Thursday, December 1, 2016

Radical Technology 2.0

The 40-year on retrospective conference held in Bristol last Sept, looking at the ideas in the famed Undercurrents ‘Radical Technology’ book and their relevance now, was great fun. Not just a nostalgia fest. And not all about technology- though choices about that shape social choices, or is it vice versa? Certainly, as was clear at the conference, there’s a polarisation between what some call ‘ecomodernism’ and deep green thinking, with tech and society looking very different in each.
The vision offered by some eco-modernists involves centrally run intense technology, based on nuclear plus hydroponics/vertical farming- almost ‘space colonies’ on earth!  With the selling point being that these almost sealed cities can be high tech concentrated population centres, leaving the rest of the ecosystem more or less alone to revert to wilderness. All sorts of problems: a living urban consumerist hell, run by technocrats, with growth central. The other extreme is the very deep green wilderness view, with no growth and low impact tribal groups scattered around using low tech in bioregionally defined pockets. Sounds like Wales as George Monbiot would like it!  Lots of problems there needs low population. 
Less extreme is a mix of smart high tech and decentralisation, but with stablised human activities distributed across the ecosystem, except in a few (large) protected areas, in the belief that we are part of the ecosystem and should remain so as long as we learn to live in it better. Lots of problems- can we balance populations and resources fairly? And limit growth?
RT2 explored some paired down versions of the above:
1 A ‘surprise free innovation’ global scenario in which clever new high tech deals with eco limits and problems and supports continued growth (for some!).
2. A low tech decentralist future, based on sharing and deeply green and humanitarian values. Something most would like, but which may be a long way off.
3. A rapid transition approach based on the best green tech, using CATs Zero Carbon Britain model.
There were no definitive conclusions at RT2, but the debate on the options was lively. No 1 inevitably was pretty unpopular, but might be where we are heading as things stand. For some 2 was lovely but unlikely, except perhaps in niches, although it might spread in time. 3 was maybe more technically credible, but still politically hard to achieve.
There was surprisingly little debate about the technologies themselves. Although some clearly felt that some of those in 1 were suspect, it seemed to be assumed that technology could deliver a viable, if a little quantitatively frugal, lifestyle in 2, and a coherent system in 3. Much less clear was the exact mix, the basic social structure and the scale of the systems it relied on. How much localization? How much high technology? Who decides?
The debate on the way forward seemed to focus mainly on consumption, with, in the energy area, the good news being that some energy consumers are now also energy producers, although these prosumers (and energy co-ops) will of course have to buy in PV kit manufactured somewhere- most probably in China in sweat shops! That opens up all sorts of issues about global trade and working conditions. But also automation. Some say that production can be done by automated plants- as US libertarians like Bookchin and the Goodmans once thought. It seems unlikely, but who knows.  A new work-free world! Though can personal services also be automated? Will we see bands of redundant aromatherapists storming the RT2 Bastille?
The focus on consumption does of course lead back into the debate on growth, a key issue at RT2, and also of course more widely – see my last post. Can it really be halted?
Which brings us back to the deep green view. Technology could help avoid some resource and impact limits, but, it is argued, given a finite planet with limited carrying capacity, no amount of technical fixing could deal with our eco-problems, or our social and political problems, if we remained in a growth-reliant economy based on continued and ever accelerating expansion of resource use. The Guardian came up with a similar view- renewables weren’t enough, big economic system changes were also needed:  
So we are talking about a move to a steady-state global economy:
However, as noted above, many RT2 enthusiasts still felt that new cleaner greener technologies could help make this possible -and livable. They could be part of the practical focus for local transitions, enabled by emerging grass roots groups and building up capacity for a more decentralised co-operative society. Radical stuff! Updates on the initiatives and ideas explored were promised:
One of the proposed links forward was to the next conference, the 40 years on celebration of the Lucas workers alternative plan, held in Birmingham in November: In looking for alternatives to job cuts and the dole, the pioneering mid-1970s Lucas Aerospace workers plan had been ahead of the curve, challenging established thinking about what could be produced and what was needed. It identified many social useful product ideas, including a range of alternative energy technologies that have now become mainstream, as we seek to avoid climate change:,-then-and-now#.WDr4QFxB_2s
With the social and environmental issues now if anything being even more urgent, current political and economic priorities need to be challenged, and support for, and awareness of, greener approaches to technology is now wider than it was in the 1970s. So the conference asked, what can we learn from this celebrated grass-roots initiative?  Can we do more and better than they did? 
There were some expectations that perhaps were wrong and could not be fulfilled. With Trident in mind, the poster for the conference talked of ‘Jobs Not Bombs’, and depicted Lucas Aerospace as a ‘defence company’, whereas in reality, like British Aerospace now, it was active across the aerospace sector, in civil aviation as well as military systems.  That detail may not matter, but clearly it didn’t make bombs! But like all high tech engineering firms, in theory it could make almost anything. So why not wind turbines and solar systems? Actually it and its parent company Joseph Lucas, had tinkered with ideas like that- Lucas even built a battery electric car.  However, no market existed for that sort of thing at that time. The Lucas workers plan sought to create one, for example by attempting to engage Local Authority support and cash for the alternative heating systems it proposed and calling for government support for other public-sector led projects. That didn’t work - it was a time of cuts. Local Authorities are now if anything even more strapped for cash, but there are some good local projects, often featuring renewables centrally.
A range of local community and trade union groups certainly attended the Birmingham event and some interesting ideas for community transitions and industrial conversion were discussed. It was somewhat more focused than the Radical Technology 2 conference, with a different, more activist and politically committed audience, as you might expect.  There was an interesting debate in Birmingham about automation and its impact on jobs, and also about the role of alternative/radical technology- the main focus of RT2. However, the emphasis in Birmingham was more on political control: 
So what’s the bottom line? Clearly AT/RT has a place in the transition process, but just switching to new better technology, like renewable energy systems, does not automatically lead to a better society. There are several African and Latin America countries getting near 100% of their power from hydro (Norway too), but that doesn’t make them into utopias. Scotland, now getting over 50% of its power from renewables like wind, was maybe a more progressive country than England, but this technological commitment was a result of that political position, not its cause. Nevertheless, a practical technological focus can provide a tangible context for local action, campaigning and direct involvement via co-ops and conversion plans. It is about a real physical change in how things are done and, to an extent, who decides on how they are done. That seemed to be accepted at both of gatherings, in Birmingham and Bristol. So, although very different, they did come to some similar views, at least on the potential role of technology in social and political change.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

