Low Carbon Transitions: Relevant Lessons from the 1970s Crisis?

Everyone, it seems, is interested in low carbon transitions. But haven’t we been here before? The 1970s was a period of economic, ecological and state crisis that spawned conflict, contestation and debate about the future direction of society, of which alternative technologies and re-directed strategies were a critical part. Yet such solutions remained largely at the demonstration or experimental stage and were seen as exemplars of new technologies, lifestyles and diverse forms of social control over what might have been an alternative socio-technical transition in housing, infrastructure, design and cities. By the 1980s it was clear that this space of experimentation was closed down and the emerging logic was the dominance of neo-liberalism.  In 2011 we are once again in a period of significant structural change. But what are the similarities and differences between these periods when thinking about low carbon transition? How might similarities suggest deeper, fundamental mobilisations in transitions; and how can differences make us more sensitive to the context specificities of transitions? This workshop’s purpose is to create a context for thinking reflexively and constructively about the wider lessons and insights of the crises in the 1970s for the challenge of creating a low carbon transition today. The workshop is aimed at practitioners and researchers working on contemporary transitions, with a view to making productive use of some historical perspective.

This event will take place on Wednesday 25th April 2012 in Manchester.

Rationale

The reason for organising this workshop is to create a context for thinking reflexively and constructively about the wider lessons and insights of the crises in the 1970s for the challenge of creating a low carbon transition today. The reasons for doing this are three-fold starting with the simple but moving to the more complex:

  1. Research, development and piloting in the 1970s of diverse eco-technical solutions – socially useful production, Alternative Technology, eco-homes, renewable energy, green living, local food, autonomous cities, architectural and eco-design that all seem to be prefigurative and earlier demonstrations of the technologies and responses currently being considered within the portfolios required for systemic  transition today. (Landscape changes produced new pressures and context for experimentation)
  2. The way in which such solutions remained largely at the demonstration or experimental stage and were seen as exemplars of new technologies, lifestyles and diverse forms of social control (what we might call governance now) of what might have be an alternative socio-technical transition in housing, infrastructure, design and cities. (Was it that these were outside the regimes – and configurational in blending technology, application, development within experiments – yet not directly connected to regime).
  3. The response was some public funding of experimental programmes, but in addition a turn to nuclear energy, and larger-scale energy technologies. However, the opening of new fossil-fuel markets relieved the crisis, and development logics across many social and economic domains continued largely as before. Grassroots experimentation of the 1970s struggled into a hostile, neo-liberal climate in the 1980s, before disappearing from public view and consciousness (though it had perhaps always been a marginal thing, even at its height).

Critically the period of economic, ecological and state crisis spawned a period of conflict, contestation and debate about the future direction of society of which alternative technologies were apart. By the 1980s it was clear that the space of experimentation was closed down and the emerging logic was the dominance of a neo-liberalism as a form of state and economic response. Critical response privatised and liberalised infrastructure, uneven development, ecological modernisation.

Yet in 2010 we are once again in a period of significant structural change. Economic crisis, ecological crisis associated with climate change and crises of state response. And yet again huge degree of interest in different eco-technical responses to crisis that seems to reflect period of experimentation in 1970s (and even 30s). But what are the similarities and differences between these periods when thinking about low carbon transition?

Structure of the Workshop

The workshop aims to create a structured dialogue to critically compare the socio-technical responses in the 1970s and contemporary responses. A variety of municipalities, civic associations, grassroots groups, and workers movements responded to crises in the 1970s with visions, strategies and initiatives for realising alternative urban spaces and practices. Examples include the Alternative Economic Strategy of the Greater London Council, and the Urban Centre for Alternative Technology in Bristol. Both spawned a diversity of experimentation with more socially inclusive and ecologically sound urban development.  Attracting greater state and corporate interest today, initiatives like the Green Deal, Transition Town network, community energy and food co-operatives, propose similarly diverse solutions to our contemporary crises. With initiatives then and now in view, the workshop will explore responses to crisis through three steps:

  1.  The organisers prepare a short position paper expanding upon the rationale and themes for the workshop and what is required from participants. An introductory session at the workshop will set out key questions and the broader political, economic and ecological crises in the 1970s and now.
  2. Speakers are asked to write a short paper with their reflections of the lessons and relevance of the 1970s for today’s debate. At the workshop we will have a series of structured conversations between a pair of researcher/activists active in the 1970s and 2010s based on the following themes: a) the politics of crisis in the 1970s and 2000s; b) economic development strategies – Socially useful production and green growth; c)urbanism and planning (autonomous cities and low carbon cities); d) housing and architecture -(eco housing and low carbon housing); and, e) energy technologies and infrastructure (city-scale renewable energy, low energy urban development – hard and soft energy paths and low carbon energy infrastructures)
  3. In each session the broader questions framing the discussion are: What are these experiments seeking to do – re-enforce, adapt or transform economic activity and relationship to ecology? How do these experimental projects link to pre-existing regimes? What are the resonances and the dissonances between the 1970s and the contemporary low carbon transition?
  4. The proceedings will be recorded, transcribed and with the papers then produce as an edited book looking at the contextual and transferable lessons of the 1970s for the current low carbon transition. We will also produce a short briefing note on historical lessons for contemporary proposals on the basis of the workshop, for distribution to practitioners, policy-makers, and corporate representatives interested in low carbon transitions.

A provision programme for the day can be downloaded here: OutlineLessonsfor1970s

A flyer promoting the event is here: Flyer 1970s and Transition

We encourage all prospective participants to read this discussion paper: DISCUSSIONPaper_All Particpants_1970s and Transition