Those advocating for a Just Transition from fossil fuel jobs to sustainable ones had predecessors in the military-industrial complex
Fifty years ago engineers working in the military-industrial complex used their skills to transition from building machines of war to developing socially useful products They designed solar panels, wind turbines, heat pumps, hybrid electric vehicles, and even an improved kidney dialysis machine.
Their vision, informed by their skills, was incredible. They published their designs as The Lucas Plan and took it around to government leaders to secure funding to manufacture their inventions. Here was a chance for the government to divert funds from armaments to socially useful goods. While they were praised for their imagination and creativity, they never got the funding that they needed.
You never heard of The Lucas Plan? No, it’s not a science fiction story lost amongst the thousands that annually flood the market.
It is a true story, but not an American one. It’s a British story.
In the 1970s the Labour government proposed to cut the British defence budget by streamlining production. This meant consolidation and robotization. It also meant the loss of thousands of skilled jobs. The impulse for these defense cuts was not to redirect manufacture to socially useful production, but to cauterize financial losses in the armaments sector which was proving to be uncompetitive in the world market. Uncompetitive, in great part due to US arms manufacturing dominance subsidized by the vast funds, compared to the British government, of the US Defense (sic) Department.
At one firm, Lucas Aerospace, the machinists and engineers devised a means to save their jobs by producing useful products. Collectively the workers came up with 150 projects that would benefit society. Many of them dealt with environmental concerns before climate change was on the radar of governments and political parties except for patronizing slogans about recycling. The Labour government refused to finance any of their potential products even though prototypes for some demonstrated their feasibility.
The company’s response was even worse: it characterized the products as luxury goods for the “brown bread and sandals brigade.” The supposed foresight of these corporate leaders saw them downsize and finally dissolve the company a decade later. The workers on the other hand, already in the 70s, were concerned about the environmental impact of technology and tried to redirect their skills to meet the needs of society. One of the engineers, Phil Asquith, said in reference to another issue related to sustainability – single use plastic – “We made it pretty clear in our plan that the notion of design for a throwaway society and built-in obsolescence cannot go on because of the planet’s finite resources.”
Lucas Aerospace was a sprawling industrial power-house that covered 17 factories and employed 18,000 technicians, engineers, and researchers. The workers were organized into diverse unions, the heads of which wanted nothing to do with confronting management and so the shop stewards of the various unions created an informal “Combine” and in this way, their independent organization bypassed the union bureaucrats.
When they first approached the government they were told to put together a corporate plan and come back with some tangible production goals that would demonstrate the engineering expertise that they represented. The members of the Combine approached a series of academics for assistance, but quickly learned that they were a poor resource for practical ideas. So they next went to the thousands of workers for ideas of socially useful products they could use their skills to design.
“We said, your jobs are under threat – if you don’t make weapons what else would you make? The response was patchy to begin with but then we got a torrent of ideas. It was amazing,” Asquith said.
The Combine analyzed the hundreds of proposals and settled on 150 socially useful and environmentally friendly products. The range of these concepts was awesome, many bordering on futuristic concepts in the 1970s, but which today we recognize as essential to move beyond fossil fuels. Some of the concepts were prototyped like the combination rail/bus which was meant to service villages shut out by the railroad lines.
An enginner and member of the Combine, Mike Cooley, summed up the mood of the time: “It was an insult to our skill and intelligence that we could produce a Concorde [the supersonic airliner that could cross the Atlantic in three hours] but not enough paraffin heaters for all those old-age pensioners who die in the cold.” Cooley later entered academia and wrote several books that critiqued the supposed neutrality of technology.
The Lucas Plan was distributed throughout British society and, though rejected by both Lucas management and the Labour Party, it gained widespread publicity and support. Its advocacy of technologically advanced, socially useful devices escalated it beyond a corporate plan to save jobs and took on the larger philosophical issue of how technology could serve society and not the war machine and profits.
If just a few of Lucas engineers’ innovative ideas had been put into mass production they would have had a profound effect on the environment and the UK would have had an early start reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, over the decades the Plan was forgotten and a whole new generation of climate activists were unaware of this early manifestation of sustainable technology.
A few early amatuer documentaries of that period were recently rediscovered. And in part due to Mike Cooley’s books, the history of the Plan was rescued from oblivion. A new documentary is available with a few of the original Combine members, now in their 70s and 80s, telling their story. The documentary, called simply “The Plan,” when released last year immediately resonated with climate activists and their desire for a jobs program, a Just Transition, that would orient a workforce from jobs supporting the fossil fuel economy to work that provided employment in sectors supporting renewable energy sources.
The Plan that the workers at Lucas Aerospace came up with however has implications beyond those that climate activists have identified. At a time when we have entered a new Cold War not only with Russia, but also China, does this not seem a propitious time to entice technicians and engineers working in the war industries to leave their jobs and opt for careers devising socially useful products?
The Lucas engineers had little choice but to try to maintain their employment by using their skills outside the war economy. Today, with the acceleration of hostilities that assure greater profits for the corporations producing machinery of war, their skilled workforce has no fear of losing their jobs, just their moral compass.
There is, however, a need for more engineers and skilled workers to be guided by their moral compass to abandon jobs that fuel destruction and join climate scientists, academics, students, and, yes a few, very few, politicians and entrepreneurs, to put their unique skills to work devising technologies that serve the needs of humankind. I am certain that, like the Lucas engineers fifty years ago, the imagination of today’s engineers, especially those beginning their careers, could be put to use to create energy saving products, items that are conducive to the smaller scale needed for a decentralized and more democratic society, and that are durable and easily repaired.