An end to growth?

Growth is a dominant economic narrative. But it may be over in the UK and anyway isn’t good for us, says green activist Sandy Irving. He sees the 'shrinking' British economy as creating a real test for Greens. ‘In years of boom, it is easier to critique growth and call for another path. It is harder when actually faced with a 'recession'. The fact remains that we in the UK live, as a collectivity, in a three-planet economy, even if products are unevenly distributed, it is self-evidently unsustainable since there is only one planet.’
So he says the prime need is ‘shrinkage in total economic activity, the very thing that the Bank of England, all orthodox economists and accountants and most politicians, with the widespread support amongst the public, want to reverse. They cry out for action "to get the economy going" (i.e. growing). Yet such growth will doom any chance of combating the climate emergency and the many other symptoms of ecological ruination ahead. There is also solid evidence that, beyond a certain point physical growth creates more social negatives than pluses (sometimes called 'affluenza'). It is evident that across nature, from our very own bodies to ecosystem development, that growth must give way to a steady-state’.
He admits that ‘there is some scope for greater efficiency and better management in the economy. But they cannot get round the limits to growth. Indeed, via positive feedback and the 'rebound effect', efficiency gains are routinely cancelled out. Technological breakthroughs tend to bring all sorts of downsides’. So he claims ‘economic shrinkage is actually the name of the game if there is going to be any chance of building a sustainable society. The selling of that message, unpalatable in many quarters, is another matter, one separate from the logic and evidence behind the message itself. The challenge is to find ways of making such contraction palatable’.                                 
He goes on ‘One way is to focus on quality of life, on matters such as health, community vitality, basic security, and, yes, happiness. Japan has had, roughly speaking, a comparative steady-state economy for a number of years, albeit one at too high a level of economic throughput. In wartime, there have been strong limits on what people can consume. It does not necessarily bring social collapse if the trappings of consumerism shrink. In Britain many people were actually healthier during the Second World War, if the deaths and injuries of war are put on one side) Acceptance is easier if fairness in distribution of a more limited largesse is ensured. Our tragedy is that most people cannot/will not see that today we face threats on a scale even greater than those of wartime. Certainly, the impact of unchecked climate change will be greater than World War 2’
He adds that ‘a smaller economy is not only needed to meet that challenge. More positively, there could still be investment in certain activities that really do deliver social well-being and environmental security. Sustainable economy activity will also tend to be more labour-intensive compared to ones dependent on high inputs of fossil fuel energy and comparatively scarce raw materials (high grade metal ores, rare earths etc). To that extent it is the better option for job creation (alongside work-sharing). A smaller economy would leave more physical space for non-human species, so many of whom are now threatened by extinction’.
He concludes ‘the current threat of a recession will test whether those who in the past have talked about a 3-planet economy and its unsustainability really meant what they were saying or whether it was all just hot air. Instead of calling for the economy to be 'kickstarted', we should be pushing for radically different policies, for better not bigger, e.g.                                                                                                               
