9 September 2003

Sustainability Issues at Practical Level: from the bottom up

The Hard and the Soft Aspects of Rural Technology Development

by Christian de Laet,

A focus has emerged after a professional life initiating, implementing and co-ordinating various technologies and processes which make life easier for communities left behind in the search for sustainable livelihoods. Such technologies are characteristically technically sound, environmentally friendly and futures-oriented in terms of their acceptance as a step in the rise in the technical temper of local inhabitants, the younger generations in particular.

Modern communications now reach the most remote villages; they also cause greater expectations of a better life, particularly in rural areas and isolated communities. The resulting disruptions have drawn people to larger cities. Rewards have been short lived. Superficial adaptation is paid by the loss of home community anchors.

Recent advances in information and communications fields make it possible to create viable, responsive exchanges between increasing numbers of initiatives aiming at sustainability. Technically advanced societies live mainly for the moment. Some culturally-advanced societies may have reached such balances, but often at the cost of fairly low levels of technical achievement, thus of economic development as measured by mainstream 'western' standards.

The apparent hopelessness of the predicaments, as they appear when multiplied and convergent, must not discourage us from doing the best we can: the world can be made to unfold less-perilously. We may be influential enough to invert such a scenario. Everything being equal, there is a moral duty to clarify development issues so that man's evolution need not be the slave to technological determinism. The time to be clear on these issues is now.

Much of my professional life has been associated with appropriate technology and techniques in full respect of the assets accumulated by traditional knowledge. The focus has been on local communities where the social and human assets weigh heavily in favour of cultural rather than technical achievement. My interest in aboriginal communities was triggered by an urge to explore the why and how of their persisting sacred/profane duality. On the other hand, the technically advanced societies seem to have lost a good part of those non-material attributes which cannot be directly said to yield material advantages.

The information base

Ideas, documents, books and additional relevant information collected over nearly four dozen years of involvement in diffuse fields of development, confirm my belief that many patterns of action-research in the areas of social economy, of industrial ecology or of responsible waste management, life-long costing of technology and the like, are increasingly coming together to promote development with satisfactory outcomes for mankind. That, and welcome progress in information science, creates a climate where the proposed project becomes possible.

An empirical law in the social sciences is that you cannot satisfy a public good without diminishing someone's private good. It is thus up to us to design better policies and safeguards to reach a greater number of deserving targets.

A glance at the world today, with further prompting of friends, confirms that now is the time to finish sorting, cataloguing and organising my memories and documents making up a lifetime of effort made in the direction of the sustainability of development, and under what conditions. Modern progress in information and communications technologies make this conversion of my archives into publishable material possible and efficient.

During the course of my professional span, in large part spent in intergovernmental and international circles and projects, I have come to see the huge boon that applied technology can bring to local development. The technology, however, must be adapted to regional and local needs before it can be adopted to meet suitable human development.

Regardless of the level reached in technical achievement, modern societies can profit by sensitising and educating their youth to the problems faced by others. The proposed project can provide useful elements in reconnecting with an often-lost sense of reality; further education can then become more fruitful in this inter-connected world.

A few major streams of themes are sketched out in appendix; they form the skeleton of the basic needs to be met in Water, Energy, Shelter, Rural Technology, Techniques and Training, Indigenous Communities, Governance, and the complex linkages they have with each other. The responses to such needs can be readily expanded to meet the challenges needed by young adolescents everywhere

Successes with many initiatives with which I have been associated prove that there is here a substantive potential for such constructive outcomes. My 'archives' contain much information on many future-bearing projects gathered and nurtured over the past four decades, while noting some development paths not taken and some imperfection in others. Every medal has two sides.

The task now is to finish the ''sort, catalogue, cross-reference and transpose the data and make available a wealth of documented experience in any type of clustering the end-users may prefer.

A. Objectives

Time and Financial Resources

  1. The project's short-term objective is to transpose the documentation in fully accessible form. It must be adaptable to serve a wide array of publics in their various cultural and geographical settings.
  2. The mid-term objective will insure that the documentation has an overall and specific usefulness to youth and young adults everywhere, but also to development agents involved in effective grassroots initiatives in countries or regions, whether technically advanced or not; the existing cultural always base being considered the development-building foundation.
  3. The long-term objective is to have stable, constructive building blocks offering balanced technical/cultural steps on the climbing march to sustainability.

The Objectives in context

To succeed, the project must develop the contexts in which complex aspects of culture and of science & technology are embedded as a normal feature of sensitisation, schooling and training.

