Small is Beautiful

Seeking simple, human-scale solutions to the challenges of everyday living.

SCOTT JOHNSON LIKES TO DO THINGS THE HARD WAY. Or so it might seem to the casual observer walking past the Low Technology Institute on this sunny afternoon in the historic village of Cooksville, Wisconsin. While we talk, he is mowing the front lawn with a scythe, circling a square, working from the outside in.

Johnson has the trim physique of someone well acquainted with physical labor. Long brown hair spills from underneath a straw hat, and his face is framed by a slightly shaggy beard. His eyes flicker with intensity as he talks. I notice a tendency in his speech to spiral out towards related ideas before circling back to the subject at hand. In Johnson’s world, as in nature, everything is connected. He thinks in systems, in loops, in circles.

At the moment, he’s telling me how he replaced the roof on this house, the main building of the institute, originally constructed in the mid-1800s. “To have the roof replaced would have cost over $30,000,” he says. The new roof is historically appropriate cedar shake. He purchased the shingles and the nails in a concession to the fact that they couldn’t reasonably be produced on-site. Everything else he did himself — carrying the shingles up by hand, fitting each one in place, and adding decorative details. “I couldn’t use a pneumatic nailer with these,” he says, “so I had to hammer them, two nails each.” I start counting shingles and am soon exhausted by the census.

The project took months, but the finished roof is beautiful. Doing it himself, by hand, cost far less than a professional roofing job, and by his accounting, the time spent was worth it too. The roof is in many ways an example of the low-tech ethos and circular economy that Johnson strives to live and promote here.

I FIRST BECAME ACQUAINTED WITH THE Low Technology Institute (LTI) two years ago, ironically enough, through the Internet. Visiting the LTI website, I was impressed by the quality of information there — a blog and a podcast among other resources — freely available to anyone interested in low-tech solutions to current sustainability challenges. Providing this valuable data lies at the heart of the institute’s mission, and it is something Johnson is passionate about. He aims to provide simple, scalable, pre-industrial alternatives to everyday necessities — like growing food and providing and maintaining shelter — that are easy to implement at home or in the community. “These projects should be doable for anyone with a high-school education and should only require the help of maybe one other person,” he says.

Johnson wasn’t always on the low-tech track. He received a PhD in anthropology in 2012, worked for years as a professional archaeologist, and authored two nonfiction books.

Low-tech solutions tend to minimize resource use and embrace an ethic of maintenance and repair.

He taught at the university level for several years, during which time he became increasingly troubled by the parallels between failed civilizations of the past and our current civilization, and increasingly concerned with our societal dependence on fossil fuels to meet energy needs.

In 2017, he realized a career as an academic wasn’t for him. He recounts the last Society for American Archaeology meeting he attended. Typically, archaeologists at these meetings present data and developments related to projects they are working on and finish with next steps and plans for the future. Johnson ended his presentation with a blank slide and the admission that he didn’t know if he was going out into the field again or whether any of his projects would be funded. It essentially amounted to professional suicide.

“Within minutes, I was getting concerned calls from colleagues and they were asking questions like, ‘Is everything okay? Is there something you want to get off your chest?’ But I felt fine about it.” It was at that point that the decision to found LTI crystallized.

WHEN I VISIT THE INSTITUTE more than two years on, Johnson’s vision has come alive. He is the director and sole employee of this nonprofit whose office is also his home. The Low Technology Institute property sits on a long, narrow strip of land at the margins of the suburban and rural, 20 miles south of Madison. Johnson has built a living laboratory here for experiments in self-reliance, natural building, sustainable agriculture, solar energy, food security, and communitarian ethics.

cott Johnson left a career in academia to found the Low Technology Institute, which models pre-industrial methods of meeting basic needs like feeding and sheltering ourselves. Photo by Matt Miles.
Scott Johnson left a career in academia to found the Low Technology Institute, which models pre-industrial methods of meeting basic needs like feeding and sheltering ourselves. Photo by Matt Miles.

At the heart of Johnson’s venture lies the belief that low-technology solutions offer us humans the best path forward, one that may help us get out of this planetary mess we have created. The term “low technology” — often used interchangeably with “appropriate technology” or “intermediate technology” — usually refers to the socially and environmentally optimal solution to a problem, particularly in situations where more technologically complex options are available. These solutions tend to minimize resource use and waste, embrace an ethics of maintenance and repair, and foster closed material loops.

