Friday, January 2, 2009

Appropriate Technology And The Art Of Being Poor

I'd like to take a few moments to discuss a concept I first encountered several months ago – the concept of “appropriate technology.” Understanding this concept is a key to navigating our way through the times now upon us – times of climate change, post-Peak Oil and economic difficulty.

Appropriate technology is the maturing offspring of a related concept, “intermediate technology,” first devised by British economist E.F. Schumacher. He formulated this concept as he watched the harmful effects of imposing Western-style economics and large-scale, capital-intensive industrialization on local economies and cultures in the developing world. These Western economic and technological schemes were imposed on the nations of the Third World by powerful Western governments and by well-meaning but misguided Western charities and non-governmental organizations (NGO's), with devastating results that included the loss of self-sufficiency for members of local cultures, the resulting spread of poverty, and the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of the richest citizens of developing countries. In addition, the poor majority of these countries could not afford to use the capital-intensive technologies being introduced to these countries. (As an example, even now, in a country like China, there are 56.97 million cars, but over a billion people, meaning that only one out of every eighteen people owns a car.)

As an economist, Schumacher believed that his mission was to help create a higher standard of living for people in developing nations, yet he saw the limitations of Western high-tech economic practices. His “intermediate” solution was to provide or devise means and technologies which would be more advanced than indigenous methods currently in use, yet simpler and more affordable to implement by Third World citizens than those of the modern West, technologies which would benefit their users without doing violence to their way of life.

Schumacher's “intermediate technology” has given rise to the distinct, yet related concept of “appropriate technology.” Yet appropriate technology is seen in two rather different ways, depending on whether those who study and seek to implement appropriate technology are working in a Third World or a First World context. This is seen in how appropriate technology is defined in these two contexts, as noted in a Wikipedia article on the subject:

Appropriate technology (AT) is technology that is designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social and economical aspects of the community it is intended for. With these goals in mind, AT typically requires fewer resources, is easier to maintain, has a lower overall cost and less of an impact on the environment compared to industrialized practices.

“In developing nations, the term is usually used to describe simple technologies suitable for use in developing nations or less developed rural areas of industrialized nations. This form of appropriate technology usually prefers labor-intensive solutions over capital-intensive ones, although labor-saving devices are also used where this does not mean high capital or maintenance cost. In practice, appropriate technology is often something described as using the simplest level of technology that can effectively achieve the intended purpose in a particular location. In industrialized nations, the term appropriate technology takes a different meaning, often referring to engineering that takes special consideration of its social and environmental ramifications.”

Note the difference between these two definitions. In plain English, those who speak of appropriate technologies as applied to developing nations are talking about techniques and tools that achieve a desired goal while being simple and cheap, and that don't require a lot of resources. In the rich industrialized world, “appropriate technology” means engineering that produces tools and products that have a positive social and environmental impact. Now it is quite true that tools developed for use in the Third World, under the “appropriate technology” paradigm used in a Third World context, will also have a positive social and environmental impact when used by citizens of the First World – precisely because they are simple and cheap and they don't use a lot of resources. Yet simple, low-tech solutions are frequently overlooked when policy-makers and technologists in the First World discuss the application of “appropriate technology” in a First World context.

Why is this so? I believe it is because we in the First World have gotten used to the idea of “progress” as ever-advancing technological development. And even though our technology has generated our current problems, we still believe that the solution to those problems lies in ever-advancing technology. But ever-increasing technological advancement requires an ever-expanding resource base and a society that is becoming ever-richer because of continual discoveries of new resources. Our trouble is that the resource base of the world is now contracting, having been very efficiently depleted by our global history of industrial “progress.” In short, we can no longer afford a society that depends on ever-expanding technological advancement of the sort to which we have become accustomed.

This fact seems very difficult for citizens of developed nations – especially those of the United States – to swallow. I think this is because the middle and upper classes of the U.S. have enjoyed lives of affluence for so long, and because of our long history as the “richest nation on earth” and our long track record of impressive technological achievements. The road we have taken has led to resource peaks, climate change and economic breakdown, yet we as a nation still think that the solution to these things lies in the further advancement of our technologically-driven way of life. We are as spoiled as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, and we can't seem to grasp the reality that we are not rich anymore and that we will have to seek simpler solutions to our problems.

