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What is "Appropriate Technology"?

 
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I see the the term "Appropriate Technology" used a lot--Paul's even had big Appropriate Technology events--but I don't always see a definition for it. What does Appropriate Technology mean to you?

I found this definition at The University of Colorado (http://lsa.colorado.edu/essence/texts/appropriate.htm):

Appropriate technology is small-scale technology. It is simple enough that people can manage it directly and on a local level. Appropriate technology makes use of skills and technology that are available in a local community to supply basic human needs, such as gas and electricity, water, food, and waste disposal.



It seems like it's making sure that the technology we use actually uses it's resources wisely. So, we don't try to heat with petroleum generated electricity, when we can heat with wood or the sun, or even just by burning petroleum to heat our house (rather than burning it to make electricity which then travels to our house and is then converted to heat). It's using levers and pullies to move something really heavy, rather than ineffectively shoving at it...but not necessarily using levers and pullies to pick something up off the table right in front of you! It's finding ways to use less resources and time, and still get the job done.

Am I somewhere near the mark? What does appropriate technology mean to you?
 
Nicole Alderman
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Ooh, I found another definition here on permies:

Basically an appropriate technology course is typically one that is more associated with architectural and engineering aspects of sustainable/permaculture lifestyles. While a PDC is likely to cover things like harvesting rainwater and touch on natural building, an AT course goes into greater detail exactly how these systems are put together.

 
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I think this is an excellent discussion, although I'm afraid my contribution to the conversation will be somewhat simplistic. I used to think of it as "low tech," but that never seemed quite right. In striving to keep an ecological balance on our homesetead, I have come to think of it as sensible technology. It's tools and techniques that help get a job done without requiring extensive resources (especially time and energy) for it's own performance and maintenance.
 
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I like to design and make alternative energy generators and devices.
All of them are designed as simply as possible, with materials available in any hardware shop, nuts, bolts, threaded bar, wood, etc.
Often there are other things like magnets, bearings and wire, and for the most part they would have to be bought specially.
But even there, wire can be recycled, magnets can be made, and bearings can either be recycled or re-purposed from other things like shopping trolleys and skate boards.

Accessibility is the thing.
In technology and language alike, the simpler it is, the more people get it.

I strive for efficiency in design and function.
 
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I think it can be simple or complex, but at the heart should be the lowest embodied energy of all available options. Here’s an example that came to my attention last week-

Flash Forest is a Canadian reforestation company that uses autonomous drones and mapping software to regenerate ecosystems. Their goal is to plant 1 billion trees in the next 8 years, faster than manual reforestation at 1/5 the cost.
 
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The term first came out of the international development literature in the 1960's.  When I worked in Africa 30 years ago, we defined appropriate technology as systems and strategies that were contextually owned, easily maintained by indigenous peoples with indigenous resources to provide pragmatic solutions to local needs and concerns.  If I were to add anything to that definition today, I would be the word "sustainable" before pragmatic—it's not appropriate if it isn't a long term solution that doesn't create further problems down the road.

Bringing in a generator/tractor/solar system/irrigations system that is built on another continent, powered by fuel that is not locally available, maintained with parts that need to be imported at great cost, and operated by people who need to be trained far away from the local context and paid with external funds in perpetuity . . . this is the height of non-appropriate.

There used to be a massive "Appropriate Technology Handbook" that was printed for years --- it was an amazing resource.  I used it to build a water catchment system from a spring and massive water tanks using bamboo and cement.  It had a hundred designs for outhouses, water filtration systems, solar ovens, stoves, windmills, watermills . . . there were schematics and drawings for every imaginable device you would ever want.  I found that when I shared it with friends, they would be inspired to create.

In many parts of the world, people have seemingly skipped 2 or 3 or more generations of technology, yet still lack basic resources.  People have cell phones in villages that still are not plugged into the electrical grid -- they use small solar powered systems to charge phones and download YouTube videos or watch the soccer highlights.  So it can be confusing: this guy over here has a cell phone, yet doesn't have plumbing to provide clean and reliable water.  What's appropriate?  A Western-style water flush sewage system, or a safely latrine?  If it requires external resources and ongoing external support, it's not a viable long-term solution.

So determining what is "appropriate" is highly contextual.  What is appropriate to Colorado or Canada isn't appropriate to Cameroon.  In spite of the seemingly universal realities of globalization, Amazon Prime's next day delivery and the World Wide Web, there are still places on this planet where something as simple as PVC pipe, a solar powered electric fence or a gas powered ATV are not appropriate technologies.

 
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Nicole Alderman wrote:What does Appropriate Technology mean to you?


Nowadays most definitions of Appropriate Technology reflect the need for clean technology and sustainable/renewable technology, but more importantly they reflect the interests of those who are doing the defining.

Let's look at the technology of, say, wind turbines for the grid.  They are appropriate technology, but only in comparison to other technologies and uses.  "Clean" (or green) technology would be tech that doesn't trash the environment.  Wind turbines are only relatively clean when they are in place and generating electricity compared to coal or nuclear generated power.  

