Feminism: The Simpler Way perspective.

Ted Trainer


The term “feminism” means different things to different people.  The following note indicates the very important connections I see between The Simpler Way and a particular conception of feminism (mostly referred to as “eco-feminism”).

The most common use of the term is by “liberal feminists”, and focuses on women having equal opportunity and rewards with men in the competitive consumer-capitalist society.   That is not the perspective taken here.

            The Context.

First it is necessary to sketch the nature of and the need for The Simpler Way. These are determined by the magnitude and seriousness of the global sustainability and justice predicament.  The resource intensive consumer-capitalist way is grossly unsustainable and unjust and is running into serious problems.  The general form of a satisfactory alternative is beyond dispute; it must involve a zero growth economy and far lower per capita resource use and this can only be achieved via frugal lifestyles in mostly small scale and localised, highly self-sufficient and cooperative communities applying local resource to the meeting of local material, ecological, social and spiritual needs. 

The most glaring way this alternative society contradicts conventional consumer capitalist society and the economic theory it practices is that it will involve primarily small, local subsistence economies.  This is another ambiguous and misunderstood term.  I take it to mean most things are produced for direct use in the meeting of basic needs, and not as commodities to be sold in a market in order to make money.  There can be selling of products, e.g., in local markets, but this is only a convenient way of exchanging and “recording” obligations to reciprocate when goods are received.  However most of the goods one obtains in a satisfactory subsistence economy do not come via a market.  They are produce by one’s family’s gardens and craft production, and from free community gardens such as the many orchards, nut groves, woodlots, ponds, meadows herb patches, water wheels and windmills in the neighbourhood.  Many goods come via exchange of surpluses with neighbours, surpluses left at the community centre, and barter arrangements.  Many are “free” from the community commons, such as the orchards we all help to maintain. The scope for abundant production here is not recognised by the mainstream; imagine your neighbourhood crammed with fruit and nut trees, bee keepers and fish pond “farmers”.  The city of Havana harvests more than 20 tonnes of vegetables per ha from plots within the city every year. 

These ways are far more productive, efficient, enjoyable and ecologically acceptable than allowing the normal market economy to provide basics like food.  For instance all “wastes” can be immediately put back into soils, feeding animals on the way.  There might be no packaging, transport or marketing costs. Subsistence production is not just something individual households engage in.  A village can organise complex ways of sharing the production and exchange of necessities, such as having one herder look after everyone’s sheep, and helping with the neighbour’s harvest.   Especially important is that it enables everyone to participate and enjoy a livelihood.

These ways flatly contradict the market economy.  They do not involve selling in order to maximise profit, competition, getting rich, neglect of needs, dumping the weakest, individualistic-selfish plotting e.g., to ruin competitors.  They are cooperative ways.  They are not engaged in to accumulate monetary wealth; participants are not out to get rich.  They involve at least some degree of cooperative rational planning of what is needed for the welfare of all (e.g., when committees discuss what crop we need more of next year, what to apply working bees to.) They are powerful providers of security because they free us from dependence on the fickle and dangerous global economy, which can dump you into starvation if it doesn’t want your export crop any more.  They enable all the labour, skill and good will within the town to be harnessed to benefiting everyone.

This does not mean that in post-consumer-capitalist society there can be no place for a monetary economy, or private firms, or indeed the determination of some things by a (carefully regulated) market.  But it does mean that the key to the provision of basic necessities in the coming era of intense scarcity will (have to) be subsistence principles within mostly small and localised economies.

