In a consumer society that’s turned into one of overconsumption, we are using up resources faster than the Earth can replenish them. By “we”, we mean the Western world, because elsewhere in the world people can do the same things using simpler techniques that are more eco-friendly and more artisanal. As ecologists on all sides are warning, learning to do things differently is a matter of urgency. Go and get acquainted with low tech!
What on earth is low tech?
Did you know that you can make a washing machine drum rotate by pedalling on a bicycle? Well, that’s the low-tech mindset. We use the words “low tech” to refer to simple technologies that work very well, can be created out of and run on very little. They are alternatives to modern systems and technologies which can meet the need for energy, food, water, housing and means of transport. As long as the low-tech system has no detrimental environmental or social impact. This solution also has to have an acceptable lifespan, be local and affordable. From this point of view, a bicycle is low tech. Low tech is kind of like homecrafts applied to technologies. It’s about items, practices or lifestyles that address problems related to finite resources by doing things differently. Low-tech solutions can be relevant to individuals and/or the public (it may involve a community facility). Behind the low-tech philosophy are also the ideas of mutual aid and independence. Everyone must be able to appropriate the system in question for themselves, use it and even show others how to set it up and use it.
Low tech: prevention prevails
Prevention is better than cure, but seems somewhat impossible at this rate. However, we can prevent some of the consequences of global warming and dwindling resources and learn to do without the current systems by implementing alternative solutions. Society will have to change a great many of its processes, especially when it comes to energy. While low-tech adaptations are emerging, we are in a race against time. Because the entire system is in need of an overhaul and some issues are intractable. This is leading, for example, to restrictions (which already apply to water in the south of France every summer), or rationing. At the present time, high-tech innovations are not really managing to save the planet. Quite the opposite… Whereas conversely, low-tech solutions seem to be emerging all over to ward off the shortages to come, out of environmental conviction or necessity. Little by little, these changes of habit in the direction of low tech will take hold in populations.
Some examples of low-tech solutions
Low-tech solutions, inspired by good old-fashioned resourcefulness, are about new ways of doing the same things, sometimes with your own fair hands, with less. For example, with a few wood panels, some nails, a window pane (for a greenhouse effect) and some aluminium foil, you can make a solar oven which, on a fine day, can reach temperatures of up to 170° F). This kind of rudimentary equipment can also make water fit to drink by pasteurisation. You can also make mini wind turbines to charge up mobile phones or switch on a lamp using little motors. To make your homemade wind turbine, all you need to do is harvest these little motors from discarded appliances and attach little sails to them! That washing machine that runs on pedal power, with water and laundry detergent in the drum and a hose to syphon off the dirty water, needs no electricity. In African countries, Toyota spare parts are used to make certain baby incubators and also clay fridges and tiny houses. The car brand has a very strong presence in that part of the world, so getting hold of supplies for repairs is no problem. Lastly, a low-tech solution is considered low-tech in relation to another existing technology for the same purpose. For example, a pencil can be considered low tech compared to a more sophisticated plastic biro which is more polluting to produce and dispose of.
Low tech: back to the Middle Ages?
When there is talk of solar ovens or compost toilets, some people find it hard to acknowledge the merit of such facilities, not to mention the jibes about “going back to the Stone Age” or embracing the Amish way of life. Because to some, low tech means the loss of modern conveniences, a backwards step for society or a sacrifice, like living on your wits or just getting by, with no appeal at all. But these “low technologies” could be used right now to pre-empt the shortages to come, whilst maintaining a pleasant level of comfort. The development of low-tech solutions could explore the last remaining avenues of an economic and industrial system that’s nearing the end of the line. The need for change means that all sectors must look to develop such ‘Plan B’ solutions. Low tech holds promise as a way forward. It makes it possible to reduce detrimental impact on the environment and gain independence. With a collaborative vision of society to boot.
The environmental merits of low-tech solutions
Low-tech solutions are sustainable, robust, cheap, repairable, recyclable, accessible and functional. They represent the ultimate way of living life differently, as opposed to using polluting, resource-guzzling materials. All without the item being any less functional. In these times of economic distress coupled with an environmental crisis, almost anyone can fashion a low-tech system. These are often made using materials harvested from other items. Upcycling – using something old to make something new – is itself kind of a low-tech solution. This uses up few resources. These items can also be easily repaired by those who made them. These “frugal innovation” concepts allow communities to solve their problems locally and independently, using whatever they have to hand, while adhering to the principles of resilience and the circular economy. Fewer resources, less pollution, less waste…
So the low-tech ideology is that of sustainability. What’s the idea? To live better with less, and embrace more conservative, collaborative lifestyles, while putting the meaning back into everyday life. Low tech in no way precludes trade or mass production, as long as the item is eco-friendly and meets the criteria of this concept. Picture this: local companies producing low-tech systems, putting them on the market, being profitable with controlled use of resources. With environmental aspects being integrated into all the stages of product development. These companies could by all means distribute solar ovens or fit compost toilets professionally and make a good money-spinner out of it. And actually, to get consumers to change their ways (as not everyone is good at DIY), the emergence of such cottage industries working at local level would be a virtuous way forward. For that to happen, we have to overhaul the concept of technology, rely on the hive mind and local cooperation. Whereas low-tech solutions meet basic needs in emerging countries, they are inspiring examples for our Western societies in terms of ingeniousness, mutual aid and conservatism.
The collective vision of the Low-tech Lab
A system based only on these techniques also makes for a society that’s more solidarity-based and more “reasonable”. This vision is that of all involved parties in and founders of the Low-tech Lab, which specialises in observing low-tech solutions all over the world. These trailblazers have spotted virtuous solutions combining respect for the environment, independence for communities and effective solutions for people. These include an understanding of ecosystems to make coexistence with them more harmonious.
What is their mission? To identify and test out all of these finds to picture what a new world might look like. “The pooling of robust services rather than the sale of disposable products; accessible, freely-available education and knowledge; spaces for creation, research and training that are decentralised, brought back to their local area, independent and interconnected; regenerated ecosystems, areas that their inhabitants know like the back of their hand; municipalities that share the sense of responsibility as regards their own resources and the proceeds of work equally.” You can get acquainted with the many lessons to be learned from these low-tech organisations via instructables and freely accessible content: www.lowtechlab.org/fr.
Today’s society may have us believe that the comforts that we currently enjoy will be around forever. However, the essence of low-tech solutions could bring with it another vision that’s more conservative, more independent, more accessible and more solidarity-based. These low technologies could be the ultimate answer to the big challenges ahead. The development of these technologies would also establish a fairer relationship between people and nature. An idea of progress revisited for everyone’s benefit!