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January 15th 2015 print

Tony Thomas

The Joy of Yurts and Jam-Jar Glassware

In Part Two of our series on Melbourne University’s Sustainable Society Institute we visit the enchanted isle of Entropia, the eco-aware settlement where bad poets and oboe players celebrate the death of capitalism with lentil casseroles, home-made port, free love and no small amount of green-haloed self-regard

dirty hippyFuturology is a mainstay in the writing about global warming, not just forecasting but the more difficult art of time-travel.

We’ve had a vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, discovering  in 2004 that our own Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, was killed by a warming-caused disease in 2039. Then we had Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes writing  last July that global warming in 2023 would kill our puppies and kittens, our ‘faithful and trusted companions”. And three months ago, the scienc-y World Meteorological Organisation lined up real-life TV weather presenters who pretended to be reporting in 2050 about tornados hitting Berlin, a 50-day heat wave in Tokyo and so on.

Closer to home, we have Dr Sam Alexander, research fellow of the Melbourne University’s Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) and lecturer with the university’s Office for Environmental Programs. Last year he wrote a book Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation about someone looking back from a post-apocalyptic year 2099. It is published ($21.99 in paperback) by the Simplicity Institute, of which he co-founded and is a co-director.

Part One: Melbourne University’s Watermelon Patch

Part Three: A Book Without Peer

I don’t want to give away plot twists, but the narrator  describes a   low-energy, simple-life community of poet-farmers on an isolated island off NZ after civilization collapses about 2035. They were “determined above all else to transcend the materialistic values of the Old World.”

The book is “an insight into the possibility of a much saner and more satisfying world” according to blurber Ted Trainer, of UNSW, who happens to be a fellow-member of Dr Alexander’s Simplicity Movement; a co-author of a paper with Alexander; and subject of a paper by Alexander.[1]

Here, from his institute’s website, is the low-tech housing favoured by Alexander.

hut

The successfully-simple poet-farmers become a model for contemporary society.  As reviewer Paul Gilding, a former Global CEO of Greenpeace, puts it, “This is no escapist fantasy, however, but rather a practical and inspiring reminder of what we humans are capable of – and a wake-up call to action.”

Dr Alexander is  a doyen of the Melbourne University’s Sustainable Society Institute, judging by the five of his papers on its “Publications” website menu. They are “Post-growth economics”; “A critique of techno-optimism”; “Disruptive social innovation for a low-carbon world” — you get the idea. For his Simplicity Institute, he’s written lots along the lines of Planned Economic Contraction: The Emerging Case for Degrowth .

He co-edited a new book  last year, writing in the preface: “As the consumer class expands, we see the face of Gaia vanishing.” Consumerism is a “fossil-fuelled perversion that has no future”

Readers may be surprised to learn that promoting Western economic contraction is a respectable academic field. Dr Alexander describes in an MSSI publication how  the “Paris Declaration” of 2008  called for ‘right-sizing’ of all countries’ economies, meaning contraction in the West and expansion in the third world, but only to consumption levels ‘adequate for a decent life’.  (Wealth transfers from the West are the preferred choice for them). After global right-sizing, world growth should cease.

Alexander further explains:

“The primary contribution made by degrowth scholarship is the explicit acknowledgement that sustainability implies… initiating a phase of planned contraction of the ‘scale’ of developed economies. That is a position entirely absent from mainstream environmental and political discourse, where the ideology of growth still reigns supreme.”  (His emphasis).

His paper’s bibliography includes nine self-citations, one of which is Entropia, his fantasy tract.

Dr Alexander’s 2011   grant and scholarship-supported Ph.D. thesis (Melbourne University Law School), was “Property beyond Growth: Toward a Politics of Voluntary Simplicity”.  One of its five chapters is written from the future, as follows: “Looking Backward from the year 2029: Ecozoic Reflections. Lennox Kingston, Possibility 81(4) (2099).”  (Kingston,just so you’ll know, is Alexander’s future alter ego).

Dipping into the thesis chapter, one reads:

“By the end of the 2020s, the Simplicity Movement had become a significant oppositional force, and it would continue to strengthen and expand every year… Furthermore, simple living had become a socially accepted alternative lifestyle, which made stepping out of materialistic lifestyles much less isolating, thus hastening the demise of consumer culture. These changes resulted in discernable social and ecological benefits.”  P209-10

But what are his conclusions? For his post-growth world, he recommends

  1. A guaranteed minimum basic income for all
  2. A highly-progressive income tax ensuring a “democratically determined ‘maximum wage”
  3. “Worker cooperatives as the dominant corporate form in the economy”
  4. Tougher environmental laws
  5. “Curtail the laws of inheritance and bequest through high levels of taxation or abolition”.
  6. “Redesign labor laws to encourage systematically the exchange of income/consumption for more free time”

 Who could guess what you find in Melbourne Uni’s  Ph.D.  theses these days?

