The coolest CAT in town: How a visit to the Centre of Alternative Technology turned my climate-apathy around

I admit it. I have been guilty……of climate nihilism. 

I’ve found myself turning down the volume on the news or sometimes looking the other way. It was all too unbearable, out of my hands and I was less than optimistic about the state of the world. 

That is, until I went to CAT. 

Sorry to disappoint feline lovers – it had nothing to do with whiskers or fluffy tails but instead, I had an opportunity to attend a short course on ‘Zero Carbon Britain’ at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales. 

group of four people near a small wind turbine, set in the woods at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales

Me, dressed for the weather, hot drink in hand!

If you’ve heard of CAT before, it’s likely been described as ‘colourful’ given its background and roots. A better word to use however, is ‘pioneering’

Pioneers in alternative living

In the 1970’s, the founders of CAT were exploring alternative ways of living in response to what many of us now know as the climate crisis. As this was before individuals and businesses began to engage actively with the effects of climate change on the planet on the ecological level, CAT became a testbed for trialling new technologies and renewable energy. Before long, a visitors centre was opened to showcase their work to the curious and the interested.

In time, CAT reinvented itself as an education centre to deliver key lessons to the public. Today it is a fully fledged centre offering both short courses and full degrees ranging from Green Buildings to Sustainability and Behavioural Change and Adaptation, all while operating as a charity.

A significant portion of CAT’s work involves research and modelling the possible methods by which the UK can reach net zero emissions. Last year, the UK made a commitment to become the first country to go net-zero by 2050. Various cities across the UK have pledged to go net-zero by 2030 and even 2020. Yet political uncertainty has meant that there is little being done to demonstrate the steps to take in order to achieve this.

wall covered in post it notes leading to a map of Britain, showing ideas about how to save carbon in the UK

Embracing the theme of the weekend fully, I took the train from London Euston to Aberystwyth, changing at Birmingham to get to Machllyneth.
I’m normally very good at being late for public transport and subconsciously take weird pleasure in leaving things to the last minute just so I can enjoy the rising feeling of panic as I rush through tube stations and ticket barriers with minutes to spare. 

I know, I’m sick. But hey, I made it!

I went up a day early to meet with Meg from CAT, who kindly offered to answer my questions and give me a tour of the grounds. Concerned about tramping about in the wintry wilds of Wales, I showed up for the meeting decked out in wellies, borrowed waterproof coat and stirrups, none of which were needed in the end as there was only a smidgen of rain one afternoon. 

Due to the popularity of the course, CAT’s on-site accommodation was completely full. They do offer a variety of bed & breakfast and group accommodation options, all with a stunning backdrop of the surrounding wooded valley and hills. If you can, do stay on site. It will give you the chance for a fully immersive experience.

I ended up staying at an old coaching inn with rooms in a nearby town. It was nice enough, if a bit Fawlty Towers, but it was on one of the main streets where the weekly market has been taking place since 1291 – how quaint!  

Inside the main building at the Centre for Alternative Technology showing people doing the eco-quiz

The first session of the day was ‘The Extraordinary Story of Human Beings, Energy & Happiness.’ This concise lecture gave a high-level background and history of the events leading to the climate crisis. You will likely have heard some of the content before, however, CAT brings the story together in a grounding and insightful introduction to the course. 

What I found most interesting was learning about the concept of planned obsolescence, the Beeching Axe, the normalisation of high consumption and how the idea of infinite economic growth no longer serves us.

The other sessions were breakouts stemming from the introduction and included energy, diets and land use, as well as participant project sharing. It was interesting and inspiring to hear about the areas other attendees were involved in.

If you’re like me, you’re probably interested in the food.

Having been on meditation retreats before, I get a bit paranoid about catering and whether I am going to be hungry while miles away from civilisation, so tend to bring extra snacks. However, there was no need for supplies since CAT practices what they preach, serving delicious, seasonal, vegan food.

Plate of food held by Nicci, showing the letters ZCB for Zero Carbon Britain made of bread

Delicious, healthy food is served at the Centre For Alternative Technology

If all of this hasn’t convinced you, here are 5 reasons why you should consider a visit to CAT.

1. The mission  

“To inspire, inform and enable people to achieve practical solutions for sustainability.” There is no greenwashing and no pessimism, which I found refreshing, and I definitely needed to be inspired out of my apathy.

2. The location 

In one word – beautiful. I can see why many of the people that come to volunteer end up staying. It’s a lovely destination for a short break, with plenty to explore nearby (including the famous Snowdon and several other quaint villages and towns.)

3. The research 

The UK has the tools and technology to become zero carbon through 100% renewable energies, adaptations in buildings and land use. This is exciting!!!

Without looking at the numbers or getting a feel for what’s actually possible, the media’s portrayal of climate change as a war that is already lost has only served to (unhelpfully) fill people with apathy, anxiety, despair and even anger. If we can’t imagine a positive future, we can’t create it.

4. The people

There were 140 people attending, the largest audience CAT has had for this course to date. The group was diverse, ranging from people who’ve never worked to those involved in sustainability, education, businesses or working on projects such as solar farms and other renewable energy projects. 

5. The effect

Renewed hope; or as they refer to it, evidence-based optimism. There are many positive micro projects happening nationally and internationally unreported by the media that depict the change that is happening globally.

people gathered by a roof, at ground level, learning about heat loss and insulation at the Centre for Alternative Technology

We learnt where heat is lost from our homes and how to insulate them better

A few days at CAT gave me new perspectives on economics, energy, life and work, which felt priceless. I’ve come away with a bit more hope that remains (mostly) weeks later. 

Book your course

If you’re interested in visiting CAT, check out one of their courses. Alternatively, you could learn more about their work (and support them a little) via a membership which includes subscription to their magazine or by getting to grips with fantastic research by purchasing the Zero Carbon Britain report.

Nicci Wright is a Salisbury native, she has a degree in International Business from Greenwich University. Her favourite things include attending sustainability events, planning her next wellness/mental health event or looking for her next favourite read. Got one to recommend? Tweet her at @nicciwrightLDN

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