Act: Inspiration

A Review of ‘The Age of Low Tech’ by Philippe Bihouix

September 28, 2022

bookcoverThe Age Low Tech is a funny, informal, practical, angry, and subtly deep book. Released in 2014, its discussion of energy crisis and supply chain fragility feel prescient to 2022, and it’s implicitly degrowth tone has only grown more relevant to major policy debates. Its central thesis is that the high-tech world has failed us, and the only path to a technologically sustainable civilization is the eponymous age of low tech.

Full of straightforward language, statistics, data, and calculations, the author’s extensive background as an engineer imbues the book with an easy but authoritative tone. However, it is much more like a conversation with, than a book by, an engineer. Bihouix can quickly oscillate between descriptions of Europe’s concrete manufacturing infrastructure, scatological jokes, and bitter micro-polemics against those who should have known better. Age of Low Tech thus reads like a recollection from a casual discussion with a fierce but jaded mind. Bihouix is passionate, erudite, and knowledgeable, but the book has an undertone of disappointment that is difficult to miss, though integral to its ultimate message.

Theory without the Theoretical

One of the most distinct aspects of Age Of Low Tech is how seamlessly it develops a clear theoretical picture of our predicament, without resorting to academic jargon. With practical, data-driven language, the book outlines how the modus operandi of industrial civilization so far, that of innovating our way out of successive material crises, has run its course. Previous crises of resource exhaustion or energy shortage have always been overcome by the same extractive methodologies applied to another untapped resource or energy source. And worse, these jumps from one resource to another invariably involve more extraction (even with efficiency increases). Very rarely does this next stage of extraction actually lower the consumption of the prior, depleting resource, but simply plugs the exponentially increasing gap. This leap-frogging from one over-exploitation to another, “like a swarm of locusts”, is what is usually meant by the term ‘innovation’, Bihouix explains.

But the success of innovation has always relied on factors beyond human control. “Peak-everything” has passed, Bihouix tells us, in that the easy-to-get deposits (of everything from silver to fish) are long gone, and the future is nothing but a slog to get at the more difficult, less efficient resource pools. High-tech civilization denies the possibility of innovation occurring any other way.

However, it is tempting to presume that we have ‘real’ high-tech innovations in the works, or at least around the corner. Innovation that truly solves problems without resorting to more intense exploitation of resources, ecosystems, or the human mind. Bihouix is not blind to this line of thought and goes into short, in-depth discussions of these fields, such as the circular economy, biotech, nanotech, dematerialisation, and the digital economy. The prognosis is not good:

“Green growth and new technologies […] at best make it possible to slow down the collapse and at worst will inadvertently speed it up, through systemic effects”

Having set the scene for why a high-tech future is not the path beyond collapse, Bihouix spends the next two chapters outlining how, and why, a low-tech future is not only necessary, but also more desirable.

Who Wipes?

The book has a pleasantly simple layout. High tech is causing us to hurtle towards a collapse, so how do we sort it with low-tech? The answers come in discrete vignettes, and whilst still data-driven, inevitably delve into the social and even moral dimensions of various technologies and their applications. This is important because the ‘age of low tech’ is not an inverted caricature of the high-tech world, and the appropriateness or not of technologies is often very disconnected from how we socially conceive of them.

For example, cement factories (if better situated) are one of the endeavors Bihouix sees as justifiable in a low-tech world, but the widespread use of water toilets is not. Cosmetics should be let alone, whereas security tags are one of the most egregious wastes of material conceivable (trust me, he will convince you). The social and material impact of certain products is often indistinguishable, and Bihouix’s first act of praxis towards a low-tech age would be the banning of advertising leaflets.

Often times he pokes fun at our sensibilities around lowering energy usage, before explaining it will only really compel us to reduce egregious (over)uses of energy, and not the fundamentals. He jokes about the animated movie Madagascar:

“your mean you live in a mud-hut, wipe yourself with a leaf-type wild?” exclaims the worried lion. To which [King Julian] responds with a Gleeful smile: “Who wipes?”

But as he is quick to point out, the underlying suggestion of the joke is something we should seriously consider. Instead of creating more efficient and energy-smart systems for things like office flatscreens and private jets, why not just stop using them? It’s usually easier to discard something than cleanly accommodate its massive material and energetic footprint, and at the end of the day, it’s only our transient sensibilities that could ever be harmed. The Age of Low Tech can at times be a jarring read, but with wit and humour the conclusions go down more easily, and the occasional diatribe against our “Energetic Debauchery” reminds you of why we need them.

Wear a Jumper?

