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Candlelight Dinners for Everyone Originally Published 1996, 2009


Back in the 20th century, as we were approaching the millennium, a question circulated on some planning forum in which I participated: What do you think the world will look like in the year 3000?

The responses were extensive but most centered around issues of transportation and technology. There were comments about public transportation, internet communications, a clear belief that great leaps in technology would make many of our current woes (like pollution and congestion and even social injustice) go away.

There was a commonality about the responses in that they all carried the underlying assumption that the next THOUSAND years would simply be an extended 20th century with most of the bugs worked out of our automobiles.

This was not admitted directly, but it was obvious that the true scope of the question eluded nearly all of those responding. It still does today, as we entertain fantasies about autonomous vehicles  and cloud storage of entire personalities. Many people seem to lose sight of how temporary these present minutes are. Or they fail to ask such questions as: how would an self-driving car offer a net improvement to the whole of your life? (It won’t, BTW…it’s a distraction, a way to avoid working on real problems.)

My response was this: that the world will look, in the year 3000, somewhat like it did in the year 1000, quite possibly with similar human populations. While that response sounded cynical at the time, with typical doomsday overtones, many of my friends saw it as the good news.

Since then, many more of us have gotten an education about limits. The public has now heard (really heard…) of peak oil, climate change, food scarcity and a host of other millennial woes. We’ve seen mid-East dramas play out with less than promising results, we’ve tasted a few natural disasters and several that were man-made (though all natural disasters are only disasters relative to human interests. In nature there are no disasters.)

We now face various economic crises, panics over viruses and other health issues, ephemeral hysteria regarding equity and other social issues and an evaporation of the labor force that remains unexplained. Many still look at these moments as just exceptions to an otherwise predictable and continuous future of ever repeating 20th centuries. But the evidence points to the arrival at a wall by a population that has experienced only growth and excess and knows little about contraction or stability.

But the year 3000 is a thousand years away. One thousand years… hear that. Ten centuries of political, social, economic and biological evolution. A long time. There is almost nothing in our history that suggests that the human world that far out will have any predictability except that it will likely look the way it has for most of its 100,000 year (+/-) existence, rather than the momentary freak show that was the 20th Century.

There is nothing in nature (the landlord from which we rent this space) that suggests a long term interest in supporting much more than 2 billion people on the planet. There is no evidence of any kind that suggests that we can continue to use energy the way we have for the last 90 years. There is nothing out there that suggests that the way we travel, work, eat, discard, fight disease and kill each other can go on for more than a few generations before some sort of collapse will occur. (See Tainter)

Yet a pretty good case could be made that we have the intelligence, if not the discipline, to manage our habitat in a sustainable manner that will allow several billion people to live relatively well. Not likely, but possible. Absent some of the greed, some of the skimming by gross corporate interests,  and the pure force of human ignorance, we could likely live a relatively high quality life if it were played out at a slower pace, with less glamour and more substance, less packaging and more nutrition.

It’s interesting that the ways many of us choose to vacation capture qualities of life that are particular to a “primitive”, pre-20th century world. We pay thousands of dollars to spend two weeks living like peasants in a thousand year old French farmhouse. We like to walk to the village and get fresh bread, we like to meet the locals and hear great stories of history and tradition. We are sold lots of product on TV by smiling faces seated around plank tables overlooking an ancient vineyard with a stone building as backdrop. We spend billions trying to make our own houses look like that.

There must be an itch somewhere that gets scratched by the implied, though thoroughly misunderstood, simplicity embedded in the paintings of traditional happiness that we seem to enjoy.

We head out in the old bus and roam the hinterlands, camping, fishing and living light nomads. Sure we have a credit card and a nice home full of stuff somewhere, but we obsessively rehearse the fantasy that we could, were we forced to, live like peasants at some future juncture.

Day by day some of us collect new views, new hobbies, new relationships that mimic those of a thousand years ago. Year by year we discover that there were benefits associated with earlier primitive lives: local food, local knowledge, fewer heart attacks. Even a closer relationship with death and disease, in our current context of  health-related panic, appears to offer long term benefits to the species, if not to some unfortunate individuals. Though we are likely to find, in a house of eight billion, that we have never really escaped disease, we have simply delayed the housekeeping chore that it performs.

But is it such a leap to imagine that a life that uses much less energy, that covers much less distance, that consumes far fewer resources, is necessarily bad? Can we paint a picture of a generally calmer life that delivers greater satisfaction, not by provision of goods and sensation, but simply by reduction of manufactured want and desire?

We can actually be rich by wanting less, as a culture, as a species. We possess the ability to make a conscious choice, with this wonderfully complex brain we enjoy, to design a life of less want and more wealth. It is possible that to design a life, right now, that is more civilized than the ones we currently live, with fewer things and more quality, less fat and higher nutrition?

I think we can take the things we’ve learned as a result of the wealth of the 20th Century and use them to solve the failings of the tenth century while capturing the potential wealth available should we get off the treadmill of greed and growth.


It’s a very human question, a question about our ability to choose the life we want or simply live the life nature will hand us. Thus it’s a question of design.

It’s also a question that doesn’t really matter to anyone but us. Because I do think that the lives we live in the year 3000 will look very much like the lives we lived in the year 1000. The only variable is whether we have chosen it or it simply ended up that way.

3/96, 2/09, 10/21

Martin Dreiling