A few weeks ago I reviewed E F Schumacher’s book ‘Good Work‘, his broad critique of industrialised society. It was in this short book, published after his death, that Schumacher explained his notion of ‘appropriate technology’, or ‘intermediate technology’. It’s an idea that has been very influential, mainly in the field of overseas development, but it is ripe for rediscovery in the West as we consider a future after cheap energy.
Appropriate technology was developed as a response to four broad movements in society:
1. “First of all” writes Schumacher, “there is a trend for everything to become bigger and better.” Economies of scale push everything towards bigger units, centralised production, what Schumacher called ‘giantism’.
2. Secondly, everything is becoming more complex. Schumacher amusingly lists striped toothpaste and electric windows as two examples, but his point is serious. Complicated things require complicated (and big) processes to make them, and cannot be fixed when they break.
3. Following from the two trends above, “things have become so capital-costly that you have to already be rich and powerful before you can really do anything.” Large scale industry excludes poorer countries, who end up being dependent on richer ones, and the same principle applies to local entrepreneurs within countries.
4. Finally, extending it’s traditional definition a little, Schumacher identifies a trend towards ‘violence’. Modern industrial society is destructive to nature, to community, and to the human psyche.
In summary, the last hundred years has been a progression of “ever-bigger size, ever-bigger complexity, ever-bigger capital intensity, and ever-bigger violence”.
Naturally, the solution ought to lie in the opposite direction. Everything should be smaller, simpler, cheaper, and non-violent. “Experience shows that whenever you can achieve smallness, simplicity, capital cheapness, and nonviolence, or indeed, any of these objectives, new possibilities are created for people, singly or collectively, to help themselves, and that the patterns that result from such technologies are more humane, more ecological, less dependent on fossil fuels, and closer to real human needs than the patterns (or lifestyles) created by technologies that go for giantism, complexity, capital intensity, and violence.”
Appropriate technology, seeks to develop new technologies that improve on what is already in use, but that mitigate against those four trends. It is often ‘intermediate’, a level of technology between the giant processes of industrial societies, and the traditional methods of agriarian cultures.
The bicycle is the ultimate example: better than walking, but without the giantism, expense, complexity and violence of the automobile. It is accessible to almost anyone, can be easily maintained, and makes a huge difference to those who have gone on foot all their lives. Or you can take the basic bike mechanism and make a butter churn, a cement mixer, or a blade sharpener. The ‘zeer pot’ clay refrigerator is a good example of simple low tech, SolarAid’s solar lantern of simple high-tech.
Practical Action is a charity dedicated to the principles of appropriate technology. It was founded by Schumacher, along with some friends. Their site has countless further examples of simple ingenuity. There is a huge amount of technical information there too, for your own projects. I’ve been reading up on beekeeping…