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Alternative Culture Articles

September, 2008

Low Tech / High Science Ė The future of sustainable technology

by Royce Carlson

Western culture, as it has developed so far, has taken scientific discoveries and engineered the results into products and systems that are highly energy intensive and uneconomical to repair. We have all kinds of tools that are fun to use, until they break. None of us know how to fix them. The only option is to buy another one and use it until it breaks. I have a couple of stereo receivers, one at home and one at my shop. They were both built in the 1970ís and still work and sound great. The stereos that you can buy now are inexpensive but they only seem to last a few years. The same thing is true with my 35mm film camera. I bought it new in 1977. It still works great thirty years later. Unfortunately film is becoming obsolete. So I bought a digital camera. It lasted two years before it broke. Repair? It was cheaper to throw it away and buy another camera. What a waste. The technology that science and engineering is producing today is throwaway technology Ė obsolete after only a few years.

Scientists are constantly discovering new things that engineers and entrepreneurs can use to create technology. Instead of designing overly complex, soon-to-be-obsolete, throwaway items, why not use the science to design efficient, simple, durable products that are repairable by any moderately intelligent person. We are running through natural resources like they will last forever. All this while the human population approaches 7 billion people and while practically the entire less-developed world wants to consume at the same rate that we do here in the U.S. Itís just not going to work. We need a new way.

I propose a low tech and high science approach to technology. This means scientific study of the use of low tech materials for the purpose of maximizing efficiency. The use of low tech/high science engineering considers the whole life of the product and materials to decrease the energy footprint. It means considering whole systems in the design of products and materials.

Low-tech and high-science are not mutually exclusive. Itís possible to use what we learn through scientific experimentation to improve old technologies rather than create new more complex technologies. Much of my experience with technology is in the building sciences. Back in the 1970ís many people began experimenting with passive solar design and energy and resource efficient building techniques. They used their intuition, mostly, and a lot of what they came up with didnít work very well. After a couple of decades of experimentation they began to learn the science behind what they were trying to do.

In the mid-90ís I read an article about a study where researchers built several identical tiny buildings, filled them with measuring instruments, and then put a different type of commonly used roofing material on each one, the object being to find out which roofing material was the most energy efficient. It turned out that a tile roof was the best of all the standard roofing materials. Tile has been used for centuries for roofing. Further studies have shown that certain complex polymer coatings are even more efficient than natural materials. But what is the overall cost of making these high-tech materials? What is the environmental impact of manufacturing and disposing of these materials? Are the synthetic roofing materials as easy to repair as simpler roofing materials? When considering the overall impact of such materials I think we might find that something as low-tech as tile works just fine.

The application of science to low-tech methods has come up with ratios that tell you how much south-facing window square footage is optimal relative to the square footage of your house. When people began experimenting with passive solar, they put entire walls of glass on the south side of their houses. Instead of creating an energy-efficient alternative to heating with fossil fuels, they created solar ovens. The results were not optimal. The application of the scientific method produced results that enable people to build a passive solar house without cooking themselves.

By using scientific research of the use of common simple materials and by considering whole systems we can come up with product and materials standard that can serve as guidelines in achieving a low tech-high science technological future.

Here are some standards I think should be included:

We need to think in terms of whole systems when designing products. Where is the product going to be used? How does its use relate to other products in a larger system? In building technologies, for example, I have seen houses designed with systems that fight each other. The air conditioning fights with the leaks in the heating duct system. The lighting fights with the air conditioning. The use of toxic construction materials requires mechanical ventilation systems to maintain proper air quality. The whole system should be designed to include products that work together and product manufacturers should design products that work within and not against, other products within the larger system.

Science and engineering should focus on creating efficiencies using easy to manufacture materials. Complex, high-tech materials may be more efficient but by how much? Are they that much more efficient than simple materials to warrant the energy and resource expense to make the more complex materials?

Products should be made of materials that take as little energy as possible to produce. An example would be to eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of processed food in elaborate packaging

The manufacture of the product should not create a large and toxic waste stream. Ideally any waste from the manufacturing process should be non-toxic and/or recyclable.

Products should be designed to perform efficiently, either by using as little energy as possible when in operation or, in the case of passive products, to do what they are supposed to do efficiently.

Where packaging is required, it should be minimal and made from re-usable or recyclable materials.

Product manufacture and distribution should be as local as possible. Products produced locally can have a smaller energy footprint because they donít have to be transported thousands of miles.

Products should be designed to last many years with minimal maintenance. The stereo I mentioned above is an example of this. Itís lasted 30 years and is still going strong.

Products should be designed to be easily repaired. Ideally they should be simple enough that just about any fairly intelligent person can figure out what went wrong and be able to fix it with easily available materials.

When a productís useful life is finished, it should be relatively easy to re-purpose or recycle. Local recycling of products is better than having to ship them far away to be recycled.

The above standards are an ideal to strive for knowing that, in many cases, all of the standards may not be achievable. Computers will probably never be repairable by the average person but their design and manufacture can be improved in accord with the other standards. I invite entrepreneurs, engineers and product designers to consider this list of standards a challenge. The challenge of working within restraints often produces the most creative and innovative results.

Improving technology is just one of the challenges facing humanity but itís an important one. A low-tech/high science technological future can help humanity live comfortably and sustainably into the next century and beyond.

 

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Thanks!

Royce Carlson