Guidelines for Sustainable Technology

 This graphic (too appropriate to pass up) is from http://connexionsandcontradictions.blogspot.com/ (check it out)

Technology: Neither Savior nor Villain but Choice

By Madronna Holden

Since Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, declared that humans should do things because they can do them, our technology has taken on a double life as hero and villain. On the one hand technology is the hero in the story of progress, in which it assumes the power to shelter us, feed us, and extend our lifespan.  In this heroic guise, technology conquers nature and harnesses it to human ends.

However,  to conquer nature we must not only conquer our natural selves but override the natural order.  Technology conceived under this worldview has led to climate instability, the destruction of vast quantities of ocean life, toxic releases into our environment and accompanying cancer epidemics, persistent loss of soil fertility in industrial farming, and loss of the biodiversity that underlies the resilience of natural systems.

In the face of such crises, some resort to denial—denying that human actions contribute to climate change, for instance. Media financed by corporations dependent on current technologies have a hand in this:  whereas a recent review of peer-reviewed papers in science journals found 97 per cent of them took climate change as a given and focused on tactics to deal with it, over forty per cent of media stories in the same period focused on climate change “skepticism”–giving the impression of doubt in the scientific community that does not exist.

Such publicity also supports the idea that we can fix our problems with more of the same:  fantastic technologies to set mirrors in space to control the sunlight falling to earth, for instance.  It presents technology as eventually winning out if we just keep at it.  By this reasoning, it is okay to amass nuclear waste on faith that some generation in the future will figure out what to do with it.

In the context of overwhelming environmental crises, by contrast, many see technology as a villain.  They would return to a time “before technology”.

But technology itself is nothing more or less than a tool.  In fact, we became human through the technology of culture: by passing down our knowledge and experience between generations.  There is no human society without technology to return to.

And importantly, conceived as either hero or villain, technology is both larger than life—and impervious to choice.

Sustainable Technology Guidelines

In his historical analysis of modern technology, Ulrich Beck  argues that when we create technology without designing standards for it. the very technology that was meant to free us becomes a kind of fate– spiraling out of control. 

We must remedy this by choosing the kinds of  technology we will accept in order to fulfill the UN’s classic definition of sustainability: that the current generation of humans meet its needs without compromising the ability of succeeding generations to meet theirs.  As Amy Kocourek indicates in her comment here, this brings up the important issue of our definition of need.  Sustainable technology can never meet the needs of ourselves and of future generations if it seen as simply a new way to maintain the consumerist society we currently have.

Here are my suggestions for the criteria on which we might base that choice.

  • Sustainable technology must put us in touch with the results of our actions

Using a tool in the dark is dangerous for both ourselves and our world. Too often, technology (the food processing industry, modern sewage systems) disguises our relationship to the natural lives upon which we rely– and the results of our actions on these.

The contrast between the technology that distances us from the results of our actions and technology which brings us closer to them is illustrated by the difference between the “readiness to harm”  flowing from the invisibility of nuclear hazards outlined by  Arjun Makhijani,  and Siletz Takelma elder Grandma Aggie’s technology of story, which brings us face to face with the effects of our actions on other species and other nations.  In the one case, dangerous technologies spring up in the breach between our action and our perception: in the other, technology fosters the careful observation and compassionate care that led to sustainable indigenous practices persisting for thousands of years.

Though it is unlikely that each of us would be able to become experts in the range of technologies used by our current society, this rule implies public transparency of an industry’s processes.  There is a reason why Polyface Farm, with its emphasis on sustainability with its careful modeling on natural system, places transparency as its first principle, and by contrast, the commercial US meat-packing industry fought not merely  to keep visitors out of its premises, but to keep pictures of its processes private.

Knowing what goes on in the technology that produces our food or energy tends to lead to more responsible– and healthful– choices. This rule is related to the public’s right to know, following current  right to know initiatives like that in Eugene, Oregon, which requires business reporting of toxic releases.  Over time, such data allows for the analysis of environmental effects of particular chemicals.  It also motivates businesses to become leaders in developing and using processes that they are proud to showcase:  as in the case of Forrest Paint in Eugene, which has become a national leader in recapture of chemicals in paint manufacturing and re-constitution and re-use of leftover paint products.

