THE ROOTS OF RT 2.0
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.
FORTY YEARS LATER…WELL?
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.
PRINCIPAL SOURCES OF INSPIRATION FOR THE RT/AT TRADITION AS EXPRESSED IN RT 1.0
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
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