Practopia, or: Science in the Wasteland of Materialism

At the beginning of the history and sociology of knowledge as we know them today, there was a crisis. By the early 1970s, the future of the earth as a natural habitat for prosperity and progress was looking so bleak that many observers began turning pessimistic. Most famously, the Club of Rome declared Limits to Growth in its 1972 report. But other institutions and intellectuals took a similar line. To name just one, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, an economics professor at Vanderbilt University, probed the depths of history with The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971) only to find that Malthus was right all along. In spite of two centuries of industrial frenzy, entropy always was and always would be the reigning earthly principle.

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More specifically, it seemed that the Industrial Age’s blind pushing of science and technology ever further had finally encountered resistance. The mantra of “bigger and better,” as Georgescu-Roegen put it, would only lead to “bigger and better” pollution. Anticipating Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, the grand seigneur of science and technology criticism in the 1970s, Georgescu-Roegen called for an end to the hegemonic “mechanistic philosophy,” which subjugated people to inhumane machines and would eventually destroy the earth.1 Schumacher himself followed suit by demanding “a profound reorientation of science and technology” toward more humble, humane, and sustainable uses of scientific knowledge and technologies.2 After all, as Theodore Roszak, historian of the counterculture, put it in his analysis of Industrialism’s crisis in 1972: “a wasteland is no place to make one’s home.”3

Or was it?

In fact, despite these gloomy prophecies, a movement consisting of heterogeneous actors—among them economists, journalists, historians, biologists, and artists—set out to rectify the misuses of scientific and technological knowledge from within the rubble of the Industrial Age. Although their specific means and ends varied greatly, they all followed the same vision of dismantling Big Science and decentralizing its institutions in order to develop less detrimental modes of practicing science and technology. Under umbrella terms such as “soft,” “intermediate,” or “appropriate technology movement,” these actors sought to bolster local communities and cultures; to advance democracy; to strengthen minority groups; to grant everyone access to science and technology, not only as consumers but also as producers; to make science and technology more humane; and ultimately to foster a sustainable New Earth for a New Age. In a way, then, the “wasteland of materialism,” to use a more pessimistic moniker for the Post-Industrial Age, turned out to be quite cozy, at least for people attempting to restructure the ways we practice and think about science and technology.4

Do-it-yourself (DIY) magazines were one way in which the appropriate technology movement mobilized against industrialism’s excesses. Here: cover page of Undercurrents, June–July 1978. Source: Archive of Undercurrents.

Robin Clarke was an interesting example. Before becoming Britain’s most vocal proponent of appropriate technology (AT) in the 1970s, he was a rather typical 1960s science journalist. After studying natural sciences, archaeology, and anthropology at Cambridge, Clarke spent the first half of the 1960s working as a copyeditor for Encyclopedia Britannica and as an editor for Discovery. In 1965, he took an editorial job with Science Journal, where he stayed until the International Publication Company scrubbed it in 1971. By that point, Clarke had become critical of the unfettered progress of science and technology. A witness to the Cold War and its ubiquitous threat of nuclear annihilation, the Vietnam War, and widespread ecological crisis, he concluded that the philosopher Heraclitan was right: war was the father of all things, an insight he unfolded in his 1971 Science of War and Peace. By now a freelance writer and UNESCO consultant, Clarke analyzed the relation between science, technology, and war, arguing, “Their marriage, if not harmonious, is intimate: neither can now exist without the other and neither can see where the other is leading it.” Despite this bleak realization, Clarke saw a silver lining in a “new attitude to science” manifest in an increasingly widespread critical stance toward the blind optimism of industrial progress.5 Originating in what his contemporary Roszak famously termed the counterculture of the 1960s, this new attitude to science had spread to scientists and intellectuals like himself by the beginning of the 1970s. With the onset of the ecological crisis, however, their critique of the military-industrial-scientific complex took a new turn as the role of science and technology in environmental destruction became their focal point.

