Article de Marion Sestier (EnvIM 2020)
In the midst of the Covid-19 mask shortage during the French spring sanitary lockdown, solidarity sprung through local citizen and associations-led initiatives such as home-sewed masks, food deliveries to isolated people, redistributing food stocks of closed restaurants, or printing plastic face shields. Such initiatives showed strong interest for collective and do-it-yourself projects. They grew in parallel of a national conversation on environmental and social challenges, and especially on the origin of the pandemic and the link between human interactions with biodiversity and zoonosis. This national conversation fed on existing arguments about the urgent need for an energy transition, and about our way of life itself. While being locked down, many could not help but wonder: do we really need to lead such fast-paced lives with an ever-increasing need for mobility and digital tools? Among the solutions mentioned, one followed the path of degrowth and offered resilience by turning to objects and services requiring sometimes more time to use, but less energy to produce, use or recycle – a bit like cooking instead of having your dinner delivered to your house. That is what low-tech is about.
SO, WHAT IS LOW-TECH?
Even though low-tech opposes to high-tech in its philosophical roots and semantic, low-tech is not about going back to the Middle-Age. Low-tech is about using our knowledge to do better with less.
Where Does Low-Tech Come From?
Nineteenth century economist Willian Stanley Jevons highlighted the following paradox: whenever a system got more energy efficient, it got more attractive and demand increased, and it led to an increase (and not a decrease) of the total energy consumption. This rebound effect to the original energy savings made inefficient the initial effort at reducing energy consumption through high-tech innovation. Considering Jevons’ paradox, useful innovation could be improving access to technologies rather than their efficiency, and this introduces the concept of low-tech.
On their end, thinkers such as Jacques Ellul, Friedrich Schumacher, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen or Pierre Rabhi considered growth-oriented Western economics and lifestyle unsustainable because of their massive use of fossil fuels and metals, their polluting effects and the risk of natural resource depletion in the case of an uncontrolled and unlimited growth. Schumacher advocated for “a more democratic and dignified system of industrial administration, a more humane employment of machinery, and a more intelligent utilization of the fruits of human ingenuity and effort” . Behind what he defines as an “intermediary tech” lies the will to bring quality of life to everyone while respecting environmental resources. The vision of Schumacher and his fellow thinkers has encountered new success in the face of current environmental, social and sanitary challenges, highlighting the need for solutions to protect citizens from disease, poverty and unemployment. In this matter, low-tech seems like a great way to provide for basic needs (such as food, housing or healthcare – what Kate Raworth defines as the “social foundation” for donut economics) while ensuring stable ecosystems and climate (the “ecological ceiling”). This intent echoes with one of the projects of the Low-Tech Lab (a French organization dedicated to finding, testing and making available low-tech from all over the world) that seeks to answer refugees’ primary needs while giving them an opportunity to bond with the local community and develop solidarity.
The “Laws” of Low-Tech
According to the Low-tech Lab, low-tech encompasses any object, system, service, know-how, behavior or philosophy following these 3 principles:
- Being useful. Low-tech fulfils basic needs such as access to water, food, health, energy or housing.
- Being sustainable. Low-tech tools are robust, easy to fix and require few energy to function or build. They use local, natural and renewable resources by leveraging ecosystemic services and circular economics.
- Being easy to access for as many people as possible. Low-tech solutions are cheaper and aim at a long-term fulfilment of essential needs. Low-tech also aims at making people autonomous by transmitting knowledge and know-hows through open-source online platforms and trainings. At the end of the day, the idea is to empower people to build by and for themselves tools and services that remain cheap, easy to use and resistant enough to last decades.
PUTTING LOW-TECH INTO PRACTICE: SOME EXAMPLES
Cooking with Solar Energy
The solar oven11 is a box with a transparent top lid and wool-isolated panels covered with aluminium inside. The box traps solar waves and each panel reflects them until they hit the pot and the solar energy gets converted into thermal energy that will heat up the pot and the food. Even though such a tool is optimal only in areas where solar exposition is high and consistent enough, it can be assembled within a few hours, only costs €60, does not need any energy and uses local and accessible raw materials (mainly aluminium, wood and wool).
Storing Perishable Food
This pot-in-pot food-cooling system was invented by Mohammed Bah Abba in the 1990s. It extends shelf life of perishables from days to weeks. Two earthenware pots (one smaller than the other) are embedded with wet sand between them. Food is stored in the smallest pot and covered with a wet cloth. As the sand between the two pots dries, it cools down and so does the food. Water needs to be added twice a day to keep the sand wet, and the system can cool down to 10°C less than the outside temperature. It costs only $2 to $4 and does not require any access to electricity.
Tailoring Agricultural Machines at L’Atelier paysan
L’Atelier paysan is a French cooperative dedicated to helping farmers develop and build agricultural machines tailored to the needs of their soils and crops, or to permaculture farming practices such as mulching or living soil covers. The aim is to help farmers gain understanding, ownership and autonomy over their tools and machines. Building plans are made available for free on an open source online platform and can also be explained during in-person training. Through the online platform, tools are improved by users and advices are provided to repair them.
A small 5 Wh wind-turbine can be built using the motor of an old printer. It has enough power for small uses such as charging a phone within 5 hours. The Low-tech lab has made available a tutorial and plans to build it.
