I was very disappointed to hear Wales’ foremost net zero pioneers, the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), is to close its doors to day visitors due to the challenging economic climate; deeply ironic given that our economic climate is why CAT exists.
CAT: more than just a visitor experience
For many of us working towards net zero, CAT was the first place we’d visited, seen, touched, and smelled that proved net zero was more than just a theory. That it was something which could be achieved in practice. I’ll be honest though, as inspiring as the place undoubtedly is I only ever visited as a day tripper once or twice.
I know I’m not the only one who is disappointed by CAT’s closure. Ian Carl Dodd, Green Retrofit Coordinator, said:
CAT changed my life! I remember a visit with my young son and the fascinating, engaging day tour. Even the OMG of a composting toilet! He was then 9 years old. How much he absorbed about the essential meaning of the place even then
CAT’s location tends to mean that, unless you’re an eco-geek, once visited you’re unlikely to go out of your way to visit again. CATs visitor experience is part of the regional offer for the casual holiday maker who happens to be in the area. It has always been CATs educational offering which has been its’ core strength for eco-geeks like me.
But, and this is the crucial point, it is the day tripper experience which opens most people’s awareness not only to what is possible, but to what is practical. The visitor experience is the entry level drug for the net zero addict. Following my first casual visit, a friend introduced me on our way somewhere else, I was hooked and wanted more!
Setting people on life-changing paths
As a student activist at Swansea University I went on to organise an educational visit and soon had a full list of eager students. What struck me most at the time was that many who signed up were not already part of our environment soc. There’s something about the positive vision CAT offers that reaches people other places do not.
Some of the people who came on that first visit have since told me that it changed the course of their lives. They became renewable energy pioneers and sustainable construction specialists and many other things besides because of that visit to CAT, the CAT effect. Malcom Edwards went on to become one of Wales leading hedge layers, maintaining an ancient tradition for a sustainable future.
The Centre for Alternative Technology set me on the route to finding a right livelihood and sustainable land management. I ended up becoming a long-term volunteer there in the gardens and working on sustainable construction as a labourer. I learnt so much and made lifelong friends to. All down to that one mini-bus trip.
That first trip was so popular, and had such an impact on those who went, that we did it all again, with a bigger minibus the following year! And there are so many others whose lives have been impacted by a single day visit to CAT.
On those educational residential visits, I made many firm friends, who I’m still in touch with almost 30 years later. Since then, I’ve visited many times for events, conferences and as a mentor with Renew Wales & Egin. Thankfully this core part of what CAT is and does so exceptionally well, as well as CATs pioneering work on Zero Carbon Britain, will continue.
And of course, many other people have been inspired by CAT’s educational courses.
Patricia Xavier, New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering Acting Academic Director, said:
I visited as a student as part of a trip we organised with the Cardiff University branch of Engineers Without Borders UK in the early 2000s. The creativity and vision embodied there stayed with me. CAT made a sustainable future seem possible to me. They integrate tech developments while also being philosophically aligned to sustainable attitudes in life and work.
In the last years I’ve taken several groups of students there, hopefully to continue to plant the same seeds of inspiration I received. I’m glad that the group visits are continuing, but worried that this pioneering place that foresaw the solar and wind energy revolution has had to take this step of stopping other visits. It’s unlike anywhere else in the UK.
And largely because of CAT people now have many more opportunities to visit educational and wellbeing venues at locations all over Wales, many of which were inspired by a visit to CAT. One of the inspirations for the Down to Earth project on Gwr grew out a conversation about the possibility of establishing a Centre for Alternative Technology for the South Wales Valleys near Swansea. Somewhere like CAT, but closer to where people lived.
In Rhondda Cynon Taf too we are very fortunate to have several of our own ‘micro-CATS’ in the form of Welcome to Woods, Cyon Valley Organic Adventures & Dare Valley Community Woodland. Each of them is a smaller project which supports their own community with an entry point into sustainable livelihoods. Welcome to Our Woods have linked up with Black Mountains College in Talgarth to offer entry level sustainability courses in the upper Rhondda.
There wasn’t ever going to be room for another CAT in Wales, but each of these projects contains a little seed of that CAT vision for a sustainable future.
We need more like CAT, not less
Whilst few can offer quite the range and depth of experiences that CAT continues to offer 50 years after it was first founded, they’re well placed to meet the very specific needs of their own communities. They may also be better able to ride the economic, funding, and other uncertainties in the decades ahead.
The visitor experience may be closing, but a little bit of that CAT visitor experience lives on in all of those inspired by their first visit. 30 years on, I’ve never forgotten the first visit multi-sensory CAT experience that opened my consciousness to a reality that a better world is not only possible, but deliverable, here, now, today.
Thankfully CAT hope to re-open their visitor experience in the not too distance future as now is the time when we really need more visitor experiences like CAT, not less.
Featured image via CAT