Alexander explains,

“Although I acknowledged that these proposed reforms may well slow an economy’s quantitative growth – even to the point of inducing a phase of degrowth – and thereby not maximize a nation’s GDP per capita, the underlying argument of this thesis has been that the reforms would at the same time: (1) increase human well-being; (2) promote social justice; and (3) enhance the health and integrity of the planet’s ecosystems. This is the potential ‘triple dividend’ which makes a post-growth property system such an alluring and promising prospect.”  P237

He notes (p vii):A profound debt of gratitude is owed to my doctoral supervisor, Professor Lee Godden, who spent countless hours reading and discussing this thesis.”

Alexander’s thesis bibliography includes Alexander, Samuel (ed), Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture; Alexander, Samuel, ‘Looking Backward for the Year 2099: Ecozoic Reflections on the Future’; and    Alexander, Samuel, ‘Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For,’ Concord Saunterer (2011, forthcoming).[2]

In his 2013 future-book Entropia, Dr Alexander’s narrator just happens to be a part-time lecturer in philosophy and culture  at the island’s academy, as well as assistant editor at a  community newspaper, “The Saunterer”,  when not binding books and picking fruit.

In the 2035 Great Disruption (p24), we are told the island’s beautiful Tibetan violin prodigy Nishka, unable to find solace “even in our warm community”, sat in the bath with her violin, and with slashed and bloodied wrists, died playing a beautiful, tragic composition (p24 – Kindle). The others remained positive while dining on beans, potatoes and lentils. Although there were a few arguments about how to stay alive, “generally these were measured, mature conflicts. Everyone knew that there was no place for childish egotism…” (p27)

For a couple more pages, the narrator describes the non-realisation of Karl Marx’s vision, due to the working class becoming distracted by consumerism. Capitalism marched on, ‘brutally shaping the world according to its cold logic of profit maximisation.’ (p28).

But good news! Capitalism collapsed anyway, growing itself to death ‘like a cancer cell’. (p30)

On the resource-poor island, the citizens only need  65 litres of water per person per day (from wood and clay storage tanks), and if they use  more they get a visit from a  social educators “and as such, they are never resented”.

Citizens in their densely habited mud-brick and yurt compounds, converted containers and tepees (p66-7) cut back severely on cleaning themselves and their clothes, since hyper-cleanliness is ‘fetishistic’ (p58).They limit showers to 90 seconds, “and often simply wash themselves with a bucket and some soap”. In summer they jump into rivers and ponds, a mystical experience “as the sun rises like a warm god over the eastern mount”  (p57).

Their clothing is made from “functional, easy to grow, low-impact fabrics…derived from such things as agricultural hemp, nettles and wool…a new aesthetic of sufficiency” (p65).

Dr Alexander doesn’t remark on the aroma of his community of minimally-washed, hemp-clad, yurt-dwelling bean-eaters who drink from old jam jars (p81).[3]  Nor does he mention the rigors of low-tech dentistry.

People take on a succession of roles. A person finishing school might become a potter, a carpenter, “a blacksmith, a music teacher, a lecturer, a tailor, a doctor or some mixture of such roles” (p86). My women friends are apprehensive  about getting a procedure from a blacksmith-turned-medico,b ut the author assures us that the isle’s vegie diet and work-life  balance minimise health issues anyway (p88).

The community, run by the “People’s Council” (p103), involves home-grown food etc, and “artisans also produce specialty goods at the household level, such as musical instruments, paintings or various tools” (p73). (Preferred painting styles are chocolate-box scenery and “a revolving series of mostly colourful abstract works”).

Women delight in use of long-lasting treadle sewing machines (p82), pausing to welcome friends over to share a nutritious bean meal and play the musical instruments.

The booze on tap is suggested by one lady’s diary. During a stroll she met an 83-year-old “full of poetry and wisdom”, who played the ukulele to her. Arriving home she bottled pears, “worked a little on my novel”, mended a hole in her sweater and then joined some friends in the garden “where we sipped on home-made port and threw ideas around about organising a series of dawn plays in the summer” (p84). The home-made-port-sipping continued till midnight so the play scripts probably got a bit ragged.

However, the narrator is convinced that the community “is awash with the most thrilling novels, plays, poems, music, sculpture, paintings, tapestries and all other forms of art, beyond historical precedent and beyond historical imagination” (p87).