There are some alternatives to, or at least modified versions of, this deep green view. For example, if the focus is set worldwide, then some say that, for many of the poor in the world, growth is the only realistic hope of being able to rise above (or even to) subsistence-level existence. That in part is due to the horrifically imbalanced global pattern of wealth, power and access. Change that and maybe the poor would not have to rely on pathetic ‘trickle down’ economics topped up by growth - the main aim of which is of course to maintain high levels of wealth for some by keeping the system expanding. In a global system based on ruthless competition, rival chunks of capital (the assets owned and controlled by companies and the investment capacity of speculators) fight it out for market shares. If the rival companies are all to survive and prosper then the overall global market has to expand. So demand has to be stimulated by any means possible. This process can be tamed a bit (by governments nationally and internationally, pressured by green NGOs) to limit the worst excesses of resource misuse, abuse of the environment and human exploitation, but the world’s affluent consumers continue to feed it, their greed for ‘more’ (ideally at less cost) being enlisted in its support. Attitudinal changes, voluntary simplicity, ethical trade and the like, can help undo some of that, but materialism and ever expanding consumption is so deeply entrenched in our view of what represents a good life, changes may remain marginal, until they are forced on us by adverse environmental or other pressures.

At present, although everyone is complicit, it’s the rich minority who consume most and generate most emissions. That has to change, so the poor can share in a degree of affluence. But its nature also has to change: we all need to change our materialist expectations - and also avoid runaway population growth, or some say even aim for a reduced global population over time, to stay within earth’s carrying capacity. 

In the deep green view, the process of change must happen soon, ideally voluntarily, and anything that offers alternatives that seem to avoid that are dangerous illusions and diversions. So renewables are sometimes portrayed as ‘technical fixes’ avoiding the need to reduce energy use, while possibly creating new eco-problems, especially if introduced in unchanged social and economic contexts. Even energy saving technologies are sometimes seen as illusory: we just need to use less.  That’s not to say that such things will not be valuable in the steady-state, balanced and decentralised society they look to, but on their own they are not sufficient- we need radical and global social and cultural change. To a small degree that has happened: green values are now quite widespread and some of that is due to the emergence and adoption of new eco-technologies. But in the main all they do is enable life to go on much as before, with the new technologies in the main being produced and sold in the same old way. Some market relations may have changed, challenging some parts of the supply/retail system (the big utilities), but PV solar domestic ‘prosumers’ are still consumers, buying in PV kit probably manufactured in sweat shops in China!  

Can we do better? What tools do we have? In the energy context, the basic technologies exist now, or are being developed, but we are only just starting to put them together in ways that challenge the old economic model, via grass roots initiatives, energy co-ops and community owned distribution grids. It’s patchy. Germany is a leader, and local Transition movements are spreading. But its huge task. Though they can challenge rapacious competition, these local initiatives don’t really tackle the key issues of production and consumption-led growth. To take this all on fully would require a wider movement for social, cultural and political change. A big project.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Lucas plan revisited- ahead of the curve

With the 40th anniversary of the Lucas workers celebrated alternative plan coming up, the Breaking the Frame group, has, with others, organized a conference in Birmingham in November. It aims to link the experience of radical trade union groups then, trying to redirect the technology focus of their companies to create sustainable, socially useful work, with similar current campaigns: 

The Alternative Corporate Plan produced by shop stewards from the 13 Lucas Aerospace plants in the mid 1970s outlined a series of socially useful projects that they felt could secure employment on a sustainable basis. The company was heavily reliant on defence orders and the Labour government of the time was cutting back and there were threats of large scale redundancies. The cross-plant cross-union shop stewards ‘Combine’ committee thought that, to avoid that, the companies resources and their skills could be used on alternative products. The diversification plan they produced included medical aids, new transport systems and a range of alternative energy technologies, then very novel, including solar and wind technologies. The idea was that the public funding saved from the defence cuts could be retargeted to socially useful production along these lines.