For Johnson, fulfilling the institute’s low-tech mission means modeling ways we might all feed, clothe, and house ourselves using fossil fuel-free technologies that were available before the Industrial Revolution. In the process, he’s also providing most of the food and energy used by his household, which includes his wife and newborn son.

Johnson’s methods feel at once humble and impressive. There is the solar water-heating system he designed and built himself that keeps the hot water supply at a constant temperature throughout the night and day, facilitated by a system of insulated barrels and self-regulating valves. He wants to expand the system to heat the rest of his house. There is the chicken coop built from a tree he felled and worked into timber using only hand tools. The chickens, who are named after dead celebrities — Janis (Joplin), Prince, and so on — provide protein in the form of eggs, and their droppings are used as fertilizer. There’s the rocket mass heater that will eventually heat his in-ground greenhouse — another low-tech project that utilizes green building principles — during the colder months. The efficient heater, which can heat a space with 80 to 90 percent less wood than a regular wood stove and produces minimal smoke, is an elegant solution to a universal problem — how to cook food or heat a living space using minimal fuel sustainably, safely, and cheaply, with local materials. Fed by wood that Johnson chops himself, it also fosters an appreciation and thoughtfulness around his heating source, one that a digital thermostat simply can’t.

Implementing the low-tech lifestyle is just one part of the mission — Johnson is constantly researching ways to adapt and improve on existing systems as well. Take his honeybees, the homestead’s main sugar source: Their honey goes into everything from granola to mead, eliminating the need for imported sweeteners like cane sugar. The bees also pollinate the institute’s fruit trees and annual crops. Johnson is currently working on a selection program to breed bees for resistance to major threats like colony collapse disorder and the varroa mite. Going into one of his hives to check on the status of the queen, Johnson is at ease. He has misplaced his gloves and doesn’t bother with a veil. The bees are surprisingly docile as he lifts out a frame. “There is a queen in there!” he says triumphantly.

His USDA-funded potato study offers another example. On industrial-scale potato farms, the potato-growing process is almost entirely mechanized. Tractors are used to dig trenches, plant potatoes, fertilize the soil, and ultimately to dig potato plants from sprawling fields. Growing potatoes organically and without the use of machinery, on the other hand, can be back-breaking work. So in 2018 Johnson and several Wisconsin market gardeners trialed five different low-tech growing methods — trench and hill, straw mulch, newspaper mulch, potato towers, and bag container planting — looking to find the most sustainable and efficient way to grow the tubers without fossil fuel-powered machines.

“We were so excited that we were able to grow such a large yield of potatoes with straw,” says Terry Parisi, one of ten local organic growers who participated in the research. “I’m very impressed with the methods from the study. I would never have thought to plant potatoes this way.”

Afterwards, Johnson performed a statistical analysis and presented his results at an organic growers’ conference earlier this year. “We basically found that straw and newspaper mulch was the best growing method — unless you have voles. In that case, the trench and hill method is best.”

The LTI tool library offers an alternative to individually purchased but infrequently used tools. It's a community resource that people can turn to whenever they need a hammer or an axe. Photo by Mike Miles.
The LTI tool library offers an alternative to individually purchased but infrequently used tools. It’s a community resource that people can turn to whenever they need a hammer or an axe. Photo by Matt Miles.

This type of knowledge sharing is another key pillar of the LTI operation. The week before I arrived in Wisconsin, Johnson had just wrapped up the institute’s first skill share, a weekend-long event offering hands-on workshops in low-tech skills like shiitake mushroom growing, rocket mass heater construction, and backyard permaculture. While Johnson is committed to this knowledge-sharing ethos, the skill share involved a tremendous amount of work and preparation, and he’s not entirely convinced these workshops are the most effective way to move the bar forward.

Todd Fleming, who first met Johnson through a Madison-area permaculture group before he founded LTI, thinks they are. “I think that’s how you get connection to people and pull them in,” he says of the folk school approach.

