THE ALTERNATIVE, SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY;
THE SIMPLER WAY.
(32 page version.)
Given the limits to growth analysis of our global predicament we have no choice but to undertake radical changes in lifestyles, values, the geography of our settlements and especially change to a different economy.
We must move to The Simpler Way. The required alternative society must involve far lower rates of resource consumption and environmental damage. This must mean materially simpler lifestyles, in highly self-sufficient and cooperative communities, within an economy that is not driven by market forces and profit and that does not grow over time.
The Simpler Way would not involve hardship or giving up modern technology. It would improve the average quality of life.
Many of the ideas and ways we need can be found in many communities around the world, within the eco-village and transition Towns movements.
Our present society, based on market forces, the profit motive, affluent living standards and economic growth, is grossly unjust and unsustainable. It only works well for a very few of the world's people, and our rich-world “living standards” could never be extended to allthe world’s people. Even more importantly, our society has run into the limits to growth; it involves levels of resource consumption and environmental impact that are grossly unsustainable. Our per capita resource use rates are something like 10 or more times as great as would be sustainable. (For the detailed analysis see The Limits to Growth.)
Now if this limits analysis of our situation is valid then some of the key principles for a sustainable society are clear and indisputable.
-- Material living standards must be much less affluent. In a sustainable society per capita rates of use of resources must be a small fraction of those in rich countries today.
-- A very different economic system must be developed, one not driven by market forces or the profit motive, and in which there is no growth. It must be geared to meeting needs and maintaining the welfare of all.
-- There must be mostly small scale highly self-sufficient local economies, whereby local resources are devoted to meeting local needs.
--There must be mostly cooperative and participatory local systems whereby small communities control their own affairs. (This does not mean there can be no private firms or property.)
-- There must be much use of alternative technologies, which minimise the use of resources, such as organic gardening and building with earth.
-- We must shift to some very different values, especially away from competition and individualism, and to frugality, cooperation and non-material satisfactions.
The alternative way is The Simpler (but richer) Way. We could all live well with a far smaller amount of production, consumption, work, resource use, trade, investment and GNP a than we have now. This would allow us to escape the economic treadmill and to devote our lives to more important things than producing and consuming, things like arts and crafts, community development, festivals, helping to run the economy, and personal development.
Unfortunately any suggestion of a move to less affluent ways is usually met with horror. The main problem here is that people do not realise that The Simpler Way is not a threat to a high quality of life or to the benefits of modern technology. The following discussion will show that in fact The Simpler Way is the key to a greatly improved quality of life, even for those who live in the richest countries.
Although The Simpler Way is radically different from consumer society it could be easily achieved – if enough of us opted for it. To save the planet we do not need miraculous technical break throughs, or vast amounts of investment. We just need a change in thinking, procedures and values.
We are likely to run into very serious problems in coming years, most obviously a shortage of petroleum. This will jolt people into realising that consumer society is not viable, and that governments will not lead this transition. It can be made only by people coming together in their towns and suburb to start organising the frugal, cooperative and self-sufficient ways that will be required.
Living more simply does not mean deprivation or hardship. It means being content with what is sufficient for comfort, hygiene, efficiency etc. Most of our basic needs can be met by quite simple and resource-cheap devices and ways, compared with those taken for granted and idolised in consumer society. How many pairs of shoes would suffice? How big a house would be quite adequate? There is no hardship in wearing old and patched clothes most of the time, or keeping an old bike going.
Living in materially simple ways can greatly reduce the amount of money a person needs to earn. Consider housing. A perfectly adequate, and indeed beautiful small mud brick house for a small family could be built for well under $(A)15,000 (2010). The average home buyer pays about 20 times too much for a house (excluding land.) (See B. Bee, The Cob Builder, and Trainer, 2010, Ch. 4.) This indicates how The Simpler Way will liberate people from having to earn large amounts of money, enabling most of their time to be put into more fulfilling activities.
Living in ways that minimise resource use should not be seen as an irksome effort that must be made in order to save the planet. These ways can become important sources of life satisfaction. There can be great enjoyment in activities such as growing food, "husbanding" resources, making rather than buying, recycling, composting, repairing, bottling fruit, giving old things to others, making things last, and running a relatively self-sufficient household economy.
In the new society the household and neighbourhood will be the centre of most people’s lives. They will only need to go to paid work one or two days a week (below). There will be many interesting skills to use in productive and leisure activities around the house, garden and neighbourhood.
So The Simpler Way is actually the richer way, in terms of life satisfactions. (See The rewards from The Simpler Way, in Appendix 2 below.) It shares the Buddhist goal of a life "simple in means but rich in ends."
We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can at the national level, meaning less trade, at the household level, and especially at the neighbourhood, suburban, town and local regional level. Most importantly we need to convert our presently barren suburbs into thriving regional economies which produce most of what they need from local resources. Households can again become significant producers of vegetables, fruit, poultry, preserves, fish, repairs, furniture, entertainment and leisure services, and community support.
Neighbourhoods would contain many small enterprises such as the local bakery. Some of these could be decentralised branches of existing firms, enabling most of us to get to work by bicycle or on foot. Most of the basic goods and services will come from within a few kilometres of where we live, so there will be far less need for transport, or for cars to get to work. Because there will be far less need for transport, we could dig up many roads, greatly increasing city land area available for community gardens, workshops, ponds and forests. Leisure will also be mostly localised, further reducing car use.
Households and backyard businesses engaged in craft and hobby production could provide most of our honey, eggs, clothing, crockery, vegetables, furniture, fruit, fish and poultry. It is much more satisfying to produce most things in craft ways rather than in industrial factories. However it would make sense to retain some larger mass production factories and sources of materials, such as mines, steel works and railways. There will be no need to give up high tech ways that make sense (below.)
Almost all food could come from within a few hundred metres of where we live, most of it from within existing towns and suburbs. The sources would be, a) intensive home gardens, b) community gardens and cooperatives, such as poultry, orchard and fish groups (using ponds, tanks, streams and lakes), c) many small market gardens located within and close to suburbs and towns, d) extensive development of commons, especially for production of fruit, nuts, fish, poultry, animal grazing, herbs, and many materials such as bamboo, clay and timber.
The scope for food self-sufficiency within households is extremely high. It takes .5 ha, 5,000 square metres, to feed one North American via agribusiness. However Jeavons (2002) and also Blazey (1999) document the capacity for a family of three to feed itself from less than one backyard, via intensive home gardening, high yield seeds, multi-cropping, nutrient recycling, and eating mostly plant foods. Blazey documents production of 1000 times as much food from each square metre of home gardening as can come from the same ara devoted to standard beef production. In addition backyards can produce large amounts of fruit, nuts, herbs, poultry, rabbits and fish.
Most of your neighbourhood could become a Permaculture jungle, an "edible landscape" crammed with long-lived, largely self-maintaining productive plants, especially on the public spaces, parks, footpaths and the roads that have been dug up. Food production would involve little or no fuel use, ploughing, packaging, storage, refrigeration, pesticides, marketing or transport. Having food produced close to where people live would enable nutrients to be recycled back to the soil through compost heaps, composting toilets and garbage gas units. Therefore there would be no need for sewers, pumping stations or treatment works. This is crucial -- a sustainable society must have complete nutrient recycling, and therefore it must have a local agriculture.
There would be research into finding what useful plants from around the world thrive in your local conditions, and into the development of foods, materials. chemicals and medicines from these. Synthetics would be derived primarily from plant materials. Landscapes would be full of these resources, e.g., salad greens, timber, fruit, craft materials would be growing wild as “weeds” throughout your neighbourhood.
Meat consumption would be greatly reduced as we moved to more plant foods, but many small animals such as poultry, rabbits and fish would be kept in small pens spread throughout our settlements. The animals could be fed largely on kitchen and garden scraps and by free ranging on commons, while providing manure and adding to the aesthetic and leisure resources of our settlements. Some wool, milk and leather could come from sheep and goats grazing meadows within and close to our settlements.
