(6 pp account. 2.5.11)
We cannot solve the alarming global problems confronting us if we continue to be committed to affluent-consumer lifestyles in growth-forever economies driven by market forces and economic growth. For decades the argument for this conclusion has been overwhelmingly convincing, but it has been almost impossible to get people or governments to attend to it.
There is a way out of the global situation we are in, but it requires radical shift from consumer society. It will be argued below that The Simpler Way is workable and attractive.
There are three major faults built into the foundations of our society, to do with sustainability, injustice and quality of life.
Fault 1: Sustainability.
The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable. There is no possibility of the “living standards” of all people on earth ever rising to rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous etc. These rates of consumption are generating numerous alarming global problems, now threatening our survival. Yet most people have no idea of the magnitude of the overshoot, of how far we are beyond a sustainable levels of resource use and environmental impact.
Consider some basic aspects of our situation:-
- If all the estimated 9 billion people likely to be living on earth after 2050 were to consume resources at the present per capita rate in rich countries, world annual resource production rates would have to be about 8 times as great as they are now. At that rate all estimated potentially recoverable resources of fossil fuels would be exhausted in about 18 years.
- If all 9 billion were to have the present US timber use per person, the forest area harvested would have to be 3 to 4 times all the forest area on the planet.
- If 9 billion were to have a North American diet 4.5 billion ha of cropland would be required, but there are only 1.4 billion ha of cropland in use.
- It is now widely thought that global petroleum supply will peak within a decade at most, and could be down to half the present level by about 2030. We are so dependent on liquid fuels this prospect is alarming.
- If 9 billion people were to use minerals at the present per capita US rate of use, estimated potentially recoverable resources then 1/3 of the 36 most commonly used minerals would be completely exhausted in about 30 years.
- “Footprint analysis” indicates that the amount of productive land required to provide one person in Australia with food, water, energy and settlement area is about 8 ha. The US figure is closer to 12 ha. If 9 billion people were to live as Australians do 72 billion ha of productive land would be required. However the total amount of productive land available on the planet is only in the region of 8 billion ha. In other words our rich world per capita footprint is about nine times as big as it will ever be possible for all people to have.
- The atmospheric scientists are now generally indicating that the amount of carbon dioxide we release to the atmosphere must be reduced to zero by 2100, and probably by 2050. There is a strong argument that our energy-intensive lifestyles cannot be provided to 9 billion people by substituting renewable sources such as the wind for fossil fuels, burning coal and burying he CO2, or by the kind of nuclear reactors we have now.
The point which such figures makes glaringly obvious is that it is totally impossible for all to have the ”living standards” we have taken for granted in rich countries like Australia. We are not just a little beyond sustainable levels of resource demand and ecological impact – we are far beyond sustainable levels. Rich world ways, systems and “living standards” are grossly unsustainable, and can never be extended to all the world’s people. Again, few people seem to grasp the magnitude of the overshoot. We must face up to dramatic reductions in our present per capita levels of production and consumption.
Most people who are at all concerned about global problems are familiar with these kinds of facts and figures, but the significance of the evidence is not recognised. The magnitude of the problems is far too big for them to be solved without moving to much lower rates of production, consumption and GDP – which cannot be done in this society.
Now add the absurd commitment to economic growth.
The main worry is not the present level of resource use and ecological impact discussed above, it is the levels we will rise to given the obsession with constantly increasing volumes of production. The supreme goal in all countries is to raise incomes, “living standards” and the GDP as much as possible, constantly and without any idea of a limit. That is, the most important goal is economic growth.
If we assume a) a 3% p.a. economic growth, b) a population of 9 billion, c) all the world’s people rising to the “living standards” we in the rich world would have in 2050 given 3% growth until then, the total volume of world economic output would be 20 times as great as it is now, and doubling every 23 years thereafter.
So even though the present levels of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable the determination to have continual increase in income and economic output will multiply these towards absurdly impossible levels in coming decades.
But what about technical advance?
When confronted by global sustainability problems most people just assume that technical advance will solve them and enable us to go on living with ever- increasing levels of affluence. They do not realise that the magnitude of the problems rules this out. Perhaps the best-known "tech-fix" optimist, Amory Lovins, believes we could cut the resource and ecological costs per unit of economic output to one quarter of their present levels. But this would be far from sufficient. Let us assume that present resource and ecological impacts must be halved (some of the above figures indicate that they must become much lower than that). Again if we had 9 billion people on the “living standards” Australians would have by 2050 given 3% growth then total world economic output would be 20 times as great as it is now. How likely is it that we could have 20 times as much producing and consuming going on while we cut resource and ecological impacts to half their present levels, i.e., a factor 120 reduction? Remember that despite the wizard technical advances being made just about all global problems are becoming worse at an alarming rate.
