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why sustainability doesn’t have to depend on high-tech solutions

Writer : Chris McMahon, Senior Analysis Fellow in Engineering, College of Bristol

It’s a well-liked concept that the trail to sustainability lies in high-tech options. By making on a regular basis objects like automobiles electrical, and putting in sensible methods to observe and scale back vitality use, it appears we’ll nonetheless be capable of benefit from the comforts to which we’ve develop into accustomed whereas doing our bit for the planet – a state referred to as “inexperienced progress”.

However the dangers of this method have gotten ever clearer. Many trendy applied sciences use supplies like copper, cobalt, lithium and uncommon earth parts. These metals are in units 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 units are inherently troublesome to recycle. It’s 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 deal with conviviality. This entails encouraging social connections, for instance by communal music or dance, fairly than fostering the hyper-individualism inspired by resource-hungry digital units.

“Low-tech” doesn’t imply a return to medieval methods of dwelling. However it does demand extra discernment in our selection 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 19th century Luddites to 20th century writers like Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford. However it was the western vitality disaster within the 1970s that actually popularised these concepts.

A person rides a cargo bike on a city road
Low-tech emphasises effectivity and ease.

British economist E.F. Schumacher’s 1973 guide Small is Lovely offered a robust critique of recent expertise and its depletion of sources like fossil fuels. As an alternative, Schumacher advocated for simplicity: domestically inexpensive, environment friendly applied sciences (which he termed “intermediate” applied sciences), like small hydroelectricity units 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, similar to windmills that use friction to warmth buildings, since 2007. Specifically, the journal explores out of date applied sciences that would nonetheless contribute to a sustainable society: like fruit partitions used within the 1600s to create native, heat microclimates for rising Mediterranean fruits.

Learn extra:
How low-tech farming improvements could make African farmers climate-resilient

Within the US, architect and educational Julia Watson’s guide 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 guide The Age of Low Tech. First revealed in 2014, it describes what life in a low-tech world could be like, together with radically chopping consumption.

An infographic showing principles of low-tech
Rules of low-tech embody effectivity, sturdiness and accessibility.
Arthur Keller and Emilien Bournigal/Wikimedia

Bihouix presents seven “commandments” of the low-tech motion. Amongst others, these cowl the necessity to steadiness 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 stunning fashions with decrease efficiency. As Bihouix writes:

A discount in consumption might make it rapidly potential to rediscover the various easy, poetic, philosophical joys of a revitalised pure world … whereas the discount in stress and dealing time would make it potential to develop many cultural or leisure actions similar to reveals, theatre, music, gardening or yoga.

Historic options

Crucially, we are able to apply low-tech rules to our day by day lives now. For instance, we are able to simply scale back vitality demand from heating through the use of heat garments and blankets. Meals, if it’s packaged in any respect, will be purchased and saved in reusable, recyclable packaging like glass.

Structure provides 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 move by 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-about at present as a way of coping with the intermittency of renewable vitality.

Windcatcher towers against blue sky
Windcatchers in Yazd, Iran, cool buildings utilizing wind.

Design and manufacture for sustainability emphasises decreasing waste, typically by avoiding mixing and contaminating supplies. Easy supplies like plain carbon steels, joined utilizing detachable fasteners, are straightforward to recycle and domestically restore. Buses, trains and farm equipment utilizing these steels, for instance, will be far more readily refurbished or recycled than trendy automobiles 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 embody “15-minute cities” the place outlets and different facilities are simply accessible to residents, utilizing cargo bikes as an alternative of automobiles or vans for deliveries, and inspiring repairable merchandise by right-to-repair laws within the EU and US.

Learn extra:
Parklets, traffic-free zones and out of doors consuming: how COVID is reworking our cities

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, intensive reuse and restore – even of issues similar to damaged pottery or utensils with holes that we’d now regard as waste – turned a lifestyle. Specialist repairers would mend or recycle all the things from paper lanterns and books to sneakers, pans, umbrellas and candles.

By following examples like these, we are able to make discerning technological selections a central a part of our seek for sustainable methods of dwelling.


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