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Survival Of The Most Symbiotic
New ways of looking at technology and progress through Low-Tech & Lo-TEK
In a recent LinkedIn post of mine I made this point:
Electric Cars, Carbon Capture, CO2 Recycling, Battery Tech.... We are too focused on complicated, resource-intensive, and often difficult to recycle high-tech solutions to combat the climate crisis.
Why aren’t we focusing more on Low-Tech?
As this post went relatively viral, I realized this newsletter needs to explore not just any perspective shift or any new world, but actually help you all see the unspoken, hidden, neglected, underestimated and unexplored worlds and worldviews that can truly help us build a more regenerative and equitable world.
I believe Low-Tech and also Lo-TEK (more on this later) are such neglected, hidden perspectives. They provide an alternative mindset to the High-Tech narrative which tells the story that endless growth and convenience are possible if we only continue to develop evermore, sophisticated technologies. It’s basically the fascination and evolution of industrialism and a simplistic vision of a world in which technology can fix all problems while business as usual can continue. Moreover, it’s the idea that high-tech is the only and most advanced technology.
“‘We live in a society that believes in techno-solutionism’, Philippe Bihouix says. Citizens believe in a future where high-tech innovations and their positive outcomes will create a world where everything is more energy-efficient: smart grids, renewable energies, driverless cars will keep revolutionizing the world and will save the planet and its climate.
This faith in progress has been a driving force since the industrial revolution, but countries have come to realize the finiteness of natural resources such as oil: can we really resolve problems that were caused by the rise of industrial and technological progress with the same processes?”
- via Climate Foresight
What if we flip the switch? What if we ask: Which technology is best or most advanced when it comes to creating systems in symbiosis with the natural world? Technologies that enable a regenerative world? Does high-tech still hold up? Or do we have to look somewhere else for better alternatives?
LOW-TECH - Living Better with Less
It’s funny when you look at the criteria for Low-Tech, because they really fit perfectly with what we direly need in today’s world:
accessibility (minimal capital investments needed)
extremely resource efficient
simple to learn and copy-paste
adaptable, durable and easily repairable
encourages social connections and community
I also really like Low-Tech Lab’s simple definition:
So what are some interesting examples and ideas of Low-Tech?
“From the sixteenth to the twentieth century, urban farmers grew Mediterranean fruits and vegetables as far north as England and the Netherlands, using only renewable energy. [….] These crops were grown surrounded by massive ‘fruit walls"‘ which stored the heat from the sun and released it at night, creating a microclimate that could increase the temperature by more than 10°C. Later, greenhouses built against the fruit walls further improved yields from solar energy alone.
It was only at the very end of the nineteenth century that the greenhouse turned into a fully glazed and artificially heated building where heat is lost almost instantaneously -- the complete opposite of the technology it evolved from.”
“Take organic waste—from kitchen scraps to waste paper, shell husks to dog doo—heat, add to soil, and presto: we have an instant climate solution, no strings attached.
Mixing biochar—a black, porous material similar to charcoal—into soil slows global warming in two ways: First, by trapping the carbon in the organic material and preventing it from escaping as methane when that matter would decay; and second, by enriching the soil and fostering the growth of plants that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
The International Biochar Initiative estimates that we could offset at least one billion tonnes of carbon annually by 2030. Farmers in the Amazon created biochar with old-fashioned fire more than 500 years ago, and the soils they enriched hold up to 70 times more carbon today than non-enriched soils.”
“Using ancient windcatcher towers designed to allow external cool air to flow through rooms lets buildings be cooled using much less energy than air conditioning. Windcatchers come in various designs: unidirectional, bidirectional, and multidirectional. Windcatchers are widely used in North Africa and in the West Asian countries around the Persian Gulf, and have been there for the past three thousand years.
Generally, the cost of construction for a windcatcher-ventilated building is less than that of a similar building with conventional heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. The maintenance costs are also lower. Unlike powered air-conditioning and fans, windcatchers are silent and continue to function when the electrical grid power fails (a particular concern in places where grid power is unreliable and expensive).”
Yes, right: “Baskets have been replaced by plastic and other kinds of factory-made containers in almost every area of life, appearing today mainly as twee Easter decorations. Making them has become synonymous with wasting time – #basket-weaving# in the USA is slang for an easy lesson for slow students.
The craft of basketry, however, might be one of our species’ most important and diverse technologies, creating homes, boats, animal traps, armour, tools, cages, hats, chariots, weirs, beehives, shelters and furniture, as well as all manner of containers. Basket weaving makes use of fast-growing biodegradable materials -- branches, twigs or shoots -- that requires the forest to be cultivated rather than cleared. Basketry allows almost anyone, with little or no money and few tools, to create a large variety of useful goods in a way that is one hundred percent sustainable.”
“Architects all over the world have demonstrated the usefulness of buildings which are heated and cooled by design rather than by fossil fuel energy. What has received much less attention, however, is the possibility of applying this approach to entire urban neighbourhoods and cities. […] Modern research, which combines ancient knowledge with fast computing techniques, shows that passive solar cities are a realistic option, allowing for surprisingly high population densities.