However conventional economic theory and practice despises and eliminates subsistence.  It is seen as an impediment, a mistake, a primitive and inefficient way.  Subsistence is not what the business world wants.  Subsistence minimises selling but they want as much selling going on as possible. It frees people from total dependence on those with capital and their power to provide jobs, because it gives people the capacity to get together to produce to meet their own basic needs.  The loss of that capacity was a key defining element in the emergence of capitalism. Subsistence therefore must be got rid of and replaced by market systems.  Unfortunately people on the left, especially Marx, have been as dismissive of subsistence as the neo-liberals. They are concerned to see workers increase their capacity to earn money to purchase goods. This is to assert the necessity for capitalist development, i.e., the need for development to be led by the investment of capital in production intended to maximise profits in the market, on the assumption that this is the best, the only way to bring about growth and trickle down and create jobs… and isn’t that what development is all about? (Marxists differ in wanting the capital to be publicly owned and controlled.)

Very few people have seen this contradiction, or defended subsistence.  Among them have been Gandhi who was quite remarkable in seeing that there are nowhere near sufficient resources for all to achieve Western affluent “living standards”.    He argued for a development path that was not taken, i.e., for cooperative village self-sufficient subsistence.   Helena Norberg-Hodge and ISEC are working to preserve traditional ways and customs in Ladakh and other Third World regions.  There are many in peasant communities anxious to prevent the consumer-capitalist juggernaught from taking their land and ways, including the Chiapas and the Via Campesino movement.  Among the most notable defenders of subsistence have been Maria Mies, Veronica Benholdt-Thomsen and Vandana Shiva. 

What has this got to do with feminism? 

Subsistence is essentially about the home and community, the neighbourhood and village.  It is about “producing” to meet immediate needs, such as caring for a sick child, feeding a hungry family, repairing a leaking roof, looking after chickens, digging in the home garden.   These are the things women have mostly done.  They are the ones who mostly have worked in the domestic arena.  They work in an informal sector.  Their work involves caring, for children, aged parents, invalids, animals and gardens.  This work is not done for money, let alone to accumulate capital to invest to become wealthier in a limitless spiral.   The motive for this work is to benefit the welfare of the family and community.  The enormity of the difference between that and the motive for work assumed by conventional economic theory and practice could not be exaggerated.  Above all their work is about reproduction; including the reproduction of men who come home tired from the factory, the reproduction of the race through child bearing, and the reproduction of “life”, i.e., of the ecosystems and social conditions all depend on.  Women have traditionally been very close to “nature”, to the soils and forests, whereas men have been more likely to be away at a job.  Ariel Salleh has been especially influential in drawing attention to this crucial and neglected reproduction theme.

The economy of consumer-capitalist society could not exist if this enormous amount of work outside the monetary economy was not done.  More work is actually done in the non-monetary domestic economy than in the monetary realm economists confine themselves to.  More work is done washing up, making beds, helping kids with their homework etc. than is represented by the GDP.  Even if it was less, it is the most important work, because it is the activity that produces and regenerates viable, cohesive, healthy individuals and communities. It is the physical, social and spiritual work that maintains society, keeps people in good shape and relating to each other effectively, recharges energies, yields a sense of well-being and security, as well as contributing to the ironing and teaching and house maintenance that has to be done.  If this work was not done the factories would not produce much for sale! 

This is an iceberg most of which is unseen.  Women have traditionally done most of this work, and they have done it completely outside the monetary economy.  The rules by which this work is done have nothing to do with money.  They involve desire to provide, help, cooperate, share, reciprocate and see others thrive. One consequence is that all this work is totally ignored by conventional economic theory and practice; it is regarded as having no economic value whatsoever.  (Hence the title of Marilyn Wearing’s book, Counting for Nothing.) This again ignores the obvious fact that if this work was not done the conventional economy would immediately collapse.  No wonder such an absurdly deficient economic theory is leading us to global catastrophe. 

This complex and little-understood domain extends far beyond the economy narrowly defined in terms of production of goods and services.  It includes the conscious and unconscious “work”, the processes whereby society functions and is maintained.  Consider the values, customs, trust, networks, morality, ideas, expectations, sense of justice etc. which enable more or less routine day to day interaction, and all the “work” that goes into these processes, and into maintaining and reproducing them. Good social interaction depends heavily on the general level of familiarity, shared understandings, mutual respect, reliability and trust, compliance with norms and laws, bonds to people and rules and traditions, predictability, giving and receiving and the resulting feelings of indebtedness an gratitude.  If there was a low level of honesty shopkeepers could not leave unguarded goods on their shelves, so the dollar cost of operating using more locks etc. would be higher.  By promoting the competitive self-interested quest for wealth the neo-liberal triumph has seriously damaged these crucial intangible and largely unmeasurable social factors.

