Do You Really Need That Tool?

David Trammel's picture

Kara Stiff over on posted an article titled Solar Dehydrator: A Very Appropriate Technology that isn't what you would think. Instead she mulls over the idea, "Do you really need that tool?"


"MIT graduate Eric Brende set out to answer this question by living among people much like the Mennonites, with their horses and buggies, their aversion to buttons. The result is a fascinating chronicle called Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology. It’s a funny, illuminating look at a different kind of living, and you should get it from your local library (or failing that, buy it here, where my commission supports The Cool Effect).

Spoiler alert: after his experiment, Brende concluded most of us moderns are working harder than we have to, in order to support our machine collection. What’s more, the Mennonites are working too hard for their tech! They cut hay for their horses, which is a lot of work, and while the horses also plow and provide transport, the main activity they’re needed for is… wait for it… cutting hay. It would be faster and easier just to walk, and cut a little hay by hand for the milk cow.

I feel this way about the dish washer. There are only four of us, and I wash dishes twice a day by hand, which takes about ten minutes. My hand technique uses about two gallons of water, drawn off the wood stove in the winter, lukewarm from the tap in the summer, so there's little or no electricity involved. When I had a dish washer, I would rinse by hand because we don’t fill a load every meal and even a good dishwasher did not perform as advertised on dried-on food. Then load the washer, listen to it rattle on forever, unload it, sort out the things that didn’t quite get clean, wash them again, etc.

Instead of twenty minutes a day it took at least thirty, involved extra bending over, and expanded from a quick over-and-done task into an all-day affair. Dish washers cost hundreds of dollars to buy, need electricity to run, and break down early due to planned obsolescence. Now, I certainly don’t begrudge a person their dishwasher if they’ve got carpal tunnel or fifteen people in their house. In those and other cases, you need what you need, and if you fill a load at every meal it may even be more efficient. But I propose that for most of us, dish washers actually take more time and energy than hand washing just to do the dishes, before you even add up the work at a 9-5 to pay for the thing."


Maybe as important as it is to relearn old skills and techniques, is learning which tools we have available are really needed, and which have been sold to us as "needed" but aren't.

ClareBroommaker's picture

Do you know where this blogger lives? In St Louis, which is pretty humid, we don't have any trouble passively drying beans and corn simply by leaving them on the stalk or vine until dry. But, yes, tomatoes and other fruits need some assistance.

That Eric Brende book, "Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology," is a pleasant read. I don't remember him saying, though, that it would be easier to do the farm work without the horses. I think I gave the book to my sister, or I'd go look for that....Brende lives in St Louis now, and last I heard he makes his living driving a rickshaw. Don't recall if it is pedal powered or foot-on-pavement powered.

Here are some vine dried beans, a few of them still in the pod. (Sorry for the photo quality.)

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Blueberry's picture

What is the difference between men and boys?
The cost of the toys (tools)!

I read 'Better Off' years ago and still have my copy on my shelf. It was good enough to keep.
It is an excellent read, both as inspiration and as a snapshot into a very different way of life (the Mennonite way).

Teresa from Hershey

lathechuck's picture

I think it was JM Greer who wrote that a craftsman uses tools, and an operator tends a machine. A machine has a certain degree of autonomy, while a tool does only what it's being wielded to do. A dishwasher is a machine. ... and then, there's the category of "machine tools", such as the lathe, which holds work materials and tools, and moves each according to the instructions of the person directing it.