(Thanks to my student Neyssa Hays whose comment below reminded me to draw out this guideline in further detail).

In using resources from natural systems, we must follow nature’s debit system.

Human technology is capable of increasing the long term abundance and fertility of natural systems by returning to them more than it takes, as illustrated by the indigenous botanical practices in the Pacific Northwest—or the restoration and recovery of lands in Bangladesh and Mexico though indigenous agricultural methods.

In contrast, industrial agriculture is highly unsustainable in its failure to pay its natural debts.  Soil scientist Fred Magdoff details the negative feedback loop in which such agriculture compensates for the declining soil fertility it creates though injections of energy (chemical pesticides and fertilizers) from without.

There are many ways to be clever about this:  as in the recent idea for chemical-free pest management in rice fields that both raises soil fertility and cuts waste.

  • Sustainable technology must honor the limits of natural systems

Growth is an aspect of the natural world that expresses its fecundity.   But natural communities grow through transformation, exchange and creation of diversity—not by the accumulation of material goods in a way that toxifies, removes, or ties up the stuff of life away from its natural community.

We must grow within the context of natural systems: following the model of “natural capitalism”, for instance, we would conserve material resources and grow human ones such as knowledge and craft. The former are limited; the latter are not.

In honoring natural limits, sustainable technology must use renewable energy sources (this addition courtesy of Amanda Wilson) and/or put back what it draws from natural systems (courtesy of Brandt Hines).

  • Sustainable technology must be recognizable to natural systems and other natural lives

This is the primal wisdom of societies who saw all natural lives as their kin:  for hundreds of millions of years, ecological systems have developed in balance and concert so that all lives recognize each other in their physical make up, fitting together as the family of life.

Our technology must adapt itself to our natural family rather than expecting the chemistry and order of the natural world to adapt to us. . In referring to the living roofs, for instance, William McDonough says: “Imagine that you have a building that looks up into the sky, and the birds flying overhead can look down from the sky and say. ―Oh, it‘s our people – they‘re back! ‘ “

  • Sustainable technology must  follow the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle states that we must not release new technologies into the environment until they are proven safe. This reverses the usual practice in the contemporary US, in which chemicals, for instance, must be proven dangerous before we stop their release.

The precautionary principle is a way of extending our care into the future, as “fore-caring”. This principle honors human ingenuity with the faith that we can observe our world with care and act with finesse.

This is a principle of justice as well as ecology, which inhibits the creation of profit for some by transferring harm to others.

  • Any waste produced by sustainable technology must be food for natural life

This simply follows the model of natural systems in which waste produced by some always equals food for others.  This means that any heavy metals, etc., used by a particular technology must not be waste:  they must be safely re-captured and reused.

Whereas sustainable technology cannot turn food or energy into waste, it can do the opposite:  catalyze the turning of waste into food.  Bringing the leaves from my neighbors’ trees that our city would otherwise haul away onto my yard as food for the soil is an example.  The city of Olympia, Washington does this on a larger scale, hauling away all forms of kitchen and yard waste to a business contracted to turn it into compost.

  • Sustainable technology must foster biodiversity and thus natural resilience

Resilience is intimately linked to biodiversity through a simple bottom line: the more choices one has, the more options with which to survive stress.

In honoring diversity, technology should be specific to place, responding to the irreplaceable specificity of the land—and the lives of all species that have thrived on it.


What would you add to this list? Which particular technologies ought to be included or excluded on these grounds?

Jon Unger has suggested two additions that are linked to the social context of sustainable technology that have caused me to add two more ideas for consideration here:

  • Sustainable technology should be democratic in its  development, implementation and accessibility

If society does not choose its technologies, as stated at the beginning of this essay,  it becomes governed by them.  Technology that is readily understandable and user friendly  is key to being able to choose it– or reject it– according to its effects.   This is an issue central to the democratic nature of sustainable technology.

