The Appropriate Technology movement, which was initially and intermittently called Intermediate Technology, was first described a half-century ago by British National Coal Board economist Dr. Ernst “Fritz” Schumacher.
In a 1962 report to planning officials in India, Schumacher advocated taking steps to develop the country with an emphasis on labor, which India had in great supply, and less of a reliance on capital, which India was sorely lacking and would have to borrow.
The officials rejected the idea, and sadly committed India to a traditional development path.
Despite the failure to save India from its path as the leading borrower of World Bank capital, Schumacher went on to flesh out the concept in his 1973 book Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.
The Appropriate Technology movement has waxed and waned in popularity since. Its precepts have gone on the be adopted by many waves of sustainable thinking, including permaculture.
But what is Appropriate Technology, exactly, and how can we learn from the movement?
Appropriate Technology In Depth
In its final form, any Appropriate Technology has a few features that make it instantly recognizable:
- Sustainable, requiring relatively fewer natural resources and less energy
- Small-scale and decentralized, relying on local labor to build and maintain
- Fitting in with its environmental, cultural, or economic context
Journey to Forever has a great breakdown here, culminating in an elegantly simple definition: technology that fits. In other word, does the technology belong? It’s a litmus test that much of the mainstream, internal combustion engine-driven lifestyle ignores.
As Fritz Schumacher originally intended, this “technology that fits” is aimed squarely at addressing four societal ills that comprise the most common negative outcomes of the modern development path:
- Unemployment – Traditional technological development replaces labor-based technology with capital-based technology, which leaves former – primarily agricultural – laborers without work.
- Extreme poverty – Although aggregate production of a society may go up (i.e. in the form of higher GDP) the segment of the population without access to capital is left without a price-competitive means of production. The result of this two-tiered system is often impoverished conditions in the lower tier.
- Starvation – Without a price-competitive agriculture for any surplus, farmers fall to subsistence levels
- Urban migration – When all else fails, the former agricultural base begins an exodus to an urban environment.
Granted, this short list doesn’t don’t begin to encompass the full gamut of negative externalities of development, among them climate change, ocean acidification, and soil degradation. But Appropriate Technology’s focus on these human-centric issues is often more relatable, and thereby more powerful and often times more actionable than these larger ills typically allow.
Appropriate Agricultural Technology
Recent years have seen increased focus by the general public on organic food production, permaculture, the farm-to-table movement, and even formerly esoteric subjects like soil formation. Appropriate Technology can represent a further step toward human-centric living when applied to the technological means of production.
For example, take the tractor, the technological symbol of modern agriculture. Instead of a tractor, for many in the developing world something akin to a rototiller or rotavator makes more sense. Instead of stretching a farmer’s budget to afford a large and relatively high-tech piece of equipment, the walking tractor reduces the complexity by a degree and intentionally relies on the farmer’s labor.
What’s more, the simpler technology can be produced completely, or at least in part, locally.
Closer to home, it’s often the case that the smaller, more easily maintained version of a tractor can make the most sense when compared to the latest bells and whistles, which are often reflections of our worst consumerist needs.
Of course, it’s not as easy to scale up when relying on Appropriate Technology, but scaling up is the driver of the very concerns Schumacher first identified. As a result, realistic adoption of Appropriate Technology results in smaller-scale farms, something along the lines of smallhold parcels but larger than hobby farms.
At their scale, smallhold farms are heavily reliant on labor, but that’s the challenge Appropriate Technology posits to our modern way of thinking: perhaps a reliance on labor isn’t a bad thing.
Appropriate Fishing Technology
In regards to other food production more generally, fishing, too has historically relied on local knowledge and techniques. But from a technology standpoint, recreational fishing boats and electronics are as susceptible to the Diderot Effect as any other consumer area.
In recent years, pedal kayaks have gained popularity, and with good reason. Ask any fly angler whether the roar of an outboard is something that ‘just fits.’ Relying on leg power for locomotion instead of arm strength, pedal kayaks have ranges easily three times that of a normal kayak or canoe for the given effort.
With a pedal kayak, some of which can now accommodate two or three passengers, it’s now possible to achieve the majority of what can be done with a 17- or 20-foot fishing boat, and to do so at a tenth of the operating cost or less. What’s more, maintenance can be done by the layperson with a few simple tools.
Extending the principle into consumer electronics, one arrives at measured choices like portable fish finders. Many of these portable fish finders connect wirelessly to an angler’s existing smartphone, instead of a separate display with dedicated cabling, and another set of cabling to connect to a transducer. If a primary component of the technology is already widely in use (it fits, other words), why not leverage it?
It’s this goal – taking advantage of what’s apt, sustainable and small – that can be part of the solution to our planet’s challenges.
Agricultural AT Resources
- http://www.fastonline.org/CD3WD_40/JF/417/06-256.pdf (large file – give it a minute)
About the Author
Norm Alioto writes for FishingTech.com, a website that helps anglers find right fishing gear for their needs, adhering to the principles of Appropriate Technology where possible. Norm grew up fishing halibut, striped bass, and rockfish along the eastern shores of San Francisco Bay.
Image credit: A Kubota two-wheel tractor with trailer in Thailand (Image courtesy Steven Belcher)