The commons would be of great economic and social value. They would include the community owned and operated woodlots, bamboo patches, herb gardens, orchards, ponds, meadows, sheds, clay pits, machinery, workshops, windmills, water wheels, bicycles, vehicles and buildings for craft groups, drama clubs etc. They can be located in parks, beside railway lines, on abandoned factory sites, and on the many roads that will no longer be needed. The commons would provide many free goods. They would be maintained by working bees and committees.
We should convert one house on each block to become a neighbourhood workshop, including community tools, a recycling store, craft centre, meeting place, surplus exchange, theatre, museum, art gallery and library.
Settlement design will focus on basically Permaculture principles, such as the intensive use of space, complex ecosystems, stacking and use of all available niches, multiple cropping and overlapping functions e.g., poultry provide meat, eggs, feathers, pest control, cultivation, fertilizer and leisure resources. These techniques will enable huge reduction in the present land area and energy costs for the provision of food and materials.
It will not be necessary for most people to be involved in agricultural activities. Providing food now takes perhaps one-fifth of work time, when transport, packaging and marketing are added to the farm work. That’s about eight hours a week per worker. Intensive home gardening might require about four person-hours per week per household, so averaged across the town and including small farms food production would probably require well below the present amount of food producing time. The difference derives from the much greater productivity of home gardens and small farms, and the elimination of much intermediary work, such as transport and packaging, (and producing all those trucks etc.). In addition much food production would be a leisure activity.
One of the most important ways in which we would be highly self-sufficient would be in finance. Firstly The Simpler Way requires little capital. Most enterprises are very small, there are no large infrastructures to be built, such as freeways, and it will not be an expanding economy. Neighbourhoods have all the capital they need to develop those things that would meet their basic requirements, yet this does not happen when our savings are put into conventional banks. Our capital is borrowed by distant corporations, often to do undesirable things.
We would form many small town banks from which our savings would only be lent to firms and projects that would improve our town. These banks would be governed by our elected boards via the rules we drew up. They could charge low or negative interest, or make grants, to set up firms we want.
We will couple the banks with Business Incubators which provide assistance to little firms, such as access to accountants, computers and advice from panels of the town’s most experienced business people. These two institutions will give us the power to establish in our town the enterprises and industries it needs, as distinct from being at the whim of corporations and foreign investors who will only set up in our town if that will maximize their global profits.
We can then take control of our own development and make sure that it benefits the town, cuts its imports, minimizes ecological impacts, eliminates waste and provides livelihoods. (In the near future these banks will pay lower rates of interest than normal banks, but that is the price we will be happy to pay for the beneficial effects. In the long term there can be no interest paid on savings, because it must be a zero growth economy; See below.)
These many and diverse structures, firms and activities will make our locality into a leisure-rich environment. Most suburbs at present are leisure deserts. The alternative neighbourhood would be full of familiar people, small businesses, industries, farms, lakes, common projects, animals, gardens, forests, windmills, waterwheels, craft, art and drama groups, and familiar people, and therefore full of interesting things to do or observe. We would also have leisure committees working on events, concerts, celebrations, mystery tours, visiting minstrels and speakers. Consequently people would be much less inclined to travel on weekends and holidays, which would greatly reduce national energy consumption.
This shows how the solution to many problems will mostly involve carrots rather than sticks. We will reduce travel not by penalties but by eliminating the need for most of it, by ensuring that work and leisure sites will be close to where we live.
To repeat, a high level of domestic and local economic self-sufficiency is crucial if we are to dramatically reduce overall resource use. It will cut travel, transport and packaging costs, and the need to build freeways, ships and airports etc. It will also enable our communities to become secure from devastation by distant economic events, such as depressions, devaluations, interest rate rises, trade wars, capital flight, and exchange rate changes.
Local self-sufficiency means we will be highly dependent on our region and our community. Because most of our food, energy, materials, leisure activity, artistic experience and community will come from the soils, forests, people, ecosystems and social systems close around us we will all recognise the extreme importance of keeping these in good shape. We will realise that if we do not do this we will have to pay dearly for goods and services brought in from other regions. This will force us to think constantly about the maintenance of our ecological, technical and social systems. This will be the main reason why we will treat our ecosystems well -- because if we don’t we will soon wish we had.
Similarly we will clearly understand that our welfare and quality of life depends almost entirely on how cohesive our social systems are, how well people come to working bees and committees and concerts. Therefore dependence will reinforce collectivism and conscientiousness.
The Simpler Way will dramatically cut the demand for energy and materials. Firstly, it will be a stable economy so maintenance of frugal structures will generate much lower resource demands compared with a growth economy, in which there is a lot of construction and development of additional plant is going on.
In general solar passive building design will greatly reduce the need for space heating and cooling. As explained above, almost no (non-human) energy will be needed for food production. Only a little will be needed for pumping clean and waste water, as these will be collected and dealt with locally. The need for transport, refrigeration, packaging and marketing will be greatly reduced. Most leisure needs will be met within the settlement at little energy cost. Industrial production will be greatly reduced, and most of it will take place in small local enterprises operating in labour-intensive ways. Only a little heavy industry will be needed, e.g. basic steel, railways, buses, and therefore mining and timber industries will be small. There will be little need for shipping or air transport. Most cooking would be by wood, or gas produced from biomass wastes. The Appendix provides a numerical estimate of the very low land area and energy footprint our new settlement might have. This could be under 1 ha per person, assuming .5 ha outside the town for imported biomass etc. Within the town all food, shelter, water and other needs might be met on a .25 ha/person amount of productive land. (The present Australian footprint is around 8 ha, and the amount of productive land per capita available in the world in 2070 will be around .8 ha.)
MORE COMMUNAL, PARTICIPATORY AND
The third essential characteristic of the alternative way is that it must be very communal, participatory and cooperative. This will be essential if communities are going to cope in the coming times of severe scarcity. They will not get their localities into good shape unless they work together to find and develop the right strategies.
The sensible way for humans to go about things is by cooperating. Competition is morally undesirable, and in most practical situations is silly, wasteful and results in unfair outcomes. A competitive economy is obviously very productive and has powerful incentives for "efficiency" (narrowly defined), and innovation -- but it has brutally unacceptable consequences. The problem with competition is that someone wins…and then takes much more than their fair share. There is clear evidence that in many situations, including education and within organisations, competing is the worst, most inefficient way to organise things (See for instance A. Kohn, No Contest.) When people compete much of their energy goes into thwarting others, whereas if they cooperate all their energy can go into achieving the mutual goal. When people compete one gets the prize and the rest get resentful, and then are likely to react destructively. When people cooperate goodness magnifies; there is synergism.
In our new suburbs and towns we will share many things. We could have a few stepladders, electric drills, etc., in the neighbourhood workshop, as distinct from one in every house.
We would be on various voluntary rosters, committees and working bees to carry out most of the windmill maintenance, construction of public works, child minding, nursing, basic educating and care of aged and disadvantaged people in our area, as well as to perform most of the functions councils now carry out for us, such as maintaining our own parks and streets. In addition working bees and committees would maintain the many commons. We would therefore need far fewer bureaucrats and professionals, reducing the amount of income we would have to earn to pay taxes to fund big gobvernment. (When we contribute to working bees we are paying some of our tax.)
Especially important would be the regular voluntary community working bees. Just imaging how rich your neighbourhood would now be if every Saturday afternoon for the past five years there had been a voluntary working bee doing something that would make it a more pleasant and productive place for all to live.
There would be far more community than there is now. People would know each other and be interacting on communal projects. Because all would realise that their welfare depended heavily on how well we looked after each other and our ecosystems, there would be powerful incentives for mutual concern, facilitating the public good, and making sure others were content. The situation would be quite different to consumer-capitalist society where people tend to live as isolated individuals and families. There is little or no incentive to work with others in the neighbourhood on important community tasks. We would know many people in our area well and there would be strong bonds from appreciated contributions and mutual assistance. One would certainly predict a huge decrease in the incidence of personal and social problems and their dollar and social costs. The new neighbourhood would surely be a much healthier and happier place to live, especially for older people.