In the words of OSU student John Aldridge, “It is important that highly-industrialized nations recognize their moral obligation to pay their environmental dues” by making sure that the technological “help” they provide other nations passes the  “litnus  test”  of being environmentally sound, as well as being freely accepted by and  “consistent with the worldview of the receiver.

“Furthermore”,  Aldridge continues, “developers and distributors of technology should not market their tools as exclusive goods. If a nation is in need of a good, it should be available.”  This means, for instance, that patent laws should not stand in the way of health or environmental sustainability.  If developers and distributors do not wish to follow the model of Gaviotas and make their developments patent-free, they can at least avoid the actions of the pharmaceuticals who sued South Africa for patent infringement when it developed an inexpensive antibiotic to prevent infant deaths.

Further,  technological development must not infringe on other populations by using their DNA for genome research or their traditions for profit without their knowledge or economic compensation. In terms of patents in general, Vandana Shiva’s standards in the  “no patents on life” campaign is a good way to avoid patent abuses such as that in which a US firm patented the basmati rice that was developed in India– making it “illegal” for its own originators to use it without paying this firm.

  • Sustainable technology should be cost effective

Mr. Unger sees this as part of sustainable technology’s appeal to the “mass consumer”.  I see it as something more.  It is important that technology be available to the larger portion of humans rather than only to the upper or elite class. As the community of Gaviotas indicates in its refusal to patent any of its inventions, sustainable technology should be grounded in its values and effectiveness–in its use for all– rather than profit for a few.

To make technology cost effective, the US must cut its “perverse subsidies” that result, for example, in fresh local food raised organically and purchased locally being more costly than highly processed and packaged food transported over thousands of miles.

Without “perverse subsidies”, sustainable food production would be less costly (and thus more readily available to all), since it has lower costs of transportation, packaging, advertising, chemical and fossil fuel inputs, than does highly processed food. There is a parallel case to be made in the example of energy:  if we cut massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and price technology at its true environmental and health costs, other energy producing  technologies would be cost effective in comparison– including the most important energy producing tact of all– conservation. And since nuclear plants are so expensive to insure, they would never be built without their government subsidies.

As Laura Zeljeznjak notes in her comment below, another aspect of this cost-effectiveness is that sustainable technology should be cost-effective for the natural world.  It should be made or drawn from sustainable materials rather than those and use up rare and irreplaceable resources, as well as ravaging other natural lives and their habitats.

Altogether, the “pricing” of sustainable technology must follow an emphatically different model from technology based on  “profit” for its developers (or in the case of patents on particular natural products, its self–proclaimed “discoverers”).  As discussed in the “The Trouble with Progress”, technology driven by the profit motive has succeeded only in ravaging the planet and undermining our relationships with other lives, human and more than human–and thus is the opposite of sustainable options.


We belong to this world, whose history has gifted us with our intelligence and our capacity for care. We must accept this tremendous gift and bear it with the honor it deserves for the sake of  all the lives who share our world.


It Can be Done

Polyface Farm, for instance, has developed an agricultural model that fulfills all of these criteria.

Gaviotas in Colombia has developed an entire community grounded in such principles, still going strong after over 40 years.

And then there are the sustained yield forest practices of the Menominee Tribe.

Any examples you want to add here?

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

The Fourth Annual Willamette River Blessing: Opposing the Readiness to Harm

By Madronna Holden

What Traditional Stories and Ceremony Can Teach us About Sustainable Technology

On April 17, 2011,  the Willamette River flowed past the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon,  in great swells, rolling up over its banks and swirling through wetlands of willows– full of of itself for the annual river blessing led by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.

For 22,000 years, Grandma Aggie told those gathered to take part in the blessing ceremony, her Takelma ancestors had lived in the Rogue River valley south of here, which they felt the Creator had shaped especially for them.

