Over in Holland, the idea of what a community can be is beyond the stage of debate. Thanks to a pioneering few, an alternate future is clear to see.
Imagine the world looked like this: instead of all of us living in our own little houses in our own little streets, we would collectively own the planet. Every family (or group of friends) would get one hectare of land to live and work on. With help of the community, they would build their own house and set up their own permaculture system, making them self-sufficient in terms of energy, water and food. Everybody would do the job they wanted and because the generations would live on the same block of land (be it in different homes), grandparents and grandchildren would be closer together, leaving the in-between generation less burnout from having to combine work and parenthood, and connecting people who would otherwise be separate – solving problems of loneliness, issues with childcare and nipping the epidemic of mental health issues in the bud. Cities would shrink instead of balloon, and nature would slowly start to recover from the human onslaught. This is the dream of Dutch entrepreneur Peter Slijpen. And in an attempt to make sure it has a good chance of becoming reality, he has put his money where his mouth is. He sold his IT business, bought 80 hectares in the south of the country and has started building a model of his new world. Let me introduce you to Eykelenbosch, number two in our little series on living differently.
It is that rare thing: a sunny day in Holland. Which is handy, because otherwise, it would be gumboots only at Melderslo, in the Dutch province of Limburg. Although Peter Slijpen and his crew have been here for the last two years, his utopia hasn’t exactly been finished yet. Little children play in what is still only mostly dirt, and the permaculture gardens look more like giant weed beds than productive sources of food. The first self-sufficient house has been built, though. It is made of fully insulated timber pods, five modules of 3.5 x 2.5 metres, connected like Lego to each other, the floor-seam almost invisible. The pods are resting on giant “screws” that have been dug into the ground, capped with gravel and connected to a reed bed next door. Together, this system makes up the sewerage and water purifying and filtration system. Water is being used and reused in an almost endless loop, topped up by rainwater from one of two tanks. Of course, there are solar panels too, a heat pump and triple glazing. The place looks lovely. A tiny bit too Little House on the Prairie for my taste, but light and calm and open.
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It is not a given that all the houses are going to look like this. On the contrary, Slijpen is eager to experiment with all manner of different building materials and styles. Somewhere on the land, somebody is building a mud brick house, and even a hobbit-like loam structure is in the pipeline. Anything but concrete and steel, or brick for that matter: not eco-friendly enough. Anyway, Eykelenbosch is only very partly about the buildings. At the centre of the idea is permaculture, a system of agricultural and social design that puts self-sufficient, natural living and cultivation of the land at its heart. Not only would a permaculture “food forest” include all the plants and trees a human needs to survive, it is also the thing that connects people and nature. And connection is what this world needs more than anything else, Slijpen thinks. “The idea is that every family or group gets one hectare of land, where they live together and grow their own food. After consultation with the rest of the community, every piece of land would then also get an added job to do, as the spot for education, or medical help, or place where you can have your stuff mended. If you want more, you can always go the cities, of course, because there will always be people who don’t want to live on the land and it is not my intention to force anybody to do anything. But living like this will, I think, reconnect us. To nature, to each other, to other generations, to ourselves.”
According to Slijpen, it would not be very difficult to bring his idea to life. Space-wise, it is more than possible, he says, quoting figures collected by the University of Texas. A couple of years ago, it calculated that there are 7.442 billion people in the world, while earth encompasses 57,308,738 square miles. 57% of that is uninhabitable, which leaves us with 15.77 billion acres we can use, or roughly two acres per person. Seeing that a hectare is 2.47 acres and would house at least six to eight people, Slijpen seems not only right, but generous.
Although this doesn’t, of course, take into account what is already there, or what will remain necessary even in this utopian future: hospitals, schools, roads, airports etc. Nevertheless, Slijpen’s other calculation is thought-provoking too. “In Holland, people have €330 billion in their bank accounts. Those are savings, but because we’ve got negative interest at the moment, they are making no money out of that. It is dead potential, doing nothing, and therefore a missed opportunity. If people would use even half of what they’ve got to buy land, they would secure their future and that of the next generations. My idea is to put all the land into one big foundation, which is collectively run by its owners. They also have the right to use it. If they don’t make any money out of it, they pay nothing. Otherwise, they put 10% of their earnings back into the big pot. A similar thing would be happening with the buildings. The foundation would build, using the labour of its members. The people who live in the houses would pay it off in 50 years, €1,000 a year. That is not a lot of money, which means that you’ve got more disposable income. And money is time, which you can then use to spend with your loved ones or do something you like.”
It might be that what was called idealism in the ’60s is pure rationalism now… In Holland, even governments are starting to listen.
At the moment, Eykelenbosch is pioneer work. Slijpen’s two daughters work with him and the place has attracted a motley crew of enthusiasts. There is a couple who came here from hundreds of kilometers away, walking beside their gypsy wagon. There is a young family with itchy feet and a guy whose first love is tractors. But also a manager at Porsche, who has cut his job back to two days in order to spend his time working with timber here. And Slijpen himself, who has invested millions and every minute of his life. Of course, there are issues with Slijpen’s plan. It looks very much like the village of old, and if history teaches us anything, it is that you can never go back, only forward. It also resembles both communist collective farms and the Israeli kibbutz, both experiments with sometimes less than happy outcomes. It is also optimistic to a fault, believing as it does that human beings are flower children with mostly good intentions.
But. Still. What if? Criticising is easy, but in Holland, even governments are starting to listen.
Because, Slijpen says, the problems are real and solutions not easy and often very expensive. What to do about mental health issues, rampant loneliness, ecological difficulties, burnout, the lack of connection between the generations, stress, the differences between rich and poor? It might be that what was called idealism in the ’60s is pure rationalism now. Things need to change and council bureaucrats around Eykelenbosch are often on site and interested. Slowly they are talking about changing rules, adjusting the system and pitching in. Slijpen calls it “refurbishing the world”. Who knows?
He might be onto something.