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Big Tech Companies Can’t Forget Simple Gadgets, Inventors Say

Wayne Ma, Popular Mechanics
2007 Breakthrough Awards /// The Conference /// Low-Tech Solutions to Global Problems

The tech world is misunderstanding the concept of appropriate technology for developing nations as “low-tech,” leaders in the growing field of practical invention said today at the 2007 Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Conference. In fact, the panelists agreed, it’s likely more difficult to design these technologies for rich, technologically-developed countries, which don’t have to worry about limited resources.

“They’re not low-tech in the sense of dumbed-down,” said Ashok Gadgil, a senior staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who won a Breakthrough Award this year for co-design a super-efficent cookstove refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan. “They’ve taken a huge amount of intellectual effort to design them and keep them simple. They are simple without compromising effectiveness.”

Innovations that make life easier for the world’s poor need to be affordable, repairable, reliable and environmentally sound, stressed Peter Haas, executive director and founder of the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG). And the biggest misconception about implementing new gadgets in the third world is that knowledge only flows globally from the north to the south, he added. “There are geniuses in every village ready to make significant changes to the environment; they just don’t have the access to tools, resources or time.”
(10 October 2007)
Recommended with comments by Emily Gertz at WorldChanging.

Change the message to save the planet

George Marshall, The Guardian
Dropping environmental slogans like ‘save the planet’ to focus on ‘intelligent living’ instead would make a big difference.

…So I say let’s chuck out the tired old phrases from a strategy that is clearly not working. Let’s start from first principles.

People want to make things better. No one feels motivated to do something that simply makes things less bad. They need a positive vision.

People want personal gain. That gain need not be financial: it could be an improvement in their health, happiness or status.

People never want to live with less. But people are prepared to live differently, and they are happy to make the change if they are persuaded that this will bring other benefits.

Put them all together and you get a very different message. And, to further reject the authoritarian tones of instructions to do this or that, I will write it as a personal testimony:

“I have embraced a lighter lifestyle because it is the smart, cool, intelligent and healthy way to live. I want to live in the present and the real world, not be tied to an outdated and dangerous 20th-century way of living. I live this way because I love it, because it makes me feel good and because it is healthy and gives me freedom.

“I feel that I am setting the pace for the 21st century and I am excited to see people all around me trying to catch up. If we all work together we can build a world that is cleaner, fairer and happier and that is what I want to leave my children.”

Isn’t that a better way to look at it?

George Marshall is the founder of the Climate Outreach Information Network and blogs on the psychology of climate change at His book, Carbon Detox: your step by step guide to getting real about climate change, is published today by Gaia Octopus Books.
(15 October 2007)

What a way to go

David MacLeod, Whatcom Independent
Several years ago I read an article in the local daily paper that made my hair stand on end. It was one of those “state of the world” reports, and the article quoted scientists who were telling us that things were not only getting worse, but they were getting worse faster and faster. I remember reading the quote “Business as usual is no longer an option.”

That was a wake-up call for me, and I realized that I needed to start doing more than dutifully recycling my paper, cardboard, and cans. Shortly after that, a new sustainability group in town started meeting, and I began attending.

In 2004 this small group brought a film to town that served as another wake-up call for many of us. The film was The End of Suburbia,which documented the growing concern about “peak oil.” The climate chaos that results when petroleum is burned and escapes our tailpipes has been well documented. Another petroleum problem is a coming shortage of supply.

The film does a terrific job of making the case that world production of oil is very close to its all-time peak. Once we pass that peak, production will thereafter decline inexorably, with the remaining oil becoming increasingly harder to find and more difficult and expensive to extract. For a society built around cheap and abundant fossil fuels, this is a problem of immense proportions.

The End of Suburbia galvanized our little group to action, and soon a new non-profit organization was born: Sustainable Bellingham. The mission of Sustainable Bellingham is not only to raise awareness about issues such as peak oil and climate change, but also to promote the co-creation of sustainable community in Bellingham and the surrounding bioregion.

In my volunteer work for Sustainable Bellingham, I edit a weekly e-mail listing of sustainability events and provide links to articles of interest. A couple of months ago I came across a Scientific American article that stated that seafood may have peaked in 1994.

One expert claimed that this might be the last century of wild seafood. This got me to thinking about the news coming out about the dramatic decline of bees, and the slower but long-term decline of many birds. Washington State alone has at least 39 endangered plant and animal species.

