Reducing the strain on the environment, and opting out of a "growth-at-all-costs" logic, may be the only path forward for the future. And it will require the smartest new ideas.
PARIS — Experts no longer doubt that environmentally friendly behavior and the most groundbreaking recycling models, which some have dubbed the circular economy, won't be enough to ease humanity's pressure on our natural resources.
"The problem isn't the risk of shortage, but the disproportionate efforts that will need to be deployed to extract increasingly inaccessible raw materials," explains Philippe Bihouix, an engineer who specializes in mining resources. "The question of degrowth thus becomes whether we will be forced into it soon, or freely choose it now."
Indeed, he believes it's imperative that we choose it now. "It's a swarm of crickets descending upon the scarcest resources," he says.
This concerns one-third of metals, including titanium, 95% of which is used as a mineral-coloring agent in toothpastes, sunscreens, paints and plastics. Others are used in proportions too small to be recycled. Platinum in catalytic converters ends up on roads, and close to 3% of the silver (which some predict we will run out by 2021) extracted each year ends up in water treatment plants after having been used for bacterial protection in textiles.
"Our way of life erodes the surface of the earth faster than wind, water and tectonic movements," the engineer explains.
Like his recently published book, The Age Of Low-Tech, a number of how-to guides, magazines, online forums and blogs are offering instructions "towards this happy sobriety" depicted by the French agro-philosopher Pierre Rabhi to reduce our drain on resources.
"Low-tech is first of all a reflection on the needs between an ecology of supply that advocates alternative and transition, and an ecology of demand that ponders our life choices," Rabhi says. "Do we really need the progress that is on offer? Should we not instead be content with less, adapt our mobility, organize ourselves differently? Low-tech is an attitude that aims at better using the high-tech products that already exist."
In a 2010 report on creativity and innovation conducted for the French government, Michel Godet reported that 20% of modern innovations are technical. "The rest comes mostly from changes of a social, organizational, commercial, marketing or financial nature," Godet wrote. "We need to push this logic even further."
Bihouix writes, for example, that low-tech in industry means a simpler, lighter car, "almost devoid of electronics and equipped with a more limited engine. It’s basically the Citroën 2CV with a particulate filter and hard-wearing tires."
Developing countries look like they could adapt to this movement the easiest — DIY with old stuff, recycling, makeshift objects. “The human genius knows best how to reclaim common sense from it," says Alain Guinebault, director of Geres, an association from Marseille that carries out innovative sustainable development projects such as solar greenhouses and bioclimatic hen houses.
Low-tech can also radically change medicine in impoverished parts of the world. "We don’t necessarily need cutting-edge technology to improve life conditions in these poor regions," Manu Prakash, professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, said recently when he presented expand=1] a microscope made out of paper intended to quickly diagnose malaria in blood samples. This 50-cent "foldoscope" folds like an origami and contains a LED, a battery and a basic optical lens.
"It's rudimentary, but a hell of a lot more efficient than diagnostic kits that are way too expensive for the places where it's needed," he said.