When will the left’s (many) ecomodernists understand the limits to growth?


                                                                        Ted Trainer

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The left’s tendency to believe in the power of technology has aligned it with what has recently been labeled “ecomodernism.” This position assumes that technical advance will enable the solution of resource and ecological problems without jeopardizing affluent living standards or economic growth.  That is, it is claimed that the economy can be “decoupled” from the environment. However an examination of the recent historical record of achievement reveals little or no support for this faith. Brief reference is also made to the limits to growth case indicating the typically overlooked magnitude of the overshoot and deteriorating trends that technical advance would have to reverse. When this evidence is understood it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a sustainable and just society cannot be an affluent society and cannot have a growth economy, but must be some kind of radically Simpler Way. Its form and the transition to it are briefly discussed. The hope is that the left will adjust to focus on these themes.

The Left has a strong tradition of belief in the power of technical advance to solve our problems and enable high “living standards” for all, if only it could be freed to do so by getting rid of capitalism. What has been well-described as “Tech-fix faith” has been an overwhelmingly central element in mainstream Enlightenment culture. It has recently become more explicit and vocal under the heading of  “Ecomodernism” (Asafu-Adjaye, et al., 2015, Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenbeger, 2015), and the popularity of this theme has recently surged within Left circles, as evidenced by the attention given to Leigh Phillip’s book, Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts; A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, (2014.)

The left in general has been reluctant to accept is that there are severe limits to the material “living standards” that are possible. The now large “limits to growth” literature constitutes a formidable argument that resource and ecological constraints determine that in a just and sustainable world per capita rates of consumption would have to be a small fraction of those taken for granted in rich countries today. If this is so the left is confronted with a major challenge because it follows that radical and revolutionary change in economic and power structures will not be sufficient.  In addition a much more difficult cultural revolution will have to be achieved and a new “Simpler Way” vision of the good society will have to be accepted.

Some within the left reject the limits to growth thesis on the grounds that it is  “Malthusianism”.  By this some seem to be denying that population growth is a problem, and some seem to see the limits claim as blaming higher population growth in the poorer countries for global problems.

The following argument is that “Tech-fix” optimists in general and ecomodernists in particular fall far short of having a substantial let alone persuasive let alone convincing case. In fact their major works do not even attempt to show that the now voluminous “limits to growth” thesis is mistaken, or that the achievements anticipated by ecomodernists could be made. Especially important here is the fact that all the available evidence seems to show the extreme implausibility of the central ecomodernist claim that economic growth can be “decoupled” from resource and ecological impacts.

Leigh Phillips leads the scathing-rejection wing of left ecomodernism, ridiculing those currently arguing that the solution to global problems has to be focused on acceptance of limits, de-growth and reduced production and consumption and a very different conception of a desirable society.  In this he is restating the left’s identification of such goals and visions as unnecessary and backward steps condemning most people to continued and indeed deepening misery.  Many on the left hold versions of the basic tech-fix world view, believing that economic growth can and should continue, that growth is essential to lift the poor to satisfactory lives, and that technical advance can bring prosperity to all while dealing with the resource and ecological problems. The argument below is that these beliefs are incorrect.

Thus in my view the most important issue confronting the Left today is the choice between adhering to the vision of a good post-capitalist society as affluent, industrialised, globalized, urbanized and ultra-high-tech, or recognising that such a vision is ruled out by the limits to growth and that the goal has to be some kind of Simpler Way. It will be argued below that given the inadequacy of the ecomodernist case the left needs to scapr some of its core assumptions regarding the post revolutionary society and transition strategy.

The following discussion is intended to show firstly how coercive the limits to growth case is, and secondly how very unsatisfactory and implausible the general “tech-fix” and decoupling claims are.  Most if not all existing critical discussions of ecomodernism and of left modernization theorists such as Phillips (e.g., by Hopkins 2015, Carrdonna et a, 2015, and Smage 2015a, 2015b) have been impressionistic and “philosophical” and therefore not so likely to convince those beginning with opposed world views.  In contrast, the following analysis focuses on the numerical implausibility of the tech-fix faith. When estimates and actual numbers to do with resource demands, resource bases, ecological impacts and past decoupling achievements are considered it becomes clear that the task set by the ecomodernists for technical advance is implausible in the extreme.

