THE WAY IT COULD BE; A VISIT TO AN ALTERNATIVE, SUSTAINABLE TOWN
(A summary; 5 pp.)
By Ted Trainer.
This is a fictional account of a visit by a journalist to a town that has shifted to the radical alternative systems and lifestyles that must be widely adopted if a sustainable and just world is to be built.
The purpose of the work is firstly to make clear that the new ways will be extremely different from those of the present consumer society, very frugal, self-sufficient, local and cooperative. Most people would at first see these as unattractive and unacceptable but a major purpose of this account is to show that these ways would be very enjoyable, indeed liberating.
The story of the visit involves Mike’s introduction to a wide range of themes and issues which must be dealt with effectively if a society is to be sustainable in the coming era of intense resource scarcity. These kinds of themes have hardly been addressed at all in the literature on accelerating global problems, sustainability and the coming time of troubles. The primary purpose of the work is to show how easily a spiritually rich society which did not generate global problems could be created, given the necessary outlook and values.
On the first day Pete and Jan focus Mike on the town’s unusual geography and its technologies. Themes dealt with include the densely green landscape, full of gardens, ponds, forests and orchards, the few roads and the many cycle tracks, the windmills and water wheels, ponds, woodlots, greenhouses, community commons providing free food and materials, and the voluntary working bees. They introduce him to Permaculture themes, they visit the town centre with its cooperative store and community workshop and leisure-rich landscape. They visit a young couple finishing their very cheap mud brick house. They take Mike to a committee meeting; the town is largely governed by town meetings and committees.
Mike is confronted with the material “simplicity” of the lifestyles, the lack of expensive and luxurious things, and the very small average ”footprint” of the people in this town. He can’t help thinking what Eleanor, his very conventional wife, would say. She’d regard all this as primitive at best, and anything but attractive.
Mike finds it all very interesting but at the end of the day he’s confused and somewhat irritated. After tea he bursts out, saying he can’t see how any of this is relevant to the modern world, it’s quaint, “cute”, but inefficient. In fact it’s largely Medieval, for instance in using so many hand tools and having mostly tiny family farms and firms. Above all he can’t understand how it can possibly work because it doesn’t have a competitive free enterprise foundation and doesn’t seem to take into account the basic competitive and selfish nature of humans. This provokes an intense discussion revealing dominant conventional assumptions about society and of people. Pete strongly rejects this view, arguing that humans can and should operate cooperatively and with a strong collective motivation, and that they do not have to be obsessed with acquisitiveness. Jan notes that the day has focused on the easy changes, the new geography and technologies, but that the hard problems, the changes in systems and values, will become more evident tomorrow. The argument after tea has revealed how difficult these issues and changes will be for “homo consumerensis”. Nine year old Amy sees “normal” people like Mike as aliens, such is the gulf between the two cultures.
Early on the second day Pete takes Mike to Tom’s joinery, a typical tiny firm where economic issues begin to be explored. Tom’s firm does not operate solely in terms of monetary income. Most important to Tom is doing the woodwork he loves, and serving the community. He is content with a stable low monetary income and has no wish to expand or become a tycoon.
The town’s economy is not driven by market forces or profit, nor even by a need to earn money. Some things are sold for money and most firms are privately owned, but people think of the economy as a mechanism for meeting needs, enabling all to get the basic things that yield a high quality of life, security, and a relaxed pace. There is for instance no unemployment. Basic problems like access to a livelihood are deliberately managed via town meetings and committees. This town makes sure that all who want to earn money can have a share of the work that needs doing. In any case people do not need much money, because they don’t spend much, partly because some of their “income” comes via “free goods” from the locality and via the swapping of surpluses. Almost all entertainment is free, through the many concerts and festivals and the art and craft groups which meet at the community workshop.
They visit the town bank, where all savings are available to be lent to good purposes, sometimes at negative interest. The bank and the town’s “business incubator” enable worthwhile enterprises to be set up even though they’d never survive in a normal competitive economy. Mike sees that all this is possible only in a local economy in which the local people have ultimate control over the application of local resources to the meeting of local needs. The town does not export much, because it does not need to import much. It has its own community forests, water catchments, herb patches, firms, skills, animals, farms etc. None of this would be possible if people were not happy to live very frugally.
Mike is puzzled as to why the town’s people are doing these things. Pete and Jan suddenly realise that the background papers they had sent to Mike didn’t arrive. So they briefly explain the point of the town’s project. Essentially the consumer society Mike comes from is far beyond sustainable levels of resource use. It must face up to enormous reductions, maybe around 90%, in per capita consumption before the big global problems of resource depletion, Third World poverty, conflict and environmental destruction can be solved. The town is trying to demonstrate that such reductions are possible, indeed easily made, but that they will involve huge change in systems and outlooks and values.
In the afternoon Pete and Mike cycle out to visit Bernie living in a tiny homestead deep in the forest. Bernie has a Ph.d,, has worked in the Third World – and is female. She is very polite but confronts Mike with the Third World connection with his consumer lifestyle. The grossly unjust global economy delivers wealth to him and Eleanor while taking it from the majority of the world’s poor people. Mike argues that what they need is development and that’s happening, slowly although unevenly. Bernie and Pete argue that its development, conventionally defined, that is causing the poverty by allowing corporations to put Third world productive capacity to the benefit of themselves and rich world shoppers.