The practical ways explored in the course of the project will consist of substantial open-ended references to existing collateral holdings such as quotations, sayings, proverbs and aphorisms, multi-lingual word roots, fables, poems, board games, scale models of technical objects, colour slides, photos, graphics and the like.

Past action-research assignments have supported an operational philosophy towards the kind of development where people matter. Technology will always play critical roles: it is in our human nature to know more and to explicate more through 'knowledge made matter'.

My observation of many development issues and opportunities in local communities and their environments has led me to identify many transverse issues which have helped find specific remedial solutions in addition to documenting some long term improvements reaching apparently unrelated areas.

B. Time and Financial Resources

1. Time Resources

It is expected that the substantive elements of the project will require a first year of effort to catalogue and reference the material; another year to transpose and assemble the information in appropriately overlapping clusters of themes and sub-themes to be monitored and verified. A third year will be necessary to prepare the 'collection' in appropriately publishable form.

2. Human Resources

The support strength in 'human resources' will call for dedicated staff and possibly international trainees with a wide assortment of competence and of experience. These, mainly young adults at a master's level of university achievement will cover a number of fields, including technology, development philosophy and practice, communications management.

3. Financial Resources

Early budgeting failed to account for the size or the complexity of the proposed project. Investment of my private resources over the past four years was essential but is no longer available and totally insufficient to do the job properly. The intention is to seek institutional funding, with interim help from willing friends and acquaintances.

  1. Institutional Funding: The project proposal is directed principally at institutional funding sources which could allow to incorporating current perspectives from earlier fieldwork. In practical terms, this would mean a time attachment to the project: The trainee would thus be able to make other contacts in Canada. Regional schools and technical institutes would benefit directly from such opportunities.
  2. At each transfer point in the complex routing in the chain between decision-making, technology selection and back again, it is easy to observe how intent and content of technical aid may become fuzzy and essentially non- operational. Now that resources of all kinds have become scarce, it means that a more systemic approach would benefit for the 'conversations' between the 'crown and the foot' to be fruitful, quickly delivered and efficiently introduced, nationally and internationally. A pattern of possible strategic and tactical solutions is emerging in applied cognitive sciences which can take into account a wider array of dependent factors in sustainability issues. Young scholars may find it interesting to explore such avenues in development aid in institutionalarenas.
  3. Funding through individual friends and acquaintances: Early funding from private individual sources is eagerly sought to help the project to develop until institutional funding comes through. To assist in this, a not-for-profit organisation has accepted to domicile and manage the project since its board of management concurs that it fits well with its own mandate. This will permit the donors to obtain receipts for income tax purposes.


1. The first objective of the project will consist of two parallel steps: one, the recollections from my memory and their adequate transposition, now in process, onto coding sheets or film strips. Two, the actual 'mining' of dozens of boxes and shelves', appropriately cross-checked and documented. The first step is moving well with the assistance of private contributors: it is meshing with the planning of the 'mining' phase in reference clusters: thesaurus, quotes, proverbs and sayings, a 'tree' of relevance to sustainability issues and the like. This transition phase and the 'mining' to follow will be carried out by a younger staff eager to define its own career path in the 'sustainability' field. As noted, schools, technical institutes and university graduates will benefit from such activities and will contribute to the 'Sensitisation and Training' objective.

2. As noted, the themes and the language in which the findings are conveyed will make them useful to young adults in search of careers: their minds will be tested at the discovery of realities from the 'outside' world. A draft thematic framework in appendix is in substance aimed at assisting local or isolated rural communities to raise the subsistence floor supporting their now precarious existence: at present, more than two thirds of mankind earns not much more than one dollar a day and is stuck at the level of bare survival. This is a sobering thought.

3. The kinds of hard technologies which will be at the centre of the project will be accompanied by the required support of soft techniques at all levels. We have learned from experience that an explicit statement on the available traditional knowledge produced over time by the culture-based local values must be included.

4. Broad sweeps or a narrow focus during often fickle and fashionable moments of traditional development history, will no longer suffice. Rather, with the time left to us to steer towards safer coasts and havens, (to be measured in difficult decades rather than mythical centuries) we should address root causes to our present predicaments and encourage constructive and locally successful experiments to point the way. There is no assurance that significant attitudinal changes in the short run are possible in the cultural and corporate arenas, whether public or private, unless true partnerships are allowed to emerge.