Passive solar design requires the knowledge to design and orientate buildings so that they can be heated by the sun. […] Knowles developed and refined a method that strikes an optimal balance between population density and solar access: the "Solar Envelope". It is a set of imaginary boundaries, enclosing a building site, that regulate development in relation to the sun's motion -- which is predictable throughout the seasons for any place on Earth.”
“Imagine a personal heating system that works indoors as well as outdoors, can be taken anywhere, requires little energy, and is independent of any infrastructure. It exists – and is hundreds of years old. The hot water bottle could save a great deal of energy and money without sacrificing thermal comfort.” Read the full article and get hot-water-bottle pilled. 😉
“Oven stoves are greener, more efficient, healthier, safer and cosier than all modern heating systems. Why are they gone and how do we get them back?
An oven stove is a very efficient and robust oven that radiates heat all day. […] in Europe the technology is almost one thousand years old.
[…] The most essential feature of an oven stove is that it is made out of some kind of stone or brick, while all our modern heating appliances are made of steel. Metal heats up fast, but it also cools down just as quickly. Therefore, a metal heating appliance has to be fuelled almost continuously. […]
Thanks to the high output, a modest masonry oven stove (heating a room of 60 square meters) only needs 6 cubic meters of wood per year: one tree. If you have even a small garden, you can easily fuel your oven stove by means of your own cuttings – thin wood is very well suited for tile stoves, although it needs to be dry enough.”
“Before the Industrial Revolution, people adjusted their energy demand to a variable energy supply. Our global trade and transport system -- which relied on sail boats -- operated only when the wind blew, as did the mills that supplied our food and powered many manufacturing processes.
The same approach could be very useful today, especially when improved by modern technology. In particular, factories and cargo transportation -- such as ships and even trains -- could be operated only when renewable energy is available. Adjusting energy demand to supply would make switching to renewable energy much more realistic than it is today.”
Quite interesting, right? Well, wait till you hear about Lo TEK:
Lo-TEK - Radical Indigenism
I mentioned it in the beginning of this issue already, but while it sounds similar, Lo TEK is a slightly different concept as it focuses on TEK: traditional ecological knowledge.
Julia Watson an architect and environmentalist from Harvard University coined the term through her research and her book. Her work demonstrates that we have a very simplistic and narrow view of technology and that tribal communities, seen by many (especially Western societies) as primitive, are actually highly advanced when it comes to creating systems in symbiosis with the natural world.
"These [Lo-TEK] indigenous infrastructures expand the definition of contemporary technology. They are local, inexpensive, handmade, and easily constructed soft systems, embedded with traditional ecological knowledge, practices, and beliefs.
Lo-TEK counters the idea that indigenous innovation is primitive and exists apart from technology. An emergent term, calling to mind the common phrase “low-tech,” Lo-TEK rethreads the fabric of innovation, rewrites the mythology of technology, and reconceives the primitive as innovative.”
- via Common Edge
Here are two really cool examples of Lo-TEK (the text is from a Dezeen interview with Julia):
Wastewater Aquaculture in East Kolkata
“The case study that I think people understand the most succinctly is the East Kolkata wetlands, which is a sewage wastewater treatment system in Kolkata. It was born a few hundred years ago […] from a group of Bengalese farmers who were living on the outskirts of Kolkata, which is now a city of 12 million.
A lot of the sewage from Kolkata goes into a system that leads to this wetland, and they put it through a series of processes. They have settling ponds and they have ponds where they introduce fish. It's a really large system of wetlands that is completely manmade and run by village cooperatives. They're cleaning wastewater and producing vegetables for the city, while saving millions of dollars a year compared to the operating costs of an actual sewage treatment plant.
It's actually cleaning half of the sewage coming out of a city of 12 million people, every single day. You can see that that application on the periphery of a city like New York or London, if there was municipal will and a real mind-shift towards nature-based technologies.”
The Kihamba of the Chagga in Tanzania
“Another system is at the base of the southern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The Chagga is one of the richest, most-educated communities in Tanzania, in that part of Africa. They have what they call the kihamba, which is a banana plantation that takes you can two and a half hours to drive through. It's the size of Los Angeles, this area of land.
They've got an estimated 500 species in that forest that retains the original forest canopy, but they've introduced about 250 new species of productive bananas, coffee and different plant species. They've managed to figure out a way to retain the complexity of the natural rainforest but also integrate a really complex agroforestry system that is incredibly productive, which has made them one of the most economically advanced communities in that region.”
Watch Julia Watson’s TED Talk to see more examples with amazing images, some also linked to climate adaptation.
As I finish this issue on my rather high-tech MacBook Pro, wearing my new noise cancelling headphones, I wanna end this by saying that this is, of course, not about rejecting High-Tech. It’s more about looking at High-Tech in a different way. Low-Tech and Lo-TEK give us new ways of looking at and defining technology and progress which is exactly what we need in today’s world:
“Our global survival is dependent on our thinking shifting from ‘survival of the fittest’ to ‘survival of the most symbiotic’ as a critical first step.”
- Julia Watson
If you wanna dive deeper into low-tech and lo-tek, I recommend you to have a look at these resources:
The Low Tech Magazine with lots more examples and ideas
Low Tech is the new High Tech via Climate Foresight
That’s it for this week!