Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Appropriate Technology

I visited the Cambridge City Hall Annex a few weeks ago. This building is the first stop on a 'Green Trail' sponsored by Boston's Museum of Science. While apparently it has photovoltaic solar panels on the roof, converting sunlight to electricity, the display when you enter the building is all about their 'Ground Source Heat Pump' that uses geothermal energy, moving water through shafts drilled down 1500 feet to heat and cool the building.

Over the last few months I've helped build a wall made out of 'Cob' in Jamaica Plain, helped out at a community weatherization get together at a house in Cambridge, attended a Solar Fair filled with sun-powered gadgets in Somerville, attended a lecture on global warming and food production in Waltham, and visited a city farm in Dorchester. A friend of mine has become famous lately for teaching adults to ride bicycles and I've learned how to do big shopping trips using a bike and a trailer. Appropriate technology has become popular in greater Boston, as I'm sure it has in many other places.

Appropriate technology (also called 'AT', 'Soft Technology', 'Clean/Green Energy', 'Ecological Design', or 'Sustainable Technology') is a concept that's been around for the last forty years, but it's gotten a lot of press lately. The fact that the price of oil and gasoline is skyrocketing probably has something to do with that (not to mention all the press on climate change).

When people talk about pollution, global warming, and/or peak oil, the realization is that on one hand, we are creating the problems with the technology that we have, and on the other, we will still need some energy and technology in order to survive and have good lives, and thus we will need to develop nonpolluting, nonwasteful, nonoil technologies. Now is certainly the time to explore appropriate technology.

Appropriate technology isn't a new thing. It's been developed over the decades in a great many places. A few of the early pioneers from the late '60s are the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod (founded in 1969, unfortunately, it's no longer there but has mutated into Ocean Arks International and Todd Ecological Design; a good recent book on their thinking is Nancy Jack Todd's A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise of Ecological Design) and the Farallones Institute in Berkeley, California (also founded in 1969, their classic book is The Integral Urban House; the Farallones Institute became the the Ecological Design Institute in 1995).

Now we have wind turbines going up everywhere (one I'm particularly fond of is in Dorchester, MA, and can be seen by 'Red Line' trains passing it to go to Dorchester, Quincy, and Braintree--and Hull, MA, apparently has two and is going to be putting four more offshore), solar panels glinting off buildings all around town, and, of course, Cambridge has their City Hall Annex powered by geothermal energy (as are several other places in the state--including at least two schools).

But, as far as I'm concerned, simple technology is one of the most important parts of appropriate technology. People get caught up in what I think of a 'sexy' AT--like wind turbines and photovoltaic cells. For most of us, things like 'super-insulating' houses and using passive solar are probably more useful. Installing passive solar devices, like solar heating and solar hot water, if you can do it, has a much shorter payback period than photovoltaic solar panels. It's just not as glamorous.

Even simpler and less glamorous is the notion of planting trees as part of a passive solar scheme. Deciduous trees on the south side of a house shade it in the summer and let in sunlight to warm the house during the winter. (Planting evergreens in the north shield from the winter wind as well as creating summer shade.)

Bicycling is appropriate technology, as is permaculture and other types of gardening. So are alternative building techniques (such as adobe, cob, straw-and-bale, etc.) Any technology that decreases our reliance on fossil fuels and any technology that allows more people simpler access to what they need is appropriate technology. While AT won't solve all our energy, climate, and pollution problems, it's an important part of the mix. And technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal become more doable when we figure out to become more energy efficient and, more importantly, reduce our energy needs.

Quote of the day: "Appropriate technology reminds us that before we choose our tools and techniques we must choose our dreams and values, for some technologies serve them, while others make them unobtainable." - Tom Bender
Word (or phrase) of the day: Bioregionalism
Hero(es) of the day: Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin)

No comments: