The farm

Nearly every Sunday, we went to our grandparents. For most of the afternoon, we visited my father’s parents near a village close to Winterswijk. They lived on a remote farm with my father’s youngest brother, my uncle Paul, who had continued and greatly expanded it. On our way home, we went to my mother’s parents for an hour and a half. In 1976, they sold their even-more remote farm in another village nearby. They moved to a small apartment for seniors in Eibergen. And to stress the remoteness, the Dutch call this area De Achterhoek (The Rear Corner). And Winterswijk is at the rear of that area. Thus a farm outside a village near Winterswijk is as remote as it can get in the Netherlands, linguistically, that is. This supposedly is a story in virtual reality. The Netherlands is a tiny country, so it is not like the desert of Algeria, the mountains of Chile, or the taiga of Siberia. Enschede is only 25 kilometres away, and Amsterdam is 125.

The atmosphere at both venues couldn’t be more different. My father’s family was noisy and outgoing, while my mother’s family was quiet and withdrawn. If we visited my father’s parents, all the aunts, uncles, and cousins were there. The men played cards in the living room and blamed their mates vociferously for each other’s mistakes. A dense smoke of cigarettes filled the room, so I often went outside with my cousins to play and get some fresh air. It was always fun to be there. At my mother’s parents, there never were aunts, uncles or cousins. Most people my grandparents knew were old too and gradually dying. They often discussed diseases like tumours, heart attacks and strokes, hospitals, treatments, mostly failing, and funerals, so I usually went outside with Anne Marie to escape the gloom.

Part of the local folklore in De Achterhoek is the rock band Normaal. Their greatest hit was Oerend Hard (Bloody Fast). It is about driving too fast on motorbikes and the accidents that come from that. They also made a song Ik ben maor een eenvoudige boerenlul (I’m just a simple farm prick), a sentence that reveals a bit of the mood in De Achterhoek. The local tradition is not one of pretence and elevated taste. And if you would ask the locals what Normaal is about, the answer would probably be høken, which is having fun in a rough manner. I was not a fan of Normaal, but they had a significant following in De Achterhoek and adjacent Twente.

For those who did not like to say they live on the edge of civilisation, De Achterhoek has yet another name, De Graafschap (The Shire), also the name of a place where an imaginary tale about Hobbits started. That is noteworthy because the character Frodo in the film looked a bit like me when I was young. I mention this to point out how much effort might have gone into this. Other elaborations of this kind in this account serve a similar purpose.

My uncle Paul was a kind man. We could get along, and it began when I was five. He praised my calculation skills and made me do sums on his lap while I became interested in his farm. And so I stayed with my grandparents quite often during the holidays. My uncle bred pigs. I fed the pigs, saw piglets being born and pigs going to the slaughterhouse, witnessed the artificial inseminating of sows dubbed KI, and saw tails being cut from piglets because they would otherwise injure each other by biting them off. And I became familiar with his business operations. Paul greatly expanded the farm to achieve economies of scale. And he focused on efficiency. The farm was clean because the manure fell through a grate, and the pigs lived in confined spaces. As you might know, pigs like to forage in the mud, digging up their meals.

Sows that didn’t give birth to as many piglets as the others went to the slaughterhouse. Paul selected sows based on the number of nipples for his breeding to improve his pedigree. A sow with twelve nipples could raise more piglets than one with ten. From his piglets, he chose the best sows. The others, including the boars, went to the slaughterhouse after being fattened. To Paul, it was a necessity. His business could only survive with efficiency and economies of scale. And I didn’t think much of it as it had been that way since time immemorial, except for the scale and efficiency.

There always loomed dangers, and Paul could fret. An infectious disease could erase his pedigree. And the price of pigs fluctuated wildly. He had years with high profits and years with massive losses. But his business went well. The old and poorly constructed farm was from the 1930s, so when he married in 1977, he had the old farm demolished and a new farm built. The new farm was an eye-catcher as it was in traditional style. It was huge and included a home for my grandparents. I heard he had spent a lot of money on it. People came to the farm to take a picture of it. It was indeed exceptional. But perhaps you should think for a moment, how many pigs were slaughtered for that? Do not see this as a reproach. It is a question you might ask.

Featured image: the farm that belonged to my uncle. Google Streetview. [copyright info]


Close to Enschede, in the east of the Netherlands, is a village called Eibergen. I was born there on Iepenstraat, which means elm street. The assassination of US President Kennedy took place on Elm Street, and that event became part of a web of remarkable coincidences. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror film first released in the United States on 9 November 1984 (11/9) and in the Netherlands on 11 September 1986 (9/11). 9/11 refers to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, another event marked by an array of remarkable coincidences. As these words indicate, this is the beginning of a most peculiar story. More precisely, a story inside a story.

