Appropriate Measures

Changing the tech we use is not enough to mitigate the environmental and social harm of mass technology

Full-text audio version of this essay.

Imagine you need to travel somewhere for the first time. If you frame the problem in terms of efficiency, then the best solution is likely to follow a route that is quickly and seamlessly provided by a mapping app. But maybe you’ll want to travel the same route again; maybe you want to hone your intuition, and develop your navigational skills for future trips. In that case, digital maps might be less useful than low-cost tools — analog maps, street signs, the sun.

This is the thinking behind “appropriate technology,” a movement launched in the late 1960s that favors small-scale technologies, meant to help communities become more self-sufficient, over scalable, efficient mechanisms that maximize economic productivity. The concept is particularly relevant today, in light of the threats to autonomy and democracy posed by highly centralized technologies. It provides a model for countering the capital-intensive and extractive modes of production that still prevail and are increasingly unsustainable. But its shortcomings are equally instructive. The rise and fall of appropriate technology can offer important lessons on the role of technology — and technology’s limitations — in envisioning social transformation.

The rise and fall of “appropriate technology” can offer important lessons on the role of technology, and its limitations, in envisioning social transformation

The appropriate technology movement is attributed to E.F. Schumacher, a German-British economist who served as an economic advisor to countries like India and Burma (now Myanmar), and whose influential writings on purposeful work and technological limits were guided by his Christian faith. During the 1970s, he became widely known for his heterodox economic ideas that lambasted the mainstream emphasis on profit over human needs. 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 maintained that such technologies fed consumerist tendencies while depriving people of satisfying work. He was acutely concerned with the deskilling that tends to accompany technological change, echoing arguments raised by earlier economists — including Adam Smith and Karl Marx — and predating present-day anxieties around the impact of automation on employment.

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. He was heavily influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, who believed that the widespread adoption — or readoption — of low-cost technologies would help villages satisfy the basic needs of their residents, foster local autonomy, and create meaningful employment. For Gandhi, the “charkha” (spinning wheel) best embodied this objective: it represented dignified labor and freedom from colonialist exploitation. The charkha went on to become a symbol of India’s independence movement, featuring in an early version of the country’s flag.

Schumacher was not the only thinker of his era to consider how technology could be more conducive to human and planetary needs. Victor Papanek published the now-classic Design for the Real World in 1971, a critique of the design profession that called for a more socially and environmentally responsible approach. Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality, released in the same year as Small is Beautiful, warns that industrial-scale technologies can evolve into “radical monopolies,” dominating the marketplace of possibilities and crowding out alternatives. For example, the supremacy of car-related infrastructure like highways makes it much more difficult to walk or bike, thereby turning vehicular travel into the default mode of transportation. Placing limits on development, then, can enhance rather than restrict autonomy. Schumacher, Papanek, and Illich shared a resistance to conventional thinking, which equated development and growth with progress. They also advocated against professionalization, recognizing that, more often than not, individuals and communities possess the necessary knowledge and context to address challenges they face.

Appropriate technology went beyond the pages of Schumacher’s books and reports, coalescing into a movement intent on implementing his ideas. It diverged into two streams of practice: one focused on the Global South, and the other on the Global North. Schumacher was particularly concerned with poverty and hunger in the Global South, exacerbated by mass unemployment and the rapid pace of rural-urban migration. He felt that development aid programs, characterized by capital-intensive technology and infrastructure projects imported from the Global North, were not only ineffective, but actively disrupted social networks and cultural traditions in recipient communities.

In 1966, Schumacher and a group of like-minded colleagues pioneered an unorthodox approach, founding the Intermediate Technology Development Group, still in existence today as the charity Practical Action. The hypothesis was that appropriate technology — environmentally sound, labor intensive, and affordable tools that can be maintained and repaired locally — would help countries of the Global South industrialize in a slower, more intentional manner, allowing them a greater level of ownership over their economies. One of ITDG’s early successes was in Zambia, where egg producers sought an affordable supply of cartons made from waste paper. At the time, the smallest available technology required the manufacture of one million cartons per month to be economical; Zambia’s market, in contrast, demanded only one million cartons per year. In response, the ITDG designed a machine capable of making a fraction of the trays for a reasonable price and scaling up production as needed.

Appropriate technology coalesced into a movement, which diverged into two streams of practice: one focused on the Global South, and the other on the Global North

The appropriate technology movement soon became popular in development circles, leading to an explosion of tools like solar cookers and the non-electric “pot-in-pot” refrigerator. Efforts spanned a wide range of industries — including agriculture, construction, energy, and sanitation — and by the early 1980s, the number of organizations operating under the principles of appropriate technology had grown to more than 1,000.

