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The Age of Low Tech.

We have been taught for more than 30 years about global warming, peak oil, wastes, ... and what is the result ? Only awareness. Concrete action are very limited.


Philippe Bihouix, 2014.

This book talks about the main problem we face with sustainability: wrong idea, government.


Instead of finding new technology to solve the current problems, why not solving the source of the problem ? Instead of finding way to recycle stuff, why not producing less waste ? This idea is trivial, but everyone talks about economy 4.0 while economy 2.0 is sufficient, with more basic technologies, easy to repair.

When I was born, 2020 would be the year with flying cars, cyborgs, safe cities. Today ? Ok, we have a smartphone, tablets and lightweight computer, so you can watch stupid videos wherever you are, whenever you want. That is “progress”. So, we are far from the utopia where life would be generally better.

Deindustriallisation because of globalisation has its good effect: less local pollution. And many job losses. So, more pollution because countries where product are made don’t really care, and you lack of awareness about people suffering.

Food and goods, even if they travel for thousand of kilometers are cheaper than local product. We prefer to save money while polluting the world.

We are also destroying lands for making roads and building, while a lot of houses and apartment are still empty.

People wants to look good like in a movie, to have a nice house, the one that is modern, high tech. But they don’t want to look at the consequences, that are hidden.

The Rise and Fall of Engineering Miracle Workers

Innovation: Research + development. There are many tech startup promising new products: air purifier, solar aircraft, whatever. The cost of producing them is often larger than their benefits.

Technology: answer to the shortage of resources

Resources are always been scarce. In previous civilisations, some disappeared because of over-exploitation of water, forest, and other resources (renewable or not). So this is not a new phenomena. In the past, they had less advanced tools, so they could not change production means.

Against shortages, there are three strategies:

Energy is the main pillar for our economy. Before the 18th, we had:

Now, main one is coal, then we have gaz and oil. Thanks to these sources, we don’t exploit whales anymore for their fat.

Before, all resources were limited by land. Everything was coming from farming or from the forest. Now, we use petrol to produce many stuff: clothes, plastic, etc. We use fertilizer for the lands. This use of non-renewable resources is not new. It started with stone to build house and roads in the past. Wood is renewable, but the time to renew is long (shorter than petrol and gaz), therefore there is a need for planning to avoid over-exploitation. Arable lands are renewable to some extent. The quality of the soil can decrease if erroded by over-irrigation or by over-exploitation. Food preservation is a temporary answer, to smooth the “peak” of unavailability.

Containerization allowed the trade to massively develop: items are more protected, deplaced more easily, without dammages. This transportation mode is low-cost because of oil. This allowed to produce the pollution in a place different from the consumptinon space.

There was a big shift in the 20th century: Change in economic model, highly specialized companies, factory for workers, massive trade between countries and companies.

High Tech is not an answer this time

Price of gazoline increase, but as rent, food prices increase. One liter of gazoline, compare to the average hourly salary is much cheaper today than in 1970. There are dreamers who think that nuclear fusion will happend, renewable energy would dominate the world production, metal would be recycled undefinitely, hydrogen and electric cars would replace our old ones, and CO2 will be captured.

However, this doesn’t work: we have peaks of everything, oil, gaz, metal, fertilizers, … To build renewable energy (photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, etc.) you need to invest energy, to extract metals and for the assembly. They have a limited lifetime, and during their operating time, the energy produced is barely sufficient to cover what was needed. Next, you need to spend energy to recycle the engine, to extract and separate metals from the rest.

Some parts are reusable, but some are not. Polymers cannot be remelted. This is the problem with CFRP (Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer), contained in planes and wind turbines: you cannot recycle it easily.

Recycling is still not yet impregnated in the mind of people. As an example, Nickel is only recylced at 55%. Which means, after two recycling round, you have 1/4 left. The other 45 % are lost by contamination with other metals (too expensive to separate energetically), or lost in the fields after incineration with other rubbish. Many metals are used as micro or nano-particules, because they have interesting properties. In that case, recovering an element where the proportion is 1/10^3 is very challenging. However, over one tone, you loose 1kg.