Dr Alexander’s narrator provides a sample of the thrillingly-beyond-imagination poetry, which I think would do credit to William Topaz McGonagall[4]. Here we go:

“Witness O mysterious other,
Who wanders in from beyond,
Like mist emerging from the woods,
To settle on the pond,
With etiquette poetic,
Charm refined without pretence,
You seem a gentlemanly brother
With many dollars, but fewer sense”
(p94).

It goes on for four pages and ends with the audience entranced and ‘eager to hear more’. But instead they get an oboist. “Thus in our simplicity, we are happy”, the chapter concludes  (p100).

The narrator says, “While strict equality is not enforced on the isle, we recognise that significant disparities of wealth are socially corrosive and politically dangerous”  (p78). The narrator seems to have studied not only Marx but Marx’s famous interpreter J.V. Stalin, who knew exactly what to do with socially-corrosive elements, such as millions of slightly-wealthier peasants (kulaks) and their families.

I took a prurient interest in the sex lives of this community. For starters, marriage has been dumped because of all its ‘baggage’ marginalising gay relationships.   Relationships are open or closed, according to what anyone wants (p90-1). “Expanded relationships that sometimes form on the Isle raise no eyebrows and certainly draw no moral censure.”

I visualise an Entropian dinner party: “I’d like you to meet my three partners Trent, Noah and Roslyn, and Daisy my cocker spaniel. Do let me pour you a jam jar of port.”

The narrator/Alexander is a bit weak on the essential task of  controlling the island’s population. To have more than one baby poet-farmer, you need a permit, but what if a couple has an accident (quite likely in the absence of latex factories and pill laboratories), or tells the People’s Council to get stuffed?[5] The narrator says lamely that social disapproval of multi-birth families tends to bring the fecund poet-farmers into line. (If dad heads off to join someone else, the new couple gets an extra-baby permit).

The book ends unusually, “Would you be interested in helping to fund and participate in the creation of an Entropia Ecovillage outside of Melbourne, Australia, based on the ideas in this book? If so, please register your interest at www.bookofentropia.com/ecovillage.

I therefore emailed Dr Alexander:

“Hi Sam, I have just finished reading your book Entropia and was bowled over by the ambition of your vision.

I think the idea of an eco-village near Melbourne including yurts, tepees and shipping container housing could be the answer to affordable housing.

I own (with my wife) a  house near Coburg that is really more of a burden because of all the unnecessary appliances, like washing machines and dishwashers, that are always breaking down, and if my wife agrees, we could sell the house and sink the proceeds into sustainable housing in your village project, without wasteful appliances, especially as I for one, like you, see industrial civilisation soon to collapse under the burden of ever-more-expensive oil.  All the best with your project, Tony”

Forty minutes later, Dr Alexander responded enthusiastically to my conditional offer, “I’m heartened to hear that my book spoke to you.”

In fact, the ecovillage is not only well underway but, in the past 18 months, the founders have built “a small Earthship, a mud house, an earthbag abode, and a ‘tiny house’ from reclaimed timber and iron.” They have a yurt in transit from WA and have started an orchard, chicken coop etc.

What’s more, a documentary film-maker (sounds like the ABC, but I may be wrong) is onto their case, and up to 10 people will stay at the property to film a ‘simpler way’ documentary based on the ideas in his Entropia island book. The film would present a deep green alternative to mainstream life and illustrate ‘one planet’ living.

I was invited to sink the proceeds from my (conditional) house sale into buying neighboring blocks for $215,000 or $485,000. A nearby $900,000 block was mentioned, but probably out of my price range. “Having someone like-minded buy the neighbouring properties would be absolutely amazing,” Dr Alexander wrote.

Soon after, he did a bit of googling and was disappointed to find that I am a Quadrant writer and as such, unlikely to be a genuine sympathizer with earth-bagged earthships, tiny houses and home-made contraception.

Tomorrow: The MSSI peer reviewed book that isn’t.

Tony Thomas blogs at tthomas061.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Trainer wants his followers to infiltrate and proselytise to people in community gardens (there is one at the bottom of my street). The gardeners should be educated that “reforms to consumer-capitalist society cannot achieve a sustainable and just society. … Our efforts in these local initiatives are the first steps to the eventual replacement of the present society by one which is not driven by market forces, profit, competition, growth or affluence.” He posts that creed on a UNSW website.

https://socialsciences.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TransBkOutline.htm

 

[2] Karl Marx gets only a single guernsey.

[3] Alexander seems aware that glass production is too high-capital and high-technology for the island’s tailors and blacksmiths

[4] Acclaimed as the worst poet in British history – see The Tay Bridge Disaster, e.g. ‘For the stronger we our houses do build,

The less chance we have of being killed’.

[5] The narrator talks of “easily available” contraception without specifying its nature