The basic limits to growth thesis.

The “limits to growth” argument is that with respect to many factors crucial to planetary sustainability affluent-industrial-consumer society is grossly unsustainable. It has already greatly exceeded important limits. Levels of production and consumption are far beyond those that could be kept up for long or extended to all people.  Present consumption levels are achieved only because resource and ecological “stocks” are being depleted much faster than they can regenerate, i.e., depleted at unsustainable rates. (See further below.)

But the present levels of production, consumption, resource use and environmental impact only begin to define of the problem.  What is overwhelmingly crucial is the universal obsession with continual, never ending economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, incomes and GDP as much as possible and without limit.  The most important criticism of the ecomodernist position is its failure to grasp the magnitude of the task it confronts when the present overshoot is combined with the commitment to growth.  The main concern in the following discussion is with quantities and multiples, to show how huge and implausible ecomodernist achievements and decouplings would have to be. 

The magnitude of the task.

It is the extent of the overshoot that is crucial and not generally appreciated. The ecomodernists fail to deal with this and it only takes a glance at the numbers to see how implausible their pronouncements are in relation to the task they set themselves. Their main literature makes no attempt to carry out quantitative examinations of crucial resources and ecological issues with a view to showing that the limits can be overcome.

Let us look at the overall picture revealed when some simple numerical aggregates and estimates are combined.  The normal expectation is for around 3% p.a. growth in GDP, meaning that by 2050 the total amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be about three times as great as at present. World population is expected to be around 10 billion by 2050.  At present world  $GDP per capita is around $13,000, and the US figure is around $55,000. Thus if we take the ecomodernist vision to imply that by 2050 all people will be living as Americans will be living then, total world output would have to be around 3 x 10/7 x 55,000/13,000 = 18 times as great as it is now.  If the assumptions are extended to 2100 the multiple would be in the region of 80.

However, even the present global level of producing and consuming has an unsustainable level of impact.  The world Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” measure (2015) indicates that the general overshoot is around 1.5 times a sustainable rate.  (For some factors, notably greenhouse gas emissions and metal consumption, the multiples are far higher.) This indicates that the target for the ecomodernist has to be to reduce overall resource use and ecological impact per unit of output by a factor of around 27 by 2050, and in the region of 120 by 2100. It is no surprise that this has been labeled “the impossibility theorem.”

This issue of multiples is at the core of the limits and decoupling issues. If ecomodernists wish to be taken seriously they must provide a numerical case showing that in all the relevant domains the degree of decoupling that can be achieved is likely to be of the magnitude that would be required.  However there appears to be no ecomodernist text which even attempts to do this.  At best their case refers to a few instances where an impressive decoupling has taken place. (I have asked five of the main ecomodernism authors for relevant studies and evidence, some a number of times, but their replies have not given provided any.)

Outline of the limits predicament.

Although there are some areas where global resource and ecological trends are positive, such as increasing forest cover, in almost all domains availability and conditions are deteriorating.

Energy and climate.

There is widespread agreement that the supply of conventional petroleum has peaked. The discovery rate has fallen significantly over the past thirty years and in the last decade or so the investment effort going into providing conventional petroleum has trebled while supply has stagnated. (ASPO, undated.) The seriousness of the situation has been masked by the boom in supply from fracking but it seems likely that this source will have peaked within a decade or so. 

According to several climate scientists, at the present rate of CO2e emissions the total cumulative amount that must not be exceeded will have been exhausted in about twenty years. (Anderson and Bows 2008, Hansen 2008.) This means completely eliminating use of fossil fuels. This is perhaps the clearest limit to growth that has been exceeded and there is a strong case that keeping temperature rise below 2 degrees is now impossible, given that it will probably be many years before any significant action begins to make a difference, and then the build rate for renewables and/or nuclear capacity will be well beyond achievement.  If it was attempted additional vast quantities of fossil fuels would have to be devoted to the task before 2050, guaranteeing failure to keep emissions sufficiently low.


