Photo Credit: Glen Canyon Dam and Colorado River - Page, Arizona by user Jim Trodel

Low tech better than high efficiency?

Last week we returned to Comanche Creek. As I explain in the book, Comanche is the site of a long-running restoration project aimed at improving the habitat for the struggling Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout. It employs an innovative in-stream restoration methodology developed by Bill Zeedyk which protects eroding stream banks through the use of sticks and rocks - and not much else. As with the horse farming demonstration I saw in Amish country a few weeks ago, our work in Comanche Creek is an example of how low-tech solutions may, in fact, provide longer lasting resilience and sustainability than high tech ones. But high tech solutions is all we ever hear about these days - that and "efficiency." For example, I read in our newspaper recently that a scientist is proposing to build high tech scrubbers that would cleanse carbon from the atmosphere, thus reducing global warming. To do the job right, this scientist said we would need to build 67 million of these boxcar-sized machines, at a cost of trillions of dollars, and would only require a hundred new nuclear power plants to run them! As unrealistic as that sounds, I think it represents the general attitude of Americans toward our various dilemmas. If certain politicians think we can drill our way to energy independence, then most citizens think that a fancy, and painless, high tech gizmo will ride to our rescue. My guess is - it ain't happening. Energy efficiency, a preferred alternative of conservationists, won't do it either. Repeated studies, going as far back as 19th-century England, show that as energy efficiency increases so does energy consumption. Take my truck, for instance. If someone waved a magic wand and over it and doubled its fuel efficiency from 20 to 40 miles-per-gallon, how would I respond? Most likely, I'd give a little cheer and make that extra trip to Albuquerque that I've been wanting to do. The following week I might go again; and over the course of a month, I would probably burn more gasoline than I would have otherwise with my formerly ‘inefficient' vehicle. It's called ‘Jevon's Paradox' after a British scientist who studied the phenomena. It illustrates a basic point: changes in technology aren't very useful if they aren't coupled with changes in behavior. And until there are actual changes in behavior, there won't be meaningful progress toward lasting solutions. That's why I like low tech solutions. Working in a creek with sticks and stones requires a different relationship with the land. You use your muscles, for one thing. But you also think differently. You begin to pay attention to the nuances of soil, vegetation, and water. It's a different world when you're face-to-face with an eroding stream bank than if you viewed it from the seat of a smelly diesel-powered backhoe. I vote for low tech. It's not the answer to all our problems, not by a long shot, but it a good place to start. ———- Courtney White is co-founder and Executive Director of The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists, and others. He is the author of Revolution on the Range: The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. For further ruminations by Courtney, see