HOW MIGHT WE MAKE THE TRANSITION TO THE SIMPLER WAY?
These thoughts are based on a detailed analysis of the disturbing global situation consumer-capitalist society is in and the implications for the form a sustainable and just society must take (see The case for transition...) To summarise briefly, consumer-capitalist society is grossly unsustainable and unjust. We are far beyond levels of production and consumption that can be kept up or spread to all. In addition consumer-capitalist society provides a few with high “living standards” by delivering to them far more than their fair share of world resources. Technical advance cannot solve the problems; they cannot be fixed in or by consumer-capitalist society. There must be dramatic reductions in levels of economic output, and therefore there must be radical and extreme system and value change.
It follows that there must be transition to The Simpler Way, involving simpler lifestyles, high levels of local economic self-sufficiency, highly cooperative and participatory arrangements, an almost totally new economic system (one that is not driven by market forces or profit, and has no growth), and fundamental value change. Many now realise a sustainable and just society must be mostly made up of small local economies in which people participate collectively to run their economies to meet needs using local resources, and in which the goal is a high quality of life and not monetary wealth. The coming conditions of scarcity will give us no choice about this. (For a detailed discussion see .)
The required change is therefore enormous. The new communities cannot work well unless we can develop citizens who are eager to focus on contributing to the welfare of a thriving local community, to participate in running its zero-growth economy in cooperative ways, geared to maximising the welfare of all, with no concern to get rich or acquire property or wealth. If these conditions cannot be met then viable and satisfactory communities highly dependent on their local ecosystems and on mutual assistance cannot function.
The essential transition problem set by this radical view of our situation is how might we begin to generate the crucial new social structures, and more importantly the new world views and values, which largely contradict the forces that have driven Western culture for two hundred years?
Some implications for thinking about the transition.
- The conditions we are entering, the era of scarcity, rule out most previous thinking about the good society and social transition. The good society cannot be affluent, highly industrialised, centralised or globalised, and we cannot get to it by violent revolution led by a vanguard party, or indeed by parliamentary action. Governments cannot make the transition for us, firstly because there will be too few resources for governments to run the many local systems needed. More importantly, the new local societies can only be made to work by the willing effort of local people who understand why The Simpler Way is necessary and who want to live that way and who find it rewarding. Only they will know the local environmental and social conditions and only they can develop the arrangements, networks, trust, enthusiasm, cooperative climate etc. that suit their locality. The producing, maintaining and administering will have to be carried out by them and these can’t be satisfactory unless people are eager to cooperate, discuss, turn up to working bees, and be conscientious, and unless they have the required vision. Our new local systems can only be developed, learned by us as we grope our way towards taking control of self-sufficient local economies.
Therefore working for transition here and now has to focus mostly on helping ordinary people to understand the need for The Simpler Way and to move towards its willing acceptance, and towards enthusiastic participation in the long process of learning how best to organise in their own area. The best way for us to do this work is to start building the new ways where we live (below.).
- There is therefore no value in aiming to take state power, either within the parliamentary system, or by force and revolution. Even if the Prime Minister and cabinet suddenly came to hold all the right ideas and values, they could not make the required changes – in fact they would be instantly tossed out of office if they tried. The changes can only come from the bottom, via the slow development of the ideas, understandings, and values of ordinary people, and these cannot occur except through a lengthy process of learning the new ways from experience in the places where they live.
Therefore calling for governments or the state to make the necessary changes is a serious mistake. Firstly governments have no choice but to make the present system work, to maximise GDP, trade and investment opportunities, or they will be faced with unemployment, recession and discontent and fierce attack. The last thing they could do is enable transition to a system in which there is no growth and far less economic activity.
Secondly it is a mistake to think that the new communities can be established or run by some authority external to the local communities. They can only be built by ordinary people where they live.
Thus our strategy must differ from the classic Left/Marxist one which focuses on building a political movement that will take over the state and then reorganise things from the centre, perhaps with a heavy hand. That made more sense when the goal seemed to be to shift energy-intensive, centralised and industrialised systems from capitalist control to ”socialist” control.
- Working for Green parties to get Green candidates elected is not the best use of scarce energy. They can’t get the necessary radical changes through parliaments, given the dominant ideology. The task is to change that ideology, and that is not best done by working in the electoral political arena. Green parties and movements are now almost entirely merely reformist; they do not challenge growth, market forces or affluence and they are not calling for radical structural changes away from affluent consumer-capitalist society.
