Slow-Tech: Manifesto for an Over-wound World

We need an alternative to our frenetic society but, writes John Whitelegg, this book does not provide it

February 26, 2009

This is a book about the robustness of ecosystems, the dangers of modernity, the problems created by high technology, the value of spare capacity, the damage done by corporations and the difficulties associated with hasty development. All are valid issues, but the author takes us on a rambling journey through examples of things going wrong, or not going as right as they should, and in the process never really nails the central problem.

Even after 288 pages, this reader is not all that sure what the author has added to the voluminous literature on the depredations of corporations, the dangers of hyperconsumption or the problems of what he calls "squeezing things to the limit".

Andrew Price obviously thinks that his father's Bentley and the Aga pictured on the dust jacket have something to say about robustness and are in some way paragons of acceptable technology. This is unfortunate.

The Bentley is a large, fuel-greedy car associated with wealthy owners and is not a model of robustness or mobility that we can all adopt. Even Bentley drivers would gain a lot from walking or cycling to the local shop rather than driving. The Aga is even more curious. It is an iconic piece of design, but coal-burning versions produce several tonnes of carbon dioxide each year and cost several thousand pounds to purchase.

There is more than a hint of nostalgia in Price's references to Agas and Bentleys and a low level of appreciation of how they could add to the robustness of society as a whole or the efficiency with which we move around, cook and produce hot water.

There is an important message at the heart of this book, summed up on page 212: "What is needed, believers in slow-tech will be quick to point out, is greater robustness throughout - both in nature and in the things we do and create - as an antidote to a world that is becoming even more overwound."

This is the same theme made popular by Carl Honore in his book In Praise of Slow. Honore develops the point with reference to food, cities, medicine, sex, work, leisure and children - and he follows through. Price addresses similar strands in his phrase "overwound" but does not deliver any meat.

His discussion of the decline of fish stocks in chapter five, and elsewhere of the building of the Aswan Dam, are both much-rehearsed topics and he adds nothing new. If anything, he misses the opportunity to expose the large-scale and high-impact problems that result from such projects.

The Aswan Dam created significant problems for agriculture in Egypt and fishing in the eastern Mediterranean, and Price cites them as examples of unintended and damaging side-effects. This is undoubtedly true, but the world's 750 million cars are routinely used for moving people over short distances, with a large energy and carbon penalty and 3,000 road-traffic deaths every day. Indeed, a tonne of metal designed to move around a person weighing no more than 100kg might well fit the author's definition of robustness, but it is a pretty poor design and bad news for any pedestrian who gets in the way.

Nuclear power and climate change offer similarly high-impact examples of what the author is trying to demonstrate, but he fails to recognise the significance of his own insights at the larger societal scale.

There is an important message that could be developed under the headings "slow-tech" and "overwound", but Price gives us only occasional tantalising glimpses of what could be achieved by recognising the significance of the problems he identifies.

We need to know how to reverse current trends so we have less overwinding and more robustness, slowness and efficiency, and we need systems that have spare capacity and don't feed rampant consumerism and short-term gratification. The book that explains all that is still waiting to be written.

Slow-Tech: Manifesto for an Over-wound World

By Andrew Price
Atlantic Books
ISBN 9781843547266
Published 1 January 2009

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