Wade Greene
Wade Greene

Fellowship Title:

Who Owns “Appropriate Technology?”

Wade Greene
February 6, 1978

Fellowship Year

A recent brief hit of the New York theatre was a short production called The Water Engine. It’s a modern morality play of sorts, set largely in a 1930’s radio studio, and its theme, in the fashion of morality plays, is simple but loaded: a man invents an engine that runs on water. The industrial powers find out about the device and they dispatch the inventor to his creator, presumably burying his invention along with him.

An artists's concept of the world's first solar electric power plant depicts a "power tower" amid a field of mirrors or "heliostats." Courtesy of Martin Marietta Corp.
An artists's concept of the world's first solar electric power plant depicts a "power tower" amid a field of mirrors or "heliostats." Courtesy of Martin Marietta Corp.

There are camp and other ironic over tones to the plot that ultimately complicate the point of the play, but its scenario comes close to what many members of a growing counter- technology movement see as the threatened fate of their budding counter-technologies.

The term “appropriate technology” – “AT” for short – is the one commonly used by and applied to the movement. The movement’s movers generally use the term to mean small-scale, decentralized, environmentally sound, human-oriented technologies, as opposed to what they view as opposite, inappropriate qualities of most modern technology. Many appropriate technologists feel that their approaches and devices are in danger of being undermined and co-opted by the bastions of industrialism. For instance, there was the recently documented case of automobile makers buying out Los Angeles mass transit companies, folding them and then selling the rights of way, thereby permanently eliminating a competing transportation technology in one major area of the country.

Appropriate technologists would see in The Water Engine plot an especially close parallel to their perceived opposition to wide scale development of solar energy. Devices and systems that run on sun power are probably as close to engines that run on water as any likely to be devised: sunshine is as ubiquitous and “free” a fuel as water, more so in many parts of the world. In the AT paragon of virtues, sun power ranks very high because of its decentralized nature. It’s “the first major new resource not under monopoly control,” asserts a Los Angeles-based solar group called Solar-Cal.

No examples have cropped up, as far as I know, of the “monopolizers” directly burying new solar inventions, but one Machiavellian approach to this end was suggested at a conference in March on “passive” solar technology. A speaker at the conference, Sim Van der Ryn, who is the state architect of California and chairman of the group that oversees the state’s Office of Appropriate Technology, pointed out that most of the Department of Energy’s solar budget so far has gone “into large, high tech centralized projects.”

“If you take a conspiratorial view of things,” he said, “which I don’t, entirely, [these projects] are really going to prove that solar is uneconomic when compared with other sources.”

If one doesn’t take a conspiratorial view, one might conclude that big government and big business have focused solar research and development dollars on big, complex approaches because that’s the way business is used to doing things and thinking-not because anyone is set to prove that solar won’t work. But Van der Ryn’s notion shows how determined and devious some ATers imagine the other side to be.

A more common AT view holds that in such promising areas as solar energy, commercial interests are bound to try to control and channel new technologies to their advantage-even if this does not mean the most effective use of resources. According to this view, existing utilities and manufacturers are predisposed to devoting research and development dollars, their own and the government’s, to technologies that lend themselves to large-scale, centralized production and distribution systems.

Collecting sun power by satellites, relaying the energy to earth through microwaves, transforming microwaves to electricity and using the electricity to heat a house: that’s one form of exploiting solar energy. And a fair amount of thought and money is currently going into studying such an approach. But most AT-minded solar advocates are inclined to look at satellite solar systems as being aimed at keeping the utilities (who would end up distributing the solar energy in the form of electricity) in command of the sun as a marketable resource.

Steve Baer, one of the chief designers and advocates of using the sun’s heat in direct, “passive” ways, is afraid that satellite- collected solar energy “will destroy all the advantages that power from the sun can offer. Rather than breaking the grip of big utilities and returning energy independence to the homeowner or to the community, [the utilities) see the possibility of solar energy becoming just another monopoly.”

ATers are skeptical about centralized solar-powered generation of electricity by any means and while the general public may lump together, under the rubric of solar, anything from home sun-powered hot water heaters to large steam-powered generators that use acres of focused sunshine, the latter approach is regarded by the new counter-technologists as a subversion of the promise that decentralized sunshine carries.

Typical installation of a Sunstream Collector.
Typical installation of a Sunstream Collector.

Many AT pioneers feel that industry and government, where they are not inclined to subvert appropriate technologies, stand ready simply to take them over. What they imagine is that big business-in some cases aided by big government-is just waiting for appropriate technologists to prove the appropriateness of their technologies in market terms and then to leap in and absorb the technology, or the whole field involved.

