Ted Trainer, University of N.S.W., Australia.

It is increasingly being understood that industrial-affluent-consumer society has entered a terminal phase, a period of rapidly accelerating difficulties which will lead sooner or later to the emergence of a quite different society. For some 300 years there has been a steady advance towards greater productive capacity and technical sophistication, "development", economic wealth and higher "living standards". Until the 1960s no one questioned the assumption that the pursuit of growth and affluence could continue forever.

However since then an overwhelmingly convincing "limits to growth" case has emerged which shows that affluent-industrial-consumer society is grossly unsustainable and that it is generating very serious problems of resource scarcity, ecological damage, Third World deprivation, conflict and social breakdown. (Trainer, 1995a, 1998, 1999.) The way of life taken for granted in the rich countries is only possible for a very few of the world’s people for a short period while they grab most of the world’s dwindling resources and deprive the rest, and generate catastrophic ecological damage. Yet thesupreme commitment is to economic growth, i.e., to constant and endless increase in production and consumption.

Recent 'footprint' analysis (Wachernagel and Rees, 1995) shows that it takes at least 4.5 ha of productive land to provide food, water, energy and settlement area to one person in a rich country. If the expected 9-10 billion people were to live as we do in Sydney the area of productive land required would be about 8 times all the productive land on the planet. Our society is not somewhat unsustainable; it is far beyond sustainability.

The global environmental problem is similarly explained in terms of there being far too much producing and consuming going on. For example the atmospheric scientists have told us that if we are to stop the carbon concentration in the atmosphere getting any worse we must cut the input rate by 60-80%. If we were to cut it by 60% and share the remaining energy between 9 billion people, each of us would have to get by on 1/15 of the volume we use now. Most people have no idea of these magnitudes, i.e., of the fact that we are far beyond sustainable levels and that we must cut resource use and environmental impact to a small fraction of present levels.

Possibly the most disturbing problems being caused by the commitment to affluence and growth are the deprivation and underdevelopment of the Third World. We in rich countries are getting 80% of the world’s resource output and consuming resources at 15-20 times the per capita rate of the poorest half of the world’s people. The global economy allows market forces to determine how resources are distributed and what is developed. The inevitable result is that the rich take most of the resources and goods produced while the poor are deprived of a fair share, and the development that takes place in the Third World does little more than put their land and resources into producing exports to enrich local elites, corporations and First World shoppers. Conventional economic development is best regarded as a form of plunder. (Chossudowsky, 1997, Goldsmith, 1997, Trainer, 1989, 1995a, 1995b.)

Clearly the major global problems facing us cannot be solved unless we move to ways of life that enable us to live well on far lower levels of production and consumption than we have now in rich countries. Yet what is the supreme goal in all societies? It is economic growth; i.e., to increase the production, consumption, "living standards" and GNP, as much as possible, constantly and without any limit. The absurdly impossible and suicidal implications of this never-questioned commitment are easily demonstrated.

If all the people we will probably have after 2070 were to have the "living standards" we in the rich countries would have then if we average 3% p. a economic growth for 70 years , total world economic output would be more than 100 times as big as it is now! When these magnitudes are understood there is no escape from the conclusion that a just and sustainable world order cannot be achieved an eventual transition to The Simpler Way; i.e., to a society based on much less affluent living standards, highly self-sufficient and cooperative socio-economic communities, and a totally different economic system, one that is not driven by market forces, the profit motive and growth. (For the detail see Trainer, 1995a.)

Some of the other crucial elements in an ecologically sustainable society would be, Permaculture design principles such as dense "edible landscapes" all through our suburbs, local production of most food, furniture, crockery etc., decentralisation so most people can get to work on a bicycle, much craft production, few big firms, local working bees and committees, development of local commons as sources of materials and amenity, neighbourhood workshops, ponds, windmills etc., the digging up of many city roads, town banks, local currencies, many sources of free goods from the neighbourhood commons, town and suburb self government -- and the need to work for money only one day a week!

An almost totally new economy must be created. It might have an important role for small private firms and for market forces, but these would have to be under social control. The basic production, development and distribution decisions would have to be made collectively. There would have to be no growth at all. There would also be many free goods from local commons, much giving and much economic activity that does not involve money or markets, and far less work and production than there is now. There would be much less for states to do because most economic and political activity would be taking place in self-governing small localities. There would be few if any transnational corporations and banks. There need be no reductions in important high tech things like modern medicine and dentistry, or the availability of universities, the arts and research.

The crucial point here is that these are not preferences or options among many others. This is the general form a sustainable society must take whether we like it or not! We cannot solve the big global problems facing us unless in rich and poor countries we move to settlements, lifestyles and economies which enable The Simpler Way.

The transition required is so vast that most of us (including me) would say our chances of achieving it are slight. Yet, not only do we now have a considerable literature on the form that a sustainable society must take, in the last two decades we have seen increasing numbers of people begin to adopt The Simpler Way. There are two overlapping strands here. The first is "voluntary simplicity", whereby many people are realising that by reducing their investment in the consumer society they can improve their quality of life. The second is the Global Eco-village Movement in which many small groups of people are actually building settlements and systems embodying the principles of The Simpler Way. The Movement can be broadly conceived to include hundreds of these initiatives throughout the world, including cohousing, local currencies, community supported agriculture, LETSystems, as well as intentional communities both rural and urban. The even more important and difficult task before us in this domain is to transform existing towns and city suburbs into highly self-sufficient eco-village communities.

