Visions of a sustainable future are dominated by visions of technology – more and better technologies, transformative machines and smart systems. But there have always been those who take a more sceptical view, and who hold that “there is no product or service more ecologically sound, resource efficient or recyclable than the one we do not use.” Their voices tend to be quieter, since by definition they have nothing to sell.
Here’s one that’s sneaked through, a treatise on a low-technology future from the French author and engineer Philippe Bihouix, a best-seller in France that’s now been translated into English. He argues that the over-developed rich world is headed for a ‘triple dead-end’ of resource depletion, environmental breakdown and inequality. Change is coming, and some of the best ways to build a more sustainable future are unfortunately off the table. The growth imperative forbids anything that might reduce or slow economic growth. Narratives of eternal technological progress obscure the alternative of making do with what we already have. It closes our imagination to the possibility of choosing smaller and simpler over ‘bigger and better’.
Sometimes progress is actually a step backwards for technology, such as promoting cycling as a way of reducing traffic, pollution and carbon emissions. Few would stand at a de-motorised intersection in the Netherlands and say that it was better with the cars. And yet this is a story of de-mechanisation, a return to human power and human scale that is deeply counter-cultural.
What else might we be missing? Bihouix cites all kinds of examples, with varying degrees of seriousness. What do we think about waterless toilets? “The greenest cars should definitely be inspired by the old Citroen model 2CV.” More people should keep pet pigs. And why haven’t we just banned trainers with flashing lights in them?
The author is knowingly contratrian and rather enjoys himself with his suggestions, often made with sarcasm and tongue in cheek. “We didn’t live so badly before we had flat screens in the post offices” Bihouix observes. Or in talking about the repair of household objects, he asks “would the world collapse if we no longer made hammers, but only handles? I’d be curious to see.”
There’s an assumption among people who have never read and don’t want to hear techno-sceptical perspectives that they are worthy and miserable. Bihouix knows this and plays it to his advantage. He might as well say what he likes, “since I am now placed in the category of wet-blanket, killjoy, horribly liberticidal ecologists.”
Another assumption, again from people without an original opinion on the matter, is that advocates of simpler living want to ‘take away’ things from other people. But the discussion is the important thing. “I wish we had asked the question” he says of past technological change, while offering his own ideas as “only pathways, some scaffolding and incomplete reflections.” If we don’t stop to ask questi
ons, the decisions are made for us by others. Do we always want machines to replace jobs? Or are some jobs better done by people, and progress actually lies in re-humanising them? Is mass production overseas always cheaper? Or would we be better served by intelligent re-localising?
You won’t agree with everything in The Age of Low Tech. It’s a provocation, not a manifesto for change. But personally, I found it a smart sideways look at where we are and what we call progress.
- The Age of Low Tech is published by Bristol University Press and you can get it from Earthbound Books UK, or US.