Alternative Technology and Social Organisation in an an Institutional Setting

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    Authors & editors

    Harper, Peter [Author]

    Publisher Science as Culture
    Year of publication 2016 August 25:3, 415-431

    Medium Digital
    Note: Copyright restrictions mean the attachment below only contains part of the publication. The full document is available for inspection at the Mills Archive Research and Education Centre.

    Climate, environment and development > Renewable energy policy and economics
    Economics & commerce > Sustainability and the environment


    Extensive bibliography
    Renewable energy

    Scope & contentIntroduction
    I grew up in the decades after the Second World War. There was a clear sense of new beginnings and of technological optimism, typified by the UK’s 1951 Festival of Britain, which I visited as a wide-eyed schoolboy. In retrospect, this very period experienced a step-change in many standard indicators of human activity, later labelled ‘The Great Acceleration’ (Steffen et al., 2015).

    The sense of ineluctable progress has continued to be the dominant narrative, and it is as well to acknowledge it. But this essay explores particular veins of radical doubt regarding the trajectory of modern socio-technical development, which led to the emergence of the so-called Alternative Technology (AT) movement in the 1970s (Harper and Eriksson, 1972; Dickson, 1975; Winner, 1979; Smith, 2005).

    In retrospect we can distinguish two critical streams of thought. One was a social and cultural critique of technology, arguably going back to Ruskin, followed by (for example) William Morris, M.K.Gandhi, Lewis Mumford, Herbert Marcuse, E.F. Schumacher and Ivan Illich.

    The other was a physical/environ- mental critique commonly associated with Carson (1962), followed by (for example) Commoner (1966, 1971), Ehrlich (1969), Goldsmith (1972), and Meadows et al. (1972). The AT movement attempted to combine these two streams and follow through their implications. It also drew strongly on a wider pool of dissident ideas, summarised in Box 1.
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    Divisions within this publication

    • 1: Introduction
    • 2: AT practice at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)
    • 3: Electricity system:
    • 4: Living with very little electricity
    • 5: Intercom: a simple socio-technical system
    • 6: Electronics and miniaturisation
    • 7: Beyond Moore’s Law
    • 8: Unconventional research
    • 9: Cinderella topics
    • 10: Energy policy interventions

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