The Age of Low Tech by Philippe Bihouix: review by Mark Garavan

For some time now a simple climate change narrative has been foregrounded in the political and media mainstream. This has been particularly evident in the wake of the most recent IPCC Report. In this narrative, climate change is acknowledged but is seen primarily as a problem of excess CO2 in the atmosphere. The key issue is presented as the need to reduce carbon by phasing out the burning of fossil fuels and replacing them with renewable forms of energy. The political fault-line is then drawn around how quickly one does this. Indeed, the substance of much of the various climate conferences has often centred on the question of the speed of this replacement. Conservatives want to move slowly, radicals quickly. In either case though the proposal being pushed forward is that the core challenge is simply to switch our energy source from carbon to various renewables and the issue of climate is solved. The current economic system then carries on and does so even better than before. Better because it is now rendered ‘sustainable’, that is, it can endure ad infinitum.

Philippe Bihouix’s book is a sharp wake-up call that cuts easily through this facile analysis. His book shows in clear terms not only just how simplistic this narrative is but how plain wrong it is. Drawing on straight-forward engineering assessments, he shows how renewable forms of energy cannot in a physical, literal sense replace carbon. The tangible raw materials required to fully replace carbon sources with new energy production methods simply don’t exist. Even the attempt to extract and produce them will precipitate the very climate crisis that the endeavour is seeking to avoid. More generally, new technological solutions, including the proffered ‘green technologies’, inevitably require vast material resources that just are not available. The first Part of his book addresses this question in detail and concludes:

‘Let us summarize: wind, solar, biomass, biofuels, algae or modified bacteria, hydrogen, methanation, whatever the technologies, we will be caught out by physical constraints: by our inability to fully recycle materials (we make wind turbines and solar panels today using materials that we do not know how to recycle); by the availability of metals; by the land area that the technologies demand, and by intermittency and low yields.’ (31)

So, business as usual is not an option and a straight renewable swap is not either. The issue of course is not carbon as such – it is the very system itself. The contemporary capitalist model relies on modes of production and consumption which depend utterly on cheap and available material resources, and perpetual growth. Without it the system cannot endure. 

What then are we to do? Bihouix’s answer is unequivocal and direct.

‘Like it or not, there only remains the very rational option to apply the brakes: reduce, as quickly and as drastically as possible, the average consumption of resources per person … The choice is not between growth and degrowth, but between imposed degrowth – because the resource issue will catch up with us in due course – or elective degrowth.’ (50)

He suggests seven ways to do this. In summary, he argues that the objective is to choose low tech options – simple, accessible ways of doing things. However, his first suggestion is nothing to do with technology as such but rather with how modern humans understand their needs. 

‘The first question should not be “how to fill this or that need (or desire …) in a more ecological way?”, but “could one live as well, under certain conditions, without this need?” (51)

His simple but striking axiom is that ‘there is no product or service more ecologically sound, resource efficient or recyclable than the one that we do not use.’ (50). There are echoes here of Anne Ryan’s concept of ‘enough’. The objective here is to radically reduce demand (what he terms the ecology of demand) rather than supply (the ecology of demand or the chimera of ‘green growth’). 

If we took this suggestion seriously, as we should, we would utterly transform our societies. Our problem is that this de-linking, or short-circuiting in Richard Douthwaite’s term, is incredibly difficult given how deeply embedded we are in an over-whelming social and economic structure.

In response to this, Bihouix addresses how we might simplify and reduce the technological nature of our economy and our consequent dependence on complex technology. He takes up Illich’s idea of the ‘convivial society’ in which modern tools serve communities rather than be the preserve of experts, even if this results in lower performance.

I particularly appreciate his final proposal in this regard which is to stay modest. By which he means that we learn how to re-situate ourselves in a world full of wonder and mystery. We need poetry and philosophy as much as science.

We cannot control everything, and that will also be true of a transition to a world of low technologies. ‘The road is not clear, everything is now so confused, so “systemic” with its positive and negative feedback loops, that it is not worth trying to unroll a plan developed in advance, since at best nothing will go exactly as planned.’ (79)

However, Part III of the book attempts to sketch out what such a low-tech world might look like. Bihouix examines various features of society such as food, transport, construction, consumer products, IT, and our money system. Much of these thoughts might be familiar to Feasta members but nonetheless they are explored in an interesting and novel way. He attempts to quantify exactly how far we must slow down and reduce to truly achieve an ecological balance – ‘I would bet on 20 to 25 per cent of our current (Western) consumption, at best’ …’ (132). 