Turbines are made of non-green materials, including rare earth metals, and are manufactured using fossil fuels.  The bases of the steel towers are anchored by hundreds of tons of concrete and steel rebar each, at 30 to 50 feet across and anywhere from 6 to 30 feet deep.  

During the construction process any animals that den in the ground are buried alive and die from suffocation or are crushed by heavy equipment.  Once installed, wind turbines may not pollute the air or the soil but they kill massive numbers of birds, bats, and insects.   A 1.5 MW turbine's vanes cover about an acre as they spin, with larger turbines covering an area the size of a US football field or more.  The tips of their vanes travel at 180 MPH. Multiply that times the number of turbines in a complex and critters that fly don't have a chance.  

Turbine complexes also destroy the native beauty of the square miles they occupy -- forever.  Roads must be created.  Trees must be removed.  Substations must be built and underground transmission lines from each turbine must be buried to the substations.  Ground disturbance is permanent:  At the end of the useful life-span of a complex the the cement and the underground cables are left there.  Turbines may not even be removed but rather abandoned in place, because what can be done with them?  Most of their component parts cannot be recycled so their parts fill up landfills.  All this damage for an effective production life-span of 25-35 years.  

So are wind turbine industrial complexes appropriate technology?  According to the mega-conglomerate energy companies that install them and profit from the generation of electricity, you bet.  Realistically they are in their own way as bad as any other grid-based electrical generation and therefore inappropriate technology for a sustainably healthy planet.  The best that can be said for them is that they are good investments for stockholders.

However, the appropriateness of small-scale, localized electrical generation from the wind is a whole other thing from a permie point of view.  Wind turbines can be made from recyclable materials.  Because homestead wind turbines do not have huge vanes and are not so tall they kill fewer flying critters.  Any economic benefit from one or two homestead installations is going directly to the owner/user.  The aesthetic, environmental, and economic impacts are on a more appropriate scale, which to my mind makes them a much more appropriate technology.  .

Ask someone in the federal government, though, and they'll come up with arguments to counter all my points.  

PS  I know about the negative impacts of wind turbine complexes because I've studied the Environmental Impact Statements for their installations on public lands.
 
Julie Reed
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“Turbines are made of non-green materials, including rare earth metals, and are manufactured using fossil fuels.”

True of PV also. Lots of hazmat issues with both production of the panels and the batteries, and again at the other end with disposal. In the next few decades many of these (30 year lifespan) solar panels and batteries are going to be landfilled if they can’t be competitively recycled, and the toxic waste issues are going to be huge.

Interesting about bats being killed by windmills- it’s not primarily the blades that kill them, it’s the air pressure differential. Far more birds get killed by cats and cell towers than windmills, but it’s the bats that are truly threatened.
 
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I wonder if a large part of determining what's appropriate long term, is first properly defining what the technology should be doing. Many systems have been designed to supplement and support patterns of behavior which developed due to "unlimited, cheap energy" and the like.

We have big battery banks to store solar power because we are used to power 24/7 but we could also adjust our power use to when the sun is out, and use more sustainable power storage (like air pressure tanks) for limited power use when the sun isn't out.

I'd rather invest in some sort of de/humidifier air flow device that would auto-regulate a root cellar to store food harvest, combined with canning and fermenting food, than powering a commercial grade freezer.

It takes far fewer materials and energy to make a bike which could replace a large percentage of travel needs currently met by thousands of pounds of car. Converting that bike to an E-bike extends the range significantly, with far less environmental impact per user than a hybrid/electric car. Some countries and some cities embrace the use of public transit over single-user cars, and other countries and cities do just the opposite.

It's the mindset in place when the problem is defined, which causes the solution to either be a hazardous, short term, kick-the-can situation or a long-term, well designed solution that looks past immediate profits/fixes.
 
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Julie Reed wrote:Interesting about bats being killed by windmills- it’s not primarily the blades that kill them, it’s the air pressure differential. Far more birds get killed by cats and cell towers than windmills, but it’s the bats that are truly threatened.


In urban/suburban areas cats and cell towers might kill lots of birds, but where wind turbine complexes are there generally are few cats.  Plus the birds that are being killed are not generally birds that cats kill but rather the raptors and night-flying predators like owls and nightjars that dive after prey into the path of the blades.  
 
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Regardless of what is `Appropriate` remember this, all of it is a project at some point and they all hinge on 3 things:

* Time
* Money
* Resources (& skill)

Here are the rules too --

- You can trade Time for Money and/or Resources.
- You generally trade Money for Resources, but rarely can you do it the other way around.
- Money, Resource are rarely capable of trading for Time.
- The critical point in transition projects is when both old and new systems are running at the same time. That is the most expensive period.
- If the Time to finish a project is the half life of the intended lifespan in total, don't start.
- It is better to throw additional Resources at a project at the beginning than at the end. ("Mythical Man Month")
- A project mgr can be lied to with impunity unless they have done it themselves first. (Don't lie, how many times have you said, "It will only take a weekend...")