Along with this slight shift in focus came a pronounced shift in strategy. Whereas Clarke had mainly relied on his writing and thus on theory, he now turned to praxis. In March 1972, he and his wife Janine bought forty-three acres on which to build a farmstead. A year later, the house was finished and a group of eight adults and three children moved in. What might sound like a commune with romantic ideas about the land was, in fact, an AT experiment. The community called itself BRAD, for Biotechnic Research and Development, and its aim was to research, develop, and establish new ways of doing science and technology. In contrast to Big Science, pursued in the service of the state, capitalism, and widespread destruction, BRAD sought to develop technologies more compatible with the earth’s scarce resources while fulfilling the basic needs of ordinary people.

The communards of BRAD. Source: Dave Elliott, “How the Land Turned Sour,” Undercurrents, no. 11, May–June 1975, 15. Source: Archive of Undercurrents.

BRAD was not alone. In fact, experimental communes dedicated to AT sprang up like mushrooms in Europe and North America. In 1979, the Directory of Institutions and Individuals Active in Environmentally-Sound and Appropriate Technologies, published by the United Nations Environment Program, attested that by the end of the 1970s, AT had turned into quite the craze. From Switzerland and Wales to New Mexico, countless communes were committed to AT, hoping to fundamentally restructure the human relation with science and technology. Although these AT centers varied greatly in detail and practice, there was broad agreement among their basic tenets: “practice before theory,” “craftsmanship before expertise,” “smallness before bigness,” and the need to integrate “other forms of knowledge,” including “craft” and “folk knowledge.”6

A photograph of Robert Reines’s AT project in New Mexico. Source: Andrew MacKillop, “Around the World in AT Daze,” Undercurrents, no. 14, February–March, 1976, 18. Source: Archive of Undercurrents.

In the context of this underlying agreement, a canon developed quickly. There was Lewis Mumford, renowned historian and technology critic, whose challenge to “megatechnics” and the “megamachine” heavily influenced the AT community of the 1970s. The term “Biotechnic” in BRAD was a direct reference to Mumford’s 1970 Pentagon of Power. In it, Mumford called for a fundamental reorientation of science and technology in line with the requirements of human life. In other words, biotechnics instead of technocracy. After all, “that which is small . . . may turn out to be highly significant and valuable.”7

E. F. Schumacher, a British-German economist and coal advocate, agreed wholeheartedly. In 1973, he published Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, which would not only become AT’s bible but a general bestseller. Like Mumford, Schumacher pleaded for small-scale “technology with a human face” to counter the scientific and technological excesses of Industrialism.8 In order to do so, he even founded his own AT center, the Intermediate Technology Development Group.

It is tempting to brush aside the anti- or low-modernist sentiments of such intellectuals and AT experiments as nothing more than an esoteric and reactionary movement against Industrialism’s worst excesses. Doing so, however, would obscure AT’s most crucial aspect, that is, its influence on the way historians and sociologists of science and technology came to think about their own work by the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first. After all, “small is beautiful,” “practice before theory,” and “craftsmanship before expertise” were not only AT mantras. They would soon also become the mantras of science and technology scholars—the intellectual manifestation of the episteme forming around 1973 that I propose to call “Practopia.”9

Fabian Grütter is a postdoctoral researcher at the Chair for Science Studies, ETH Zurich, and an associate member of The Center “History of Knowledge.”

  1. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), 19 and 361. ↩︎
  2. Ernst Friedrich Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (London: Blond and Briggs, 1973), 29. ↩︎
  3. Theodore Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), 458. ↩︎
  4. Robin Clarke and Geoffrey Hindley, The Challenge of the Primitives (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1975), 169. ↩︎
  5. Robin Clarke, The Science of War and Peace (London: Cape, 1971), 170 and 318. ↩︎
  6. Robin Clarke, “Technology for an Alternative Society,” New Scientist 57, no. 2 (1973): 66; Janine Clarke and Robin Clarke, “The Biotechnic Research Community,” Futures 4, no. 2 (1972): 170–71. ↩︎
  7. Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1970), 396. ↩︎
  8. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful, 18. ↩︎
  9. The term was coined by neoconservative futurologist Alvin Toffler in The Third Wave (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1980), 374. ↩︎
Suggested Citation: Fabian Grütter, “Practopia, or: Science in the Wasteland of Materialism,” History of Knowledge, May 29, 2019,