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

By Harper, Peter | Whole Earth, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

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


Harper, Peter, Whole Earth


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.

--MKS

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.)

WHAT WORKED FOR US?

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.