Clockwise from top: Solar oven and dryer at Bethel Business and Community Development Centre, Lesotho; Nature Loo Classic–Palisade Option–Outloo; Joel Meadows with his rocket water heater.
Western societies have been enthralled by technology since the beginning of the industrial revolution. From mechanised looms to 3D printers, technology has lifted people out of poverty, increased life expectancy, freed us from menial work, reduced pain and suffering, and helped us to see the world in new and illuminating ways. However, technology is a two-edged sword, for it has also brought pollution, extinctions, an exploding human population, unemployment and, of course, the warming of our planet.
A permaculture approach to technology is more like the ‘slow food’ movement than the high-tech, cutting edge of modern industry. It is technology that works for us, not enslaving us to it. It is technology that connects us to our place and community. It is beautiful and enhances our lives. It is more like a long, slow lunch with friends than a drive-through takeaway.
EF Schumacher is credited with first using the term ‘appropriate technology’, in his influential book Small Is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered (Blond and Briggs 1973), though he leaned toward the term ‘intermediate technology’. I prefer ‘appropriate’ as it suggests there is a right size, a right scale, a right cost for technology. Appropriate technologies are those that hit a sweet spot where these things are aligned.
We are often presented with a picture of technology being a great unfolding: from simple and primitive, through to hightech and complex; ever growing and ever improving. But this is not always the case: most types of technology have sweet spots – points in their development that just seem to work well – and any attempts to improve them have little overall impact. A classic example is the bicycle.
Two-wheeled human conveyances have been around since the 1820s, but when the ‘safety bicycle’ (diamond frame, two matching-sized wheels, chain drive) emerged in the 1880s a sweet spot was hit. The design worked: it matched the human body with a technology that produced an efficiency – energy expended to distance travelled – that is still unmatched by any other form of transport. Bicycles might look like they’ve changed in the last 130 years (they have got faster), but the core of the safety bicycle design is still there, and little improvement in overall efficiency has been achieved.
This is not to say that there is only one ‘appropriate’ technology that must be rolled out globally. Permaculture principles call us to ‘observe and interact’ with our place and our conditions, so technology must be locally adapted and locally appropriate. Although the basic bicycle design might remain, an ‘appropriate bike’ for us and our place should be: made from locally sourced materials, geared to suit the local typography, fitted with tyres suited to the local terrain, lubricated with locally sourced oils and greases, and fitted with attachments suited to the load being carried or work being done.
HOW TO MEASURE ‘APPROPRIATE’
So, how do we divine the appropriate from the inappropriate in selecting and using technology? How do we go about finding sweet spots? Here are some criteria by which we might assess a prospective technology.
We should check that any technology we are considering is based on a renewable resource base, and a renewable source of energy. ‘Use and value renewable resources and services’ and ‘catch and store energy’ aren’t just useful sayings; they underpin thinking that will move technology from destructive and unsustainable to life-affirming and stable.
Appropriate technology will make good use of those renewable resources and energies that are locally available. It will use resources or energy from outside the local area sparingly.
Warning: be careful with the term ‘renewable’, as much that is labelled as such by the ‘renewable energy industry’ doesn’t tick all – or any – of the boxes on the appropriate technology checklist. For example, adding lots of photovoltaic panels to a house to run a big spa bath doesn’t make it appropriate.
Schumacher says ‘small is beautiful’, and David Holmgren says ‘use small and slow solutions’, yet both acknowledge that the real answer is not ‘small for small’s sake’, but the right scale for the people and place. Scale is critical in defining appropriate technology, yet there are no absolute numbers for defining size or scale. The best measure we have is our bodies.
Before the advent of lifts, buildings generally weren’t built over three stories high, not because people lacked the engineering skills to go higher, but because buildings became un-livable when occupants had to climb more than two flights of stairs to get from street level to home or work. This was human scale defining and limiting technology.
When we let our bodies define what works well, the human scale becomes a potent tool in designing and choosing appropriate technology.
Locally repairable, locally manufactured
Appropriate technology should be at least locally repairable, and preferably made within the bioregion it’s used in. Much modern technology is disposable, with only a few older technologies being repairable. However, repairable technologies form an essential part of a stable, local economy; providing a range of jobs at different skill levels within communities.
Freeing and empowering
Good technology frees us from being mindless consumers, trapped in a capitalist feedlot where products come in, and (often pointless) work and money go out.
When we grow and capture energy and resources that are locally available we become not only more self-reliant and resilient, but the products are more valuable to our community; less subject to price fluctuations, supply chains or internationally traded commodities.
