There seem to be two historical strands that became combined, a cultural one and a physical one.

The first strand was the rise of ‘alternative’ politics.

As industrial capitalism emerged in the 19th century it was initially supposed there would always be a ‘poor’ working class. This was challenged by the socialist idea that we could all share the fruits of industrialisation. Eventually this was proved possible and became the mainstream view. The basic project was one of expanding horizons and possibilities, enabled by physical economic growth. It provided the necessary conditions for a new culture of consumerism– the search for fulfilment through ever-increasing material goods and services.

Critiques of consumerismhad a long pedigree even before the 20th century, and reached a historic watershed in the rise of the New Left and the ‘alternative’ movement in the 1960s and 70s. Thesetrends shared the egalitarianism of the Old Left but asked: what’s it all for?  Surely there must be more to life than working very hard to get loads of stuff, much of which you don’t really need?  And surely we can produce what we do need in less demeaning and authoritarian ways?

The second strand was the rise of environmentalism.

This was based on the idea that there might be an entirely physical incompatibility between expanding economic activity and finite natural sources and sinks. In a phrase: “You can’t get a quart into a pint pot”.

It could be argued that the seeds of this idea emerged gradually in the post-war era and reached widespread public awareness at more or less the same time as the flowering of alternative culture and the New Left.

The original RT 1.0 wove these strands together.

Influential texts are listed in the Appendix.

From a physical perspective it was widely considered that industrial growth was on a sharp collision course with nature and that the two were intrinsically incompatible. This meant that attempts to correct the failures of technology with more technology would only make things worse: the ‘invisible elbow’ would finally trump the ‘invisible hand’. Extreme risks arising from malign synergies of environmental impacts were unknown but possibly imminent. Therefore a radically precautionary approach was demanded. What might this be?

In broad terms the logic pointed to a de-industrialised economy relying on natural materials and natural flows of energy. And many set out to explore and realise precisely this, emphasising small-scale production facilities using local resources and a re-emphasis on households as productive units.It achieved physical sustainability through intrinsic limitations on growth, power and unnatural materials.

Meanwhile, from the cultural perspective there was a strong focus on the dehumanisation inherent in industrial production, with its apparent necessity for division of labour, Taylorist production lines and strict hierarchical control. Significantly, the ‘socialist’ version of this seen in the Soviet world appeared no better. The term ‘technocracy’ was widely used

The answer seemed to lie in smaller production units with a cooperative ethos, using simpler technologies that all could understand, operate and repair, and a radically decentralised pattern of distribution. Household production would be much more important: Tool up, learn the skills, do it yourself.

You can immediately see the confluence of the two emerging visions. It bore a strong resemblance to what E.F. Schumacher had already labelled ‘intermediate technology’, intermediate that is, between the very simplest hand tools and factory-level technology. But whereas Schumacher thought of his conception as a step up from poverty in developing countries, we thought perhaps the same idea could represent a step down from dangerous overdevelopment.

The goal then, was of technological systems that were both sustainable and (as Ivan Illich used to say) convivial. And we set out both to envision such systems, and wherever possible to create them.


The typical mistake about industrial processes was to imagine they are, say, twice as productive as pre-industrial methods, but also filthy and dehumanising. The bargain is a poor one, so why bother? In fact of course, the difference of productivity is likely to be hundred or a thousand times, perhaps even more. Now the bargain looks different; and if we can find ways of making the processes less filthy and dehumanising, what’s not to like?

Reluctantly, we had to stare this simple reality in the face:  Industrial processes and concentrated energy are the absolute bedrock of modernity and we cannot possibly create a humane culture without them.

Furthermore the world of work is no longer as dreadful as we painted it. 80% of British workers are in the ‘service sector’. Manufacturing is a 10% rump, the rest having shifted overseas, out of sight and out of mind. True, many jobs remain boring, low-paid and insecure, and there remain desperate inequalities, but it is hard to see how these matters can be addressed by the kinds of reorganisations we mooted back in the 70s.

Many experiments in different ways of organising work have been carried out. None have really escaped the ghetto of committed ideologues, and most have simply failed or faded away. It remains true that most of the dissatisfactions of modern life arise from failure to meet the escalating aspirations of consumer culture. The culture/ideology of consumerism is much the same as it was in 1970s, causing much the same existential problems.

It is in the environmental sphere that more interesting developments have taken place. The emerging environmental awareness of the 60s led to real official action in many directions, resulting in undeniable improvements. It became increasingly clear that all the different factors labelled ‘environment’ did not exist as one coherent blob, but could be analysed separately and tackled coherently and effectively one at a time. The ‘invisible elbow’ metaphor became unconvincing, and the physical apocalyptic mood of the 70s started to dissipate. It seemed that you could sort out pretty well any physical problem fairly cheaply by largely technological means, even if you needed legislation and economic incentives to guide the necessary changes.

