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PETER VAN DRESSER

By Paul Henrickson, © 1980 2008

Thoughts generated on my contact with Peter amounts to an outline, a


skeleton, if you will, of a portrait of a man of medium stature, benevolent, gnome-
like and weathered, who looks out at the world with the compassionately intellectual
attitude of a prince, observing the disastrous greed of the powerful manipulators of
complex systems.

This man is Peter van Dresser, solar engineer, architect, decentralist libertarian and,
perhaps, the twentieth century prototype of the meek destined to inherit the earth.

Peter van Dresser, a quiet unassuming man who lives modestly in Santa Fe, New
Mexico, with his second wife, Florence. His occupation as solar architect and
ecological planner accounts for only a portion of the respect others, from many
parts of the world, have for him. The practical modesty of his architecture may
account for the absence of the attention such architects as Frank Lloyd Wright,
Bruce Goff, Buckminster Fuller or Paolo Solari have achieved. The Van Dresser
architecture is characterized by its functional simplicity an terms of the energy to
make it work.

More than anything else it may be the philosophy of respect which attracts people
to him. This philosophy is both a conservative one, emphasizing preservation
through the development of a bio-technical society in which both man and nature
may be well served, and a radical one which stresses the importance of dismantling
the current urban industrial system.

Van Dresser was pointing our as early as the 1930’s that the economic system
defined progress primarily in terms of a gross national product and turned its back
to evidences of ecological transgressions. Van Dresser asks us to consider that while
we may have more money, more goods and more services are our lives really
richer?
Peter was born in New York City in 1908, the son of a portrait painter and a writer.
He attended Cornell University where he studied engineering and architecture. He
also dropped out of that university during the 1930’s to begin what he described as
a life-long search for Utopia. Most of his life, he claims, has been laying the
groundwork of a personal and a regional economy outside the urban industrial
system. This led him to a variety of living environments, first aboard a thirty-two
foot ketch which was his home for several years moving along the Atlantic coast,
next he was in Florida along the borders of the seminal everglades, next he was in
the Delaware Valley and for the past twenty-odd years at the 7,000 foot level of the
New Mexico Rockies.

While he grew up in New York and went to school in the city during the winter he
spent his summers in the bosom of the New England country-side. He now sees the
combination of these experiences…the sophisticated urban life of New York and the
more self-involved and independent life of rural New England…as providing him with
the necessary sensual information for making important value-decisions concerning
the way man might best orchestrate his life.

Peter’s present life-style is a combination of material modesty and creative and


intellectual richness. His adobe home in Santa Fe is hidden among other attached
structures all of which have more direct sunlight than his own. This fact is a source
of ironic amusement to him as it is solar energy which is his major concern.
Fortunately, this situation is only temporary for he is building a prototype model of
a functioning passive solar structure on his property in El Rito some miles north of
Santa Fe. Nevertheless it is from his Santa Fe home that he generates creative and
economical solar-oriented solutions for comfortable and civilized human life.

It is from his Santa Fe home that he develops contacts with a wide range of
energetic young intellectuals representing a variety of disciplines and countries, a
varying number of whom will meet with him and Florence for Sunday brunch at one
of Santa Fe’s hotels.

Since these brunches begin around 9:30 in the morning and frequently do not end
before noon it could appear that the van Dresser congregation is in rivalry with the
many churches, cults and sects which exist here. There is, in fact, a similarity
between the van Dresser eucharist and the more customary ones in that both are
concerned about moral behavior.

There is also a distinctive difference in that van Dresser believes he knows how a
technologically moral life may be had on earth now without the disruption of an
atomic armegeddon. And there is another difference in that the good in man is
recognized, by Peter, more readily than the bad. As a result one comes away from
these Sunday communion breakfasts with a sense of great self-esteem. This is an
unusual and worthy talent which makes this Peter a cherished companion. Peter,
the Pantocrator, who with one hand he blesses and with the other he instructs.
Here is a gentle, mild-mannered person, standing five feet eight inches who grows
in heroic proportions as he, by degrees, reveals the openness of his spirit.
The scope of his concerns indulges his companions with his lucid and
intelligent conversation and provides a demonstration of his patience with
man’s vanities…although he rarely mentions them. While he may not be a
model of perfection, he satisfies as an example of a spiritual man.