It becomes a bit overwhelming to think about and comprehend all of these problems at once and together, but it is quite important to do so. As long as we keep thinking about the problems with the world’s “resources” as isolated and to be dealt with individually, the more likely we are to turn to inappropriate band-aid solutions.

All of these problems are connected to the fact that we’re living on a planet with physical limitations and finite resources at a time when the compounding effect of population growth is finally being felt and experienced.

Meanwhile, we live in a culture that worships at the altar of hyper consumption and endless economic growth. So, we have skyrocketing CO2, peak oil, and past peak on clean water, seafood, wood, resource minerals and metals, and the list goes on and on.

On a whim, I decided to Google “Peak Everything.” What I found was a new book by leading peak oil educator Richard Heinberg, with that exact title. Heinberg covers all of the above issues and argues that we must begin now to make radical changes to our attitudes, behaviors and expectations.

Covering some of the same territory is the new and powerful documentary film, What A Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire. Sustainable Bellingham and Whatcom Community College are proud to be bringing it to town on Friday, Oct. 12, along with several other local non-profits and businesses that were happy to get on board as co-sponsors. We’re excited that the filmmakers will be present for this special screening.

The film interviews Heinberg as well as numerous other thinkers, such as Daniel Quinn, Jerry Mander, and Thomas Berry. Writer/director Tim Bennett reveals his own awakening of how, “A middle class white guy comes to grips with peak oil, climate change, mass extinction, population overshoot and the demise of the American lifestyle.”

Yes, these topics can feel overwhelming. This film will help us move through and beyond the overwhelm by engaging us with some important questions, which will be further explored with the filmmakers after the screening. What do we truly want? Can we find a new vision that will empower us to do what is necessary to survive, and even thrive, in the coming decades? As is said in the film, “We are much more than we’ve ever been allowed to believe.”

David MacLeod is a lifelong Bellingham resident, and serves on the Sustainable Bellingham Vision Team and Web Team. Please visit the website at
(11 October 2007)

The Environmental Movement in the Global South:
The Pivotal Agent in the Fight against Global Warming

Walden Bello, Focus on the Global South via ZMag
The developing world’s stance towards the question of the environment has often been equated with the pugnacious comments of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir, such as his famous lines at the Rio Conference on the Environment and Development in June 1992:

When the rich chopped down their own forests, built their poison-belching factories and scoured the world for cheap resources, the poor said nothing. Indeed they paid for the development of the rich. Now the rich claim a right to regulate the development of the poor countries…As colonies we were exploited. Now as independent nations we are to be equally exploited 1.

Mahathir has been interpreted in the North as speaking for a South that seeks to catch up whatever the cost and where the environmental movement is weak or non-existent. Today, China is seen as the prime exemplar of this Mahathirian obsession with rapid industrialization with minimal regard for the environment.

This view of the South’s perspective on the environment is a caricature. In fact, the environmental costs of rapid industrialization are of major concern to significant sectors of the population of developing countries and, in many of them, the environmental movement has been a significant actor. Moreover, there is currently an active discussion in many countries of alternatives to the destabilizing high-growth model.

Emergence of the Environmental Movement in the NICs

Among the most advanced environmental movements are those in Korea and Taiwan, which were once known as “Newly Industrializing Countries” (NICs). This should not be surprising since the process of rapid industrialization in these two societies from 1965 to 1990 took place with few environmental controls, if any. In Korea, the Han River that flows through Seoul and the Nakdong River flowing through Pusan were so polluted by unchecked dumping of industrial waste that they were close to being classified as biologically dead. Toxic waste dumping reached critical proportions. Seoul achieved the distinction in 1978 of being the city with the highest content of sulphuric dioxide in the air, with high levels being registered as well in Inchon, Pusan, Ulsan, Masan, Anyang, and Changweon2.

In Taiwan, high-speed industrialization had its own particular hellish contours. Taiwan’s formula for balanced growth was to prevent industrial concentration and encourage manufacturers to set up shop in the countryside. The result was a substantial number of the island’s 90,000 hectares locating on rice fields, along waterways, and beside residences. With three factories per square mile, Taiwan’s rate of industrial density was 75 times that of the US. One result was that 20 per cent of farm land was polluted by industrial waste water and 30 per cent of rice grown on the island was contaminated with heavy metals, including mercury, arsenic, and cadmium3.

In both societies, farmers, workers, and the environment bore the costs of high-speed industrialization. Both societies, it is not surprising, saw the emergence of an environmental movement that was spontaneous, that drew participants from different classes, that saw environmental demands linked with issues of employment, occupational health, and agricultural crisis, and that was quite militant.
(13 October 2007)