This more sanguine world of the 80s and 90s gave rise to an important school of sustainable development,called ‘Ecological Modernisation’ (EM) which strives to create a sustainable technical infrastructure with negligible influence on economic growth or the wider consumerist project.

Although apparently at odds with the spirit of Radical Technology, you could say that EM was a good try. Its basic claim is that reductions in the rate of environmental damage (environmental intensity, EI) could (and would) outpace economic growth.

As time has gone on, however, we have now recognised a set of global environmental problems resistant to rapid reductions of intensity, and with incipient thresholds beyond which changes might be irreversible. Climate Change is the most obvious of these, but there are several others including biodiversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen overloads and land use change.

In terms of imminent or at least foreseeable threats, it now feels much more like the 70s.

It looks then,as if the EM approach is inadequate. What else is out there? There is a considerable respectable literature on sustainable consumption that delicately tries to hint at the need for lifestyle changes. There is the ‘steady state’ minority in economics demonstrating the possibility of modern economies that do not physically grow. Within this framework are comprehensive decarbonisation scenarios that attempt to minimise lifestyle changes, such as the Zero-Carbon Britain series from the Centre for Alternative Technology.There is a more forthright degrowth movement that states the need for actual contractions. And there are genuine self-proclaimed Luddites.

All these might be compatible with a modernised re-conception of Radical Technology.  But there is now a large fly in the ointment: the approach of the various Thresholds. If they were not there, we could simply get on with the long haul of crafting a benign modernity with technologies to match. But they are there. What are the implications?

Rapid action, rapid changes are obviously required. Many of the classic recipes in RT would be appropriate. But what if it becomes obvious that massive technological ‘emergency measures’ of various kinds are required to prevent irreversible change? Is the RT programme put on hold until the emergencies are addressed?  Does it really have anything to offer in the short run?

These will be significant debating points for our conference.




Rural Rides                                                                 Cobbett                       1830

Looking Backward                                                     Bellamy                       1888

News from Nowhere                                                  Morris                          1890

Technics and Civilization                                            Mumford                     1934

An Agricultural Testament                                         Howard                       1940

Communitas                                                                Goodman                    1947

The Road to Survival                                                  Vogt                            1951

The Breakdown of Nations                                        Kohr                            1957

Science, Liberty, Peace                                               Huxley


Living the Good Life                                                  Nearing                       1960

Our Synthetic Environment                                        Bookchin                     1962

Silent Spring                                                               Carson                         1962

One-Dimensional Man                                                Marcuse                       1964

The Technological Society                                          Ellul                             1964

Architecture without Architects                                 Rudovsky                    1964

Science and Survival                                                   Commoner                  1966

The Costs of Economic Growth                                 Mishan                        1966

The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth         Boulding                     1966

The Myth of the Machine                                           Mumford                     1967

The Population Bomb                                                 Ehrlich                         1968

Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow              Kropotkin                    1968

Design with Nature                                                     McHarg                       1969

The Making of a Counter-Culture                              Roszak                                    1969

The New Left Reader                                                 Oglesby                       1969

Obsolete Communism                                                 Cohn-Bendit               1969

Early 1970s:

Environment, Power and Society                               Odum                          1971

Post-Scarcity Anarchism                                             Bookchin                     1971

Scientific Knowledge & its Social Problems              Ravetz                         1971

A Landscape for Humans                                           van Dresser                 1971

Före-Efter                                                                   Ehrensvärd                  1971

The Political Economy of the New Left                     Lindbeck                     1971

Diet for a Small Planet                                                Lappé                          1971

Population Versus Liberty                                          Parsons                        1971

The Closing Circle                                                      Commoner                  1972

The Limits to Growth                                                 Meadows et al             1972

A Blueprint for Survival                                             Ecologist                     1972

Small is Beautiful                                                        Schumacher                 1972

The Careless Technology                                            Farvar and Milton       1972

Tools for Conviviality                                                 Illich                            1973

Energy and Equity                                                      Illich

Steady State Economy                                               Daly                            1973

Self-Sufficiency                                                          Seymour                      1973

Anarchy in Action                                                      Ward                           1973

Supernature                                                                 Watson                        1974

Alternative Technology and the Politics of T C         Dickson                       1974

Design for the Real World                                          Papanek                       1974

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance             Pirsig                           1974

Whole Earth Epilog                                                    Brand et al                  1974

Energy Primer                                                             Merrill et al                  1974

Public Works                                                               Szykitka                      1974

Shelter                                                                         Kahn                           1973

Alternative Sources of Energy                                    Portola                         1974

Alternative London                                                    Saunders                     1974

Manuel de la Vie Pauvre                                                                                 1974

Grow Your Own Fruit and Vegetables                      Hills                             1974

Ecotopia                                                                      Callenbach                  1975

Alternative England and Wales                                  Saunders, Downes      1975

The Autonomous House                                             Vale                             1975

Energy, Environment and Building                            Steadman                    1975

The Social Limits to Growth                                      Hirsch                          1976