- We do not have to get rid of consumer-capitalist society before we can begin to build the new society. Fighting directly against the system is not going to contribute much to fundamental change at this point in time. (It is at times necessary to fight against immediate threats.) The consumer-capitalist system has never been stronger than it is today. The way we think we can beat it in the long run is to ignore it to death, i.e., to turn away from it as much as is possible and to start building its replacement and persuading people to come across. The Anarchists provide the most important ideas, especially that of working to “Prefigure” the good society here and now within the old, and focusing on development of the required vision in more and more people.
- The main target, the main problem group, the basic block to progress, is not the corporations or the capitalist class. They have their power because people in general grant it to them. The problem group, the key to transition, is people in general. If they came to see how extremely unacceptable consumer-capitalist society is, and to see that The Simpler Way is the path to liberation then the present system would be quickly abandoned. The battle is therefore one of ideology or awareness. We have to help people to see that radical change is necessary and attractive, so that they enthusiastically set about building the new local economies.
The Left has always understood the importance of ideology and consciousness but has badly failed to focus on the task of developing the necessary awareness and values in people in general. They have tended to assume that the necessary consciousness can be developed long after the revolutionary leaders have taken power from the capitalist class. Again vanguard parties using force cannot get us to The Simpler Way; we will only achieve it if ordinary people build new systems in the places where they live, and they will not do that unless large numbers have come to hold the radically new consciousness.
- The readiness to radically question consumer society is negligible, and has actually declined over the last thirty years. Affluence has generated increasing preoccupation with the trivia of TV, sport, celebrities and mindless self-indulgent hedonism. Above all there is a refusal to listen to any challenge to growth and affluence, a failure to even think about the fact that the quest for these is leading to catastrophic ecologically and social breakdown. Governments, media and the general public give no attention to these issues, despite the accumulation of an overwhelming case over the past fifty years. There is no possibility of significant structural change in the near future. We are nowhere near the necessary level of public awareness of the need for it.
- There will be no significant change while the supermarket shelves remain well stocked. Nothing much will change until serious scarcity jolts them. The underlying problems are becoming more acute and this will make people more likely to realise that consumer-capitalist society will not provide for them and that there must be a better way. If/when a petroleum shortage impacts it will concentrate minds wonderfully. But when it comes the window of opportunity could be brief and risky. If things deteriorate too far too fast there could easily be too much chaos for sense to prevail and for us to organise cooperative local alternative systems.
- Therefore the top priorities for anyone concerned about the fate of the planet must be to contribute to
a. the development of radical global consciousness, that is, to help as many people as possible to understand that capitalist-consumer society will not provide for all, is generating fatal problems, cannot be fixed and has to be largely abandoned, and that there is a far better way,
b) ...the building of elements of The Simpler Way, here and now.
In the last 20 years many people around the world have begun to build, live in
and experiment with new settlements which enable simpler ways. When
things begin to shake loose we need to be ready, to have built enough
impressive examples of The Simpler Way, so that people can see there
is a better alternative, and can quickly move into it.
- The main reason why we should do this building is not to have more of the new institutions – it is to be in the best possible position to influence the thinking of people. By working with them on local projects we will be in the best position to discuss and argue, to help people to see that we must eventually go far beyond more community gardens etc. and embrace radical system change. We urgently need to accumulate experience and wisdom on how best to do this.
- The most promising development to work within is the rapidly growing Transition Towns Movement. If we make it to a sustainable and just world it can only be through a movement of this general kind. But again much has to be done to get the movement to go beyond its presently reformist aims. The things being done now within the Transition Towns movement will not solve the big global problems. They are mostly only reforms within consumer-capitalist society and are no threat to it. The movement is not about replacing consumer-capitalist society; it is about surviving within it, making the town more “resilient’. For instance it does not have the goal of getting rid of a growth economy or of the town, taking control of its local economy. Global problems cannot be solved unless this is eventually achieved.
This is the general fault in the green movement, the failure to grasp the distinction between system reform and system replacement. Many good alternative, local, green practices are being developed now, such as farmers’ markets, local agriculture, recycling co-ops, etc. However these are almost entirely reformist; that is they do not come from any vision that recognises the need to scrap and replace the core structures of growth and affluence society and to take control of local economies away from market forces. Unless things like this are eventually done the many (desirable) green initiatives occurring will not and cannot achieve significant social change.
