Speculative privilege

‘In observing a little child, we find it is interested in everything and spontaneously apprehends, comprehends and co-ordinates an ever-expanding inventory of experiences’.* When I was a child, a branch wasn’t just a branch, it was a sword, a gun, and a magical staff all in one. As an adult, we are taught to lose this imaginatio. A branch is just a branch, how dare you imagine it is something else.
But this is exactly the imagination we need, to contradict that what we think is true. Once we step outside of our current framework, realize that it is not about the image but the content, we can start speculating about different possibilities that we could have never imagined within our current framework.

Take for instance the bio-car, part of Dunne & Raby’s United Micro Kingdoms. ‘Bioliberals regard the use of huge amounts of energy to overcome gravity and wind resistance to be counterproductive and primitive. Faster is no longer better. People travel in extremely light organically grown vehicles, each customised to its owner’s dimensions and needs. The bioliberal car combines two technologies: anaerobic digesters that produce gas, and fuel cells that use the gas to produce electricity’.**

Biocar, part of United Micro Kingdoms by Dunne & Raby.

It is not necessarily a desirable future but through the object, we can imagine how such a society would function. What are the desires, morals, and frameworks these bioliberals adhere to? It is not meant as a solution but should raise a discussion about the topics proposed.

This project has inspired me to look into alternatives outside of our current framework, making me speculate a bit more about life and our future. But it has also started a different kind of conversation about the topics proposed, one that was a bit different than I think Dunne & Raby intended. By doing research for my own project, I realized that many of these speculative futures are already happening. Many dystopias that we are imagining are already a reality in certain parts of the world and we take inspiration from those realities. Parts of India are already living on these proposed ‘‘technologies’’ as they have no access to the infrastructure that we do. They do not have the privilege to speculate, they have to act directly within their environments.
Theorizing is good and necessary, but when something stays within its theory or is not able to be tested against its context it doesn’t invite people to actually make a change. As stated before: once we lose our imagination there needs to be some catalyst that will bring this back. I believe that speculative design can help with that, as this project was also an inspiring force for me. But if it stays within its own theory, practice and galleries, it stays within an echo-chamber of people speculating about issues that are already happening worldwide. It doesn’t bring change, it just preaches to the choir. ‘Creating fiction about a new technology does not provide any agency to anyone. It merely presents a possibility, it doesn’t propose how to intervene it, or how to learn how to intervene in it.’***
However, once we are aware of our position within society, stop pretending that our consumption habits will change the world and acknowledge our privilege that makes it possible to speculate on problems without immediate action required, we can actually put our theories into action and we will be able to make a real change.

*Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth


*** lic-of-salivation-michael-burton-and-michiko-nitta/

Pressure pump

As the project is evolving, somewhere in the future it might become desirable to switch from 10 liter condoms to bigger gas containers. The reason condoms are used up until now is because of the low (almost none) pressure required to inflate them with the gas, which is done by the water pushing back in to the bucket after the valve is opened. Once we scale up the collecting apparatus though, new tools are needed to pressurize the new gas containers.

Sketch of the inner workings of a modified bicycle pump

A bicycle pump is something most people (at least in The Netherlands) have at home. By modifying the top cap (adding two o-rings in order to make it pressure-proof) and drilling a hole at the top of the chamber, where the incoming gas line will be connected, it becomes able to pressurize any container with either gas or air.

It does not only work for low-pressure harvesting apparatusses, it works just as well with a (higher pressure) propane container.

1968 Honda PC50

1968 Honda PC50 brochure picture.

Born out of the Honda Super Cub, the 50cc moped that made the world addicted to gasoline. The PC50 was one of the many different Dutch iterations of the same concept; a simple 4-stroke 50cc moped combined with pedals. Sharing many parts with its cousins C50, C310, PF50 etc. it is easy to maintain if it needs to be maintained. Some specs from the original sales guide:

49cc 4-stroke engine

Maximum speed: 40 km/h

Horsepower: 1.75 @ 5750 RPM

Torque: 2.9 N/M @ 3500 RPM

Mileage: 90 kilometers / liter

PC50 ”barnfind”, it was actually in very good condition apart from some missing small parts. I chose the blue one over the green one as it had rear suspension, making the ride just a bit more comfortable.

There are a few reasons for using this vehicle and the first one is obviously gas mileage. A (liquid) liter of gasoline contains about the same amount of energy as a cubic meter (1000 liter) of slootgas. It takes about five minutes to collect five liters of slootgas, so we want our vehicle to be as efficient as possible with its fuel.

Four-stroke engine. As we switch from liquid fuel to gaseous fuel, it is easiest to convert a 4-stroke engine, as these do not need oil injected in to the engine or oil mixed together with fuel to lubricate the insides. A 4-stroke engine lubricates itself with it’s own engine oil, so all we need to do is add an extra fuel line.