It was with “sick hearts”, a Rogue River man explained, that they moved at the hands of soldiers to the Siletz Reservation so many miles away. It was a sickness, an early reservation official wrote, that was serious indeed– since many who suffered it died as a result.  One man begged that if he might just have one more look at his land, he would be satisfied. But these are the points of history I am adding here. Grandma Aggie doesn’t call attention to them.

She has no rancor over this:  what is done is done, she says, and none of us were there.  Now we need to go forward in love for one another—and care for the earth that sustains us all. Over a century after her people were confined on the reservation surrounded by military forts to prevent them from attempting to go home, Grandma Aggie felt the call of the land and returned to live in her people’s homeland, reviving the ancient salmon ceremony there.

Her people’s ancient story of the salmon, Grandma Aggie says. taught her the salmon were people just like us who sacrifice themselves for our well-being.  It was this story that motivated her to dedicate herself to freeing the local rivers of dams and pollution.  Now all the dams are removed from the Rogue and it runs free its entire length.

But there is much yet to do to care for the waters of the world yet.

Grandma Aggie is fond of saying that we are all “water babies”—and through the water that gives us life we are all connected.  Thus she honors the requests of  communities  throughout the Northwest to bless their local rivers; bringing the message that working for the well-being of the rivers is working for our own well-being.

She warns us not to complain of the rain that settled over the Northwest this past week, but to speak well of water that is precious—and disappearing from so many parts of the world where she and the indigenous grandmothers have traveled. How we speak of the rain, she said, is how we speak to the water in ourselves.

As we circle close by the river and Grandma Aggie pours into it the waters of the other rivers of the world she has visited, I am struck by the simplicity and reverence of the traditions represented here.  A man at Grandma’s side prays to be one of the men who supports the work of the grandmothers, as men everywhere should be– and he tries to teach his boys.  Many who speak are choked with tears as they speak of their grief for the hurting earth and ask forgiveness of the living water for allowing its pollution.

We should treat the water as a “god”, Grandma Aggie tells us, with the reverence due that which gives us life.

Lest some of us get caught up in struggles over terms, we might use Grandma Aggie’s model of openness as she participates in the ceremonies of the other indigenous grandmothers, praying to the Creator with these words, “These ways are not my ways, but help me to gain something from them, too.”

Treating water as a “god” means listening to the natural world in a way that has pragmatic pay offs.  Grandma Aggie predicted the problems with disease among hatchery salmon before modern science verified it.

The people who lived with their land for 22,000 years expressed the vital humility that allowed them to attend to the natural lives that sustained them–and thus to live in a way that supported the abundance and fertility of their lands.

“Grandfather, help us keep the rivers clean for the sake of all the swimmers”, Grandma Aggie prays, as an eagle circles overhead, swallows circle the water in droves (flitting away after the ceremony), and ducks  bobble up on the bubbling water as if to learn closer to her words. At their presence, Grandma Aggie smiles the same smile she gives to children when she says she is “everybody’s Grandma”.

And for that moment, we are all part of a web of life that is whole.

Grandma Aggie’s stance exemplifies a technology of reverence:  a technology that brings lives together.  If technology’s purpose is to extend our reach in the world, sustainable technology should extend our sight as well.  Thus the story-technology of Grandma Aggie’s people reminds us that what we do touches other lives that are like our own in value and meaning—and upon which our own lives depend.

It is a technology that extends human reach by strengthening bonds of intimacy:  and thus motivating humans to act in a way that protects the precious fabric of life—a goal which Grandma Aggie specifically reminds us

Last October, the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers were in Japan, in the precise location where the devastating earthquake was to strike—and the continuing nuclear emergency emerged. In the wake of those disasters, Grandma Aggie recalls that the Japanese peoples were the most generous and hospitable she has ever met.  It is one way to understand this tragedy: to see it as happening to people with kind human faces.  Grandma Aggie told me of meeting another “Aggie” in Japan. This Aggie told Grandma Aggie she had dreamt of her coming and was anxious to meet her, since she bore the same name.

