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ID Fuel's Dominic Muren is Worldchanging

Let The Sun Shine In

No matter who you talk to, deforestation is a huge problem around the world. Lower biomass for carbon sequestration, loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the logging and timber industries, reduction of biodiversity, loss of habitat, fresh water depletion and the growing scarcity of exotic hardwoods: no matter who you are, there's a cause for you to get behind. Excessive logging, slash and burn farming, and poor forestry management practices all play a role in the problem, but a huge contributor to this forest loss is the need for fuel. More than 2 billion people worldwide are effected by fuel wood shortages, and these shortages can lead to malnutrition, social strife, and severe poverty. Even when fuel is plentiful, cooking using wood has numerous health risks. Solarcookers International is an international NGO dedicated to raising awareness of solar cooking technologies, and empowering people all over the world to take control of their fuel needs through solar power. They hold workshops in different countries, ship cooker kits all over the world, and encourage development of solar cooking projects in the developed world, either for domestic use, or for export to help impoverished areas. They also maintain the Solar Cooking Archive, which has information on the importance of using solar energy sources, and directions for building your own cooker. My favorite one is the Funnel cooker, because it's dead easy to make with a minimum of materials, and more importantly, expertise. Plus, it ships flat, and sits in an ordinary pot, which is easily shipped, or made on site from native materials.

Dominic Muren is a toy designer in Chicago, Illinois, and editor of IDFuel: The Industrial Design Weblog.  His background is in Mechanical Engineering and Industrial Design.  He is fascinated with technology's capacity to bring about social change, both for good and for bad, and believes the job of designers is to apply their understanding to tip the equation toward the good side.

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This is very interesting and seems to be a good thing. One question--how is the introduction of solar heaters affecting the people who are using them--i.e. have there been problems within societies if women are no longer gathering wood, etc?

Posted by: Erik Loomis on 3 Oct 04

What problems would you anticipate, Erik?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 3 Oct 04

I know that with other projects I've heard about, innovative technologies that are both labor-saving and better for the environment have not been used because usually these innovations mean that women's lives are made easier which upsets traditional gender roles causing problems within families and villages. That then causes the technologies not to be used. I'm sorry I can't be more specific, but I know that Alan Weisman's Gaviotas has a section discussing these problems.

In this case, it is often women's work to gather wood. For women not to have to spend time on this task would give them extra time which may cause problems with men. Undoubtedly it would differ from place to place but in some places the technology may not be used for this reason.

The issue seems to be a real dilemma that there's no easy solution to.

Posted by: Erik Loomis on 3 Oct 04


There isn't very much online in the way of impartial assesments of the impact of these technologies -- most of the information is provided by the same NGOs that support the plans, so they are probably kind of bias.

But, from an outsider's view, there are a few serious changes that could be expected. Reduction of inhaled smoke, and smog-like air polution is one of the main ones. If you've ever seen pictures from villages in rural India or Africa, you may have noticed the percistant hase from cooking fires. This one improvement seems like it would be worth the price of admission :)

As far as social change goes, it is something to keep track of. Since they are spending less time gathering wood, they may be able to use the time and energy in pursuit of other things, like small scale farming, or cottage industry for income. It would be important to make these opportunities available through education, since the greater available time and less physical exertion might also lead to the inclination to have more children, since pregnancy would be more managable. This is just one of the negative effects I can imagine, I'm sure there are more possibilities, and inevitably, some will become manifest. However, I think that the problems that might arise from the introduction of solar-based cooking technology will probably be more easily solvable than the initial problems solved by the technology -- deforestation, fire danger, smoke toxicity, and malnutrition.

Posted by: Dominic Muren on 3 Oct 04

I guess the potential problems with these technologies are really part of larger issues--if use of these technologies will give women time for education and to manage their own pregnancies, that is likely to cause problems with males who don't want women to have this kind of control over their own life. This is of course a huge problem in itself. There sure aren't any easy answers to these issues but hopefully you are right and the social changes will be tracked so that the introduction of environmnetally-friendly technology can happen as smoothly as possible. I'm not confident that changing gender roles is as easily solved as smoke toxicity but hopefully I am wrong.

Posted by: Erik Loomis on 4 Oct 04

Hi all,

You'll be glad to know, if you have not yet explored the site, that the issues discussed here and scores of others are well discussed and documented at the Solar Cooking Archive linked above and referenced here:

Categories of content include: Frequently Asked Questions, Newsletters, Technical Information, Water Pasteurization and Disinfection, Retained Heat Cooking, Solar Food Drying, Solar Refrigeration, General Information, and Country Reports.

There's years of collected wisdom at this site. Just the newsletters go back to early 1994. From my non-objective perspective as a former board member, there's a ton of great information here and this group does great work.

Solar cooking can be worldchanging, but only with the dedicated work of organizations and people to do all the necessary fundraising, advocacy, education, partnering, and the myriad of tasks required to take even the best ideas forward.

You can see from the newsletters that solar cooking and the good people doing the work have already changed the lives of thousands around the globe.

Mark Aalfs - Seattle

Posted by: Mark Aalfs on 4 Oct 04



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