This is seen in a multitude of ways in the present discussions about potential solutions to climate change and Peak Energy. One example that I want to discuss particularly is the American approach to sustainable building as exemplified in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Rating Systems for Building Construction devised by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC).

The USGBC is a non-profit trade organization founded in 1993 for the purpose of promoting sustainable building design and construction. It has used many tools for achieving this purpose, including education, publications and research; yet its primary method has been its LEED Green Building Rating System, developed in 2000. According to the USGBC, “The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™ encourages and accelerates global adoption of sustainable green building and development practices through the creation and implementation of universally understood and accepted tools and performance criteria.”

The LEED rating systems have been developed for a variety of projects, such as new construction, core-and-shell, tenant improvement, existing building retrofits, schools, health care facilities, and neighborhood development. Those architects, engineers and constructors who want to certify a project under the LEED rating systems must include certain design and construction features in order to earn points for the rating system under consideration. Certification levels range from “Certified” to “Silver” to “Gold,” and lastly, to “Platinum” as the highest rating. Participation in the rating system is entirely voluntary. A LEED certified building or construction project is supposed to save energy and resources, and to have a substantially reduced environmental impact compared to a similar non-certified project.

This is an admirable goal. Yet there is disturbing evidence that in many cases, pursuing LEED certification inflates the cost of building projects, discouraging project owners from pursuing LEED as they struggle to keep their projects within budget. A 2003 study by Northbridge Environmental Management Consultants stated that pursuing LEED certification could add up to eleven percent to a project's total construction cost. A General Services Administration (GSA) study calculated that LEED certification could add up to eight percent to a construction project's cost. Also, LEED-certified buildings are supposed to use up to 42 percent less energy than similar non-LEED buildings, yet there have been recent criticisms that LEED-certified buildings do not actually save significant amounts of energy and water.

I am familiar with a few LEED projects and I can see why these criticisms would be valid. In two of these projects, an architect partnered with a mechanical/electrical/plumbing/structural (MEPS) design team to produce a LEED certified building. The architectural firm spent the majority of the design budget alloted to the entire team, and set out to design an eye-catching architectural “statement” full of expensive materials and finishes, a design which almost completely ignored the laws of physics. Then the design was given to the MEPS team who was told to “make it work.” Of course, much of the MEPS team's effort was devoted to rectifying energy use problems caused by the architectural design and this added further cost to the projects. When the project owners saw the construction cost estimates, they naturally had second thoughts about paying for a “green” building.

Many practitioners of LEED are guilty of even more ridiculous errors, such as siting large building projects on virgin wilderness land, then excusing themselves for their environmental sin by trying to make their project “LEED certified.” There are people who design such oxymorons as a $29 million LEED-certified parking garage recently built in Santa Monica. There are also those who build new housing developments on formerly undeveloped land, yet who seek to use LEED certification to market their homes as “green housing.” There are even people who design and build LEED-Platinum rated McMansions, and who bless themselves afterward for the good they have supposedly done.

LEED is just one example of the typical American mindset that believes that believes we can find a “sustainable,” environmentally friendly way to enjoy ever-increasing technological power and complexity and ever-increasing consumption. In our drive to achieve the goal of “sustainable growth,” we therefore invest in technologies and strategies which actually run counter to our stated objective of sustainability. Instead of installing clotheslines, our households are taught by advertising to want the latest Energy Star appliances. Instead of building super-insulated “passive houses,” we buy furnaces and wood stoves. Instead of riding bicycles, we demand plug-in hybrid cars. Instead of learning to do without much electricity, we want 3 kilowatt PV systems on every home. But like Scarlett O'Hara at the end of the Civil War, we can no longer afford the finer things we have gotten used to.

It is time for us to admit that we're not rich anymore, and to begin to seek more affordable, elegantly simple solutions to our problems. Those who propose tech-intensive, expensive solutions must realize that their solutions will most likely not be implemented by a society that is rapidly becoming poorer. Embracing the “appropriate” technologies now being developed for the Third World would be truly – ah, appropriate.