Such a drastic reduction, and the challenges it would pose to our Western perceptions of the ‘good life’, raises the obvious objection that the key obstacle to all of this is how to bring about transformation on such a scale within the norms of democracy and popular consent. Is ‘transition’ of this magnitude possible? Bihouix’s response is that the first thing to recognise is that the status quo is impossible. Change will come, whether we like it or not. The only question is whether it will be ‘collapse, debacle, or perhaps adaptation in fits and starts’ (140). Bihouix favours ‘a scenario of involuntary adaptation, that will be socially painful and will have a profound impact on our societies, but which will be gradual all the same’ (141). He examines a number of policies which might help societies better negotiate the change, such as maintaining a ‘lifetime’ wage through extended unemployment insurance, introducing a universal basic income, and/or reducing and sharing working hours.

Given how potentially unnerving much of this may be to modern electorates, he concludes with an interesting response to the democratic challenge:

‘The only solution is to make the transition desirable, to convince ourselves that change can liberate us, make us happier, make us live in a more just world, right from the start, because, as Lao Tzu told us: “the goal is not only the goal, but the path that leads to it.”’ (158)

On the one hand radical change can appear to be ‘collapse’ and will likely be interpreted in that way by many. But it can also be understood as a step in our evolution to a better mode of being on our shared and finite planet. There is the prospect of a new creative cultural expansion that could emerge from the entrails of the disintegrating system. 

Bihouix has written lightly and warmly about a topic that could otherwise paralyse us in fear and despair. His book was a best seller in France when published there in 2014 and had quite an impact. The English translation by Chris McMahon is very welcome indeed. Bihouix’s solutions favour the simple and the do-able but are not at all naïve to the systemic nature of what is ultimately required. He is well aware of the nature of debt-based money and its requirement for endless economic growth. Nonetheless, in place of the utopian mirages of techno-humanity and post-human hybrids, or the dystopian possibilities of tech run amok, he offers instead the old Schumacher idea of small is beautiful – a human-scale society integrated into the wider planet. The new culture will seek to ‘slow down, simplify, disconnect, reduce’ (162). 

‘Let’s always ask ourselves: Can I do without? Can I do less? Can I make it easier? And by the way, why do I have to do that? And couldn’t I do with what already exists?’ (162)

The Age of Low Tech – Towards a Technologically Sustainable Civilization. Philippe Bihouix (translated from French by Chris McMahon). Bristol University Press, 2020.

Featured image: Yin Yang symbol on paper. Author: hvaldez1. Source: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/yin-yang-symbol-on-paper-and-balance-1306190

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

2 Replies to “The Age of Low Tech by Philippe Bihouix: review by Mark Garavan”

  1. I very much appreciate your review of Professor of Engineering Design Chris McMahon’s translation of Philippe Bihouix. You have drawn my attention to aspects of Philippe’s thought that I had not fully appreciated, even though I have read the book. I particularly appreciate your flagging: “Bihouix favours ‘a scenario of involuntary adaptation, that will be socially painful and will have a profound impact on our societies, but which will be gradual all the same”.
    Thanks also for your reference to Ann Ryan’s work.
    Both Philippe and Chris continue to push their useful thought further. Chris has drawn attention to continuing assessment of available resources for industrial societies. The work of Julian Allwood is a case in point focussing on the UK https://ukfires.org/professor-julian-allwood/. Engineers it seems need a broad scan of the horizon when they take on major work, although ‘the miners’ have tended to see it as a matter of more mining.
    Having said that, it is my experience – I am not an engineer – that especially young people engaged in all modern ‘technical’ jobs and education, are immersed in a world of innovative technological expansion and take for granted this is going to continue for their careers.
    I was in a private discussion recently when people who had worked in China or had long had contacts with Chinese education, rather sombrely commented that young people there had been so immersed in the political and cultural environment that they took it for granted. Well … indeed.
    A rather neglected and underused website at Ecosophic Isles is due a revamp but the private discussions continue actively enough. We originally got together because we had been following discussions developed round the essays and books of the American writer JM Greer. Although we are inevitably part of the Anglophone world, we guess there are differences this side of the Atlantic and that we have a different legacy and neighbourhood. Some of the work and Bihouix-related comment on industrial resources is available at the site https://ecosophic-isles.org/
    best wishes
    Phil Harris

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