Building a self-reliant community requires decisions on what types of technology to use. Some technologies require energy or specialized knowledge that can be easily lost. Even a simple blender is just a paperweight without a source of electricity.
So which technologies should be cultivated?
The answer lies on an old term: appropriate technology. The dictionary defines the term as:
“Technology that is suitable to the social and economic conditions of the geographic area in which it is to be applied, is environmentally sound, and promotes self-sufficiency on the part of those using it.”
Sounds right up our alley! During the energy crisis of the 1970s there were a host of books written about the topic while we struggled with it. When the price of oil crashed in the 80s, those books vanished off the shelves. This is an unfortunate development, because the lessons of the appropriate technology movement can be applied directly to resilient communities.
Now the term is mostly used when talking about technology advances that are introduced in the third world. For instance, teaching people how to use cooking stoves with chimneys out of local material to eliminate smoke from the home is an example of appropriate technology.
Factors for appropriate technology
Appropriate technology is more of an idea of how to approach technology rather than a set of tools. We use technology in order to solve problems in our lives. What makes a technology appropriate depends on the following factors:
- Small scale – The community shouldn’t have to rely on heavy industry or corporate wealth to use it.
- Anyone can use it – the technology shouldn’t require a lot of training to use. The knowledge to use the device should not be concentrated in a small group or single individual.
- Cheap to use and make – If it’s too expensive or difficult for the community to make, then it’s not appropriate.
- May use more labor than you’re used to – Fossil fuel use has helped us trade off human labor for the energy locked in coal and oil. To get away from these, that energy will have to be replaced by human power or more sustainable sources of energy.
- Energy efficient – It can’t require too much energy to use than the local community can provide.
- Controlled by the community – An important one. If the technology is controlled by a corporation or a non-local government then there is no way that community can use it for their own best benefit.
- Environmentally friendly – Needless to say, if the use of the technology causes too much damage to the local environment then it’s not good for the community.
Appropriate technology allows us to find the best ways to do things without involving ourselves in the mechanisms of industry, corporations, government, etc. However, there is no one set level of technology that is appropriate. It all depends on the environment, the people in the community, and which tools they have access to.
Examples of appropriate technology:
- Earthen construction – Cob, earthbag, rammed earth, cement stabilized earth, and other earthen construction techniques are popular in the alternative construction field because the material is literally dirt cheap and can be locally sourced.
Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages. Cob is the simplest but requires ready access to straw. Rammed earth is fast but it requires specialized forms and a way to ram the earth solid. Take a look at these 15 ancient house designs for real world examples.
- Electric fans – We may be used to centralized air conditioning, but we’ve lived for centuries without it. Fans do not require that much electricity and can create a cool space for living. If a community cannot maintain a central air unit, a good step-down would be to switch to simpler electric fans. Building screened porches is a step further down, but just as effective if you build it large enough to use. Take a look at old Southern homes and how they used their screened porches.
- Organic agriculture – Gaining the ability to grow your own food without needing chemical fertilizers or water utilities is an excellent way to see how appropriate technology can work in your life. A compost pile, the core of organic agriculture, could even be considered the ultimate expression of appropriate technology.
- Water – Humans have dug wells for millennia to get water, but getting the water out of the ground quickly is a challenge. Specialized tasks like this do need special tools, but there are companies that are making hand-drills that can go down 50 ft or more for finding water. Getting water out of a deep well is easy with a hand- or bicycle-powered hand pump. Take a look at this video for an example.
- Human waste processing – An unexpected problem that a community has to face is how to handle human waste. Plumbing and septic tanks are difficult to install, and outhouses can cause environmental damage over time. One fascinating way to handle waste is through composting. For a whole free book on this, check out The Humanure Handbook
Many of the technologies that go into self-reliant communities have to fall under appropriate technology guidelines to remain sustainable. If a core component of a technology needs a resource that only the government or an industry can provide then there is always a chance you could lose it.
Examine any technology you are thinking of learning or buying in light of these principles and you’ll be thinking in the right direction for helping a self-reliant community thrive.
For more examples, see 21 technologies that are decentralizing the economy.