Not So Crazy: The Centre for Alternative Technology Is a Workers' Co-Op That Has Pioneered Clean Energy in Wales. Amanda Roll-Pickering Charts the Evolution of a Bright Idea

By Roll-Pickering, Amanda | New Internationalist, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Not So Crazy: The Centre for Alternative Technology Is a Workers' Co-Op That Has Pioneered Clean Energy in Wales. Amanda Roll-Pickering Charts the Evolution of a Bright Idea


Roll-Pickering, Amanda, New Internationalist


IT's 1973 and a worldwide oil crisis is bringing down governments, restructuring the global economy and generating fear about the finite nature of natural resources: 'What will we do when the oil runs out?' is a question that needs answering.

Against this backdrop a group of young idealists, motivated by heartfelt concerns over the cumulative impact of 'progress', moved into a disused slate quarry in the centre of Wales. It was an opportunity to escape the consumerist outside world and to experiment with self-sufficient living. Their early technical innovations were fuelled by the freedom to design without bureaucratic constraints and driven by a basic need for food, heat and light. The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) was born.

These pioneers rebuilt ruined buildings, established gardens on ground with no natural soil and generated their own electricity. There was very little distinction between 'work' and 'life'. The pay packet was seen not as wages but as a living allowance. Before long more than 20 people, including 10 children, were living on the site.

This unique combination of people, place and time gave rise to an abundance of creative innovation. People were willing to try out anything and everything in the name of living an environmentally responsible lifestyle. A constant influx of new people brought fresh ideas to explore.

There was nothing novel about harnessing the wind, sun or water - we've been doing it for thousands of years, after all. The difference here was the application of modern technology and materials to develop renewable resources to meet contemporary needs.

The organization was also eager to experiment with working structures and close the traditional gaps between secretaries and directors, builders and architects, engineers and telephonists, thinkers and doers. It chose to adopt, and adapt, a traditional co-operative model.

Ogres and others

In the early days all decisions were taken by all staff at a Monday meeting. The principle was that everyone should be involved. So the meetings frequently took far longer than was strictly necessary to reach a decision, and the topics were wide-ranging. Eager to avoid an alienating hierarchy, the Centre relied on face-to-face interaction. The directness of the meeting, and shared knowledge, made it difficult for anyone to acquire unreasonable power and influence.

[Graph Not Transcribed]

Many found the Monday meeting exhausting, irritating and often tedious. But it also provided an inexperienced, changing workforce with an ecological view on many different activities. As specializations developed it still enabled the cook to comment on the engineer, the bookseller to confront the director - and everyone to question whether they wanted specialization anyway. There was an 'ogre of the week' - a rota duty during which everybody in turn fed back decisions and chased up the jobs that needed doing.

Not everybody felt included in the egalitarian structure. Rick Dance joined as a volunteer in 1983 and remembers a wide divide between the paid and unpaid staff. Volunteers were not considered part of the co-op. He says: 'We launched a campaign to bring equal rights to all those involved with the organization. We made badges to wear that were based on the then-popular "Nuclear power? No thanks" symbol. They read "Volunteer power? Yes please." ' Rick's campaign was not a success - although he did make it into the paid ranks a couple of years later.

In the early days there were 20 to 30 paid staff. Today there are more than 100. In an organization this size it is just not possible for everybody to have a say in every decision. Instead there is an elected committee, fondly known as 'Overview', which facilitates decision-making at a weekly meeting. Theoretically, any one person can block any decision. But there is a mutual understanding that if you are in the minority you record your objection and then step aside. …

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