Chris McMahon is a retired Professor of Engineering Design, who continues his role at the University of Bristol as a Senior Research Fellow and Senior Associate Teacher. He is particularly interested in how technology can assist the organisation and management of the information used in design, and in design for a sustainable future. Recently, he has translated best-selling French book, The Age of Low Tech, by Philippe Bihouix.
The Age of Low Tech, challenges the often accepted belief that complex technological solutions (‘high tech’) will solve the climate crisis. Instead, Bihouix highlights this approach relies too heavily on increasingly scarce materials, offering an alternate perspective on how best to build a more resilient and sustainable society.
1. How would you define ‘low’ technology?
‘Low tech’ has a number of meanings. To me, in a literal sense it indicates technologies that are simple, accessible, maintainable and, so far as possible, locally manufacturable. But I also like to think that ‘low tech’ implies a mindset that is discerning in the choices of technologies, trying to choose those that are most appropriate to the circumstances (irrespective of level) and avoiding the assumption that ‘high tech’ is necessarily best.
2. Which ‘high’ technologies do you think will exacerbate the climate crisis the most?
Rather than pick out specific technologies I’d like to make a general point. At the time of COP26 we are thinking very much of the climate crisis, but of course our activities impact upon many other aspects of our ecosystems — resources, water, land and so on. Many ‘high’ technologies are costly in these respects: they demand large quantities of materials and energy in their production, they are very dispersive of those materials because of the way they use them (we struggle, for example, to recycle the critical raw materials used in digital systems), they demand huge land and water resources and so on. Using these technologies at scale to try to maintain growth will bring us up against other planetary boundaries, not just those that feed into the climate crisis. We are unlikely to be able to achieve sustainability without limiting our consumption of resources (which we refer to as a form of resource sobriety).
3. How would you marshal our resources to preserve the planet?
It is important to have a ‘whole systems’ view of the Earth and of our human activities, and to make decisions on the allocation of resources — including the technologies that we use — based on that whole systems view. We should ask what are the energy and resource possibilities (and other limits) imposed by planetary boundaries and then try to design systems that function within those limits. What we seem to be doing now is assuming that we can substitute one high-impact way of living for another, and simply carry on with our industrial societies as before.
4. Are there any words in the French language, describing the climate crisis, that don’t have an English counterpart?
Philippe Bihouix uses the term ‘effet parc’ — literally ‘park effect’ — when he asks how we might ensure, sufficiently quickly, the replacement of existing technologies and the widespread deployment of new technologies. I don’t think we have an exactly equivalent term for a set of things but it seems very relevant to the challenge we face of doing things at scale — how do we deal with the installed collection — the ‘installed park’ — full of poorly insulated houses, heated by gas, or replace our fleet of petrol cars by some alternative?
5. What outcomes do you want to see from COP26?
A recent French government strategy group published a report with the heading ‘Resources: sustainability requires sobriety’ (https://www.strategie.gouv.fr/actualites/ressources-soutenabilite-passe-sobriete), the headlines of which were that ‘green innovation’ alone will not save humanity, that a sustainable use of resources starts with sobriety, and this presupposes that we are able to collectively discuss our needs. I would like to see the recognition by many governments at COP26 that this may be the only way forward.
Buy The Age of Low Tech here.
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