Necessity Still Breeds Ingenuity - Archive of SQUALL MAGAZINE 1992-2006
Centre for Alternative Technology

The Essential Yes

We all want safe food, clean water, warm houses, and a sense of belonging: so let's be having them! Paul Allen, from the Centre for Alternative Technology tells us how.

Squall 13, Summer 1996, pg. 33.

Back in the early seventies Peter Harper first coined the phrase ‘alternative technology’ to describe human behaviour, tools and technology working with nature rather than against it. Within a year or two, a bunch of young idealists colonised a derelict slate quarry in Mid Wales. They were inspired by the notion of building a living community to test the emerging alternative technologies, to find out which ones worked and which didn’t. At the time what we now call the green movement was struggling to define itself.

In the past two decades there have been rapid developments in the environmental movement. More and more people, from all sectors of society, are saying the essential “No”. We have seen some success in the global no to CFCs, the no to nuclear power, the no to unchecked road building, the no to mass whaling and the no to dumping the Brent Spar.

People are no longer content with sponsoring environmental charities to campaign on their behalf, they want a turn at it themselves. This ‘solutions driven’ environmental movement, has realised that it’s no use simply demonstrating that the environment is under threat, without showing any practical ways to put things right.

The need to balance the essential “No” with an equal and opposite “Yes” is now gaining increasing recognition from the grass roots outwards. Of course “no” campaigns are important, but the balance gained by trying out the ideas you wish to promote lends both credibility and a sense of reality. Personal empowerment and inspiration are the vital aspects of achieving sustainability, aspects too often ignored.

With recent developments of BSE, melting ice caps, ozone depletion, global warming, acid rain, de-forestation and declining biodiversity; no one can deny the problems are scary, especially when you consider the growing recognition that the whole planetary system is ‘self-regulating’.

The conventional view of how we’re affecting the world is based upon direct relationships between causes and effects. As we give out proportionately more pollution we get proportionately more damage, with perhaps some time delay.

The self-regulating or ‘Gaia’ theory, gives us a very different picture. Our planet does not behave with such a simple cause and effect relationship. Instead, stress placed on a ‘stable’ system will be absorbed in an attempt to maintain the status quo. This means the planet is actually holding off the full effects of our environmental misdoings - until we reach the point where the regulating system itself starts to collapse, then it will make a rapid and erratic series of steps until it finds another stable state. This is why after so much industrialisation and de-forestation, it has taken so long for conventional science to recognise environmental effects such as global warming and ozone depletion. So we have got to act and act now. The question is: what on earth do we do?

We must begin by allowing ourselves the breathing space to examine and take responsibility for how we live our lives and how we affect the world around us. No one else makes the rules, we make our own empowered, informed decisions of how to live ‘lightly’.

The exciting thing is that many of the changes that need to be made also improve our lives, our health and our communities.

Situated in Machynlleth, Mid Wales, The Centre for Alternative Technology’s unique seven-acre visitor complex acts as a bridge between those who are seeking to explore a more ecological way of living and the store of hands-on-experience gained by those who have been working with sustainable technologies over the past two decades.

On arrival, visitors are carried up the 180ft slope to the visitor complex by a water-balanced cliff railway. The complex itself is not connected to the national grid, being powered mainly from a combination of wind, water and solar power. It contains a range of interactive educational displays which are continually updated, reflecting the ways in which society is taking seriously the need to move toward more sustainable lifestyles.

For those who wish to know more, CAT also runs a residential course programme with diverse topics ranging from small scale wind and solar power to alternative sewage systems and self build ecological housing. To compliment the courses CAT also produces a diverse range of publications, covering many aspects of energy, building and food production from a very practical perspective, combining a level headed overview with “hands on” information based on CAT’s experience of living with such technologies.

The Rio Earth summit, Agenda 21 and many other events around the world have alerted governments and local communities everywhere to the need for sustainable development. What is needed most urgently for Agenda 21 to have any real effect are working models of how such development can take place. For over twenty years now, CAT has been one of a number of centres across Europe dedicated to experimenting with sustainable ways of living and passing on their experience through active display, training programmes, publications and information services.

Until now these centres have worked in relative isolation, with only informal contacts between some, but it is now proposed to set up a formal network of Ecological Centres throughout Europe. The subsequent collaborations will serve to further increase the impact of each Centre’s work in its own country and region. It is anticipated the network will initially consist of about 20 centres in France, Wales, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Italy and Spain. It will then expand to include organisations in every European country from Ireland in the west, to Russia in the east, Sweden in the north, to Greece in the south.

Looking to the future CAT’s director Roger Kelly sees a vital role for ‘solutions driven’ organisations: “Now, in 1996, the importance of showing the solutions as well as the problems is fully recognised. We all know our society needs to make important decisions on which technologies we shall use in the future. We have a crucial role in this, seeking them out, proving which ones actually work, then inspiring, informing and enabling the developed world to set new patterns... towards a more sustainable future, before the system drags the rest of the world into a consumer nightmare - which by its sheer size will finally break the back of the planetary regulating systems which are currently holding everything together.”