How alternative technologies could help save the planet
We seem addicted to technologies that offer the highest return on investment capital. But these technologies are also destroying our environment
HOW DO we tell the difference between good technology and bad technology?
I suppose people have been asking the same question since… well, the invention of the wheel.
The Luddites were one of the first political groups to blow the lid on ‘dehumanizing’ technologies. They are still pilloried for their stand against mechanized looms that threatened thousands of skilled craft jobs during the early industrial revolution.
Yet how can we continue to condone modern technologies that systematically extract the earth’s resources at unsustainable levels?
As we stand at the cusp of a new era, when humans need to decide between continuing our comfortable road to environmental Armageddon, or developing a more organic relationship with the planet, we need to think deeply about the nature of technology and the economic systems that support it.
The amount of real leisure time a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs
Because the profound thing about technology is that it has not learnt to self-limit like nature. It knows no limits to growth.
OF COURSE, not all technologies are bad.
In his famous book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, E.F Schumacher attempts to draw a line between dehumanizing technologies driven by efficient return on capital, and those centered on the desire for meaningful work and fulfilling immediate human needs.
He also made the astute observation that “the amount of real leisure time a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs.”
So let’s take closer look at the concept of appropriate technology, which is often defined as having the following six characteristics:
Small-scale technologies give nature a chance to compete with human activity as well as create a diversity of product. This means more economic stability and small-scale trading opportunities.
Compare the lines or net of a fisherman in his outrigger canoe harvesting food for his family or village compared to the 120 km (75 m) hook lines hanging off floating fish factory ships that scour the world’s oceans for fish product, much of which ends up in pet food.
Big technologies tend to be intrusive, extractive, highly energy dependent and therefore unsustainable. Just think broad-acre farming, corporate banking or the modern transport industry. As industries they are like overfed plants in the garden that lack the character and endurance to survive when the water and fertilizer run out.
These tend to be fit-for-purpose rather than generic. For example, it makes sense to aim for the generation and storage of local wind and solar electricity because, for one thing, it saves the additional cost burden of massive pole and wire infrastructure.
Empowered communities are much less dependent on state and national government grids and energy policies. Small-scale manufacturing of such self-reliant technologies would also create stable local employment opportunities — all over the country.
Technologies that save labour are an almost an article of faith in the west. They shouldn’t be. Choosing structural unemployment as an alternative to creating jobs is absurd.
Farms were once labour intensive hubs for families and workers involved in meaningful work producing food.
A child who spends their early years learning to grow food should be valued as much as a child trapped in a classroom learning how to spend their life working at a desk. Our monocultural education system is a big part of the problem.
This hardly needs explanation. Relying on finite energy reserves to feed and clothe the world is setting humanity up for disaster — sooner rather than later according to current data.
Do we really need cars and planes whizzing around the planet. What’s wrong with trains and bicycles — and a good internet connection?
Environmentally sound technology
That technology should be environmentally responsible is another no-brainer. Without a clean and healthy environment we no longer have life — our own included. We can never conquer nature with technology, so lets get smart and stop trying.
Locally autonomous technology
Technology works best for people when controlled by communities. By definition it then becomes ‘human-scale’ technology that can be manufactured and repaired locally.
It also gives greater diversity and stability to regional and national economies, and ultimately a highly diverse global economy.
And diversity, as we are rapidly learning from the issue of biodiversity collapse, is an essential part of life — and economics.
If you think this all sounds a bit traditionally eastern or old European, then in some ways you may be right.
Many philosophers, writers and even economists like Schumacher have been drawn towards traditional Indian and Chinese village culture, sustainable and unchanging for thousands of years. Schumacher called it Buddhist Economics.
Indeed there is much we can learn from these old cultures. India, with a population of 1.3 billion, is one of the few countries self-sufficient in food.
Only with rapid modernization has China, after 4000 years of sustainable village culture, been burdened with problems of massive pollution resulting from concentrations of population and manufacturing.
Old Europe too, with its hedgerows and small villages bursting with life and simple technologies, has given way to bland and orderly corporatism and sinkholes of manufacturing and inhumane population densities.
But it would be foolish to look entirely to the past. Industrialization endowed us with great knowledge and some wonderful soft technologies, including a global brain called the internet.
Strong labour laws, a more humane society and a far deeper understanding of nature and all the sciences are valuable legacies of our big technology experiment.
But our planet needs room to breath, and if we get it right, the future could be a very pleasant place to live.
I’m always looking for new angles to write about green politics and economy, so please don’t hesitate to contact me at < peter denton 55 (one word) at gmail dot com > if you have any ideas.