When Low Tech Beats Fancy Innovation - Ensuring Resilience


A Russian masonry stove. Image credit: Jennifer Boyer, used under Creative Commons license.

Some time ago I posted about the apparent dichotomy between eco-modernity and green traditionalism—suggesting that there is a very real danger of letting our critique of the status quo become a fetish for the past. I've also written about the benefits of the technofix. But that doesn't mean there isn't a place for simple, traditional and DIY technologies in a sustainable world. In fact, in many instances the simplest technologies are the best. While TreeHugger sometimes gets flack for getting too excited about electric supercars, we've shown our fair share of lower-tech solutions too. From recycling human urine, through solar-powered clothes dryers, to the superiority of the bike for everyday urban transport, often the best solutions are the simplest ones.

I've just come across a great post from Rob Hopkins about why intermediate technology is often most appropriate, and it can be summed up with one word: resilience. While the latest gadgets may helps us achieve lower emissions, cleaner air, or greater food production, if there is a technology that can do the same—and that can also be produced at low cost from local materials without the need for ongoing maintenance or a distant supply chain of parts— then we should apply the simplest solution that gets the job done.

To illustrate his point, Rob quotes an email he received describing the break down of a fancy biomass boiler at Ragmans Lane Farm, a permaculture retreat center, and how it was only an old-fashioned, high-efficiency masonry stove like the one pictured above that helped save the day. (I should note that I have sat by that very stove, and boy is it toasty):

"How precarious it all is. I had the strange experience of passing the engineer for the boiler, (who has practically taken up residence at Ragmans) whilst I was servicing Reinhart's Ceramic Stove. I had a bucket of clay dug from the pond that I had mixed with a bit of sharp sand. I had the chimney off swept and replaced in about 20 minutes. The ceramic stove is what is making the whole course possible at this stage. He was standing over a box of capacitors, probes, and electric spare parts, on the phone to the wholesaler in Lincoln, who was trying to source parts from Austria while the airports were closing down all around."

Rob suggests that for those interested as much in resilience as sustainability, we should adopt as a working principle a preference for "equipment that can be manufactured locally, or if that is not possible, ensure at least that it can be repaired locally and that parts aren't too difficult to obtain."

I'd like to suggest an addendum to Rob's principle here that may be somewhat of a compromise between the techno-optimists and the green traditionalists among us—the bias toward intermediate or appropriate technology solutions should get stronger, the more crucial a service or technology is to our survival. Heating our homes, housing our families, and feeding our communities are things that we absolutely can't do without.

While there may or may not be a place for high-tech vertical farms or lab-grown meat in our future, putting all our metaphorical eggs into the high-tech basket leaves us at risk of going hungry. That's why we need to keep nurturing soil life and supporting small sustainable farms too.

While I might get excited about the new Chevy Volt, it's never going to be something I literally can't live without. Food, on the other hand, I would miss.

More on Appropriate Technology and the Technofix
a href="http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/11/are-greens-anti-progress.php">Eco-modernity vs. Green Traditionalism
Technofix Versus Behavioral Change: The Moral High Ground Doesn't Always Win
Can We Have Too Much Technology?
The MacGyver Approach to Winter Biking: Zip Ties!

Tags: Activism | Do It Yourself | Living With Less | Peak Oil | Permaculture | United Kingdom