Some refer to this domain as involving “social capital”. I am strongly opposed to that as it suggests that the stuff we are talking about has some similarity to monetary capital, that we can talk about it in conventional economic terms, and that the “laws of conventional economic theory can deal with this domain. These are serious mistakes.  If I give away money I have less of it, but if I give you a hug or show you how to make porridge, or tell you a joke, or give you a cheer up I gain spiritual/social wealth. You can't buy or sell friendship or social cohesion or reputation in a market. Conventional economics assumes humans are self-interested monetary-wealth maximisers but the existence and reproduction of good social relations requires that warped view to be contradicted.

So I see Eco-feminism as helping to draw attention to the nurturing elements in our nature that are crucial for a good society but have been tragically pushed aside by capitalism in general and Neoliberalism in particular.  In communities function according to Simpler Way principles we will experience conditions that require and reward a nurturing values, attitudes and behaviour.

Domination, patriarchy.

A major problem evident in Western culture is the powerful tendency people have to dominate each other, to struggle to greater power, wealth and status.  Eco-feminists stress this (although others do too; for instance it is the central theme in Murray Bookchin’s writings.)  Again the domestic situation and the work of reproduction at least involves less incentive for these kinds of values and behaviours.   Work at the office might require competing and winning, and rewards and prestige for the top dog, but caring for children, old people, gardens, the home and the social relations involved prioritises consideration, care, giving, co-operation and thinking about the collective good.  These activities provide little or no incentive to try to beat others in zero-sum conflicts for scarce resources.  Status is more likely to be associated with reputation for helpfulness than for being a tough competitor or top dog or having glitzy possessions.

Especially important in view of the limits to growth, the alternative values under discussion do not prioritise accumulating monetary or material wealth.  In subsistence and domestic economies satisfactions come mainly from community life and social interactions, from enjoying gardening and craft, and being able to contribute to the thriving of family and friends, rathe than from trying to get richer than others.

Again it is obvious that these will be the concerns that The Simper Way will focus us on.  Our welfare will not be enhanced by macho values like trying to beat others.  It will be obvious that the more we cooperate and help and give the better will be the local systems we have to keep in good shape. There will be no point in striving for power over others, or to be the winner, or to be rich.  In fact these would damage the town cohesion and morale that is crucial for good town decision making and functioning.  Equality, sharing, giving, friendliness and concern to see others enjoy life will obviously be in our individual interests.

This realm centred on the domestic, neighbourhood and town economy, and the situation requiring and rewarding co-operation and concern for the common welfare is of course at the heart of The Simper Way.  This involves the informal, non-monetary, kinds of work, inter-relationships, networks, systems of care, helping, giving, reciprocation, gratitude and debt, which have characterised women’s work and role for thousands of years.  In The Simpler Way these will be the most important things we all do.  The men will (have to and will want to) be there in the kitchens and gardens and craft rooms with the women and children, working/playing together in the production of many of the things needed by themselves and their neighbours.  Of course there will also be work to be done in local small firms and factories, and some in big enterprises such as steel works, and in (the few remaining) bureaucracies, and some of this will involve non-subsistence arrangements, monetary incomes and investment of capital.   But the coming era of intense resource scarcity will require mostly local subsistence economic arrangements, and mostly the cooperative “work” that in the past has mostly been done by women.  In this situation there will be little value in or incentive for domination and patriarchy.

Attitude to nature.