Our life experience will mainly be enriched not by personal wealth or talents, but by having access to public assets such as a beautiful landscape containing many forests, ponds, animals, herb patches, bamboo clumps, clay pits, little farms and firms, and leisure opportunities close to home, a neighbourhood workshop, many cultural and artistic groups and skilled people to learn from, community festivals and celebrations and a thriving and supportive community.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS.
The political situation would be quite different compared with today. Most “governing” would take place at the town and neighbourhood level, where there would (have to) be participatory democracy. This would be made possible by the smallness of scale, and it would be vitally necessary. Big centralised governments can’t run all our small localities. That can only be done by the people who live there because they are the only ones who understand the ecosystem, who know what will grow best there, how often frosts occur, how people there think and what they want, what the traditions are, and therefore what strategies will and won’t work there.
Some projects and policies would be drafted by elected unpaid committees but we would all vote on the important decisions concerning our small area at regular town meetings. There would still be some functions for state and national governments, but relatively few, and there will still be some need for national governments and international agencies, treaties etc. But the focus of most economic and political activity that affects ordinary people every day would be the small local region.
Big social institutions, such as states, can only be run by a very few people with immense power. These then tend to become arrogant and secretive, and are easily seduced, bought or fooled by the richest and most powerful groups in society. Therefore the smallness of scale we will be forced to by resource scarcity will liberate us from rule by centralised governments, and from representative democracy.
Our intense dependence on our ecosystems and social systems will also radically transform politics. The focal concern will be what policies will work best for the region. Politics will not be primarily about individuals and groups in zero-sum competition to get what they want from a central state. There will be powerful incentives towards a much more collectivist outlook. We will all know that we must find solutions all are content with because we will be highly dependent on good will, people turning up to committees, working bees, celebrations and town meetings. Your fate will depend on how well the town functions, not on your personal wealth and capacity to buy. We will therefore be keen to find and do whatever will contribute to town solidarity and cohesion. The town will work best if there is a minimum of discontent, conflict, inequality or perceived injustice, so all will recognise the need to make sure all are provided for and none are dumped into unemployment or poverty. We will realise it is important to avoid decisions that leave some people unhappy. Thus the situation of dependence on our ecosystems and on each other will require and reinforce concern for the public good, a more collectivist outlook, taking responsibility, involvement, and thinking about what’s best for the town.
The core governing institutions will be voluntary committees, town meetings, direct votes on issues, and especially informal public discussion in everyday situations. In a sound self-governing community the fundamental political processes take place informally in cafes, kitchens and town squares, because this is where the issues can be discussed and thought about until the best solution comes to be generally recognised. The chances of a policy working out well depend on how content everyone is with it. Consensus and commitment are best achieved through a slow and sometimes clumsy process of formal and informal consideration in which the real decision making work is done long before the meeting when a vote is taken. Usually votes would not occur. Their main function would be to show how close we are to agreeing. If the vote is split it means we have a lot more talking to do. Note that with a question such as what to plant in the old parking lot the aim is to work out what is best for the town and this is usually a technical question that more evidence and discussion will clarify. In general the aim is not to get a decision that suits one group and disadvantages another. “Politics” therefore will be very different from the present business of trying to get a 51/49 vote that forces many to go along with the majority
So politics will again become participatory and part of everyday life, as was the case in Ancient Greece. Note that this is not optional; we must do things in these participatory ways or the right decisions for the town will not be made.
The political situation described is in fact classical Anarchism. In general people at the local level will govern themselves via informal discussion, referenda and town meetings. We will not be governed by centralised authoritarian states and bureaucracies, nor by representatives. At present representativesare elected and then they govern us.
Most issues will be local, not national, but there will be some tasks left for states and national governments involving professional experts and administrators, such as coordinating national steel and railway industries. The decisions in these areas will not be made by “authorities” who have power over us. The classical Anarchist principle involves delegates from all the local communities coming together to work out what seems to be the best decision for all concerned, and then taking these recommendations back to the communities where everyone has a vote on what will be done. Note again that there would be far fewer issues that concern large regions or whole nations, there would be far less “development” to push through despite resistance, and so politics would have little to do with struggles for wealth and power. In other words we will have replaced representative democracy with participatory democracy.
Governing your town would involve a lot of monitoring, reviewing, research and administration but most of this could be carried out by voluntary committees Some paid bureaucrats and experts will probably be needed, but people will have a lot of time to volunteer for these public activities, and the systems involved would mostly be technically simple (e.g., running town waste water to orchards and ponds.)
It is also important to understand that the people of your town would not just all participate in making the decisions; they would also participate in implementing them. We would (have to) organise the working bees, the monitoring, the resources etc., firstly because in the era of scarcity councils will not be able to do all this for us, but more importantly, because we will do the job best, and enjoy the control over developing and running our town, and doing these things build town solidarity.
Because it will be a stable economy many political issues will have been eliminated, such as struggles over new developments, re-zonings, freeway construction, increasing logging or mining, and especially those to do with trade, foreign investment and finance. Many problems such as unemployment, aged care and welfare will either not exist or could be handled at the local level, again greatly decreasing the need for centralised bureaucracy.
The Simpler Way is not opposed to modern technologies. In fact there will be more resources for research and development on the things that matter, such as better wind mill design and medicine, than there are now, because the vast sums presently wasted on unnecessary products, including arms, advertising and lawyers, cease being spent, and some of these can be reallocated.
However it is a mistake to think better technology is important in solving global problems, let alone that it is the key. Most R and D and innovation today is going into trivial, wasteful or luxurious products. More than half of it is going into making weapons. We would not need much high tech to ensure the satisfactory production of what we need. Most of the things we will need in The Simpler Way can be produced by traditional technologies. Hand tools can produce excellent food, clothes, furniture, houses, etc., and craft production is in general the most satisfying way to produce. Of course we will use sophisticated machinery and IT where they make sense and many basic items can be mass produced in automated factories. There would be intensive research all the time into improving crops and techniques, especially for deriving chemicals, drugs and materials from local plant sources, and developing the best plant species for our area. There will be far more resources and time than there are at present to invest in realms that have "spiritual" significance, such as astronomy, history, philosophy, the arts and humanities. We would probably choose to have far more professional students devoting most of their time to these realms than there are now. Technical faculties at universities would be much smaller than they are now, especially those dealing with economics, commerce, marketing, finance and law.
THE NEW ECONOMY
There is no chance of making these changes while we retain the present economic system. The fundamental principle in a satisfactory economy would be totally different -– it would be to apply the available productive capacity to producing that stable amount (no growth) of the things all people need for a good life, with as little resource consumption, work and waste as possible and in ecologically sustainable ways. Our present economy operates on totally different principles. It lets profit maximisation for the few who own most capital determine what is done, it therefore does not meet the needs of most people, and it seeks to increase consumption and GDP constantly. (The detailed discussion of the required economy is given in The New Economy. Following are notes on key principles and themes.)
Far less work and production will take place.
In consumer society there is a great deal of more or less unnecessary production going into things like advertising, packaging transport, construction, cosmetics, waste disposal, sewage treatment, shipping, insurance, junking shoddy goods that don’t last and can’t be repaired, roads and freeways, unemployment agencies, and provision for people who crack up and become mentally ill or take to alcohol or drugs. We will need far less aged care, financial advice, paid entertainment, health care, professionals, car repairs. We will save billions by not having to produce arms any more…because most armed conflict is about trying to take nore than a fair share of resources. Many of the things we will need will be produced far less resource-expensive ways, for example we will not need to produce trucks to bring food to cities. There will be far less government, crime, police, illness and need for a "welfare" industry. Consequently there would be far less need for prisons, courts, hospitals, welfare agencies. The savings in dollars and resources would be enormous, not to mention the effects on quality of life. Disabled people will have many important things to do and to contribute, which will reduce the need for tax and professionals to care for them. People will have far more interesting things to do than go shopping, and acquiring and consuming will not be important life purposes. Large numbers of people will not be stressed, depressed, over-worked, worried about mortgages, bored or lacking purpose (...which is the core problem generated by the conditions indigenous people are forced to endure.)
