Good-bye, good bicycle!
Reflections on the purchase of an electrical motor for our water pump --- [Estimated reading time: 15 min.]
“All of our exalted technological progress, civilization for that matter, is comparable to an axe in the hand of a pathological criminal.” — Albert Einstein
Technology* is never neutral. Even basic metallurgy requires the unsustainable, highly destructive and pollutive “harvest” of natural resources. Ancient Greece was deforested to make charcoal for metal refineries and pottery kilns, and the forests haven't recovered in over 2,000 years. Whenever there’s folks claiming that “technology is neutral” and “it all depends on the person using it”, they seem to forget that “technology” doesn’t magically appear on store shelves. Modern technology always starts in a mine. Mining is one of the most destructive activities that the dominant culture pursues, and the amount of energy needed for mining itself and the subsequent processing and refining of ores and other minerals is staggering, to say the least. This is, not quite coincidentally, one of the many Achilles’ heels of the Green Technology/Energy Myth. Maybe you’ve seen a mine with your own eyes, maybe you’ve stood next to one of the massive haul trucks they use to carry around rocks. If yes, you know what I mean.
A single mining truck uses anywhere between 150 and 350 liters of fuel per hour, and any given mine employs a fleet of dozens or even hundreds of those monsters (plus giant excavators and other large machinery), how the hell will “renewable energy” power any of those steel behemoths? How much lithium do you need to mine to make batteries that move a machine weighting 400 tons or more? Where will all that lithium be mined, how, by whom, and at whose expense?
Greta Thunberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have been hailed as “mining’s unlikely heroines” by the mining industry, in an article that notes that a full decarbonization of the economy would require copper prices to reach more than three times today’s level (!) by 2025 (!!) and that “producing that amount of copper would require blasting, crushing and grinding 130 billion [!!!] tonnes of rock at current ore grades.” You can imagine what that would do to the ecosystems unfortunate enough to be located on top of copper reserves and the Living Beings inhabiting them.
Furthermore, it is estimated that in the United States alone, the mining and processing of mineral ores generates approximately 1.6 billion metric tons of waste annually, including highly toxic wastes such as mine tailings and wash slimes. That’s nearly half of all the solid waste generated each year in the US. We have all reason to assume that the numbers look even worse for other countries.
Each time a techie assures us that “technology is neutral”, Albert Einstein turns over in his grave. After all, it was the grandmaster of modern physics himself who assured his friend Otto Juliusburger in a letter that
“I believe that the abominable deterioration of ethical standards stems primarily from the mechanization and depersonalization of our lives – a disastrous byproduct of science and technology. Nostra culpa!”
Our fault indeed.
We at Feun Foo Permaculture & Rewilding are, as you can probably imagine after reading the previous paragraph, rather critical of technology, although we acknowledge that sometimes compromises are necessary. We own a smartphone and a laptop, without which you wouldn't read this text. We installed a small solar system last year, after two years of living almost entirely without electricity. How many times have we heard the old tu quoque fallacy: how can we criticize technology while using it? Why don't we walk the talk, why don't we live like Stone Age people - otherwise, what right do we have to criticize technology?
This is obviously nonsense. Hey, you say you “like the environment”, but you drive a car! Ha! Gotcha! And here's an even better one: you claim you're “against capitalism”? So why do you buy stuff then? Why do you even use money?
Needless to say, attacking someone because his arguments are not 100 percent in line with what he as an individual does changes very little about the validity of said arguments. This sort of ad hominem fallacy is a kneejerk reaction motivated by fear – usually fear of the uncomfortable truth contained in the argument in question.
You can criticize capitalism although you take part in it, and, as a matter of fact, you can criticize it precisely because you’re forced to partake in it. Same goes for technology. We can point out the inherent destructiveness of modern technology (or really any technology beyond Stone Age tools) while writing on a laptop. Me using a laptop doesn’t automatically cause me to approve of any mining activities and their concomitant environmental impacts. I just have to make use of technologies I abhor if I want to take any part in today’s society, whether I like this or not. And it’s not like technology doesn’t have any benefits at all – to say so would be utterly ridiculous. Typing this text on a laptop is far more convenient for me than using pen and paper, and without the internet you wouldn’t be able to read it.
