The No-Tech, Low-Tech Revolution

There is a widespread belief that whatever employs the most technology is necessarily better than an alternative that employs little or no technology. Hence, it is believed that cars are better than walking or riding a bicycle, that dishwashers are better than washing dishes by hand, that automatic doors are better than ordinary manual doors,[1] that a motorized boat is better than a sailboat or rowboat,[2] that using chemical fertilizers and pesticides is better than following natural or organic farming methods, and that anything electric is better than the equivalent manual device. Inspired by the spectacular achievements of modern science and technology, more and more of the world’s human population is adopting the belief that we should embrace these two great human achievements, and let them invade, permeate, infiltrate, and determine all aspects of our lives. The result is that, in many parts of the world, traditional practices have been abandoned because they employ little or no science or technology, and therefore they are automatically regarded as outdated, inefficient, inferior, or suspect. In other words, because of this dominant model, more and more people around the world simply assume that whatever is high-tech is better than a no-tech or low-tech practice, solution, or tradition.

Whenever and wherever a high-tech solution, practice, or product becomes dominant, it displaces the low-tech or no-tech solution, practice, or product by making people embarrassed to deviate from the majority. Many people buy something because they feel embarrassed to be the only person in one’s social group not to have it. In addition, the old, low-tech or no-tech product or practice is often regarded with scorn, which is another barrier to using or performing it. An example is driving cars or other motorized vehicles instead of walking. This behaviour is situational, since, in downtown centres, where many people walk from place to place, most people do not feel embarrassed to do so; but in suburban areas where this behaviour is less common, many people feel embarrassed to walk, except around their neighbourhood for exercise. Because the age-old utilitarian function of walking has been usurped by cars and other motorized forms of transportation, in some places, walking has been reduced primarily to a non-utilitarian function that has nothing to do with transporting a person from one place to another, which was its function for millions of years until very recently in our species’ history.

There are, however, many problems with high-tech solutions, practices, and products. One big problem is that they almost always use large amounts of energy, much of which is polluting and non-renewable.[3] Another problem is that hi-tech products often require or produce toxic chemicals or substances during their manufacturing process, not to mention the vast amounts of garbage and waste that frequently accompany their manufacture, transportation, sale, usage, consumption, and disposal. It is generally true that the more high-tech a practice or product, then the further removed it is from Nature and its efficient and wholly integrated processes – since natural processes, unlike human ones, do not produce any waste – meaning that, in most cases, the artificial human practice or product causes significant damage to natural environments and the many living creatures that inhabit them.

There are silly individuals who confidently predict that improvements in technological efficiency will, by themselves, be sufficient to solve the growing energy and pollution problems that are more and more visible all over the world. But these naive prophets of technology, who in essence are saying that we need more and better technology in order to solve the problems that are created by technology, fail to see that any gains from greater technological efficiency will inevitably be offset by the continual array of new products that inundate our lives, along with the dominant capitalist model of society[4] that urges, encourages, and manipulates us continually to increase our consumption of pretty nearly everything, whether it is energy, food, beverages, living space, furniture, home appliances, clothes, art, music, education, movies, cars, heat, cold, trips, vacations, plants, animals, books, concrete, chemicals, medicines, events, activities, electronic gadgets, and so on. This naive belief – that better technology will save us from our human-created mistakes and excesses – is contradicted by the fact that, in spite of all the many improvements that have been made in energy efficiency, in most countries, the consumption of energy, whether measured in total or per capita consumption, continues to increase year after year after year.[5] Meanwhile, the global human population continues to increase, meaning there are more and more potential consumers of everything that we silly humans produce in larger and larger quantities, in the mistaken belief that they are all necessary for our happiness and well-being, or that owning the latest gadget will bring us the satisfaction and peace of mind that have been missing from our lives until now.

Most people regard the light bulb as one of humanity’s greatest inventions. But the creation of artificial light, a reliable light source other than the Sun that does not have the dangers and disadvantages of fire or candlelight, by divorcing us from the natural diurnal rhythms of the Sun’s rising and setting, was one of the most important steps in the slow but steady and profound alienation of human beings from Nature. Another important effect of the invention of artificial light was that it greatly reduced our species’ fear of darkness and the unknown creatures that lurk there, thereby diminishing or effacing our respect for and fear of the awful forces of Nature, which in turn has also contributed to the wide-scale destruction of the natural world that is so prevalent today in almost all parts of the world.

Considered from another perspective, Edison’s invention, or rather his improved design,[6] which is naively considered to be one of the greatest inventions of all time, was the start of humanity’s period of industrial and technological depravity. For now, people could stay awake and do things long after the setting of the Sun; for now, factories could operate twenty-four hours a day; for now, excavation and mining could proceed in dark places where sunlight cannot reach; for now, even the murky depths of the seas and oceans were not safe from our befouling and contaminating human presence. Along with the internal combustion engine, this single invention has done more than any other invention to increase continually our non-sustainable and highly irresponsible consumption of the Earth’s limited resources and its many living creatures.