The GDP would be a small fraction of its present value, because we would be producing and consuming relatively little, and most of that would not be within the monetary economy. (No one will calculate or attend to the GDP as it does not tell us anything that matters.)
There would be no economic growth.
As has been explained in detail (in The Economic system…) a sustainable economy has to be a zero-growth economy. We would produce only as much as is needed to provide all with a high quality of life. In fact we would always be looking for ways of reducing the amount of work, production and resource use. It should be obvious that this does not mean there cannot be improvement and innovation.
Many shops would open only two or three days a week. If you need a pair of shoes you might get them on Tuesday or Saturday. In familiar neighbourhoods some shops and local firms might operate without shop assistants, via stalls where you serve yourself, further reducing the amount of work that needs doing.
Reducing the GDP does not mean that the living standards of the poorest must sink even lower than they are now. The goal is to enable all to have access to all the things that make a high quality of life possible regardless of income, such as community workshops, festivals, free fruit, a livelihood, a caring community and a leisure rich environment. The average dollar income and GDP per person would be far lower than they are now, people would be far less wealthy in conventional dollar terms, but the quality of life of all could be far higher than the average now. One will need very little money to live well, and one’s money income or wealth will not influence one’s quality of life. Quality of life will derive primarily from one’s public and social context, such as the landscape, supportive community, festivals and social activities to participate in or observe. Therefore inequality of money income will not be important, and the solution to problems such as poverty will not be via redistribution of income. (The “poorest” will have as much access as anyone else to all these things.)
Because there can be no economic growth there cannot be any interest paid on loans. (Any economy which has interest must also have growth.) This means most of the present financial industry will cease to exist. Very different arrangements will have to be made to provide for retirement. Banks will hold savings for security, and organise loans for purposes the community decides are worthwhile.
This zero growth situation is a longer term goal, to be moved to gradually. What is easily overlooked is that it means that gain must be completely abandoned. Logically there cannot be a zero-growth economy if there remains any interest in getting richer, either on the part of individuals or nations.
Mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies.
As has been explained, in a world of scarce resources shared among all, most of the goods and services we use will have to come from very closer to where we live. Economic self sufficiency should be seen in terms of concentric circles. In the centre is the most important economic and social unit, the household. (This will be more important in most people’s lives than their "career".) Outside this will be the neighbourhood, then the suburb or town where less frequently needed goods and services will be available, e.g., doctors. Then the town’s surrounding area will contain a dairy, timber plantations, grain and grazing lands, and some of the factories that would supply into the surrounding region, e.g., for fridges and radios. Some of these items would be exported out of the region. Much less will come from the state and national economic sectors, and very little from overseas, perhaps some high tech medical or computer equipment.
Few big firms or transnational corporations would be needed. Those that were appropriate, such as steel works, would best be owned and run by society as a whole, to serve society. The boards of bigger firms would represent stakeholders, not just shareholders. All people would have some stake in the firm, including its workers, customers and neighbours.
Market forces and the profit motive
In an acceptable alternative economy market forces cannot be allowed to continue as major determinants of economic affairs. It is the major cause of global problems. (See The Economic System; A radical Critique.) In addition the fundamental motivation within markets is not acceptable. In markets prices are set as high as possible, which means that the driving principle is to maximise self-interest, i.e., it is greed. Price is not set by reference to the cost of production, or the capacity of the seller to make a sufficient income, etc. Markets are about buyers and sellers trying to get as rich as possible, and that is not a satisfactory element in an ideal society. (It is explained below that a satisfactory society is not possible unless there is profound value change, e.g., away from maximising.)
In the distant future what is produced, how it is distributed, and what is to be developed will be relatively unimportant problems decided without fuss by routine rational decision making process which focus on what is needed to give all people a high quality of life. Humans will preoccupy themselves with more important things. However at present we are far from being capable of organising things that way, so in the near future we will probably have an interim arrangement which still uses the market for some purposes but begins to subject it to greater social control, with a view to gradually phasing it out.
So in the near future much of the economy might remain as a (carefully monitored) form of private enterprise carried on by small firms, households and cooperatives. Market forces might operate in carefully regulated sectors. For example the kinds of bicycles on sale could be left entirely to the market. Local market days could enable individuals and families to sell small amounts of garden and craft produce. Therefore the market must not be allowed to determine whether people have jobs or what developments take place in the town. In other words market forces might be allowed to make most of the economic decisions – but none of the important ones!
Note that such an economy would not be a capitalist economy because these small firms would best regarded as the tools people possess and work with to earn a modest, stable income and thus a secure livelihood. They do not involve investing capital in order to accumulate capital in order to constantly increase investments and wealth. Market forces would never be allowed to settle the distribution of income or the access to livelihood.
In the present economy the idea of having firms under social control is taken to mean big, authoritarian, centralised bureaucracies and states which make and enforce all the economic decisions. These can be entirely avoided by devolving the control to small localities where citizens can deal with a greatly reduced economic agenda through direct, open and participatory procedures. Again, because local conditions, resources, skills and traditions are the important factors determining how local economies can best function, local people are the ones who know these and are in the best position to make the decisions most likely to satisfy local needs. It will make no sense for distant governments to decide what is best for your town to plant when another of its parking lots has been dug up. Thus the form of social control here has nothing to do with "big-state socialism", as socialism is usually conceived and has mostly been practised.
In making these decisions communities can take into account all relevant moral, social and ecological considerations, not just dollar costs and benefits to capitalists or purchasers. If a firm was struggling, or becoming inefficient we would not let market forces dump those workers or owners into unemployment. We would make community decisions about what to do. We might work out whether assistance, including loans and grants from the town bank, would be appropriate, or whether technical advice is needed. Thus a community might decide to keep a small bakery or boot repairer from going bankrupt because that is best for the town and for the family running it. Or it might decide that it has too many bakeries, and work out how best those resources might be reorganised. Similarly the community might decide not to buy from a firm that is sacking people unnecessarily, or threatening to take over other little firms that are viable, depriving people of their livelihoods.
We will be in a position to retain or establish some firms that are important for the town even though they would not survive in a free market situation. These actions protect and subsidise, and therefore impose costs. Goods would be cheaper if purchased from a transnational corporation which can minimise prices. But these costs are among those we will be willing to pay in order to make sure the town run well.
Although most firms might be privately owned, we would regard the economy as ours; i.e.,, as arrangements and institutions which the town "owns" and runs in order to provide itself with the goods and services it need and to provide its people with livelihoods. So if a transnational corporation came into the town intending to drive our bakery bankrupt and take its business, we could make sure it totally failed to do so –- simply by refusing to buy from it. Obviously things like this can not be done without vigilant, caring, public-spirited citizens. Note how the new economic system cannot be thought of separately from the new political system, and neither can function without new values, a new culture.
Provision of livelihood.
Above all these strategies will enable us to ensure that all have a livelihood. This is very important. The conventional economy sees no problem in allowing those who are most rich and powerful to take or destroy the business, markets and livelihoods of others, and thus accumulate to a few the wealth that was spread among many. Its fundamental design constantly worsens this problem. Globalisation is essentially about the elimination of the livelihoods of millions of people and the transfer of their business to a few giant corporations. A satisfactory society will not let this happen. One of its supreme priorities will be to ensure that all have a livelihood, and clearly this is only possible if local communities have control of their own local economic development and can operate contrary to market forces.
The bank and the business incubator.
As has been explained, these will be crucial in giving us control over our own local economic development. They will enable us to set up the kinds of firms we want.
No unemployment or poverty.
Unemployment and poverty could easily be eliminated. There are none in the Israeli Kibbutz settlements. We would have neighbourhood work coordination committees who would make sure that all who wanted work had a share of the work that needed doing. Far less work would need to be done than at present. (In consumer society we probably work three times too hard.)