The grades of several ores being mined are falling and production costs have increased considerably since 1985. Diederen (2009) says that continuation of current consumption rates will mean that we will have much less than 50 years left for access to cheap and abundant metal minerals, and that it will take exponentially more energy and materials input to grow or even sustain the current extraction rate of metal minerals. Diederen’s conclusion is indeed, as his title says, sobering; “The peak in primary production of most metals may be reached no later than halfway through the 2020s.” “Without timely implementation of mitigation strategies, the world will soon run out of all kinds of affordable mass products and services.”  (p. 23.)

The ecomodernist’s response must be to advocate mining poorer grade ores, but this means dealing with marked increases in energy and environmental costs. Greater quantities of rock must be dug up and processed, deposits become smaller and more distant and difficult to find, and processing poorer ores requires finer grinding, more reagents and thus more difficult wastes to be dealt with. This could only be attempted via massive commitment to nuclear energy. (See below.)

Now consider the minerals situation in relation to the above multiples. At present only a few countries are using most of the planet’s minerals production.  For instance the per capita consumption of iron ore for the ten top consuming countries is actually around 90 times the figure for all other countries combined. (Weidmann et al., 2013.) How long would mineral supply hold up, at what cost, if 9 – 10 people billion were to try to rise to rich world “living standards”? How likely is it that in view of current ore grade depletion rates and the miniscule decoupling achievement for minerals (detailed below), the global amount of producing and consuming could multiply by 27, or 120, while the absolute amount of minerals consumed declined markedly?


About half the world’s people now live in cities, and the ecomodernists strongly advocate increasing this markedly, on the grounds that intensification of settlement will enable freeing more space for nature.  But urban living involves many high resource and ecological costs, including having to move in vast amounts of energy, goods, services and workers, to maintain elaborate infrastructures including those to lift water and people living in high-rise apartments, having to move out all “wastes”, having to provide artificial light, heating, cooling, air purification, having to build freeways, bridges, railways, airports, container terminals, and having to staff complex systems with expensive highly trained professionals and specialists.  Little or none of this dollar, energy, resource or ecological cost has to be met when people live in villages.

The frequent superficiality and invalidity of the Manifesto’s case is illustrated by the following statement. “Cities occupy just 1 to 3 per cent of the Earth’s surface, yet are home to nearly 4 billion people. As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs…” (Asafu-Adjaye, et al., 2015.) This is oblivious to the vast areas outside cities that are needed to produce and transport food etc. into the relatively small urban areas. If four billion were to live as San Franciscans do now, with a footprint over 7 ha per person, the total global footprint would be almost 30 billion ha, which is around twice as much land as there is on the planet, not 1- 3% of it. (WWF, 2014.) Urbanisation does not “decouple humanity from nature”.

            Biological resources and impacts.

Perhaps the most worrying limits being exceeded are not to do with minerals or energy but involve the deterioration of biological resources and ecological systems. The life support systems of the planet, the natural resources and processes on which all life on earth depends, are being so seriously damaged that the World Wildlife Fund claims there has been a 30% deterioration since about 1970. Steffen, (2015) states much the same situation.

The deterioration is evident in many domains, including biodiversity loss, disruption of the nitrogen cycle, damage to ecosystems by temperature rise, increasing toxicity of the biosphere, ocean acidification and plastic pollution, loss of forests, grasslands and wetlands, water crises, and decline in fish stocks and the possible loss of most coral reefs.

Food, land, agriculture.

Food supply will have to double to provide for the expected 2050 world population, and it is increasingly unlikely that this can be done. Food production increase trends are only around 60% of the rate of increase needed. (Ray, et al., 2013.) If all people we will soon have on earth had an American diet we would need 5 billion ha of cropland, but there are only 1.4 billion ha on the planet and that area is likely to reduce as ecosystems deteriorate, water supplies decline, salinity and erosion losses rise, population numbers and pressures to produce increase, good crop land is used for new settlements and to produce more meat and bio-fuels, and as global warming has negative effects on food production.