It’s only that – eventually – the downsides outweigh the advantages, especially considering all environmental impacts, and especially in the long term (when all technology has unintended side effects of some sort – the deterioration of ethical standards Einstein was talking about is just one example, the fact that technology always carries the values and biases of those who create it is another).
But sometimes compromises have to be made, which brings me (after an introduction that got a lot longer than I intended) to the main reason why I write this: we bought an electrical motor for our water pump last week; Mitsubishi, one horsepower, 220 Volts, 15 kilograms of copper, steel and plastic.
This sentence is sure to bring a smug smile on the faces of all those who generally agree with our views and appreciate what we do, but who think that we are "too radical" on issues like technology. “Finally they came to their senses”, do I imagine folks down in the valley saying to each other, “there was really no reason for them to be so stubborn. All that toil just to make a point?” Well, we did finally accept and embrace the Wonders of Technology (“Making your life easier since 8,000 BCE”, would I imagine the slogan to be).
And we did come to the conclusion that buying a motor (and an inverter strong enough to power it) would make our lives easier. But this was never the point we questioned. The question was if it’s worth it. If it’s necessary.
First of all, we've used a hand-cranked pump for two years, and connected it to an old bicycle (the first upgrade) for another year, which made pumping water a bit easier and less time-consuming. Now, in the fourth year, we know that it's possible. Two people can farm and gather most of their food, plant trees on over one hectare and keep them alive, water vegetable beds, and, of course, take showers and do dishes, all while using only muscle power and gravity to move the water we need. We believe we can relate much better than any of our peers to the African women carrying water containers on their heads depicted in so many National Geographic calendars (although I feel compelled to point out to the politically correct reader that this of course doesn’t mean that I compare myself to Sudanese or Namibian women, it just means I can relate to them). We know how it feels like to have to sweat and pant in order to be able to have water, and we don’t take it for granted that you just open a tab and clear, fresh water flows from it. We’ve learned that every drop is precious, and that water should never be wasted.
Yet we bought a motor. Does that mean we were wrong? No. Do I sound like I'm justifying what we did? Yes. Is this actually an attempt to justify our decision? Again, yes. We think long and hard before a decision like this, and sometimes our decisions fall on the side of the spectrum that we generally disagree with. Again, I never said technology didn't have any upsides. We found one of the rather rare instances where we conclude that, yes, in this specific case, a compromise is worth it. We are anti-tech, but we don’t want people to stop using all technology. We merely want all people to think as long and as hard about acquiring yet another gadget as we did with the motor. We would like to see people pondering for many months whether they really need this new contraption, and we want them to try, really try, doing without it. We would all realize that technology, while surely making life easier (at least temporary, and at the expense of someone else and the environment), often means more useless and unnecessary gimmicks that are not worth razing forests to the ground and ripping up entire mountains for.
Electrical or gasoline-powered water pumps are the absolute standard equipment for farms and gardens, conventional or organic ones. All permaculture farms I know of use them, at least sometimes, so we shouldn’t feel too bad about buying one. Normally, nobody would even raise an eyebrow if a farmer or a gardener buys a water pump. It is usually one of the first things people acquire to start a farm or garden like ours. But we prided ourselves on not having one, and now we got one – it feels a tiny bit like a failure! We wanted to know if it’s possible to do without one, and we found that it is – it’s just a whole lot more work. We don’t have as much free time if we use muscle power to pump water from our pond into our main tanks, and as the area under intensive cultivation (meaning our vegetable beds) expands, we need to spend ever more time pedaling away on our bicycle pump. Our little food forest is located on a relatively steep mountainside, which severely restricts the movement of water to a single direction: downhill. Our tanks are about 20 meters higher than our pond, which is the lowest point of our property. So far, we’ve pumped water in short, intense bursts of workout-like exhaustion, one hundred revolutions of the pedals at a time, five to fifteen sets per day, depending on the water level in our tanks. It feels like cycling up a steep hill in a high gear, as fast as you can. You have to stand in order to get the whole thing going, use the whole weight of your body to push down the pedals.