Only one or two days a week working for money!
When we eliminate all that unnecessary production, and shift much of the remainder to backyards, local small business and cooperatives, and into the non-cash sector of the economy, most of us will have little need to go to work for money in an office or a mass production factory. In other words it will become possible to live well on a very low cash income earned by only one or two days paid work per week. We could spend the other 5 or 6 days working/playing around the neighbourhood doing many varied and interesting and useful things everyday.
The Simpler Way there will be far less emphasis on work and production and economic affairs, and therefore, much less stress and worry, and human attention can shift to much more important things.
The large money-less domain.
Much and possibly most goods and services will come from the household sector (which at present actually does most of the producing in the whole economy) and the local cooperative sector including commons and cooperatives. These will probably not involve any money, wages, prices or payments. That is, all goods will be "free". Many people might live almost entirely within this money-ess realm.
It is very likely that as the coming era of severe scarcity impacts, especially regarding petroleum, we will quickly, automatically and inevitably build up these two sectors -- because we will have to.
The short term and the long term future.
As we develop the two money-less sectors in the near future there would still be many normal firms operating within the continuing normal market economy. These firms will be running into very serious difficulties as scarcity, especially scarcity of petrol, bites. At best there is likely to be a slow descent into serious and lasting depression, but more likely will be sudden crashes, especially within the financial world.
Let's proceed as if the troubles will come upon us in a relatively non-chaotic way. Two important things will happen at the same time; the town will recognise a vital need for important businesses to function effectively -- and those firms will recognise their utter dependence on the town. These two forces will push us to organise cooperatively and rationally, i.e., to intervene and take action to make sure that we keep those vital firms going well. Local small businesses will realise how important our assistance is and they will understand that if they don't do what the town needs we will not buy from them. We will need them so we will help them to work well, e.g., by organising working bees and loans.
So when scarcity impacts we will move very quickly to a largely socially-controlled local economy, in which many firms will remain privately owned, will operate for profit and will respond to market forces, but in which much more important determinants of their performance and welfare will be the deliberate decisions the town makes. If the town sees that it can meet some needs better by setting up its own cooperatives in that area of the economy then the old firms will cease. (Ideally the town would organise for the labour, experience and skill of the small business people in that area to move into the new co-ops.)
The town will therefore remake its economy, because it will see that it has to if it is to survive. Thus the forces at work in the new situation of scarcity will inevitably push us in the right direction, i.e., towards much social control, participatory processes and cooperative and collectivist outlooks. If we don't take this control over our fate, but leave it to the market, we will quickly descend at best into stagnation, as in the Great Depression, where market forces cannot make the right things happen and they trap us in the ridiculous situation where productive capacity sits idle while the needs it could be meeting fester on.
If we are lucky therefore people will realise that firms that are failing involve crucial productive resources that they could redeploy. They will realise that their prospects will be best if they take deliberate planned action and if they try to provide well for all, because no one will be able to survive on their own. Their mutual dependence will be glaringly obvious. It will be clear that their fate depends on the town working well, on cooperation, on focusing clear thinking and planning on what we all need around here, on being responsible and on helping others. In affluent times there is no need to think like this. Because we will realise that we need bread we will realise that we must help the local bakers to live well. We will need carrots so we will have to make sure the farmers do well. They can't provide carrots unless nutrients are returned to the soil, so we must make sure the recycling systems work well, so we must attend those working bees. Behold the powerful hidden hand of the non-market!
In the short term future this third sector involving the remaining privately owned firms will operate partly according to market forces. These proprietors will to some extent make more income if they respond to demand, organise efficiently, and innovate. However this means that the undesirable effects of the market will still be occurring, to a limited extent. There will for instance be tendencies to inequality, advantage for those with more talent or capital, working for wages only, and especially the mentality and values that go with trying to maximise self interest in a competitive environment. These attitudes contradict the solidarity and collectivism we must reinforce in the town.
Therefore it is likely that in the long term future we will gradually replace these remaining elements of the market system fairly smoothly. This is because we will see that they will not be needed and we will have evolved better ways of achieving the four main goals; i.e., adjusting supply to demand, ensuring sufficient work motivation, providing for efficiency, and providing for innovation.
The new economic conditions will help us.
Our capacity to make the new economy work satisfactorily will be
greatly increased by the fact that the situation will be very different from
the present one.
Economies will be far simpler, with far less produced. They will be mostly local, meaning far less trade and transport to organise. Most firms will be very small.
There will be little infrastructure development; no gigantic airport, freeway or nuclear reactor construction. There will be no interest payents, and this will sweep away most of the finance industry with its problem-generating speculation. There will be no growth, so economies will be mostly about managing stable systems. Above all .there will be clear recognition of mutual dependence; if we don’t make our local economy work well we will all be in a lot of trouble. These conditions will make it much easier for us to get the new economies going.
Economic motivation, efficiency, restructuring and innovation.
These are the most difficult issues for the design of a satisfactory economy. Conventional economists are adamant that there is no realistic alternative to leaving these processes to the market. It certainly acts quickly and decisively to maximise "efficiency" but it does so in an unacceptably brutal, unjust and wasteful way. How then might these tasks be carried out in the eventual economy of The Simpler Way? The argument below is that this will not be so difficult, mainly because of the historically novel conditions The Simpler Way will set.
a. Work motivation and efficiency.
In Sectors 1 and 2, (household and community) there will be no problem getting people to work conscientiously. People will enjoy running a thriving household economy and participating in the working bees that make their locality into a beautiful, rich landscape providing abundantly. They will also know that their welfare depends heavily on making these sectors work well. In Sector 2 “workers” in for example regional bolt factories would be conscientious because they get satisfaction from making a valued contribution, participating in the management of the plant, working at a relaxed pace (maybe only two days a week)…and all the operations of the factory would be highly visible (see below on monitoring.)
But what if one of our bakeries starts to become inefficient, or if someone wants to set up another bakery when we probably have enough, believing he can do the job more efficiently than the others? And if all knew that the town would not let market forces dump them into bankruptcy, what would ensure that firms kept on their toes?
In these cases the town would have a problem which it would have to grapple with deliberately and not leave to market forces. It might examine the situation and decide to help a failing firm to lift its game, possibly with advice, loans or training. It might eventually decide a firm is no longer viable or needed, but it would restructure sensibly, by working out another productive role that family might like to move to, and how best to re organise the resources. The town might decide to let the new bakery compete with the others, then intervene when it is clear which one would best be phased out. Remember that all people would realise that the supreme goal is to organise for all people in the town to have a livelihood and for there to be just enough firms to provide the town with the things it needs.
b. Adjusting supply to demand.
The market is usually assumed to be the only way to decide supply. It is taken for granted that planning by central bureaucracies as in the Soviet Union is absurdly unsatisfactory. The document The New Economy explains why this is mistaken. Supply is in fact presently organised through millions of deliberate rational planning decisions, based on information from shops etc. on what is being demanded. With computers there would now be no difficulty determining what is demanded, faults, supply bottlenecks etc., without the need fxor centralised, authoritarian dictates.
c. Production decisions.
The core problem is making sure that producers and suppliers respond to demand satisfactorily, and from time to time introduce new products. At present entrepreneurs respond quickly because they are in desperate competition for sales. In the new economy this mechanism will be replaced by a) the desire of factory managements (i.e., boards including all workers, members of the community etc) to provide what people want, b) again the fact that all operations and decisions would be completely visible to the public, c) the access all have to information from all around the world on how well similar factories are performing elsewhere.
d. R and D.
Research and development is always best carried out in public institutions. There is no reason to think that salaried scientists perform better in private corporations. Most importantly, when the agencies are public we can make sure they research important problems, as distinctly from only those that will maximise corporate profits. (This is very important; corporations ignore the most urgent human needs, such as drugs for malaria, because the can make more from trivial cosmetic etc. for rich countries.)
Monitoring and public accounting.