If we were to make a list of the most polluting and ecologically destructive inventions or practices of all time, it would include, but not be limited to, the following items: internal combustion engine; all transportation and other devices, such as automobiles, trains, ships, planes, trucks, tractors, and machines, that are based on the internal combustion engine; light bulb; chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides; mining; electricity; plastic; deep-sea trawlers and other fishing vessels that catch more than the targeted species or cause damage to sea and ocean floors; vaccines; antibiotics; nuclear power plants and other electricity-producing plants; bombs; heaters; air-conditioning; computers; cell phones; the Internet; single-use packaging; and the capitalist model of society.

The simple act of turning off the light, that is, no longer living one’s life according to artificial or continual light but instead living in accordance with the alternating rhythms of natural sunlight and darkness, is both liberating and revolutionary. For this simple act slowly makes one more aware of Nature’s rhythms, beauty, majesty, grandeur, and uncommon wisdom. It also helps one reconnect oneself to Nature’s slower, regular, more stately, and eternal rhythms, rhythms that have existed for much longer than our frenzied modern human activities – for millions and billions of years rather than for mere decades or centuries. Nature is the slow but steady Turtle that, in the long term, will far outrun and outlast the impulsive and maniacally driven Hare that modern humanity has become, chiefly because of the devilish influences of science and technology.

To give an example of what I mean by the no-tech, low-tech revolution, let us consider air-conditioning. A fan uses much less energy than an air-conditioning system because the first is merely a mechanical device that creates a steady air current, while the second is a cooling device that uses artificially cooled liquids to cool the air inside a building. The first is a low-tech, while the second is a high-tech, device. In many temperate regions of the world, there is usually a significant difference between the air temperature during the day and night. During the summer months, if the hotter air inside a building could be replaced by the cooler outside air when the outside temperature is lowest, which is usually during the period shortly before dawn, then this would reduce the need to turn on the air conditioner later in the day when the temperature rises. Such a system, which takes advantage of the Earth’s diurnal heating and cooling cycle, would require only a fan and a few open windows.[7] Ideally, since hot air tends to rise, the fan should be placed relatively low in the room, house, or building, while the opened windows should be placed relatively high, such as near the ceiling of a room. This window placement will also reduce the chances of a break-in if one leaves the windows open during the night. Since not all people wake up so early, a programmable fan would allow for this cooling benefit while one is asleep, provided one remembers to open the windows before going to bed. When the fan is turned off, all the windows should be closed to retain the cooler air inside and to prevent the warmer outside air from coming in.

Another way to reduce the interior temperature during the summer months is by covering parts of the building, such as the roof, with reflective screens. If the entire building were covered with reflective material, then clearly this would reduce the daytime temperature inside the building by protecting it from the heating effect of the Sun, which in turn would reduce the electricity used, as well as the money spent, for air-conditioning. These screens, which could be put in place before the hottest summer months and removed when they are no longer needed, should be designed so as to withstand potential damage from the wind and rain, including violent storms. These are two low-tech, and energy saving, alternatives to the high-tech, and energy wasting, model of air-conditioning, which has been blindly and thoughtlessly imitated in more and more places around the world.

This is not to say that science and technology have no role to play in our future. But they are a transformed, limited, respectful, harmonious, and humble science and technology that must tread lightly, as these two gargantuan industrial behemoths most certainly have not done until now, on the Earth and all of its magnificent living inhabitants. Because these two monstrous offspring of our fertile imagination have been allowed to grow and develop unchecked, they have wreaked vast amounts of harm around the world, while imperilling the survival and well-being of other organisms, as well as our own long-term survival. Instead of seeking high-tech – and frequently expensive, polluting, and destructive – solutions to the world’s problems, what we need to start doing is seeking low-tech or no-tech solutions to these problems.

People must stop assuming that if there is a problem, then science and technology will solve it, and therefore the rest of us don’t have to do anything because we can just leave it to the scientists and inventors. For in many cases, it is precisely the scientists and inventors who have created the problem in the first place. We must stop assuming that whatever is novel, artificial, and employs the most chemicals, machines, raw materials, energy, and technology, while conversely, using the least amount of natural processes and human or animal labour, is necessarily better than the old or traditional models and practices. For many of the old, time-tested methods are not only superior, they produce much less pollution, while requiring less fossil fuels for their production. In other words, many of the old or traditional methods are sustainable while the modern methods are not sustainable. This switch in models or practices also has significant implications for the important issues of human employment and unemployment, since the trend in recent decades and centuries has been to replace human with machine labour, which has eliminated many jobs, including well-paying jobs.

