WE MUST MOVE TO
THE SIMPLER WAY:
AN OUTLINE OF THE GLOBAL SITUATION, THE SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY, AND THE TRANSITION TO IT.
Ted Trainer, Faculty of Arts, University of N.S.W.
Our industrial-affluent-consumer society is extremely unjust and ecologically unsustainable. The argument below is that these problems cannot be solved in a society that is driven by obsession with high rates of production and consumption, affluent living standards, market forces, the profit motive and economic growth.
Most people do not realise the magnitude of the overshoot, the extent to which this society is unsustainable. Because this is so great there must be vast and radical system changes if the big global problem are to be solved. A sustainable and just world order cannot be achieved until we move to very different lifestyles, values and systems, especially to a new economic system.
The alternative we must work for is The Simpler Way, based on frugal "living standards", co-operation, high levels of local economic self-sufficiency, and zero economic growth. The final section below argues that the top priority for people concerned about the fate of the planet should be starting to build these new lifestyles and systems within existing towns and suburbs.
THE GLOBAL SITUATION
There are three fundamental faults built into our society. The first is to do with over-consumption and unsustainability, the second is to do with the injustice of the economy, and the third with the falling quality of life.
Fault 1: THE LIMITS TO GROWTH
The most serious fault in our society is the commitment to an affluent-industrial-consumer lifestyle and to an economy that must have constant and limitless growth in output. Our way of life is grossly unsustainable. Our levels of production and consumption are far too high to be kept up for very long and could never be extended to all people. We are rapidly depleting resources and damaging the environment. Following are some of the main points that support these limits to growth conclusions. (For the detailed limits case see Note 1.)
These have been some of the main limits to growth arguments which lead to the conclusion that there is no possibility of all people rising to the living standards we take for granted today in rich countries like Australia. Note the magnitude of the overshoot. Most people have no idea of how far beyond sustainable levels of consumption we are, and how big the reductions will have to be. We seem to be at least 10 times over some crucial limits, e.g., re footprint and greenhouse. It is difficult to see how anyone could avoid the conclusion that we should be trying move to far simpler and less resource-expensive lifestyles and systems. The necessary reductions cannot be achieved without dramatic reductions in the amount of production, consumption and therefore economic activity going on.
While it is important to recognise that over-population is a very serious global problem, there is a much bigger one –- that is, over-consumption.
Now add the absurdly impossible implications of economic growth.
But the foregoing argument has only been that the present levels of production and consumption are quite unsustainable. Yet we are determined to increase present living standards and levels of output and consumption, as much as possible and without any end in sight. In other words, our supreme national goal is economic growth. Few people seem to recognise the absurdly impossible consequences of pursing economic growth.
If we have a 3% p.a. increase in output, by 2080 we will be producing 8 times as much every year. If by then all 9 billion people expected had risen to the living standards we would have then, the total world economic output would be more than 60 times as great as it is today! Yet the present level is unsustainable.
"But can't technical advance solve the problems?"
Most people assume that the development of better technology will enable us to go on enjoying affluent lifestyles and pursuing limitless economic growth, by reducing the energy and resource inputs needed to produce things. However the magnitude of our over-consumption makes this impossible.
Perhaps the best known "technical fix" optimist, Amory Lovins, claims that we could double global output while halving the resource and environmental impacts, i.e., achieve a "Factor Four" reduction. (Weisacher and Lovins, 1997.) But this would be nowhere near enough to solve the problems.
Let us assume that present global resource and ecological impacts must be halved. From above, if we in rich countries average 3% growth, and 9 billion rose to the living standards we would then have by 2070, total world output would be 60 times as great as it is today. Now do you think technical advance will make it possible to multiply total world economic output by 60 while halving impacts, i.e., make a Factor 120 reduction possible?
The most important tech-fix faith is that we can change to use of renewable energy sources and thus avoid use of carbon fuels. There is a strong case that this unquestioned belief is invalid. (See Trainer, 2007, 2008.) Just consider the liquid fuel problem. We will probably be able to produce 7 GJ of ethanol per tonne of biomass, and to grow biomass at no more than 7 t/ha (if the scale is very large.) To provide the 128 GJ p.a. of liquid fuel (oil plus gas) that an Australian now consumes on average we would need 2.56 ha of biomass plantation. To provide this energy to 9+ billion we would need some 25 billion ha of plantations…on a planet with only 13 billion ha of land!
The situation re electricity is more complex, but quite problematic. (Trainer, 2008.) Only 25% of our final energy use takes the form of electricity, but it is what almost all renewable energy sources produce. The biggest problems are set by the variability of renewables and by winter. For instance where will Europe get perhaps 300 GW in those periods when the continent has calm and cloudy weather for several days in a row, meaning no solar or wind input? (See Trainer 2008 on the difficulty associated with large scale .solar thermal located in deserts.)