We would also have extensive arrangements and institutions for monitoring performance, problems, needs, possible innovations, for all our firms and other institutions and systems. This information would be quickly and fully avail able to all. Several committees would be working on these tasks all the time, and the use of computers would make summaries and detail available easily. Also available will be analyses of quality of life indices, footprint, resource use etc. These systems would enable us to be aware of performance in other towns and sites around the world. The purpose would be helpful not punitive; i.e., to enable us to see where our local systems and firms can be improved, and what assistance they need.
In the period of transition to The Simpler Way local communities will create their own new money systems and currencies (e.g., LETS). This "new money" can be thought of as simple tokens indicating how much value one has contributed and therefore how much one has the right to take from the produce others have contributed. . We will simply organise people who previously were idle and poor to start producing things for each other and selling them using these tokens. This will enable all those who were cut out of economic activity to produce and sell, via a new sector which uses this new "money".
There would hardly be any finance industry. Little capital would be needed, because it would not be a growth economy. Construction for example would mainly be replacement of old buildings, bridges etc. and would mostly be on a very small scale (no freeways or sky scrapers.) Security in old age, and a continuing valued role, will be provided by the community (overseen by the relevant committee), so there will be little need for the "retirement industry" and no need for security in retirement to depend on risky investments. Consequently there will be little need for financial planners. Old people will continue to contribute as they felt able, they would need few special premises or professional carers, and therefore they would generate much less work and cost than at present.
There would be no interest paid on money lent. An economy in which interest can be received is by definition a growth economy. Thus loans from our local bank would be repaid plus a small fee to cover administrative costs. No one would get an income from lending money. No one would be able to get money just because they had money in the first place. When capital is needed for development it will come from our town banks, via decisions made by our elected boards under a charter which focuses on lending to those ventures most likely to benefit the town.
It is important to re-think the concept of capital. For most development none will need to be borrowed. Consider a town which wants to build a community hall, and "owns" surrounding forests and clay pits and has its own labour via working bees. It would make no sense to borrow a lot of money to hire contractors to supply these inputs and build the hall, then pay them back twice as mush as was borrowed, when the townspeople could build the hall themselves using their timber and mud and working bees.
Obviously larger regions and nations are in an even better position to do such things as they have more resources within them to draw on. Thus the present taken-for-granted dependence on banks, the finance industry or money markets can be seen to be a bonanza for the rich. It means that instead of organising to do many things for ourselves without borrowing capital, we go to them and maybe pay them twice as much as the dollar cost of the job.
The implications for Third World Development.
At present conventional development theory and practice are failing to bring about satisfactory development for billions of Third World people. This is to be expected when development is conceived only in capitalist terms; i.e., as a process whereby those with capital invest it in using Third World resources and productive capacity to make as much money as possible for themselves. Good profits can’t be made developing what is most needed, so the productive resources of any Third World countries are mostly put into developing industries to serve the rich, or there is no development at all.
Yet in any country there is immense productive capacity which only needs organising so that people can get together to produce for themselves most of the things they need for a reasonable quality of life, trading only a few surpluses in order to import a few necessities. The Simpler Way enables even the poorest countries to work miracles with very little capital, using mostly local land, labour and traditional technologies, preserving traditions and ecosystems, and avoiding dependence on foreign investors, loans, trade or the predatory global market.
The new economy is impossible without radical change in culture.
Many of the ways sketched above could not work in the present society, because they require quite different values and ideas.
THE NEW VALUES AND WORLD VIEW.
The biggest and most difficult changes will have to be in values and outlooks. The foregoing changes in economy, geography, agriculture and politics cannot work unless people think and act according to some quite different attitudes and habits compared to those dominant today. This again is crucial. You cannot design a sustainable and just society full of competitive, acquisitive individualists! It is therefore a serious mistake to say, "But we want a path to sustainability that will work for us, for ordinary people." The point is there isn’t one! That’s like asking for a path to slimness for people who refuse to even think about reducing gluttony.
The present desire for affluent-consumer living standards must be largely replaced by a willingness to live very simply, cooperatively and self-sufficiently. People must be conscientious, caring responsible citizens, eager to come to working bees, to think about social issues, and participate in self government. They must be sociologically sophisticated, aware of the crucial importance of cohesion, cooperation, conflict resolution, etc. They must have a strong collectivist outlook. They must understand and care about the global situation, recognising for instance that the Third World cannot have a fair share of global resources unless we live more simply. Above all they must willingly choose and find satisfaction in materially simpler lifestyles.
In other words, a sustainable and just world cannot be achieved until all interest in gain has been abandoned. This is not clearly understood. It is the most difficult change in values and world view we have to face up to. It is not logically possible to have a zero growth economy if individuals or nations retain a desire to get richer over time, in monetary and consumption terms. The important point here is that there are alternative values, purposes and sources of satisfaction and these are focal in The Simpler Way.
We must therefore get to the situation in which people focus on things like enjoying stable lifestyles, community activities, learning and creating, but are content with low, stable and sufficient material consumption and have no interest in getting richer over time.
It is not that everyone has to become a saint before we can save the planet. It is a matter of degree. There must only be a sufficient level of cooperation, responsibility, frugality etc. It will not be necessary for all people to attend all working bees, but there must be a considerable willingness to do such things. In fact many could be less than ideal citizens so long as the average commitment is good enough. This means that the town’s fate will not be jeopardised by those who do not pull their weight, so long as enough do.
This much more collectivist ethos need not set any significant threat to individual freedom or privacy. We can still have our own private houses, property, values, religious views, interests and goals. It’s just that we must also have some much stronger common values than at present.
Again we should appreciate the positive effect of our dependence on our local ecosystems and community. This situation will powerfully reinforce good values. It will be obvious to all people that it is in their interests to cooperate, come to working bees and meetings, be responsible, think about issues, and care for their local ecosystems. If we don’t all do these things the local ecosystems and social systems we depend on will deteriorate and we will all be in seriously trouble. More importantly, doing these things will be enjoyable. It’s nice to go to working bees. It will not be a matter of forcing ourselves to practice the right values. The new society will not work unless people find it enjoyable to do things like share and help, and the conditions we will be in will tend to make good citizenship enjoyable.
These conditions of dependence will also restore the "earth-bonding" that has been lost in consumer-capitalist society. We will be much more aware of and appreciative of our local land, especially because our food, water and materials will be coming mostly from it. We will feel that we belong to our "place", and therefore we will be much more inclined to care for it.
The difference between these values and those dominant today is so great that at first one might conclude there is no possibility of a general shift to The Simpler Way. It constitutes a fundamental break with some of the core elements in Western Culture, especially regarding competitive individualism, self-interest, power and domination, and acquisitiveness. However again the transition is best seen as, not as a need to reluctantly forego satisfactions in order to save the planet, but as the substitution of new and different sources of life satisfaction.
The Simpler Way will deliver many deeply rewarding experiences and conditions such as a much more relaxed pace, having to spend relatively little time working for money, having varied, enjoyable and worthwhile work to do, experiencing a supportive community, being secure from unemployment and poverty and the global economy, living in a supportive and caring community, practising arts and crafts, having a rich cultural experience and living in a beautiful landscape. (See Appendix 2, and The Spiritual Significance of The Simpler Way.)
Advocates of The Simpler Way have no doubt that despite extremely low levels of income, wealth and non-renewable resource consumption, The Simpler Way will provide all people with a much higher quality of life than most have now in even the richest countries.
Only if these alternative values and satisfactions, which contradict those of consumer society, become the main factors motivating people can The Simpler Way be achieved. Our main task is to help people to see how important these benefits and satisfactions are, and therefore to grasp that moving to The Simpler Way will greatly improve their quality of life. This understanding will be the most powerful force we can develop for bringing about the transition.
The Simpler Way cannot work without a distinctive culture, a complex set of particular ideas, habits and values. These must be developed in young members of society, and continually reinforced and maintained in all citizens. Thus Education is of central importance, and here again the differences between what we need and what we have in consumer-capitalist society today are huge.