The reformist nature of these movements is understandable and inevitable, and are a very welcome beginning. As people become concerned to develop more sustainable ways of course they will start by supporting things like Permaculture and farmers’ markets. This is very healthy, but it is far from sufficient. It is inevitable that at first people will think about reforms, rather than see that fundamental structures of the system have to be scrapped. However, over time quite different goals must be embraced, to do with replacing things like the growth economy.
It is also a serious mistake to assume, as many do, that the things happening now within movements like Transitions Towns will in time lead to the big radical structural changes called for above. Just building more community gardens etc. cannot lead to the establishment of a zero- growth economy. That goal can’t be achieved unless it becomes clearly and widely understood as necessary and unless a lot of work over time goes into designing and developing a zero-growth economy. If all you do is build more community gardens all you will end up with will be a consumer-capitalist society with more community gardens in it.
- So, beware the mistakes that could waste your valuable time and energy! Each of us should think very carefully about what we can do that will make the biggest contribution. Again there are many (desirable and noble) “light green” actions that make no contribution whatsoever to the transition. For instance working to save the whale, increase recycling, stop wood chipping…are good causes… but they do nothing to move us towards a sustainable society, because that requires transition from consumer-capitalist society, and more recycling and forest-saving does not contribute to that. The best use of our scarce energies is to work within these light green campaigns and movements in order to try to spread the more radical global vision to more people.
– Change will be rapid when it comes. The problems in consumer-capitalist society are intensifying. Resource scarcities are likely to produce savage price rises in coming years, impoverishing many and producing social disorder. If we do not achieve transition it will be via rapidly increasing discontent with the failure of the present society to provide.
- The breakdown of consumer-capitalist society will force us towards small, local economies, to cooperate and to shift from high consumption -- whether we like it or not. Local farms, jobs etc. will (have to) emerge as petroleum dwindles and transport and travel become too costly, and as globalised systems fail to keep the supermarket shelves well stocked.
- It could be a very peaceful revolution…if we can get enough people to see the sense of moving to The Simpler Way. The rich and the corporations will have no power if enough of us decide to ignore them and to build our own local systems. The corporations and banks will probably soon be grappling with the breakdown of their systems and will not have the resources to block the initiatives people will be taking up in thousands of towns and suburbs. They can’t run armies and secret police forces very well without lots of oil.
- At this point in time our chances of a successful transition would
seem to be very poor. Very few people have any idea of what is required, hardly anyone wants to even think about the need for transition to The Simpler Way, because it contradicts the most cherished values in modern Western Culture…and time is running out. Despite the efforts of a few over 50 years to draw attention to these issues the mainstream still refuses to think about them.
- Not only is working together to build elements of the Simpler Way the best effective purpose for people concerned about the planet to put their energy into, it provides the best possibility of maintaining morale and enthusiasm. This strategy enables us here and now to practise and enjoy elements of the post-revolutionary society.
An Outline of a Practical Strategy.
Following are the steps we could start to take immediately, within our existing towns and suburbs, based on Chapter 13 of The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Ted Trainer, Envirobook, 2010.
Form a Community Development Collective.
Even a tiny group can come together to form itself into a Community Development Collective (hereafter referred to as CDC.) Ideally the CDC will eventually develop into a mechanism for the participatory self-government of the town or suburb, but at first it might involve only a handful of individuals seeking to do a few humble things.
Set up a community garden and workshop. The CDC's initial goal is to identify and organise some of the locality’s unused productive resources of skill, energy, experience and good will so that people can start to produce for themselves some of the basic goods and services they need. The most promising first step is to establish a community garden and workshop, especially to involve low income receivers in the production of food and other items for their own use.
The CDC should then look for other areas in which further cooperative production to meet local needs could be organised. A promising early possibility would be bread baking. Once or twice a week a cooperative working bee might produce most of the bread etc. the group needs, again perhaps selling some to outsiders for cash. Another early possibility would be the repair of furniture, bicycles and appliances. The workshop could become a shop where surpluses are for sale. Scavenging from the locality, especially on council waste collection days, will provide furniture, appliances, bicycle parts and toys to be repaired and materials for use in the workshop. Other possible areas of activity would be cooperative house repair and maintenance, nursery production, herbs, poultry, honey, preserving and bottling fruits and vegetables, toy making, making slippers, sandals, hats, bags and baskets, car repair and the “gleaning” of local surplus fruit from private back yards.