Van Dresser objects to the destructive employment of research results. In the


1930’s he was working on a non-military research related to rocket propulsion
mechanisms with the American Rocket Society’s Experiment Committee. He
broke his association with this group when members agreed to work for the
military. Now, after four decades he is a major focus here and abroad of a
new generation of world nurturers concerned with the development of a style
of survival consistent with the philosophy of man and material.

This is one example of van Dresser’s determination to match his actions to his
morals. It may be instructive to compare van Dresser to Von Braun who
worked on rocketry systems in Germany during the Second World War. It was
Von Braun who was instrumental in developing the V-2 rocket used against
the residents of London during the blitz. After the defeat of Germany it was
Von Braun who was spirited away to the United States where he continued his
research programs culminating in the impressive outer-space explorations.

The basically more apparent nature of man’s aggressiveness as opposed to his


gentleness can be observed in the rewards of riches and reputation accorded
Von Braun compared to their absence in the van Dresser personal
environment, Von Braun is known to few outside his discipline while Van
Dresser’s associates reads like a Chaucerian pilgrimage.

The contrast between the activities of the two men is dramatic. Where one is intent
upon “the conquest of space” the other acquiesces to its benefits. The lesson
of the fall of the tower of Babel or of Icarus may not have been learned, but
the facts point up a distinguishing van Dresser characteristic. This is his belief
that it is in the best interest of mankind that he utilizes the world’s resources
in such a way as to leave their functions intact. Any utilization short of that
may be more a function of engineering ego than of engineering reason put to
the service of mankind.

This is a philosophy related to that of the American Indian who acknowledges the
nature of the animate, the inanimate and the forces which govern our
environment. The differences in the behavior of the early American Indian
and van Dresser are that this twentieth century man is profoundly practical if
not profoundly religious. It is simply an act of folly to kill the goose which lays
the golden eggs and it is practical to preserve the usefulness of what is
useful.
There is the matter of commercial drama and misuse. It has been largely the
operations of the commercial world which has led us into the belief that
scarcity is related to value, while what is common, abundant or readily
obtainable has little value. One effect of the acceptance of this view is that it
provides some with an opportunity to exercise power over others who lack
and desire whatever the commodity may be and it subjects them to social,
financial and political manipulation…a situation history ought to have taught
us was dehumanizing to both groups.

The displacement of our attention from the real to the phantom is lamentable for
other reasons as well. When it occurs we seek the fleeting, the difficult and
the dramatic while the simple and the more beautiful solution remains
ignored. Such a situation creates a mentality of power over the human and
the material world and it is a response of fear and of guilt. On the other hand
were we to develop an attitude of being able to share resources and
technology we might enjoy the climate of trust…a climate that would free us
for additional creative adventures.

It seems a matter of reasonableness for van Dresser that the libertarian concepts of
free-enterprise and personal and corporate independence be balanced with
the practical benefits to be derived from cooperation. The key seems to be
the acceptance of the finiteness of certain resources, and the recognition of
the distribution of talents, insights and sensibilities throughout the
population. The answer to the problem of attaining a culturally rich,
materially secure, and politically free life lies in the recognition that man and
his environment are interrelated and in a clearer understanding of how the
values are now hold dear night otherwise is ranked.

This then seems to be a matter of a roaming gaze or a single focus on values. Van
Dresser sees that many of man’s problems stem from a tendency to over
specialize. A world has, thereby, been created which emphasizes
fragmentation and reductionism. “Our mechanistic ordering of man’s
activities”, he states, “is often hostile to the interplay of natural processes
and to the inner needs of man himself.”

Evidence of this can be seen in the exploitive industries which have polluted our
waterways, the air above our cities, created sprawling megalopolises.
Isolated man from man, man from woman, artist from scientist and a great
percentage of human kind from their natural environment are a part of his
interests as well. This has been accomplished by a megatechnism which has
produced a whole pseudo-world of plastic throw-away packaging and
gadgetry.