In the schools and universities of consumer-capitalist society today not much Education takes place. However they are very effective at training; i.e., producing the personnel that kind of society requires. They develop the highly skilled and diligent workers and technocrats that the corporations and bureaucracies want. They condition people to uncritical acceptance of the structures and values of society. They develop the readiness to obey authorities, to compete, to accept inequality, to work hard, be individualistic, to think their school grade legitimises their social privilege or deprivation. Students come to see a competitive market-based society as normal. They are stupefied into the docile mindless acquiescence that ensures consumer-capitalist society will not be seriously questioned. Just reflect on the fact that people in rich countries are "educated" for at least 15 years, yet they even graduate from university almost totally ignorant about, and indifferent to, the major faults and problems in their society and in the global economy. For instance few form any understanding of the fact that their affluent lifesty.es derive from a grossly unjust global economy that transfers much wealth from Third world to them. The global predicament exists essentially because people in rich countries show so little awareness and concern. This is not surprising because curricula give little or no critical attention to the crucial issues. A glance at what is taught shows that these institutions train personnel for capitalist-consumer society, but they are obviously not organised for the purpose of Educating. (See the detailed critique, The Role of Education in Society.)
The Simpler Way requires a great deal of Education. Any one individual must have many specific ideas, skills and values. The norm will be the "jack of all trades" or handyman, although he or she would also probably be more or less expert in one or a few specialisms. Yet we probably would not have any schools, and we might need only a few paid teachers. Most of the necessary skills, ideas and values would be learned from living in the community. Children would be helping adults plan, make, grow and fix things much of the time. All adults would be teachers almost all the time, helping all children to learn, because all would know how important it is for as many people as possible have the skills and understandings needed to make the community work well. Because the activities and ideas are interesting and of obvious importance there will be no difficulty getting these things learned.
These many practical activities would be directly connected to the learning of the background theory, through the organisation of learning groups, well-researched course materials, networks of experts and the constant efforts of adults to make the connections clear to young groups. For example if a car port is being converted into a greenhouse, the helpers could be introduced to the relevant theory of heat transfer, insulation, energy calculations, pumps, 12 volt wiring etc. Regular or ad hoc "courses" could be organised. Remember there will be a great deal of time available for teaching and learning. Some set classes might be appropriate, but in general it is likely that children will learn basic skills at a satisfactory pace through these informal processes. We would know who the local experts were, to go to for advice on any technical or social problem.
The biggest difference with consumer-capitalist society would be that Education would not be obsessed with the arduous 12 year struggle to get the certificates that give entry to the scarce high paying careers. This "meritocratic" rat race involves children in thousands of hours of work learning things most of them have no interest in and will never use, simply in order to have a better chance at getting a “good” job. This is a vast unrecognised human rights abuse. It involves the loss of several thousand hours of life, a huge amount of work for which most people not only get little or no intellectual, personal or spiritual benefit, in many people it actually does serious intellectual harm. The "hidden curriculum" teaches many that they are not very bright and therefore do not deserve good jobs, it teaches them thinking and creating are not for them, it teaches them that academic pursuits are what really matter, that "high achievers" deserve more privileges, and that arts and crafts and gardening and hobbies are not very important. It keeps them appallingly ignorant of global politics and of problems in their society. It stultifies their critical faculties. As radical educators have long pointed out, schools reproduce consumer-capitalist society very effectively, but they don’t do much Educating. (Note the contradiction; if they educated they could not reproduce consumer society!)
In The Simpler Way, one’s chances of having a satisfying life would not depend on one’s academic credentials. They would depend on the quality of the community one lived in, and on whether one could be a worthwhile contributor to it. Therefore the pressure to herd children through to career-determining exams would not exist, and there would be much less concern with the pace at which they learned.
Many people would develop the same levels of expertise we have in society today, because we would obviously continue to need doctors, scientists, engineers etc. However all this is merely training, not Education, and the distinction would be clearly understood. Courses for training technicians and professionals could be much the same as they are now, via set institutions, professional teachers, and final exams to certify competence. But all that would be far less important than Education, which is to do with a) helping people develop their capacity to make sense of the world, to appreciate, value etc… and b) developing responsible, caring, critical conscientious citizens.
Every neighbourhood would have an abundance of teaching talent in its ordinary citizens, including children who can help younger children. The local Education committee would list all this talent and enable it to be drawn upon. Thus we would probably need relatively few paid teachers and organisers.
The town Education Committee would monitor the progress of all children thoroughly, making sure that eventually everyone had experienced all important areas of the "curriculum" and mastered essentials well enough. It is not obvious that we would need special school buildings. In general groups might meet for "classes" in the neighbourhood centre, although most learning would take place throughout the neighbourhood, especially when children were helping adults grow, make and repair things, and at festivals and meetings. The everyday experience of the routine functioning of the community would provide the main educational processes and infrastructures, from working bee hives to chairing meetings and researching new tomato varieties.
Because The Simpler Way is intellectually stimulating, and gives people much time for thinking, reading, discussing and learning, it is likely that much more Education would take place than occurs today. There would probably be more literary clubs, drama clubs, creative writing, analysing and critical thought, and more history and astronomy groups than there are now. People would go from practical activities to text books to delve into the background theory. Only in a post-consumer society could Education flourish. Its goals could then include all those things implied in the notion of ideal human mental, emotional, personal, social, physical and spiritual development. (Again see The Spiritual Significance of the Simpler Way.)
All would be aware that in the long run the viability, security and quality of a society depend on how thoughtful, sensible, critical, compassionate and responsible its ordinary citizens are. Security derives from these qualities, not the size of the GDP, or military power, or technical wizardry or heroic leaders.
THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE!
It must be emphasised that if the limits to growth analysis is basically correct, then we have no choice but to work for the sort of alternative society outlined above. In rich and poor countries a sustainable and just society can only be conceived in terms of simpler lifestyles mostly in highly self-sufficient and participatory settlements, and zero growth or steady-state economic systems.
It would be very easy to establish and run The Simpler Way – if we wanted to do it! It does not involve complicated technology. It does not require solutions to difficult technical problems, like how to get a fusion reactor to work. lt does not require vast bureaucracies or huge sums of capital. We could transform existing suburbs in a few months, using mostly hand tools. We could almost instantly defuse global problems and liberate human kind.
The Simpler Way is about reorganising in order to harness the abundant existing resources, now largely wasted. In your neighbourhood there are huge resources of labour, skill, advice, humour, technical capacity, care, community…but they are idle. People who could be helping each other, making community facilities, dropping in on old people, etc., are sitting in their isolated boxes watching TV.
(For thoughts on the process of transition to The Simpler Way, see The Transition Process.)
Appendix 1: Land Areas and Footprint.
Following is a rough, indicative pattern of settlement and land areas. The approximate vision is for a landscape in which towns of 250 households and 1000 people are located 2 km part, centre to centre, and therefore within an area of 400 ha. Every 10 km there might be a large town, on a railway line, and very small cities might be 100 km apart. Their suburbs would be more or less like the town described below. This model is taken here for illustrative purposes – obviously there would be many larger and smaller settlements.
If the settled area of our town is 700 metres across it will occupy 50 ha. If the typical area occupied by roads in an outer Sydney suburb is assumed, but reduced by 3/4 in view of the much lower need for vehicles, roads would occupy about 2 ha, and railways about 1 ha. Converted roads would add about 6.5 ha to commons. Commons within the settlement would occupy about 10.5 ha.
As has been explained above virtually all food needs except grain and dairy could be met within the settled area, but there would be small farms and plantations outside it. These would supply grain, fibre, wool, timber, dairy products, and energy.
If each household had on average 15 useful trees, and these were also planted on half the commons at 4 m x 4 m spacing there would be 7,000 trees within the settlement. If half of these were fruit and nut trees yielding c. 10 t/ha/y, annual per capita production might be c. 110 kg, plenty for people and animals. (Some tree crop yields are much higher than this.)