Kiashu said...

One blogger writes of two kinds of green: designer green, and frugal green.

If you want to use less petrol, you can pay $35,000 to buy a new hybrid, or you can drive half as much.

If you want to drop your energy use by 10%, you can spend $2,500 on an energy-efficient refrigerator, or you can turn off all your appliances at the wall each night.

If you want to avoid supporting unsustainable cotton growing, you can buy certified organic jeans for $200, or you can just buy some old ones for $10 from the op shop.

And so on. It goes on like this. There's lots of talk of all sorts of extremely expensive brand new high tech solutions to our troubles which, we are assured, will get cheaper and be widely available soon, honest.

Me, I'm still waiting for that flying car I was promised as a kid around 1976.

Really I think that the changes ought to begin in our homes and workplaces, and begin with the tools we already have and which we know work well.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. People tend to forget the first one. "Consume less? Isn't that treasonous or something?"

TH in SoC said...

Hey, I wanted a flying car too! The only problem is that as the years have passed, I've grown afraid of flying.

Your observation is a good one. The "designer green" hype is simply an attempt on our part to avoid facing reality. We will all be forced soon to choose "frugal green" instead.

Kiashu said...

Well, I think the designer green stuff is lovely, and I'd use it in a heartbeat. But ninety nine times out of a hundred it never shows up on store shelves and when it does it's stupidly expensive.

So if I want change, I can sit around waiting for that one designer green thing in a hundred that's available and reasonably-priced, or I can just get off my arse and do the frugal green thing.

And what goes for me goes for our country and world. We could wait for algae biofuels or we could just build some more electric trains. We could wait for $1/Watt thin-film transparent organic self-repairing solar or just whack up some wind turbines and drill down some geothermal. And so on.

It reminds me of reading on a permaculture forum, someone asking what sort of home and land they should buy to have a permaculture garden and home. Lots of people gave suggestions, but I said, "the place to start is where you are now."

If you can't grow a tomato on your balcony you can't grow a "food forest" out in the sticks somewhere. If you can't remember to draw the blinds before you go out on a hot day you can't design a house to be passively solar.

Frugal green: reduce, reuse, recycle. The words are in that order for a reason.

Stormchild said...

There is definitely a 'gadgeteer' mentality, and it's greatly encouraged in the States. Keeps us pigeons laying out the cash... and we don't have to play this game either.

Now, I have a serious question, TH.

I am very much a techno-Luddite re 'rich kid toys', and to that extent I'm pretty severely anti e-books. To my curmudgeonly mind, there's no way to improve on the efficiency and low energy consumption of reading a bound, printed text by direct solar energy :-), especially if you buy it used or get it at a library or 'book swap'.

e-books seem to me to foster excessive tech dependence - on batteries, etc. - so that the ostensible convenience is completely negated by the energy consumption, both directly and in terms of cost to manufacture, phony obsolescence [a la DTV, I don't trust any of these bozos for a nanosecond], etc.

p-books don't need a power source, don't require adaptive technology to read [we won't all suddenly be unable to process Garamond font visually merely because publishers now prefer Arial], don't become totally unusable if you drop them or get a drop of water on them, and can last for generations with proper care. However: p-books do consume more storage space per unit of information, and also consume trees [a more renewable source of cellulose could easily fix that]; paper mills pollute both air and water and consume power; etc.

So: am I kidding myself, or is the paper book still the better, greener deal? In terms of technological longevity and resistance to phony obsolescence, it seems to me to be no contest at all.

[Only-partly-sarcastic post script: you have noticed, yes, that all of a sudden paperbacks are getting narrower and taller? And that this inconvenient dimensional change [great, now we have to move all our bookshelves up two inches] is inevitably accompanied by at least a 33% increase in price? Still more phony obsolescence.]

TH in SoC said...

Hi, Stormchild. I appreciate your comment. I think that from the standpoint of the durable, low-energy preservation of information, printed books make better sense. However, there are many valuable and informative e-books being offered for free by various governmental agencies, non-profit groups, NGO's and similar agencies. One example is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' "Whole Building Design Guide" and the publications found there.

P.S. Like you, I ditched television a long time ago.