In the Global North, practitioners were driven by different motivations. Coinciding with the energy crisis of the 1970s and a burgeoning environmental movement, appropriate technology in the United States in particular was concerned with resource scarcity and the social consequences of overconsumption. Jerry Brown, then Governor of California, established an Office of Appropriate Technology in 1976. The National Center for Appropriate Technology was created in Butte, Montana that same year with a focus on energy-saving solutions for low-income communities. Today, NCAT has expanded their offerings to include training and technical assistance in small-scale intensive farming and regenerative agriculture, in addition to conducting building audits and construction plan reviews to identify opportunities for energy conservation and efficiency. Another thread can be traced through the Whole Earth Catalog, the countercultural magazine founded by Stewart Brand in 1968 aimed at democratizing access to tools and information. It featured small-scale technologies that appealed to a readership of “back-to-the-landers” eager to build communities premised on experimentation, self-reliance, and personal growth.

While successful in some cases, such endeavors highlight a disconnect between appropriate technology and emancipatory politics. 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. High standards of living in parts of the Western world are in many ways dependent on the exploitation of labor and natural resources in the Global South, and are therefore threatened by efforts to organize self-supporting economies in those countries. Even appropriate technology, based on actively promoting such pursuits, maintains an implicit bias of Western superiority. Many appropriate technology projects (though certainly not all) involve people from the Global North designing for rather than with recipient communities.

Appropriate technology without an appropriate political lens can simply result in technocratic solutionism in another form. Historian Andrew Kirk observes that early versions of the Whole Earth Catalog “promoted radically detached self-sufficiency as the key to a viable revolutionary politics.” The idealism driving the appropriate technology movement “often failed to account for the degree to which even small-scale and individualistic ideas, such as the personal computer, could very rapidly be incorporated into and even strengthen the very systems they were designed to subvert.” Fred Turner addresses this concern in his 2006 book From Counterculture to Cyberculture, pointing in particular to critics of the catalog’s “politically neutral” stance. They argued that the refusal to acknowledge implicit norms entrenched in their utopian worldview ensured that the magazine catered primarily to white, well-educated men — while remaining silent on issues of race, gender, and class.

Appropriate technology fell out of favor several decades ago due to a confluence of factors. The death of E. F. Schumacher, the movement’s charismatic founder, in 1977 may have contributed to a fragmentation of efforts. There was also pushback stemming from the “stigma associated with low-cost technologies,” the concern that recipient communities might feel they were being excluded from the benefits of modernization enjoyed by the West. Changing economic and political conditions also played a significant role. The 1980s brought the rise of neoliberalism under leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — and with it, the growing dominance of market forces favoring profit maximization and privatization. As one former proponent writes, “the appropriate technology movement died because it was led by well-intentioned tinkerers instead of hard-nosed entrepreneurs designing for the market.”

But a review of the appropriate technology movement raises one question in particular: why center the conversation around technology? That is to say, while we are facing many social and environmental problems, why should the tools we use serve as the starting point of debates on how to resolve them?

This question should be of particular concern to other groups and theories that have emerged in response to issues caused, or exacerbated, by our existing economic system: biodiversity loss, resource depletion, and global warming, as well as rising inequality and health issues compounded by poverty, pollution, and limited access to healthy food. Degrowth is one such movement. According to proponents like Giorgos Kallis, Serge Latouche, and Joan Martinez-Alier, we have surpassed the threshold for sustainable development, and must shift focus to scaling down production and consumption altogether. Degrowth advocates instead propose a renewed emphasis on locally-based care work, education, arts and culture, and regenerative agriculture.

The degrowth movement brings forward many central ideas from “appropriate technology,” sharing in the conviction that human and environmental wellbeing are the best indicators of a flourishing economy, not GDP growth. They engage in sophisticated economic modeling to demonstrate the feasibility of their approach, presuming that policy can be shifted in support of prosperous degrowth. Where the movement can benefit from further clarification, however — and where it can learn from appropriate technology’s trajectory — is in its ambiguous relationship with technology. Some degrowth proponents are enthusiastic, embracing a vision of grassroots, participatory, and inclusive innovation motivated by care and creativity rather than profit maximization. Many view collaborative environments like makerspaces and open-source software with optimism, seeing them as opportunities to democratize access to tools. Others are more skeptical, calling for limits on technology use and development.

