I was really looking forward to today’s post. It’s on a topic with which I have a turbulent relationship. It’s a topic that permaculture addresses very well. In fact, permaculture has helped mend my relationship with it. The topic of this post is technology.
Confessions of a Technophile
I use to be a ravenous consumer of technology, in particular electronics. I would upgrade my phone regularly. I decked our my kitchen with cheap, single-use appliances because they were cheap. I worked in a high-tech industry. Technology was fun. If anybody forwarded a critique of technology, I would jump straight to defense-mode. What would they know? Laggards! I became an unofficial ambassador for Apple (yes, a fanboy) proselyting to any Windows user who would listen long enough. Even managed some converts. Where’s my cheque, Apple? But with age came wisdom. I became tighter with my money as I became disillusioned with working for it, so restricted my tech-hit.
I started to pay more attention to the environmental impacts of consumer technology. Not only do electronics use a lot of juice in the home, the embedded energy contained within snazzy little vessels of convenience and entertainment was sky-high. Buying kettles that would only last a winter of coffee-making or stick-blenders that saw more dust than meringue just didn’t seem sensible or justified. It had to stop.
There was certain technology in my life that I couldn’t live without. But as my awareness grew, I ensured quality was the first consideration. Thankfully, Apple has been loyal to me–their products have always had a substantial lifecycle. Since I was a teenager, I have owned three Macs back-to-back–with a few short-lived Windows machines in between. I need a computer–it’s how I work, educate myself, write these brilliant posts, maintain certain social connections, pay bills, and generally manage much of my life. I have no hesitation in buying a new Mac every time one dies of old age. But certainly not for vanity.
My iPhone is about to cark it. I’m in two-minds about replacing it with another smartphone. I am considering replacing it with some cheap, pre-paid thing and carrying my iPad (yes, yes, I have one) with me in the event I need to check email or look something up on the go. I have it. I should use it more. Rather than shelling out for another ‘overlapping’ device.
To be sure, technology isn’t only about electronics. A broad definition of technology is “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes”. “Tools, machines, techniques, crafts, [and] systems” that arise from scientific understanding are all manifestations of technology. But for the sake of this article, technology will be expressed as manual techniques, tools and machines. A shovel is technology, as is a bike, as is a certain methods of weeding, as is a backhoe. Some are equal, some are not.
In many ways, technology is getting away from us. It’s manifesting itself in bigger, faster, more distant forms. No longer are we prospecting for resources in our backyard, we’re looking to other planets for things we consider valuable or which are in short supply. To carry out such long-distance explorations we need huge, fast rocketships that can withstand extreme environments, made out of titanium and aluminum that has been produced by intensively mining our reserves and refined by using complex machinery fueled by other technologies. Our cars are becoming more complicated. In the past, a bush mechanic could fix the dicky clutch in a Hilux with a bit of fencing wire, a length of duct tape, and a stubby of beer for hydration. Now, airbags have airbags within airbags. The mechanics spanner has been replaced by a laptop. And we’re not far off not having to drive at all–cars have been taught to drive themselves! There’s a common thread amongst all these new high-technologies. They’ve lost their humanness and will, according to projections, take on an epihumanness–the technologies that we create, or that creates itself, will have its own consciousness.
In his book, Small is Beautiful, Keynesian economist, Dr Ernst F Schumacher, championed the concept of ‘appropriate technology’ (or ‘immediate technology’). He wrote of “small-scale technology, relatively non-violent technology, ‘technology with a human face’”. In the chapter, The Need for Immediate Technology , he described it as “fairly simple and therefore understandable, suitable for maintenance and repair on the spot” Justifying further: “Simple [technology] is normally far less dependent on raw materials of great purity or exact specifications and much more adaptable to market fluctuations than highly sophisticated [equipment]. Men [and women, Schu’!] are more easily trained: supervision, control, and organisation are simpler; and there is far less vulnerability to un-foreseen difficulties.” Nowadays we don’t even attempt to gander under the bonnet of our car. We call roadside assistance if we break down and take it back to the manufacturer’s service centre to have its regular checkup. This is partially due to what technology has become–beyond the grasp of the average human–but also due to us and how we have come to be. We are no longer skilled in managing all aspects of our life. We don’t necessarily cook, clean, wash up, garden, unblock a clogged drain, or hem our trousers. Many, if not all of these, tasks are outsourced to an expert for a fee or to some high-tech gadget. Rather than use ecological heating and cooling systems in our house–which don’t cost any money at all–we use high-tech solutions like electric evaporative cooling and gas heating.