Eibergen means egg mountains, which could be a cryptic reference to a mother’s womb. The initials of my last name, KI, make the Dutch abbreviation for artificial insemination, a way to become pregnant without sexual intercourse so that a virgin can give birth. By the way, it also is the abbreviation for artificial intelligence, so if you think you are smart, think again after reading what I have written. The name of the nearby city, Enschede, may refer to the female reproductive organ. And the initials of my first and middle name, BH, make the Dutch abbreviation for a bra. The song A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash suggests that funny names, particularly of this kind, build strong character. The meaning of songs is relevant to this story too.

I lived in Eibergen until I was four, so I do not recall much of that time. As far as I remember, nothing unusual happened. You might expect something extraordinary to transpire if you know where this story is heading, but it didn’t. Often I went out on a tricycle to feed the sheep in the pasture at the end of the street. Being a shepherd may have been my calling. There often was a clock on television, and I was afraid of it. If it appeared, I took cover behind the sofa. My younger sister Anne Marie was born in 1971. I remember that my mother was pregnant. She was ironing. And I sang songs for the baby in the baby room while my mother was changing diapers.

Our home was in a block. Next door lived an older lady, probably in her sixties. She came from the former Dutch Indies and had a fish tank in the living room. On the other side was another young family with children. They had a daughter of my age and a younger son. I remember playing with them. And I once electrocuted myself by putting the chain of the stopper of the kitchen sink into a wall outlet. Others later said I had used scissors, but I am sure it was the stopper’s chain, which then was confirmed by my mother, suggesting my memories are of good quality.

My father went to work around 6 AM and returned around 9 PM. He loved his job. On Saturdays, he often went out with his friends, hunting, I suppose. And so, I hardly saw him. At home, he caught up on his sleep on the couch to wake up when sports started on television. So, when I was three years old, I once said to my mother, jokingly, I suppose, ‘Who is that man sleeping on the couch?’ That is what my mother later told me. My father probably took the hint. I remember that he took me out of bed every morning before he went to work and played with me for a few minutes for a few weeks.

When I was three, I fell on my teeth on the wooden table in the living room in a brutal smash. A piece of the wood broke off. My front teeth turned black until my permanent teeth came. And so, I became an ugly duckling for years to come. We also had a biking accident. My mother was biking, Anne Marie was in the front, I was in the back, and my mother had trouble handling the bags full of groceries at the handlebar. And then the bike fell over. In early 1973, we moved to Nijverdal, which means industrious valley. It suggests we left the mountains for a life in a valley, but the Dutch mountains are imaginary, and the name of a song by my favourite band, The Nits. The music you like may reveal your character. And I think that is correct in my case.

Featured image: my mother, my younger sister, and I (in the foreground)

Jokers on Files.

Joking jokers

In 2002, I started to work as an Oracle database administrator at a government agency near home. Most people in the Netherlands know about the agency because it processes traffic fines. For that reason, it isn’t popular with the general public, just like the Internal Revenue Service. So if someone asked who my employer was, I kept it vague and said the government or the Department of Justice. It didn’t take long before something went seriously wrong. On my second day on the job, one of the production systems crashed after running the batch jobs, leaving a corrupt database, and with the benefit of hindsight, that was a bit peculiar. After two days of searching, I still hadn’t found the exact cause. When I restored the backup of the previous evening, which was still valid, and ran the batch jobs, the database became corrupt again. It probably was a software bug, so I advised restoring the backup of the previous evening and upgrading the database software to the latest version and seeing if it would solve the issue. Instead, the IT director declared a crisis and set up a multi-disciplinary task force to deal with the situation.

The head of the task force was a corpulent project leader who decided we should find the cause, which I hadn’t uncovered. I just wanted to fix the problem. Every day at 10 AM, there was a meeting to discuss the state of affairs. Every day I proposed to upgrade the database software to see if it would help. And every day, my proposal was brushed aside. I would have done it myself, but I was new on the job, and they used VAX VMS, an operating system I wasn’t familiar with, so I couldn’t install software or restore backups on my own. Two weeks later, after our experts had all weighed in and also after hiring a database corruption expert from Oracle, the cause remained elusive, and managers were getting desperate. Finally, they were willing to consider my suggestion. And it solved the problem. It was a harbinger of things yet to come. During a review, they grilled me for not being interested in researching the cause. I said that solving a crisis was more important as it was a production system, and the users needed it to work. And by the way, the upgrade demonstrated that it was a software bug.

