An older new utopia

Solving the paradox of gadget-lust versus sustainability

We love new things, right? But we also want to spare the planet, right? Are these two desires incompatible? Many say ‘yes’. We need an economy of less to carry on. But there may be another way. How can we retain our love for progress and new things, while still being sustainable?

I am from Holland, the small country where the huge lamps- and gadget factory Philips comes from. We explain the way economy works to our children by using Philips as an example of successful business. Now for all of my life I have heard the story that Philips is able to manufacture light bulbs that could last a hundred years. And for as long as I have been living I remember thinking to this: ‘Well, then why don’t they?’ Obviously the answer was something along the lines of: If Phillips would make a light bulb that lasts a hundred years, they would not sell any more light bulbs once everybody has one. That’s like kicking themselves in the teeth. They would stop having a reason to exist, and all the people that work at Philips would be out of a job.

While this is true, the assumption that this is automatically a bad thing, is just that: an assumption.

I have long known about a book that deals with changing the destiny of our world to a sustainable future; what would happen if all of our industriousness would suddenly just fall away; how we could deal with the subsequent loss of jobs; and what we would be doing instead. It’s called “Eldorica: with a travelogue to a better world”. It was written by Dutch avant-garde artist Jurriaan Andriessen. Unfortunately it has never been translated into English, so you’ll have to do with what I tell you. Bear in mind that even though the book was written around 1970, the main gist of his writing has still not really settled in the mind of the general public, even though there is much more ecological awareness now than there was then, and the idea of sustainability is now more or less commonplace too.

‘Eldorica’ is an alternative planet that is very much like earth: it is capable of producing the same resources and food for its inhabitants. Until 1970 the history of earth and Eldorica runs absolutely parallel. Then in 1970 on both worlds the Club of Rome starts to talk about the negative impact of economic growth on our ecosystem. From that year onward, life on Eldorica develops rather radically different from life on our planet.

One comparison between Eldorica and our world that really rang true in my imagination when I first read the book many years ago, was about cars.

The car industry in our world is mostly here to produce jobs, not cars. When General Motors was on the verge of going out of business, it was the loss of jobs that people worried about. To fret about the loss of jobs and not cars seems like the natural thing to do. After all: jobs equal money, money equals food and a standard of living. But this is what that looks like with bigger picture in mind: Since the creation of the first car around 1900 the life expectancy of cars has decreased every year. A car produced in 1900 would last 40 to 50 years. But cars produced in 1950 would only stay on the road for 15 years or so. And in 1975 a car would only last 6 years. Theoretically, if the trend continued from then on, a car would be broken the moment it is produced in 1995. And three years later a car is already broken two years before it is even produced.

Sound ridiculous? Maybe. But from an Eldorian perspective this is what happened and is currently happening to the automotive industry the world over. It is producing cars that are economically broken before they are even produced. That’s why the industry can’t sustain itself anymore, I don’t care how green their emissions are. We innovate our products, not to make them more durable, but to create constantly updating incentives to buy newer models. And that’s a course of action that will eventually run into a brick wall.

The cars in Eldorica, on the other hand, are built for sustainability. They for last over a hundred years and can be up to four times as big as ours.

The reasoning is this: in 50 years of a normal human life, we own on average 12 to 15 cars. Now if we would use the materials of these 12 cars, we could build one really large one. We could even put a sofa and build a game room in them, and travel comfortably. But how can these things be so big and heavy, and still use a minimum amount of energy? I hear you ask.

Well for one because they run on high speed low friction tracks, that are controlled by computers that constantly monitor speed and the distance to other cars. And because they run on tracks, they can be much bigger and heavier without using more fuel (just think about our trains). And the ‘roads’ themselves can be much smaller while accommodating more traffic. The whole system somewhat resembles our train system, except it is private, and you never have to wait. The interior of the cars is something else. Imagine a car interior made from all sorts of luxury materials like solid gold, silver and marble, simply because they can be built to last and don’t get trashed so easily.

The price of all of these luxury materials is actually the same as what you would pay for employing wasteful materials a dozen times over.

