Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Distasteful Truth

In my post, “Appropriate Technology and The Art Of Being Poor,” I pointed out the role of “appropriate” technologies in addressing the energy, economic and environmental problems the world is now facing. These problems have been caused by large-scale expansion of Western industrialization and Western, hyper-capitalist economies. My point was that the technological solutions being devised for use in the Third World tend to be simple and cheap, and do not require lots of resources. But simple, low-tech solutions are frequently overlooked when policy-makers and technologists in the First World try to devise “appropriate technologies” for First World problems.

This is because we in the First World, and especially in America, can't get used to the idea that we need to live more simply. “Simple living is for poor people!” – or so say many. Too many of us still believe that we are entitled to a high-tech lifestyle, replete with all the things anyone might want, and that if that lifestyle is threatened by environmental or energy crises, at least we deserve the best, most high-tech solution to such a problem. Too many of us can't swallow the distasteful truth that we have become a poorer nation and a poorer world, and that we're going to have to start learning to live decently as poor people.

I saw a couple of examples of this over the last several days. First, the State of California recently decided to undertake construction of a high-speed rail line running from San Diego through Sacramento and San Francisco. This initiative began as a proposition written by the state government and approved by California voters during the last election. The post-election statement from the California High-Speed Rail Authority reads as follows:

History will remember this night, when Californians demanded a new transportation system for California's 21st century travel needs. Thanks to tonight’s vote, a state-of-the-art, new transportation choice will link every major city in the state and move people and products like never before. The citizens of California have put the 21st century golden spike in the ground with a clear affirmation of high-speed trains.”

Notice the words, “state-of-the-art.” The statement goes on to say more about technological advance, job growth and economic stimulation due to the high-speed rail project. (You can read the whole thing here:

The only problem is that the California High Speed Rail Authority may be running out of money. Their budget for the current fiscal year was to be financed partly by the sale of state bonds. But because of the present economic crisis and the state's existing debt, nobody's buying the bonds. (Source: In fact, if you look at the High Speed Rail website, you'll learn that the entire $9.95 billion project is to be funded by the sale of bonds.

An economy faced with declining resource availability can't easily expand its debt load, yet this is what California is trying to do in order to obtain the finest rail line that money can buy. Now I have nothing against high-speed rail – but I don't think they can afford it. I have a better suggestion.

I used to work at a company that sent me from Southern California to San Jose on a few occasions. I hate flying, so I took Amtrak. (This was right around the time I started bicycle commuting.) From the Fullerton station to the San Jose Diridon station, the trip took 12 hours. In order to make it to my afternoon meeting in San Jose on time, I had to be at the Fullerton station at midnight, catch an Amtrak bus, ride to some place out in farm country (don't ask me where, I usually was quite foggy-headed by then), and catch a train to San Luis Obispo. Then I caught another bus which arrived in San Jose around noon. Now that I have moved, if I want to go from Portland to Los Angeles via Amtrak, it takes 29 hours.

Yet these trains can and do travel at over 80 miles an hour already. If we simply fixed the train system we've already got, a person could go from Los Angeles to San Jose or Sacramento in five or six hours, or could go from Los Angeles to Portland in thirteen hours. Fixing what we have would save money and is easily achievable, whereas the shiny and new, though sexy, is unattainable. But our leaders refuse to get this.

There is another psychological problem with simple, cheap, low-resource appropriate technology. High-tech, complex solutions requiring lots of capital are usually the province of First World scientists and corporations. But simple, resource-light, cheap low-tech technologies can be devised by anyone who is observant and can think logically. This means that low-tech appropriate technologies can be devised by citizens of Third World countries. This another thing that many in the First World find very hard to swallow.

A case in point is the pot-in-pot refrigerator (or Zeer, in Arabic). It was invented by Mohammed Bah Abba, a Nigerian teacher, in 1995, and is a very simple device consisting simply of a clay pot placed within a larger clay pot with wet sand between the pots and a wet cloth on top. Mr, Bah Abba was awarded a Rolex Laureate prize in 2000 for his invention, which is able to preserve fresh vegetables for up to three weeks at a temperature of around 15 degrees C. (Sources:,,

Fast forward to 2009 and you may find a recent surprising news article about “an amazing solar-powered fridge invented by (a) British student in a potting shed (that) helps poverty-stricken Africans.” (Source: Upon reading the article, one quickly discovers that this “amazing invention” is nothing more than a variation on Mr. Bah Abba's “pot-in-pot” refrigerator, with practically the same performance! According to the Daily Mail article cited above, this girl's invention is “now improving the lives of thousands of poverty-stricken Africans” who evidently were not clever enough to come up with such a device on their own, and who just happened to be rescued by benevolent European masters with their incredible scientific insights. It must just be a coincidence that the girl came up with the idea for her invention while working on a school project in her grandfather's potting shed. By the way, no mention is made of Mr. Bah Abba in the article. Also note that this girl's invention requires a specially machined metal cylinder, while the original pot-in-pot is...just two clay pots!

This failure to accept our coming poverty and to properly acknowledge the inventiveness and ideas of the global South and of the Third World is going to cost many people in the First World dearly as resource constraints increasingly deprive the First World of its technological edge, and the hubris of the First World causes many people to labor at reinventing wheels that were available all along to anyone with an ounce of humility.

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