Van Dresser’s comments confirm the vision of conspicuous consumption drawn by


Torstein Veblen where a vicious consumerism exacts its pound of flesh and
degenerates the sensibilities. “Man”, says van Dresser, must learn to live
within the life of balance of the biosphere without exploiting destructively
either nature or his fellows.”

While it may not appear libertarian to advocate public ownership of resource it


makes sense to the extent that we may have reason to question most men’s
commitment to moral behavior. The enigma is clearly identified if one has
even experienced frustration with bureaucrats, the usual functionaries of
public ownership. In order to avoid the nationalization of resources as well as
the incompetence of massive bureaucracy and it’s deliberately manipulated
biases it may be desirable to organize a decentralized system or authority
and production.

“How does it happen”, asked van Dresser the humanist in 1938, “that while
inventors, researchers, engineers are unanimously striving…and succeeding
amazingly well…to make machines and processes, more defined, more
flexible, we find it necessary to construct a social order more rigid, top-heavy
and complex?”

It becomes apparent that van Dresser is ultimately concerned with the sound
management of energy…human as well as natural and mechanical…and this
is most assuredly accomplished in an atmosphere of flexibility. It is not only
industrial and governmental bureaucracies which unnecessarily encumber
efficient action, but “science”, he says, “is more and more crystallized and
codified into formal schools, disciplines and systems.” Such is the fate of all
persons. Institutions and processes which fail to creatively renew themselves.

The anti-creative and ant-productive nature of a bureaucracy can be seen in its


biased and conveniently rigid performance of its determined and outlined
duties. The bureaucracy is inventive in its methods of aggrandizement. It was
created as a mechanism to providing technical assistance to policy makers
but developed its services so expertly that it not only files and types but
controls access to records upon which sequential decisions must be made. It
regulates the flow of business and creates filtered access to its upper echelon
membership.

Functioning in this way it is frequently the bureaucracy who strangles opportunity


and the proper exercise of thought and action.

Let us consider the parasites of commerce and the deceit of the G.N.P. On national
and international levels one can observe the rise of occupation auxiliary to
the productions and services being offered. The Korean bribes are a notable
example. Among the more obvious is the business of advertising itself with
its promises, enticements, and the created and fear-supported pressures of
peer approval.
While these parameters of industry may create more jobs and a greater flow of cash
and this influence the index of the Gross National product, they are not, in
themselves, directly productive, certainly not in the sense that they produce
more at less cost. And as for the G.N.P. itself we find that we must revise our
understanding of what it is. We cannot consider it an index of economic and
social health when it rises in response to every social riot.

It is probably truer that these auxiliary occupations and deceitful measures if


economic health are counter-productive to the extent that they necessitate
the search for a broadly based market which, in turn, involves the mass
transportation of goods over long distances by truck, rail or plane. In their
turn these involve the use of more oil, gasoline and the expenditure of
greater and greater amounts from the public coffers for the support of
transportation facilities.

After all, this dramatically complex structure often ends up as a systematic method
of transporting coals to Newcastle ass for example, with the instance of
Washington state apples being shipped to West Virginia which can very easily
grow its own. It is a similar story with the federalization of welfare programs
where the deceit becomes manifest in the weakening of local capabilities and
initiative.

“With each year,” van Dresser points out. “The regional community becomes more
dependent on the intricacies of continental merchandizing” (The Alaska
Pipeline is an example) “and the instabilities of a consumerist society geared
to a self-destructive dynamic of perpetual material expansion.” He sees the
solution being the development of regionally based economies, “adapted to
the conservative sustained yield of biotic and “flow resources” of their
locales, and moving towards a de-involvement from bulk dependence on any
megalopolitan industrial system. “The need for a self-affirm alternative to the
exceedingly mechanistic vision of progress which dominates us is urgent and
intensely practical.”

The creative life, van Dresser believes, is an aide to understanding existence. The
notion of having right at hand the essentials for a good, full and rich life is
indeed attractive. It is even more desirable when it is realized that the
diminishment of s dependence on others not only relieves extremely
controlled pressures, anxieties and fears but it ennobles the independent and
the creative spirit.

