If I invite you to picture a life where walking is transport, there’s no refrigeration in homes, food is cooked from scratch, washing is done by hand, you’ll probably be well on the way to picturing something Victorian, or earlier. Something tough, full of drudgery and misery. I want to suggest that we can go back to these lighter ways of living without being miserable, because of other technological advances.
We tend, as a culture, to focus on large, expensive pieces of technology. The car. The television, the fridge freezer, the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner and so forth. Modern life is defined by these ‘labour saving’ objects. They cost us a lot to run in terms of energy, and the resources it takes to make them, and we do a lot of paid work to earn the money to afford them, so the degree of ‘labour saving’ for the ordinary worker is open to question.
There are other technologies. Modern changes to clothing are vast – manmade fibres that wash and dry easily, that are genuinely waterproof. Walking boots. Walking for transport when you have the modern gear is a world away from some poor sod tramping through the rain in a Thomas Hardy novel. And washing and drying these things by hand, with hot running water, modern cleaning products (even the green ones) and a spin drier is a world away from the copper and the mangle.
Across all areas of human activity there are multiple technological developments at play. We’ve prioritised some, without really looking about what others can give us. Thanks to the rise of the car, we’ve never given cycling a proper go, or properly looked at motorcycles as an alternative. Walking and horse powered transport are much easier when you have surfaced roads – we can have surfaces without cars, and they tend to last longer.
Part of the problem is that our development of technology is driven by the desire to make profits. If we were doing this with the aim of getting the best quality of life in the most sustainable way, the whole history of the 19th and 20th centuries would look radically different. We aren’t labour saving, we’re moving the goalposts. Maybe you don’t have to spend hours at the sink scrubbing clothes. Instead you have to spend hours frustrated in traffic queues, or working a boring job, or a tiring or stressful one, to be spared the drudgery of cooking your own meals.
The good news is there’s a lot to be gained from exploring the lower profile, less expensive technology, and the opportunities it creates to live lightly, need less money, and work less.