It’s a well-liked concept that the trail to sustainability lies in high-tech options. By making on a regular basis objects like vehicles electrical, and putting in good programs to watch and cut back vitality use, it appears we’ll nonetheless be capable of benefit from the comforts to which we’ve turn into accustomed whereas doing our bit for the planet – a state often called “inexperienced development”.
However the dangers of this method have gotten ever clearer. Many fashionable applied sciences use supplies like copper, cobalt, lithium and uncommon earth components. These metals are in gadgets like cell telephones, televisions and motors. Not solely is their provide finite, however giant quantities of vitality are required for his or her extraction and processing – producing vital emissions.
Plus, many of those gadgets are inherently troublesome to recycle. It is because to make them, advanced mixes of supplies are created, typically in very small portions. It’s very costly to gather and separate them for recycling.
Amongst others, these limitations have led some to query the high-tech path our society is taking – and to develop a burgeoning curiosity in low-tech options. These options prioritise simplicity and sturdiness, native manufacture, in addition to conventional or historic strategies.
What’s extra, low-tech options typically concentrate on conviviality. This includes encouraging social connections, for instance by way of communal music or dance, slightly than fostering the hyper-individualism inspired by resource-hungry digital gadgets.
“Low-tech” doesn’t imply a return to medieval methods of dwelling. But it surely does demand extra discernment in our alternative of applied sciences – and consideration of their disadvantages.
Origins of low-tech
Critics have proclaimed the downsides of extreme expertise for hundreds of years, from nineteenth century Luddites to twentieth century writers like Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford. But it surely was the western vitality disaster within the Seventies that actually popularised these concepts.
British economist E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 ebook Small is Lovely introduced a robust critique of contemporary expertise and its depletion of sources like fossil fuels. As an alternative, Schumacher advocated for simplicity: regionally inexpensive, environment friendly applied sciences (which he termed “intermediate” applied sciences), like small hydroelectricity gadgets utilized by rural communities.
Schumacher’s mantle has been taken up by a rising motion calling itself “low-tech”. Belgian author Kris de Dekker’s on-line Low-Tech Journal has been cataloguing low-tech options, resembling windmills that use friction to warmth buildings, since 2007. Particularly, the journal explores out of date applied sciences that might nonetheless contribute to a sustainable society: like fruit partitions used within the 1600s to create native, heat microclimates for rising Mediterranean fruits.
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Within the US, architect and tutorial Julia Watson’s ebook Lo-TEK (the place TEK stands for Conventional Ecological Data) explores conventional applied sciences from utilizing reeds as constructing supplies to creating wetlands for wastewater therapy.
And in France, engineer Philippe Bihouix’s realisation of expertise’s drain on sources led to his prize-winning ebook The Age of Low Tech. First printed in 2014, it describes what life in a low-tech world is likely to be like, together with radically chopping consumption.
Arthur Keller and Emilien Bournigal/Wikimedia
Bihouix presents seven “commandments” of the low-tech motion. Amongst others, these cowl the necessity to stability a expertise’s efficiency with its environmental influence, being cautious of automation (particularly the place employment is changed by elevated vitality use), and decreasing our calls for on nature.
However the first precept of low-tech is its emphasis on sobriety: avoiding extreme or frivolous consumption, and being glad by much less lovely fashions with decrease efficiency. As Bihouix writes:
A discount in consumption may make it shortly doable to rediscover the various easy, poetic, philosophical joys of a revitalised pure world … whereas the discount in stress and dealing time would make it doable to develop many cultural or leisure actions resembling reveals, theatre, music, gardening or yoga.
Crucially, we will apply low-tech rules to our each day lives now. For instance, we will simply cut back vitality demand from heating by utilizing heat garments and blankets. Meals, if it’s packaged in any respect, might be purchased and saved in reusable, recyclable packaging like glass.
Structure presents a number of alternatives for low-tech approaches, particularly if we be taught from historical past. Utilizing historic windcatcher towers designed to permit exterior cool air to circulate by way of rooms lets buildings be cooled utilizing a lot much less vitality than air con. And storing warmth in stones, utilized by the Romans for underfloor heating, is being thought of at this time as a way of coping with the intermittency of renewable vitality.
Design and manufacture for sustainability emphasises decreasing waste, typically by way of avoiding mixing and contaminating supplies. Easy supplies like plain carbon steels, joined utilizing detachable fasteners, are simple to recycle and regionally restore. Buses, trains and farm equipment utilizing these steels, for instance, might be way more readily refurbished or recycled than fashionable vehicles stuffed with microelectronics and manufactured from subtle alloys.
In some locations, the rules of low tech are already influencing city design and industrial coverage. Examples embrace “15-minute cities” the place outlets and different facilities are simply accessible to residents, utilizing cargo bikes as a substitute of vehicles or vans for deliveries, and inspiring repairable merchandise by way of right-to-repair laws within the EU and US.
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In the meantime, in Japan, there’s rising curiosity within the reuse and recycling practices of the Edo interval. From 1603 to 1867, the nation was successfully closed to the surface world, with very restricted entry to uncooked supplies. Subsequently, in depth reuse and restore – even of issues resembling damaged pottery or utensils with holes that we’d now regard as waste – grew to become a lifestyle. Specialist repairers would mend or recycle every thing from paper lanterns and books to sneakers, pans, umbrellas and candles.
By following examples like these, we will make discerning technological selections a central a part of our seek for sustainable methods of dwelling.
Chris McMahon is translator of Philippe Bihouix's The Age of Low Tech, printed by Bristol College Press. He’s a member of the Inexperienced Occasion and has previously obtained funding from the Engineering and Bodily Sciences Analysis Council, the Financial and Social Analysis Council and the European Fee.