What about “nothing” ? Or: Who can sell gravity?

The real cycle we are trapped in , is the one of buying and selling of services and mainly products. Which implies that if something can’t be sold as commercial product, it will not be applied, while it might provide a much better solution. And the reason why many ” services” loose out against products . Take drinking water, a perfect service, but people are attracted to buy more and more bottled water, a ‘product’. Completely superfluous (in most European countries), creating unnecessary environmental impact, but nevertheless, the souls are weak.

While at the same time we see a trend to use more and more rainwater directly, to save on drinking water… Now drinking water is produced and distributed very efficiently, but it could theoretically save some energy to use rainwater directly for some application in a house. Its free of charge falling from the air, and at the right spot. So we start using that. In Belgium its even mandatory to use that in some way. But what happens in practice: It is offered as a big storage tank buried in the garden, and with a lot of pipes and filters pumped back up into the house. All together a interesting commercial product: someone thought we can earn money twice by bringing it back below ground level, selling tanks and pipes, and secondly, earn money by the energy required to pump it back up against gravity. The alternative Is a simple tank on the second floor capturing the rainwater directly, and let gravity do its work to fill the toilet or laundry machine directly. However, this is not a commercial product, you cant gain profit from it. Its is, so to say, no “product”. Its a little bit of easy plumbing work . Even the fact that research already showed 15 years ago that there is no environmental advantage in the product solution, the environmental performance is even worse as using drinking water, seems irrelevant, not politically and not for “consumers” . The gravity solution is much better, no energy, no noise, far less material, less space use, and nearly maintenance free. However, its not applied since its no commercial product. The plummer is just someone doing a job, earning some working hours fee, but not advertising, since its hours he offers, not a product. The question here is: “Who can sell gravity…?”


We see that at all levels. A constructed refrigerator in a house ( a cellar, or cool cupboard ) , is certainly possible , but not a ‘product’ and therefor has disappeared from the building idiom. Just like built-in closet’s where no product. [more: see 1] . Space in cities, think of squares and parks, highly contribute to living quality, but are no ‘products’, thats why  empty space is more and more commercialized. Just like a tree only gets value when cut, a square gets value when built upon.

The question here is: Who, in a “commercial democracy” , a society in which you are free to choose what to buy and what not, sells the not-buying , the not-developing, and even the not-acting and not consuming?

Its weird, buts its the contradiction of going against the stream ( the tank-pump solution) against going with the flow ( the gravity solution) . Its Heraclitus versus Lao Tse : the something versus the nothing.

About the “nothing”

Nothing is as difficult as doing nothing… Really doing nothing is only gifted to a few. Some monks try this their whole life, in contemplation. Its of course not easy , doing nothing, as already been taught for ages in China: the Wu Wei, the art of doing nothing, of going with nature. Its in many things : from the art of elimination ( in der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister, Goethe) , to not interfering , and ultimately: just nothing. As the sign ‘pause” on television, when nothing is broadcasted. Unfortunately I haven’t seen that for the last 40 years or so. Sometimes there is a little spark of “nothing: someone at the Dutch road management authority saw the light: the not-mowing of the road side, as a sustainable strategy….

The other way around however is the standard: the pressure to do something: fill in, extend, built, manage etc. Squares, if surviving from construction pressure, are ‘developed’ in every inch: trees, bicycle racks, toilets, benches, art, lights, kiosk, lottery booth. Streets are decorated , houses are outfitted as clean rooms, offices become billboards. Doing something is easier as doing nothing. And as a result everyone chooses the easiest way, and starts doing things. Maybe only trying to do nothing by going on holiday. But is that doing nothing? In any way not environmentally that is.

But then, really doing nothing ? What is nothing anyway, is nothing nothing, or is that also something? Wat determines the nothing? In spatial planning there is a lot of nothing, a lot of nothing that should be filled by something. But something reduces the nothing, but at the same time shapes the nothing . Without nothing, there is not something, and without something there is no nothing: In built environment that is extremely visible: no good square without a good facade around it. There is however hardly anybody who uses something to create nothing, to design buildings to shape squares. Yes, the middle aged Italian squares , there you see a glimpse of that approach: Buildings as the decor for the square . But today? There are no investors that will spent their money on that. As a result, I have not seen any good new square last decennials. Buildings now are used as bill boards instead.

Something is the norm, but then , who guards the nothing? Makes sure nothing happens, nothing is developed, nothing installed, nothing designed, and let things flow? Which, in terms of environmental impact is the highest goal there is… Its not easy, as the old Chinese already knew:

There is a beginning, there is no beginning of that beginning, there is no beginning of the not-beginning of that beginning. There is something, there is nothing, There is something before the beginning of something, and nothing, and something before that. Suddenly there is something and nothing. But between something and nothing I really still don’t know what is something and what is noting. And now I have said this, I m not sure if I really said something. ( Tswang Tse, 300 BC, during the “ hundred schools of Thought” period)

We dont master the “nothing”. So we are after something, and want to posses that. Until something is out of stock… Read books like Collapse by Jared Diamond, to find that one after the other culture failed, after overexploitation of resources, after spilling something and ending with nothing. . Thats when you know what nothing is. Always being after something, is not sustainable. And now we are in the middle of a similar experience. We are running out of resources. Like fossil fuels. They were not there, until shortly, and will not be there for long. In between they are here, for a moment. But we have to leave them in the ground, to not use them, to prevent climate disaster (see the UN report for COP23: the emission gap) [2]. But we will not, we will use them until the last drop. The art of not using them, is not mastered by anyone. And therefor maybe the only other option is to spill it, as soon as possible and as fast as possible: Not acting in this case has become the wrong option. In this case its required to act fast.

It seems a cruel statement, but our best strategy might be to exhaust oil and gas as soon as possible: use SUV’s, go on far away holidays doing nothing, or better rent a SUV, Heat and cool as much as you wish. Since what we are doing now, a little bit of subsidy here, some energy saving there, some wind turbines and too cheap CO2 credits if at all for industry, are weak measures, in fact only delaying exhaustion, not preventing it, and as such giving industry more time to find new stocks, to develop new technologies, to drill difficult areas. Which in effect will lead to more oil and gas use over this century. If we deplete stocks fast, we can let it behind us, and CO2 emissions will in fact  cumulatively be lower as with the slow phasing out .  In fact its criminal to provide subsidies today, and stimulate innovation. thinking we will manage somehow, using fossils while putting CO2 under the ground for instance. Its only delaying things, and desperate situations call for desperate remedies’, or as we say in Dutch: Gentle healers make smelly wounds.No subsidies, no innovation, nothing.

Of course , we will still be roasted the second half of this century. But more slowly cooked, which, as I know from cooking is better for the meat…


[1] http://www.ronaldrovers.com/houses-as-commodities-sold-in-parts/

[2] http://www.unenvironment.org/resources/emissions-gap-report

Author: ronald rovers