Whilst this critique of technology sounds rather irksome, there is hope still. There is appropriate technology after all. But what makes technology ‘appropriate’? I believe the permaculture principles shed some light on the answer, in particular Holmgren’s 12 Principles: Observe and Interact, Catch and Store Energy, Obtain a Yield, Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback, Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services, Produce No Waste, Design From Pattern to Detail, Integrate Rather than Segregate, Use Small and Slow Solutions, Use and Value Diversity, Use Edges and Value Margins, Creatively Use and Respond to Change. Obviously, some of these principles don’t act as a good filter for all proposed technologies. How Design From Pattern to Detail might apply to a petrol chainsaw, I’m not sure. But Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services could be applicable. It might mean the difference between buying a petrol chainsaw that requires fossil fuel, that is made from oil that has been shipped over vast distances; or an electric version, which is powered by the solar panels or wind turbine on your roof. Perhaps after careful consideration a manual bow saw will do.
Likewise a car. A high-end BMW sedan may not be an appropriate transport solution at a cattle station in the middle of the Nullarbor. Perhaps a rugged four-wheel-drive ute is a better option. It will depend on your needs, which are established through observation and interaction with your environment. Conversely, the ute may not be the best option for an inner-city peak-hour commute. Public transport or cycling, or walking may be a better option. These options all cost the commuter less, are better for the environment, the latter two, are better for one’s health.
One of the most inappropriate approaches to technology I have heard in a long time, was the Gates Foundation’s “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge”. The challenge: “to develop “next-generation” toilets that will deliver safe and sustainable sanitation to the 2.5 billion people worldwide who don’t have it.” The winner of this travesty was the California Institute of Technology (CIT) who “received the $100,000 first prize for designing a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity”. According to an article by the IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre, each unit could cost as much as $1,000US. Not to mention the $500,000US that has already been spent on research and development.
For the cost of one of these toilet units I could comfortable build forty basic composting toilet units. The humanure they produce could then be composted down over a year or two and used to revitalise the soil and grow productive crops. But the CIT toilet produces electricity? So do solar panels. Solar is an established technology and is consequently cheap. The foundational research and development has already been done. I am sure if the prize money was spent on solar power for the communities to which the program was targeted, their needs would be met–$100,000US buys a lot of panels. To me, this challenge seemed to be more about having a bit of fun with high-technology than genuinely and appropriately addressing a real problem. Big, fast, and distant wins again.
According to Wikipedia, “[t]echnological utopianism…refers to any ideology based on the belief that advances in science and technology will eventually bring about a utopia, or at least help to fulfill one or another utopian ideal”. Most people I know are technological utopians. They have strong belief that technology will pull us through the apparent global issues we are set to face. Many of my friends don’t support insurgency warfare, such as the Iraq War. However, they support the perceived improvements to standard of living that western insurgency is bound to bring about. Such intervention will bring these rather primal cultures out of the Dark Ages and into a new, democratic uberworld, which is driven by technology and tolerance and freedom of choice–or consumerism.
Recently on Facebook (yes, I see the irony), somebody shared their prophecies for the next 40 years. They predicted that “[a]utomation [will] extends to more fields of work, increasing unemployment rates”, by the early 2030 “[u]biquitous computing/pervasive networking [will] enter mainstream society, [warranting] all “things” interconnected”, and “[c]loned species of animals once extinct [will] begin to appear in zoos and homes”. My initial response:
“What’s happening to the environment in the meantime? We have a plethora of other situations to address before we can ever think that far ahead.
These fantastic predictions are typically made ceteris paribus (with other things the same). By environment I don’t just mean climate, I mean every single aspect of the environment; the entire loop. Significant technological advances predictably have a significant impact on the environment–from the ways in which the money was earned to fund them (take our current unsustainable economic model), to the materials that are extracted (or maybe recycled) to build them, and to how they are disposed. And all the other considerations.