Even if better technology was capable of finding alternative ways of sustaining affluent-consumer society, there isn’t time to do this on the scale required. There are good reasons for thinking that it will all be over by 2040. Mason for instance (2003), Beddington (2009) and Heinberg, (2003, 2008) discuss the way several very serious problems are likely to come to a head in “The 2030 Spike”, including shortages of oil, water, food, land, forests, fish, phosphorus and several other several minerals, along with the effects of the greenhouse problem and a population heading for 9 billion. If renewable energy was to replace fossil fuels in Australia by 2040 we would have to build the equivalent of half our present power stations every year until then.
Fault 2: THE MASSIVE INJUSTICE OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
Markets do some things well and in a satisfactory and sustainable society there could be a considerable role for them, but only if they were carefully controlled and not allowed to make the important decisions. It is easily shown that the market system is responsible for most of the deprivation and suffering in the world. The basic mechanisms are most clearly seen when we consider what is happening in the Third World.
The enormous amount of poverty and suffering in the Third World is not due to lack of resources. There is for instance sufficient food and land to provide for all. The problem is that these resources are not distributed at all well. Why not? The answer is that this is the way the market economy inevitably works.
The global economy is a market system and in a market scarce things always go mostly to the rich, that is, to those who can pay most for them. That's why we in rich countries get most of the oil produced. It is also why more than 500 million tonnes of grain are fed to animals in rich countries every year, over one-third of total world grain production, while 850 million people are hungry. A market system automatically and inevitably allocates most wealth to the rich.
Even more important is the fact that the market system inevitably brings about inappropriate development in the Third World, i.e., development of the wrong industries. It will lead to the development of the most profitable industries, as distinct from those that are most necessary or appropriate. As a result there has been much development of plantations and factories in the Third World that will produce things for local rich people or for export to rich countries. But there is little or no development of the industries that are most needed by the poorest 80% of their people. The Third World’s productive capacity, its land and labour, have been drawn into producing for the benefit of others, especially rich world corporations and consumers. This is most disturbing in those many countries where most of the best land is devoted to export crops.
Consider the situation of the people in Bangladesh who produce shirts for export, being paid 15c an hour. Obviously it would be far better for them if they could be putting all their work time into little local farms and firms that used local land, labour and skill to produce for themselves the basic things they need . But in capitalist development this is deliberately prevented. Third World ruling classes and rich world governments will only support development that is led by whatever will maximise the profits for some investor. The conditions of the Structural Adjustment Packages imposed by the World Bank on indebted countries prohibit any other kind of development, indeed they make poor countries open their economies more to market forces and corporate investment and make them reduce spending. So assitance to the poorest is cut and often their land is transferred to export producers because unless national income can be increased debt can’t be paid off. The poorest 1 to 2 billion people live in countries where corporations can’t make any profit so there is almost no “development” in them, when those countries could be solving their basic problems via appropriate development, quickly and without much capital or dependence on the global economy. (On the radical analysis of Third World development see Note 2.)
In other words the affluence and comfort we have in rich countries like Australia are built on massive global injustice. Few people in rich countries seem to understand that they could not have their high "living standards" if the global economy was not enabling them to take far more than their fair share of world resources and to deprive Third world people of a fair share.
These are inevitable consequences of an economic system in which what it done is whatever is most profitable to the few who own capital, as distinct from what is most needed by people or their ecosystems. (See Note 3 for detailed critical discussion of the economy.) The Third World problem will never be solved as long as we allow this economic principle to determine development and to deliver most of the world's wealth to the rich. For these reasons, conventional Third World development can be seen as a form of legitimised plunder.
The unjust share of world wealth we in rich countries receive is not just due to the way the global economy works. Rich countries put a great deal of effort into getting control of the resources and markets of others. We must recognise that the rich countries have and control an empire. They support dictatorial and brutal regimes willing to rule in their interests, they enable and actually engage in terrorism, they organise coups and assassinations, they invade and attack and kill thousands of innocent people, in order to ensure that regimes and regions keep to the economic and development policies that suit the rich countries. (For extensive documentation on the nature and functioning of the empire see Note 4.)
There is no possibility of satisfactory Third World development until the rich countries stop hogging far more than their fair share of the world’s resources, until development and distribution begin to be determined by need and not by market forces and profit, and therefore until we develop a very different global economic system. Again this must mean huge and radical structural change on the part of the rich countries, to simpler living standards and to an economy that is geared to meeting need rather than maximising profit.
Since the 1970s we have entered a period in which all these problems are rapidly accelerating, because of the globalisation of the economy. The big corporations and banks have pushed through a massive restructuring of the economy, sweeping away the controls which previously hindered their access to increased business opportunities, markets, resources and cheap labour. The supreme, sacred principle now is to “free market forces. This is enabling the transnational corporations to come in and take more of the businesses, resources and markets local people once had, and to gear "development” to whatever suits them rather than to what is needed by most people.