Age. Produced in 1968 and still working perfectly fine in 2021. By now it can be considered written off. Maybe even multiple times already. I bought it from somebody who had it stored in a barn for a couple of years, non-running. Half a day of work, together with twenty euro’s in part made it run again.

Electronics. The bike does not need a battery, but is still able to power 6-volt electronics such as its own lights and an additional USB-charger for my (lithium powered) smartphone.

Speed. Where we are going, we don’t need speed at all. All we want is gas-fueled movement, speed somewhere far down the list. Speed (power) means bigger cilinder, higher compression and as a result, bigger consumption. Not only for vehicles, this goes for everything. Faster food means more consumption of resources. Faster growth means more accumulation of resources.

Pedal power. In the Netherlands, at the time of production, for a moped to be a moped it had to have pedals, otherwise it would’ve been classified as a motorcycle at that time. Not very cool, but very convenient when you run out of slootgas or need to transport yourself to the nearest source. Also, because of the limited power available by the engine, it’s nice to pedal along when accelerating in order to release some strain on the engine and keep it happier.

40 Kilometers per hour doesn’t sound like much, but it sure is when you are on a vehicle as small as this.

Consume to change

The general idea today seems to be that you change the world with your wallet, rather than your vote. ‘It is by buying things that they become real, moving from the virtual space of research and development by way of advertising into our lives’. * We get the reality we pay for. And in some ways this is true. As consumers, we are at the end of the chain. But if we keep up the myth that we can change the world through consumption, we stay within this vicious circle. We believe we can’t change the world anymore thus we consume more which results in the industry producing more which, in turn, makes us feel less in charge of the world around us and makes us consume more et cetera. We are the last agency to decide about the ethical responsibility of the products we buy, but this doesn’t mean that we are also the only responsible force within these structures.
‘The most threatening act of protest for a capitalist system would be for its citizens to refuse to consume’.** Were it not that we are all dependent on it. Even the most well-wishing individual can not escape the fact that all of our lives are dependent on fossil fuels for survival. ‘We are all part of the problem, but the least we can do is by realizing that no, my choices will not stop deforestation, inequality, or the emissions of CO2’.***

The one place all of us in the Netherlands depend on; Shell Pernis. 750 Liters of crude oil passes through the refineries 160.000 km of pipeline every second.

Once we accept the fact that our lives are inherently related to these issues, stop pretending that certain types of lifestyles are not related to these bigger structures, admit that we are in fact part of the problem but that we can not help it, we can finally start holding those with the power to change accountable for these problems. And don’t get me wrong, I fully believe that we should do all we can in terms of consuming; eat less meat, avoid driving cars as much as we do, take public transport more often, but I don’t believe in the idea that by buying biological, sustainable or green products I will have a clean consciousness about the ecological crisis we are facing.
‘Design is all about desire, but strangely this desire seems almost subject-less today, or at least lack-less; that is, design seems to advance a new kind of narcissism, one that is all image and no interiority’.**** We carefully construct an image around ourselves that embodies our desires, morals and ethics, but does it actually reflect or do we just pretend we are something we want to be?
These are products to make yourself more interesting, sell yourself as something you are not. And as soon as we stop believing this and stop justifying our desires through these pretentious marketing concepts of sustainability, ecology and identity and accept the fact that we are part of it, we can finally address the true problem behind our lack of action.
We should become more aware of our imagination and that the world outside of our own house and person is actually malleable, otherwise history would’ve been a given. And exactly this is where I believe that art and design can provide us with some needed running-room. It can show us that we are not stuck in history and that change is possible.

*Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything

**Anthony Dunne, Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything

***Jaap Tielbeke, De Mythe van de Groene Consument

****Hal Foster, Design & Crime

Energy to work

Honda GX160 clone, converted by drilling a hole in to the airbox and connecting the condom and valve assembly from the gas collecting apparatus to it. Engine speed is regulated by the throttle (air) and the pressure regulating valve (gas).

It is the easiest to start it on gasoline, as there is no indication of settings as far as air and gas mixing goes. After starting, simply close the fuel tap and wait for the engine to start sputtering, turn on the gas valve until the engine revs up and then try to keep it there. It might take a few tries to get the engine to run on gas, it only needs a tiny bit.

Electrical vehicles

The first ‘’desirable’’ electric car available on the market. It has the performance of a supercar, the looks of an executive Mercedes, decent range, and no combustion engine. A sustainable car if we listen to the promise it makes: lay rubber where your carbon footprint used to be. All the comfort, no catch. But as we all, deep down, already know, nothing could be less true. In the words of Buckminster Fuller: ‘Because yesterday’s negatives are moved out of sight from their familiar locations many persons are willing to pretend to themselves that the problems have been solved’.*

XT on tour, destination TESLA

This car is a complete denial of the political, economical, and cultural implications of our technologies. No single product’s implications stay local, they will always ripple out and affect people you may never see or know in your whole lifetime. ‘It’s always easy to believe in technology to save you when you belong to a class and society that will directly get to reap its benefits in the end’.** A ‘’sustainable’’ car that is loaded with technology, touch screens, game consoles and electrical gizmos will never be sustainable within the grand scheme of things.