Another way Johnson fosters this connection and community is through the institute’s tool library, one of his experiments in communitarianism. The library is one of LTI’s free community resources, and the idea behind it is simple: We all buy tools we use infrequently — why not save resources and pool them in a common library instead? Hence the library, which includes gardening, wood-working, bike maintenance, painting, plumbing, and electrical tools. All are stored in hand-built wooden crates or hung on the walls of LTI’s garage. Many have been donated by members of the community.

THE LOW-TECH MOVEMENT that LTI is a part of traces back to the early twentieth century. Its roots extend to the Anglo-German economist EF Schumacher’s seminal book on the subject, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. It was Mahatma Gandhi who inspired Schumacher through his use of appropriate tech as a socially transformative force. One well-known example is the boycott of British-produced textiles. Gandhi encouraged Indians to make and wear homespun cloth rather than relying on British-made cloth during the struggle for Indian self-determination during the 1920s. The concept was later formalized by Schumacher, who coined the term “intermediate technology.”

Today, there are various groups and individuals advocating some form of appropriate or intermediate tech — among them, the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado that is run by noted physicist and author Amory Lovins, Albert Bates’s Ecovillage Training Center in Tennessee, and the international degrowth movement that advocates a reduction of production and consumption, and the creation of an economy that aims at the well-being of all while working to sustain the natural basis of life.

Clothes dry outside rather than in an energy-intensive machine. Photo by the Low Technology Institute.
Clothes dry outside rather than in an energy-intensive machine. Photo by the Low Technology Institute.

Kris De Decker, editor of Low-Tech Magazine, a publication unrelated to LTI, has noticed a growing interest in appropriate technologies and circular economies. “Compared to when I started the blog 12 years ago, the low-tech view has certainly gained acceptance. People seem to have lost at least some faith in technological progress,” he told me. De Decker says that low tech has attained the status of a political and activist movement in France, and it is taken seriously where he lives in Barcelona, a hotspot for the degrowth movement.

For Johnson, the greatest influence in this regard has been the work of the now-defunct New Alchemy Institute, a research center based in Woods Hole, Massachusetts that did pioneering work on ecological technologies that would promote self-sufficiency and sustainability. “I talked to the guy who ran New Alchemy and they had done all kinds of things there — energy, aquaculture, they even published a journal,” he says. The rigorous scientific approach New Alchemy brought to its experiments is clearly present in Johnson’s own work.

And the stakes for this work are high. As Johnson puts it with the aplomb of someone who has studied the matter closely, “Civilizations fail all the time,” and our current, increasingly global and monolithic one may not be an exception. Owing to a fatal hubris that has, in Johnson’s opinion, also laid low great civilizations of the past, ours lacks self-insight and resilience.

He doesn’t have all the answers, but his Low Tech New Deal, published in response to the Green New Deal resolution introduced in Congress earlier this year, offers another path forward. Rather than greening our anthropocentric, high-consumption way of life, Johnson proposes “three rules we as a society must agree to live by.”

The first rule, which he calls “One Among Many,” recognizes that we humans set ourselves apart from the natural world at our own peril. The second, “Natural Mimicry,” recognizes the intelligence of systems that have evolved to live resiliently using solar or solar-derived energy within natural resource limits, and notes the benefits we might derive from mimicking this resiliency. The third principle, “Valuing Simple Over Complicated Solutions,” is the LTI mission statement in a nutshell: “We prize simple solutions over complex ones and eschew needless complication.”

In the Low Tech New Deal, Johnson acknowledges our quickly closing window for averting the climate crisis and lays out a five-year plan: “We need to take the next five years and massively overhaul how society lives, with the goal of completely eliminating our dependence on non-renewable resources. That’s it. That’s the plan.”

“During World War II, we recognized an imminent, existential threat, so we mobilized as a nation to confront it,” he says. The problems we face today as a civilization, if we were to approach them with that mindset, might be solved relatively quickly, he thinks. “I’m buoyed that people are interested in minimalism,” he adds. “Interest in ‘stuff’ seems to be declining.”

Early low-tech adopters like Scott Johnson are preparing now for the world of tomorrow. They are giving us a glimpse into what truly sustainable living looks like and how to accomplish it at the household and community level. And they are laying the groundwork for an alternative future, one that may not be obvious or popular, but one that may allow us to tread more lightly, and perhaps more purposefully, upon the Earth.

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