What Defines Appropriate Technology?

Our Current Addiction to Technology

If there is one defining aspect of our modern civilization it´s that we are a technological species. Compared to other organisms with whom we share this planet, we Homo sapiens aren´t exactly well adapted to long term survival. We have no coat of fur to keep us warm, we don´t have sharp teeth or claws to hunt with, and we´re extremely vulnerable to the elements around us at all times.

In fact, we kind of resemble in some ways a mishap of evolution; an unfortunate paint spill that sticks out on an otherwise beautifully painted canvas. If it weren´t for our ability to shape and alter our surroundings through technology we would have most likely long ago passed into the annals of history along with the dodo bird and the passenger pigeon.

The lion has its deftness and sharp claws, the monarch butterfly has its mesmerizing and threatening wing patterns, and us humans have nothing but a decently sized brain and the gift of self-conscious which has allowed us to reshape our surroundings through the use of technology. That which is our defining characteristic, however, has also been one of the main causes of the crises we now face.

How to Define What is Appropriate for a Place

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.

The fourth permaculture principle is “apply self-regulation and accept feedback.” Several of our current technologies are simply too large and too powerful to allow us to receive feedback. The effects on the landscape of some technologies don´t only disrupt natural patterns but also fundamentally change the ways in which nature works.

The ninth permaculture principle similarly advises us to prioritize small and slow solutions. When my family and I first moved on to our farm several years ago, we knew that we wanted to build a large pond on the lowest part of our land. I had read about the importance of holding water in the landscape and was convinced that this was the way to do it. While we could have hired a tractor for two days to get the job done, we instead decided to start small.

The first year we hand dug a 30 foot by 20 foot small pond. The long days of digging the pond showed us that about 3 feet under the ground we came to heavy clay soil. After one night of heavy rain, there were several inches of standing water leading us to believe that we could easily seal our pond with a gleying process. While we were originally planning on purchasing commercial pond liner, we saved money and consumed significantly less cement through working slower.

Since we drain our pond every dry season, we have made it a tradition every spring to dig, as a family, a couple of feet outwards every year along our pond banks. This has allowed us to create more “edge” effect, improving the biodiversity around our ponds banks. By choosing the small and slow solution, we have not only saved ourselves money but also have been able to discern what our place would allow us to do.

Finally, the eleventh permaculture principle advises us to value the marginal, and this is another area where appropriate technologies can help us. Large technologies pretty much only work in large places and on a large scale. To build a large dam in order to store water for a community, you need flat, wide open river bottoms where monster machines can operate.

However, there are usually dozens of small streams and rivulets that make up any watershed. Instead of waiting for that water to trickle down into the valleys where the monster machines are waiting to corral the water into mega dams where the water is eventually pumped with fossil fuel energy back up the hills and mountains to the houses, might there be a better solution?

What if we were to try and work with those small streams and brooks and that are often overlooked by modern technology? It might be possible to design a series of miniature dams to help improve infiltration into the watershed. Hydraulic ram pumps could be installed throughout these creeks to pump water uphill (without dependence on contaminating electricity or power) to a series of reservoirs that could then deliver water to the mountain communities. Small scale appropriate technologies allow us the opportunity to value and take advantage of these otherwise marginal ecosystems.

How to Design for Appropriate Technology

As we have mentioned throughout this course, the element of design is central to all permaculture thinking. To design for appropriate technology application on your site, two central concerns need to be taken into consideration:
1) What elements are in abundance here, and
2) How can we take advantage of them while still respecting that ecological balance of the place?

The first concern should be self-evident, but it is worth mentioning because many people so often overlook it. Many permaculture enthusiasts might very well read a great article on how small photovoltaic panels are helping to small villages somewhere in the Global South and come away from that article determined to set up their own solar power system. If, however, you live up in the mountains where foggy and rainy days are more common than the constant 12 hours of sunlight in the village you read about, chances are your system won´t be nearly as successful.

If you live in a place with lots of strong sunshine, by all means, make yourself a solar cooker. If the wind is constantly threatening to blow the roof off your house, put up a wind turbine. If a decent sized stream moves through your land, figure out how to take advantage of that water or the energy that it brings. Every place offers some sort of abundance and appropriate technologies look at how that abundance can be better utilized for the creation of sustainable livelihoods.

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