A few months later, my employer hired a security officer. Probably the audit department had advised it. He was a guy in a suit who soon began to make our work harder by implementing unnecessary procedures. For instance, we had to lock up our Oracle manuals in a secure location after work and bring the keys to the porter’s lodge. But our manuals were public information like Windows manuals. Today, you can find this information on the Internet. At the same time, Mulder, the system that processed the traffic fines, had a superuser named MULDER with the password MULDER. Everyone knew that and could mess with the traffic fines. I notified the security officer, but being a true bureaucrat, he had more important things to do, such as attending meetings, inventing procedures and making management reports. Other systems had this issue too. And so, I contacted a few senior programmers, and we fixed that problem.

There were other issues with access rights too. As they would say in the course Professional Skills, ‘There was room for improvement.’ If a new employee came in, the service desk made a ticket stating, ‘Create user account X as a copy of account Y,’ and sent it from one department to another. Usually, it took two weeks for the ticket to pass through all our departments, and system administrators made errors. Hence, account X was rarely exactly like account Y. If people switched departments or left, the defunct access rights usually weren’t deleted. Perhaps the audit department had figured this out, as our management soon initiated a project role-based access rights (RBAC).

RBAC works like so. You have a role in a department. In ordinary language, it is your job. For your job, you need access to an array of systems. Your job description determines which rights you need, for instance, reading specific data or changing it. As a rule, employees should not receive more access rights than required to perform their tasks. RBAC is about the rights an employee in a specific job role needs. Business consultants came in and defined job roles and access requirements. A programmer then built an administrative database. But the database wasn’t connected to our systems, so there was no guarantee that the access rights in our systems matched the administration. And if you know how things fare in practice, you know that the administration would soon become stale and pointless. People are lazy, make errors, and forget things. And that would change once the administration and our systems connected. If the administration connected but was wrong, people couldn’t do their jobs properly, so the administration had to be constantly updated.

In 2004, I secretly began building an account administration system named DBB using Designer/2000, leaving the bureaucrats out of the loop because they would probably stand in the way and make it harder for me. Only my manager and a few colleagues knew about it. DBB automated granting and revoking access rights in our systems the RBAC way. It took me nine months as I also had to do my regular work as a database administrator. But when I was ready to implement DBB on the production databases, the bureaucrats became aware of what was happening and tried to block it. In early 2005, I introduced it sneakily with the help of the people from the service desk who wanted to use it. They installed the DBB client programmes on their personal computers. And I was a database administrator, so I could install anything I wanted on any database.

The outcomes were spectacular. The service desk now created the accounts, so the tickets didn’t have to pass through so many departments. We created accounts in one day instead of two weeks. And the service desk could reset passwords on the spot instead of relaying the request to a department, bringing down the time to reset passwords from hours to seconds. And the access rights accurately reflected job roles. So, once DBB was operational, the opposition crumbled, and DBB became a regular application, even though not an official one, and we had RBAC forcefully implemented.

The logo of DBB was a drawing made by Ingrid. She had drawn it for another purpose. It features jokers grinning at a set of file folders. To me, these folders symbolised bureaucracy. DBB joked with the bureaucrats as the bureaucrats considered it a rogue system. Supposedly, I was one of those jokers, so I made one of them my avatar on the web. DBB was my love child, just like Fokker once was Jürgen Schrempp’s. And so, I ensured DBB could survive if I ever left the agency. I produced design documents and manuals and built DBB according to accepted Designer/2000 practices. We had a lot of Designer/2000 programmers, so they could easily have maintained DBB. But I hadn’t followed the proper procedures when building and implementing it, so it never became official. So, if something went wrong, it was not a mere incident, as would be the case with any other system, but a cause to replace DBB. And something went wrong once.

For over ten years, bureaucrats devised plans to replace DBB. Our management started two projects to replace it. The first effort stalled because they had underestimated the complexity of the matter. They might have thought, ‘If one guy can do it, how difficult can it be?’ In 2016, a new project team realised it was pointless to replace DBB as it was doing fine and replacing it was costly. The newer Java systems ran on Postgres databases and used web access, so they didn’t use DBB. And our management planned to decommission the old Designer/2000 systems so DBB could retire by then.