Tesla Gigafactory render, the goal is to build 500.000 batteries per year.

The batteries driving the Tesla are composed of many different metals and chemicals, one of these metals being lithium. Lithium needs to be mined and extracted from the ground, which in itself is already a very damaging process that goes hand in hand with deforestation and slavery. Looking at the amount of lithium needed to build enough Tesla’s to replace all of our 1.3 billion combustion vehicles, we need about 89 billion tonnes, while our total estimated supply is about 62 billion tonnes.*** This doesn’t even count in batteries needed for our laptops, phones, or the massive amounts needed to build our sustainable energy grid storage facilities in the future.
And what about the implications of recycling the batteries, which is at the moment of writing still no possibility. The lifespan of one of these batteries is around seven years, a bit less than half of a combustion car’s average lifespan before it ends up at the scrapyard. Then the process of extraction and production starts again.
Of course, one could state that it is at least better than its counterpart, and I do not disagree with that. However, I do think we should all realize that what this product is doing is just postponing our current problems to a later date. Following Tesla’s goals, if they somehow would be able to keep their schedules and build 500.000 batteries a year, we will run out of lithium within 16 years, looking at the lifespan of the batteries. The fact that there is no oil involved in driving this car, doesn’t mean that we can pretend that issues of over-extraction and consumption are gone.

* Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth



First harvest

With an apparatus to collect the gas, another tool is needed to plow the bottom of these shallow waters. A simple tool such as a hoe is perfectly suited for the job. Easy to obtain and use, available everywhere. There is no special technique needed, just plow through the plomp at the bottom of the ditch in order to release the gas that is contained by it.

As it turns out, there is truly a source of fuel on the bottom of the water. By burning it, energy is released which can be seen in the form of a flame.

Expedition SHELL NL

Lets see where the fuel powering the XT is coming from..

Dystopian scenery and cartoonish signs..

Too bad I wasn’t able to explore much at Pernis before being sent away. Good thing they have their own instructional video, as found below:

400.000 barrels of oil refined every day, 750 liters of crude oil passes through the factory every second it is operating.

The factory consists of 160.000 kilometers of pipeline, so the gasoline used in my motorcycle has already travelled the world four times before making me travel another 20 kilometers per liter. It is supplied by either the Middle-East, Africa or Russia. So our whole country depends on a fluid that comes from all over the world and before we even ”consume” it, it has travelled a distance of at least four times the earth. Very efficient, gasoline.


A few years ago, I bought a motorcycle. This machine brought me much enjoyment but at the same time, it also made me a bit paranoid. Not paranoid about wheter it would work, but rather paranoid about how it worked. What the relations between all of its parts were and how my actions influenced the working of the machine.

So there are a couple of components needed in order to make the machine run, but in turn, these components are made of many different parts and relationships again. ‘It’s all just … analyses and syntheses and figuring things out and it isn’t really here’.* You can not see it and you do not notice which parts are working in relation to other parts. You know something is happening but what it exactly is, remains a mystery. And if you never see them, you never know what they actually are and what the influence of your actions are on the system. Most of us have no idea what happens after we push the starter button in our car.

*Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Yamaha XT600 34L engine, 600cc single cylinder, 4 valves operated by an overhead cam.
Ready for a refresh after 35 years of service.

To work away this paranoia, I decided that instead of waiting for the machine to self-destruct eventually, I would take it apart. Inspect its inner workings, repair that what needs repairing and eventually rebuild it and drive it again. I couldn’t stand looking at it as just a motorcycle, something to be used but not understood. I wanted to comprehend the machine in total, not just look at it in terms of what it is; a motorcycle, but to become more involved and actually know how it functions.

Eventually, the time came and everything got back together properly and it all functioned perfectly. By now, I know exactly what happens inside the engine when I give it some throttle. I have become aware of what happens within this bike when I drive it. I know what the relations between parts are, their function and what actions will make them wear sooner rather than later. In return, I can use it in a way that I know it will last much longer than ever before and it has made me more aware of the consequences of my driving. I can not drive it without caring anymore, because I feel guilty if I don’t.
This motorcycle has taught me how individual actions can actually have big consequences in the bigger picture. We can, however, by comprehending how the things we use work and relate to each other, become able to understand their relations. Become familiar with them and relate to the part we play in these bigger ungraspable structures.