Taking the right path? The Centre for Alternative Technology and the politics of radical ecology

Reflecting on a recent visit to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) and his life as an eco-activist, Charlie Hill argues that radical ecology needs to reach out to a new audience.

It was the election campaign that never was. Driven by the need to stimulate growth and inspire a suggestible electorate, the leaders of the three main parties placed the ‘green economy’ at the centre of their appeal to voters. Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that ‘a clash of doctrines is not a disaster, it is an opportunity’; qualify the word ‘doctrines’ and the observation held true. Where green ideas met the expectations of a consumerist culture, a fertile debating ground was created. And as the implications and possibilities of a low-carbon economy, of energy independence and a focus on sustainable resources became more fully understood, a new and genuinely progressive consensus began to emerge...

The absence of such a discourse was partly due to a lack of will. You only have to look at the links between the political establishment and the oil and gas industries to understand that. But there was another factor that contributed to the impasse. This was a failure of imagination on the part of many involved in environmental radicalism. It is not a new problem. But I recently had an insight into just how intractable it remains.

There is, from Birmingham to the coast of Gwynedd, West Wales, a contemporary hippie trail. It twists through the impossibly green border country, past yoga retreats and rentable yurts and it winds up at smallholdings on hilltops with views of the Irish Sea. In Powys, just outside Machynlleth, the trail passes the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT).

Since 1973, CAT has  aimed to ‘offer solutions to some of the most serious challenges facing our planet and the human race, such as climate change, pollution and the waste of precious resources’. I visited the centre for the first time earlier this year and the trip was overdue. I hadn’t been involved in eco-politics for some time and was interested to see how the arguments had evolved as the need for solutions had become more urgent. Then there was the peer pressure. Many of my friends have an allotment or some other investment - emotional or material - in energy-related self-sufficiency; most, it seemed, had made the pilgrimage to CAT.

The centre is cut out of a bracken-deep hillside. When I got there, I discovered it was undergoing an overhaul and parts of the site were incomplete or inaccessible. Despite this, it was going about its business serenely and with some charm. An admirable gesture saw entrance charges waived in lieu of the redevelopment. CAT says it aims to ‘...address every aspect of the average lifestyle – the key areas we work in are renewable energy, environmental building, energy efficiency, organic growing and alternative sewage systems’ and there was much to ponder. There were buttons to push, wheels to turn, information to absorb. There were buildings constructed from a variety of materials that provided alternatives to current thinking on insulation. Every conceivable size and shape of solar panelling was on show. Many of the attractions were working perfectly.

There were, admittedly, disappointments. And not all of them could be explained by the site’s redevelopment. A machine demonstrating the process of cloud formation and powered by hydro-electricity didn’t work. An attraction that involved sitting in a seat and being lifted into the air by a wind-powered pulley-system suffered from a lack of wind. Some of the organic insulation materials didn’t meet the required regulations and one of the drawbacks of a wooden compost bin was that it was prone to rot. A compost toilet looked as it sounded. Worst of all, there were no examples of recognisably modern conveniences powered by alternative technology.

But then if most of the technologies and materials on display were not yet fully functioning or integrated into a recognisably mainstream aesthetic, so be it. CAT exists to suggest an alternative to the status quo. This has to involve encouraging us to question our relationship to both ‘efficiency’ and the clean and tidy lines of our everyday existence; the haphazard signage and higgledy-piggledy nature of the presentation of many of CAT’s ideas could be regarded as an extension of that process.

Then I came to another attraction. It was called ‘The Treadmill of Happiness’. To interact with it you walked around a revolving pillar on ‘a never-ending path to contentment while advertising billboards urge you to ‘Buy more…work more…earn more…need more’’.  I watched as a Scout Troop trooped and listened as they laughed over the soundtrack generated by their footfall. There were cash registers pinging. It sounded like the beginning of Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’.

As I stood there I thought back to my previous exposure to radical ecology and the way in which this had been energizing and enervating in equal measure. And I began to see the value of the CAT experience as being largely metaphorical.

I first discovered eco-activism in 1994 and it had taken me unawares. At that time, I was a young man happily immersed in the post-ideological ascendency of the wink and the shrug, the culture’s tacit endorsement of the ever-present party. I wasn’t looking to expand my political consciousness.

Yet, implausibly enough, it was my partying that introduced me to green radicalism. One quiet weekend I was taken by some friends in-the-know to a free festival in a field in Powys, just a few impossibly green hills from CAT. It was called the Harvest Fair and was just one of many such gatherings that flowered that summer along the length of the hippie trail. 

The festival was invigorating. It hummed with a dizzying creative energy. I danced and made merry and danced some more. But this wasn’t all. The Harvest Fair also showcased a different way of thinking and doing. All of the musicians and DJs and performers were giving their services for free. Recycled materials were everywhere. There were teepees pitched next to interactive installations made from old TV sets, sculptures made from white goods and car parts. I saw demonstrations of wind power, sound systems powered by bicycles. Shoes made from old tyres, clothing from hemp and other sustainable resources.