Globalisation is eliminating the arrangements which used to ensure that many little people could sell and work and trade, and that local resources such as land would produce things they need. Now the corporations are able to take over all those opportunities to increase their sales. The resulting skyrocketing wealth of the global super-rich should be no surprise. Globalisation is basically a gigantic takeover of economic wealth by the big corporations and banks, a sudden and stunningly arrogant grab that has delivered greatly increased incomes to the few owners of capital and the high skilled professionals and technocrats who serve them while it has had catastrophic impact on the lives of most of the world's poor people. (See Note 5 for extensive documentation.)
Fault 3: THE LOSS OF COHESION AND QUALITY OF LIFE.
In addition to the foregoing global resource and environmental problems, in the richest countries we are experiencing accelerating social breakdown and a falling quality of life. This is the result of the triumph of neo-liberalism which has made the maximisation of monetary wealth and business turnover within the market the supreme social goal. Many people cannot get a satisfactory share of the wealth, jobs and resources, and are having to work harder in more stressful conditions. Many are being dumped into “exclusion”. It is no surprise therefore that there is much drug abuse, crime, and social breakdown or that depression is now a major illness. Public institutions including hospitals, universities and public transport are deprived of sufficient funds. There is little or no investment in the development of community or cooperative institutions. Social attitudes are becoming more selfish and mean. Increasing numbers of people believe the future will be worse than the present. Neo-liberal doctrine advocates that all compete against each other as self-interested individuals for as much wealth as possible, when the sensible way for humans to relate to each other is via co-operation, sharing, giving and nurturing.
Much of this is due to allowing the market to become the dominant determinant of what happens in society. Market forces drive out good social values and behaviour, because they are only about individuals competing to maximise self interest. They allow no scope for giving, generosity, care or concern for the public good.
It is not possible to have a good society unless we make sure that considerations of morality, justice, the public good and environmental sustainability are the primary determinants of what happens. This means what is done must not be determined by what will maximise profit within the market for those with capital, and that there must be much social control and regulation of the economy.
Conclusions on the global situation.
The foregoing argument has been that the way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable and unjust and inevitably damage the quality of life. Some of the core lines or argument indicate that we should be trying to reduce per capita resource consumption by 90% or more. Nothing like this can be done without huge and radical change to new systems.
The crucial point here is that the problems cannot be fixed in a consumer-capitalist society. That kind of society creates the problems. If for example you have a growth economy that will inevitably generate a problem of resource depletion and environmental destruction. A sustainable society must have a zero-growth economy. If you let market forces determine production, distribution and exchange and development you will inevitably deprive most people of a fair share. A just society must allow need not profit or ,market forces to determine distribution and development. Easily overlooked is the fact that there is no possibility of a peaceful world if all strive for greater affluence and increased GDP and therefore compete more and more fiercely for resources. “If you want affluence then arm heavily.” You can only solve these problems if you change to a very different kind of society.
Yet these extremely important criticisms are not recognised. What we are dealing with here is a problem of ideology, a wilful delusion and refusal to question cherished values. The foregoing general analysis of our situation has been argued by scientists and others for more than 40 years now, but it has been almost impossible to get people to take any notice. Politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, journalists, economists and ordinary people flatly refuse to even think about the possibility that the obsession with affluence and growth is the basic cause of our problems and should be abandoned.
THE SIMPLER WAY
If the foregoing argument is basically valid some of the key principles for a sustainable society are clear. (For a more detailed discussion see Note 6.)
The following elaboration indicates the reasons for thinking that it would be easy to move to The Simpler Way --- if we wanted to, that it would eliminate the major global problems, and that it would liberate us from the consumer-capitalist rat race and provide all with a high quality of life.
Living more simply does not mean deprivation or hardship. It means focusing on 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 the luxury, expensiveness and waste taken for granted and idolised in consumer society.
Living in ways that minimise resource use should not be seen as an irksome sacrifice that must be made in order to save the planet. These ways can become important sources of life satisfaction. We have to come to see as enjoyable many activities such as gardening, "husbanding" resources, making rather than buying, composting, repairing, bottling fruit, giving old things to others, making things last, and running a productive and relatively self-sufficient household economy. In addition there will be many resource-cheap sources of interest and enjoyment within the local community, including the craft, the working bees, celebrations, concerts and festivals.
We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can at the national level, meaning much less international trade, at the household level, and especially at the neighbourhood, suburban, town and local regional level. We need to convert our presently barren suburbs into thriving economies which produce most of what they need from local resources. They would contain many small enterprises, such as the local bakery, enabling most of us to get to work by bicycle or on foot. Much of our honey, crockery, vegetables, furniture, fruit, fish and poultry production could come from households and backyard businesses engaged in craft and hobby production. It is much more satisfying to produce in craft ways rather than in industrial factories. There would be many little firms throughout and close to settlements, some would be cooperatives but many could be privately owned, giving people the satisfaction of running their own small business. They would mostly produce for local use, not to export from the region.