There is a race to produce greener car, with a greener engine, that produce less CO2 by km. The problem with electric car, out of the question of energy generation, is its weight. A car with an autonomy of 50km is not acceptable for many customers. Therefore, large battery are used. Most of the energy deployed by the car is only used to move the battery. Instead of focussing on something that looks greaner just because the energy is partially green, a drastic option is to reduce speed on the road. Not reducing speed for discouraging people from using their car nor because it consumes less (it depends on the type of car), but for reducing accident gravity. At a lower speed, the injuries in an accident are of lower gravity. Knowing that, you could remove some steel and some heavy parts that protects the car from being disassembled in a crash. Also, less electronic, because less safety controllers. Lower weight directly leads to lower fuel consumption, whatever the type of fuel. We can argue that due to the small speed, we may fall asleep more easily over long trip and cause more accident.

CO2 capture would be great, but its too expensive to put in practice.

Energy is not electricity. You have energy sources that are used to obtain heat, other mechanical movements, and other electricity. Not all sources are interchangeable. You have the energy yield that change for each source and each purpose.

The full-renewable option is almost unpossible to get in 2050. It would need so many photovoltaic cells, wind turbines, and other devices, that:

Rebound effect: if something is more efficient / consume less, we tend to use it more. If you can do 1000 miles with a better car with the same amount of gazoline than with your old car that did 500, you will tend to drive more.

Some innovations are useless: a fridge that write you shopping list, shopping without cashier or without direct payment.

The production systems are interconnected. They are not resilient. If one fail, all are impacted.

About Biotechs, which have three main purposes:

The problem with bio-factory is that the field is not mature enough. For GMO, we don’t know the risk yet, and for the others, it cannot scale in a few decades. The amount of biomass required Also, exploiting all the biomass would have an impact on the ecosystems.

Nanomaterials: too small to be reused / recycled. Waste of matter.

Dematerialization: Telecommunication, Internet allowed to do virtual meetings. However, the infrastructure cost is not zero: servers, cables, antennas, personal computers, phones … And mentalities: even after Covid, many employers ask their employees to come at work: more building to heat, transportation, … There are drawbacks to homeworking (no direct contact, few exercise, depends on the place you live in, your neighborhood and family …).

Renting VS buying: When you rent a car, you can change whenever you want. It is the renter who assume the maintenance cost. This is very convenient for items with a lot of uncertaincy on their expected lifetime (some cars have their motor KO after 15.000 km …). However, this renting model is unthinkable for all (cheap) items, like a child bicycle or a lamp. But for a fridge, or a washing machine, this is tempting as the expected lifetime decreased a lot. The renting model assume a continuous change toward new items, you don’t expect to rent a 30 years old car with this system. So it leads to a prematured obsolescence. Items are discarded (by renters) because they are not new anymore, not because they don’t work. To avoid using this model, items (fridge, car) must be guarantteed, more stable over time to avoid perversion.

3D printers are not the answer: This is okay to make a case or a box, a static item. But most complex objects are made of several parts assembled together.

Three dead-end

And yet, some high-way, airport, building are empty, or under-used.

The Principles of Simple Technologies

Demographic is an issue. We would not have the same problems if we were less. Shift to “simple technologies” is not about going back to medieval ages, but to go back to a more sustainable state.

Challenge the needs

There is no “true green car”. Recycling is not 100% and it cost energy. The cleanest product in the world is the one that you don’t use. Zero consumption is the one with the lowest footprint. However, we like confort, so total 0 is impossible.

There is no one action that will save us all. This is not “using bicycle for all moves” or “switching the lights” or “eating less meat”. Each solution helps to reduce the footprint, but with a very small impact. We need all these combined. Which is difficult to accept.

Root of Evil

Glass lifecycle:

Simple Suggestion without impact on our daily life

In the book, there is a chart with simple ideas on a diagram with two axes:

Truly sustainable design and production

Build items:

Relocation of production is important, because it makes us aware of the negative externalities. For pollution, we are perfectly okay with buying smartphone in China, and we don’t care about coal energy used to manufacture them. By taking production local [TODO], we learn to make it (so we learn to repair it), we do our best to manage pollution, we avoid being dependent on the others. There are some productions that we cannot move: mining, or agricultur which needs particular weather (banana, olive).

There are some items that we cannot simplify (a smartphone or a computer), but other where simplification has no impact (e.g. a fridge without bluetooth, blender without tablet, washing machine with less electronic). If the electronic does not bring the value, it could be simplified.