And so, I wondered how bureaucrats think and concluded that it is like so, ‘If I mess things up but stick to the rules and follow procedure, no one can blame me. If do the right thing but do not follow procedure, and something goes wrong, my job is on the balance.’ If something has gone wrong, the government hires consultants to investigate the issue and propose changes to the procedures to prevent it from happening the next time. Sadly, the next time, the situation may be different, and then it goes wrong again. You might think it is better to do away with procedures, but in a government administration, that might not be a good idea. The role of government is to provide and implement rules. Just imagine that every government employee does as he sees fit. Nevertheless, there could be room for improvement.

DBB not only joked with the bureaucrats. The joke was also on me and in a most peculiar fashion. In June 2010, I received a highly unusual request from a system administrator to drop a user account manually. That hadn’t happened for several years. DBB usually took care of that, but for some unknown reason, DBB failed to drop this particular account. The username was ELVELVEN. If you read that aloud, you say eleven elevens in Dutch, a reference to the 11:11 time-prompt phenomenon. Usernames consisted of the first one or two characters of the employee’s first name followed by the employee’s last name. In this case, the user’s last name was Velven. To me, 11:11 signals a combination of two related unlikely events. And indeed, the joke had a part two, and it was even more peculiar.

In 2014, I tested an improvement to DBB. My test signalled that an illegal account had sneaked into our systems. The username was AD******, the first character of the first name followed by the last name of A******* [the lady who might be God and appears to stalk me with coincidences]. Had she been employed with us, this would have been her username. And her name isn’t common, so this was unnerving, even more so because it was the only username that popped up. It couldn’t be her, or could it? It turned out that a guy with the same last name as hers had worked for us. His first name began with an A too. And the account wasn’t illegal. I had mixed data from two different dates in the test, which made it appear that this account had sneaked in illegally. Just imagine the odds of only this account popping up.

In 2005, my manager promised me a promotion. He told me that I had managed to introduce DBB. ‘You had a vision and you made it happen and you overcame all the opposition, and now we have RBAC,’ he said. He added that I was the best database administrator of the lot. I doubted that and said we had a tech genius in our department who was better than me. And then he said, ‘Having the right vision and making it happen are far more important.’ Only, he didn’t formalise the promotion, so I tried to make him put his promise into writing. I asked him several times to do that. And then, he took on a new job somewhere else, so I feared I would end up empty-handed. After all, I hadn’t many friends in high places.

Just before he left, I pressed him again to put his promise into writing. As the promotion had not yet come through, he wrote I could get a minor wage increase, and then he filed it for processing at the human resources department. A few weeks later, they summoned me to the human resources department. A bureaucrat had come up with a technicality. I couldn’t even keep the minor wage increase. That was a breach of contract, plain and simple, but to bureaucrats, only rules and procedures count. My previous manager had already left, so they blamed it on him, and his temporary replacement didn’t care as he also was on his way out. As I had put a lot of effort into having it in writing, and my manager had already fobbed me with a minor wage increase, I walked out of the meeting angrily.

When I arrived home, Ingrid told me that a freelance agency had offered me a job. It was the first offer of this kind since I started working for my employer. And so, I made a rash decision and resigned. With the benefit of hindsight, it was a remarkable coincidence that the freelance agency called me on this particular day. It didn’t take long before I started to have second thoughts. Out of the blue, a strong feeling emerged that it was a wrong decision. I can rationalise it by saying there weren’t many jobs for database administrators near home. And the issues with my son didn’t allow me to work far away from home while my physical condition didn’t allow for long travels. That may all be true, but these considerations were not the real reason. The feeling became so strong that I had no other choice but to reverse course and try to undo my resignation.

There was a new manager, and he accepted my change of mind. He pledged to do his best to restore my confidence in my employer. Due to a bureaucratic error, I missed the promotion again a year later. I began to distrust him and feared he might not make good on his promise. That didn’t happen at the time, but he soon gave the tech genius a higher pay grade and left me out. And several years later, after he had risen in rank, in another remarkable coincidence, he tried to take away the pay grade that came with the promotion when I switched to Java programming. Nevertheless, he was a very competent manager who later played a leading role in improving the IT department. After some years of bureaucratic wrangling, the promotion finally came through.

Slums in Jakarta

Extreme living

Overdoing things

Princess, a friend from the United States, once came to visit me. I took a shopping bag with me when we went to the shopping mall. She remarked on it. I said that getting a new bag at the shop produced unnecessary waste. She then called me an environmental extremist. That reinforced my prejudice of Americans being wasteful consumers. Why should we make things to throw away? But perhaps, she was right. Bringing a shopping bag with you might be a minor inconvenience, but it can be the first step on the road to extreme living where nothing gets wasted. Before you know it, you are separating your waste for recycling. And what’s next? It is scary to think of it.

