Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Good News for the Poor
distributed 7/15/11 - ©2011

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jennifer Schrock, of Goshen, Indiana. Her generous support helps make this publication possible.

I thought of Jesus a week ago when I toured an exhibit of low-tech, low-cost resources that are providing dramatic help for the poor of the world.

Jesus began his ministry by claiming for himself words from Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." (Luke 4:18) His good news included very practical help with poverty and hunger.

I thought of "good news for the poor" again a few days ago when I read of a creative project providing literal light in the darkness to slum dwellers in Manila.

Eco-justice seeks "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth." It seeks sufficiency-- enough -- for all. On our already overwhelmed planet, sufficiency means that the excessive consumption and high technology that we know in the over-developed world cannot be the goal for all people. Practical and achievable good news for the poor offers simple resources that are of far more value than high-tech installations.

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Last Friday evening, I attended the Denver opening of "Design for the Other 90%", a traveling exhibit from the Smithonian's Cooper-Hewett National Design Museum. (The exhibit will be in Denver through September 26 -- go see it if you're in the area. The Smithsonian's website for the exhibit gives a taste of the wide range of designs.)

The exhibit gallery had dozens of simple and creative things that are providing a path out of crushing poverty for families and communities around the world. Human-powered irrigation pumps can irrigate an acre of land a day, and make a tiny farm profitable. A simple extension to a bicycle frame allows a bike to carry lots of cargo or several people. There's a portable wifi computer network with a satellite uplink powered by a motorscooter which can bring web-based medical consultations to rural clinics. A cheap and durable water filter that works like a drinking straw, carried on a lanyard, can prevent typhoid and cholera.

The exhibit takes its name from a principle voiced by Dr. Paul Polak, of International Development Enterprises (IDE), an agency that is at work around the world spreading these technologies. "The majority of the world's designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world's customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%."

Colorado's well-known and highly-respected political leader, Andrew Ramanoff, was a host for the exhibit's opening reception. Andrew now works for IDE in taking these revolutionary designs to Africa. Those of us who know Andrew will be encouraged by his participation in this project.

One of my favorite items in the display was a tea kettle that includes a small thermocouple device which can generate electricity. A sign next to the kettle said that, when used on an enclosed charcoal firebox (another valuable technology!), a family can bake potatoes, boil water or milk, and charge a cell phone all at the same time.

Why is charging a phone such an important thing? I learned that cell phones are becoming widespread among the poor of the world, and are a liberating tool for communication and commerce. In many impoverished areas, though, there is no place to charge a phone. People may have to walk miles to a charging location, and then pay high fees to renew their battery. The tea kettle with a charging plug is simple, cheap, easy to use, and makes cell phones genuinely practical. This is, indeed, "design for the 90%".

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In the Philippines -- I found out this week -- three million households do not have electricity. Their homes are dark, even in the daytime, especially in crowded urban slums. In cooperation with MIT, the "Liter of Light" project is working to light up a million homes by 2012 -- using discarded soda pop bottles.

A small hole is cut in the corrugated iron roof of a home. A one liter bottle filled with water (and a bit of bleach to prevent algae growth) is caulked into the hole, and light fills the room. Sunlight refracted through the water provides the equivalent of a 40 to 60 watt light bulb, with no electricity and no maintenance. It is a super-simple version of the fancy "light tubes" that are used in the most energy efficient buildings in the US.

A Reuters news report has a wonderful 3 minute video explaining the project. A bit of waste and some water provides light and jobs. That's good news.

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One model of international development tries to implement "first world" technologies all around the globe. The World Bank, for example, has been committed to building large-scale hydroelectric dams -- an enormously expensive, environmentally disruptive, highly centralized approach that also requires power lines to be built across a wide area.

Big dams and far-flung power lines may be good news to international construction companies and to the government officials who can oversee huge projects, but they are not good news to the poor who will never be served or who can't afford the electricity. Small solar panels and LED lights are more affordable, available immediately, and empower communities economically and politically, too.

Distributed generation with local solar panels is being recognized as a prudent approach in the US as we try to move toward more renewable energy. It makes even more sense to spread small, simple, local and cheap technologies for energy and water in poor communities that desperately need even the most basic services.

I see good news for the poor and for the planet in creative inventions and sensible designs that improve the quality of life for the poorest members of our global community. Appropriate technologies provides a path to genuine sufficiency, and they reveal viable and hopeful options to the overly-complex systems of the affluent world.

And as a side note, while the US teeters on the brink of an unnecessary fiscal default and economic collapse, we may all be glad that these simple technologies are being put into broad circulation. When our roads fall into utter disrepair, a cargo bike may be just what we need. When our water treatment systems stop working, a LifeStraw may be your best source of clean water. What is good news for the poor is, ultimately, good news for us all.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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