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Technology and sustainable future: choosing between low tech and high tech

For the last half century, technology has been heralded as the only hope for the savior of the human race and sustainability for our future on this planet. But is this assessment accurate?

More and more, industry experts and technology leaders are looking to the mistakes of the past. With a focus on correcting some of those mistakes, some people are starting to believe that technology only feeds our lust for fossil fuels and compounds the problem.

There are arguments to be made on both sides of the aisle. We’ll take a closer look at some of them here.

What is Low Tech?

To put it in a nutshell, low tech is technology that existed before the invention of the silicon transistor, or at least independent from programming and modern science.

It’s really a touchy issue, however. People make leaps in concrete, an invention that has been around for millennia, every single year. The forestry industry also continues to grow by leaps and bounds, as well as plastics and other raw materials.

Far from the world of simple hand tools and sweat that defined the pre-industrial society, low tech solutions can be found in modern materials. Recycling is generally considered low-tech, and even backyard bio diesel can hardly be considered space-aged science.

The modern perception seems to be that low-tech doesn’t require computers to be possible, though it may include them as secondary components for testing or safety.

Low Tech vs High Tech

Often, low tech is viewed as dated technology that is inappropriate for a modern age, and this stigma sets the scene for a generational conception that any technology not involving computers is generally worthless, reserved only for Luddites or the ignorant.

With the progress of technology, however, we have been delivered a world where anything can be tested, including the amount of pollution put out by technology itself.

The same solar energy that is seen as the future of clean energy has a very dirty history. Manufacture of solar panels can have serious consequences on the environment.

Similarly, even seemingly harmless technologies that exist only in cyberspace can be worse than the older tech it is meant to replace. Energy budgets for Bitcoin and other crypto currencies burn enough fossil fuels to make the number of trees cut to print paper currency seem irrelevant.

And what kind of tech wouldn’t be wrapped in a shiny plastic interface to present a clean and sterile interface full of bright coloring and fun features. It’s then packaged in a mixture of polystyrene, cardboard, and more plastic.

Our obsession to make a product look nice is just as bad in some cases as our lust for fossil fuels.

Low Tech and High Tech Examples

To make the distinction more clear, here are some examples of low-tech and high-tech technologies that support a greener future.

High Tech

  • Solar panels
  • Windmills
  • Energy efficient HVAC
  • LED lighting
  • Plant-based Products
  • IoT solutions
  • Automatic timers for electronics

Low Tech

  • Compost bins
  • Bio Diesel production
  • Worm composting
  • Methane digestion
  • Low-water faucets and bathroom fixtures
  • Recycling
  • Community Gardens
  • Carpooling

High Tech Upsides

This isn’t to say that computers are inherently bad. Our understanding of math and science has grown tremendously thanks to the computing power of machines that can outperform armies of mathematicians.

Computer modeling allows us to test new ideas before a single brick is laid on a factory, or even a lab. Technology allows us to share new discoveries faster than ever before, and draw upon innovators from around the world.

Computer modules in vehicles and large machines control complex machines with a precision unattainable by purely mechanical means, making some items, like motor vehicles, more efficient than they have ever been.

That said, high tech cannot solve the problem alone, and it’s time we realized the costs of all of that tech.

The Argument for Low Technology

Low tech means nothing more to some people than hard work with less efficiency. But low-tech manufacturing and supply still lie at the heart of many sectors, especially raw materials.

The problem with recycling isn’t even the technology, it’s the fact that recycling simply isn’t being implemented across the board. Recycling companies can’t even keep up with the trash generated because their purchasers have become fewer and fewer.

In the old days, we didn’t have some of the problems that exist today. While humans have always created trash (starting with shards from knapping flint arrowheads), our modern society has a built in modality of replacing anything that no longer functions to maximum capacity with a completely new and nearly identical item.

Recycling? Repairs? Maintaining value in lasting products? These were once coveted features of any purchase. Today they are almost completely ignored.

By trending toward low-tech solutions, more time and energy is put into each item, but the items are made to last. Complex machines are meant to be maintained and repaired as needed, rather than scrapped. Tools are made with the lifecycle in mind.

When something falls beyond repair, there is a plan in place to reuse the materials. Ancient blacksmiths depended on recycling when the supply of iron and steel was nearly nothing. Wasting any bit of such a precious resource would be a major loss to society.

Even plastics can be designed with a recycling future in mind. When used for durable products that are meant to last, they can even contribute to less waste build up. In short, wasting energy to make throw-away packaging with no future of reuse could be obliterated.

The primary advantage of low tech solutions is that many of them can be done at home or in the backyard, meaning that everyone who wants to lend a helping hand to the planet can participate. Some already practice a policy of reusing anything they have access to.


There are options on both sides of the table, but in the end, to cut out low tech from the picture completely is to lose the advantages that come with low tech solutions.

Computers and fancy science labs can definitely make a lot of things better, but falling back on an ancient standby and modus operandi fused with the technology to pull off manufacturing with precision could drastically arrest the common enemy of pollution.

Both low tech and high tech solutions are needed, and it’s important for us not to rule out a good solution just because it isn’t computerized and wrapped in shiny plastic.

Further reading:

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