Event 3: Is small still beautiful?

Can it keep us within the Planetary Boundaries?

The work of E.F. Schumacher in the 60s had a substantial effect on alternative thought, and his 1972 collection of essays Small is Beautiful provided a slogan for the whole movement.
Old windmills

In 1976 RT1.0 argued for radical decentralisation, small and simple local technologies, dispersed populations and cooperative communities. Many activists and environmental philosophers still do. But as the world moves ever closer to the ‘Planetary Boundaries’, are the decentralised approaches still appropriate? Do we need to move faster?  Can we supply so many people with even basic needs without large-scale industrial systems?


This is the heart of the conference, and we want to ask the question in a variety of contexts.

Programme timetable

Saturday 3rd September 9:30am - 6pm

The day consists of two sets of three parallel sessions, catalysed by principal contributors and a ‘Greek Chorus’ of commentators. The groups are expected to be small enough to allow all to participate. Session chairs can decide when to take coffee breaks.  Rapporteurs will record main points in preparation for report back.

10:00 Introductions. Peter Harper, Godfrey Boyle, Chris Ryan

10:30 Parallel sessions

Schumacher’s Vision. Principal contributors: Simon Trace, Andrew Simms

Sheltering the 3 Billion. Principal contributors: Sandy Liddell Halliday, Pat Borer

Green Growth: Contradiction or Necessity? Principal contributors: Joe Ravetz, Gary Alexander

12:30 Lunch, provided by the Bristol Surplus Supper Club

Special extra events, to be announced

14:00 Parallel sessions

Live More, Move Less: Principal contributors: Hugh Barton, Ian Hogan

Feeding People is Easy – Or is it? Principal contributors: Erik Millstone, Tara Garnett

The Power to Change. Principal contributors: Sue Roaf, Jackie Carpenter

17:00 Plenary, brief reports from rapporteurs.

1800: Buffet Supper

Schumacher's vision

E.F. Schumacher first used the phrase ‘small is beautiful’.  It was derived from his tireless advocacy of intermediate human- or community-scale technologies to lift the poor out of poverty. The word ‘intermediate’ suggests modest prosperity, and many have sought to design societies and lifestyles around the notions of ‘degrowth’ and voluntary simplicity to create a resilient, decentralised, low-tech culture. Is this a sustainable recipe for all of humanity, or is it too late now? Are developing societies fated to go through the same compulsive consumerism as those who went before, or are there new and saner ways to improve the quality of life? Must this depend on advanced industrial processes anyway? Where? Who? How? This session will look at the holistic, systems approach to technology. It will ask what are basics we need to supply for 3 billion households. Could you live at a consumption rate of 2 kW?

Sheltering the ten billion

Concrete dwellings at Arcosanti
In a few decades there will another 2-3 billion people, and they will need houses. Where will we find all the extra materials and stay within environmental limits? Is it through new advanced materials and systems, or abundant vernacular ones? Or optimum mixtures: (the ‘80:20 principle’). Shall architecture defy the climate or make use of it? Should we try to build our own dwellings? Or prefabricate buildings in factories? All the same or all different? Is it better to retrofit old buildings or start from scratch? Are space standards too high?  Can zero-emission buildings exist, and why are they not the norm? What about negative-carbon buildings? Can the building industry be trusted to deliver? How far can a building provide its own services – in energy, food, water, sanitation and waste treatment? Should it?
Roundhouse by Tony Wrench and Jane Faith, Wales

Green growth: a contradiction or a necessity?

Virtual reality with cardboard and smart phone
It is widely argued that continued economic growth is incompatible with sustainability and must be slowed and halted. In some sense this must mathematically be true, yet others argue that sustainability cannot be achieved without growth. Have the promises of ‘decoupling’ growth from environmental impacts – the celebrated ‘Factor 4’ or even ‘Factor 20’ – proved hollow or will they yet be vindicated? Are zero-energy, zero-waste and the circular economy mere slogans? Moore’s Law and dematerialisation is widely trumpeted, and seems to apply to many emerging technologies in genetics, ICT and nano-materials.  But while it is sometimes claimed we have reached ‘peak stuff’, human beings remain the same size and so do meals, houses, roads, cars and hospitals. Renewables often need more material, not less. Yet innovation continues to generate surprises, astounding new processes and materials. Could this lead to decentralised production processes under local control, as the industrial tradition of Radical Technology always claimed? Can innovation be directed? Should it be? Should some directions be abandoned, at least temporarily?   Can we counter remaining problems with emergency ‘plan B’ technologies such as carbon sequestration or geoengineering processes or should these be simply forbidden? Who decides?
Graphene, a strong, light-weight, conducting form of pure carbon

Feeding people is easy – or is it?