The Eco-feminist critique of society extends far beyond the domestic and local economy, to include philosophical and cultural aspects.  For instance it involves a readiness to consider a different way of thinking about nature.  The emergence of modern science was associated with a departure from previous ways of thinking about the natural world whereby humans were seen as part of nature, nature was regarded as having rights and interests and welfare, and therefore it was important to treat nature well.  Native people today retain these kinds of ideas and values, for instance seeing great spiritual significance in nature, sometimes seeing mining as injuring nature, and not taking more than is needed. Totems are to do with animals and plants that are sacred and not used.  Land is not property that can be owned, let alone sold.  Indeed humans belong to the land. In some societies hunters apologise and express gratitude to an animal before killing it.

Modern science involves “reductionism”, an approach to understanding which cuts nature up into parts and selects only a few variables for study, whereas ways of thinking about nature in various other societies tend to be more holistic, complex and concerned with integrated systems.

The scientist is separate from nature and studies it from a distance, and he does so in order to “force her to reveal her secrets” to paraphrase Bacon.  Thus humans and nature are seen as being in conflict and our intent is to conquer and master nature, and become able to make her do things she would not normally do, such as bear more fruit than previously.  Nature is there for our benefit and can be exploited. 

Native people see themselves as part of nature, and as obliged to respect its ways and interests and to live in harmony with it. A subsistence economy is close to, bound to and dependent on nature.  Growing things, harvesting from fields and forests, maintaining forests and fields, and the processing of animal products are among its major elements.  Attention must be focused on what is good for nature in the long term.  American Indians are said to make decisions in terms of how they will affect people seven generations ahead. In our long pre-modern history women have been especially conscious of the dependence of all on the care of ecosystems. Effects of human action on nature are very apparent and crucial for survival, whereas in the conventional economy they are not seen and are easily ignored.

In the new communities of the Simpler Way we will be acutely aware of our dependence on local ecosystems and therefore much more likely to have attitudes different to those dominant in high-tech consumer society.  Most people will be working or spending leisure time in gardens and forests much of the time so they will constantly be in situations which stimulate thinking about and appreciation of nature. This is likely to produce not just a realisation that there is a need to preserve, conserve and recycle for economic or productive reasons, but a strong inclination to appreciate and be grateful, to recognise nature’s power and complexity and mystery, and to want to see nature thrive. 

These understandings and attitudes weigh against humans becoming arrogant with respect to nature, too ready to think that we can ignore its interests or force nature to provide what we want.  Those attitudes are evident in the dominant “tech-fix” attitude whereby humans increasingly try to go on doing things nature reacts to, such as burn more and more fossil fuels, and when problems arise instead of backing down they look for some wizard technical solution that might force nature to allow us to press on.  Sometimes nature knows best and we should attend to what she is saying.  This is most glaring with respect to limits to growth; nature does not grow for ever.

This is not to reject modern science.  There is obviously a very important place for its way of studying nature and the knowledge and power that yields.  It is to suggest that there is also an important place for other and presently neglected ways of thinking about nature.  The recent advent of ecology as a field of study, and of the Gaia hypothesis and the “new physics” seem to represent moves in the sensible direction.  Eco-feminism is a major contributor.

 “Reductionism”; e.g., the inadequacy of monetary measures.

Another way the Eco-feminist critique of society is far reaching concerns the tendency to reduce the analysis of complex fields to the examination of only a few or only one factor.  Conventional economics provides an excellent example, because it is concerned only with the dollar exchange value of things.  It is therefore incapable of discussing the many crucial non-monetary costs and benefits that are involved in economic phenomena, such as the depression that unemployment causes, or the irritation the noise from a new factory will cause.  Economists then have the arrogance to define all the crucial costs and benefits their monetary measures can’t deal with as “externalities”, i.e., not really economic phenomena, and of secondary importance.  It is a delight to the owners of capital when only the dollar costs and benefits of building the new factory are to be taken into account, because it allows all the other costs to be ignored by them, and paid by someone else. 

