From a craft perspective, we can welcome a future when we need to resort to manual energy.
The year is 2084. Six years before, the world finally confronted hard limits to growth. There were terrifying years of famine, blackouts, bankruptcies and environmental devastation. But emerging from this was a new order of post-growth. Rather than the production of new consumer goods, most effort is spent on maintenance and repair. There’s a sense of reconnection. Darning circles help reconnect neighbourhoods. Seasonal events are celebrated with street processions.
With the demise of the fossil industry, new ways have developed for producing electricity. To supplement wind and solar, most neighbourhoods now have an Energy Exchange where residents can contribute to an electric commons. Like e-bikes, participants register themselves on a machine specifically designed to convert physical effort into power. Riders can select where this energy goes: to their own or a friend’s house, or a local cooperative. The effort that was previously expended in gyms now has a benefit beyond individual fitness.
Since Bladerunner, we’ve become accustomed to envisaging the future as a dystopia. The inexorable rise of technology leads to the alienation of humans. The future was better in the past. In his News From Nowhere (1890), William Morris depicted a future that reversed the tide of mechanisation and even revived medieval crafts.
“Go back again, now you have seen us, and your outward eyes have learned that in spite of all the infallible maxims of your day, there is yet a time of rest in store for the world, when mastery has changed into fellowship—but not before.”
Today, in dealing with the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, the dominant approach is to try to replace fossil energy with renewable sources. While renewables have grown impressively, so has the consumption of energy overall, including fossil fuels. This has led analysts like Nate Hagen to posit a “superorganism” that cannot forgo its addiction to growth. The idea of “great simplification” is the scenario of post-growth, as ever-increasing financial and environmental debts can no longer be sustained.
This might appear as a nightmare future, as many of the services we’ve grown to depend on can no longer be provided, such as cheap air travel, full supermarket shelves, routine medical scans and 24/7 power.
Imagine having to generate energy manually! It conjures up images of the treadmills in Victorian workhouses depicted by Frederick Engels.
“Their work is to turn a wheel which drives a millstone; they are placed on steps which form an endless chain running round two large wheels. The wheel turns under their feet with irresistible force; they have no hold for their hands or feet but must keep pace with it or fall. They cannot even stop if they would: they are compelled to keep up this motion until they have finished their task, however long it may be.”
Human power features in much contemporary dystopian science fiction. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, set in 23rd century Thailand, manually wound springs have become the major source of energy. Some imagine a new slave class that is tied to pedals that provide power for the ruling elites.
The story of modernity has been very much about “labour-saving” devices, many of which now seem essential, like the automobile and the washing machine. But the growth of gadgets has taken over inessential activities, such as the electric toothbrush and leaf blower. What happens with all the time we’ve saved? Meanwhile, the time spent on routine computer work and admin has grown. We rush to the gym to revive our bodies before sitting at a screen all day.
How can we reverse this trend? Already, gym equipment has been developed with an inverter that can convert our body’s energy into electricity. Many are attracted to the idea of using their time on a treadmill or bike to produce useful energy. Among the growing number of gyms offering this “service”, the Centrifuge Fitness Centre in Florida generates 7,000 kWh. It’s not enough to replace wind or solar, but it can help fill the gaps in supply.
There are also piezoelectric materials have been developed for converting human movement into energy. This opens the possibility of generating energy through our ordinary daily activity.
Some of this is not new. The pedal wireless was developed by Alfred Traeger for the Australian outback back in the 1920s. Today, K-Tor provides a variety of products such as a pedal power generator for use in emergency situations. There are also a handcrank radios, torches and USB chargers. See Low Tech magazine for more examples.
Rather than see these in terms of loss of capacity, the craft perspective welcomes such developments. “The future is handmade” is a common rallying cry. There is a sense of groundedness, autonomy, achievement and even pleasure in manual work.
What other manual activities might we revive? Stephen King prefers to use a typewriter: “A typewriter forces you to slow down and think about what you’re writing.” How might grinding coffee and spices be more satisfying? When it is better to use a kick wheel?
As the Tongans say, the past is in front of us.
Thanks to Anthony Kitchener for sharing his engineering expertise.
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