The 1973 Arab boycott of oil shipments to the United States ought to have
demonstrated the reasonableness of diversified and decentralized sources of
essential commodities. A decentralized system might also encourage a
richness of aesthetic variation and cultural expression resulting in a
broadening of aesthetic perception and appreciation. “Men”, van Dresser
states, “reach their full stature, not when they are well-fed and hygienically
housed and taught how to do routine tasks obediently and well. For spiritual
maturity they require to be creative masters, to exercise science and artistry
on some scale however small…and this is what the industrial technology
cannot permit except to a tiny fraction of the working population, which
grows steadily smaller as decentralization and coordination proceed.”

The moral imperative of science is to benefit mankind both physically and


spiritually. The technology spawned by a portion of aesthetic discoveries feels
no such compulsion. Scientific attitudes, properly identified, are, by contrast,
open flexible and freedom conferring. These characteristics ought, ideally, of
an operational political life, but as we have seen it frequently is not.

An economy functioning for a political rebirth is a van Dresser vision. As early as the
1930’s van Dresser wrote of the relationship between economies and political
system. Fascist totalitarianism, far from representing an outburst of
revolutionary social tension, which, once released, will spread like wildfire
around the planet is actually the organized struggle for survival of two or
three highly specialized economic communities caught and squeezed towards
extinction by slow but irresistible changes in the configuration of world
economy…it is the spastic reaction of a dying organism.”

The obligation to be a good steward of the earth is deeply felt by van Dresser, but
felt more strongly aesthetically than dogmatically. As a scientist he is
attracted to beautiful solutions to problems and distressed by those
which are awkward or functionally over-elaborate.

When he writes about these matters he is a sensitive poet-ecologist who “weeps


over the corpse of a prematurely deceased automobile discarded
because it lacks the most current, largely useless and inefficient
improvements; what housewife as she discards the gutted tin can,
ponders the diminishment of the world’s coal and iron and tin
deposits? What householder, as he apportions the seven pounds of
Sunday newspaper sees dreary wastes of cut-over timber land?...we
have carried to a high state of perfection a technique of systematic
waste that is unique in the history of the world…twenty-five percent of
manpower is lost through the production of ‘ilth’ unnecessary and
actually harmful goods and services…the policy of employment
through waste is not successful but in addition it also creates moral
and spiritual havoc”. This observation was made more than forty years
ago in the Decentralist magazine Free America long before the
current upsurge in concern for the environment.

Elementary needs and human dignity illustrate van Dresser’s goals and those who
accept the concept of caring for one’s brother by means of supporting
the numerous welfare programs would be reminded that “the
decentralist organization would suggest that the expropriated laborer
must be replaced by the self-dependent citizen in control of his own
economic destiny.” He would urge the adoption of a decentralized
democracy. “A reorganization of industry and technology among all the
great nations on a non-exploitive, non-monopolistic and non-centralist
basis so that foreign markets and raw material sources would not be
necessary for the smooth functioning of the economy”.

A decentralist position, van Dresser admits, raises difficult questions in the area of
military defense. In an early Free America article, that the well-evolved
decentralist economy would be capable of competent defense against
conventional military invasion…perhaps in the manner f the Swiss
army plans. It would probably not be well adapted to mounting a
powerful offense in the blitzkrieg tradition.

And he considers as well the recent development of annihilation by atomic missiles


for which there seems no real defense against on any level or scale of
technology. Our daily hope in this direction, he argues is in the global
development of regionalized, non-exploitive economies which will
ultimately neutralize the have/have not tensions which now polarize
nations. The question, one feels, is complex and not at all easily
resolved. The complexity of this question illustrates the massive
destructiveness of not only warfare itself but in the feelings and the
postures on has in the preparation for it. The need to prepare for one’s
defense is a drain on creative energies.

The psychology of fear is enervating for the farmer, the artist, or the scholar. The
prospect of rising up a breed of warriors is repugnant. Dependence on
a wholly automated defense system would commit us totally to the
requirements, mercies, and malfunctions of a cybernetic industrial
system…the very antithesis of what we hope for.

