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Four decades, two generations, one change

A confluence of experience, activism, energy and ideas is bringing a radical move towards sustainability ever closer.

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Paul Rogers
15 January 2015

2015 may be the year when people in sufficient numbers finally wake up to the need for fundamental changes in society, as the transition to ultra-low carbon emancipated economies gathers pace. In part, this vital increase of awareness may be due to climate change at last being recognised as the potential threat it is; in part, to the increasing obvious failing of the free-market economic model, which quite possibly will follow the rigid central planning of the Soviet era into the graveyard.

What replaces the existing model and environmental damage is far too early to say. But if a period of transformation is indeed approaching, it is well worth recalling the experience of a previous era - that of the 1970s - whose extraordinary thinking and practice could help ease the problems of the emerging transition. 

This series of columns doesn't usually dwell on a past generation, but bear with me on this one - for if its efforts at the time were overtaken by Reaganomics and Thatcherism, it can now be seen as prescient in a potentially rewarding way.  

By the end of the 1960s there had been two decades of strong economic growth in the western economies, but signs of innovation reflected awareness of deeper problems. The landmark work The Limits to Growth cast doubt on the prospects for long-term economic growth; the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) meeting in Santiago, Chile, exposed how unjust the world trading system had become; in 1972, the UN convened its first environment conference in Stockholm. 

Then came two shocks: the 400%-plus increase in oil prices in 1973-74 and, almost at once, the world food crisis of 1974. The next three or four years saw a creative ferment among far-sighted people and communities searching for sustainable alternatives. In Britain, its representatives included journals such as Resurgence and the Ecologist and groups like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the World Development Movement.

One of the liveliest outlets of all was the radical science magazine, Undercurrents, which ran for several years in the mid-1970s and spawned in turn a fine compendium of initiatives: Peter Harper and Godfrey Boyle's Radical Technology, published by Pantheon Books in 1976. Copies are not easy to come by these days but if you get the chance, grab one and you will find page after page of ideas, including a remarkable set of line-drawings by Cliff Harper. Four decades on these illustrations of the way society could develop look so much like what is happening now, from autonomous cooperative city terraces to off-grid communities.

Perhaps someone insightful will get round to reprinting Radical Technology - apart from its intrinsic merits, it could certainly be an inspiration to new generations.

A delayed advance

By the end of the 1970s, the free-market supporters had won through. Many of the early activists turned to focus on the renewed threat of the cold-war nuclear arms-race, as manifested in cruise missiles (with the protests at Greenham Common and elsewhere in response), the new Trident nuclear-weapons system, Reagan’s nuclear build-up and all the Soviet equivalents. In these years, the need for truly sustainable and emancipatory economics somehow got left way behind, and it would wait more than two decades to return to the fore - which it now has with renewed energy.

Does this mean that all that earlier thinking and doing was pointless? There are many reasons to answer no. After all, many of the groups that started over in the early 1970s have survived and thrived; some - notably the Centre for Alternative Technology near Machynlleth in mid-Wales - have continued their role combining theory, practice and not a little prophecy. In addition, movements and ideas such as "transition towns" and local currencies continue to spring up, while networks such as the New Economics Foundation contribute fresh perspectives on the economy. 

It is intriguingly common now to see a “double generation” effect where much of the activism and activity combines people in their 50s and 60s (and older) with those in their teens and 20s. Perhaps most impressive is that many of the people active forty years ago are still active - they simply haven’t given up and won’t give up. 

All this doesn’t ensure a golden age is just around the corner. But  it does carry real significance. That long-term activists are being joined by more recent arrivals, all of them believing that this time around the radical change that is needed really can come, creates genuine hope for 2015 and beyond.

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