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.


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