My house is an example of everything that’s wrong with real estate and residential construction. It cost about 150 large to build. Of that cost, at least 20 percent was site preparation. Then, there’s not one ounce of recycled material in this house. All new-sawn lumber, fresh drywall, newly mined copper, and new PVC, asphalt shingles, and millwork.
Buckminster Fuller in Nine Chains to the Moon argued doing more with less would lead to constantly increasing living standards, despite increases in population. New manufacturing and production technologies would get us to a point where we could do just about everything with nothing. I like that idea. It reveals what the systems we have put in place to keep us all busy are really all about.
Fuller used the example of steel, a favorite of mine since I’m a union ironworker. As the efficiency of reusing steel increased, we would only have to add a tiny bit of new material into the production/consumption stream to meet increasing demand. Someday, he surmised, old steel would move in and out of the production/consumption cycle with ease. Except for the little we would add into the cycle as time passed, we would soon have all the steel we needed.
That was in 1938. Today’s new steel contains 95 percent recycled material. The extra five percent represents the demand for new production for development, consumer products, and things like car production. The total represents buildings, cars, appliances, and so on–most of which will be returned to the production/consumption cycle throughout the next few decades or centuries. In other words, the steel frame of the office building you go to work in everyday is a sort of steel reserve for the future. When it gets demolished, and it will, we add energy, and human labor and intellect to make that steel into more buildings, etc., just as we did today.
There are two problems. Fuller thought of nonhuman nature in utilitarian terms. And, I think, he overestimated the rapacious character of modern American capitalism, which has learned how better to position itself as humankind’s savior despite its deadly ability to turn human lives into nightmares of exploitation, alienation, and emptiness.
How many of us really believe that we are living our own individual lives for out own individual good? We might be deluded into believing that so we feel good about producing things we have no connection with and whose profits do not flow to those who produce profit, living in spaces designed to control our behavior and thought (try to live in a suburb without a car), and consuming things that, if we lived in different spaces and in differing conditions, we wouldn’t have to waste our money on.
More-with-less has also yet to move into American capitalist economic production. Increasing efficiency means being able to make and consumer more with what we save rather than saving energy, resources, and labor overall. This kind of more with less demands continued exploitation of human and nonhuman nature, and all the energies those represent. We have not yet learned to be kinder and gentler with each other or nonhuman nature. We still see labor and environment as tools for wealth production and accumulation.
Increased efficiency has also failed to create friendlier and more democratic social production. Separate lives represent consumer islands, where material redundancy is not merely the standard, but the ideal. Identical commercial developments arise at every highway interchange, inducing retailers to move the the newest and rendering the older obsolete. Most every homeowner has a lawnmower, when, in reality, just a few could service an entire block in cooperative arrangements that demand human contact. More than one television in a house is not merely convenience but a means of isolating family members from one another in the guise of letting consumers have choices. All means of socializing are funneled into commercial outlets–bars, arcades, movie theaters, for instance–and our time is increasingly commodified. What used to be time of quiet contemplation or human relationship is now devoted to the iPod, cell phone, and video game.
The house hides systems as much as listening to an iPod does the systems that bring it into time that once only had value to the individual, the person as an independent entity in a world of dependencies. More-with-less cuts both ways, I think. We make more with less–more stuff, more wealth to pass around, etc. But we can also do with less, and by doing with less, we will know ourselves more.