My mother once said that I overdo things. Buying second-hand is what poor people do, usually not privileged people like me. I have done my best to appear normal, but I can’t help eating scraps others leave behind or using paper towels my son has thrown away after hardly using them. Waste and spillage unnerve me somehow. It is better not to upset others, but I cannot always guess what disturbs them. Once, I wore worn-out clothes at a family party. My father was not amused. It probably reminded him of the poverty in which he once lived. He wanted me to have a better life. But can you overdo environmentalism? Buying new clothes is one of the worst things we can do to our planet. And some people do much more to save Earth than I do.

Indeed, I am a most peculiar person, and the evidence is mounting. Lately, I began having second thoughts about ‘normal’ living again. We are using far more than Earth can provide. The cuts in profligate consumption might need to be drastic, like in the vicinity of 100%. And excessive is anything we do not need. So what is extreme living? You can go out bungee jumping, take a vacation to a far-away country, or indulge in a hot dog eating contest and think that is extreme, but you are just unnecessarily turning precious resources into waste. That is normal living. My great-grandparents hardly ever left the village in which they lived. They had never been to Germany, even though it was only ten kilometres from their home. And bungee jumping was not on their bucket list either. That is more like it.

Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems

Most people in the past led extreme lives, and many still do today, most notably in areas that have not yet developed into consumerist economies. Compared to them, I am reasonably conventional. I do not live in a shed without heating, nor do I grow food in a kitchen garden. Well, I tried the latter. Indeed, there are stranger people out there than me. But my wasteful lifestyle cannot remain a standard for much longer. People like me should drastically reduce their consumption. Perhaps it is not as hard as it seems. You can see extreme living as the destination of a journey. You are not there yet.

There are many things you can do now. And there is always another step after that. And after you have taken action, you might be as happy or miserable as before. The 80/20 rule states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. And so, excessive consumption might only contribute a small part to our well-being. Many of us see that differently because squandering is a virtue nowadays.

In the consumerist economy, squandering boosts profits and employment. Those who do not waste energy and resources are deplorable because they are poor and cannot do what others can. We envy the rich and famous with their extravagant lifestyles. But if living a modest life is a virtue, and we see squanderers as planetary destroyers or wreckers of God’s creation, poor people become less deplorable. And there may be another benefit. A lot of crime comes from people desiring status goods they cannot afford with an ordinary job. But who needs a Rolex watch or Nike sneakers?

Time is money or convenience

Times have changed. We will not go back to the nineteenth century. So what is extreme living today? Perhaps, you think it is living in a car or a cold home, but that is just appearance. It is about saving the Earth and our future. The consumerist economy is about spending and squandering resources and energy. We should stop doing that as we are running out of resources. If you spend less, you save money. We hear that time is money. But if time is money, money might be time. For instance, if you spend half your income on rent, living in a car saves you lots of money. And you may only have to work half days to make ends meet, so it also saves you time. A tiny house is less extreme but comes from the same logic.

Convenience translates into using energy and resources. Advertisements tell us how easy the product is and the time or trouble it saves you. They do not tell you how many hours you sweat for it. Eating out is convenient, but you have to work for it. As a result, you have less time and crave more convenience. Before you know it, you are like a mouse trapped on a treadmill. If you forego ease, you may have time. In the past, people had time, for instance, to grow their food or mend their clothes. That is a lot of work, but food and clothes were expensive because incomes were low. Buying clothes meant more work, so mending saved time. It may not be a coincidence that poor people often have more time than rich people.

Creating wealth

The consumerist economy is about selling stuff. And you work for it. If you do not need a product or a service, the advertising industry gets the order to make you believe you need it. Soon, you may find celebrities flaunting the product on social media. The more you work and buy, the wealthier you appear. It increases GDP and profits, but it harms life on the planet. Businesses make money if you buy their products, while your employer makes money when you go to work. Economists call it creating wealth. That is why time is money. There is no problem with that unless your job or the products you buy are unneeded and use energy and scarce resources. It applies to most people in today’s ‘advanced’ economies, myself included. But worsening the future of our children is not creating wealth. And so, we need a new definition of wealth.

