Our Low-Tech Future
It increasingly looks like that our future is going to be low-tech. I’m not talking about the life of our descendants far-far away into the eons ahead, but something most of us will experience in one form or another during the following decades.
Contrary to what our elites, our culture of entitlement and our decades long conditioning makes us believe, we will simply not have the energy and resources to slide seamlessly into a green, electrified utopia. Except for the very rich, who will surely sort it out for themselves, the vast majority of us living today will just have to do with much less energy and material consumption than what we’ve got used to in the past decades.
The sooner you get used to this thought the better you will be able to adapt to reality — which will look rather different than what you have been sold. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many of us will find it liberating to get rid of mind numbing meetings and demanding bosses together with their bullshit jobs, and will embrace the return of a much simpler and perhaps more fulfilling way of life.
Unless you are a top oligarch you will have very little say in where this civilization is going anyway. It looks increasingly unlikely that it will be left for the rank and file public to decide how we will use up the last batches of cheap resources, or for that matter whether we nuke ourselves off the face of this planet in WWIII. Most likely Business-As-Usual will be pursued in a blind faith that technology will save us. We will simply burn all the oil we can get, only to realize that without it the whole ordeal falls apart. (We are already in knee deep into this process, so don’t expect a sudden turnaround here.) High tech civilization will be sustained as long as it’s possible, then abandoned sooner than most of us could realize.
What matters is what comes after that happens. Yes, there will be hardship. Scarcities affecting even the most basic of stuff. Hunger. War. Disease. Disorder. Natural disasters driven by the climate chaos we so recklessly unleashed on this planet. It will be a catastrophe, with zero chance for us to rebuild what has been lost — but hey, this is how civilizations end. It has happened before, many times over. Still, there will be people willing to let the old system go and start anew. Experiment with new ways to live life, using technology not to rape this planet, but to live more appropriately on it (1). This is how new civilizations get started. But for now, let’s remain focused strictly on the technological aspect of this paradigm shift.
Many people — most of Earth’s population for that matter — already live a low-tech life. For them, this will be nothing new, but probably they are not reading this site anyway. We, people of the golden billion — living in high rise cities, driving tons of plastic and metal we call cars down the road paved with oil residues, while marinating in a flurry of electronic stimulus — we, will have a lot to learn though. Want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes? I thought so. Let’s get down to business then.
First off, let’s clarify what is “low-tech”, this anonymous fella’ is blathering about. In a nutshell I would say it is using the most appropriate technology to meet basic needs like food, water, sanitation etc, utilizing materials and energy at hand in a sustainable way. Since there is no standard definition to the term, think of it as a polar opposite of high-tech, which almost invariably involves six continent supply chains, exotic raw materials and hyper-complex patented irreparable technologies, with all the pollution and waste of energy you can imagine.
In order to think in low-tech terms though, we need more than a sloppy definition. We need a completely different mindset from the one we used to apply in the now slowly bygone age of the landfill economy. Let’s take the question of energy use first. During the high tech era, the more automated a product or service was, the more people were willing to pay. What in fact they were paying for was not mere convenience, but a lot of energy use. Energy, they themselves did not need to expel (be it through mental or physical exercise).
Robotic vacuum cleaners serve as a prime example here. All that energy that went into mining finite reserves of exotic minerals, making microchips, batteries, plastic housing, sensors, electric motors and all the rest could have been spared by picking up a simple broom made from locally available materials by a local craftsman, from a local store. This might sound completely outlandish today, but seeing the precarious nature of our supply chains, the rapid depletion of once cheap and abundant resources, this is clearly where we are headed. Just wait and see.
Low-tech is not only about preventing frivolous spending of energy, but also about learning how to conserve it. Insulating your home is a good place to start, but just like in the previous example, preferring manual labor as opposed to using over-motorized equipment is also a good approach. Just think of using a rake instead of a leaf blower if you were looking for a place to start.
For the record I’m no saint either. I do have such equipment, and I still use them from time to time. Contrary to my peers though, I see this is a journey, not a way of saving the planet. Becoming fully aware that one day I would have to say good bye to these technologies made it a whole lot easier for me to find the motivation to expel the bodily energy needed to do manual labor instead. It made me appreciate the hard work one has to perform without the luxury of electricity and burning gasoline.
With that said, these are just the very first toddles one can take. The following steps, alternatively, take us much further down the road: towards a truly low-tech life. For most of us living a high tech life these steps are not appropriate or timely yet (this is not to say, one cannot experiment with them), but as our civilization keeps crumbling away more and more of us will find them essential. Let’s go through them one by one.
As fossil fuels keep depleting we will find harder and harder to maintain a stable electric grid. Renewables deployed in a mass scale will not provide a stable alternative, only an ever increasing instability. After this technology too hits diminishing returns — as every other technology we use did — their benefit of saving us from some of the CO2 emissions will turn into a burden.
This is not to say, and feel free to be surprised here, that ‘renewables’ are inherently bad technologies. These systems are just used and interpreted in a wrong way. Take solar panels for example. First, let the notion that they are “renewable” go. These panels are built from finite materials, and their manufacturing completely hinges on fossil fuels (from mining to high heat manufacturing processes, delivery and recycling). So while the power from the sun might seem like an inexhaustible source of energy, our technology and resources supporting it are not going to be available for long. So let us think of solar panels as an off-ramp from the high tech world into something more sustainable then, not as a way to extend our way of life into the future.
Seen in this light, solar can be used to ease our lives while spare parts are still available, and give us time to adapt to a radically different future, when high tech is completely gone. If you think of it this way, and with keeping the principles of low-tech in mind (using the most appropriate technology to meet basic needs like food, water, sanitation etc, utilizing materials and energy at hand in a sustainable way), you will immediately drop the idea of overpowering your home with solar panels and buying batteries to store the excess. This is the least sustainable way to use solar — although many still think of it this way — as a savior of their unsustainable lifestyles. Which they are clearly not.
