Appropriate Technology: What’s “Appropriate”?

Many people assume that low-footprint living entails a rejection of technology, but that’s not true at all.

In fact, some technologies are enabling people to radically reduce their footprint. Skype and other teleconferencing software, which has allowed workers and companies to pare their travel overhead, comes to mind, as does educational software for online learning.

Social media, and the internet in general, has been an enormous boon to permaculture design and other grassroots movements, allowing them to spread like a beneficial virus.

Rather than reject technology, a better approach is to be very discerning about which technologies we use and which we try to minimize or eliminate. In permaculture design, we use the phrase “appropriate technology.”

At the end of this post I provide a link to a succinct article on appropriate technology, from Permaculture News. Here’s a brief excerpt: “There are no universally appropriate technologies because we live in a diverse world where different contexts affect the ‘appropriateness’ of each place. Agrarian author Wes Jackson states that nature must be our measure of what is right and correct for each place. We would add that the realities of the community where we live should also be an important factor regarding how we are to live in our places.”

Sometimes what seems like technological progress can be damaging to the social or economic fabric of a place. In permaculture design class we learned about a village where the old village well was replaced by pipes and indoor running water. Of course most people would call this a positive development. But it turns out the village well, where the young women went to fetch the family’s water, was not only the water source but also was the vehicle for young men and women to meet and court. Many “old” technologies serve multiple functions in this manner, and when they are replaced by the more advanced “new” ones, unexpected consequences arise.

A technology that’s appropriate in one place may be destructive in another place. Recently I heard of an extremely powerful lift that allows a truck to be loaded or unloaded in a fraction of the time that it would take human laborers to do. Deployed in a disaster area overseas, it garnered much praise; the volunteers and military personnel found their workload reduced. But was the labor savings such a good thing for the locals, who might otherwise have been hired to do the work of unloading the trucks?

Sometimes, people assume that low-tech is only for people in “poor” countries, and only until they can “graduate” to the more advanced technology. Few people would dispute that a solar oven can be a godsend to a village in a less-developed country, where people (generally women and children) must walk miles each day to gather fuelwood, and where respiratory ailments from indoor wood fires are rampant. But not as many people realize that a solar oven can also be a godsend in a wealthy industrialized nation, where the conventional energy source for cooking (electricity or gas) seems perfectly clean on the user end, but is wreaking large-scale destruction on air, water, and land in some remote location conveniently far from our own backyard.

Perhaps my favorite example of a technology that’s universally appropriate, is the compost toilet. The standard modern practice of using fresh, drinkable water as a vehicle for flushing away “waste” is becoming more and more unworkable. Our modern sewer infrastructure is expensive, and when it fails, it fails big. Compost toilets are a household-scale alternative that uses almost no water; requires no plumbing or electricity; and produces a valuable product: compost! In short, compost toilets are appropriate in places where little or no sanitation infrastructure exists; AND in places where the infrastructure is costly, and fails big when it fails.

Once you familiarize yourself with a few basics, a compost toilet system is simple to use, and anyone can make one using readily available tools and materials. It’s much cheaper and less failure-prone than a flush toilet – imagine never needing to hire a plumber, or fuss with a flush toilet valve. Unfortunately compost toilets have not yet gained widespread acceptance, and there are legal restrictions in some places. But if this topic sparks your interest, then I would say start learning about it and get started as circumstances allow. If nothing else, you’ll gain the skills to simply and safely manage household sanitation, and maybe even sanitation for your whole neighborhood, in the event that a hurricane or other disaster should cause the water and/or electricity grid to go down.

The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins (see link below) is the best book I know on compost toilets. There are lots of great YouTube videos out there as well; one is linked below. Enjoy!

Further Exploration
This article from Permaculture News aptly sums up what defines appropriate technology. Note how the endeavor of digging the pond became a rewarding, ongoing family project rather than requiring expensive professionals and large mechanized equipment.
The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins. Winner of the Independent Publisher 2000 Outstanding Book of the Year Award, deemed “the book most likely to save the planet!” … The Humanure Handbook is listed in my book DEEP GREEN as an essential resource for low-footprint living.
YouTube video on composting humanure.

Obtain a Yield! Turning Problems into Bonuses

Problem: My roomie’s shampoo bottle, which he’s ready to throw away with shampoo still in the bottom because it’s pretty much impossible to get all the shampoo out.

Conventional solution: Just toss it in the trash! (We don’t do that around here.)

“Green” solution: Rinse it out and put it in the recycling bin. (But if I did that, I would end up having to use a lot of water to rinse out the bottle, because you know how much water it takes to rinse all the shampoo or detergent out of a bottle!)

Permaculture solution: Obtain a yield! I added water to the shampoo bottle and swished it around, creating a soapy liquid which can be used to clean household surfaces such as bathroom tile or toilet bowl. Usually I just use baking soda and/or vinegar to clean my toilet, but it doesn’t hurt every once in a while to have something a little stronger to squirt onto the tile or into the bowl, such as detergent (which is what shampoo is, it’s detergent for your hair). The shampoo bottle with the water added is good for 2-3 toilet cleanings. And at that point, the bottle really will be empty and require no more rinsing (or if it does, I’ll use THAT soapy water as a cleaning solution until the bottle is clean enough to put in the recycling bin).

Another option, of course, is to just use the diluted shampoo as shampoo! It actually works great. Same with diluted dish liquid. I can make a small bottle of dish liquid last for months.

Obtaining a yield – turning a problem into a bonus – is a great way to reduce your footprint while gaining personal benefit. “Obtain a yield” is also one of my favorite principles of permaculture design. If you look around your home and office, you can probably find many ways to obtain a yield from what appears at first to be a “problem.” Pizza-boxes and vegetable peelings become food for earthworms in the compost bin, creating rich soil. “Weeds” in the yard turn out to be edible, nutritious vegetables that grow for free and don’t need watering! What other examples can you think of?

Greening the Desert

“Most deserts are manmade.” — One of my favorite quotes from rainwater harvesting expert Brad Lancaster. The flipside good news is, deserts can be transformed back into lush fertile land by the same species that created them! Check out #GreeningTheDesert Geoff Lawton; #HarvestingRainwater Brad Lancaster; #GreywaterOasis Art Ludwig.

The photo at the top shows an example of human-induced desertification in my city (where we get about 49 inches of rainfall annually!). Fortunately it’s easy to fix this. Add mulch, and plants. Notice in the second photo, the lush belt of tall grasses and other plants in the background behind the mowed area. The plants pictured here are naturally occurring and drought-tolerant. My name for dense belts, clumps, and borders of low-maintenance vegetation is “puffy landscaping.” Not only is puffy landscaping pretty; it’s also good for drought-resistance, flood control, heat-island mitigation, and erosion control among other things.

If you really love and use your lawn, that’s fine, but consider letting the grass grow a bit more between cuttings. Just a block away from the dismal over-mowed lot where I took the first picture, my neighbor’s lawn grows lush and green with no fertilizer and minimal irrigation, simply because she lets it grow about 4″ high instead of scalping it.

The steps we take to address desertification can also mitigate the negative consequences of urban sprawl and development. If you’re a person who loves trees and wildlife, it’s all too easy to sink into despair in the face of development’s relentless march. Big-box stores; multi-lane roads; vast parking lots. But (in addition to getting organized and vocal) there’s something else that you and I as everyday citizens can do to help mitigate the impacts of over-pavement. We can nurture more of a forest or prairie environment in our yards. Natives, edibles, trees, tall grasses. Reverse the de-vegetation trend! Start a grass-roots urban re-forestation movement! Another term I’ve coined, along with “puffy landscaping,” is “infill forestation.”