5. Past assignments carried out with national and international institutions and organisations, have confirmed that 'sustainability' must include a substantial 'from the ground up' component.. Thus the need to make sensitisation and training appropriate to persistent questions of meaning and relevance when considering futures-oriented job options. Education specialists and extension workers will be asked to collaborate. Some of the complex problems induced by migrations to cities can be offset or alleviated by the 'capacity-building' of individuals to find additional opportunities in their own culture-oriented environments and with the undoubted economic rewards to be found there.

Appendix :

Some themes and linkages as guidelines

Technology has been variously defined as the sum of all the devices and processes invented by man to make life more bearable. This omnibus statement calls for clarification such as whose life, who decides, and for what ostensible purposes.

Here we are concerned mainly with technology in rural, isolated or aboriginal communities, and also that which can be used in urban community gardens or on rooftops. Which ever the location, technology must be affordable, efficient, repairable, teachable, up-gradeable, durable, socially suitable, environmentally friendly. It must leave the target population, their culture and their sites 'less worse off than before'. Many lessons learned in technologically developing areas can find ready application in the context of modern societies. As always it must be adapted before being adopted.

Technology crosscuts all the issues of mankind,…and so does water, with its own contribution to every aspect of life, and of living. Water is also substantially involved in matters of health since 80% of human diseases are water-borne. And it is also important in outdoor recreation since 80% of activities in that sector are related to water, snow or ice.

The few major themes sketched out below are cited as examples.

The archival material together with recent information on the modern contemporary world will justify additional 'sub-themes' on their own merits or as linkages. Changes of emphasis or of entry points in the 'thematic' selection and its ranking will be the rule rather than the exception. Water emerges by right and by necessity as a key topic.

1. Water: Water is a resource of paramount importance: life on earth is not conceivable without it. It affects all of our activities

We have underlined its major physical and other attributes in a research report prepared for the National Film Board. The object was the production of a 90-minute film by Les Productions du Rapide-Blanc, of Montreal.

The focus is developing a sense of collective and of individual responsibility underscoring values, attitudes, biases. preconceived opinions and other attitudes generated by the apparent inexhaustible plenty where water is available and by resignation where it isn't. There are currently wide pools of ignorance or of indifference in the management of the resource, but also of disastrous consequences in many parts of the world including wars.

The thrust of the proposed film is also to produce a 4-hour television series aiming at the orientation and sensitisation of everyone, including the responsible management needed in balancing between life's very necessities and the commercial potential of this unique resource

The research touched on the wide array of key roles water plays in mankind's development: agricultural, industrial, commercial, domestic and in health, transportation, outdoor recreation and ritual activities.

The plan is to use adolescents and young adults on field visits to earlier assignments and to focus their attention on how and why the water situation was and still is of vital importance.

Links: Human Health, Environmental Effects, Waste Management, Natural and Man-made Disaster Prevention and Damage Mitigation, Climate Change, Small Dams and Withholding Weirs, Roof Gardens, Integrated Management. With linkages to all other themes and sub-themes

2. Environmental Management: This theme may be a misnomer since actively managing the environment is likely out of human hands: ultimately, nature will prevail. Since the prevailing approach is on the profitable drives to exploit and destroy it, leaving behind nearly unmanageable wastes due to our profligacy and our technical and social inefficiencies, we should strive to conceive of less worse strategies. To paraphrase the Brundtland Commission we must work out environments which supply us with our needs while not decreasing their effective capacity to supply the needs of future generations.

Mankind’s history is replete with examples of doing too little or too late or of deferring action until technology will 'naturally' appear to remedy the situation. This blind belief rapidly become a wrong path to follow on all counts of logic and of common sense.

The necessity of reducing our 'footprints' on nature means reducing our numbers or our standard of living. The more limited range of space and of means practically available to local communities can show us surprisingly constructive outcomes. What standard of living and what quality of life?: at what point can improving one can impinge on the other. What different value scales can co-exist? What more knowledge is needed and how to dissolve the burdensome overlays of ignorance and of refusal to see?

Many decision-making models have been proposed to make a dent in this super- problem. The difficulty is that it is not a technical as much as an institutional problem requiring political will and example. We are now facing unbearable problems such as running out of 'squeeze room' in short personal and political horizons available.

Links: Life long Assessments, Industrial Ecology, Cleaner Production, Systems Approaches, Social Economy, Social Marketing, Human Ecology, Organisation and Ecology of Knowledge, etc.