The point is that what we want as a lifestyle, has a profound effect on how we need to conduct our work in order to support that lifestyle. I can go to work -and it really doesn’t matter what kind of work I am in- and work one day for a car that lasts a hundred years. Or I can work one day for a car that lasts 5 years. In this case I need to work 20 times more in order to enjoy having a car. With working one day for a car that lasts a hundred years, I save 19 wasteful cars and 19 wasted days. The logic of this is so profoundly and devastatingly clear, that it is quite remarkable that most everybody, probably without consciously realizing it, operates in an entirely opposite way. We believe it is essentially good to perform much labor to achieve something, but we don’t put that labour into things that are really worthwhile. Instead we take part in a system that will ultimately, and by its very nature exhaust itself, and us. And we are already beginning to see the contours of this taking shape on our horizon. Work increases, and the time and space to enjoy the fruits of our labor seem to decrease all the time. I don’t know how it is for you, but that’s sure what it feels like to me.

So what more can we learn from the world of Eldorica? Well, what goes for car transport also goes for housing, energy consumption and every other area of life. Everything in Eldorica is built around the notion that it should be made to last, and that doing so, is in fact the most efficient and labor saving way of running an economy. In this economy there is still money but much less inflation, because the value the money represents does not decrease so rapidly. It is not an ‘Economy of Less’, as so many people tell us nowadays we need to learn to live with less. But rather an economy thrives on the natural abundance of nature. In Eldorica the gifts of the earth belong to everybody. When a child is born, with that child the plot of land that the child will come to own when its older, is also set apart for it. The child will get many of the durable objects needed for life from its parents and family. The belief in Eldorica which is certainly not new to us, just rarely acted upon, is that we do not inherit the planet from our ancestors, but that we borrow it from our grandchildren. Private property is still very important in Eldorica, and is because of its family history, intensely personal. But it can also easily be upgraded to fit the modern needs.

One of the key concepts in this, is that design, as much as possible, should be replaceable and modular. Take housing, for example. Instead of laying down houses brick by brick by means of manual labor, which is how most house building takes place in our world, In Eldorica the skeletons of houses are steel modules with plumbing and electricity already included. And they are placed on the plots of land by automatically operated machines. The ‘dressing’ of the houses is up to the individual taste of the Eldorians, and this is an area where they can spend much of their time with, if they like.

Packaging of products is considered taboo in Eldorica. If you want bread, you take your bread box top the bread vending machine, throw in a quarter and take the bread home. If you want to travel overseas, you can do so in a sailing ship the size of some of our largest cruise ships.

By orienting on weather satellites the ships can in theory reach any destination, you just can’t predict how long it will take. Clean energy is produced by windmills the size of oil rafts that are bobbing in the sea many miles out of the coast.

The electricity is used to split the sea water hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is pumped to the shore for use in fuel cells, and the oxygen simply released. When you need high concentrated energy to melt ores, you can catch the rays of the sun in a huge focussing mirror. One of these so-called sun-ovens can produce a heat up to 5000 degrees F. Some energy, to be used for luxury items, is even produced by the Eldorians themselves by way of a sort of fitness exercise.

This picture of producing energy in these clean ways, and producing sustainable stuff, only becomes really feasible, when we start to need much less energy. And another fact is that most of the energy we do use is ultimately used to produce many things that are dispensable, and a great many other things we produce only to wrap these dispensable things in.

When we look at what would happen to our world when, like the Eldorians, we would start producing this way, we see that we would not need to own less, or enjoy less.

No, we would lead truly luxurious lives while enjoying much more free time to work on the things that are really important. The absence of industry would mean we would enjoy much more room to live, which is really important in a world which due to its growing population will be clamoring for space. And yes it is true: jobs would fall away. In fact they would fall away to the extent that we would only have to work for our material possessions and food for 4 to 8 hours a week. But the fact that we cannot imagine now what we would do with all this free time, cannot be a good reason to cling to the fear of a 4 hour work week. It is high time that the reduction in workload that automation and computerization promised us some decades ago, and that so many people feared, becomes a tangible reality. After all, there will always be underdeveloped areas in the world that need work. There are always other people to help. And there are always things to improve. We just would not need to buckle under their pressure anymore.

Images Reprinted with kind Permission by Hedwig Andriessen