Standardization would help reusability: Few glass bottle format. Some standardization doesn’t help: For phone and computer, USB-C replaced all previous (USB-A and B). Therefore, new items were manufactured. Another problem with cables is habbits: each device was sent with its cable, so you ended up with dozens of identical cables.

We can make some effort on packaging. For fruits and vegetables, we can reuse paper/plastic bags to carry them.

Some products could be sold “dried”. Solid shampoo and soap can be diluted into water to obtain the final product at home. Transporting a powder would be easier, and would avoid plastic packaging

Orient knowledge towards economic use of resources

Low economy: Do less in a more sustainable way. We need to do research, but with different goals than the one we have today.

Finding the balance between performance and conviviality: Accept lower performances

For greatest effectiveness, technology are more complex. So we indirectly use more resources for the same effect. Tall building are more effective in terms of used lands, but they require more metal in their infrastructure. Big wind turbines produce more energy than small one, but you lose electricity during transportation. Plus the grid must adapt to them. 2CV: small car, but lightweight and low consumption. This car is not that okay for mountain rides, but who care if it is just a car for moving in the neighborhood.

Relocation without losing economies of scale

Large plants allow to perform economies of scale. However, there is a trade-off with transportation: you have to include this in the price. For heavy products (or highly consummed products), it is better to avoid travelling too much. For unfrequent products (smartphone), it is okay to have very few specialized factories.

However, we have to take into account that factories / micro-reactors take space and produce pollution. So we need to chose the good trade-off.

For food, you can reduce consumption by using reusable packaging (glass bottles, paper bags, tupperware)… For car, just building car with a longer lifetime would save a lot. Regulation for moving from thermic to electric car is a waste of energy, for the cars that work correclty.

Specialization allowed workers to do a very specific task with dexterity. Also, because it is very elementary tasks, they are easy to learn, and an employee can switch to one task to the other.

Automated factories are full of robots. It means we depend on China’s supplies.

Network industries: Water, electricity, internet, roads, hospital, logistic. We live in more crowded areas, with higher risk of disease propagation. There is competition between services suppliers, which lower the level of service and impact workers quality of life.

De-mechanized services

Not all works need humans to be replaced by robots. For travel agencies, it is fine to replace human with a computer interface. But a doctor, Neo-proletariat: jobs that cannot be replaced.

Knowing how to stay modest

Science made many promisses. Not all have been achieve. There are many that are still dreams. We cannot control all the process, to teach a spider so we can collect its thread.

Daily Life in the Era of Simple Technologies

Agriculture and food

Population is growing in number. We increase our yelds by usinge pesticide, phosphate and nitrates. Now, we have reached a max, where we cannot do more. Without them, yelds are likely to drop, as for organic product.

The economy focus on input invested versus output received. If the goal is the amount produce by area, no matter how much it cost, this is a different question. We need to keep oil for agriculture, because compared to the benefit (less human), it is worth it. Permaculture, and combination of methods (animals under trees) is an option.

Over the whole food production-distribution process, we loose around 1/4 of what could be obtained. There are some crops left on the field because the cost for the farmer to harvest it is greater than the money he would obtain from. There are transportation / storage accident, but they are rare. In supermarket, deffective product, that was miscarried by a client, are throwed away. And last, people don’t finish their plates at the canteen, put to the trash the last piece of their sandwitch, say the cake is not good enough to be eaten… Everything cumulated leads to this 1/4.

Food diet is also a question. The production of meat required more lands than normal crops for direct consumption. By switching to vegetarian diet, we could save lands. But keeping animals is fine also, they can be used as land fertilizer if correctly used.

Aquaculture allows to paliate to the ceiling in fishing. However, there are grown fish that eat fish (that are too small, or not to our taste). So that’s not the direct answer.

We have to accept to pay more for food. Because of the improvement in food distribution, and production overseas, the part of the salary dedicated for food decreased for 50 years. Now, it’s not possible to put price down anymore. We have to accept to put more money to obtain better food quality.

Transport and cars

Construcion and urban planning

Consummer products, sports and leisure, tourism

New tech and communication systems

Banks and finance

To love, live and die in low tech

Rubbish bin ?

Energy .

Is Transition Possible ?

Status quo

Wait and see VS survivalism

Issue of employment


Moral questions

How to make transition desirable

Positive note.

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