Jan and Pete and their friends raise many issues with Mike as he visits sites or has afternoon tea. Pete invites Mike to consider the immense “wealth” of the townspeople. They have access to so many things that enrich their lives, but these are not due to anyone’s personal income or savings. They all derive from the town and its landscape, institutions and culture. Everyone can have a great Saturday night at the community workshop listening to the comedians, musicians and drama groups, free. Everyone has access to friends, advice, help, and a beautiful and leisure-rich landscape.
Mike sees how this situation involves people in intense dependence on each other to maintain these crucial systems, and it involves their dependence on their local ecosystems. If those slopes are not kept in good condition their forests will not continue to provide plenty of timber, firewood and clean water. Thus there are powerful incentives to cooperate, take responsibility, look after ecosystems, find sensible solutions, and to keep everyone happy and eager to contribute. The situation of dependence, and the obvious rewards from cooperating and contributing build solidarity, whereas in competitive consumer society most of the incentives are for self-advantage at the expense of others. Here there is powerful synergy; goodness breeds goodness.
On the morning of the third day Mike participates in a treasure hunt organised for a visiting groups of students. They all race off to search for the clues that might enable one of them to be the winner, but before long they find themselves forced to share things from their packs to solve the puzzles. Eventually they realise that only if they cooperate can they make it to the treasure, which turns out to be a great reception and lunch at the town square…and a lasting lesson about the importance of working for the common good.
At lunch time on the Saturday there is a town market. People can earn a little of the income they need by selling produce and craft-made items. It is really a community social event enabling people to meet and chat over issues to be voted on at later town meetings. Pete explains how crucial this informal discussion is in the political process of the town. It ensures that policies that are best for all are eventually arrived at. The town would not work well if majority votes were pushed through leaving many people discontented. Because the town is not about a constant competitive struggle to get richer and because it has a zero growth economy, much of the political activity in consumer society simply does not emerge. Also, mostly the decisions are about what is best for the town, not about which group is going to triumph over others in zero-sum competition for scarce resources.
After lunch Mike and Pete help on a working bee. Mike sees how powerful this institution is, not just in getting important maintenance jobs done around the town, and improving it, but in building solidarity, gratitude and moral debts. They cut down a tree endangering Elsie’s house. Mike thinks Elsie could have been more grateful, but Pete explains that everyone is used to helping and being helped. Elsie helped make the lunch they have just enjoyed, and has been contributing to the town for decades. They are all conscious of the mutual dependence and assistance and there is no need to keep accounts. Nor is there much point in pretence; everyone knows your reputation as a contributor so status can’t be gained by wealth or fine clothes. Elsie is a village elder, one of the people known to be wise and helpful when it comes to resolving social problems.
In the late afternoon rain threatens but people from all around the town gather on the green for the weekly banquet, celebrations and performances. The kids from the gym club put on a display. The percussion group puts on a funny sketch. Then the banquet begins.
Mike and Pete chat about the quality of life in the town, the importance of citizenship and solidarity. The town has a powerful magical glue that makes it all work. People realise how important it is to maintain the good will, the rewards, the efficiency of their systems, the things that make contributing enjoyable. They are sociologically wise. They consciously work at maintaining the solidarity. They realise that this can’t be done unless contributing and participating are experienced as deeply rewarding. Good towns and a sustainable and just world do not depend on leaders; they require and are impossible without good citizens. People in this town ridicule the very concept of leadership, let alone hierarchical governments or kings. Humans will not have reached social maturity until citizens have learnt to govern themselves
Mike feels the power of community, wishing he could move from being an outsider observing the natives with notebook in hand, yet realising that he is tied to the consumer way, his mortgage, and Eleanor. Amy was right about aliens; he realises how huge is the spiritual gulf between his ways and those of the town.
The rain holds off. After the banquet they settle down for the performance. This is one of the many reaffirmations of town myths. Each year the drama group plays out the same themes, but in new ways. Characters represent aggression, pride, plodding, helpfulness. Little people eventually come together against the blustering dominators ---and win them over rather than defeat them.
Mike thinks they harp on their ideology too much. Pete and Jan explain that a lot of ideological work has to go into keeping a society on the right path, and they stress cooperation and friendliness in their stories, plays and myths no more than Mike is driven by his culture to accept competing for wealth, status and power.
After tea Mike prepares to catch the late train. By accident he overhears Pete and Jan talking heatedly. He is stunned to realise that they are expressing despair and anger at him. They suddenly find that he has overheard them, and things quickly fall apart. Mike accuses them of staging everything and plunges back into confusion about the whole visit. Why all this fuss over me for three days, when I thought I’d just take a room at a motel for a break and maybe jot a few notes and maybe write them up for an article later?
Jan and Pete turn their anger back on him. All this work on him. All the years the visitors committee has put into persuading people like him to the cause, for what? He doesn’t seem to have been very impressed. Nor in fact have most of the visitors they have invested in so arduously.
Mike says so what if he’s not impressed? Because the fate of the planet is at stake! It can only be saved if people realise that the way out is via towns like this. You’re a journalist; you can write and tell people these things. You are about the most important kind of visitor we get here. So visitor’s committee tries to give you a detailed insight into it all. And yet again we seem to have made no impact. Consumer society blunders on towards its doom. Why should we bother? And you’re angry at us!
It has begun to rain. They trudge to the station with troubled thoughts on all sides, symbolising the state of the alternative movement. Is the effort achieving anything? Can the consumer society be turned around in time? Will it take any notice at all? The stakes are enormous, nothing less than the fate of the planet. Has Mike (or the reader) been persuaded to contribute to the cause?
Approximately 120,000 words.