3. The Idea of Nature: A syllabus originally designed as a university assignment consisted in a reasoned history over time of ‘The Idea of Nature’ seen through the three major ‘Religions of the Book’, later to stretch in the past and to extend into the future. The concern explore beyond Judeo-Christian and Islamic perimeters. This optional course, in French, was attended by over two dozen graduate students in Landscape Planning with the object of casting the subject in a wide context of the meaning of our relationships with nature, how they have evolved in the past, and what guidelines are likely to emerge for future outlooks.

Links: Water, Landforms, Engineering , Cultural Roots, Forestry Gardens, Functional Philosophy, Aboriginal and Tribal groups, Urban-Rural dualities, Man-made Artificial Ssssystems

4. Energy for ‘rural’ development: 'Rural' is refers here particularly to autonomous energy production from local sources, thus th compendium of 'wood, wind and water' and of human/animal power. Technologies have evolved over the centuries, particularly since the advent of modern progress in designing composite materials or computer chips, nano-technologies, hydroponics, miniaturisation and imitation of natural processes, etc. 'Biomass energy now encompasses all the multiple strands of energy sources created through the conversion of primary solar energy through photo-synthesis, peat, methane generation, compost, pyrolysis of wastes or organic litter.. It is a very complex and convoluted set of systems relationships with water-based, oxygen-prone life forms. As to what energy technologies are likely to dominate

The conversion of energy sources to devices and processes useful to particular communities can be ingenious; they sometimes give rise to efficient secondary energy sources or to co-generation: hydro-power, gasifiers, steam engines, heating & cooling pumps, Stirling engines, village coolers, etc. The list is long and deserves constant re- -evaluation in the light of modern scientific advances such as in electronics, nano-technologies and composite materials.

In many instances, discarded, old or abandoned technologies can be given a new economic life, if all costs, social and private, are factored in regardless of fashionable preferences that are clearly culture-, and thus policy-specific where 'higher- order' imperatives tend to rule, consciously or not. Some of the problems associated with hydro-power could be met by devising appropriate micro-hydels, floating or fixed, or twinned with windmills, etc. Most modern configurations of technologies carry heavy technical and environmental costs which have to be anticipated as rural technologies are expected to ramp up to urban standards.

Conversion of primary energy, natural or man-made, into storable 'secondary' forms requires equipment which effectively adds up to an acknowledgement of almost independent small-scale rural energy systems. Many alternatives depend on the 'speculative' cost of fossil fuels, the positioning of trade cartels and other disputable variables.

Energy is a critical component of development, whether primary, secondary or embedded in modern devices.

It can also be found in symbolic or metaphorical analogies which can contribute to the release of man's inner energy drives

Many energy-related observations and references have been obtained in the course of assignments in and around the context of dams, of flood control structures, of fish and wildlife management assessments, of rooftop gardening as well as pumps, water-lifting and other devices using energy combinations in farm and household management.

There is a substantial set of energy- relevant references and of peripheral material from many visits to museums throughout the developing countries, many of which had preserved formerly used equipment such as domestic hot air fans, food preservation and medical cooling systems.

Links: Food, Health, Integrated Rural Development, Transportation, Health, Organisation of Knowledge, Subtle Energies, formerly used energy systems: steam, kerosene, gasoline, diesel fuel hybrid systems.

5. Shelter: In the history of cultures, shelter has always been considered a basic need, significantly met by specific local resources. In the sequence: ``skin, clothing, shelter, daily environment, nature``, 'shelter' stands at an important crossroads and midway point with branchings which affects social and cultural life, nature-centred shelter of environmental values, all differently viewed in diverse areas of the world.

There is a substantive collection of documents dealing with materials such as rammed earth, stone, animal skins, adobe, forest cuttings, paints, coatings and the like and, indeed, with critiques on the dearth of people who have taken the trouble of experimenting with natural, locally available materials, including straw bales, compressed earth blocks, grottoes, overhangs, grass sod roofs. The 'qanat' air conditioning systems of Persia and other architectural innovations are incorporated in ancient and modern-day eco-villages. Administrative and political limitations to such innovations are slowly being lifted in view of the rising scarcity in natural resources.

Links: with themes related to health, community schooling as well as to man-made and natural disasters. Forgotten age-old building techniques or fallen in disuse because of inventions in other fields.

6. Health: A key thematic area with information gathered from many different cultures (chinese, ayurvedic, unani, western, animist, herbal, etc., as well as under the umbrella of ‘ethno-pharmacology' and modern progress

Health information touches on physical , spiritual, emotional and mental aspects, traced back to earlier practices and to other civilisations. It is generally admitted that mankind and other animals settled initially only where feeding and healing was available, now an outdated concept which has opened the way to the spread of diseases through transportation infrastructure and long lasting preservation methods, and yet…

Links rising recognition of ethno-pharmacology, of self-help health maintenance systems, of micro-organic life, popular cultures and literature, local tales and proverbs, etc.

