Note — May 02, 2021

Appropriate Measures

At Real Life, Jackie Brown and Philippe Mesly explain that “changing the tech we use is not enough to mitigate the environmental and social harm of mass technology.” Starting from the historical perspective of “appropriate technology” in the 60s, and the works of E.F. Shumacher, Victor Papanek, and Ivan Illich, they show that even as such a movement made a lot of sense in its goals, it was also still centered on technology and maintained an implicit bias of Western superiority. The authors then make a parallel with today’s degrowth movement which, for some, depends on tech while for others on limiting technological development. Both end-up still centered on it in some way. Brown and Mesly conclude that degrowth would do well to learn from Shumacher’s original intent and subsequent lessons: to concentrate instead on the “complex interplay of lifestyle changes, political will, and socioeconomic factors.”

In his best-known, 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, he denounces the technology of mass production as “inherently violent, ecologically damaging, self-defeating in terms of non-renewable resources, and stultifying for the human person.” […]

Schumacher promoted “the technology of production by the masses” — a localist approach that tailored technologies to the needs of the communities they served, with an emphasis on long-term and harder-to-quantify goods like creative expression, skill development, and sustainability. […]

Schumacher makes no mention of why communities in the Global South found themselves in need of such solutions in the first place — namely as a result of the extractive and oppressive forces of colonialism. […]

[W]hen social change is framed primarily in terms of choice of technology, the debate necessarily centers the activity level of a productivist society, not a paradigm shift from growth to wellbeing. […]

Any technology we adopt should be both appropriate to the world as it exists and to the future we desire. In the Global North, the first part of the equation may appear more daunting than the second, given that we have become ever more reliant on technologies that are environmentally, socially, and economically unsustainable. And if previous efforts have been undermined by forces intent on maintaining the status quo, what are our prospects in light of ever greater concentrations of power?