I just found a new online periodical I enjoy and find educational: Low Tech magazine. It complements works I’ve enjoyed like the Do The Math blog, sadly inactive since 2015, but that I reread sometimes, and the book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air.
I wrote the following about the first article I read there, Can We Run Society on Human Power Alone, which I followed up by reading several other articles there, and starting a backlog I’ll return to. I partly address what others wrote in the online community I posted to, but I think what I wrote makes sense on its own.
One of the more thought-provoking articles I’ve read in a long time.
If you think they’re dreaming, I suggest reading it nor for engineering detail, but to try out their perspective. Most people would answer ‘no,’ leave it at that, and not reach some interesting perspectives they did.
Not that it goes into engineering detail, but for the creativity, thoughtfulness, and, most importantly, change in perspective from the predominant views of: we must produce more power! … we must not change our way of looking at things!
I use my rowing machine regularly, which creates resistance through a fan and wind resistance. If it used a generator, I could power most of my apartment’s electrical needs. Maybe not my refrigerator, which I shouldn’t use when it’s cold outside. Most of my electrical bill is fixed costs and taxes, not my electrical use, so a little less power and I could drop my contract. Articles like this one get me thinking that way.
If you keep extending how little you can use and what the world would be like if we had to work for our power instead of lazily flicking a switch and not caring about externalities, it’s very interesting. Not to mention what it would do to our declining physical fitness, growing obesity, increasing disconnect from nature, and probably mental fitness too.
I bought a hand-powered washing machine a while ago and it did the job fine until it broke. Sadly, our culture doesn’t promote great solutions that reduce consumption. I’d be happy to wash my clothes under my own power and other things like that if well-built ones were available. I can solve some things myself, but it’s a lot easier when solutions are on sale. There are thousands of options for plug-in washing machines and only one or two hand or foot powered.
I’d love to see people engineer solutions that work and endure. This article isn’t trying to solve all global power problems, but I bet its authors feel something like Stallman when he started writing GNU utilities, which people probably saw as tilting at windmills. Or even Torvalds writing the kernel, though Stallman’s platform made his project more plausible to help. By the time people started Wikipedia, they could look back and build on several successful models. Or maybe like Feynman considering how much room there was at the bottom. Contemporaries probably said they were crazy and didn’t see the point.
I, for one, support people thinking along these lines and seeing how far they can take us — beyond engineering solutions to new ways of thinking about ourselves in the context of nature. I bet a lot further than most of us suspect.
I recommend reading the magazine if you want your horizon’s broadened by clear, simple, considered thoughts on technology, nature, and our interactions with each.
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