Later the CDC would explore somewhat more complicated fields in which it could organise productive activity, such as planting fast growing trees for fuel wood, aquaculture based on tanks, simple house building and repairing, insulating houses, recycling and planting "edible landscapes" on public land.
These activities would also provide important intangible benefits, such as the experience of community and worthwhile activity. The involvement of local people who are not on low incomes would be important, especially gardeners, handymen and retired people. Ideally the garden and workshop would become a lively community centre with information, recycling, and meeting and leisure functions. Specific times in the week should be set when all would try to gather at the site for the working bees, followed by a meal, discussions, entertainment and social activities.
Some of the cooperatives would tally work time contributions and pay for these from later produce or income. This is in effect to create our own money, enabling economic activity among the poorest people who have little or no official/normal money. This is the first step to an economy in which all participants can contribute time in many different productive ventures, earning the right to acquire many different products our cooperatives and firms are producing, even though they might have no normal job or money. Some of the most viable CDC activities could become small firms run by a family or cooperative.
What we have done at this point is establish a radically new economy, one geared to need not profit, one that is cooperative and caring, independent of market forces, and under our own local participatory social control. We now have the power to set up the enterprises we need, provide jobs and livelihoods, decide what will be invested in and developed, and to lend or give wealth and capital, for instance to organise working bees to build a shed for the new beekeeper. Our enterprises might be nowhere near as “efficient” or dollar-cheap as those the corporations can provide, but this is not important; we can provide for ourselves, securely. Note that the world view and values in this economy are not to do with making profits, getting rich or becoming a tycoon. They are about enabling all to have a livelihood, make a valued contribution, and a stable sufficient share of the goods and services we are producing. It is about us making sure all are provided for.
The significance of this step is immense. We have ceased to make reforms within the old society, we have started to establish the new economy to replace the old one.
Connecting with the normal/old economy -- stimulating the town’s internal economy. The next step must be to enable people in this new sector to trade with the normal/old firms that exist within the locality. Right from the start we can sell small amounts of our produce to people in the town, which gives us a great opportunity to explain the project. But more importantly the CDC must find out what things our new sector can start providing to some of the old sector firms in the town. For instance in the case of restaurants the answer is vegetables from the CDC’s cooperative garden.
We would not set up firms that compete with the existing small firms in the town. There is no net benefit in us setting up a bakery that wins all the scarce bread sales opportunities and therefore just puts people in the existing bakery out of work. We would compete against the supermarket where we could, because our goal is to replace its imports. Our focus must be on creating sales and jobs in a new economy involving those people previously excluded from economic activity. However this will not be possible unless the CDC finds items it can sell to the old firms or to people in the town.
It is in the interests of the old firms to join us enthusiastically, because this will enable them to increase their sales and their real incomes. They will be able to start selling to that large group of people previously not able to purchase more.
Organise town working bees. The development of the garden and workshop would have taken place through cooperative working bees. Before long the CDC should organise voluntary neighbourhood or town working bees, perhaps occasional at first but eventually occurring at set times aimed at developing the locality in ways that will make it more sustainable, e.g., planting fruit and nut trees in local parks, or building simple premises for new little firms. These can have powerful awareness raising effects within the town.
Organise committees, to research, monitor, organise, e.g., how to grow various things well, raise poultry and fish, graft fruit trees, run good little firms, buy in bulk, deal with water, wastes, liase with council, organise our financial affairs, provide for our self-education (e.g., on global affairs), monitor the quality of life, cohesion, and problems.
Start developing commons throughout the neighbourhood, such as sheds, tools, clay pits, patches for herbs, bamboo, fruit trees and timber. Some of these can be on private blocks, church land or council property. The working bees get the jobs done.
A market day should be organised mainly to sell CDC produce and products. These enable many people who do not operate firms or work full time for wages to gain an income by selling items they produce in small volume through home gardens, craft activity or family produce.
