The TH Interview: Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology

Paul Allen is the development director of the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales, one of Europe's leading demonstration sites for renewable enrgy and green technologies. He is the designer of many renewable energy systems for CAT and has himself lived for many years 'off the grid'. He is currently touring the United States by mass transit, and he is interested in making contact with groups wishing to set up 'post-carbon' demonstration centers similar to CAT. In this interview Paul shares his thoughts on the evolution of CAT, the future of environmentalism, and what we can all do to speed up the eventual adoption of clean technologies and practices by mainstream society.

Treehugger: CAT started out as an idealistic experiment in communal living but has grown into one of the leading educational centres for sustainability in Europe. Can you tell us a little about how the role of CAT has changed over the years?
Paul Allen: 35 years ago a bunch of young idealists colonised a derelict slate quarry in Mid-Wales. They were inspired by the notion of building a living community to test the emerging 'alternative technologies', in order to find out which ones worked and which ones didn't. At that time what we meant by 'being green' was a lot less defined, and a lot less tested. Society had just emerged from the swinging sixties, and few people were watching the problems, let alone looking for the solutions. So this original pioneering community set out to develop and prove, by living example, new technologies which would provide practical solutions to the problems that are now worrying both the world's ecologists and energy analysts.

Today the focus still remains on real-life demonstration and research, but what has changed is the scale. CAT now has 120 staff and a turnover of £3.5 million. 70,000 visitors from all walks of life are carried up the 180ft slope by a water-balanced cliff railway to an exciting range of interactive displays reflecting the ways society is adopting sustainable technologies and lifestyles. CAT still relies on these technologies for its day-to-day operation - powered mainly from wind, water, biofuels and solar power. It also treats the 'rest-room donations' from its visitors with an innovative reedbed sewage system.

The change in scale was initially funded through a £1 million ethical (zero interest!) share issue and is supported year-on-year by revenue earned through running one of Wales leading tourist destinations. However the real driver has been the public's increasing demand for information. CAT's free information service is funded by our trading activities and now deals with over 100,000 enquiries annually, via the website, by email, phone fax, letter and in person. CAT also publishes practical books, runs a schools service and has an active membership of around 7,000 community & corporate 'green champions'.

TH: What, in your opinion, is the most important thing that visitors to CAT take away from their experience?

PA: That's hard to say because they are so variable — from road-protestors to families on holiday to energy ministers. But if I had to say, it would be seeing the way ahead in terms of solutions, and that a low-carbon future can deliver a more exciting social space.


TH: You are now travelling in the US, with a view to working with like-minded organizations. What kind of groups are you seeking to contact, and what can you offer them?

PA: Although it is really a sabbatical to explore the USA 'coast to coast' using only public transport, I am interested in emails from organisations which either operate, or would like to establish, a 'post-carbon' demonstration / education centre such as CAT [Paul's contact details are included at the end of this interview]. I would be happy to share what I have learned and to offer advice. Eco-centres are powerful agents of change, and if set up correctly, can be largely self-funding and very exciting places to be. A physical site brings people together, creating a tangible focus and a space for sharing and testing new technologies and lifestyles.

TH: Are we reaching a tipping point in terms of public awareness and political will regarding climate change?

PA: Most certainly yes! The first to accept this 'inconvenient truth' were the scientists. Many climate experts would put their finger on one moment: the day they read the 1993 report of the analysis of Greenland ice cores. Before that, almost nobody confidently believed that the climate could change massively within a decade or two; after the report, almost nobody felt sure that it could not. In an area as complex and literally chaotic as climate science, it takes a while to see what one is not prepared to look for. Firstly, scientists had to convince themselves, by shuttling back and forth between historical data and studies of possible mechanisms, that "rapid" shifts were at all possible, (with the meaning of "rapid" gradually changing from millennia, to centuries, to decades). Without this quantum shift of understanding that climate could change in damaging ways on a time scale meaningful to governments, the funds required for key projects such as the drilling of the Greenland cores would never have been available.

