10 years earlier. Legacy tech can hold on in niches for long periods. My research institute, for some reason, still has a fax machine. We occasionally get wrong-number faxes from doctors with patient information because it’s often not legal to send the information by email or other electronic means due to privacy laws.

  4. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    It would be interesting to compare the similarities and differences of development in independent (“West”) Samoa and American Samoa. They are separated by a narrow sound, and speak the same language, which means their development should be similar. On the other hand, their modern political affiliations are quite different. Samoa has recently switched to left-lane traffic and same date as New Zealand (and Tonga, their southern neighbour).

  5. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    @billseymour #3: PAL was developed by Telefunken in West Germany. And NTSC was unofficially known as Never The Same Colour, because the colours depended on fine tuning the receiving frequency. PAL and SECAM used more complex coding to eliminate the effect.

  6. John Morales says

    Phase Alternating Line
    National Television Standards Committee
    Sequential Color and Memory

    (I have a thing for acronyms)

    On-topic, yeah, that leapfrogging is something I’ve noted long ago.

    Similarly applies to other aspects of life and industrial processes, which avoid the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the past.

  7. billseymour says

    Lassi Hippeläinen @6:  thanks for the correction of where PAL was invented.  I’m not surprised that it was Telefunken.

  8. fentex says

    While travelling in Africa a while ago I was very interested in the leap frogging of much infrastructure -- with the digital revolution and wide spread adoption of cell phones there will never be the investment in physical infrastructure of landlines the west saw.

    And likely similar effects with solar power and electric power trains on other infrastructure.

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