If produced from wheat or corn, flour might require 17 ha just outside the settled area, assuming 100 kg per capita consumption p.a., and 6t/ha yield. However it can be produced at up to two times this yield from tree crops such as chestnut and oak, and up to three times for carob and algaroba, without the energy cost of annual crops.
Timber requirements in a stable economy would be very low. If 50 kg per capita/y is assumed, 7 ha would be required, at 7t/ha/y harvest. Half of this might be located on commons within the settlement. Firewood for heating and cooking within very well insulated solar passive houses might double this area required.
Water is assumed to come from local sources, including rooftop collection of rainfall, and from small dams etc., plus intensive mulching and recycling.
Dairy products might require 45 ha, assuming 100kg per person p.a., 900kg per cow p.a., and 2.5 cows per ha. Sheep and goats within the settlement might replace a significant fraction of this need for cattle.
Wool might require 25 - 30 ha of grassland, but all of this might be found within the settlement and the surrounding plantations (assuming 2 kg per person p.a., 25 sheep per ha., and 3.2 kg clean wool per sheep p.a.) Another almost negligible area would be required for cotton etc fibres, assuming 5 tonnes per ha yield.
The area per town to be set aside for its share of the regional industry, hospitals, colleges, universities, and services would be very small. For example, a tertiary educational institution of 3 ha serving 10 towns averages only 3 square metres per person, or .3 ha per town.
Adding these areas indicates that 150 ha, 38% of a town’s total 400 ha area would be used for purposes other than energy supply.
Energy supply sets the biggest problems. First let’s consider the land area that would be required to meet present Australian per capita oil plus gas demand of 128PJ. If this was all to come from biomass at 7t/ha via ethanol produced at 7 GJ (net) per tonne of biomass input, then our town situated in 400 ha would need to harvest 2,600 ha.) In addition an area would be needed to fuel electricity generation.
Let us therefore assume a very austere energy budget, derived from 100 ha devoted to plantations for energy production, (plus where possible PV, wind, garbage gas, hydro, solar heating panels, solar passive design, within the town, and a share of the national hydro and wind supply from without). For this discussion Sydney’s latitude, 34 degrees, is assumed; for colder climates the problem would be significantly greater.
Electricity supply would not be so problematic, if extremely frugal use is assumed. Based on records from my homestead, a family of three could meet its electricity needs on about .6kWh/day. (Lights, computer, TV, duct fans, some machinery, but no air-conditioning, electric stove, electric fridge or washing machine.) This is about 2% of the typical Sydney household use. The town would therefore need 200kWh/d for domestic needs. The half of this that does not have to be stored might come from a combination of solar PV, solar thermal and wind. (Energy from these sources is likely to remain much too costly and difficult to store.) One quarter might come from hydro and one quarter from the burning of wood, both quantities via generators that can be turned up when intermittent inputs are not available. To meet this demand via a 22% efficient process (i.e., taking in energy used in growing and harvesting as well as generating efficiency) the town would need 10 ha of forest harvested at 7t/ha/y.
Most cooking might be on wood stoves. Gas for light/quick cooking and for refrigeration would come from biomass, mostly wood, but it would include the at least 500 tonnes of kitchen, toilet, garden and animal wastes p. a. flowing through methane digesters on their way to gardens. (This does not include much of the at least c 1.5 tonnes of manure a day produced by the 110 dairy cows.) The quantity of energy derivable from this source is surprising, probably 3000 cubic metres of gas p.a. (equivalent to 18,000kWh., or 18kWh per person.) Use of refrigerators would have to be very frugal. Community facilities might be necessary, along with solar-passive evaporative coolers ("Koolgardie safes"). Access to local fresh food would eliminate most need for refrigeration.
Liquid fuels are the big problem. If the remaining 90 ha produced ethanol at the equivalent of 7 GJ (net) per tonne of biomass input, and a 7t/ha/y of biomass yield, then 4410 GJ would be produced p.a. Averaged over the 1000 people in the town this is only 3% of the present Australian per capita oil plus gas use. If we assume methanol production can be improved to be 1.4 times as efficient and a four fold improvement in the energy efficiency of the whole energy system, we would still have to get by on about one-seventh of the present Australian per capita oil and gas use. This should be achievable via The Simpler Way, because there would be so little transport, construction, manufacturing or agricultural energy use.
The above figures yield an overall per capita footprint within the town of .25 ha. However the national average footprint would be greater than in the example town because people living in bigger towns and in the cities would be more dependent on imported goods, materials and energy, and the above tally does not include things like heavy industry, railways, steel and centralised services (e.g., higher education.) These might raise the per capita footprint to .5 ha, still below the .8 that would be available in a world of 9 billion.
If we find that more energy is needed than the .1 ha per person allocated above can produce, we will have to resort to biomass plantations further afield, or to locate our settlements more distant from each other to make room for these plantations. Footprint considerations limit this option severely. If we developed plantations which increased the per capita footprint from c .25 ha to .65, the additional .4 ha would yield only another 44 PJ in gross energy, or if converted into ethanol, 12.5 GJ per person, compared with the Australian present average energy use of 128 GJ/y.
Note again that these numbers have been rough approximations intended to indicate the general scale of the problems, and the general feasibility of the town model presented. They provide a base for others to work out the implications of different assumptions.
Appendix 2. THE BENEFITS OF THE SIMPLER WAY.
Because the Simpler Way involves far lower levels of monetary income and consumption of resources, at first sight people are strongly inclined to reject it. What is not immediately apparent is the fact that there are great quality of life benefits in this way. Consider for instance:
Living within a strong community; living close to many people who are friendly comrades, with whom you work and play and who will help you out if you have problems. A climate of mutuality, cooperation and desire to care for each other.
Having a lot of free time, because you would only have to work for money about2 days a week. Thus much time for arts, crafts, gardening, home-making, learning, personal development.
Living close to nature, in a green landscape, with wilderness, farms, forests close by.
Having excellent food, fresh, grown nearby, diverse, without preservatives, best taste and nutrition…prepared by many expert (amateur) chefs with a vast combined range of recipes and dishes.
A relaxed pace. We would have far less work to do than in consumer society.
Work that is varied (you can do many different things in a day if you wish), enjoyable, and worthwhile…you can see your work benefiting your community. Work that is under your control. Cooperative work conditions. Work that enables you to learn new things.
Being secure, from poverty, unemployment, isolation, adversity in old age, the threat of violence, the devastation the global economy can inflict.
Having access to many skilled people, thus being able to learn many skills.
Being healthier, because of access to high quality food, clean air and water, more exercise in a more labour-intensive lifestyle, and especially because of less stress and insecurity.
Living in a leisure-rich landscape; having around you many animals, firms, farms, forests, commons, ponds, community facilities, artists, projects. Living in a beautiful environment, landscaped and cared for by many keen gardeners.
Having cheap, well designed, repairable, durable items, e.g., radios, appliances, furniture, bikes…
Being involved in self-government, i.e., in participatory democracy, whereby local meetings make the important decisions about local development. Being a good citizen.
Having a sense of pride in your admirable society; i.e., a society that cares for all, is civilized, friendly, does not allow anyone to be poor or unemployed, has high standards, does not waste, is cultured, makes good decisions, looks after its ecosystems… being pleased at being part of and contributing to a beautiful society.
A “spiritually” rich life; having meaning, purpose, hope, inspiring surroundings and friends, and a society that inspires. Circumstances which ennoble and bring out the best in people.
Being respected for one’s contribution, no matter how humble. Status according to capacity to enrich the community, not from wealth or power.
Many festivals, celebrations, rituals, ceremonies, focused on local folklore and events.
Having control over one’s fate, cooperating with others to control the fate of one’s community, because we run our locality.
Enjoying helping others, giving, contributing to working bees, being convivial. Enjoying cooperating, collective action, reinforcing solidarity, social cohesion and social wealth.
The satisfaction that comes from running a household economy well; growing, organizing, cooking, repairing, having things in order.
Peace of mind that comes from knowing that you are not living in ways that create serious global problems.