What’s a convivial tool?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that topic. I recently shared some of my thoughts with a friend:

When we lived in South Dakota, we had a neighbour who was a large-scale farmer working several hundred acres. He once explained to me the whole “go big or get out” philosophy to which he subscribed, while complaining that all he did was work to pay off the seed loans, service the loans on the equipment, and pay rents or service mortgages for the various plots on which he barely made a living. He didn’t seem to see that the bigger he got the more of his time had to be spent just simply catching up. I once suggested that if he downsized about 80 per cent and sold off his surplus equipment he’d be sitting pretty; making just as much profit on only 20 per cent of the work. His answer was tempered by the fact that he was drinking my whisky at the time, but it was still fairly negative.

Ivan Illich put forward an interesting perspective on the tools we use to get things done in his 1972 book, Tools for Conviviality. Illich argues that we should not select tools and machines simply for the price tag and the work we expect them to do. We should also consider the social cost of the tool: were the people who produced it treated ethically; does the tool contribute to “energy slavery;” is the tool designed to be robust and easily reparable, perhaps with home-made parts? Another consideration is whether the tool can express the creativity or individuality of the user in its design or ornamentation, and whether it is crafted to allow the user to work in an efficient manner.

In this sense, it is increasingly indefensible to buy ever larger tractors to burn increasing amounts of fossil fuel while applying increasing amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals. Even locally-focused “Big O or Little O” organic farmers can find themselves thinking that bigger may be better. I’m not one to argue against bigger; but it’s important to remember that sometimes bigger is just bigger, not better. For me, bigger is not better if it begins to conflict with the concepts Illich talks about in Tools for Conviviality and in his essay, Energy and Equity. To be fair, Illich does not rule out fossil-fuel using machines. What he says, however, is that such machines designed according to the principles of appropriate technology are a transitional phase.

Also in the spirit of fairness I should acknowledge my own position. I use transitional technologies where I think them appropriate to the work and the desired result. I use what Illich would call “convivial tools” much more often, as I find them more often appropriate to the scale of work on our small organic farm. This article is not a polemic but rather a call to consciousness-raising – an opportunity to think again about personal choices and possible solutions. I tend slightly more toward the practical than the philosophical; hence consciousness will be raised on the handles of the tools that most of us probably already have, or with which we at least have a nodding familiarity.

Farming is a cycle of cycles: preparing good soil; selecting and planting seeds; careful nurture and care; harvest; and ultimately preparing the soil again. The closer we can get to the process, the more interaction with it we have and the more opportunities for observing. The adage I’ve heard is: “The farmer’s hands, touching the soil, bring life to the plants.” This article is about reconnecting with that kind of closeness through using convivial tools.

I can hear the question floating around: “What’s a convivial tool?” A convivial tool is the essence of a balanced approach to life and work. It is a tool chosen for a reason, with thought and reflection about the tool, the work, the worker, and the worker’s place in their world. Think of it as terroir for tools instead of wine grapes and you won’t be far off the mark.

If that tool is a scythe, the blade is chosen for the work: mowing hay or working in weedy ground or in a ditch. The snath is balanced and crafted to match the person using it, preferably by the user or by someone who can see and measure the user to accommodate their size, reach, mowing style and conditions. The blade is well peened and honed, and kept sharp by the mower as they work. The mower moves with grace and strength, reading changes in terrain and plants to adapt their technique to the demands of each moment. Finally the mower’s mind is fully engaged in the work; a powerful synergy of mind and body, tool and user, work and worker.

There is no one element of this synergy that provides a secret key. There is no easy mastery, either. The tool and the user adapt, grow and change over time. The synergistic relationship of conviviality applies especially to any tool we can take up in our hands that we must power with our muscles. Scythes, sickles, axes, saws, shovels, pitchforks, broadforks, rakes, hoes – these are the tools we should have in our sheds! Many of us already own them but neglect them in favour of less-convivial solutions that carry hidden costs with them.

And there I kind of left it for the moment — a topic on which I have much more to say, but at least you can see the outline of where I’m headed from here. The next thing I write in this category will be about the “heart” of the convivial tool. Stay tuned!