Many very small market gardens could be located throughout the suburbs and cities, e.g. on derelict factory sites and beside railway lines. Having food produced close to where people live would enable all nutrients to be recycled back to the soil through animals, compost heaps and garbage gas units. Grain and dairy products could come from areas close to towns. Meat would mostly come from small animals such as poultry, rabbits and fish, not cattle. Some sheep would graze orchards and woodlands to produce wool. Food quality would be much higher than it is now. There would be almost no packaging, and little need for fridges or food transport.
We should convert one house on each block to become a neighbourhood workshop, including a recycling store, meeting place, craft rooms, art gallery, tool library, surplus exchange and library. 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, forests etc. Most of your neighbourhood could become a Permaculture jungle, an "edible landscape" crammed with long-lived, largely self-maintaining productive plants such as fruit and nut trees. Especially important will be achieving a high level of local energy self-sufficiency, through use of alternative technologies and renewable energy sources.
There would also be many varieties of animals living in our neighbourhoods, including an entire fishing industry based on tanks and ponds. In addition many materials can come from the communal woodlots, fruit trees, bamboo clumps, ponds, meadows, etc. Thus we will develop the “commons”, the community land and resources from which all can take food and materials. All the furniture making wood needed could come from those forests, via one small saw-bench located in what used to be a car port. Small clay pits would provide clay for pottery and earth for mud bricks.
It would be a leisure-rich environment. Suburbs at present are leisure deserts; there is not much to do so much money and energy is spent purchasing entertainment. The alternative neighbourhood would be full of familiar people, small businesses, common projects, drama clubs, animals, gardens, farms, forests and alternative technologies and therefore full of interesting things to observe and do. Any neighbourhood has abundant unused potential culture and leisure resources including comedians, actors, artists, musicians, play writers, acrobats, jugglers and dancers. At present most Americans are watching TV 4+ hours a day. See what vast productive capacity we will harness up to enrich your dormitory suburb. (Dolgoff, 1973, explains the way output greatly increased when the Spanish Anarchist collectives put unused resources to work.) Consequently, people would be less inclined to travel at weekends and holidays, which would greatly reduce the national per capita footprint and energy consumption.
More communal and cooperative ways.
We must share more things. We could have a few stepladders, electric drills, etc., in the neighbourhood workshop, as distinct from one in most houses. We would be on various voluntary rosters, committees and working bees to carry out most of the child minding, nursing, basic educating and care of aged and disabled people in our area. We would also perform most of the functions councils now carry out for us, such as maintaining our own parks and streets. We would therefore need far fewer bureaucrats and professionals, reducing the amount of income we would need to earn to pay for services and to pay taxes. (The Spanish anarchists ran whole towns without any bureaucracy, via many citizens’ committees and assemlies.) Especially important would be the regular voluntary community working bees to build and maintain the commons, edible landscape, energy and water systems.
The new economy
There is no chance of making these changes if we retain the present economic system. The fundamental concern in a satisfactory economy would simply be to apply the available local productive capacity to producing what all people need for a good life, with as little bother, resource use, work and waste as possible.
Most obviously there would have to be far less production and consumption going on, and there would have to be no growth. Market forces and the profit motive might have a place in an acceptable alternative economy, but they could not be allowed to continue as major determinants of economic affairs. The basic economic priorities must be decided according to what is socially desirable (democratically decided, mostly at the local level via participatory local assemblies, not dictated by huge and distant state bureaucracies -- what we do not want is centralised, bureaucratic, authoritarian, big-state "socialism"). However, much of the economy might remain as a (carefully monitored) form of private enterprise carried on by small firms, households and cooperatives, so long as their goals were not profit maximisation and growth. The goals of enterprises would be to provide their owners and workers with satisfying livelihoods, and to provide things the town needs. Market forces might operate within regulated sectors. For example there could be local market days enabling individuals and families to sell small amounts of garden and craft produce.
The new economy must be mostly made up of many small scale, local economies, so that most of the basic items we need are produced close to where we live, from local soils, forests and resources, by local skill and labour. Things like fridges and stoves would come from regional factories a little further away. Very few items, including steel, would be moved long distances, and very little would be transported from overseas, perhaps including computers and high-tech medical equipment.
Much of the new local economy would not involve money. Many goods and services would be “free” from the commons and cooperatives run by our voluntary committees and working bees, and would come to us via barter and the giving away of surpluses. However we would have town banks and business incubators to enable us to set up the ventures we need, via zero interest loans and grants. (In a zero-growth economy there can be no interest paid; that’s the end of most of the finance industry!)