7. Indigenous People and Isolated Communities, Islands and other Enclaves: The term indigenous used to project negatively in the relations between metropolitan countries and 'colonised' people with different attitudes towards life and their concepts of living environments. Each one of us is admittedly indigenous from ‘somewhere’, whether in a physical or in a cultural sense and we often tend to carry our totems and taboos throughout our life. Accepting the rights of 'others' is seeping in our many social environments.

The term is being recast in a deserving progressive context by various assemblies of first nations, as well as by the World Council of Indigenous People and other thematic or regional organisations.

A survey by the World Bank identified over 2,000 clusters of non-mainstream cultural groups all over the world.

Most travels have been the occasion of contacts with widely located such social or rural groups.

National statistics are not usually designed to yield specific markers on rural conditions in isolated communities, urban or rural

Links: Isolated and Island Communities, Enclaves, Borders & Margins, Metis, Creoles, Lingua Franca, etc.

8. Non-intrusive technologies and techniques, rural in particular: Sustainable Governance through knowledge organisation

The core driver to the understanding of sustainability issues is deemed to be located in individuals since they often consist of individual values, attitudes and behaviour patterns.

Individuals are collectively at the dimensional crossroads between the cosmos and their inner selves. Sustainable governance cannot be achieved unless the individual is at peace with his or her inner nature. That peace is derived from the suspicion or recognition that mankind forms One Whole and that there is a complex tissues which weaves us together, with all our apparent differences. Unless we are able to jointly release our 'enthousiasm' (the God within), we will be unable to reach sustainability in our presumed development, here associated with evolution. Short of this necessary 'élan vital', man's evolution will be curtailed and diminished.

With these cautions in mind, we can start planning and programming our ascension from the present chaos.

Thus we can still speak of responsible design, of autonomy, of self-reliance, of community management, in order to give us a baseline to build our developmental ramping out of our present predicaments.

Again, the concepts applied to the wisdom of nations must be clearly seen at the actual level where our families and our local communities develop, and spend the largest part of their daily existence. We owe it to reconfigure Commerce and Industry, Community Development, Research, and other superficially desirable elements of organised life to establish and become responsible for some sort of local control or management autonomy over community resources to plan for Sustainable Livelihoods.

9. Rambling Thoughts:

It is an important self-sustaining and growing concept which to build a community, unless the configuration it becomes nothing more than a convenient adjunct to or a creature of another level of institutional government.

We should thus be able to monitor all the inputs and outputs of a community's assets and activities, material, financial or otherwise, but we may be discouraged to do so until we raise the bottom floors of collective understanding. This may have an important meaning in our efforts to gauge 'our' relationships with 'neighbours' of all kinds at all levels if we want to avoid distortions in our efforts to find a just place in the sun, and in the society in which we are progressively more embedded.

This is a 'knowledge handling', a brain exercise before it takes any material form. It is not an objection to the evidence of our physical senses: it becomes a necessary adjunct and corrective to the observable reality since the reality only is not such as to inspire us to 'develop'.

Cohesion in communities can be assisted by various 'transparent' associations with local and outside membership.

Putting People First is becoming a useful guideline, with appropriate caveats.

Community assets, unmonitored, can fast become unproductive or requisitioned elsewhere.

New and revived alternatives for money are many: gifts, loans, pledges, barters and other forms of reciprocal and convivial systems which avoid the dominance of accumulated or coercive money pools.

Micro-credit and other such formulas could be useful to donor agencies to insure their effectiveness on the ground.

The current trend to globalisation appears to imply that it is an inevitable outcome for which they would not be any test of alternative options. This does not appear at this time to be an ideal for mankind as a whole.

Good governance is a notion that applies to every level of society, from the individual up to the Big Man.

The original big men started with a very specific attribute of 'conscience' which seems to have become lost.

It is essential that we recover it, in each one of us

Criteria of accountability and performance are hard to devise unless there is a code of ethics that is enforceable by its own merit, outside references to material accumulation of physical riches , as in pristine communities of yore.

People could be sensitised to such issues and tested on the direction of their integrity.

Sensitisation and Education/Training/Apprenticeships are key aspects of sustainability but what ways and means are there.

Knowlton, Quebec, 8 September 2003.