Wealth could be the time we can live off our capital. If you own € 50,000 and need € 10,000 per year, you are better off than someone who has € 100,000 and needs € 40,000 per year. We save to increase our wealth. If we live off the interest, we do not touch our capital. In either case, we forego consumption to invest or live within our means. And even though we do not own it, the most precious resource we live off is Earth. By saving Earth, we create wealth. And so, most activities in the consumerist economy do not create wealth. Extreme living is about saving the planet and providing the children of the Earth with a better future. Sustainable living is living off the interest and keeping the capital intact. Sadly, we live on borrowings and have consumed a significant part of our most precious resource. And so we should restore Earth first. That requires investment hence savings, hence sacrifice.

We prefer a comfortable life, but extreme living could be our near future. And if we do it, we probably will do fine, and it will become normal. If you are honest, you might arrive at this conclusion too. I do not believe we can expect solutions to come from corporations and governments alone. It begins with us. Once we stop buying unnecessary and harmful products, corporations will become less wasteful. And if we do it ourselves, governments do not have to tell us that we should do it. Costs are the best motivator. Low costs inspire us to squander, while high costs motivate us to save. When natural gas prices soared because Russia cut the gas supply to Europe, natural gas consumption in the Netherlands dropped by 30%. My savings were considerable too.

Most of us think saving energy is good, but we do much more if we are rewarded or cannot afford it. High energy prices cause a lot of stress because we are accustomed, or perhaps addicted, to low energy prices. We have to adapt and give up comfort. We have built our lives on cheap fossil fuels. High energy prices cause shock. Some businesses, for instance, bakers, get in trouble, while poor people with high energy bills face stark choices. If energy prices remain high, we have to deal with that and prevent essential businesses from closing and the poor from freezing. But many things we consider necessities nowadays have never been necessities in the past. If resource and energy prices had always been high, we would have different lifestyles and a higher price for a loaf of bread. And it would have been normal rather than extreme living.

Living without a car

My great-grandparents never owned a car. They walked, and perhaps they had a bike. They might have taken the train occasionally. Today, many people work one day per week for their car alone. You can have lots of extra spare time if you ditch your car. You might need that time because the same trip takes longer if you use public transport, but you can ditch that trip too. Why should you go there? In the past, people usually did not go outside their village. Back then, if your aunt celebrated her birthday and lived thirty kilometres away, you didn’t go, and she wasn’t offended. There were festivals in your village you could attend instead. Extreme living is about not doing things that cost energy and resources. Does that sound boring? Sure. But think of what you can do instead, for instance, taking a walk or visiting your neighbours.

Your family and friends expect you to emit greenhouse gases to come to their parties. They might be offended if you forego the occasion to avoid contributing to global warming. That is socially unacceptable, so you have to find other excuses, like feeling sick. Few people want to hear that the Earth is more important than them. But you can also cancel trips without offending someone. Nearly every week, I go to the forest with my wife, which is a thirty minutes drive. After that, we go to a pub before returning home. Alternatively, we could go by bus. That would take fifty minutes. In that case, we must plan the trip as there is one bus every hour. Sometimes the bus might not come, and we must wait another hour. It is an inconvenience that car drivers prefer to avoid. But going to the forest is just walking and watching trees. We can do that near home. And there are pubs in my hometown too. One of them has become the theme of a song.

For many years, I did not own a car while having a job that required it. My employer could send me to jobs all over the country. But I lived in a remote city. I had a job over there, or the job was at least 200 kilometres from home, so I had to stay in a hotel or rent an apartment. In either case, I could go to my work by bike. For long trips, I used the train. Using public transport requires some planning, extra time, and sometimes sacrifice. I remember a thirty-minute walk through the snow to reach the Oracle office in De Meern because buses only go there during rush hour. And all that waiting at train stations. But it saved me money so I could buy a house. After all, time is money.

After I met my wife, we often borrowed her mother’s car for trips, so my life was not entirely without a car from then on. And we rented a car if we needed one. Most people can do without a car most of the time, but it requires planning and sacrifice, for instance, sharing a car with colleagues, finding another job or relocating. The proximity to a public transport hub was a reason for me to buy my house. In areas without public transport, there is room for an alternative. When I was on vacation in Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean, I noticed that van drivers provided this service to the public. They had no timetables, but the driver went off once the van was filled with people. Usually, you had to wait fifteen minutes or so. But the people who used this service had time. In the Summer of 2021, I started using public transport again when travelling alone if it was not too much trouble.

