A form of political economy which takes advantage of the more efficient, less labour-intensive new technology (“neotechnic”) that began to develop in the early years of the twentieth century, replacing the former (“paleotechnic”) technology with which the Industrial Revolution got started.

The word was coined by the biologist, sociologist, educationalist and town planner, Sir Patrick Geddes (1854–1932). Among neotechnic technology’s critical features were that:

1. less labour was needed to supply the fundamentals, such as energy;

2. industry could be decentralised, no longer needing to be so concentrated in huge industrial centres, heavily dependent on transport; and

3. local producers could, in principle, provide a higher proportion of their own needs, reducing their dependence on imports.

Geddes’ leading example was the displacement of coal by oil:

No one surely but can see that the practical disappearance of the legion of stokers, which coal fuel involves, is something, physiologically if not politically, comparable to the emancipation of the galley-slaves.

Patrick Geddes, Cities in Evolution, 1915.N90

and Geddes followed through the logic of this is to the point of seeing the evolution of a cooperative, civic, beautiful Utopia (good place), in sharp contrast to the Cacotopia (Greek: kakós bad + tόpos place) which had preceded it:

The escape from Paleotechnic to Neotechnic order is thus from Cacotopia to Utopia—the first turning on dissipating energies towards individual money gains, the other on conserving energies and organising environment towards the maintenance and evolution of life, social and individual, civic and eugenic.N91

Although local production was a favourite idea of the time, Geddes differed from others who have seemed to be on the same case—such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, William Morris and Eric Gill—in that he saw the benefits coming, not from a form of technological retreat (handcrafts), but from advance towards high technology producing goods on a smaller, local scale, with less need for capital, and less pollution. The thinker with whom Geddes had most in common was Peter Kropotkin, whose Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow, published in 1899—and taking a pragmatic view of what “local” means—looked forward to a society . . .

. . . where every aggregation of individuals, large enough to dispose of a certain variety of natural resources—it may be a nation, or rather a region—produces and itself consumes most of its own agricultural and manufactured produce.N92

Progress, in fact,

. . . is in producing for home use.N93

and its time is coming:

To return to a state of affairs where corn is grown, and manufactured goods are fabricated for the use of those very people who grow and produce them—such will be, no doubt, the problem to be solved during the coming years of European history.N94

What these two lean thinkers could not have been expected to foresee was the astonishing decline in the costs—and growth in the scale—of transport, and the consequent development of massive centres of concentrated production of (for instance) food, manufacturing and services. The potential of the Neotechnic principle recognised by Geddes and Kropotkin has not been developed. In our time, it is being retrieved.

But there is a snag. Just at the moment when small-scale local technologies are maturing to hyperefficiency, we are beginning to become aware that the prospects for a reliable grid, delivering cheap electricity, are less assured than they were, and that the global industrial establishment which produces the hyperefficient technology in the first place cannot be guaranteed (Climacteric). Should those two requirements fail, the neotechnic will not develop as hoped.

Will we be back to the old version—paleotechnic? Our knowledge of science is better, as is our experience of appropriate technologies specifically designed to lie within the competence of local resources and skills. And society may be smaller than the one those huge pieces of equipment, and the stokers that serviced them, was designed for. Coal-based industry is unlikely to make a comeback. But where we will stand on the technological spectrum—between giant, miniature and appropriate—is still uncertain.


Related entries:

Lean Household, New Domestication, Localisation, Energy Prospects.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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