Modern science tends to be strongly reductionist, breaking reality up into small bits and studying these intensively, and focusing on what can be measured. This has of course been extremely effective in revealing much about how nature works, but Eco-feminists point out that this can result in misleading simplification of complex fields and the overlooking of many important considerations. For instance as was explained above conventional economists totally fail to take into account the many complex, mysterious, and crucial social, cultural and ecological factors that determine production, exchange and welfare, such as traditions, trust, friendships conflicts, the morale and problems and goals preoccupying people, the ideas people have (e.g., about the acceptability of inequality and poverty), the physical climate, and the condition of the social relations between people.  In their domestic and village work and interactions women have had to be tuned to these factors and concerned to keep them in good condition, i.e., concerned with their reproduction. 

One of the distressing consequences of the neoliberal triumph is the elimination of these non-monetary sectors of the real economy and the transferring of more and more functions into business to be done for money.  The individual and family must buy more and more from corporations, such as aged care, child care, advice and “counselling”, conflict resolution, “education”, meals (take-away), leisure and entertainment.  But commercially provided things cannot take into account or enable all those informal, social factors that can enrich social interaction, such as the gratitude felt when a friend gives you something.

Thus conventional economic theory is like a theory of art which confines itself to discussion only in terms of paint thickness.  Such a theory would be pathetically incapable of satisfactorily representing what goes on in art.  Tawney, Weber and Polanyi detailed the way that the transition to capitalism eliminated the many social, cultural and spiritual rules and bonds which previously were seen as crucial determinants of production, exchange and welfare.  In Medieval times economic behaviour had to conform to general moral principles, such as do not take advantage of a weaker person.  But with the transition to capitalism behaviour in the economic sphere came to be defined as subject to a narrow set of different rules, e.g., enabling you to ruin a competitor or exploit him when he has to sell.  The individual entrepreneur became free to pursue self-interest and to ignore many social consequences.

The Simper Way will immerse us in the functioning of the town as a complex whole.  We will be aware of and interested in how it is getting along, watching for areas that need attention and taking pride in how well “our town” is going.  We will tend not to be focused heavily on our own individual niche or specialism. When we think about problems and possible adjustments we will take into account the full range of factors that are relevant and we will not be interested in analyses confined to monetary costs and benefits.


Eco-feminists also point to issues to do with our way of knowing, and the resulting knowledge, and the differences between our ways and those evident in pre-industrial societies.  Our science is based heavily on that distinction between humans and nature and the readiness to distance ourselves from and to look in on nature, and take it apart to study its components. However in non-western societies there is usually a “holistic” way of thinking about nature, a readiness to think in terms of its entirety and complexity. 

Consider the way the Pacific Islanders navigated, and the “knowledge" that enabled this.  The navigator had to be remarkably sensitive to a complex range of inputs, the tiny waves reflected back from unseen islands in the dark, the stars, the kinds of birds and fish they saw, the clouds, the smells from distant forests.  Taking all these factors into account at once enabled them to know where they were in the open ocean and the skilled navigator’s knowledge contained an inexplicable, ineffable, complex blend of experiences, folklore and interpretations.  Perhaps we should say he felt where to go rather than knew.  A similarly mysterious complex sensitivity constitutes the knowledge enabling Aborigines to live in and manage extreme desert habitats, or to maintain grasslands by patchwork burning. This “wisdom” is accumulated and passed down over generations and often built into myths, stories and religious beliefs.  This kind of knowledge and thinking is unlike the stuff in our science text books.

The scientist is separate from nature and studies it from a distance, and this is done in order to “force her to reveal her secrets” to paraphrase Bacon.  Thus humans and nature are seen as being in conflict and our intent is to conquer and master nature, and become able to make her do things she would not normally do, such as bear more fruit than previously.  Nature is there for our benefit.  Again native people do not think in terms of separation from and exploitation of an inert, inanimate nature.