Turning down the heating

My great-grandparents did not have central heating. It was cold inside their home, and it could freeze. They warmed themselves at the stove in the living room, the only warm place in their home. More and more people in the Netherlands only heat the living room. And so do I. A few even turn off the heating entirely and put on a warm vest or a coat. You may not want to go that far, but heating only the living room makes sense. It is the place where you spend most of the time when you are at home.

Others turn down the heating. I do that too. That is healthy for most people, except for the elderly and the sick. I can work at 17 degrees Celsius if I wear extra clothes and thin gloves. Cold fingers are my biggest worry because I work with a computer. If the temperature inside your house goes below 15 degrees Celsius, you may need to ventilate more often. If you feel chilly, you can do some physical exercise. The heat you generate can help to warm the room. In any case, you will feel warmer.

Growing your own food or local farming

There is not much I can tell you about growing food. I have tried it, but it was too much work. The clay soil was not easy to till, and the savings were negligible. If you love gardening, it can be a great hobby, but I do not expect that kitchen gardens can provide for our food requirements. High energy prices may revive farming for local markets and growing crops in their seasons. Agricultural products are bulky. Today, farmers offer their produce to national or even world markets. Transport costs can be substantial. It can make sense for farmers to diversify and grow several crops for local markets.

The distribution of these goods can be an obstacle. In the past, agricultural products were usually sold on local markets. Today, they are sold in supermarkets. Selling local products may require a separate distribution channel, for instance, someone collecting the produce from farmers and running a stand in a shopping mall. For several foods, there are safety considerations and they may require industrial processing. Still, a wide range of foods is suitable for local production and consumption. Governments could relax regulations to promote small-scale local trade, but food safety regulations exist for a reason.

And some crazy things are going on, like growing crops in South America to feed livestock in Europe to produce meat for Asia. That brings us to the damage and suffering caused by meat and dairy consumption. Taking in less is already an improvement if you cannot stop. I forego meat if it is not too much trouble, and I never buy meat for myself. Meat substitutes likely become available that cause not as much animal suffering and damage to the planet. Let’s hope it will happen soon.

Other savings

Compared to heating, you probably use less energy for showering or bathing. I would not recommend turning yourself into a stinky monster, but if you bathe or shower daily, you can save energy and water by taking shorter showers and doing it less frequently. If you do not sweat, you might not need to shower daily. My great-grandparents did not shower or bathe but may have used a washcloth instead. For that, you need to warm a bit of water, add some soap, and there you are. Compared to taking a bath, you use 99% less water and energy.

There are other savings you can make. You can wear your clothes longer and wash them less frequently. Again, if you do not sweat, you may wear your clothes for a week without becoming smelly. You may scrub under your armpits regularly to lengthen the interval between clothing switches and showers. I do these things too, and two or three short showers a week usually suffice. I think there are a lot of tips on the Internet if you consider going more extreme, for instance, doing the dishes manually, cooking your meals shorter or installing solar panels and adapting your electricity use to the sunshine.

Not throwing away

Pundits talk a lot about recycling, but what about not throwing away? Recycling costs energy, and you do not recover all the waste. For instance, glass must be melted at high temperatures. You can recycle glass by throwing it in a glass container, but recycling still costs a lot of energy. And there is so much packaging. And thirty brands sell the same stuff. They call it freedom of choice. Take, for example, shampoo. You go to a shop and buy a bottle. And you throw away the old bottle. That is normal. A crazy individual might suggest that a supermarket should have a tank and that you can fill your bottle there. Once you think of that, you can imagine a wide range of products supermarkets might distribute in this way. For instance, you might bring a bag with you for apples. Some are doing that already.

There are some considerations. It is better not to mix the shampoo with a detergent. And so, there should be different types of bottles for products that we should not mingle. The hard part is, and that is why consumers might oppose it, you must bring these bottles and bags with you. That is an inconvenience if the shop is far away and you have forgotten some bottles or bags. Having thirty brands is also a waste. You need thirty tanks for shampoo, not to mention thirty trucks delivering shampoo to the distribution centre of your supermarket. If you say that, consumers can get angry. Their identity is attached to the brand of shampoo they use. The advertising industry has done its job well.

But there are some really crazy things going on. Recently, I saw a documentary on Netflix about bottled water. There is a multi-billion industry selling a free commodity. Did you know that drinking the recommended eight daily glasses of water from the tap costs less dan € 1 per year? The same water in bottles costs you more than € 1,000. Did you know that Americans use over 70 billion bottles of water per year? The energy to make them could fuel two million cars. And nearly all those bottles are disposed of, creating an environmental disaster.