The future of meat
A decade ago Colin Tudge demonstrated that in principle it was easy to create plenty of nutritious food for everybody, but not with the prevailing dietary trends, in particular the growing consumption of livestock products. Can we save the farm animals and still feed everyone, while leaving enough land for wildlife, ‘ecosystem services’, biomass crops and carbon sequestration?  Should research be accelerated on cultured meat, and dairy products? Can a healthy diet also a be sustainable diet? Should the UK be a net exporter of food? Should land be shared with nature or intensified to leave nature alone?  Can the organic vision coexist with that of hyper-mechanised precision agriculture, hydroponics and direct genetic control? How is the unsustainable nitrogen burden to be reduced and still maintain yields?  Yields per hectare are greater with smaller units, so should farming be decentralised? What role for smallholdings, market gardens, allotments and domestic production? Should the UK produce its own food or buy cheaper from abroad? Who owns the land and who should? Are supermarkets here to stay?
Agroforestry, combining trees and arable crops

Living more, moving less

City life has its own fierce logic because distances are shorter, services shared and interactions more frequent and intense. It is not going to go away.   But why are cities so often ugly and depressing? One reason is the car: Cities and towns were sacrificed to private vehicles and made over in one generation, between the 50s and the 80s. At the time it was thought to be highly progressive, but we live with the consequences. Yet it is now hard to imagine alternatives, although many exist.  Very slowly the possibility of replacing private vehicles with many other transport systems, is dawning on us. The visions of historic urbanists return to haunt and inspire us. Yet many utopian experiments have disappointed – the intentional communities, the eco-villages, the transition towns with their simplified and decentralised technologies. Why? Have stage-set experiments such as Poundbury been any more successful?  Is a rebalancing of city and country in prospect, if the city hinterlands will now be required for land-intensive food and energy supplies? Is the city region now the key unit?  Will we spend more time in our distinctive neighbourhoods, and less travelling for relief and escape?
The transformation of a town in one generation, paintings by Joerg Mueller
Wednesday 6 May, 1953
Wednesday 6 May, 1953
Wednesday 7 January, 1976
Wednesday 7 January, 1976

The power to change

Vision of a biomass-fired power station, Heatherwick Studios
Of all the factors that most threaten the planet’s equilibrium, the principal energy technologies are in a class of their own.   There is no question but they have to be changed, but there is equally no question that we can now manage without artificial energy in (by historical standards) large amounts. How much do we really need? Could a truly modern society be run on 2 kW per head, as has been proposed? Could this be achieved by technology alone, or will it involve changes of habit and lifestyle?  Arguments about energy tend to start with demand versus supply, but supply preferences often reflect deep underlying values and political leanings. The late David Mackay presented several contrasting low-emission energy scenarios and many more are imaginable. The ‘global carbon budget window’ is closing and we probably have less than thirty years to bring about a more or less complete decarbonisation of the energy system. Is it time now to put aside historical animosities and discuss the most realistic options? All the bêtes noires will be there: nuclear energy, tidal barrages, carbon capture and storage, biomass, international supergrids, expensive energy, onshore and offshore wind power, domestic vs commercial PV, PV versus solar thermal technologies, community vs state versus commercial financing, an all-electricity system or mixed gas and electricity –etc. They each deserve a respectful hearing.

Some of the Principal speakers and contributors

The conference operates more or less in the spirit of the 70s: we’re all in it together and we all contribute.

Nevertheless there will be well-known spirits among us who have thought about these matters more than most, and often done them too. Here are some:

  • Professor Herbert Girardet
  • Professor Godfrey Boyle
  • Professor Sue Roaf
  • Rob Hopkins
  • Nick Hart-Williams
  • Colin Tudge
  • Dr. Wendy Stephenson
  • Alastair Sawday
  • Dr. Tara Garnett
  • Adam Twine
  • Professor Erik Millstone
  • Professor Sandy Liddell Halliday
  • Simon Trace
  • Professor Hugh Barton
  • Dr. Joe Ravetz
  • Martin Stott
  • Professor Stephen Peake
  • Thornton Kay
  • Peter Harper
  • Oliver Lowenstein
  • Dr. Peter Head
  • Paul Allen
  • Dr. Jackie Carpenter
  • Andrew Simms
  • Professor Dot Griffiths
  • Professor Dave Elliott
  • Professor Robin Roy
  • Martin Ince
  • Stefan Szczelkun
  • Dr Charlie Clutterbuck
  • Professor Chris Ryan
  • Dr Preben Maegaard
  • Ian Roderick
  • David King
  • Professor Ed Kosior
  • Fiona Matthews
  • Dr Axel Goodbody
  • Sarah Woods
  • Dr Steve Cayzer