Native and peasant people live close to, or fully integrated into, nature.  They are very aware of and appreciative of nature’s ways and provisions, and of the need to treat her well and not push her around.  This is the situation The Simpler Way puts us in. Most people would be working or spending leisure in gardens and forests much of the time so they would constantly be in situations which stimulated thinking about and appreciation of nature. Even those who worked full time in offices would live close to farms and gardens and would be acutely aware of their town’s dependence on its ecosystems. This situation is likely to produce not just a realisation that there is a need to preserve, conserve and recycle etc. for economic or productive reasons, but also a strong inclination to appreciate and be humble and grateful, to see nature’s power and complexity and mystery, and to want to see nature thrive. 

            The magnitude of the contradiction.

It is easy to fail to grasp the huge difference between these two world views.  The dominant orientation in consumer-capitalist society is selfish/individualistic, competitive/aggressive, exploitative and limitlessly acquisitive. Our economy functions on these principles.  If society as a whole shifted to the values Eco-feminists draw attention to this would constitute the greatest revolution since the advent of capitalism.  That is indeed what is at stake in the transition to The Simpler Way.  It involves far more than getting rid of this economy; it cannot succeed without enormous change in values and ideas in the direction of cooperation, caring, nurturing, concern with the welfare of the collective, and humility and appreciation with respect to nature.

The difference between this perspective and the analysis of feminism given by Marxists or socialists should be noted.  The latter tend to see various problems, including the environment, as consequences of capitalist exploitation and therefore set to disappear when capitalism is replaced.  They see women’s work as contributing the functioning of capitalism by enabling the worker to turn up to the factory each morning.  These points are true enough but there tends to be no recognition of the additional cultural issues raised above.  Eco-feminists point out that to replace capitalism by socialism would not necessarily bring about any change in the attitude to domestic work and subsistence production, to reproductive work, or to issues to do with competition, cooperation, power, nurturing, gifting etc.

            In summary…

The new conditions that scarcity will impose on us will have immense “spiritual” benefits (if we manage to establish TSW).  They will force us to shift from the self-interested competitive struggle for money and wealth towards cooperating and caring for each other.  They will make us think about the welfare of the people around us and of our town, because we will be getting many of the things we need from familiar people as “gifts”, and because we will be acutely aware that our individual welfare depends entirely on how well the social processes within the neighbourhood and town are functioning.  Our “wealth” will not depend on our bank balance but on how well the committees, working bees, town meetings, gifting and care networks are generating good will and conscientious contributions and beautiful landscapes and great concerts.  Above all we will be focused on caring for our ecosystems, social systems land for each other, knowing that if these are not in good shape we will all suffer serious consequences. Thus the climate will tend to be one of care and concern for the welfare of the other, as distinct from determination to beat others and be one of the winners. Our situation will obviously require and reward cooperation, getting involved, and determination to care and provide for all.  It will be transparent that the competitive, aggressive, callousness and greed characteristic of consumer-capitalist society, and often characteristic of men, would destroy the systems and cohesion and citizenship that make a town work well.   Again these are the values and perspectives evident in a domestic/household economy and in a subsistence economy and traditionally characteristic of the situation and activities of women.


Benholdt-Thomsen, V. and M. Mies, (1999), The Subsistence Perspective, London, Zed.

Benholdt-Thomsen, V., N. Faraclas and C. Von Werlhof, (2001), There Is An Alternative; Subsistence and World Wide Resistance to Corporate Globalisation, London, Zed Books.

Salleh, A.,  (2013),  “From Metabolic Rift to Metabolic Value: Reflections on Environmental Sociology and the Alternative Globalization Movement”, Organisation and Environment, 23,2, 205 – 219.

Salleh, A..,   M. Mellor, and K. Farrel, with Vandana Shiva, (2013), “How ecofeminists use complexity in ecological economics”,  in Beyond Reductionism  ;  A passion for interdisciplinarity, Edited by Katharine N. Farrell, T. Luzzati and S. van den Hove, 154-179.