The wisdom of the masses

The Alternative Technology Association (ATA) is a not-for-profit organisation that has been promoting technologies with low environmental impacts since 1980. It was founded by a group of people who were motivated to promote positive solutions to the pressures that humans place upon the planet.

Still growing

“Our biggest assets are the knowledge and enthusiasm of our members,” says Donna Luckman, ATA’s Communications Manager. “There are 6,000 of them across Australia and New Zealand, and numbers are growing steadily.”

The key attraction for many members is ATA’s flagship publication, ReNew magazine. It covers a wealth of topics that  can range from building an energy efficient house or installing an in-ground heat pump to starting a community wind farm or converting a BMW to run on electricity (yep, someone actually did just that). In addition to member subscriptions, several thousand copies of each edition of ReNew are also sold through newsagents. The ATA estimates that, all up, the magazine is seen by around 100,000 readers each quarter.

“Many of the articles are written by members, and ReNew does have a DIY flavour to it,” Donna explains. “Just as important as the stories of what works are the stories of what hasn’t worked.” The result is a growing body of knowledge on a range of sustainable technologies, including how to avoid pitfalls. Back issues of ReNew can be downloaded from the ATA’s website, so all the hard-earned experience remains accessible. On top of that, the website hosts forums covering a wide range of relevant topics where participants can learn from each other.

Not just DIY

Four years ago the ATA launched Sanctuary, a glossy magazine dedicated to sustainable home design. The Association also publishes a range of guides on wind power, solar hot water and solar power and runs an online shop. “The shop contributes to the income of the ATA,” says Donna, “but its main purpose is to provide members and the public with access to hard-to-find items.” One example is LED lighting, which the ATA shop began selling before mainstream lighting stores caught on to it.
Advertising and magazine sales contribute about 40% of the ATA’s budget, with project work, product sales, membership fees and donations making up the remainder.

Highly motivated

It is in the nature of non-profit organisations to attract employees who are dedicated to the cause. This certainly holds for the ATA with all the staff passionate about sustainable living. Not surprisingly, the office recycles whatever it can, composts organic waste, and its LED lights and computers are powered by green electricity. The location is intentionally near public transport to minimise car use, and if any staff need to use a car it is done through a car share scheme located in the car park across the road.
The Association runs on the efforts of the equivalent of about 13 full-time positions, though several people work part time. In addition, 14 volunteer-run branches across Australia and New Zealand hold regular meetings on a wide range of topics.
A spread of activities

As well as publishing magazines and organising meetings, the ATA advocates in support of sustainable technologies and undertakes project work for a range of organisations. Projects include consulting on solar power installations for local councils, and investigating the viability of wind power at specific locations.

In 2003 an International Projects Group was established. This sees ATA volunteers installing solar and micro-hydro power systems in villages in South East Asia and the Pacific. Most projects to date have been in Timor Leste, and training local technicians is an important part of the program.

Becoming mainstream

The future for the ATA is more of what it does well. “We’re respected for the quality and independence of the information we provide,” says Donna. “Although sustainability is becoming more mainstream, lots of people still get confused. By sharing the knowledgeable and experience of our members though our magazines and forums, we can help to clear up a lot of that confusion.”

Solar power and hot water systems are springing up on roofs across Australia. Wind turbines dot the landscape in increasing numbers and electric cars produced by the world’s biggest car companies are starting to hit the roads. Maybe it’s time for a change of name for the ATA. After all, the technologies they continue to promote don’t look so alternative any more.

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