These high-tech fantasies tend to tickle the imaginations of those content with (or oblivious to) the paradigm of rapid growth.”
The original prophet replied ambitiously: “By around 2060-2080 we’ll likely be able to play mother nature and quite literally engineer our weather, making our world whatever we want it to be”. He added some consumer electronics to his list of technological advances for the future. He then called me a pessimist. I rebuked:
“I’m not pessimistic. I just think that there’s more important things to be doing with our time than designing new gadgets that will inevitably be bought by the masses and add to the problem. Don’t discount peak-resource–that’s enough to put a really big spanner in the works. (But we’ll never collapse… I hear people assure.)
I say it’s high time we start bringing technology back to human-size. There is an obsession with giantism that’s evident in the list above. We are so far removed from our own condition in how we conceive technology now. This is good in a way–we’re smart and ambitious–but it’s slowly missing the point. At all levels. From researcher to consumer. We ought to stop and smell the roses for a minute.
Foremost, I think this. For us to operate under a just, equatable and sustainable economic system–none of this is possible and I’m okay with that. Further, for us to navigate the ‘issues’ we face in the world we require such a system of economics.”
And the debate went on for a while. My rival set in the belief that we can achieve lots and all the crap we are set to face will somehow get fixed along the way. Myself, adamant that this is a flawed argument–that we are making technological progress at nowhere near the rate that was expected by the likes of Keynes; and that we simply don’t have the resources or funds** or discipline in order to do it. To be sure, with a sprinkling of agrarian romanticism on the side.
I think I will leave it for another post, my views on exactly what I see as addressing the problems we face. However, decentralisation, slow and small solutions, and appropriate technology are what I have in mind. (Check out Holmgren and Bookchin to get an idea in the meantime.)
** In recent years, institutions like NASA, have received severe funding cuts due to high-levels of governmental debt and slowing economies. The same is true in the EU at the moment. To assume that scientific funding will continue to be at the front of the mind of governments, does not take into consideration the state and volatility of the global economy. And let’s not forget how economies grow–through the very activities that cause the environmental damage that we are needing to correct. The more we grow, the bigger the problem.
Appropriate Technology in the Murraylands
Now that you have some idea on the basis from which I view technology, I will give you an idea of how it might be applied at my property.
– Electricity will be generated by a renewable source, solar, and back-up will be stored in a battery bank. A diesel generator will be used for further redundancy.
– The house will be heated and cooled ecologically–passive solar design (well-insulated straw bale construction, virtually airtight, north-facing windows for maximum winter sun, eaves to block summer sun, cross-ventilation) with good thermal mass (concrete slab or earthen floor). Extra heating may be provided with a wood heater which can also be used for cooking. Fuel will be sourced from within the property (firewood yielded from trees and roots that have been cleared for development and fire protection) and local suppliers. Extra cooling may be provided by a fan powered by solar electricity.
– Consumer electronics will be used sparingly and appropriately. Do I really have a need for a hair straightener? The consumer electronics and appliances I will run are: 45W MagSafe charger for an 11” Macbook Air via a 12V adapter; small 12V flat-screen TV (optional); three lamps with 5W LED globes; one outdoor light with an appropriate sized LED globe; 120L refrigerator; 12V hot water service (optional); 12V single tub washing machine; Ryobi ONE+ charging deck, and I am sure a few other things I can’t think of right now.
– Hand tools will be used for most tasks. Power tools will be primarily cordless electronic, like the Ryobi ONE+ range–including chainsaw, drills, circular saw, etc.
– Water will be moved around the property using gravity. In the event that a pump is needed it will be good quality and energy efficient–preferably 12V.
– Transport will be by foot, bike, and public transport (in that order). Trips by bus will be made sparingly and any items purchased in bulk. In the event supplies need to be delivered, a local supplier will be considered first.
– An internet connection (wireless, ADSL, or satellite) will be connected as a way of telecommuting for work, personal, and educational purposes.
– A mobile phone will be used for keeping in touch with friends and family and conducting business.