We May Already Have the Technology to Survive a Climate Crisis—We’ve Just Been Ignoring It

We May Already Have the Technology to Survive a Climate Crisis—We’ve Just Been Ignoring It

By Mandi Keighran
In her book “Lo—TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism,” designer and activist Julia Watson urges us to use millennia-old knowledge to build a world in symbiosis with nature.

As the world faces unprecedented environmental crisis, those who shape our cities are having to implement new, innovative, sustainable approaches. But what if the forward-thinking solutions we need lie not in new technologies, but in a symbiotic relationship with nature—a relationship that has been modeled by indigenous communities around the world for millennia? Lo–TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism, a new book from TASCHEN authored by designer, activist, and academic Julia Watson, explores this concept.

Lo―TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism
Three hundred years ago, intellectuals of the European Enlightenment constructed a mythology of technology. Influenced by a confluence of humanism, colonialism, and racism, this mythology ignored local wisdom and indigenous innovation, deeming it primitive.

"Lo–TEK is innovation born of humans living in symbiosis with natural systems," says Watson. "We commonly think of sustainability as bringing plants and trees onto buildings, but what if our most sustainable innovations were rooted in cultures who figured it out a millennia ago? There are hundreds of nature-based technologies that have been constructed by indigenous cultures across the globe that need to be considered as potential climate-resilient infrastructures. It is possible to weave ancient knowledge on how to live symbiotically with nature into how we shape the cities of the future before this wisdom is lost forever."

Below are four case studies from the book—from living bridges to artificial islands—that showcase innovative indigenous approaches and how these can be applied to the challenges faced today.

Jingkieng Dieng Jri Living Root Bridges

One of the world’s most innovative examples of an indigenous infrastructure is the living root bridges of the Khasi tribe of Northern India. The Khasis are an indigenous hill tribe from the state of Meghalaya, and their forested lands are in a monsoonal rain shadow with the highest levels of precipitation found on earth.

During the monsoon, travel between villages is cut off by floodwaters that transform the landscape into isolated forest islands. The Khasi have developed the only bridges able to withstand the force of the monsoonal rains.

A young fisherman walks under the root bridge at Mawlynnong village. In the relentless damp of Meghalaya’s jungles, the Khasi people have used the trainable roots of rubber trees to grow bridges over rivers for centuries. A new jingkieng dieng jri, which translates to "rubber tree bridge," takes one generation to grow using a construction system passed down through many generations before.

These living bridges, which have been trained to grow across rivers,  continue to get stronger as the bridge grows older. "We did some studies with BuroHappold Engineering on the efficiency of the structural loading of the bridge, and the results where incredible," says Watson. "As they age they are able to carry more load, better withstand the high level of erosion caused by continuous rain, and provide habitat for different species." 

Watson proposes that living bridges such as these could be grown in cities to reduce the urban heat island effect by increasing canopy cover along streets. In cities where flooding and sea level rise is inevitable, they could even retain their original use as living bridges over water during seasonal floods.

Engineering efficiency forms a double-decker root bridge. Living root bridges and ladders are better suited to the wet conditions found in this region than any artificially constructed infrastructure. After 30 years of training, the bridges can carry a load of up to 50 people.

Kihamba Forest Gardens

In Tanzania, in the foothills of Africa’s highest mountain, an innovative agroforestry system has sustained the area’s dramatic population growth over the past 100 years. Here, in the ancient forests surrounding Mount Kilimanjaro, the Chagga, one of the wealthiest and most educated tribes in East Africa, cultivate many varieties of banana alongside over 400 other plants. These Kihamba forest gardens—which are the size of Los Angeles and take two-and-a-half hours to drive through—replaced the natural forest canopy along the mountain’s lower southern slopes long ago. 

In contrast to industrialized treatment of forests, where clear cut logging gives way to monoculture farming, this ancient agricultural system simultaneously supports forest biodiversity and human population growth.