If we would have more people living here, the workload could be evenly distributed and this would put the bicycle pump once more into the realm of what’s possible and reasonable. Every Sunday, when Karn’s brother (who lives with us for almost a year now and works in the valley as a motorbike mechanic) has his day off, we do at least five hundred each and have enough water for the next two days without being too exhausted. But on the other six days of the week, it’s only us two.
Setting up the new pump was not exactly a stress-free endeavor either. We decided to keep the bicycle powered pump, and to install the electric pump parallel to the muscle-powered one. That way, if there are any issues, we can simply switch back by closing one valve and opening another. But since we know very little about the physics of pumping water and the electrical requirements of such system, we proceeded by trial and, more often, error. We bought a 1/2HP motor first, erroneously assuming that it must be able to stem the workload, since a full-grown horse should in theory definitely be able to power at least two of our bicycle pumps. We found out the hard way that the rated wattage of our inverter is nowhere close to adequate to supply the motor with the required energy during the first seconds of starting up. A power inverter will usually have a “surge power” roughly twice the rated wattage, I read, so a 1000W inverter should be able to handle a short burst of 2000W. I foolishly extrapolated that an electrical motor will also need twice the rated wattage when starting up, so for a 1/2HP (o.4kW) motor that would be 800W, still well within the limits of our inverter. It was only when the fuse of our inverter blew and it started beeping in distress that I considered researching how much energy exactly a motor needs when starting up – turns out it is not twice, but more like six times the rated wattage. Yes, a 400W motor needs 2400W of power to start spinning. So we sent the inverter to the repair shop, and bought a larger one. The motor worked somehow with the larger inverter – at least if we aided it by frantically spinning the wheel with our hands during the first seconds – but it got incredibly hot after a short time and the water outflow was less than exciting. So we replaced the 1/2HP motor with a 1HP-strong one, a so-called “capacitor start type” motor that apparently uses electricity more efficiently when starting up. A 1HP capacitor start type motor uses the same surge current as a 1/2HP split-phase start type motor! If we would have known this, we would have bought the stronger one right away and saved a whole lot of time, but, as the saying goes, hindsight is easier than foresight. I barraged an old friend who studied electrical engineering (and whose father was, incidentally, my physics teacher) with questions during the week it took us to set things up, since none of my questions could easily be answered by online searches. I neither have the technical know-how, nor the lingo to understand anything I read about the issue online (nor do I have the nerve to learn and memorize all that shit). Furthermore, it seemed like our case is exceptional, in that folks either have hundreds of Kilowatts available from a roof full of PV panels, or live on flat land (or both), both of which makes moving water incredibly easy. We had to change the location of the pump once, since the many right angles in the piping of the first setup meant that the water flow was partially obstructed and the machine needed more energy to draw water.
We reached the point where we almost said “fuck it, let’s go back to bicycling” – but since we already bought the equipment, going back was not an option anymore.
But, in the end, everything worked out to our satisfaction. We don’t keep the pump running for more than ten minutes at a time (it still gets quite hot), but two or three sessions of water pumping like this are enough to supply us with the water we need for one large round of watering our vegetable beds. Our lives got a whole lot easier.
Despite what the Myth of Progress tries to teach us, we are not going to save up for power tools or a refrigerator next. Or an aircon. Or a car.
Our hand drill and our crosscut- and two-person buck saw work perfectly fine. If we take care of them, they will last a lifetime, and even when the grid goes down for good, we will be able to drill holes and cut wood (and we get a nice workout while doing so). We’ve lived over three years without a fridge, and we don’t miss it (apart from the occasional craving for the banana ice cream we used to make at our last project). If you have all fresh ingredients you need to prepare a meal within a five-minute walk from your house, you simply don’t need one. We don’t even have a fan in our house, but are content with the shadow that the trees around us spend, wet towels around our shoulders, and frequent baths in the pond during the hottest days. We have a Thai-style side wagon on one of our motorbikes, and we can transport everything we need to.