Getting scientific acceptance is not the same as securing a change of course for global business. However, when a leading expert from within 'business as usual' says that 'business as usual' must change or 'business as usual' will suffer, then the flood gates can finally open. To my eyes, the effect of Nicholas Stern has been comparable with that of Nicolas Copernicus five centuries earlier. Although the message of the Stern Review is not fundamentally new; the news is who is saying it. The former World Bank chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern's key message is that although dealing with global warming by cutting emissions of greenhouse gases will be expensive - about 1 per cent of the world's gross domestic product - doing nothing about it will be awful lot more expensive, anything from five to 20 times more. The review states, quite clearly, that unless greenhouse emissions are tackled, the world faces major economic and social disruptions on the scale of the great wars and the economic depression of the early 20th century.

To minimise the risk of crossing the threshold for really dangerous climate change - the world has less than a decade to reverse the growth in greenhouse gas emissions. By 2015 the world would need to be cutting carbon emissions by 4%-5% annually. This message needs to be heard and understood at all levels of every major government and, more importantly, in every level of civil society.

TH: There seems to be an increasing body of evidence that the pace of climate change is much faster than previously thought. How can environmentally aware individuals avoid feelings of hopelessness, both in ourselves, and in the public that we are trying to influence?

PA: I am optimistic because we are now witnessing the total vindication of our beliefs over the past three decades. Both our scientists and our economists now accept that we have to change, and fast! This means that there can be no more fob-offs or excuses left, there is no longer any rational economic or scientific case for un-reformed 'business as usual'. Responsibility cannot be left solely with international agreements; it is now a job for the whole of civil society. Change must be now embedded in local authorities, communities, businesses, trades unions, families and individuals. Community and corporate green champions now have a firm economic and scientific case for support. Projects such as local currencies, eco-homes, community renewables, walking-busses, local food-links, company travel plans or campaigns for cycles lanes can take strength from the knowledge that business as usual accepts that business as usual must change. Across the USA, there is a massive potential for similar projects like CAT to provide training, education, support, innovation, research, and advice to enable all sectors of civil society, particularly if they are all linked up to a single network. CAT is now networking with a number of similar projects via the Ecosites website.

In addition, across the developed west, our material affluence has left us with a 'poverty of meaning'. Once we have the basics, getting more stuff simply doesn't make us any happier. We can perhaps kid ourselves it does for a while, but in out hearts we know we are deluding ourselves. A life rich in meaning is what we all really seek, and it is there for us if we want it. These are critical times for planet earth; what is actually going on makes the Matrix look like a high-tech sci-fi movie. Through this vital struggle we will find, meaning, friendship, community and, hopefully, a better world to leave for our children.


TH: This is a question that is often asked in Clean Slate, CAT's own magazine, but what is the greatest eco-invention of all time?

PA: For me, it is the bicycle.

TH: CAT is currently developing the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE@CAT). Can you tell us a little about the vision behind this project? How has this vision influenced the physical design of the project?

PA: CAT's most exciting area of growth is formal technical training up to Masters level. In 2000 we had 15 students on our MSc in advanced energy studies, now we have around 300. Our limiting factor has become physical space, so we now in the process of a $10 million expansion programme. Our new 'WISE@CAT' project [pictured below] aims to create an exciting learning environment where everything around the student is a practical real-life exemplar of what can be achieved. We will count the CO2 during construction and in operation, so we will have the hard data to evaluate what we have learned.


TH: If you could persuade everyone in the world to do just one thing to create a cleaner, better world, what would it be?

PA: To share their experience of trying with others!

Copyright for all images belongs to the Centre for Alternative Technology and are used with kind permission. Organizations wishing to contact Paul while he is travelling in the USA can email him via: paulallencat(at)gmail.com

[Interview conducted by: Sami Grover]

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