Can Indigenous Technology Point the Way to a More Sustainable Future?

A new book proposes that traditional ecological knowledge could provide a model for sustainable and resilient infrastructures.

In compiling an atlas of indigenous design systems that achieve symbiosis with the natural world, Julia Watson seeks to create an alternative mythology of technology that prioritizes lesser known, preindustrial systems over their “high-tech” counterparts. Courtesy Taschen

Lo—TEK is “a design movement to rebuild an understanding of indigenous philosophy and vernacular architecture that generates sustainable, climate resilient infrastructures,” writes Julia Watson in the introduction to her book Lo—TEK. Design by Radical Indigenism. The volume takes its title from “traditional ecological knowledge,” a term used by ecologists to describe indigenous techniques for managing species and land. Over the following 400-odd pages Watson, a landscape designer and lecturer at Columbia GSAPP, offers detailed accounts of 18 such technologies developed by communities around the globe to live symbiotically with the natural environment.

Julia Watson Lo Tek Design By Radical Indigenism Va Gb 3d 04698

Courtesy Taschen

Systems such as aqueducts, bridges built from living tree roots, terraced farming techniques, and forest gardens are organized by the topographical features they were built to address (mountains, forests, deserts, and wetlands). Each instance of indigenous ingenuity stems from a particular cosmology that draws on generations of ecological understanding and gives spiritual weight to the nonhuman. For the people who build them, these works of infrastructure are a form of sacred architecture. Watson suggests that their design technologies may represent a starting point for future innovations that could “shrink the ecological footprint of humankind and mitigate the forecast collapse.”

The book emphasizes the need for a radical reconfiguration of the postEnlightenment worldview, which values industrial development over traditional knowledge. It’s a welcome counterpoint to what she calls the “mythology of technology” and the narrative that sustainability is a new idea. Of course people can live in balance with the natural world; for thousands of years there was no other option.

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Categories: Sustainability, Technology