There is a beautiful saying in Thai: นกน้อยทำรังแต่พอตัว (nok noi tham rang dtae phor dtua; “the small bird builds a nest no bigger than her body”) – it’s easily my favorite proverb. That’s how we try to live our lives, that’s the way we make decisions. We still use less technology than all other permaculture projects I know of, and although this is not a competition about who uses the least, it is our explicit goal to reduce our dependency on technology, to become “modern foragers” in the long term. Taking this into consideration, it does feel like buying a motor is a step in the wrong direction. But we see it as more of a temporary fix, since no piece of equipment lasts forever. Fixing an electrical motor far exceeds our capabilities, and once the supply chains are down and crucial resource stocks are depleted most machines will become useless chunks of trash, for reasons of obsolescence and lack of spare parts. In the long-term, low-tech will not be a noble choice but an inevitable reality. But by then, hopefully, our soil will regain water retention capabilities comparable to that of rich, dark forest earth, our vegetable seeds will be selected for drought-tolerance over many generations, and the tree crops that will make up the bulk of our diet will have matured.
The piece of high-tech equipment that will die first is our 200Ah VRLA battery, which will leave us with 60kg of highly toxic waste, most of which is lead, and some sulfuric acid – not the kind of stuff you want in your garden. Such batteries have a life expectancy of at most ten years, depending on usage. And if the idea of having toxic waste in your garden just to be able to use a bit of electricity daunts you, remember that pollution is always the price you pay for electricity. It’s just that usually the toxic waste gets dumped out of sight, out of mind, in someone else’s backyard or someone else’s home, human or other.
Our solar panels will give up next, although the moment the battery goes belly-up their usefulness becomes rather limited. How long the motor will last is impossible to tell, although we can’t run it without the battery. If we can still get replacement parts a decade from now is highly questionable, considering the state of affairs global civilization finds itself enmeshed in.
I can’t help but to have feelings of shame and defeat, to some extend at least. Do we have the right to devastate ecosystems we’ve never even set foot in just to have the convenience of using water without having to exert energy ourselves? Is this fair for the non-human creatures who call those ecosystems their home? Do they care about our perceived need for more water? Is this perpetuating human supremacism?
It undoubtedly is.
Even more humiliating, we don’t even need the water for our immediate survival – we get our drinking water from another water tank at the very top of our garden, which simply collects rainwater (and each time we carry the heavy 20-liter containers of water on our shoulders down to our house it feels a bit like we’d make a worthy picture for a NatGeo calendar). The water from our pond is simply an additional benefit, a perceived need satisfied, to be able to eat the stuff we want to eat, the stuff that wouldn’t grow naturally, without artificial irrigation.
But yet I also feel that it’s a worthy compromise. Probably because I never set foot in the habitats destroyed and polluted by the production of the machine we now use. It’s much harder to care about environmental destruction if you can’t see it. Most people don’t even want to see it, don’t even want to know anything is being destroyed for their lavish industrial lifestyle. Being aware of the utter environmental devastation that technology necessitates automatically makes one more mindful about one’s own consumption.
But I believe that the world would be a better place for all its myriad inhabitants if everyone felt at least a little shame each time they buy a new machine.
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*Of course, I’m talking about modern technology here (“modern” meaning “not more than 10,000 years old” in the context of the entirety of human history). Yes, a stone can be considered technology, as can a stick, but that’s besides the point. Technology, in the way I use the term here, starts with mining and metallurgy, since any tool before that could be fashioned by you and your friends, using materials that you can easily find in your immediate environment without disturbing it too much. Lewis Mumford differentiated between democratic and authoritarian technics: the former being relatively simple, localized, powered mostly by calories as primary energy source, and without the need for hierarchies or formal supervision; the latter being complex, interregional, requiring large amounts of energy (first in the form of pyrolyzed wood and, later, of much more efficient fossil fuels), controlled by technocrats, bureaucrats or other authorities in a strictly hierarchical manner. A stone axe is an example of the former, an iPhone one of the latter. Democratic technics adapt themselves to the conditions in which they are deployed, but authoritarian technics alter those conditions to make the conditions adaptable to the machines. If not otherwise stated, I am talking exclusively about authoritarian technology.