Thursday, March 18, 2010

Low-Tech Greentech: What Thomas Friedman can learn from clotheslines and bicycles

Just the other night, I was at a party, getting my ear bent about the joys of globalization and how it would all make sense if I just read The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman.  I haven't read the book, though I have read a review of it in The Hindu and another one in The San Francisco Chronicle.  I was too tired to argue, so I gave Mrs. Batti our super-secret "rescue me" signal.  She responded, gracefully as always, and I made my escape.

Had I not been so tired, or had I thought there was at least a two percent chance that I could influence this fellow's thinking on globalization even one tiny bit, then I might have talked to him about those reviews.  Or I might have engaged him in a discussion of Hot Flat and Crowded, the book Friedman wrote after The World is Flat.  In Hot Flat and Crowded, Friedman concedes that the world is facing huge environmental problems.  I didn't read that book either, but I did read some some really interesting reviews of it, including one by Bill McKibben in the New York Review of Books.  McKibben is not completely unsympathetic to Friedman, but he does question Friedman's assumption that the way to save the planet is first to re-make it into a greener version of an ever-growing, high-tech America:
[Friedman believes that] world is a growth machine and "nobody can turn it off." Everyone wants "an American style of life," and "their governments will not be able to deny" it to them. So the only option is to tinker with the American style of life to make it greener. Hence the longest soliloquy in the book, a hymn to the soon-to-be smart home, where the solar panel calls up to tell the "utility" when there's been a blackout, where the smart lights in your office are triggered by motion sensors, where you plug in your "Smart Card" ("sponsored by Visa and United Airlines Mileage Plus") into your Sun Ray computer terminal to start your workday. All this gear is so intelligent, in fact, that "when the sun is shining brightly and the wind is howling" (i.e., when your house is generating solar and wind power), your utility turns on your dryer to finish your laundry....Does it ever occur to him, in the grip of a fantasia like this, that if the sun is shining brightly, or the breeze is blowing steadily, you could dry your clothes on a $14 piece of rope strung off your back deck, or for that matter on a foldable rack in the apartment hallway? And that since most of the world already knows how to do it, we might be smarter moving in their direction instead of insisting that they buy into our entire high-technology suburban dream?
I have nothing against high-tech solutions to our problems.  I was pleased to read in The Hindu that an Indian American rocket scientist has just invented a really useful electrical device, though apart from being "just like a laptop of the power sector," I confess I'm still not sure exactly what the device is supposed to do, even after reading the article twice.  

But I have always argued that the world will be transformed though a mix of low-tech, traditional technologies and high-tech modern ones.  On the very same day that The Hindu announced the rocket scientist's electrical invention, they also ran a story about a Mr. Mansukbhai Jagani of Amreli district, Gujarat, who has invented a labour-saving, bicycle-powered alternative to the tractor for sowing seeds and applying fertilizer. Now that's something even I can understand!  I love this quote from the article about the invention:
According to Professor Anil Gupta, Vice Chairperson, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, when we refer to India as a knowledge economy, we assume rural people will be employed only in the lowest value-adding activities and never as providers of knowledge ...“That is absurd. It is not only in modern and IT-intensive India that innovation drives people. It is driven by economic enterprise and is well supported by government policies and professionally-educated individuals. The latter [rural inventiveness] is the creation of necessity.
Mr. Thomas Friedman is no doubt right about a lot of things, and computerized houses may be part our future someday.  But I think we should all pay a bit more attention to other types of "greentech": clotheslines, bicycles, water coolers, and ceiling fans. The kind of things people are already using--and the kinds of things that don't require a degree in rocket science to invent or improve.


  1. You might be interested to learn that hanging your clothes out to dry in the open on your lawn is illegal in most parts of the US.

    The reason is that it looks bad and brings down the neighbors house values. Most homes in the US are part of HOAs (Home Owners Associations) which regulate things like the length of your grass and stuff like drying your clothes outside.

    If that wasn't bad enough, this should give you apoplexy: A couple in the US trying to save 10 Lakh liters of water a year was sued by the government for removing their lawn! Again, the reason is that people like to look at manicured lawns and this raises the house values

  2. in case you haven't seen this already:

  3. @pRiYa, Glad you liked.

    @Bhagwad, what can we do but shake our heads and mutter?

    @Anon. Thank you for sending this link. I am looking forward to watching it. I love to get links to interesting things!

  4. Completely agree with you on clothes lines and coolers, Hari. But in India at least, one reason why "time-saving" environmentally-unfriendl gadgets - dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, for example - can be easily done without is the plentiful availability of cheap labour - the fact that there are people who will wash and dry and press your clothes, or wash your dishes, for very little money. But washing clothes the water-friendly way does take labour...

    Btw, that orange county lawn story is simply incredible. and the comment thread on that link... thanks!

  5. @Trisha, You raise a very important point. I would say that behind nearly every American (or European) clothes dryer there are a few good (and cheap) Chinese workers, who remain unseen by the consumer, but present nonetheless. The point there being that cheap labour also enables the Western "labour saving" device strategy. One could say that, in the long run, as China develops, those workers will do better and better--as happened in the US. Eventually, then, the Chinese worker will buy the clothes dryer s/he makes. That's what I used to think. But I think the environment will put a hard limit on that path of development at some point, perhaps sooner than we think.

    The only "answer" that I can think of is to move toward an economy where people have more time and less stuff. (Here I'm talking mostly about the people who actually have stuff and food aplenty...) Let's face it, less stuff will be painful. But more time to make and consume things like music, art, stories--that would be wonderful. And of course hanging clothes, washing dishes, cooking food, taking the metro or bus is all much less stressful when we've got time, no?

    It's pretty clear the current budget is aimed at promoting growth through upper-end consumer spending--at least that's what a smart guy in Frontline said in the current issue. That is a problem in part because it effectively raises taxes on poor people; but it's also a problem because I'd argue that in the long run, increased consumer spending by the upper middle class is not sustainable--here or anywhere. Hey, didn't mean to talk your ear off--glad you stopped by!

  6. Completely agree. The first world nations will always take convenience over all other aspects. Even when it means rising global temperatures and poorer third world nations to support its growth. There are however, many in the first world who try and who believe in not taking it all for granted and looking for alternative that do not affect the climate and the rest of the world negatively.


What do you think?