It is about marketing and brand identity. Cool dudes and gals cannot go without bottled water. That is what the advertising industry told them. But what if they are mere idiots paying a thousand times more and producing waste that ends up as microplastics in their health foods? Water from the tap is at least 99.9% the same. You might consider giving the money you save from not drinking bottled water to a charity that provides clean drinking water to people in developing countries. They often have no choice but to buy these expensive bottles. Talk about exploiting poor people. They can do a lot with an extra € 1,000 per year.

If it is about being cool

Buying bottled water or choosing between thirty different brands is often about being trendy and cool, at least if we believe the word of the advertising industry. But if wasting nothing becomes the new awesome, then we do not need bottled water or brands. And all those salespeople, influencers, brand managers, bloggers and advertisement sellers may have to find a job that contributes to society. Big internet corporations might stop tracking you, but you may have to pay for their services.

Life in Vragender in 1949

Only two decades earlier

My life has always been comfortable. We had a car and television. There was central heating. But it hasn’t always been like that. The childhood lives of my parents was very different. It was the life most people led for centuries. They grew most of their food themselves. The winters were cold. There was only one stove. They had no electricity, telephone, car, radio or television at first. Water they took from a pump. My grantparents were small farmers.

And that was only two decades earlier. There already was electricity in the cities, and in many villages too. But my parents lived in an area called Achterhoek, which translates to Rear Corner. And they didn’t live in a city, not even a village, but on remote farms. Remote in the Netherlands means that the nearest village is a few kilometres away. And a remote farm in Rear Corner was as remote as it could get in the Netherlands.

What a difference a few decades make. My son grew up with computers, Internet and smartphones. Compared to the dramatic changes my father and mother have witnessed, the changes that came later were rather insignificant. My father likes to talk about the old times. Before he went to school he had to milk the cows. There were lots of chores to do. My mother’s childhood had been like that too but she rarely talked about it. My mother’s family was quiet and reticent while my father’s family was noisy and outgoing.

My mother had three sisters and three brothers. My father had two brothers and two sisters. Both lived on a small farm. My father’s parents grew a few crops. They had a horse, a few cows, some pigs, and chicken. Neighbours were very important. If a farmer fell ill, the neighbours would step in and run the farm as long as needed. After the war my grandfather erected a windmill with batteries. They were one of the first in the area to have electric lights. Electricity from the grid came in 1952.

Then a local shop owner came by and showed them a radio, my father recalled. My grandfather didn’t want to spend money on a luxury item so the shop owner said he could try the radio a month for free. After a month my grandmother and my aunt had discovered a great radio show and wanted to keep it. And so my grandfather was pressed into buying a radio. In the same fashion a television set came in a decade later.

My father recalled when he saw a car for the first time. He was biking with his father. He said: “When I grow up I want to have a car too.” My grandfather then tried to teach him some realism: “You will never own a car. Only the physician, the notary and the mayor have cars.”

By the end of the 1960s the Netherlands had become wealthy. I was born in 1968 and have never known poverty. It may be easy to forget that most people in history have been poor and that many people today still are. But for me that was not so easy. An important lesson my parents taught me was that our comfortable lives come from hard work and that we shouldn’t take it for granted. My father worked long hours as a manager of a road construction company. “To give us a good life,” he said.

He is an outdoors man, a hunter, and well aware of what happens in nature, for instance the struggle for survival in the animal kingdom. Most people nowadays go to the supermarket to buy their food. At best they have a vague notion about farmers, crops and livestock. He grew up on a farm so it is hard for him to accept that city people take the living conditions farm animals seriously. “They know nothing about farm life or nature,” he says. And he balks at the idea of artificial meat.

My father is politically conservative, but he is also innovation-minded and very interested in improving things. He was keen on learning the newest management techniques from Japan about giving people on the workplace more responsibility to manage their own affairs. When the first home computers became available, he bought one for me. “Computers will be the future and you must learn about them,” he said to me. That was in 1984.

The lives of people completely changed in a few decades. It is happening everywhere. Millions of people in China can tell similar stories. In the past people worked with their hands and used their own judgement. Now we sit behind screens and watch graphs and check parameters. And perhaps our lives will be quite different a few decades from now.

But poverty is still on our doorsteps. We are running out of resources and pollution is running out of control. If societies break down, we will not gracefully return to subsistence farming. Many of us will starve. Most people live in cities nowadays and do not have the skills to survive. But perhaps we can fundamentally change our lifestyles in two decades. It has been done in the past.

Featured image: Picture from Vragender where my father came from (1949).