Reflections on EDAT

Reflections on appropriate technology from people involved with the Warwick University course:

Engineering Design and Appropriate Technology

Further contributions are invited.

Kelvin Mason: Appropriate Technology?

Kelvin Mason, November 2015

Back in the day when I did EDAT, the Late Jurassic, we would debate the meaning of ‘appropriate technology’. I’m sure EDAT students of every epoch have done the same: It wasn’t quite intermediate technology, that was technology between two developmental points, maybe on a journey to modernity… It wasn’t exactly synonymous with alternative technology either, or maybe it was…

These days, thanks to the wealth of experience I’ve gathered over the millennia, I now know exactly what appropriate technology is. And I’m going to share my wisdom with you. You are blessed. The meaning of appropriate technology is carved in stone, or rather into a piece of Forestry Stewardship Council accredited, sustainably managed hardwood. And it is, surely, in the words of Talking Heads, ‘Same as it ever was’.

Appropriate for what though, you ask, for whom, for where and when? EDAT people, eh, always rocking the boat. Trouble-makers! Probably couldn’t get on to a proper mechanical engineering degree. (Ah, Imperial!)

Okay, perhaps appropriate technology is contextual, but we all agree which technologies are appropriate in particular situations, don’t we. We don’t?

Let’s take energy production technologies, for instance.

Windfarms? Always appropriate, for anyone, anywhere, anytime… Doesn’t matter who owns them, who decides where they’re sited, or who uses the power. Because windfarms are for the greater good.A global good. Locals will just have to suck it up! NIMBYs.

Fracking: wrong. Next.Ohh, you think shale gas could be a transition fuel to a low or zero-carbon economy; much lower emissions than coal or oil. Fracking causes relatively minor earth tremors and only on very rare occasions. There’s little or no risk of the groundwater pollution that opponents fear so viscerally. So…Um… Let’s move on.

Nuclear: Definitely a no-no, obviously. Unless we want to mitigate climate change while maintaining something like our current energy intensive life-styles. Okay, if global climate change is the ultimate in inappropriateness, maybe nuclear energy could be appropriate. For some of us. Even if choices made nationally can cause harm internationally, at least nuclear accidents aren’t likely to be on a global scale. Perhaps.

Oh dear, it does seem that there are scales of appropriate: more appropriate, less appropriate. What?More good, less good; more right, less right? This presents something of an ethical challenge for the designer and engineer, I fear. But I’m sure we can rise to it. Back to considering appropriateness on a case by case basis; that’s the way forward, I feel. And keep it real; make it personal.

So, should I work on multiple interconnected windfarm developments in Wales where the locally community is wholly opposed to overhead transmission lines but  National Grid – not Welsh national mind, or even British national, but multinational with a base in the USA… Where National Grid refuses to countenance laying the cables underground, citing a stock figure of how much more expensive that is, regardless of particular local geology, or admitting how little difference it would make to the final cost of a unit of electricity. They say the regulator, Ofgem, would not anyway allow them to choose an investment option that was more expensive… Thank goodness for regulation that protects shareholder and markets, eh?

Hang on, though, for appropriate technology, small is beautiful, isn’t it? What if I work on stand-alone wind turbines, micro-hydro schemes, domestic solar heat and power… Even though, all added together, such efforts are extremely unlikely to be enough to mitigate climate change, the technology would be at least incrementally appropriate. And maybe there’s a case for technology leading appropriateness: When a neighbour sees PV panels on a roof, providing electricity plus a bit of income while benefiting the environment, well maybe that neighbour’s sense of what is right and good shifts. Although that idea doesn’t seem to have so much traction with the current Conservative government.

But, if I think it’s appropriate to mitigate climate change by moving to a lower carbon economy, why aren’t I designing fracking rigs? Also, achieving national energy security must be appropriate, eh, as long as it doesn’t drive global climate change? And, I mean, well, there is a transition plan for energy in Britain, isn’t there? Isn’t there? (Hmm, that government thing again.)

Or, if it’s as desperate as rational environmentalists from James Lovelock through George Monbiot to Fred Pearce believe, maybe nuclear energy is appropriate, and I should consider working on that for the sake of the planet. (Note to self: must learn Mandarin).

But I’m talking as if appropriateness is mainly defined by carbon morality. What about a coal-fired power station in India? Such a development could produce electricity for schools and hospitals, homes and businesses, improve people’s lives in the here and now… Should I refuse to work on the project because it’s an inappropriate technology for future generations living elsewhere? I’m sure the Indians will understand and not question that the development of my home country was fuelled by coal. They’re reasonable people, after all.

Hang on, maybe carbon capture and storage (CCS) can get me off this moral hook? We could capture all the carbon-dioxide in bags and balloons and buckets and bury it… I know, we could pump it down the holes where we fracked the shale gas from! Oh, I forgot, we’ve already ear-marked those cavities for burying nuclear waste. (Note from lawyer: add ‘allegedly’).

When it comes to climate change, in addition to geoengineering strategies ranging from painting roofs white to launching space shields to protect us from solar radiation, society is even pondering the appropriateness of moral enhancement via mind altering drugs*. I’m going to repeat that ‘moral enhancement via mind altering drugs.’ Can you imagine? I can.  Empathetically, it seems, we are simply not wired to judge intra- let alone inter-generational appropriateness. So bring on a future society running on a cocktail of weed, E and Prozac.

Even when we have produced the empathy pill, though, the appropriateness of a technology can’t be an individual decision, can it? Otherwise, I’d end up with no job at all.

Oh, that is how I’ve ended up!

In this brief, absurdist sketch on appropriate technology, I’ve portrayed our individual choices as designers and engineers as virtually impossible, if not meaningless. Um, sorry. Maybe deciding what is appropriate technology is easier in areas other than energy; maybe not. In conclusion, though, I suggest that an appropriate technology is one that has been thoroughly interrogated, even to the point of absurdism, to assess the potential gains and risks associated with its adoption: Who is likely to win, who is set to lose, where and on what timescale? Does it preserve or even enhance the environment, including non-human life?

Like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up to the top of the hill only to see it roll back down, we are compelled to repeat the arduous process of reasoning, ethical contemplation, empathising and political analysis that defines a working notion of appropriateness, one that we can live with even if it can never be ideal or permanent. We must be eco-Luddites, constantly dragging technologies into the public square to debate their merits. As Albert Camus counselled, though, in this endeavour, we must imagine Sisyphus (ourselves) happy.

* Person, I. &Savulescu, J. (2015) ‘Unfit for the future: The need for moral enhancement.’ OUP: Oxford.

Further reading!

Mason, K. & Milbourne, P. (2014) ‘Constructing a ‘landscape justice’ for windfarm development: The case of Nant Y Moch, Wales’. Geoforum, 53, 104-115.

Mason, K. (2014) ‘Becoming Citizen Green: Prefigurative politics, autonomous geographies and hoping against hope (a proposal)’. Environmental Politics, 23(1) 140-158.

Mason, K (2014) Justice in Building, Building in Justice: Reconceptualising equity in framings of sustainability; The case of building materials selection in the UK. Environmental Values 23 (2014): 99-118.