L’Âge des low-tech by Philippe Bihouix

Posted on Jul 12, 2023
tl;dr: A fascinating look into technologically skeptical environmental strategy.

‘L’Âge des Low-Tech’ or ‘The Age of Low Tech’ by Philippe Bihouix asks the question: Can we out-think our consumption of resources? According to Bihouix, the answer is a resounding no. No amount of technological innovation will be able to support the technologically complex lifestyles we now prefer. In the face of anthropogenic environmental impacts, Bihouix posits that our prime solution lies not in technological innovations which shift to alternate environmental impacts, but in the technical simplifcation of our societies. In this, he believes more jobs will be sustained long-term, people will be able to live healthier lives and (perhaps) most importantly – we will be able to dramatically reduce our environmental impact whilst allowing all of humanity to maintain a decent quality of life.

Bihouix’s exploration of ‘promising’ new technologies such as electric vehicles and natural gas are fascinating and a good antidote to the likes of Jordan Peterson who believe that innovation will be able to save use in the end. He ruthlessly examines the potential environmental impacts of these technologies and discusses their general incompatibility with long-term environmentalist goals. This take-down is, in my opinion, necessary if we are to look to some proper changes and goal-setting. However, I’m no expert in any of the fields he spoke about so I can’t really evaluate the validity of his research beyond it sounding about right.

Bihouix’s solution – a world of low tech – is nothing if not thought-provoking. He does not aim to provide solutions or explanations that can satisfy everything. However, the broad outline he does give is mostly more realistic than fanciful whilst still maintaining a bit of cottage-core appeal. I was already critical of my own consumerist behaviours (particularly when it comes to tech), but this book made me think not only more deeply about my own behaviours but also broader cultural changes that would need to take place if we were to enter an age of ‘low-tech’. Thinking about the necessary cultural changes made it a little harder to entertain this as a probable solution though. It’s not really the fault of Bihouix’s vision that we are unlikely to follow it.

Some aspects of Bihouix’s vision are less savoury than others. For instance, the loss or diminishment of international travel would be a bust not only to would-be holiday makers, but also to the many families that now exist across borders. This is inevitably going to be the case in radical behavioural changes for the purpose of better resource management. However, that does not make it more pleasant to read. For the most part Bihouix does not sugar coat the necessary changes to reach his vision. Low tech means more manual labour, it means eating close to plant-based, and it means no more Ryanair. Of course it means a whole lot more than any of that, and I appreciated that Bihouix admitted where he was unable to fully think out a solution due to time and knowledge restraints.

Bihouix fails to properly address concerns about the impact on developing nations of a program of reduction. The Global North has been able to build its infrastructure and wealth of the backs of environmental and human exploitation over centuries. Would it be fair to ask developing nations to forego some of these luxuries for the sake of environment? Certainly, it is not always the case that the underdeveloped would like to mirror the developed. However, I find it hard to believe that allowing poorer countries to develop in the same trend would be anything but a compromise on environmentalist aims even as the human benefit could still be worth it. How would these places gain wealth if not continuing to be the factories of the West? He does somewhat address the question of shifting employment trends in developed countries yet it remains a gaping hole of his analysis that the underdeveloped are not properly addressed.

The book was written in 2013. That means that it is only mostly still relevant. For the most part the innovations that are meant to save us all have not magically progressed beyond his criticisms but there have nevertheless been changes in those fields. On the environmental front progression has mostly been in the opposite direction of Bihouix’s hopes. Thus, it is certainly still worth a read and provides an excellent summary of anti-technological, or technologically sceptical environmentalism. Even if you come away critical of his conclusions it will make you think

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