Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fixing Things: Low-Tech, Green Tech

There are many people who believe the answers to the world's problems require high-tech, greentech solutions.  I have nothing against high tech. I am typing this post on a computer, after all.  But I don't kid myself; this computer is not "green".   For one thing, a simple google search uses a lot more energy than you might imagine.  And this computer will eventually contribute to the 500% increase in e-waste from old computers over 2007 levels that India will likely see by 2020.  Much of that waste is poison, by the way.   Of course it's not just e-waste; though India has very high uses of recycling, we still produce a lot of trash, and that problem is not going to be solved by Waste to Energy plants, no matter how "green" they purport t be.

It gets worse.  If you stop and think about it, you realize the "health" of the world economy, as it is presently organized, requires continued production and consumption even before it requires disposal.  Endless production requires endless amounts of energy and mining. Unfortunately, we don't live on planet with endless resources.

To put it simply, there is no way that current consumption patterns can be sustainable, greentech or not! Those of us who use things like computers will have to use them a lot less.  People who go by car will have to learn how to take the bus.  In addition to high tech, we will have to rely on low tech solutions. Like fixing things! 

All the items in the photo to the right could easily have been thrown away.  But because I live in Delhi, they were fixed.  The shoes have been stitched up in many ways, inside and out, and they still look good, thanks to the skill of my local mochi.  The water bottle's lid broke and I was able to find a replacement in the market.  The school bag's zipper has been replaced at least once.  The handle of the low quality pot has been fixed or replaced at least twice in the past five years.

When we fix something, we reduce energy use, mining, pollution and waste.  In India, because labour is cheap, having things fixed almost always saves money as well.  But in many places, it is cheaper to throw away a broken product than it is to fix it.  World wide, need to stop subsidizing the production disposal of stuff that is made for the dump; in fact, we need to make sure that companies and consumers pay the full cost of most consumer products, from the mine to the dump; subsidies should be reserved for sustainable things, like public transportation--and for things like food that we all need.

Most of India lives sustainably, of course.  But a small group of industrialists and hyper consumers are getting the lion's share of government support, as P. Sainath makes clear here. It's time we give help to those who need it most--that, by the way, is another way we can fix things!

For other low-tech, greentech ideas, including our Best Dhabas in Delhi series, look here.


  1. Here's a dilemma: so labour is cheap; but do we continue to want it to be cheap? What about what labour is due as things become more expensive?

    What I'm asking is, if labour became as expensive as it is elsewhere, would we recycle? Of course not.

    But we must, regardless, right?

    But who'd do it?

  2. Space Bar--You identify a central failure in the way in which I've raised this issue today. I confess:there is something deeply flawed with that aluminum pan; it is made of such poor quality material that it breaks regularly. And if I had to pay a fair price for the labour of the fellow who fixes it, I'd probably just have it recycled. And when the space bar I am using right now to separate words broke, I wandered Nehru place trying to find someone who could fix it; in the end, I had to buy a whole new keyboard.

    I think in the end, if we want to live in a better world, we have to hope the price of labour in India rises substantially. Which means we will pay more for many things. But it seems clear that the path that western capitalism has taken is unsustainable because the very system depends on unlimited growth in consumption of stuff. It is structured to produce cheap goods that will break and cannot be fixed economically.

    The only alternative I can see is to move to a system that involves a significantly higher upfront cost--along with significantly higher quality products. Then, we will consume less, but we will keep what we buy longer. We may once again see people buy things and pass them on to their children.

    Less stuff, means fewer production jobs, of course. Instead of creating and consuming unsustainable gadgets, we need a system that consumes and creates more sustainable things--like interesting food and art!

    The broad outline of this idea (high-price/high-price/low consumption of stuff/high consumption of culture) is simple enough. Implementing it is a problem of massive proportions. Which is why we will probably continue to dig deeper for oil and let the scientists try to sort out the climate problems by spraying stuff into the clouds!

  3. Recycling is a bit of a mindset. Many people in the US for example, would be horrified if you told them your shoes were restitched. It would be considered cheap of you. Similarly, there's also a perception here that those who walk instead of drive a car in most of the US are poor, and have lower education levels.

    But of course, if things ever get so cheap that buying a new one will cost less, the mindset can't stand up against that. Unfortunately, hoping that we'll pay the real price of things is being naive. The way things are going, it won't happen that way :(

  4. Nice post. I realised I recently got a bag repaired... and in India a lot of stuff gets passed on to those who need it and it continues to be used till it can't be used anymore. Posts like this are good in that now I will notice the next time something is being wasted.

  5. @Bhagwad, yes, hope is not enough in this case. Concrete policy is required, but I haven't got what it takes to get into that today--but you are right, as usual.

    @IHM--Thanks! I appreciate you stopping by.

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