Later start working on replacing imports to the town or suburb. The proportion of the town or suburb's consumption that is met by imported goods is typically very high. When goods are produced somewhere else and imported this means that the jobs that were involved in their production are not located in the town, and it means that money is flowing out of the town. The CDC should explore what items the town is most likely to be able to start producing to replace imports. Food is the most obvious item. Other possibilities are fire wood, and house insulation as a replacement for imported energy, and timber from woodlots and earth for building, and especially entertainment and leisure (concerts, plays, picnics, talks, festivals.)
Work on reducing the need for money in the first place. The CDC must constantly focus attention on the importance of living simply, making things ourselves, home gardening, repairing, sharing and re-using. The fewer goods people consume the less that the town will have to import or provide. The more simple their demands are the more likely that these can be met from local resources. The more we do without or make for ourselves the less money we need to earn in order to buy things. Every dollar we can cut from our expenditure the less the town needs to produce for export.
Start to develop your educational systems, focusing on helping each other to learn the many basic practical skills involved in gardening, making things, cooking, house repair, crafts, pottery, basket making, woodwork, sewing, preserving, sandal making, weaving, leatherwork, blacksmithing, running cooperatives. Get older people to teach us how to bake a dinner, knit, darn, get cuttings to grow. No need for professionals; we just organise discussion groups, talks, visits to thriving home gardens. etc. List the local skilled people willing to give advice or run classes. List sources of materials, especially those free from the commons such as bamboo clumps and clay pits. Develop recipes for nutritious but cheap meals mainly using plants (and weeds) that grow well locally. Organise field days and visits, and bring in experts, to increase our knowledge and skills.
Leisure, entertainment, celebrations, festivals and culture. Develop ways of providing local entertainment, especially including regular concerts, dances, visiting artists, drama groups, craft and produce shows, art galleries, picnic days, celebrations, rituals and festivals. We would organise our own news services, such as occasional bulletins gleaning material from global sources on sustainability and quality of life themes. Eventually the main news media will be local radio stations.
Form a town bank (or credit union) and business incubator, creating the power to set up the kinds of firms the town needs. For example we can lend capital, and working bee labour to develop premises for the boot repairer, whether or not it is profitable. We would debate and vote on the bank’s rules and elect our own board. The business incubator helps new firms to get going. Both institutions assist old firms in the town that are failing (as oil scarcity hits transport and imported goods) to shift to production of needed items. Thus we would eventually take control over town’s economic development, eliminating unemployment and creating the firms we need, and ensuring that everyone has a secure livelihood and valued contribution.
Develop collective spirit. Emphasise cooperation, sharing, helping, solidarity, feeling of mutual support and security. Synergism multiplies good effects and brings out the best in all. (Competitive individualism brings out the worst.) This is no threat to individual freedoms – we just need to make the good of all the top prioirity.
The research and educational functions of the CDC. The CDC must constantly study the local situation, working out what needs exist, what resources we have, and how to organise better ways. The most important functions for the CDC are to do with the education of people within the wider locality. After all the main point of the exercise is to bring people to understand the need for and the rewards offered by the new ways. All our activities such as working bees and market days provide opportunities for increasing awareness within the surrounding region.
Above all the goal must be to help people understand a) that there has to be vast and radical system change; a society based on affluence, growth, competition and market forces cannot solve our problems, and b) the Simpler Way defuses the problems while liberating us for a much higher quality of life. We in the CDC must clearly understand that the point of the project is not just securing comfortable “downshifted” lifestyles for ourselves within a society that remains a part of consumer capitalist society.
In other words it is important that the main goal of the CDC is changing the consciousness of the locality, so that we can move from implementing reforms within consumer society to replacing it with radically different institutions and ways.
If we do make it to a sustainable and just world order then the transition will have been begun by tiny groups of people who at some point in time have taken on this task of working out how they could start to move their towns and suburbs towards being highly self-sufficient and cooperative local economies. Governments cannot do it. Only the people of the town can learn their way to the procedures that work for them. Those ways cannot work unless all are energetic, conscientious citizens keen to live The Simpler Way.
The approach outlined is positive and immediate. It is not about destroying before we can start to build. It enables living in and enjoying the new ways, to some extent, here and now, long before the old system has been transcended. There is nothing to stop us starting this work immediately. Above all, given our global situation, what other action strategy makes as much sense? Is any other more likely to get us to The Simpler Way?