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Aim high – go Lo-TEK

Photo: Aria Isadora

Ms Watson, may I start by asking you what the term Lo-TEK means?

Julia Watson:

It’s a portmanteau of ‘local’ and ‘TEK’, because that’s what it’s all about: local and traditional ecological knowledge, and technologies that we should recognise for what they are. Because indigenous peoples have worked out how to live in harmony with nature and its ways, and understand the complex dynamics of ecosystems in a way that we do not. It’s also a play on words that points to our inherited biases towards indigenous communities and their technologies. These innovations are often mistakenly called ‘low-tech’, which refers to simple and unsophisticated technologies that our ‘modern’ society finds primitive, when in fact, Lo—TEK are highly sophisticated technologies that work with nature, rather than against it.

Do you think our society is, perhaps, too arrogant to bother with traditional technologies?

Julia Watson:

I wouldn’t call it arrogance. Rather, I think this attitude stems from what I call ‘the mythology of technology’. There’s a mythology around what’s considered sophisticated and what constitutes progress. This kind of thinking began during the Enlightenment and intensified with industrialisation. As the use of fuels increased, and with it the need to extract more and more resources, the destruction of the Earth gathered pace. Only now are we starting to realise the damage we’re doing to our planet. The flip side is, though, that there is now a kind of superiority or saviour complex. We need to move towards a different understanding of our relationship with nature. One that is symbiotic and more along the lines of ‘let’s look after the Earth, because we’re all guardians of the planet now’. This is something that indigenous societies have always intrinsically understood – that as humans it’s our role to protect all forms of life on Earth. That’s why I’ve written this book, about lots of technologies that already exist.

Julia Watson has travelled all over the world in her search for sustainable technologies. She investigated bridges made of tree roots in the Indian jungle that the Khasi people use as a transport route.
Photo: Amos Chapple
In Bali, Indonesia, she studied the architecture of the thousand-year-old subak system of irrigating rice terraces.
Photo: David Lazar
In Lake Titicaca in Peru, the Australian came across a floating settlement built entirely from reeds by the Uru people who live there.
Photo: Enrique Castro-Mendivil

Can you give me an example?

Julia Watson:

On the outskirts of the Indian city of Kolkata there is a system of bheris, or fish ponds, in which fish for human consumption are fed on sewage. This incredible Bengali technology is the only city sewage system in the world that functions organically, without the use of chemicals. Bheris are shallow fish ponds that are fed with wastewater. Sunlight, bacteria and algae come together naturally and work symbiotically to create a complete ecosystem. The wastewater is treated so that it’s a suitable habitat for the fish, which, in turn, serve as a food source for the city’s residents. The region’s farmers reap the rewards too, in the form of nutrient-rich land on which they can grow grain, rice and vegetables. But the benefits are not just economic and ecological – the system is also hugely important socially. Around 100,000 jobs have been created as a result of it.

Very impressive. But how can we go about creating a broader understanding of Lo-TEK?

Julia Watson:

We need to go back to the fundamental questions to find the answer to that one: how can we live symbiotically with our environment, rather than parasitically? How can we work with each other in communities, rather than in rigid structures? And what can we learn from these types of communities and the ways in which they share resources? In my profession, everyone is talking about climate-change technologies, but nobody is pointing out that thousands of these already exist in indigenous communities. They were developed in response to the very same climate extremes that we’re experiencing today – things like flooding, fire and drought.

Turning to the future now, why did you dedicate your book to the next seven generations?

Julia Watson:

This is based on an Iroquois philosophy that the decisions we make today should take the impact on the next seven generations into account. In today’s world, I think it’s very easy to become disillusioned and depressed when thinking about the future. Many people are afraid for their children. I wanted this book to be a beacon of hope – something that allows us to dream about what things could be like seven generations from now. Sure, the future is going to be difficult, but we can still think about the next seven generations. And the sooner we start, the better it will be for our planet.

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