Employing photovoltaic panels (more) sustainably means something completely different. Using the core principle of getting rid of excess manufacturing of batteries one could use photovoltaics to generate and use electricity only when it is available: like doing the washing during mid-day or turning on the AC when it is the hottest outside. (Before you shout at me for mentioning air conditioning: this is also an unsustainable technology, but unfortunately an increasingly necessary one to stay alive when it gets dangerously hot outside. Clearly, low-tech alternatives need to be developed or reinvented here… Again: think of doing away with high tech as a journey, not as a big bang.)
Taking the idea of doing away with losses one step further, one could get rid of one of the biggest sources of energy drain: conversion — in this case taking place in inverters. These devices are responsible for turning direct current (DC) generated by wind and solar into alternating current (AC) used by our electric devices. By getting rid of this expensive piece of equipment and by using DC equipment directly, one could save at least 10% of the energy lost during conversion — not to mention the exotic materials and excess manufacturing and energy applied to making inverters (2).
Warning: doing so requires a solid understanding of electronics and a degree in performing electric repair work — do not do this on your own! Done unprofessionally these type of alterations could cause fire and electric shock.
This is another reason, by the way, why to pick up a real profession while you still have the free time and resources to do so. Now, back to our topic of low-tech.
Going one step further still (or rather alternatively) one could get rid of the biggest conversion loss, and the most technology-intensive step to start with: converting sunshine into electricity. By placing a metal drum painted black on your roof you can instantly get hot water, doing away with most of the equipment used in generating this way of modern comfort. Similarly, solar cookers and ovens can also do a great service by saving valuable fuel which would otherwise be used for cooking. Or, when thinking about wind power, one could use mechanical work directly to lift water from a well just fine — without first converting the power of a rotating blade into electricity to drive an electric pump — avoiding all the excess manufacturing, transportation of goods and overall complexity of an electric system.
People of the future will clearly have to find more ways to use solar and wind power directly, without generating electricity.
This brings us to the heart of the problem: sufficiency vs efficiency. Today most us still believe that we have all the resources we need (forever) and it is only the lack of political will and money what it is preventing us from reaching a high-tech, clean, green utopia. According to this world view efficiency is God — thus companies are not sparing engineering hours, investments and of course technology use, to make the next solar panel, battery or electric motor more efficient and more powerful than the previous one (3). Even if it comes at the cost of utilizing rare and toxic metals or sacrificing compatibility, recyclability or repairability.
Fast-forward a couple of decades into the future. Now lacking six continent supply chains and having most of our high tech manufacturing capabilities lost due to wars, the lack of resources, energy (or the ways to get all these) we will be forced to use what’s available at hand. Spare parts from a broken car. Wood from used furniture. Metal from broken tools. Building materials, sheet glass and wires from abandoned office buildings and shopping centers. Using stuff that will do. Not perfect, but just fine for the task. The result will probably will not be the most efficient one — purely in theoretical terms — but it will be sufficient for sure. Sounds outlandish? Just take a look around: many people live their lives this way already.
Once supermarkets and DIY stores are gone, and the remaining shops are charging astronomical prices for high tech goodies only the super-rich can afford, repairability of equipment will be key to survival. Simple solutions will be preferred over ‘smart’ and ‘connected’ equipment. Things, which you can fix with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers or using junk — which will be our most plentiful resource after true human ingenuity needed to build these systems.
Knowing how hard it will be to get a new water pump, spare parts, or electronics — just about anything high tech — in a deindustrialized, disconnected and radically local world, reusing or repurposing parts, will take precedence over recycling. The later of which would require far more technology and energy use — things we will find less and less abundant. Collecting and selling screws, bolts and nuts on the other hand will be a big business, just like handicraft skills making one able to turn an old saw blade into a knife for example.
Finally, to sum it up: low-tech is the use of the most appropriate technology to meet basic needs like food, water, sanitation etc., utilizing materials and energy at hand in a sustainable way. For your reference, here is a collection of its principles described above:
- avoid excess manufacturing (using energy and resources unnecessarily)
- buy local to minimize transportation of goods
- use locally available resources (plants, parts, labor, energy etc.)
- generate electricity locally and only for purposes asking for it
- prevent conversion losses (do you need electricity or just mechanical work from wind or heat from the sun?)
- sufficient, not efficient
- reuse or repurpose, not recycle
While all this might invoke pictures of unwashed survivalists bartering over goods in a desert environment, this could also be something beautiful. A steel and concrete cityscape slowly turning green with small vegetable gardens and self powering hydroponic farms. Massive amounts of high-tech junk turned into smart low-tech equipment (4) aiding people in their radically new life.
Until next time,
You can read more about low-tech here: Low Tech Magazine and in the book titled Ecotechnic Future by John Michael Greer — among many other great places. (Suggestions welcomed.)
(1) How many of us will be left to pursue such goals is yet to be seen — I’m not in the business of predicting near term human extinction. We just simply do not know yet.
(2) The technology usually has a lifetime of a mere 10 years as opposed to the rest of the system (measured in decades). Batteries have even shorter useful lives, involve a ton of dangerous waste generation and pollution — another reason why one should do without them, or using batteries for only the most basic purposes like lighting.
(3) Diminishing returns affects every part of our lives: including technological development. It takes ever more resources, energy and as a result complexity to take technology to the next level. While in theory we could still increase the efficiency of solar panels for example, approaching physical limits takes an exponential increase in resource use (exotic materials, complex supply chains and precise manufacturing processes). Giving up on the efficiency mania would help a lot to conserve resources and make things more widely available.