I have no hesitation in claiming that the fate of the planet depends on those who are pioneering the transition to The Simpler Way. One of the main reasons for this view is the fact that mainstream society flatly refuses to attend to information on the massively unsustainable and unjust nature of its industrial-affluent-consumer ways. For several decades many of us have been working hard to educate about sustainability problems and the need for radical change from growth and greed society. I think this effort has almost completely failed. Politicians, economists, governments, the media, educational institutions and people in general still give almost no attention to the limits to growth analysis. Indeed there seems to be less willingness to think about these issues now than there was thirty years ago. Consumer society is clearly not going to change simply in response to more information about the global predicament and the need for radical change.

What then can we do? How can people concerned about the global situation best contribute to the transition to a sustainable world order? The clear answer I think is, put most of our energy into developing and demonstrating alternative lifestyles, settlements and systems, so that when consumer society runs into really serious problems people will be able to see that there is another way, one that is more sane, workable, attractive, just and ecologically sustainable.

The responsibility on The Simpler Way Movement is therefore enormous. We know the way that must be taken if a satisfactory world order is to be achieved, so we have to try as hard as possible to get the mainstream to understand this. The best way we can do this is through the examples we are building.

Given this context we must ask what can we within the movement do to increase its effectiveness? Following are the areas where I think we most need to focus.

We are strongest with respect to community, cooperation, participation and spirituality. Where we need more attention is on the development of lifestyles and settlements which have very low resource demands. The limits to growth analysis shows that a sustainable and just world order is not possible without very much lower rates of per capita resource consumption than we have in rich countries today. We need settlements which have a calculated ecological footprint that is far below the current perhaps 9 ha of productive land for people living in rich world cities. All the world’s productive land would only provide less than .7 ha for each of the 9 billion people expected on earth later this century. This means we must have localised agriculture, many home-made goods, humble earth built housing, little travel, materially simple lifestyles, few cars and far less purchasing of goods imported to supermarkets.

The Ecovillage literature does not contain sufficient reference to some of these core Simpler Way concepts. We should remember that half the world's people have an income less than $2 per day. Around 1 billion people do not get enough to eat. Ways of life and settlements that are possible for all will inevitably have to involve very simple lifestyles and a very low footprint.

We also need to put more emphasis on community economic production, i.e., the commons, workshops, gardens, infrastructures, cooperatives and especially the working bees which must account for much production of goods and services in a highly self-sufficient settlement.

We also need to work outside our settlements to build highly self-sufficient local economies. We can't produce everything we need within the Ecovillage. A sustainable society cannot import fridges and radios from the other side of the planet. It is not much good having a perfect Eco-village that exists within and gets its supplies from a surrounding economy that continues to be driven by market forces, profit, growth and corporate greed. Thus the most difficult task ahead of us is not building intentional communities but finding out how to slowly transform the existing towns and suburbs of consumer society into thriving, highly self-sufficient local economies. Intentional communities are in a good position to work on this crucial task within their surrounding regions.

Finally I think we must take up the enormous challenge much more energetically, and with a much more explicitly political focus. We are too relaxed and we are too polite! We should be going out to the mainstream asserting that its ways are catastrophically mistaken, that they are destroying the ecosystems of the planet and impacting severely on the lives of billions of Third World people, that the global economy is outrageously unjust, and that a satisfactory world order cannot be built unless there is transition to The Simpler Way. At present we are not asserting these points loudly enough, consumer society does not understand its need to change, and it does not see us as showing the way to a sane and just world order. I would like to see Eco-village literature reflect a more intense and determined sense of responsibility and urgency.

The world loses about 30,000 hectares of rainforest and Third World children every day. The big problems are getting worse at an alarming rate. A recent UN reports that the poorest one-third of the world’s people are getting poorer. (U.N. 1966.) Globalisation will accelerate these trends. The grounds for pessimism and despair often seem overwhelming. But we now also have strong reasons for hope, evident in the emergence of hundreds of settlements and systems all around the world more or less based on what I have no doubt are the fundamental principles required for a secure, just and sustainable world order. Some of the Eco-villages I know stand as hugely inspiring proofs that humans could easily defuse the current global predicament -- if they chose to. Governments, corporations and the media will not facilitate that choice. If the planet makes the transition to sustainable and just systems, against the now formidable odds, it will be because we in the Global Eco-village Movement have shown the way.

Chossudovsky, M., (1997), The Globalisation of Poverty, London, Zed Books.

Goldsmith, E., (1997), "Development as colonialism", in J. Mander and E. Goldsmith, The Case Against the Global Economy, San Francisco, Sierra.

Trainer, T. (F. E.), (1995), The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability, London, Zed Books.

Trainer, F. E. (T.), (1998), Saving the Environment; What It Will Take, Sydney, University of NSW Press.

Trainer, F. E. (T.), (1999), "The limits to growth case now", The Environmentalist, 19, 19, 4, Dec. 325 -336.

Wachernagel, N. and W. Rees, (1996), Our Ecological Footprint, Philadelphia, New Society.


The Simpler Way: Analyses of global problems (environment, limits to growth, Third World...)
and the sustainable alternative society (...simpler lifestyles, self-sufficient and cooperative
communities, and a new economy.)  Organised by Ted Trainer.