Here, there is an interesting contrast and comparison to be made with Britain’s contemporary heating struggles. With spiraling energy bills and abysmal insulation, Britain’s homes are in for a difficult winter (if they intend to stay warm). Bihouix’s answer to our high-tech civilization’s overeliance on gas for heating is to invest in better jumpers and long-johns. This has been echoed in the British media, but roundly denounced as placing a societal burden on its most vulnerable individuals. But the British example is not a low-tech world, we are still expected to work full-time jobs, consume cheap commodities, and prop up a high-tech society that only ever demands more from us, the earth, and its ecology.

The Age of Low Tech is an altogether different social contract. There are a lot less computers, but a lot more free time. You’ll have to do more things yourself, but also pay for less services. Fewer commodities, better goods. We’ll use central heating less in a low-tech world, too, but it won’t be because fossil-fuel oligarchs are engaging in society wide price-gouging.

In this sense, we see how engineering problems are irreducible from their social and moral context, one of Bihouix’s central messages. Technology is never neutral; it is the physical manifestation of human social relations. If you have a socio-economic system that produces for the purpose of selling, you’ll get a society of pointless commodities, mass waste, and addictive technology. A Low-tech world will have its own hardships and annoyances to be sure, but what Bihouix shows is that (in the grand scheme of things) low-tech isn’t actually that low tech. it’s about appropriate technology, technology that responds to social needs, but not a return to the caves. The age of low tech is saving us from not just the contemporary social cost of high-tech, but also its inevitable collapse. It’s low-tech or no-tech, as Bihouix points out, after a brief social detour through high-tech. Through the data, the humour, and even the sprinklings of bitterness, Age of Low Tech is a passionate plea for a society building, repairing, and designing for a purpose higher than money.

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But there is also an inverse to this passion. This lingering fatalism haunts the narrative, and can only come from an author with decades of experience in the field he is seeking to reform. There is always the bitter feeling that we can do it all and be better for it, but won’t.

Forlorn hope.

The last chapter of this book has a different feel. Whereas the rest of the book draws easy and authoritative conclusions from incisive examinations of the data, “Part IV: Is ‘Transition’ Possible” often feels like it is groping for an answer.

The contemporary techno-industrial trajectory of our civilization is physically impossible to continue, as the book again points out. But whilst Bihouix presents good evidence to suggest that the ‘elasticity of consumption’ means we can quite easily lower our needs without a drop in living standards, there is a good chance we will only get the former — and involuntarily at that. Oligarchs will continue to indulge, and the chance of a gentle transition to a low-tech age for the rest of us is slim. Bihouix’s pleasant confidence begins to erode as the chapter goes on, and his analysis of everything from employment to export economics and moral alteration, veers into the realm of concluding the need for political revolution. This is not Bihouix’s specialty, and so he very reasonably does not discuss this next leap. His positively remains, if for no other reason than all the solutions he proposed are physically possible and could be done very quickly if we tried. But will we try?

The final paragraph sums up this mood, it is passionate and hopeful, but without any of the book’s earlier confidence:

“So lets stop being fatalistic: if transition is necessary, it is certainly possible. We have ample technical, financial, social, and organisational resources. Our planet is old and tired, but it has seen other challenges and we may be surprised by its ability to recover as soon as we start to reverse current trends. Its only waiting for us to take the first step…”

A dream if ever there were one.

A perfect corollary to The Age of Low Tech is the book The Shock of the Anthropocene. One of the central conclusions of the latter book is that the past is full of missed choices to avoid the Anthropocene extinction event. There is no reason this had to be the case, each time we could have avoided it, a conscious (though not always fully aware) decision was made to pursue the ecological apocalypse of a high-tech civilization. Depressing at face value, but this conclusion drives away resignation and fatalism. If we made the wrong choices in the past, we only have to make the right ones now — we are not flotsam washed by the tides of history, but its active navigators.

This is the tone of Bihouix’s epilogue: A Dream If Ever There Were One. The hour is late, and the world has gone crazy, but we still have a choice. “Let us make immediate and courageous decisions!” he declares, right alongside “let’s do some DIY.” Whereas in the last chapter he danced around political revolution, here he actively demands it:

“How in these circumstances can we accept the existence of a class of ultra-rich?”.

This is the glue that binds the books together. The elegant engineering solutions of low-tech, and the intractable socio-economic inertia of high-tech find their resolution through political change.

It’s easy to feel forlorn with the rest of the book, we know the problem, and have most of the solution, but don’t implement it. But an instruction manual isn’t what makes the object, it’s you. I expected the age of low tech to be a guide to a different future, which it certainly is, but it is also a call to make that future happen.

Photo by Amy Reed on Unsplash

Ben Shread-Hewitt

Ben is a Polycrisis researcher who studies the feedback loops between change in ecological, political, and economic systems. He currently works at the Climate Bonds Initiative, where he is building financial networks to drive forward climate action and combat fossil fuel proliferation.

He has an MSc in Sustainability, Planning, and Environmental Policy. Find him on TwitterLinkedIn, and Medium.

Tags: building resilient societies, low tech, powering down