From the title of this book I was expecting a book about slow-tech, the movement for low tech solutions, craftsmanship and old fashioned quality and durability. It shouldn’t have been too much to expect from a book with that title. In fact, this is a book about the ‘robustness of ecosystems’. It’s still good, it’s just not about slow-tech.
Andrew Price’s theory is that our current world prizes efficiency over robustness. Our tendency is to refine and streamline things to within an inch of their lives, and clear any unnecessary baggage. The trouble is, leaving no slack in the system can prove disastrous. One recurring example in the book is the mangrove swamps around New Orleans, which were cleared and drained in the course of planning and development, but could well have saved the city when the levees broke.
Likewise the fishing industry uses catch-all drift nets that almost literally ‘plough’ the bottom of the sea, maximising their take to an unsustainable degree. In industry, the movement for ‘just-in-time’ procurement leaves no contingency – Price mentions Dell, who never have more than four days’ worth of stock on their shelves. The foot-and-mouth outbreaks are partly because abbatoirs have been industrialised and super-sized. As the numbers of abattoirs fell from 2000 to around 300 in the UK, animals had to be moved around the country. Where disease would have been locally contained in the past, nationwide outbreaks were suddently a major risk.
What is missing in these examples is robustness, according to Price. Some flex, a little left in the tank, back-up – like the indestructible racing Bentley his father drove. This is all quite interesting, but the book has some gaping holes. One is that what he describes as ‘robustness’ is pretty much the equivalent of ‘resilience’, and resilience is quite a movement. Transition Towns for example, are a growing and fairly well known solution to the problems he’s describing, but there’s no mention of it. Permaculture is about design that has the “diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems”, according to Graham Bell of ‘The Permaculture Way’. Permaculture doesn’t feature. Appropriate Technology, E F Schumacher’s brainchild and the paragon of slow-tech, gets a one line mention.
Even worse, considering the book’s title, there is nothing about the slow-tech movement. “Less speed for better living”, is how French designer Francois Bernard describes slow tech, where “soft, fluid technologies revisit naturalness and a simplified life philosophy”. It’s about “solid, reassuring elegance” and products that have “depth and weight, worlds away from the ready-to-discard.”
As a reaction to our modern world, slow tech is epitomised by Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler printing his anti-Facebook tract by hand. Or my photographer friend Andrew who always makes tea with loose leaves, values his walkman over the ipod, and carries a Holga – a plastic camera so primitive that results are joyously unpredictable. (thankfully Andrew used something more sophisticated at our wedding) Slow tech is the stove-top espresso maker my brother got me for Christmas, it’s the pencil over the pen. There are some examples of slow-tech in the book, notably the Lazy Dog tool company and the aga, but those with an interest, like myself, might be a little disappointed.
If anyone does know a good book on slow tech, by the way, do let me know.