Bobbing gently on calm waters off the coast of City Island in the Bronx, the Nomade des Mers appeared to be a relatively normal catamaran sailboat. But upon closer inspection, the boat is a vibrant, self-contained ecosystem of sprouts, aloes, and sustainable technologies—and the home of two charming European sailors.
Over the past six years, Corentine de Chatelperron and Caroline Pultz have made the boat into a trusty home laboratory for testing “low-tech” initiatives gleaned from their travels around the world. For a project to be considered low-tech, they said it must meet the needs of the community, be financially accessible and environmentally sustainable.
As part of the Low-Tech Lab, a non-profit Chatelperron founded in 2014, they’ve compiled 613 low-tech initiatives addressing energy, food, electricity, heating and waste management from 80 different countries into a user-friendly wiki database. Open-source tutorials are laying the foundation for low-tech hubs to sprout across the world, including in Vietnam, Greece, Canada, Cameroon, Belgium, Portugal, and Morocco.
“We use low-tech because we mean that anybody can do it,” Chatelperron, a French engineer, told Motherboard. “Anybody can afford it or anybody can repair it. So it's not high-tech, it doesn't need very high skills.”
Sprouts and vegetables grow aboard the Nomade des Mers. Photo by Ella Fassler
A tour of the boat revealed a constellation of simple, labelled contraptions: a massive tank for producing the protein rich microalgae spirulina; a ceramic filter made of sawdust and clay that transforms rainfall into drinking water; a manual food grinder, and so on.
The crew has been experimenting with recycling waste to produce food in what’s known as a closed-loop system. Their urine feeds the spirulina. Black soldier fly larvae quickly and efficiently turn kitchen and dry toilet waste into compost, a process they learned about in Malaysia. The compost is then used to fertilize edible plants on board. In other contexts, the larvae can provide a nutritious meal for animals.
Black soldier flies are Chatelperron’s favorite low-tech, a fact that may seem odd until one considers 125 to 160 billion tons of food goes uneaten each year in the United States alone.
“People are disgusted by larvae, but after some weeks of living with them, I really felt empathy," he said. "I’ve never had a cat or a dog, but I think it's the same love.” Pet relationships are one-sided, he said, while his relationship with flies are mutualistic. “I can make an ecosystem [with the flies]. You cannot create an ecosystem with your cat.”
Pultz, who joined the crew two years ago, prefers the solar cooking tube, a DIY tool that heats food by efficiently concentrating the sun’s rays. Prior to sailing the world, she designed lamps out of mycelium, the vegetative body that produces mushrooms.
“From my studies, I was interested in deconstructing how we are living, how to recycle everything, how to make everything a resource instead of waste,” Pultz told Motherboard. “So I think the low-tech projects and exploration of new innovation technologies was just a continuation of my studies.” On the boat, she uses mycelium to repair surfboards and construct buoys, and grows mushrooms on used coffee grounds.
It wasn’t always such smooth sailing for Chatelperron.
He was first inspired by low-tech in Bangladesh in 2009, where he was making boats out of natural jute fibre as an engineer. “During those four years in Bangladesh, I saw so many ingenious things, clever things that people under constraints were inventing to face problems with access to water, energy, food and medicine,” he explained.
In 2013, he attempted to sail self-sufficiently for six months on one of the boats they made, with potato plants and chickens to sustain himself. It failed miserably.
“I lost my potatoes. The chickens were not in good condition and were a bit frightened. But I had time to think during six months,” he said. He realized that shared knowledge could have improved his circumstances.
The spread of the internet in Bangladesh and around the world allowed for Chatelperron and a team he assembled to share innovative projects from other countries. They framed the project as “low-tech” because it seemed the most fitting, but Chatelperron considers the term imperfect. “There is no perfect word because some people say that low tech is like going back and I think is going forward,” he said.
Contraptions aboard the ship include a rainwater purifier, manual food grinder, and composting tank for converting human waste into plant fertilizer.
While the low-tech philosophy tends to embrace green modernity, simple, ecologically sustainable technologies have been used by indigenous people for thousands of years. As such, low-tech initiatives are often new spins on old technologies.
In the Sabah province of Malaysia, indigenous Kadazan-Dusun people have long fermented and eaten Black Soldier Fly larvae. Complex, “low-tech” water filtration systems aren’t new either—as early asy 164 BC, the Mayans used zeolite, a volcanic mineral, to filter heavy metals and microbes out of their water system. Some scholars also note that the sustainable tech movement is only necessary because colonialist genocide and the capitalist enclosure process—where the state privatizes communal land—have forced many communities into dependency and brought the world into a state of climate catastrophe.
Some ecological movements in the West omit this historical context, an approach that “reveals hidden biases, as the so-called ‘West’ continues to epitomize the beam of innovation and progress, while other practices are civilly overlooked,” write anthropologists Laura Siragusa and Dmitry Arzyutov. “We claim that the current state-of-the-art on waste management and its sustainability reinforces a power imbalance by portraying alleged ‘western’, ‘developed’ countries as cutting edge, caring, morally superior, whereas their innovative suggestions and attitudes of care often reproduce similar long-term practices among indigenous groups.”
A pedal-powered machine is used to power machines and electronics. Photo by Ella Fassler
For its part, the Low Tech Lab isn’t structured as a “morally superior” charitable organization. Instead, it hopes to facilitate the spread of knowledge so people can take action in a way that makes sense for their own individual and collective needs.
“When we think about global warming, usually we think about big solutions that will invest billions of dollars to solve it,” said Chatelperron. “Our goal is to convince small organizations or small entrepreneurs to develop or implement low-tech and all together we would solve big problems, but the lab doesn’t believe in being a complete solution for the problems.”
After aggregating hundreds of low-tech ideas, the crew is finally ready to begin its next phase of experimentation in an unfamiliar setting: on land. They’ve returned to Europe and are plotting to create a low-tech “biosphere” in a mobile home. If that succeeds, they’ll scale up even further.
“We hope to make another experiment with 20 people and then 100 people and then one other community, or city,” said Pultz. “So step by step.”