When we eliminate the huge amount of unnecessary production, and shift much of the remainder to backyards and local small business and cooperatives and into the non-cash sector of the economy, it will become possible to live well on a very low cash income, and therefore to work at a relaxed pace. Most of us will need to go to work for money in an office or a mass production factory only 1 or 2 days a week. We could spend the other 5 or 6 days working/playing around the neighbourhood doing many varied and interesting and useful things everyday.
Unemployment and poverty could easily be eliminated. (There are none in the Israeli Kibbutz settlements). Our neighbourhood work coordination committees 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!) We would not tolerate anyone being left without a livelihood; a worthwhile contribution. There would be many co-operatives, just groups of people with common needs, e.g., child-minding, house building, or bee keeping, who come together to share ideas, labour and good will to develop and run things. In general co-ops are far more efficient and productive than private firms. The town would assist co-operatives to provide necessary goods, using working bee labour and interest-free loans.
So, central to The Simpler Way is the need for the ordinary people of the town or suburb to collectively take control over the development and operation in our own local economy which we will run via participatory processes and rational decision making to meet many needs. We will run our economy for our benefit. The focal concern will be what is sufficient, as distinct from what will maximise wealth or efficiency. All these elements contradict the nature of the normal economy.
Of course it is not possible to go straight to such an economy. It will have to be developed slowly from humble initiatives by small groups within existing settlements. (See below.) What we will be doing is creating Economy B, the one which will guarantee we can all have a good and secure way of life because it enables us to provide necessities for ourselves irrespective of what happens in the national and international economies. Economy A, the remnants of the present normal economy, might still provide many desirable but secondary items, including imports, via market forces, production for profit and international trade.
Government and politics.
The political situation would be very different compared with today. There would (have to) be genuine participatory democracy. This would be made possible by the smallness of scale, and it would be vitally necessary. Big centralised governments could not run our small localities. That could only be done by the people who live in them because they are the only ones who would understand the local conditions, know what will grow best there, how often frosts occur, how people there think and what they want, what the traditions are, what strategies will and won’t work there, etc. They have to do the planning, make the decisions, run the systems and do the work. In any case in an era of intense scarcity we will not be able to afford much professional government. Above all the town will not work well unless people contribute willingly, enjoy this, and have control over their situation. These conditions are incompatible with centralised control.
Most of our local policies and programs could be drafted by elected unpaid committees but all people in the town would 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 be a role for some international agencies and arrangements. The production of items like steel, computers and railway equipment would need to be coordinated across large regions and internationally. (The Spanish anarchists were able to organise and coordinate these big wider regional economic functions via their citizen assemblies and committees, without any paid politicians or bureaucracy.) In some regions the remaining Economy A might be primarily devoted to export industries, such as the place s where railway equipment or computers are made.
Thus our intense dependence on our local ecosystems and social systems will also radically transform politics. The focal concern will be to work out what policies will work best for the town and 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, to find solutions all are content with, because we will be highly dependent on good will, concern for the public interest and eagerness to contribute. Above all the goal will have to be to find the policies that are best for the town and the region, because we as individuals will only live well if our region thrives. Without this social climate people will not conscientiously and energetically turn up to committees, working bees, celebrations and town meetings. The situation will therefore tend to make us more inclined to find and do whatever will contribute to town solidarity and cohesion.
The core governing institutions will (have to) 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 through discussions in cafes, kitchens and town squares, because this is where the issues can be slowly thrashed out until the best solutions for all come to be generally recognised. The chances of a policy working out well will 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 the vote is taken. So politics will again become participatory and part of every citizen’s daily life, as was the case in Ancient Greece. This is not optional; we must do things in these participatory, cooperative ways or the right decisions for the town will not be found and people will not “own” the decisions and will not try hard to make them work.
Note that these crucial changes must be made in economic, geographical and political structures and systems. They can’t be made just by individuals changing their lifestyles.
The new values and worldview.
The biggest and most difficult changes will have to be in world view and values. The present commitment to individualistic competition for affluent-consumer “living standards” and endless increases in wealth must be replaced by a strong desire to live simply, cooperatively, and self-sufficiently, and by concern for the common good. Only if these alternative values and sources of satisfaction, which contradict those of consumer society, become the main factors motivating people can The Simpler Way be achieved.
Obviously the chances of this society making such a huge change in world view are not at all good. However the coming era of intense scarcity will jolt people into facing up to these issues. It is very likely that we will realise that our quality of life, indeed our chances of survival, will suffer if we do not live simply and cooperate for the common good. If we can establish the new communities the conditions we will experience within them will require and reward these better values and behaviours.
A higher quality of life.
