What is Low Tech?

What we think of as high tech is enabled by our reliance on fossil fuels. In short, the vast amount of stored energy that we expend on industrial agriculture, modern transportation, and manufacturing has allowed for the greatest leap forward in scientific and technological progress in human history. The problem, however, is that we are not planning for a post-fossil-fuel world in any serious way. Perhaps we could use our remaining fossil fuels to build a world infrastructure that functions without them, but nobody in a position of power has proposed this idea, much less taken any steps in that direction. We must conclude, therefore, that we’ll run out of fossil fuels at some point and since we haven’t planned for this to happen, we’ll flounder, casting about for solutions to everyday problems related to food, water, shelter, security, and other basics. While high tech solutions work in a fossil-fueled world, they are not designed for what comes next. On the other hand, most low technology predates or sidesteps industrial solutions and will be able to persist in a post-fossil-fuel world.

An apocryphal story from the height of the Cold War illustrates the difference between high and low tech. Rumors said that NASA spent millions developing a pen to write in space, while the thrifty Soviet Union’s cosmonauts just used pencils. This account has the ring of truth because NASA did spend $128.98 per mechanical pencil in 1965 (nearly $1000 today), which caused outcry when it became public. The truth is that the space pen was developed by a private company independent of NASA and sold to both the US and Soviet space agencies for $2.39 per pen (see article in Scientific American). Although the pen-vs.-pencil story is false, it gives a sense of the difference between high- and low-tech solutions.

Scientists and engineers are asking what it is possible to do instead of asking what they should be doing. It isn’t necessary to catalog the myriad creature comforts that are overengineered in order to sell new versions of the same item each year (see smartphones, vehicles, clothing, gadgets, etc.) when at the same time many people struggle to obtain necessities. As the age of abundant energy draws to a close, we need to be thinking of long-term solutions instead of disposable ones.

The Low Technology Institute’s mission is it to identify, research, and adapt low technology that will enable us to live in stable state with our surroundings. “Stable state” is how we define the nebulous word “sustainability” because organisms that live in a stable relationship with their environment are inherently sustainable. A community living in a stable state draws only as much from its resources as can be replenished each year. They do not produce or put things into their environment that would cause other systems to degrade (for more, see Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging).

A stable state does not imply stagnation. As the world around us changes, so to must our relationship with it. In fact, it is currently the dominant economic philosophy on this planet to ignore a changing world and attempt to maintain a status quo. Low tech champions adaptive and flexible solutions based on a derivation of Occam’s razor1: the simplest means are the preferable ones.

Perhaps you’re a person who prefers concrete examples. Low tech includes any preindustrial technology: gardening, cooking, working with animals, building out of natural materials, etc. This is especially true when done using techniques that predate the industrial revolution and tools that can be hand made and are long lasting. Additionally, the technology developed at the margins of industrial society are relevant. In a world after the decline of fossil fuels, we too will be living at the chronological margins of an industrial world. Observing which technologies are first adopted by these societies (in my experience it is communications technology) might clue us into the importance of preserving or adapting existing technologies for a low-tech future.

Ideological purity is a problem for organizations with extreme positions. We realize that envisioning a post-fossil-fuel world and championing the technology necessary to survive in this new state are unusual. Change is gradual and the adoption of low tech in your daily life should be, too. It is too easy to make harsh judgments on how others choose to live, but as long as we are moving in the same direction — a livable world for humans and other organisms — we should encourage each other’s progress instead of focusing on faults.

1¬† Okay, technically Occam’s razor — among competing hypotheses, choose the simplest — is a logical way to test hypotheses (why start testing the most complicated solution before the easy ones?). It is not a truism because of the infinite potential complexity of the universe; that is, the best solution might never be known because an infinite number of hypotheses could be proposed.

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