Ann Hagell, Trustee, writes:

blog walesThe world of alternative technology has come a long way since the early 1970s, when an innovative eco-friendly community was founded on the ruins of an old slate quarry in mid Wales.  The quarry had been abandoned in 1951, and had stood unused since.  In the early days colleagues, friends and families lived on the site in a kind of commune, sharing meals and resources, and their reminiscences have just been published in an oral history book.  The Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth was intended to be a ‘test bed’ for practical solutions for sustainability, a “Village for the future”.  The visitor centre was added a couple of years later, and the site is now Europe’s leading eco-centre, hosting 1000s of visitors throughout the year and offering a full programme of courses and postgraduate degrees.

The Environment Trust’s CEO Berny Simcox and Trustee Ann Hagell visited on a beautiful spring day, searching for inspiration for future Environment Trust projects, from different ways to present information boards, through to new sources of power.

And goodness, the landscape is beautiful.  Just as a piece of reclaimed land turned to a new and positive use, CAT is a huge success, with the beautiful grey slate forming the pathways and sharp forested hills rising all around. The scale of the centre is unique, and a new teaching building has increased the educational potential.  The use of old buildings built from local resources for new purposes (such as the solar powered roof on an old slate barn) is striking.  The age of the centre means that everything is bedded down and established.  On display are demonstrations of the widest range of renewable resources including wind, solar, biomass, hydro and air source options.

Blog walesHowever there are clearly challenges in conveying the central messages to the visiting public.  The Centre covers a lot of ground, including how to reuse waste, how to devise new energy sources, and how to save power when we’re using our existing energy sources.  Sometimes these messages are difficult to distinguish, or to evaluate in relation to each other – what’s the priority? In the layout of the Centre, the issues do not seem to be separated into separate zones. The danger is that the visitor has a vague feeling of failure about how they are living their lives without any very clear sense of the individual action to be taken on any particular front. The domestic is cheek by jowl with the national and political; inevitably of course this is how it is in life, but it is hard to separate out what needs to be the actions of governments from the actions of locals. 

These are challenges that are shared by others in this sector.  We need to leave people with a positive sense of the possibilities, and a sense of their own contribution, as well as setting the issues in the wider context.  The Centre has a special place in lots of visitors hearts, as many seem to return and to have memories of earlier visits.  However, looking to the future, we need to clarify our messages and make our own visitors aware of their unique role, and the ways in which they can contribute to making the most of the resources and environments available to us, whether we’re in the beauty of the welsh mountains, or the very different but equally lovely environment of the Thames to the west of London.