People working for The Simpler Way have no doubt that the quality of life for most of us would be much higher than it is now. We would have fewer material possessions and we would have much lower monetary incomes but there would be other powerful sources of life satisfaction. These would include 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, giving and receiving, growing some of our own food, keeping old clothes and devices in use, running a resource-cheap and efficient household, practising arts and crafts, participating in community activities, having a rich cultural experience involving local festivals, performances, arts and celebrations, being involved in governing one’s area, living in a nice environment including farms and gardens, and being totally secure from unemployment and poverty and in old age or illness. Especially valuable would be the peace of mind that would come from knowing that you are not contributing to global problems through over-consumption. Note that the main sources of our quality of life would be public. Our private wealth and possessions would be of little significance. What would matter is whether we lived in a culturally and ecologically rich community with lots of top quality artists, magical picnic spots and festivals.
Abandon modern technology?
It should be stressed that the Simpler Way would enable retention of all the high tech and modern ways that are socially desirable, e.g., in medicine, windmill design, electronics, public transport and household appliances. We would still have national systems for some things, such as railways and telecommunications, but on nothing like the present scale. We would have far more resources for science, research, education and the arts than we have now because we would have ceased wasting so many resources on unnecessary research and production, including arms, advertising, most aircraft and ships and roads, commercial entertainment, skyscrapers, packaging, fashion, electronic games…
WORKING FOR THE TRANSITION.
If the argument so far has been basically valid, then we have no choice but to work for transition to the sort of alternative society outlined above, in rich and poor countries. How might we best do this?
Following are some thoughts about the transition process, followed by a suggested guide to practical action.
Our chances of achieving such enormous transition are not good, given that the dominance of the obsession with affluence and growth is deeply entrenched in Western culture, and the fact that there is not much time left.
The transition will not be led by governments. Their top priority is always to maximise business turnover, and they must respond to public demand for rising “living standards”. Changes of the magnitude required can only come via grass-roots work aimed at getting people to see the desirability of moving to The Simpler Way in the places where they live. The new ways can only be built in existing suburbs by the people who live there. Governments can’t do it for us, nor could they impose the new forms if they wanted to. There has to be understanding, conscientiousness, good will, and enjoyment of the new ways klon the partr of ordinary people, and coercion can’t generate these.
There will be no significant change while the supermarket shelves remain well stocked. It will only be when people are jolted by something like a serious and lasting petroleum shortage that they will start to doubt consumer-capitalist society.
We do not have to get rid of consumer-capitalist society before we can begin to build the new way. Fighting directly against the system is unnecessary and unwise. We do not need to defeat it; we just need to replace it. We are going to ignore it to death, i.e., to start building its replacement and persuading people to come across.
“But if we become a threat won’t they will crush us?” No, because as we approach “The 2030 Spike” the ruling class will not be able to stop us in the millions of little towns and suburbs where people have realised that they must take control of their own affairs. Anyway, they won’t have the oil to fuel the tanks.
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 The Simpler Way as preferable, consumer-capitalist society would immediately collapse. The problem is therefore one of ideology, i.e., it is about getting people to see that consumer-capitalist society is unacceptable and that there is a much better alternative.
The most effective way we can do this is by working here and now, within the settlements we live in, to create elements of the new society. Our most important purpose in doing this should be to change the thinking of the people in the town or suburb, so that they come to see why radical transition makes sense.
In the last 20 years many people around the world have begun to build, live in and experiment with new settlements of the required kind, firstly within the Eco-Village movement and more recently within the Transition Towns movement. (Note 7.) By far the most valuable thing for socially concerned people to put our time into is trying to move the suburb or town we live in towards being a largely self-governing local economy.
The breakdown of consumer-capitalist society will force people to develop the new small, local economies whether they like it or not. Local farms, jobs etc will emerge as petroleum dwindles and transport and travel become too costly or simply impossible.
At present many concerned people are working on “light green” projects that can make no contribution whatsoever to the transition. For instance working to save the whale, increase recycling, or stop wood chipping…are good causes... but they will do nothing to move us towards a sustainable society, because that requires transition away from consumer-capitalist society, and more recycling will not contribute to that.
Change will be rapid when it comes. The problems in consumer-capitalist society are intensifying, so it will be increasingly seen that the old system cannot provide for us. If we make it to The Simpler Way we will go there fast.
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 to stop us if enough of us decide to ignore them and to build our own local systems. Even if we got control of government through the electoral process or a coup, force and violence cannot help us to establish the consciousness among people in general that is necessary if the new settlements are going to work well. However it will be a revolution in which the super-rich will be forced off the scene, and you will be forced to not own a sports car…forced by the new conditions and economic rules. Yes the transition will be about intense conflict between class interests, but it need not involve violence.
