The Appropriate Technology movement came out of the oil embargo (and subsequent crisis and increased prices) of the 70’s. Americans tightened up their fuel usage. They weatherized their houses, sealing cracks, adding insulation, and exploring forms of alternative energy. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House. Students explored what might be done with ambulance alternators and humanure toilets in nascent college programs.
The movement faded just as quickly as it had burst into our collective consciousness. It was “Morning in America” and the price of energy and the size of our cars were inversely related. For the last 40 years, America has squandered the world’s oil wealth in an orgy of ravenous consumption.
In the 70’s, the champions of the Appropriate Technology movement hoped to use our financial and energetic wealth to slowly and painlessly ease our country off the teat of foreign (or domestic!) oil and gas. Today, we are just as tied to our destructive drug as ever, no matter where we get it from. Perhaps the US is now a net energy exporter. Yay? Fracking brings its own problems to our ground water and soil stability. Natural gas raises the global temperature just the same as anything else we might burn.
But while we squandered the opportunity to transition to a lower energy future with any kind of grace, there are lessons still from the Appropriate Technology movement. Yesterday, on the Uros Islands, I saw such lessons applied in tangible ways to improve the health and quality of life for a population that lives in a way unfathomable to most Americans.
The Uros Islanders weave large platforms out of totoro reeds. The platforms float on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, each home to 25-30 people. Each platform boasts a collection of small huts, themselves woven out of the grass. Men fish and hunt, though less than they might once have — Lake Titicaca is a preserve, now, and there are limitations on the catch. The women weave bold colored clothes, sharing the history of their community with tourists. Children make bracelets, sing in a panoply of languages, and giggle, counting on their gap-toothed cuteness to entice a tip or two from smitten tourists. Each day, shiploads of travelers come out to visit, to share a meal, to ride on a reed boat, or to spend the night. Older students travel to the mainland for school. Someone with an illness too much for a local shaman might make the trip, as well, to receive improved medical care.
Yes, in a way, the community is still dependent on tourists for cash and connection to the outside world. But in terms of resiliency to the ever-changing cost and availability of non-renewable energy, they are some of the better-prepared people I have seen. They still make their islands and boats with hand-tools. They still remember how to weave rope from reeds, even if in general they use commercially bought rope now. Their food and water still comes almost entirely from the lake itself. They still make and use reed boats that do not rely on fossil fuel, so they could be connected to each island and to the mainland even if the price of gas became unaffordable overnight. Community ties, and hence the transmission of ancestral knowledge and skills, are still intact. Young people make their own islands — they do not all disappear to the mainland, never to return. Each island is self-governed. Presumably there is some sort of group council for collective decisions and liaison with the mainland. A community agreement distributes each new group of tourists in a rotation, so that each island benefits from the influx of hard currency.
In terms of appropriate technology, I observe a couple of examples. Many huts have a solar panel or two propped up outside. While such technology is expensive and cannot be reproduced locally (rendering it not exactly “appropriate technology”), the electric energy needs of this community are limited to recharging their cell-phones and a little bit of interior lighting. They use hot rocks under open fires for cooking, and hot water bottles to heat their beds at night.
A much better example is their waste management system. Previously, human waste was deposited directly into the lake, with impacts to their drinking water and the vegetation that grows there. Waste from the islands isn’t the only source — not all homes surrounding the lake are hooked into the city waste management system, and the facility that manages on-shore human waste is much too small for the current population of Puno.
Still, in terms of the immediate impact on quality of life, removing their own waste from the vicinity of their own homes was an important use of appropriate technology and something the islanders needed hard cash and connections with the outside world to achieve. As their community has welcomed more tourists, their need for better waste management systems has prompted ongoing efforts. A group of researchers from BYU established the start of their bio-toileting system in 2011. Now, each island has a little hut with an eco-toilet.
The Uros people survived the ravenous Incan Empire, the murderous Spanish Conquistadors, and now face the unquenchable curiosity of global tourism. Somehow, through all of that, they have maintained a largely intact community, with many customs and traditions preserved (though they lost their original language some decades ago). They face the Peruvian government and the hordes of tourists with cautious welcome while striving to improve their security and stability in ways that make sense for their culture and way of life.
If anyone is going to survive the coming centuries with a sense of peace and joy, with their communities and families intact, I’m betting it will be the people who still live on these floating islands.