A crucial assumption made by those who believe radical change will not be required is that renewable energy sources can be substituted for fossil fuels. There is a strong argument that this is not correct. (See note 1.)
Global problems should be seen in these limits terms.
This “limits to growth” perspective is essential if we are to understand the most serious global problems facing us:
- The environmental problem is basically due to the fact that far too much producing and consuming is going on, taking too many resources from nature and dumping too many wastes into nature. We are eliminating species mainly because we are taking so much habitat. The environmental problem cannot be solved in an economy that is geared to providing ever-rising production, consumption, "living standards" and GDP.
- Third World poverty and underdevelopment are inevitable if a few living in rich countries insist on taking far more of the world’s resources than all could have. The Third World can never develop to rich world ways, because there are far too few resources for that. (See Note 2.)
- Conflict and war are inevitable if all aspire to rich world rates of consumption, and if rich countries insist on growth, on a planet with limited resources. Rich countries must support repressive regimes willing to keep their economies to the policies that enable our corporations to ship out cheap resources, use Third World land for export crops, exploit cheap labour etc. We must be ready to invade and run countries that threaten to follow policies contrary to our interests. Our rich world “living standards” could not be as high as they are if a great deal of repression and violence was not taking place, and rich countries contribute significantly to this. If we are determined to remain affluent we should remain heavily armed! (See note 3.)
Fault 2: It is a grossly unjust society.
We in rich countries could not have anywhere near our present “living standards” if we were not taking far more than our fair share of world resources. Our per capita consumption of items such as petroleum is around 17 times that of the poorest half of the world’s people. The rich 1/5 of the world’s people are consuming around 3/4 of the resources produced. Many people get so little that abound 1000 million are hungry and more than that number have dangerously dirty water to drink. Three billion live on $2 per day or less.
This grotesque injustice is primarily due to the fact that the global economy operates on market principles. In a market need is totally irrelevant and is ignored --- things go mostly to those who are richer, because they can offer to pay more for them. Thus we in rich countries get almost all of the scarce oil and timber traded, while millions of people in desperate need get none. This explains why one third of the world’s grain is fed to animals in rich countries while around 20,000 children die every day because they have insufficient food and clean water.
Even more importantly, the market system explains why Third World development is so very inappropriate to the needs of Third World people. What is developed is not what is needed; it is always what will make most profit for the few people with capital to invest. Thus there is development of export plantations and cosmetic factories but not development of farms and firms in which poor people can produce for themselves the things they need. Many countries get almost no development at all because it does not suit anyone with capital to develop anything there…even though they have the land, water, talent and labour to produce most of the things they need for a simple but satisfactory quality of life. (On Appropriate development, see note 2.)
Even when transnational corporations do invest, wages can be 15-20c an hour. Compare the miniscule benefit that flows to such workers from conventional development with what they could be getting from an approach to development which enabled them to pout all their labour, applied via mostly cooperative local firms, into producing the simple things they most urgently need. But development of this kind is deliberately prevented, e.g., by the Structural Adjustment Packages the World Bank and IMF makes them accept in order to get rescue loans. These packages are now the main mechanisms forcing them to do things that benefit the rich countries and their corporations and banks. “Assistance” is given to indebted countries on the condition that they de-regulate and eliminate protection and subsidies assisting their people, cut government spending on welfare, etc., open their economies to more foreign investment, devalue their currencies (making their exports cheaper for us and increasing what they must pay us for their imports), sell off their public enterprises, and increase the freedom for market forces to determine what happens. All this is a bonanza for our corporations and for people who shop in rich world supermarkets. The corporations can buy up firms cheaply and have greater access to cheap labour, markets, forests and land. The repayment of loans to our banks is the supreme goal of the packages. Thus the produce of the Third World’s soils, labour, fisheries and forests flows more readily to our supermarkets, not to Third World people.
For most Third World people the effects of “neo-liberal” globalisation are catastrophic. (See notes 2 and 4 for many quotes from the vast literature documenting this.) Large numbers of people lose their livelihood, access to resources is transferred from them to the corporations and rich world consumers, and the protection and assistance their governments once provided is eliminated.