In a recent issue of Rain magazine, one of the major AT publications, an article entitled “Why Does Big Business Love AT?” describes a machinery manufacturer encouraging small businesses to develop a group of small-scale agricultural tools and machines. The company’s marketing manager admitted, said the article, “that they were quite willing to let someone else do the hard and risky work of developing designs and production, demonstrating, testing, overcoming local inertia, and developing markets for new products. They were confident that if demand for a product did develop they could step in and gain dominance in the market through their economic and advertising power and ability to overwhelm, fairly and unfairly, the small producers.”

Rain editor Tom Bender writes: “What is at stake is not inventing the technology but paying the corporations to develop their capabilities to produce it and also to receive credit from the government for inventing it. So the government promotes and pays big business to take over a new field that is developing quite well without its ‘assistance.”‘

But does it matter who produces appropriate hardware, as long as the tools and systems are useful in appropriate ways? There appears to be little consensus among appropriate technologists. “Do we want GE to produce (solar) collectors?” writes David Morris, head of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Among the variety of answers to the question, which has philosophical as well as practical implications, is an outright no from one of the AT movement’s more politically minded advocates, Philip Bereano, who runs a “Social Management of Technology” program at the University of Washington. Challenging a corporate speaker in a session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last winter, Bereano said: “I must be quite candid that students in my seminar really believe that there’s no way a large corporation car, be involved in the manufacture of any gadget, no matter how small the gadget is, that would be truly an alternative technology, because those institutions do not allow for worker control of the productive process and consumer control of the product.”

On the other hand, the late E.F. Schumacher, generally regarded as the chief philosopher of appropriate technology, felt that AT should make inroads wherever it can, and that if big corporations were inclined to develop AT tools, so much the better. A similar viewpoint was expressed to me recently by Susan Yanda, who with her husband Bill Yanda, are probably the foremost AT-minded promoters of green houses for both solar-heating purposes and for small-scale food growing. She thought it would be fine, she said, if Sears started making and distributing a solar greenhouse.

What some ATers fear most is not that particular technologies will be subverted or co-opted, but that the movement’s very core ideas will be. They are afraid that the enemy may be marching in AT uniforms and under AT’s own banner. The term “appropriate technology” itself has been widely adopted and applied of late, and some ATers feel that, like the queen in Alice’s Wonderland, people are making it mean what they want it to mean, including the opposite of what original counter- technology advocates had in mind. At the AAAS meeting where Bereano spoke up, another young man rose to challenge a Dow speaker who had been talking, in the name of appropriate technology, about Dow’s transplanting chemical plants to developing countries.

Rear view of some of the 72-heliostat arrays shown in the "ready" position for the first major focusing test at the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Thermal Test Facility at Sandia Laboratories. Courtesy of Sandia Laboratories
Rear view of some of the 72-heliostat arrays shown in the "ready" position for the first major focusing test at the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Thermal Test Facility at Sandia Laboratories. Courtesy of Sandia Laboratories

“I’m afraid we’ve got a misinterpretation of the meaning of appropriate technology here, at least as far as people I’ve talked to about it,” the young man said. “Appropriate technology is supposed to relate to people who are going to use it. Almost without exception the examples you’ve given are extremely high technology… it wasn’t appropriate technology. It had nothing to do with the capacity of the local people to understand, to need and to be involved with it…on a sort of gut basis involving the means of controlling and enhancing their own lives.

“What they are doing is making complex organic chemicals. I’ve got to admire the contribution Dow makes in controlling disease vectors, I’m not knocking that, but somehow we haven’t communicated together on the whole purpose of AT…It’s more to enhance the lives in a metaphysical sense almost…”

To which the Dow speaker answered, with what appeared to be equal frustration: “Why isn’t it appropriate if it serves the health of the people? Why isn’t it appropriate technology if it benefits the people?”

Because of what one ATer calls a “crisis of definition” -and because of a concern that appropriate technology is being taken over, or hopelessly beclouded, by inappropriate sources, a movement is underway within the movement to find a new, less pliable label. As Rep. George E. Brown, Jr. of California, who is considered one of AT’s foremost friends in Congress, explained recently: “Those who have worked for years to build a strong base in support of a philosophy of appropriate technology are justifiably not prepared to allow the term ‘appropriate’ to be dismissed as a pure semantic exercise. It originally had a strong connotation of small-scale, ecologically based, human-oriented activity. To preserve this notice, the term ‘community technology’ is frequently being used now, and some AT groups have decided never to use the term, appropriate technology’ again because it has become so bastardized.”

“There’s a mushrooming interest in appropriate technology,” Craig Decker, founder of the New England Appropriate Technology movement, said the other day, “Particularly here in Washington. And that’s sort of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it seems that the grassroots AT people are going to have more clout, more credibility in the future. A lot of agencies will start what was originally seen, as an alternative to the existing system may be able to be fitted into the general pluralistic framework and become like another special- interest group. I think the question is now whether the movement will maintain an alternative perspective or whether it will fit into the existing framework.”

©1978 Wade Greene

Wade Greene’s Fellowship study is on the “Appropriate Technology Movement.”