The Mindblowing Innovation You Can't Live Without: Low-Tech

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.

Dragonfly reception
Dragonfly reception
Paul Molga

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.

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Dutch Cities Have Been Secretly Probing Mosques Since 2013

Revelations of a nationally funded clandestine operation within 10 municipalities in the Netherlands to keep tabs on mosques and Muslim organizations after a rise in radicalization eight years ago.

The Nasser mosque in Veenendaal, one of the mosques reportedly surveilled

Meike Eijsberg

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Photo of people standing on prayer mats inside a Dutch mosque

Praying inside a Dutch mosque.


Broken trust in Islamic community

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talk to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

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