There is a profound metaphor in this story Aggie shares with simple delight: an understanding that each of us has a potential namesake in the lands we conceive of as most distant– and in the lives we might think of as different from our own human ones– like the salmon.  Shortly before, she reminded me again how hearing that the salmon were people who sacrificed themselves to sustain human lives impelled her to care for the river and its swimmers.

It was such traditional stories that created culture:  that gave us  physically puny humans the edge in adaptation. If this past teaches us anything, it is that the tools we use should bring us closer to understanding the long term and long rang results of our actions.

Blessing the river is that kind of technology: a ceremony that reminds us of our connection to one another and to the vital sources of our lives. It is about “spreading the word”, as Grandma Aggie asks us to do on leaving the ceremony—“so that everyone will know what went on here”.  So that everyone can join this community, feeling the hope and purpose of caring for the water that sustains us all.

By this criterion our contemporary technology doesn’t always fare so well.  Instead of making the results of our actions more visible to us, it cushions us from them.  We don’t understand the vulnerability of our water when we just turn on a faucet to have it magically appear.

Shortly after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, a newscaster questioned a local man who lamented that since radiation is invisible, local people had no idea how to respond to it.  This is not just the nature of radiation:  it is the way in which nuclear technology has been put into practice, based on secrecy and distancing, as detailed in too many unfortunate incidents in what Arjun Makhijani, co-editor of the MIT Press publication, Nuclear Wasteland, terms the  “readiness to harm”. 

We express such a “readiness to harm” toward those we think less valuable than ourselves—or those who are invisible to us.  If sustainable technology has made the the invisible visible, gives voice to the voiceless (in Grandma Aggie’s words), then technology that truncates our vision does the opposite:  leading to the multiple crises that come as unpleasant surprises to us in the present age.

Our contemporary crises and the contrasting indigenous success challenge us to re-shape our technology to make the results of our actions transparent, to extend our reach and power in the world even as we extend our compassion and wisdom.

How to Feed the World: Sustainable Food Production

By Madronna Holden

Updated 10. 25. 2012

“Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same land”.

Science Daily, July 11, 2007


The quote above comes from a review of a University of Michigan study that finds that organic farming is especially important in feeding developing nations.  The video recently released (on “Food Day”:  October 25.2012) by the Food Myths program gives a solid outline of why industrial farming is not only not needed, but counter-productive in feeding the world.  In turn, if new technology, chemical inputs into agriculture, and genetic engineering will not feed the world, as I have argued elsewhere on this site, the propagation fair I attended in Eugene, Oregon illustrates what we need instead.

The fair consisted of a free exchange of plants and seeds.  It also offered free scions of hundreds of varieties of pears, apples, and plums, carefully labeled as to taste, keeping qualities, and disease hardiness.  Visitors could take these for free for grafting onto existing trees.  Or they could use root stocks and/or take advantage of the help of experienced grafters offered at cost.

Workshops entailed such topics as seed saving and winter gardening. And informational booths ranged from a focus on honeybees and native pollinators to a school gardens program.

Notably, Vandana Shiva has noted that the same kinds of fairs existed in traditionally sustainable farming areas of India, where growers (largely women) got together to trade seeds and ideas.

Here are the hallmarks of this fair that illustrate what we do need to feed the world.

Community values

This fair expressed sharing for all rather than profit for a few. The volunteer grafters, the workshop leaders, those who staffed booths and those who brought plants and seeds to give away were enthusiastic about sharing both information and food-growing resources. This contrasts sharply with Monsanto’s “terminator gene”, developed to protect its patent—which also threatens our food supply through unpredictable and uncontrollable gene migration.

The fair also expressed the value of care— for the environment, for community, and for the varieties of trees and seeds to be preserved locally.

Care is a productive value when it comes to such things. Care such as Barbara McClintock’s “speaking with the corn”, treating each plant as an individual, led to work that earned her the Nobel Prize. This echoes the care with which indigenous peoples tended their fertile “gourmand’s paradise” in the Willamette Valley:  care for both the natural lives that fed them and the human lives to come after them.