It should not be assumed that the transition strategy is about setting examples and exhorting people to make “lifestyle changes” (e.g. to ”downshift”.) This is easily misunderstood. The key to transition is a change in consciousness that will lead to strenuous rejection of consumer-capitalist society and adoption of The Simpler Way…and the best way to work to bring this change about is to plunge into the process of building the new ways here and now. This will put us in the best position help the people we are working beside develop the new world view.
A very important merit of this strategy is that it gives people concerned about the planet the best possibility of maintaining morale and enthusiasm. We can practise and enjoy aspects of the post-revolutionary society here and now.
A PRACTICAL STRATEGY.
Following is a general strategy people might work on in their towns and suburbs.
Form a Community Development Co-operative. A small group comes together and form itself into a Community Development Collective (CDC) with the purpose of identifying and organising the locality’s unused productive resources of skill, energy, experience and good will with a view to enabling people to produce some of the basic items they need.
Set up a community garden and workshop. The most promising first step is for the CDC to set up a cooperative community garden and workshop, in which participants can work together to produce food and other items for their own use. Especially important is drawing in low income and unemployed people, thereby enabling those excluded from the normal economy to become economically active again. It is absurd that in any town or suburb many people are forced to endure poverty and boredom when they could be working together to produce things they need.
We would record time contributions and these would entitle people to their share of what is produced. (This is creating our own money; see below.)
The CDC would then look for further areas in which cooperative production could be organised. An early possibility would be a baking day. Once or twice a week a cooperative working bee might produce most of the bread etc. the group needs, 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 house repair and maintenance, nursery production, herbs, poultry, fish (in tanks), honey, sewing and clothes repair, weaving, preserving and bottling fruits and vegetables, making slippers, sandals, hats, toys, bags and baskets, car repair and the “gleaning” of local surplus fruit from private back yards. Many services including child minding and care of older people could be organised via the recording of time contributions. (The “Time Dollar” system.)
These activities would also provide important intangible benefits, such as the experience of community and worthwhile activity and the sharing and development and skills. 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 a working bee, followed by dinner, discussions and social activities.
Connecting with the normal/old economy; stimulating the town’s internal economy. The next step would be to enable people in this new economic sector to trade with the normal/old firms within the locality. These old firms are selling many goods low income people want but can’t produce for themselves and can’t purchase because they have little “normal” money.
The CDC must find out what things our new economic sector can start providing to some of the firms in the old/normal economy. It must discuss with existing firms what they could possibly buy from us, and it must consider setting up new firms within the CDC to supply these items (e.g., vegetables to the restaurants). Clearly we within the CDC can not buy things from the old firms unless the people in our new sector are able to produce and sell as much to the old sector as they buy from it.
Note that if petroleum becomes scarce your local economy will be hard hit, especially its firms. It will make sense for us to work with them to keep them going in some form. We can give them customers, and working bee contributions to their restructuring, while they can give us basic goods. Thus we will move to taking greater social control over our situation.
Other functions. Before long the CDC might start organising voluntary neighbourhood or town working bees, perhaps occasional at first but eventually occurring at set times aimed at developing the locality in desirable ways, e.g., planting fruit and nut trees in local parks, or building simple premises for new little firms. A market day could be organised to sell CDC produce and products. The CDC could start exploring the development of commons throughout the neighbourhood.
Eventually the CDC must take on the import replacement task. The proportion of a 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, it means that money is flowing out of the town, and it means you are vulnerable to import availability problems. Above all it means high energy costs for transport. The CDC must look for imported items that local firms might begin supplying.
The CDC must constantly focus attention on the importance of living simply, making things yourself, home gardening, repairing and re-using. The fewer goods people consume the less that the town will have to provide or import. Craft groups could be established to increase home production of many items for use within the home. The CDC might organise classes, skill sharing and display days for gardening, pottery, basket making, woodwork, preserving, sewing, sandal making, weaving, leatherwork, blacksmithing, etc. The great importance of the household economy should be emphasised.
Eventually the town or region should establish its own bank or credit union, business incubator and voluntary taxation systems.
One of the committees within the CDC should work on the provision of local “home-made” entertainment, including regular concerts, dances, visiting artists, craft and produce shows, garden and farm field days, film night discussions, youth clubs, art galleries, picnic days, celebrations and festivals, and many educational activities such as talks and agricultural field days.
What we have done is begin to establish Economy B, the one that will increasingly enable our town’s people to provide the basics they need, secure from the wider economy.
Councils, churches and charities are in an ideal position to do these things. They have the resources to start cooperative community gardens, firms, and farms in which people can work together to produce things they need. Why haven’t they done this? It would at least make an enormously positive difference to the welfare of “disadvantaged” people, let alone boost our progress towards town self-sufficiency.
The creation of a local currency can play a crucial role. The council or church or charity could for instance pay work contributions to the gardens etc. with vouchers or coupons it printed, entitling holders to a share of the produce from these ventures. It could accept this money as payment for rates and other services. It could include shops and other normal enterprises in the scheme, which would expand the range of items our participants could purchase with the vouchers they are earning. (See Note 8 for the detail.)
