I’ve just published a new Simplicity Institute Report, co-authored with Paul Yacoumis, entitled “Low-Tech Living as a “Demand-Side” Response to Climate Change and Peak Oil”. I’ve posted the abstract and the introduction below and the full essay is freely available here.
LOW-TECH LIVING AS A ‘DEMAND-SIDE’ RESPONSE TO CLIMATE CHANGE AND PEAK OIL
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication
Samuel Alexander and Paul Yacoumis
Abstract: Energy is often called the ‘lifeblood’ of civilisation, yet the overconsumption of fossil energy lies at the heart of two of the greatest challenges facing humanity today: climate change and peak oil. While transitioning to renewable energy systems is an essential ‘supply side’ strategy in response to climate change and peak oil, the extent of the problems and the speed at which decarbonisation must occur means that there must also be a ‘demand side’ response. This means consuming much less energy not just ‘greening’ supply, at least in the most developed regions of the world. In that context, this paper provides an energy analysis of various ‘low tech’ options – such as solar shower bags, solar ovens, washing lines, and cycling – and considers the extent to which these types of ‘simple living’ practices could reduce energy consumption if widely embraced. We demonstrate that low-tech options provide a very promising means of significantly reducing energy (and water) consumption.
1. TECHNOLOGY FETISHISM
All problems have hi-tech solutions. This is one of the defining assumptions of our technocratic, industrial civilisation, and yet it is an assumption that seems to be failing on its own terms. As the world continues to celebrate the most ‘advanced’ and ‘profitable’ technologies, we find our ecosystems being degraded and our communities fragmented more so now than ever before. Unfortunately, it seems that technology often just helps us get better at doing the wrong things, or the right things in unnecessarily harmful, energy-intensive ways.
Without denying the obvious benefits of many advanced technologies – such as the Internet, medical procedures, labour-saving machinery, etc. – humanity must nevertheless develop a more critical understanding of the costs of our technologies, costs that are often hidden or indirect, escaping our notice as we marvel at the latest invention. It is naïve to think that advanced technologies can solve all societal problems, and yet this naivety permeates contemporary understandings of what ‘progress’ and ‘sustainable development’ mean (Huesemann and Huesemann, 2011). The most pernicious consequence of this blind faith in technology is that it deflects attention away from the need to rethink our lifestyles, our economic structures, or our systems of governance, because it is assumed that technology will solve our problems without the perceived inconvenience of having to change the way we live. In this light, technology becomes an ethical void, one in which our societies are expected to become just and sustainable, without us having to live justly or sustainably ourselves. Even ethical problems are assumed to have hi-tech rather than behavioural solutions. This is techno-fetishism.
But what is technology? Technology can be defined simply as any tool, invention, technique, or design that assists in achieving certain goals. It follows that even the most primitive human societies were, in a sense, technological. The prehistoric tribes that used fragments of stone to create axes were developing technology, just as the engineers that design spacecraft today are. Technology is a broad term, therefore, and so it makes no sense to be either for or against technology without stating what types of technology are being considered. Moreover, technology can only be judged according to some goal or end that the technology is supposed to help us achieve. A technology may be very good at achieving a certain goal, but if the goal is dubious or comes at too great a cost, then the technology’s appropriateness is questionable, no matter how effectively or efficiently it achieves that goal. In fact, when the goal is misconceived, the effectiveness or efficiency of a technology is more of a flaw than a feature.
Technology, in short, is a means to an end. This calls on us to assess the ends that our technologies are serving, and not merely get lost admiring the often dazzling means. As Henry Thoreau said: ‘Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end’ (Thoreau, 1982: 306). Granted, we have become very good at cutting down rainforests and emptying the oceans in the pursuit of economic growth and more affluent lifestyles, using machinery and techniques that would have amazed earlier generations. It is not clear, however, whether all such inventions have been a positive advance. Just because we can do something does not mean that we should.
Have our communities, for example, been enriched by Facebook? Or is there more alienation today than ever before? Should the development and refinement of ‘fracking’ techniques be considered progress? Or are they merely feeding an addiction to fossil fuels and hastening climate disruption? Instead of saying that all problems have hi-tech solutions, perhaps it would be closer to the truth to say that many of our greatest problems have hi-tech causes. At least, advanced technology has allowed our misguided ethics to devastate the biosphere in unprecedented ways. As we continue to degrade our planet ever more efficiently, and live in the shadow of nuclear weapons that still threaten to turn on us, homo sapiens may come to be described as the species that was more clever than wise; the species that chose to destroy the foundations of its own existence, spellbound by its own technological power but lacking the maturity to wield it responsibly.
Despite the ominous dark side of many of our inventions, many people still think that the problems we face are not because of too much advanced technology, but too little (see, e.g., Nordaus and Schellenberger, 2011). Entranced by the many wonderful inventions that have genuinely advanced the human situation, techno-optimists think that all our problems therefore must have hi-tech solutions (for a critique, see Alexander, 2014a). Geo-engineering is perhaps the most perverse example of this techno-fetish – a so-called ‘solution’ to climate change that risks causing greater problems without necessarily stabilising the climate (see generally, Hamilton, 2013). But geo-engineering is merely an extreme example of a more insidious and generalised zeitgeist. The underlying assumption, once more, is that we do not need to change our ways of living or capitalist structures to solve our environmental and social ills. Instead, it is assumed that we must simply get better at forcing nature to do what she is told through the application of technology within a market-based society.
In an age so enamoured with hi-tech thinking, any consideration of low-tech solutions – which are the focus of this essay – will immediately be dismissed by some as being ‘Luddite’. By ‘low-tech’ we refer to things such as cooking with solar ovens, showering under solar shower bags, drying clothes on a washing line, keeping warm with a woollen jumper rather than a heater, even using a bike instead of driving. Regrettably, it is often considered an affront to human ingenuity to think that we cannot solve all problems with technological innovation and application. Low-tech is reproached as being primitive or ‘just for hippies’. But could it be that various low-tech options are actually more civilised, all things considered, than some of their hi-tech replacements? Could ‘advancement’ or ‘progress’ today actually involve a move toward, rather than away from, some low-tech alternative technologies? These are some of the questions we explore in this essay by attempting to assess the potential energy savings of various low-tech options. By doing so we hope to understand the extent to which a society could reduce its energy consumption if various low-tech options were broadly embraced.
It is important to point out at once that the following review of low-tech options must not be interpreted to be a blanket rejection of appropriate hi-tech options. The key word there, of course, is ‘appropriate’ (see Schumacher, 1973). There is surely a place for hi-tech innovations like solar PV and wind turbines, and arguably computers should or could be a part of the good, sustainable, interconnected society (although let us not forget that life went on well enough without computers not so long ago). Without doubt, many medical treatments are genuine ‘goods’ also, and the list could go on. We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. But this essay attempts to examine with some analytical rigour the question of whether, or to what extent, various low-tech options provide an effective and available means of reducing energy demand. In an age when the overconsumption of energy underlies some of our most pressing problems – climate change and peak oil, in particular (as outlined below) – it should be clear that this analysis is about looking forwards, not backwards.
The full essay is available here.