As awesome as the idea of an orderly process of decentralization may be there are


indications that a growing number of people consider that the process
would be useful. Ironically, even the two great super powers are
themselves victims of the centralized syndrome and have considered
the wisdom in diffusing the results of their military technology. While
they appear unable to follow through in political, economic and other
industrial enterprises, a process that would amount to the dismantling
of the empires, they have recognized both the limits and the dangers
in the presently operating system.

Van Dresser emphasizes that the present system leads ultimately to disaster
whether that be by another and final great war, a series of minor wars
triggered in response to an expansionist economic system, or, avoiding
these drastic developments, a prolonged industrial and societal
collapse caused by a failure in the precarious balance of forces
characterizing the urban industrial system. The van Dresser argument
stresses the obvious, that a regionally oriented bio-technical economy
would be less subject to disaster and that were a disaster to occur the
economy would be better able to effect a rapid recovery.

Van Dresser is not arguing for parochialism but for the more efficient employment of
energies, goods and services. One manifestation of a decentralized
society, as he sees it, would be a proliferation of small but culturally
rich small urban centers ultimately replacing the megalopolitan
morass. While such centers may not embrace such grand institutions
as The Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Art Institute,
a prototype of the possibilities already exists in Santa Fe, New Mexico
where van Dresser has chosen to live. There with an urban population
of under 50,000 there functions an internationally famous opera,
several symphonies, a chamber music festival, Indian arts and crafts,
five functional museums, three colleges, several private schools, thirty-
odd art galleries and four or five bronze founderies.

It is in this same community and its regional setting that there exists a long
established pattern of diversified husbandry and small scale industries
which is one of van Dresser’s preferred choices. It is this sort of
organization, van Dresser claims, which gives support to the self-reliant
individual capable of thinking for himself because he is not a product of
over specialization and who is, therefore, better able to adapt if faced
with the unexpected.

Van Dresser suggests that there may be social benefits to a varied indigenous
resource-based community in that it assists the development of varied
life-styles and consequently encourages an enrichment of experience
through enlarging understanding of other’s occupational needs and
interests.

On the other had the, the result of monopolistic control of essential commodities
and energy sources out line the familiar profile of exploitive
monoculture, or, as I had written in an earlier draft “ of social and
political blackmail.” I am emphasizing the editorial change here as a means of
illustrating the differences between Peter and myself. Peter much preferred the gentler
description while I maintained we must call a spade a spade.

Such views create the impression that van Dresser is a very cautious man,
interested in neither the extremes of exploitive luxury nor that of
demeaning poverty, both of which he sees as the inevitable periodic
result of the mismanagement of resources and the consequently
unrealistic social structure based on the “myth of their
inexhaustibility”.

One may point out as an example, that recent dumpings of Japanese steel in the
American market at below production costs may have saved Japan’s
full employment percentage and avoided, for them, a glutted domestic
market, but this action may have threatened the United States with
these ills. Ironically, at the same time, we hear that the steel industry
itself may be a dying industry.

Van Dresser asks : “Is our civilization actually destined to approximate these super
mechanical utopias which are now (1939) the popular fashion, with
their arrogant towering cities, their mighty systems and engines for the
mass exploitation of the earth…in short, their sterile reduplications of
delusions of imperial grandeur and collective might which was hoary
when Rome was a tribal village?”

And he wonders that “if we have permitted something to destroy the unique
economic structure of the original United States, that structure,
however imperfect, that structure made possible the growth of a self-
dependent citizenry which could conceive and put into execution the
idea of self-government, then can we expect to wage anything but a
losing fight for democracy? How can we expect, in the long run, to
achieve anything but some sort of ersatz government as plutocracy,
bureaucracy, technocracy?”

While the quietness of spirit surrounds the man Peter van Dresser, whose physical
discomfort is not unlike that of Job, his present efforts, consistent with
all that has gone on before, are taking form at Ghost Ranch, New
Mexico where four passive solar residences prototypes are under
construction.

This practical demonstration…part of a grass roots movement in the southern


Rockies towards a renaissance of the earlier self-dependent economy…
has helped trigger international interest in the possibility of an
ecologically and ethically balanced society of the future which may
well move this mountain of wasteful techniques and processes now
characterizing many of our industries as well as our political and social
manipulations.

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