SO WHY HAVEN’T WE HEARD MORE ABOUT LOW-TECH? THE CHALLENGE OF UPSCALING
Low-tech tools and systems still face today a few challenges in their implementation that limit their adoption and visibility.
The Challenge of Upscaling
Even though the low-tech tools tested and promoted by the French Low-Tech Lab appear to be efficient, upscaling low-tech to entire cities presents some challenges. According to Philippe Bihouix, the denser the city is, the more complex systems need to be to manage basic needs such as water filtration, waste management or mobility. Moreover, low-tech projects are rooted locally, to fulfil a local need and they are sometimes so specific that they cannot be scaled up, like the solar oven. Low-tech projects tend therefore to be less visible on a national scale and in the media because they pursue adaptation to a specific context, and not national visibility – on the contrary of high-tech solutions that can often be implemented on a larger scale, if not worldwide.
The Ambivalence Behind Low-Tech
Some ambivalence also lies behind the notion of low-tech, making it more difficult to understand. The Cambridge International Dictionary of English still defines low-tech as “using machines, equipment, and methods that are not the most advanced”, hence focusing on technological innovation as the use of new, high-tech tools rather than on a better access or better use of existing or past technologies.
Furthermore, low-tech practices can be quite heterogenous. Some do not fully follow the 3 principles from the French Low-Tech Lab (being useful, sustainable and easy to access for as many people as possible). Reusing and fixing objects is for instance a tradition in many sub-Saharan cities and carry a low-cost aim. While those solutions answer a local need and require know-how on how to assemble technologies, the products that are repaired nowadays do not always come from local sources, but are an hybrid of complex high-tech products (such as cars) repaired with the pieces that are found available in the area21. Moreover, such hybrid low-cost products tend to cannibalize greener, locally produced traditional tools and are associated with heavy environmental footprints: the cars and the pieces to repair them are not locally produced, and some pollution can be issued during the transformation of materials such as plastics.
The explanation behind such a phenomenon could be that while entities such as the French Low-tech Lab are aiming towards structuring low-tech initiatives with a list of principles, the idea of recycling products has existed for millennia and has been motivated by limited access to financial or human means21, driving people to use as few materials and products as they could. This “historic” low-tech tends to compete with the emerging greener low-tech movement. This low-tech model is still under construction and growing with the models of circular economics, functional economics, contribution economics and regenerative economics9.
The Ideological Challenge of Low-Tech
To be able to reach its environmental and social goals, low-tech also needs to fit into politics. Low-tech finds its use in developing societies that are seeking to improve quality of life with limited means or in degrowth models for developed countries such as France. Both of those models are not the current prevailing ones: most developed countries are part of a globalized trade system and low-tech projects can face poor acceptation, being considered as the “poor” solution in developing countries21. Finally, the ecosystemic approach following the “being sustainable” principle of low-tech and considering society as a living organism is not prevailing either19.
Low-Tech Is Part of The Solution
In conclusion, although low-tech seems difficult to implement on a larger scale, it can nevertheless be considered as the philosophy that it is, and as a piece of the puzzle to solve environmental challenges. We still need large-scale high-tech solutions to support our transition towards net-zero carbon emissions such as renewable energy production technologies, local food distribution circuits or zero-waste projects reusing construction materials. Locally led low-tech projects complement these initiatives by offering a more frugal, agile and resilient use of resources.
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 Jevons W. S, 1865, Sur la Question du charbon
 Ellul J., 1985, Le Bluff technologique
 Georgescu-Roegen N., 1971, La Décroissance
 Schumacher E. F., 1973, Small is beautiful, p. 208
 Raworth, K., 2012. Un espace sûr et juste pour l’humanité – Le concept du Donut. Oxfam.
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 Atelier paysan, « Four solaire (cuiseur type boîte) ». Consulted on April 28th, 2020. Available at : https://wiki.lowtechlab.org/wiki/Four_solaire_(cuiseur_type_bo%C3%AEte)#Video_d_introduction
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 Low-tech Lab, “Frigo du desert”, Available at: https://wiki.lowtechlab.org/wiki/Frigo_du_d%C3%A9sert
 Low-Tech Lab. Picture available at: https://wiki.lowtechlab.org/w/index.php?curid=318
 “Horn E., “L’Atelier Paysan: des machines agricoles en open source », Socialter, May 2019, p.68-71
 Picture available at https://www.latelierpaysan.org/IMG/pdf/strip_till_2.1-3.pdf
 Low-tech lab, “Wind turbine”. Available at: https://wiki.lowtechlab.org/wiki/L%27%C3%A9olienne#%C3%89tape_2_-_Etapes_de_fabrication
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 Acteurs du Paris durable, November 2018. « Les solutions Low Tech ». Consulted on May, 5th 2020. Available at : https://www.acteursduparisdurable.fr/fr/themes-du-mois/les-solutions-low-tech
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 Cholez L.A., May 2019, « Aider le Sud, inspirer le Nord », Socialter
 Ghemawat P., Altman S.A., 2019. “The State of Globalization in 2019, and What It Means for Strategists”, Harvard Business Review. Available at : https://hbr.org/2019/02/the-state-of-globalization-in-2019-and-what-it-means-for-strategists
 Bihouix P., 2014, L’âge des low tech, vers une civilisation techniquement soutenable