Indeed, such care sustained human communities and environments together throughout the indigenous Northwest.

It is such care that the government of Switzerland replicates in their constitution guaranteeing the “dignity” of all natural life.

Technologies

Here are the characteristics of sustainable food-producing technologies exhibited at the propagation fair.

Sustainable food-producing technologies should be place-based.

As opposed to the “one size fits all” technology of globalization, place-based technology is as flexible and particular as the individual yard into which it would be set—as special as each person’s choice of and care for a heritage tree or vegetable seed.

Such technology does not depend on a large plot of land.  As are many urban gardens today, a tree or vegetable plant can be placed in a backyard, on a parking strip, on a reclaimed vacant lot, or on a rooftop or terrace.

Seeds grown and saved from local gardens partnered with nature’s ability to adapt, rather than trying to force diverse ecological systems to adapt to human whims.

Sustainable food-producing technology should preserve biodiversity.

As Barbara Kingsolver observed, any society that relies on a single variety of an essential food source is one step from the devastating starvation suffered in the Irish potato famine when disease attacked the single kind of potato grown there.

Such a famine would not have happened in Peru, where the potato originated– and where traditional farmers grow uncounted varieties of this crop. Traditional farmers also keep wild areas open. There nature has a chance to grow whatever she wants—and farmers often find useful varieties arising in these wild places.

Maintaining this natural stock-producing area was also the practice of peasant farmers in Britain (where the hedgerows provided food to birds as well) and in Eastern Europe.

Sustainable food-producing technology should need few secondary material inputs.

Grafting needs no secondary technological inputs such as fossil fuels, pesticides and fertilizers, or expensive machinery.  Its tools are as simple as a grafting knife—and care in the hands and knowledge in the minds of those who tend grafted trees.

I would suggest that the complexity of a technology, as in the complexity of the grafting process, should center not on material input and fancy inventions, but on the complexity of knowledge and experience passed from one person to another.  Technology with this type of complexity relies not on depleting natural resources—but on the unlimited resource of human knowledge.

In an age of burgeoning human population and declining natural resources, we need this combination of complex knowledge and simple material input.

Sustainable food-producing technology should have a historical track record or careful research in terms of safety in line with the precautionary principle.

Grafting is an ancient human science. I once sat in an Arab garden on the Mount of Olives sustained by grafting techniques and local knowledge.  The caretaker of his tiny garden offered shade and comfort to guests, even as his garden offered up honey, olives, grapes and a dozen other varieties of fruit to the family that cared for it.  He told me that if something did not work on this land so densely planted that the leaves of the trees touches one another, he grafted other varieties that did.

He followed an ancient tradition that is all too little utilized in this war torn area.

Sustainable food-producing technology should have no deleterious side effects, for either the environment or other humans.

Side effects that negate the benefit of high-end technologies used in corporate farming include use of toxic chemicals and fossil fuels, drawing down the water table, and/ or carbon production.

Instead of such negative side effects, planting trees has the potential to ameliorate climate change and recharge ravaged water tables.

It is a wonderful that this process feeds us as well.

We have such technology and we can refine it.  We have no need to use technology touted as part of the “green revolution” that devastated lands such as those in Bangladesh reclaimed by the traditional and diverse farming methods of New Agricultural Moment or similarly in Mexico by Jesus Leon Santos.

It is a fool’s bargain to trade away temporary profit for a few for the destruction of the land we need to sustain us. Indeed, it is clearly irrational to give economic rewards to those who undermine the sources of our survival and spread toxins to any part of the planet we share.

By contrast, any robust economic system and the technology it develops must reward those who produce what we need for the flourishing of humans and other lives on this planet:  things such as nourishing food, secure livelihoods, clean air and water, good health, and a secure future for our children.

The more rare and precious are our natural resources, the more we must protect and care for them.