These Technologies Help You Live Lightly on a Fragile Planet

These Technologies Help You Live Lightly on a Fragile Planet

Carbon emission are pushing the biosphere towards a three-degree Celsius rise in average temperature. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC), recently noted in its Sixth Assessment Report. Parts of the world are already suffering from severe droughts, flooding, wildfires, and food insecurity. The usual “clean technology” solution to reduce carbon emissions has serious ecological and social costs, however.

Renewable energies could lead to mountains of waste, and even destruction .. For example, replacing fossil-fuel-powered vehicles with electric ones requires vast quantities of new materials. These include critical minerals and rare-earth elements, all of which involve controversial extractive practices that damage ecosystems and people. The clean-tech path threatens to exaggerate our precious living planet’s exploitation and fails to account the unbalanced burdens of the poor and vulnerable who cannot afford to pay higher prices or to purchase new “eco-friendly” appliances and devices. The emergence of markets for carbon offsets, also known as carbon credits, allows the wealthy to pollute at their expense, as the record of the United Nations’ carbon-offset program in forests shows.

Instead of clean technology, what Earth and humankind need is convivial technology. It was created by Ivan Illich, a Roman Catholic philosopher. Modern thinkers like Andrea Vetter have developed it. It includes tools and production techniques that can be easily understood, created and repaired, and that help people meet their basic needs. In practice, convivial tech is used in transport, food production, self-provisioned housing, as well as other areas. All of these are based on cooperative, mutually acceptable and sharing approaches that make up a convivial society.

Such a society is integral to the realization of degrowth, which emphasizes quality of life, social and ecological values, and the modest use of materials and energy–in short, living within Earth’s limits. The IPCC report describes such approaches as “a set of measures and daily practices that avoid demand for energy, materials, land and water while delivering human wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries.” Sometimes misunderstood as depression, poverty and austerity, degrowth is really about creating socially convivial, economically secure and ecologically sustainable lives. In other words, degrowth is to growth as quality is to quantity.

The term degrowth was coined 50 years ago, with a visible degrowth movement emerging in the new millennium. Scholarly literature on the topic, replete with policy proposals, has multiplied since 2009. The IPCC report acknowledges the potential for the movement to accelerate transformations towards a zero-carbon and negative-carbon economy, “with its focus of sustainability over profitability.”

How does convivial technology and degrowth work in practice? You can walk, bike, ride cargo bikes, and use public transportation instead of using motorized vehicles, even electric. We can transform parking lots into permaculture gardens–self-sustaining ecosystems in which human activity and nature are integrated. To reduce heat in urban precincts, and to provide wood, fruits, and nuts to local communities, we can plant productive trees. The Los Angeles Eco-Village, which will turn 30 years old in 2023, features all these initiatives and more. It covers two blocks of Los Angeles in a neighborhood of 500 people, and its members have influenced city transportation policies such as developing bike lanes.

Cargonomia, which one of us (Liegey) co-founded in 2015, is a convivial center in Budapest that is based on three enterprises that demonstrate how degrowth works. One of these initiatives is Cyclonomia, a self-organizing do-it-yourself bicycle cooperative that operates along degrowth principles of conviviality, cooperation, mutual support and sharing. The bicycle, which is easy to build, use and repair–and is ecologically frugal–is a great example of a convivial tool. Cyclonomia offers members the opportunity to use its workshop to fix their bikes. Cyclonomia also designs, builds, and rents out cargo bikes and trailers for people and shopping.

Another linked enterprise is an organic vegetable farm and educational center for training the community in sustainable agriculture called Zsamboki Biokert. Kantaa, a bicycle messenger and delivery service, transports vegetable grown at Zsamboki biokert and its neighboring partner farms to Budapest. These schemes are not limited to Budapest. The SHARECITY research team at Trinity College in Dublin has explored food-sharing activities in 100 cities worldwide.

The organic farm Zsamboki Biokert supplies fresh groceries to people in Budapest and also serves as a community training center for sustainable agriculture. Credit: Mathilde Bourdon

It is important to source food as close to consumers as possible in order to ensure sustainability. It means providing for mainly plant-based diets that are based on seasonal organic food appropriate to the local climate and soils. Food consumers are often responsible for producing at least some of the food they eat in convivial approaches. Zsamboki Biokert gives members flexibility and offers opportunities to work. This small farm follows principles of regenerative agriculture and permaculture, benefiting the local environment and offering greater resilience against global warming. These farming methods, which are based on human-powered tools (e.g. horses rather than tractors) are crucial for increasing resilience and production in food-growing regions. Recent increases in food prices due to COVID and the war in Ukraine have prompted a renewed interest for local food sources.

Degrowth also uses out-of-date industrial infrastructure to support a variety of artisanal and housing work. Cargonomia uses repurposed buildings to run its bicycle activities. They are also renovating an old cottage on their farm. In urban and rural areas, degrowth housing involves building simply designed, modest dwellings with low ecological impacts by reusing local, at-hand materials while benefiting from collective work parties. These residents create precincts that provide off-grid water and sanitation services. Degrowth activists advocate for refurbishing and expanding social housing instead of tearing down existing structures. Similarly, degrowth advocates for more affordable, sustainable and varied housing options, such as small homes and shared, collaborative housing. Collective efforts drive the German Mietshauser Syndikat, with nearly 200 housing projects established or underway.

In all these ways, convivial technology assists communities in achieving zero-carbon or even positive-carbon living. This is in contrast to clean technology which requires more to create more. In short, degrowth and convivial technology work hand in hand to minimize extractive activities and overproduction, reducing carbon emissions at the source.


    Anitra Nelson is honorary principal fellow at the Melbourne Center for Design at the University of Melbourne in Australia and author of numerous degrowth and sustainability publications. Follow her on Twitter @AnitraNelson.

      Vincent Liegey is an engineer, interdisciplinary researcher, spokesperson for the French degrowth movement and co-author of Exploring Degrowth: A Critical

      Read More