I was moved. Creatively, intellectually. There was historical significance in this post-historical gathering. Disenchanted city folk rubbed along with New Age travelers and in their dissociation from popular culture, in their desire to say ‘no’ to the consumerist excess that had become a sine qua non of the liberal triumph, there was a contemporary political resonance too. This was a truly alternative reading of our role within the culture. Passionate and persuasive and vital and now, it was known as ‘DIY’.

On my return from the Harvest Fair, I threw myself into the scene. DIY was multi-faceted. It was about libertarianism, refraining from eating meat. Many of its adherents lived on the road or squatted previously disused buildings. But its unifying theme was an awareness of our impact on the environment.

This was reflected in the literature. Texts were not central to DIY. This was half a decade before No Logo, or anything popular by Noreena Hertz. And although the term had been coined by Theodore Levitt in 1983, any literary discussion of ‘globalisation’ had yet to impact on the culture. ‘From the moment of birth we are immersed in action,’ went another Whitehead dictum that might have been written for us, ‘and we can only fitfully guide it by taking thought.’ Yet like a good few of my new acquaintance and mindset I skimmed a book widely regarded as one of most influential of the 20th Century.

‘Small is Beautiful’ is a collection of essays by the economist EF Schumacher. It was published in 1973, the year CAT opened. You can still buy it in the centre’s bookshop. In ‘Buddhist Economics’, Schumacher questioned whether ‘"modernisation," as currently practiced without regard to religious and spiritual values, is actually producing agreeable results. As far as the masses are concerned, the results appear to be disastrous—a collapse of the rural economy, a rising tide of unemployment in town and country, and the growth of a city proletariat without nourishment for either body or soul.’ A solution, he suggested, lay in decentralized growth using ‘intermediate’, human-scale appropriate technologies.

If Schumacher’s espousal of ‘human-scale appropriate technologies’ was an article of faith for many DIY-ers, his ‘decentralization’ struck a dissonant chord too. And not just in the context of economic growth. By 1994 the Major administration was two years into what had been called the ‘largest road-building program since the Romans’. For us, the ecological short-sightedness of the project wasn’t a party political issue - there was no significant dissent from the Westministerial shadows - but a systemic failure that illustrated the shortcomings of the centralized political process.

And so we disengaged from the mainstream. We threw hit-and-run parties to stop the traffic and Reclaim the Streets for pedestrians, built protest camps on the routes of the proposed new ‘transport links’. DIY was about taking practical responsibility for your actions, not becoming complicit in a compromised democratic process.

This approach was dynamic, seductive. Yet as the months passed and our protests grew and then stopped growing, it became increasingly difficult to escape the feeling that our activism was missing something.

The arguments involved in promoting eco-awareness and sustainable development are complex. Many of the fruit skins in the compost bins of my allotment-tilling friends are banana or mango. Schumacher was cognizant of these complexities. He had written ‘… it is not a question of choosing between "modern growth" and "traditional stagnation." It is a question of finding the right path of development, the Middle Way between materialist heedlessness and traditionalist immobility…’

He understood that while small may be beautiful, big – ‘material heedlessness’, the fear of ‘traditionalist immobility’ or the desire to eat fruit air-freighted from the other side of the world – has its attractions too. One lifestyle may be the preserve of individuals happy to use compost toilets and to live on the fringes of society as it is currently ordered; one may be an easy option, the default consensus of the mainstream. But the implication of Schumacher’s words was that it was only through Whitehead’s ‘clash of doctrines’, that the opportunity for meaningful change would be created.

It was a willingness to engage with this troublesome reality that was missing from DIY activism. We had taken ‘decentralization’ too far and were operating not just at complete remove from the mainstream political process but from any form of critical discourse with mainstream opinion too. We weren’t dealing with unpleasant truths in the hope of advancing the cause of human-scale appropriate technologies’. Put crudely, it was enough that we were doing the right thing; it was not our place to try to persuade others to do likewise.

We have to be careful with definitions here. I’m not sure that an ‘organic’ movement that has no stated aims can be called a failure. But DIY’s disregard for the thinking of the mainstream reflected badly on its intellectual integrity and limited its moral achievement. Our heterodoxy had made the small smaller still, morphed the nuances of Schumacher’s beliefs into a credo in which the only argument was ‘buy less, work less, earn less, need less.’ Our energy was contained within enclaves, ghettoes. This meant that the audience for our message was tiny. It consisted of people who would like to live on smallholdings or on the roads that lead to them. As a result, ours was an activism whose activists spoke only to themselves.

Looking at the ‘Treadmill of Happiness’, I realised that the same criticisms could be levelled at CAT. Even now, with the need for alternative thinking more pressing than ever before, there was a sense of the centre indulging an already receptive audience instead of reaching out to a new one.

On the way out of the centre, I stopped at their restaurant. I decided against a cup of chai and plumped instead for a hot chocolate. It was lukewarm. I thought about complaining but there was something about the ambience of the place that stopped me. You didn’t go all the way to CAT to complain about such things. And that, perhaps, is the problem.