Despite what some of you may think, this is not simply another banal discussion about respecting the environment and the survival of other living creatures, for it is also a discussion about the long-term survival of our clever but in reality very foolish species. The more we employ the products of our so-called human ingenuity, which it would be more accurate to call our human stupidity, arrogance, and depravity, the greater will be the destruction we wreak on the world, while we accelerate the inevitable approach of our own demise and destruction. The conclusion is stark and simple: if our species is to survive for the long term, for tens of thousands or millions of years rather than for mere centuries, then it is imperative that we get off the technology treadmill on which we find ourselves running at the present time, while we are forced to run faster and faster in order to keep pace with everyone else. This very dangerous and destructive course began with the Scientific Revolution a mere four or five centuries ago, and was later followed by the Industrial Revolution a mere two hundred and fifty years ago. In terms of evolutionary history, these are insignificant periods of time; and yet, during these time periods, our species has wreaked an enormous amount of harm on the environment and other living organisms, while we have begun dangerously to alter the Earth’s physical conditions and systems.

The Earth and all its many different living organisms can very easily dispense with our human presence, and would in fact be much better off without it, because our presence is in no way necessary for their continued existence and development. But we humans cannot live without the Earth and its many living inhabitants, which we – stupid, vain, and arrogant creatures that we are – are in the process of changing, damaging, poisoning, eradicating, impoverishing, and destroying, all for the sake of our petty, insignificant, and temporal human creations. We will only prove ourselves to be deserving of the highly flattering, but thus far inaccurate, appellation, homo sapiens, which was given to our species by the biological classifier Carolus Linnaeus, when we understand this fundamental truth and live our lives in accordance with it.

[1] Automatic doors were designed for disabled and elderly persons. But, of course, there are many lazy, able-bodied persons who take advantage of these devices, which consume energy each time they are activated.

[2] Whereas, when people had no choice, sailboats and rowboats were used for practical purposes, such as fishing, travelling, hunting, and transporting things and people by water, now that these functions have been usurped by motorized boats, sailboats and rowboats are used primarily for recreational, that is, for non-practical, functions. Although most people would call this progress, I think it should rather be considered as an example of regression, since an ancient custom has been stripped of its utilitarian function and rendered into a completely useless one, save for giving people pleasure, diversion, and perhaps some exercise. The same phenomenon is visible in work and exercise. Whereas before, people exerted their bodies whenever they worked, such as growing, collecting, or hunting food, building shelters, or transporting things or people from one place to another, since this is no longer true for many people, they go to the gym to exercise, which exercise produces no practical result, in contrast to physical exertion in the past.

[3] Even electricity, which many people naively assume is a clean form of energy because they don’t see with their own eyes the pollution and problems it creates, can be highly polluting when it is produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas, which are common practices around the world. Although hydroelectric dams produce far less pollution, apart from the pollution produced while they are being built, they cause significant environmental problems and changes by interrupting the flow of the dammed river. Moreover, they block the natural flow of silt and nutrients from upriver areas to areas located downriver. By disrupting this very ancient process, they deprive the downriver portions from receiving these important, regular contributions to their ecosystems, which in turn diminishes their fertility and abundance of life.

[4] It is not at all surprising that capitalism, industry, and commerce have wholeheartedly embraced the scientific and technological revolutions, since there is much more money to be made from selling high-tech products and processes than can be made from selling products or techniques that employ little or no science and technology, or rely on ancient traditions. Hence, in a highly-developed capitalist society, there is a very strong bias towards or preference for high-tech solutions, products, and practices.

[5] Instead of only calculating the monetary cost of something, we should also start calculating the energy cost of doing something a certain way and compare this figure with the energy cost of alternative ways to see if they are lower. Monetary cost is only one of the many important variables that we should consider, such as time and energy used, and not, as the economists generally believe, the sole criterion in deciding which is the best way to do something.

[6] Contrary to popular belief, Edison did not invent the light bulb, since it already existed before he turned his attention to improving its design, chiefly by enabling the glowing filament to burn longer.

[7] This idea occurred to me during a period when I tried to use as little artificial light as possible, navigating my way through the rooms of the house I lived in with the aid of the light from the street lamps outside and occasionally the Moon, in order to live more in accordance with the natural rhythms of the day and night. Most people are able to see well enough to do so, which involves using their other senses such as their sense of touch to guide them, but this ability is not well developed in most people because of their constant reliance on artificial light. I did sometimes carry with me a lit cell phone or tablet to help me see; moreover, I also used these devices to read in the dark, but without turning on a light, so that the lit screen was the only thing that was illuminated in my vicinity, which practice helped me to focus my attention on it.