This is truly empowering technology, but it’s not always easy. It’s often time- and labour-intensive, and requires us to understand the system and technology being used.
WHAT DOES APPROPRIATE TECHNOLOGY LOOK LIKE?
Some of the best examples of appropriate technology are very simple and common; others are innovative and newly emerging. Let’s have a look at a few of these technologies in more detail.
Good design and building
In temperate regions, passive solar design for houses can allow winter sun through north facing windows, and store that energy in the thermal mass of the house. In summer, eaves, pergolas or blinds can exclude the higher angle of the sun, and keep the mass cool, assisted by evening ventilation. Good design adds little or no extra to building costs, and allows a house to run with virtually no additional heating or cooling.
Using local and natural building materials, and local skills and labour, keeps the non-renewable energy inputs of the building down, and also helps to build local skills and economy.
Rocket stoves use a few simple physical principles to get close to full combustion of wood for clean, efficient heat production. Rocket stoves can be used: to cook food, heat water and warm houses; and in almost any application where heat is needed.
Rocket stoves allow small pieces of wood, usually not regarded as acceptable firewood, to be the main fuel source, reducing the energy used in harvesting, stacking and chopping wood. When coupled with solar building design, solar hot water and solar cooking, firewood requirements can be very small and manageable.
Rocket stoves are not complicated to make, and simple units made from reclaimed bricks with cob are often made in just a few hours. Higher-end units, made from steel or firebricks, are not hard to manufacture in a moderately equipped shed, and provide a great local enterprise opportunity.
Solar hot water
The sun’s energy can be converted into hot water with pretty basic technology. The flatbed solar hot water collector has been around for over 100 years and is still a fantastic way to heat water. Though slightly less efficient that the more hightech evacuated tube, flatbed panels can be manufactured easily in small-scale workshops, and are easy to repair and maintain over a very long lifespan.
Coupled with gravity tanks (another renewable energy source) and wood-boosting, a solar hot water system can meet year-round hot water needs, while having no moving parts and being entirely powered by renewable resources.
Any biological material, but particularly high-nitrogen content material such as leafy plant matter or manure, can be decomposed in water anaerobically to generate methane. This can be done in a simple barrel, a converted septic system or a purpose built digester. Often the biogas is scrubbed of its impurities (hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide) until it’s close to pure methane, which can then be stored uncompressed in a gasometer (gas storage tank or bladder), or compressed into bottles. It’s very similar in heating character to natural gas.
Methane can be used for a range of household needs: cooking, water and space heating; running an internal combustion engine to generate electricity, or directly in a vehicle or machine.
Although it is easy to produce biogas (ever made compost tea?), it’s a good deal more complicated to scrub it, store it and use it at about the rate you make it. However, biogas is an appropriate way to begin green gas generation, and has a long and proven track record in Indian and Chinese villages.
Solar cooking and dehydrating
The sun’s energy can also be converted into heat for cooking or dehydrating food. This can be as simple as using a box or tray out in the sun, through to concentrator lenses or dishes that focus the sun’s energy to boil water or even fry food. Solar cookers can be relatively simple to make from local and salvaged materials, or can get pretty complicated: yet another great local enterprise opportunity. Don’t forget your sunglasses!
Composting toilets and compost heating
Toilet technology is not often considered important by people living in sewered areas. However, learning to manage and make best use of human waste is critical away from large infrastructure, and if we are serious about avoiding waste and cycling nutrients.
‘Humanure’ style hot-composting systems reduce the risk of human pathogen contamination, while turning human waste into a valuable resource for gardens. Humanure systems are simple, and important if we are to retain nutrients in our systems.
The heat generated by a hot compost pile can also be a source of energy; for example, using a coil of pipe through the pile to heat water for washing or space heating, or direct heating for greenhouse growing beds.
When technology is sourced from our place, powered by local energy, scaled and refined to fit our needs, and frees us from costly or destructive consumption, it is much better suited to support us to live well on this planet.
For more information go to – www.AlternativeTechnology.com.au. This website empowers others to transform miscellaneous bits of junk into kick-ass appropriate technology solutions. Our next workshop is our five-day Alt-Tech Intensive where you learn alternative solutions to all basic technology needs and then use them as part of the course and venue. Whether it’s compost-power showers, rocket oven bake offs or windmill-powered water supplies, we will be living and breathing the systems from a user as well as a builder’s perspective. 19–23 October 2016, Yandoit Farm, Victoria: www.alternativetechnology.com.au/workshops/