Experience from managing projects for nearly a decade. Some simple things like putting on a roof may not require that level of preplanning. As projects get more complex sometimes its worth spending a few moments to see if you are breaking any of the rules. And as always keep it as simple as you can make it.
 
Leigh Tate
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It seems to me that this discussion is pointing out some of the ways the term is branching out in usage. The earliest uses of the term "appropriate technology," seemed to be geared toward what most of us would deem primitive conditions where abundant energy isn't available. So it's technology that is appropriate for situations when expensive or complex tech is out of the question. That's an important concept that shouldn't get lost when alternative technologies are presented, and I think distinctions should be made. Some of it, like alternative energy, should more properly be called "replacement technology" than appropriate technology.

Unfortunately, some terms become trendy and are slapped onto everything, like "sustainable," "natural," or "green." Then they become just another marketing slogan, and any significant meaning is lost. It would be good if we could preserve the distinctions.
 
Mark Brunnr
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Technology notes
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[Thumbnail for 8C4EF3C7-F955-446E-9B98-2385F38C0CC7.png]
 
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My problem with appropriate technology is not so much with the technology itself; that can be easy to justified, but rather what is my time and resources worth?

For instance, heating my house with the Jean Pain System of Compost Heat is perfectly doable, and I have the ideal system to do just that, so in one sense, that seems appropriate.

But it is not. At least, not for me.

It would take me about 2 acres of grass ground to have the green compost material to do it. That is the equivalent of 15 bales of hay, and at $50 in value, so doing so would mean I lost $750 in hay sales. I also would need wood chips, and while that is free, there would be a small cost in obtaining that (fuel).

I can instead, sell those same hay bales, make $750 with them, and buy wood pellets that will also heat my home. Therefore; price wise, it is a wash because that land has other uses that can produce income.

But the real kicker is in spending my time doing the Jean Pain Compost System. It would take days to form the pile, and put in the loops to heat the water. In far less time I could cut enough firewood to heat my house, or cut firewood, sell it to someone else, and take the money and buy wood pellets to heat my house.

So my point is, it is not that a certain means of obtaining energy is appropriate or not, it often comes down to what is appropriate for the particular home, homestead or farm.


 
Travis Johnson
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But add anything here.

My home is perfectly situated for active solar, and I have acres of room here with no building codes. I could conceivably build a nice greenhouse and then push that heat into my home to help heat it. That is perfectly doable, but how much is it going to cost to build, maintain, and then replace that greenhouse just for "free" heat for my home? And it only would work when the sun was out, and during daylight hours? The cost suddenly rises above that of, cutting 4 cord of firewood, and selling it to buy pellets. I would spend more time buying plastic, and trying to keep it on the greenhouse then I would in spending 2 days cutting firewood.

This ends up being my greatest problem. In some ways it is paralysis by analysis, but yet I would be silly not to consider the time it would take to do something, and the hidden costs involved too.

 
Travis Johnson
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But the value of someones time changes.

I have (4) daughters ages 6-15, so time with them is important, as well as with my wife Katie. In 5 years Katie and I will be down to just having the youngest at the house. I want to spend some time with these girls. I am fortunate in that I have been home with my wife and kids for 4 years now, but I have never forgot what it is like to work a real job, and have just weekends, holidays and vacation days to farm. Suddenly projects have to be sorted by priority.

In that sense, stringing up sheep fence is a great use of time because it is put up over 3 days, and lasts 30 years. It will also net me meat, milk, yogurt, chesses, etc potentially. Taking 3 weekends to gather up compost material for a compost pile big enough to heat a home, and having to dedicate those 3 weekend every year, might be too much.

I have gathered up a whole list of potential projects to do, like biogas, but at this time I cannot devote the time and money to trying it not knowing if it will work. There is too much risk for me...at this time. That might change years down the road.

If I sound like a killjoy; it is because homesteaders get into homesteading so they can be out on the land, and yet the biggest reason homesteaders quit is because of the hard work. That is semi-circular, so what I suggest, to beat burn-out, homesteaders do not have a long list of projects, but to prioritize better the best return for the appropriate amount of work. Pick an appropriate big project per year, and a few smaller ones, and carry them out.

Beat burn-out, and a homestead will get some amazing things done over the long haul.
 
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Travis Johnson wrote
prioritize better the best return for the appropriate amount of work



As a former homesteader and never-ending builder/reuser, I think you've highlighted the core principle in my mind of appropriate technology. The use of a bicycle in some form (including cargo) may be quite appropriate in many places and situations, but a snowmobile is more appropriate in snow country, and a pickup truck can haul a lot more in a trip. Likewise, a cell phone that can be used where grid power isn't available is using advanced tech in a very useful, appropriate way that offers benefits not available with more primitive technology.
In our homesteading adventure in the '70s, my wife and I relied too much on outdated labor-intensive technology and wore ourselves out. The house we built and finished just enough to move into was grid-connected at least, but the effort of small-scale farming/homesteading plus caring for small children and working away from the farm wasn't sustainable. These days I find cordless tools to be a wonderfully appropriate technology that enables me to get more done in a day, and with fewer aches and pains than if had to use the manual versions (which I still own but rarely use).
 
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