The overall plan was resisted by the company management, who objected to being told what to produce, although some prototypes were developed under pressure from the trade unionists or by supporters independently. For example, an absorption cycle gas-fired heat pump, based on an early Open University idea, was built by Lucas at its plant in Burnley, with some middle management actually being quite keen since there were prospects of a joint OU/Lucas research grant from the (then) Department of Energy. A 15kW prototype was tested, but no funding emerged and the idea was not followed up. See p22/23 in this report: 

Heat pumps are nowadays very widely used, although very few gas fired heat pumps have been built - the 150kW (th) one currently used at the OU is a rare example. See:;Ener-G_teams_up_boreholes_with_absorption_heat_pumps_.html

Most heat pumps are electric powered and designed for use in individual homes (and the OU has surveyed them). That approach is backed by government, partly as a way to use the excess nuclear electricity they will have at night from the proposed new nuclear plants at Hinkley etc.  There are all sorts of problems with that- the power grid couldn't supply enough power to take over from ordinary gas central heating (which is their plan)! Gas heat pumps would be better- the gas grid is already there. And they would also be bigger, and more suited to community heating. That was very much to Lucas plan’s credo - not small eco-toys for middle class houses, but large efficient systems for council high rises.  It’s arguably what we should be doing now. It’s the same for many of the other ideas that were in the plan.

The political point is that this group of workers could identify what was needed in the communities to which they belonged- and they had the skills to make the technology. But they didn’t have the power or money to make it happen-and the Labour government offered warm words but little practical help. The official trade union bureaucracy was also less than helpful- the Combine committee was an unofficial grass roots organisation which they did not recognize. Then, in 1979, Maggie Thatcher was elected and launched a major attack on  the trade union movement, culminating in the defeat of the Miners. Many of the Lucas activists were sacked or moved on and the battle for radical product diversification was lost. There had been some other similar ‘workers plans’, following on from the Lucas plan, for example in power engineering (Clarke Chapman and Parsons in Newcastle, backing CHP) and in defence (Vickers in Barrow, with wave power being one idea), but they too were side-tracked.  40 years on it’s still the same. What actually emerges is what government and corporate leaders think is best. Though some now do think that renewables are a good idea!

The Lucas campaign may have failed, but the idea lives on, with, in the current context, one focus being the development of alternatives to employment on projects like the proposed Trident nuclear submarine system renewal.  With UK coal plants closing there is also a need to develop alternative employment options for staff in that sector, and the same would be true when and if the nuclear programme is abandoned. What the Lucas campaign showed was that it is possible for the workforce themselves, rather than external experts or technocrats, to develop plans for the future, and arguably better plans, more attuned to needs rather than profits.

The need for better plans for sustainable energy and other environmentally appropriate technologies is now if anything even clearer. But are we any more ready for that politically than in the 1970s?  Some of the ideas from the Lucas plan had been taken up by radical local authorities, notable the GLC via its local Technology Networks, but they too were seen off as politics swung to the right in the 1980s. With trade union power much diminished and local councils on the defensive, as yet, no new power base exists, although the renewal of grass roots support for Labour, and the growth of wider green movement, may change that.  We may see at the Birmingham conference…

Catch up on Lucas:

The academic journal Science as Culture recently had a special issue on ‘Contested Technology’ (Vol. 25 No.3), which includes my paper on ‘The Alternative Technology movement: an early green radical challenge’ identifying links to and conflicts with the Lucas workers plan campaign and practical focus.  There were some ideological differences, with the ‘AT’ movement more inclined to small-scale experimental projects, the Lucas plan more concerned with meeting the needs of existing mainstream communities. In the extreme this revealed a class-based conflict, with one Lucas Combine member disparaging some of the AT movements proposals as ‘gimmicks for individual architect built houses’ and ‘playthings for the middle class’. Is that still the case? Or have both sides now moved on?