The Kihamba agriculture cropping system at the base of Kilimanjaro is dominated by trees, bananas, and coffee plants. The incredibly biodiverse Kihamba forest gardens meet the demands of crop production with a sparse tree layer that provides firewood, fodder, and timber.

"The Chagga have managed to figure out a way to retain the complexity of the natural rainforest but also integrate a really complex agroforestry system that is incredibly productive," says Watson. "This has made them one of the most economically advanced communities in that region."

This kind of symbiotic approach, in which complex ecosystems are also agriculturally productive, could provide an invaluable life support system for fast-developing forest communities at risk of poverty or food insecurity. There is also the potential to introduce urban forests when designing streetscapes, or even create these kinds of ecosystems within atriums. 

A farmer’s house and surrounding plantation located in the banana forest, which covers an area similar in size to Los Angeles. The forest gardens maintain high biodiversity with over 500 species, including 400 cultivated plants.

Waffle Gardens

For thousands of years, indigenous cultures supported large populations in very dry desert climates with agricultural practices augmented by their ability to capture, store, and manipulate rainwater and runoff. A variety of techniques to capture rain were developed by the indigenous cultures of Southwest and Central America. Depending on soil type and topography, three forms of rainfall farming were practiced—runoff farming, floodwater farming, and waffle gardening.

Waffle gardens—sunken plots that catch and hold water—succeeded in these arid, dry climates, and are used by the Zuni people of Western New Mexico and the Hopi people of Northeastern Arizona.

Waffle gardens at Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico circa 1910-1925. Waffle gardens are sunken plots with hard, hand-built adobe-like walls that catch and hold water close to plant roots for extended periods. This method—which offers wind protection and temperature control, while limiting evaporation and erosion—was developed at the neighborhood scale to ensure harvests, while combating the unpredictable water availability and inadequate soil quality that are common to desert environments.

In a world where life is limited by lack of water—a reality shared by a third of the global population—Watson believes there are important lessons to be learned from waffle gardens. "These agricultural systems are interdependent with water harvesting and ecosystem intercropping, as opposed to industrial irrigation and monocropping," she says. "I’ve always wanted to design a neighborhood-scale adobe tectonic system with waffle gardens integrated into a continuous roof. Breaking down those walls that separate architecture and nature is what Lo-TEK does."

Except for a few Zuni farmers, the waffle garden has mostly been abandoned.

Totora Reed Floating Islands 

The 4,500-year-old Uros are one of the oldest and most unique tribes in South America—and one of few civilizations that live directly on Lake Titicaca in the Andes Mountains, on the border of Bolivia and Peru. 

The descendants of the original Altiplano settlers who arrived in the region 3,700 years ago, the Uros suffered oppression by the local population and the expanding Incan empire. To seek security from hostile neighboring tribes, they constructed reed houseboats, and then later islands and platforms on Lake Titicaca. Their pursuit of isolation led to the construction of a unique floating world built from totora reeds, a local, organic material.

The Uros have built their entire civilization—including the islands and all structure—from the locally grown totora reed. Today, the 4,500-year-old Uros civilization survives dependent upon tourism.

"As floating cities begin to flourish, the technologies of aquatic civilizations who have been confronting the same crisis we now face for 6,500 years—such as the Uros in Peru, the Madan in Iraq, or the Kyoga, or the Intha, or the Abenaki—are still being overlooked," says Watson. "Today’s commercial floating islands are typically composed of potentially harmful and non-biodegradable materials. In contrast, the Uros technology is uniquely inhabitable and completely biodegradable."

2,629 people live in a group on 91 floating islands, and individual islands are inhabited by up to 12 families. While they live isolated on Lake Titicaca, the Uros islands are located only three miles from the small port city of Puno in Peru.

"Lo-TEK is how humans have been dealing with the extremes we now face by harnessing the energy and intelligence of complex ecosystems," says Watson. "This book is calling attention to an entire body of unexplored nature-based technology. Lo-TEK is not just a book, it’s a global design movement."

Related Reading: 

The 14 Sustainable Swaps You Might Not Be Making

5 Terms in Sustainable Design You Should Know

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