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Neat to know ~ Feature of the month

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Imagining a world of symbiosis

Living root bridge, Dawki, Meghalaya, India

Photo: Anwesha22, CC BY-SA 4.0


When we call something “high tech,” we think of it as advanced, sophisticated, bringing ease and joy to our lives, stunning us with innovation.  But author, landscape designer, architect, and professor, Julia Watson, would like us to take a new look at technology, this time embracing what she calls “Lo-TEK,” where “TEK” stands for “Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” In her 2020 book, Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, she describes the incredible innovations developed by centuries-old cultures around the world.  Many of the systems she explores have been in use for hundreds – even thousands – of years.  Watson says that what sets them apart from the way the West has been developing technology to control, suppress, and protect us from nature, is that these ancient innovations work with nature.  The result is a symbiotic relationship (a relationship that benefits all sides of the relationship, rather than letting one side gain dominance over the other).  She argues that studying and learning from indigenous technologies could be the key to getting through the climatic and environmental crisis we now face.

Cultures that collaborate with nature

Many of the cultures that collaborate most effectively with their natural surroundings and which have done the least to harm the planet, are the ones now facing the gravest threats from climate change and environmental degradation.

For example…

The Ma’dan people of southern Iraq build their houses out of nothing but reeds.  Without nails, wood or any other materials, they construct resilient structures that can be put up in a matter of days and taken down just as quickly.  They live in marshes and wetlands, where there is little stable land for building.  If waters rise too high or if the floating islands on which they live shift, they simply move their homes to higher ground.  The reeds they use are huge bamboo-like grasses harvested from the open waters that surround them. These reeds are bound together (with rope made from those same reeds) to form floors, walls, columns, and arching roofs that are strong, flexible, and beautiful.  The Ma’dan have been building in this way for thousands of years.  Their way of life does not destroy the natural environment around them; rather, it is in balance with it and even enhances it.

Another group of people which builds with reeds are the Uros of Peru who live on Lake Titicaca.  They build islands out of the totora reed, which grows in abundance in and around the lake.  They then construct their homes on these man-made islands, using the same reed.  The islands are anchored to the lake bed with ropes and rocks and are highly mobile.  They last for decades with regular additions of reeds.  The Uros’ lifestyle revolves around the totora plant, from which they make many other items they depend upon, like boats, blankets, and traditional medicines.

There are bridges in northeastern India made of tree roots.  The Khasi people live in what is considered one of the wettest places on earth.  For centuries, they have been able to traverse the deep gullies and ravines in the forests where they live by training the enormous roots of rubber fig trees to grow into virtually unbreakable bridges.  These bridges don’t get weak and worn with time the way bridges made of steel and concrete do.  Instead, the tangle of roots guided to become living structures get stronger with time.  Even when hit by the severe storms that are common in this area, they hold up effortlessly – better, in fact, than any other bridge yet designed.

As the world has been watching mega-fires devastate vast swaths of land, from California to southern Europe to Siberia to Australia, less attention has been paid to the ancient techniques developed by indigenous groups all over the globe to control fires by deliberate burning.  For thousands of years, people have used controlled fires to make “breaks” in areas of rich vegetation.  A wildfire cannot cross a break because all the stuff it needs to keep going – namely all the plant life – has already been burned off. 

The Kayapó people who live in the Amazon Basin see themselves as members of the natural ecosystem – not separate from nature.  They have been taming fires for centuries, using it to protect forested areas, enrich the soil of both cultivated and uncultivated lands, and grow crops.  Their fires benefit them but also produce conditions for the rest of life around them to flourish.

A vision of a sustainable future

In 2020, Julia Watson and her landscape design company, Watson Salembier, filled the plaza at Rockefeller Center in New York City with an explosion of native plants to illustrate how “rewilding” can bring back native wildlife – even to urban centers – and bring health, beauty and a sense of well-being to city dwellers.

Watson is not arguing for a complete shift away from “high tech.”  But she is asking us to change our ideas of development and progress, which have been distancing us from the natural world.  She would like us to recognize the value of technologies that have been around for millennia and that don’t strive to conquer nature but rather, to collaborate with it.  Watson envisions us harnessing the knowledge that science and technology have given us and combining that knowledge with what we can learn from ancient sustainable systems.  Instead of replacing all bridges built of steel and concrete with ones made of roots, or tearing down buildings in favor of reed islands, she is suggesting that architects take inspiration from Lo-TEK and combine it with the latest innovations.  For example, a modern city street designed around trees, where people’s homes and businesses share the space with natural ecosystems, could balance 21st century urban design with a Lo-TEK approach to integrating the natural environment into the places where people live and work.

Watson asks us to redefine technology.  She says that the technologies of the future are ones that can stand the test of time and help us let nature in rather than shutting it out.  They put us back into the ecosystem around us as contributing members, rather than as conquerors. 

Sources: Farra, Emily, Vogue, “How Indigenous Architecture Can Change the Way We Live on Earth,” https://www.vogue.com/lo-tek, October 27, 2020; Frearson, Amy, dezeen.com, “Indigenous technologies ‘could change the way we design cities,’ says environmentalist Julia Watson,” https://www.dezeen.com/lo-tek-design/, February 11, 2020; Watson, Julia, Common Edge, “The Power of Lo-TEK: A Design Movement to Rebuild Understanding of Indigenous Philosophy and Vernacular Architecture,” https://commonedge.org/the-power-of-lo-tek-a-design-movement-to-rebuild-understanding-of-indigeous-philosophy-and-vernacular-architecture/, June 21, 2019; Stamp, Elizabeth, Architectural Digest, “7 Examples of Centuries-Old Design That Combat Climate Change,” https://www.architecturaldigest.com/centuries-old-design, March 2, 2020.