Magazine article Whole Earth

Songs of Experience: Does Sustainability Really Work? Three Decades of Successes, Failures, and Change at Wales's Centre for Alternative Technology

Magazine article Whole Earth

Songs of Experience: Does Sustainability Really Work? Three Decades of Successes, Failures, and Change at Wales's Centre for Alternative Technology

Article excerpt

In 1974 a group of young, (mostly) British idealists took over a derelict slate quarry in Mid Wales. The site covered about forty acres, mostly precipitous slate tip, with about ten acres of usable flat land. "The hippies," as the locals called them, hoped to create a sustainable community to test and demonstrate emerging technologies and lifestyles that could provide solutions to worldwide environmental and social problems. Today, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) operates as a cooperative with about eighty-five full-time staff members (more than a hundred during the summer) pursuing an array of research, publishing, educational, and consulting ventures, while hosting 80,000 visitors a year.

Peter Harper, CAT's director of research and a staff member since 1983, reflects here on CAT's evolution. We were struck by his candor about CAT's failures as well as successes, and the need to rethink assumptions when the ideal and the practical collide. Earlier versions of parts of this article appeared in Annals of Earth and the Japanese magazine BIO-City. Thanks to David Kupfer for suggesting that Peter send us this story.


How nice it is to be able to combine two of my enthusiasms, Whole Earth and CAT. I've been working at CAT for nearly twenty years and subscribing to Whole Earth in its various incarnations for even longer.

The trouble with CAT is that it's so damn complicated. Is it essentially a model sustainable enterprise? A museum of eco-gadgetty? A showcase for natural landscaping? An against-the-odds tourist attraction? An idealistic working community? A hands-on training centre? A high-octane eco-salon? The sunlit destination for pilgrimages? Paradoxically there is no "centre": no definitive activity, no charismatic guru, no snappy slogan that crystallises its raison d'etre. It is complex and distributed, and cannot be taken in at a glance.

Perhaps one of the most useful things CAT has to offer is experience. It has tried so many things, and sorted much wheat from chaff. By passing on its stories, perhaps we can help others avoid the reinvention of many wheels.

To make sense of CAT's activities and evolution, and allow others to make comparisons, I think it is helpful to review what has really worked, and contrast this with a frank assessment of what failed, then review what has changed in the course of a generation. (Much has.)


Successes fall into three categories:

* the technology of sustainability;

* our democratic group process;

* marrying economics with our wider goals.

The technology

In spite of many false starts and failures, the basic technologies of reducing environmental impact without undue loss of amenity really can work, although in conventional economic terms they are sometimes rather expensive.

Renewable electricity supply. This is based on wind, water, and sun with a diesel fuel backup, giving CAT 80-percent renewable electricity and excellent reliability. There is also a connection to the grid for further backup or selling surpluses.

Renewable heating systems: These use sun and woodfuel, plus a small amount of wind electricity. They supply about 70 percent of the demand for both space heating and hot water. Liquid propane gas is our conventional backup fuel.

Ecological building: We design for environmentally sound materials and very low energy consumption, down to 10 percent of typical levels over the lifetime of a building. Favoured materials are wood, earth, straw, slate, stone, paper, wool, and lime.

Biological waste treatment: we treat all solid and liquid waste, with 80-percent nutrient retention, using a combination of composting, special toilet designs, and aquatic plant treatment systems.

Onsite water supply: we have no mains connection. Water for all purposes--hydropower, irrigation, washing, and drinking--is provided from a stream-fed reservoir above the site, inherited from the nineteenth-century slate workings. …

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