When social change is framed primarily in terms of technology choice, the debate centers a productivist society’s activity level and economic growth, not wellbeing

Degrowth, like appropriate technology, is premised on the idea that the goal of economics is to promote the wellbeing of everyday people. If high technology — the ownership of which is concentrated in the hands of a small number of powerful individuals and institutions — best achieved the goal of human and environmental wellbeing, then theoretically its dominance would be warranted. But a growing body of evidence, both theoretical and empirical, suggests this is not the case. Economist Thomas Piketty, for instance, demonstrates that the rate of return on capital greatly exceeds the corresponding rise in economic growth, exacerbating widespread inequality. In Silicon Valley, compensation for technology executives and engineers far outstrips wages in service and manufacturing sectors, driving up the cost of living and contributing to a surge in homelessness. Ron Deibert, a professor of political science, has collated findings on the various environmental and social effects of social media technologies, showing that the minor gains we enjoy are dwarfed by their ill effects.

Schumacher long predicted these outcomes, anticipating present-day criticisms of high technology and growth as predictors of human welfare. In the end, however, the appropriate technology movement that grew out of his ideas relied on technology to mitigate the harms technology causes.

Some thinkers maintain that technology must not be the focal point for a degrowth transition. Pasi Heikkurinen argues that if technology is conceptualized as practice, its essential function is to transform the non-human world into human-made objects. Technological practice cannot, by definition, be construed in any other way than as productive (though its rate of throughput can vary widely), and it certainly does not lend itself to “letting things be,” which he views as a foundational component of any degrowth strategy. In other words, when 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.

This criticism echoes divergences between Schumacher and his peers that were already apparent in the 1970s. While Illich, Jacques Ellul, Paul Goodman, and other thinkers tried to establish the need for fundamental changes in the organization of society, beginning with significant limits on the reach of technology, Schumacher was often read as merely advocating for new gadgets to stimulate business in developing countries. To this day, Schumacher’s legacy resides in large part in the world of engineering, where his writings are incorporated into existing productivist guidelines, with limited consideration for corresponding social and political critiques.

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?

Today, some of the most extreme approaches to pressing environmental concerns fall under the heading of geoengineering, proposing technological intervention on a massive scale to combat the effects of climate change. One strand targets the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through “direct air capture” technologies, or by fertilizing the ocean with iron to stimulate algae blooms and thereby enhance its carbon sequestration capacity. Another recommends reflecting sunlight away from the Earth, using methods like “stratospheric aerosol injection” or “marine cloud brightening.” Geoengineering is still considered to be a fringe and likely dangerous strategy, and for good reason. Rather than make changes to damaging modes of production, it suggests that we can continue to rely on a never-ending stream of technological innovations to solve our problems.

This form of dependence on complex interventions, which are liable to generate unintended consequences or rebound effects — that in turn have to be managed through interventions of an even greater magnitude — is precisely what Schumacher warned against. Projects like Low-tech Magazine’s solar-powered website are more closely aligned with Schumacher’s original vision. Designed to reduce energy use through a simplified design, it is powered by a small photovoltaic system, rather than electricity. Perhaps more interestingly, it is also an example of scaling back our technology demands. Due to limited energy storage, the website goes offline during extended periods of low sunlight, challenging expectations of constant availability and optimized efficiency.

Schumacher’s work rejects the intellectual arrogance of those who presume to know how to wield technology to achieve human progress. He instead advances a perspective based on humility and adaptation, quoting biologist and ecologist Ralph Buchsbaum to this effect: “When information is incomplete, changes should stay close to the natural processes which have in their favour the indisputable evidence of having supported life for a very long time.” This is the philosophy underpinning appropriate technology, which Schumacher sometimes refers to as a “dynamic approach”: one that continuously and iteratively grows people’s capacities, with opportunities to attend to emergent system properties.

At the same time, this perspective can lead to the belief that the solutions to our problems are purely technological, rather than a complex interplay of lifestyle changes, political will, and socioeconomic factors. As the degrowth movement comes into its own, proponents would do well to remember the wisdom that animated Schumacher’s work, even as they correct the shortcomings that led to appropriate technology’s decline. Technology cannot single-handedly lead us into utopia. But to deny that it has a place also oversimplifies reality: We must acknowledge that we are technological beings, as well as natural, spiritual, social, and political beings. A successful transition depends on it.

Jackie Brown is a researcher and writer based in Toronto. Her work focuses on economic justice and the relationships between people, technology, and their environments.

Philippe Mesly is a horticulturalist, translator, and writer. He lives in Toronto with his partner.