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Introduction

 

 This web-version of the Appropriate Technology Sourcebook provides concise summaries of over 1,150 of the best do-it-yourself books. Use the Search or Table of Contents in the right-hand column to browse subjects and locate books. The complete text and graphics of these books can be obtained on USB or DVD in Village Earth’s AT Library. Click here for more information and to order.

 


The Appropriate Technology Sourcebook represents an attempt to improve access to information on small-scale technologies. Our purpose is to present a selection of capital-saving, labor-using tools and techniques that already have proven to be valuable in different circumstances around the world. We do not suggest that any specific technology will always be appropriate. The appropriate technology worker needs options, not a prescribed package of technology.

Appropriate Technology

What is appropriate technology all about? It is a way of thinking about technological change; recognizing that tools and techniques can evolve along different paths toward different ends. It includes the belief that human communities can have a hand in deciding what their future will be like, and that the choice of tools and techniques is an important part of this. It also includes the recognition that technologies can embody cultural biases and sometimes have political and distributional effects that go far beyond a strictly economic evaluation. “A.T.” therefore involves a search for technologies that have, for example, beneficial effects on income distribution, human development, environmental quality, and the distribution of political power—as well as productivity—in the context of particular communities and nations.

The appropriate technology movement in the rich countries such as the United States got started due to the convergence of a variety of concerns. These included the need to find a more harmonious and sustainable relationship with the environment, identify a way out of the accelerating energy and resource crises, reduce alienating work disconnected from its products and goals, develop more democratic workplaces, bring local economies back to health with diverse locally owned and operated enterprises, and revitalize local communities and cultural traditions. Thoughtful, careful social choices are needed to correct the excesses and imbalances of an industrial culture driven by materialism. An essential quality of the appropriate technology movement in the United States can therefore be expressed by the word “restraint”.

The appropriate technology movement in poor countries has, on the other hand developed in a very different fashion. In rich countries, the investment required to create one new manufacturing job typically is in the range of $20,000-$150,000, and in heavy industry this figure is higher still. In the poor countries the small amounts of capital available have usually been concentrated in the small industrial sector, creating very few jobs due to the high investment required per workplace.

The appropriate technology movement in poor countries has come out of the recognition that industrialization strategies have not been successfully solving the problems of poverty and inequality. Indeed, in many cases “modernization” efforts have been massive assaults on local culture. The result for hundreds of millions of people has been the modernization of poverty—the neglect or construction of traditional craft occupations, the consolidation of farmlands into fewer and fewer hands, and the division of communities, leaving these people to eke out an existence on the fringe of economic activity. The appropriate technology movement in the developing world has developed as “the art of the possible” among the world’s poor, seeking ways to solve pressing basic problems and create jobs with resources consisting of local skills and materials but little surplus cash.

From these different origins, the appropriate technology movements in rich and poor countries have been moving towards each other. The development of renewable energy technologies has long been a chief area of activity among U.S. appropriate technology groups. It moved high on the list of priorities in oil-importing poor countries in the late 1970’s, as they faced high prices and scarcity of fuel for buses, tractors, and irrigation pumps. Similarly, environmental protection has gained increased attention in poor countries as pesticides have created major health risks for farmers and farm workers, and deforestation has reached a critical level.

Criteria for Appropriate Technology

This book, though primarily oriented towards appropriate technology activities in poor countries, contains relevant materials for North Americans as well. The books and documents reviewed here describe tools and techniques that, in general:

  1. require only small amounts of capital;
  2. emphasize the use of locally available materials, in order to lower costs and reduce supply problems;
  3. are relatively labor-intensive but more productive than many traditional technologies;
  4. are small enough in scale to be affordable to individual families or small groups of families;
  5. can be understood, controlled and maintained by villagers whenever possible, without a high level of specific training;
  6. can be produced in villages or small workshops;
  7. suppose that people can and will work together to bring improvements to communities;
  8. offer opportunities for local people to become involved in the modification and innovation process;
  9. are flexible, can be adapted to different places and changing circumstances;
  10. can be used in productive ways without doing harm to the environment.

Some of the reasoning that underlies the concept of appropriate technology may be summarized as follows:

  1. it permits local needs to be met more effectively because local people are involved in identifying and working to address these needs; for the same reasons, it is likely to be in harmony with local traditions and values;
  2. it means the development of tools that extend human labor and skills, rather than machines that replace human labor and eliminate human skills;
  3. it represents a comprehensible and controllable scale of activities, organization and mistakes, at which people without management training can work together and understand what they are doing;
  4. it allows more economical operation by minimizing the transport of goods in an era of expensive energy, allowing greater interaction of local industry and permitting greater use of local resources—both human and material;
  5. it makes unnecessary many expensive or unavailable finance, transportation, education, advertising, management, and energy services; avoids the loss of local control that use of such outside services implies;
  6. it helps to establish a self-sustaining and expanding reservoir of skills in the community which begins from already existing skills;
  7. it provides a region with a cushion against the effects of outside economic changes (e.g., the collapse of the world sugar market or the sudden unavailability of fertilizer);
  8. it helps to reduce economic, social, and political dependency between individuals, between regions, and between nations, by recognizing that people can and will do things for themselves if they can find a way. (See Tom Bender in Sharing Smaller Pies on many of the criteria listed here.)

Addressing Many Obstacles

Appropriate technology has special appeal probably in part because it addresses a number of problems at once. The emphasis on self-reliance and local production for local needs removes from the list of development obstacles many of the inequities of an international system that is dominated by the expensive technology and economic power of rich countries. At the same time, the lack of well-developed infrastructure and the shortage of highly trained human power to efficiently run large industrial organizations become much less important when production is decentralized. It is probably for these reasons that the concept of appropriate technology is so popular. Those who believe in small entrepreneurial capitalism, democratic institutions, decentralist Marxism, European socialism, African communalism, Buddhism, and numerous other systems can find much of value in the ideas underlying appropriate technology. Nicolas Jequier has described the popularity of the appropriate technology approach as evidence of a “cultural revolution” in development thinking.

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