These are the reasons why conventional development can be regarded as a form of plunder. The Third World has been developed into a state whereby its land and labour benefit the rich, not Third World people. Rich world “living standards” could not be anywhere near as high as they are if the global economy was just.
Conclusions on our situation.
These considerations of sustainability and global economic justice show that our predicament is extreme and cannot be solved in consumer-capitalist society. This society cannot be fixed. The problems are caused by some of the fundamental structures and processes of this society. There is no possibility of having an ecologically sustainable, just, peaceful and morally satisfactory society if we allow market forces and the profit motive to be the major determinant of what happens, or if we seek economic growth and ever-higher “living standards” without limit. Many people who claim to be concerned about the fate of the planet refuse to face up to these fundamental points.
The Required Alternative; The Simpler Way.
If the foregoing analysis of our situation is valid we must move to ways that allow us to live on a small fraction of present resource consumption and ecological impact. The argument following is that there is an alternative way that would solve the big global problems, would work well, and would be attractive and enjoyable. (For the detail see Note 5.) The basic principles must be:-
- Far simpler material living standards…which in no way means hardship or deprivation.
- High levels of self-sufficiency at household, national and especially neighbourhood and town levels, with relatively little travel, transport or trade. There must be mostly small, local economies in which most of the things we need are produced by local labour from local resources.
- Basically cooperative and participatory local systems,
- A quite different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit, and in which there is far less work, production, and consumption, and a large cashless sector, including many free goods from local commons. There must be no economic growth at all. The basic economic decisions must be made cooperatively by local communities, not left to market forces. (Most production could be via privately owned small firms and farms.)
- Most problematic, a radically different culture, in which competitive and acquisitive individualism is replaced by frugal, self-sufficient collectivism.
Some of the elements within The Simpler Way are, -- mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies with many little firms, ponds, animals, farms, forests throughout settlements – participatory democracy via town assemblies – neighbourhood workshops – many roads dug up, and planted with “edible landscapes” providing free fruit and nuts – being able to get to decentralised workplaces by bicycle or on foot -- voluntary community working bees – committees -- town meetings – many productive commons in the town (fruit, timber, bamboo, herbs…) – having to work for money only one or two days a week – no unemployment – living with many artists and crafts people – strong community --small communities making many of the important development and administration decisions.
Simple traditional alternative technologies will be quite sufficient for many purposes, especially for producing houses, furniture, food and pottery. Much production will take place via hobbies and crafts, small farms and family enterprises. However many useful modern/high technologies can be used extensively where appropriate, including IT. The Simpler Way will free many more resources for purposes like medical research than are devoted to these at present, by phasing out many wasteful, unnecessary and luxurious industries and reallocating some of these resources.
There could be many small private firms, and market forces could have a role, but the economy must be under firm social control, via local participatory arrangements. Thus local town meetings would make the important economic decisions in terms of what’s best for the town and its people and environment. We would not allow market forces to bankrupt any firm or dump anyone into unemployment. We would make sure everyone had a livelihood. The town would have to work out how to adjust its economy in the best interests of all.
Because we will be highly dependent on our local ecosystems and on our social cohesion, e.g., for most water and food, and for effective committees and working bees, all will have a very strong incentive to focus on what is best for the town, rather than on what is best for themselves as competing individuals. Cooperation and conscientiousness will therefore tend to be automatically rewarded, whereas in consumer society competitive individualism is required and rewarded.
Advocates of the Simpler Way believe that its many benefits and sources of satisfaction would provide a much higher quality of life than most people experience in consumer society. (See Note 6.)
The chances of achieving such a huge and radical transition are remote, but the crucial question is, given our situation, can a sustainable a just society be conceived other than as some form of Simpler Way? The argument above has been is that in view of the limits and overshoot outlined above, there is no alternative.
Over the past twenty years many small groups throughout the world have begun working to build settlements and systems more or less of the kind required, many of them explicitly as examples intended to persuade the mainstream that there is an alternative that is sustainable, just and attractive. (See the Transition Towns and Global Eco-village Movements.) The fate of the planet will depend on how effective these movements become in the next two decades. At present they are (understandably and inevitably) focused only on establishing things like community gardens, and not on the big difficult structural changes like getting rid of the growth economy. The task is to work with these movements to help them gradually see the need to focus on the crucial higher level changes.