Note that the currency created is not the key factor. What matters is enabling people who were previously idle to begin producing and earning. It is the setting up of the productive ventures that is crucial, because obviously one cannot get the money to purchase unless one can produce and sell something. Thus it is crucial that agencies such as CDCs, churches and councils must set up co-operative “firms” that people without jobs or incomes can work in. The new currency is no more than an accounting device useful in keeping track of how much people have contributed and how much of the output they have a claim on.
The vital educational functions of the CDC; the consciousness raising task.
The most important functions for the CDC are to do with awareness raising. At the beginning few people in the neighbourhood will be thinking about the issues being discussed here. The CDC’s primary task is not to build the new ways, important as that is. It is to help people develop the ideas and values that will motivate them to build the new ways. So the CDC must think continually about how to get people to understand the global situation, the unacceptability of consumer-capitalist society, why transition is necessary, and especially how workable and rewarding the alternative could be. The things we build at the garden and workshop site, and the activities we take up in the locality will be our most impressive teaching aids.
It must be clear from the start that the overall goal is not “prosperity” conventionally defined. It is not to do with raising the town’s “living standards” defined in terms of GNP per capita. It is not to compete more effectively in the global economy and bring more income into the region. The goals are to create an Economy B to enable the town, suburb or region to provide itself with many of the basic goods and services it needs and to secure a high quality of life for all via simpler ways.
Above all we must help people to see that they are not just developing survival strategies in the face of peak oil, nor accepting inferior “living standards” to cope with scarcity, nor providing charitable assistance to excluded people. They must come to understand that what they are doing is the extremely important pioneering of the ways that have to become the norm in the world in order to solve global problems. We will wear our frugality self-sufficiency and cooperation with pride, and we will make it clear that we are on a planet saving mission!
If we do make it to a sustainable and just world order the transition will not have been led by governments, officials or corporations. It can only be commenced by tiny groups of ordinary people who have taken on this task of working out how they can start to move their towns and suburbs towards eventually being highly self-sufficient and cooperative local economies. If you want to help us save the planet, this is by far the most important kind of work you could take on.
Note that this revolutionary activity is positive, constructive and enjoyable. In working for the revolution we will be starting to learn and practise the ideal ways that will be the norm after the revolution is completed – as distinct from having to fight and defeat a powerful enemy before we can start to build a good society.
We must set ourselves for many years of plodding away slowly establishing the systems that people in the mainstream will become more interested in as the conventional economy increasingly fails to provide for them. Little will change until the problems become so acute as to impact on their supermarkets. The coming peaking of petroleum supply will jolt them into taking notice of us! So, what is the most important thing for activists concerned about global problems to do? It is, help us get those Community Development Co-operatives going here and now.
4. http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/10-Our-Empire.html For a large collection of
documents on the topic see http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/DocsOUREMPIRE.html
5. For a more extended discussion see . See also documentation at http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/DocsGLOBALISATION.html
7. Global Ecovillage Website, http://gen.ecovillage.org/, Transition Towns website, http://www.transitiontowns.org/
8. Money, banking and local currencies. http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/Money&banking.html
Anderson, K., and A. Bows, (2009), “Radical reframing of climate change agenda”, Tyndall Centre, Manchester University, http://sites.google.com//com/sitt/cutcarbonemissions80by2020/drs-kevin-anderson-aclice-bows-tyndall-centre-re-uk-radical-reforming-of-climate-change-agenda
Beddington, J., (UK Chief Scientist), 2009, "World faces perfect storm of problems by 2030", http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2009/mar/18/perfect-storm-john-beddington-energy-food-climate
Climate Action Summit, (2009), Canberra; target should be zero emissions by 2050, and 300ppm. Arena Journal, Feb-Mar, 2009, 99, p. 2.
Dolgoff, S., Ed., (1990), The Anarchist collectives : workers’ self-management in the Spanish Revolution, 1936-1939 ,Montréal, Black Rose Books.
Hansen, J., et al., (2008), “Target atmospheric CO2; Where Should humanity aim?”, The Open Atmospheric Science Journal, 2, 217 – 231.
Heinberg, R., (2008), Peak Everything, New Society.
Mason, C., (2003), The 2030 Spike: Countdown to Catastrophe, Earthscan.
Trainer, T., (2007), Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society, Dordrect, Springer.
Trainer, T., (2008), “Renewable energy – cannot sustain an energy-intensive society”, http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/RE.html
Weizacker, E. Von and A. Lovins, (1997), Factor Four, St Leonards, Allen and Unwin.
For critical summaries and detailed documentation on global issues, for use by critical educators, please see The Simpler Way website…http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/