Pimentel and Burgess (2013) say one third of all cropland has been lost in the last 40 years. Vidal (2010) reports the rate of food producing land lost is 30 million ha p.a. As he says, “…the implications are terrifying”. He believes major food shortages are threatening. If his estimates are correct then more than 1 billion ha of cropland will have been lost by 2050, which is two-thirds of all cropland in use today.

The Ecomodernist Manifesto devotes considerable attention to the issue of future food production, using it as an example of the wonders technical advance can bring, including liberating peasants from backbreaking work. It is claimed that advances in modern agriculture will enable production of far more food on far less land, enabling much land to go back to nature. There is no recognition of the fact that modern agriculture is grossly unsustainable, on many dimensions.  It is extremely energy intensive, involving large scale machinery, international transport, inputs of energy-intensive fertilizer and pesticides, packaging, warehousing, freezing, dumping of less than perfect fruit and vegetables, serious soil damage through acidification and compaction, soil carbon loss and erosion, the energy-costly throwing away of nutrients in animal manures, the destruction of small scale farming and rural communities, the loss of the precious heritage that is genetic diversity … and the loss of food nutrient and taste quality (most evident in the plastic tomato.) 

On all these dimensions peasant and home gardening and other elements in local agriculture such as ”edible landscapes”, community gardens and commons are superior. The one area where modern agriculture scores higher is to do with labour costs, but that is due to the use of all that energy-intensive machinery. Ecomodernists do not seem to realize the fundamental challenge set for them by the well-established “inverse productivity relationship”, i.e., the fact that small scale food producers achieve higher yields per ha than agribusiness. (Smaje, 2015a, 2015b.)

            Summarising the biological resource situation.

The planetary environmental problem is essentially due to the huge and unsustainable volumes of producing and consuming taking place.  Vast quantities of resources are being extracted from nature and vast quantities of wastes are being dumped back into nature. Even though present flows are grossly unsustainable the ecomodernist believes the basic commitment to ever-increasing “living standards” that is creating the problems can and should continue, while population multiplies by 1.5, resources dwindle, and consumption multiplies perhaps by 8 before 2100.

The energy implications.

In all the fields discussed it is evident that the ecomodernist vision would have to involve a very large increase in energy production and consumption, including for processing lower grade ores, producing much more food from much less land, desalination of water, dealing with greatly increased amounts of industrial waste (especially mining waste), and constructing urban infrastructures.

If 9 billion people were to live on the per capita amount of energy Americans now average, world energy consumption in 2050 would be around x 5 (for the US to world average ratio) x 10/7 (for population growth) times the present 550 EJ p.a., i.e., around 3,930 EJ. Ecomodernists do not think renewables can solve the problem. Let us assume it is all to come from nuclear reactors, that technical advance cuts one-third off the energy needed to do everything, but that moving to poorer ores, desalination etc. and converting to (inefficient) hydrogen supply for many storage and transport functions counterbalance that gain.  The nuclear generating capacity needed would be around 500 times as great as at present.

            Conclusions re the significance of the limits to growth.

This brief reference to themes within the general “limits to growth” account makes it clear that the baseline on which ecomodernist visions must build is not given by present conditions. As Steffen et al. (2007) stress the baseline is one of not just difficult and deteriorating conditions, but accelerating deterioration. Before ecomodernists could begin to achieve miraculous decouplings their technical wizardry would first have to arrest the many alarming declines.

Assessing the plausibility of the general “tech-fix” and decoupling theses.

Whether they know it or not adherents to the tech-fix faith, whether conventional or left, are assuming that economic growth can be decoupled from resource use and environmental impact at an extremely high rate. The following discussion shows that the historical and present experience provides no support for the belief that this can be done.

At best productivity gains and decoupling achievements have been slight. The commonly available global GDP (deflated) and energy use figures between 1980 and 2008 reveal only a 0.4% p.a. rise in GDP per unit of energy consumed. But this is a misleadingly high figure; what matters is how significant has the decoupling in key sectors of the economies of rich countries. In assessing this it is important not to focus on internal national measures such as “Domestic Materials Consumption” as these do not take into account materials and energy embodied in imported goods. When these quantities are included rich countries typically show very low or worsening ratios. For instance for the UK and Australian the greenhouse gas emissions involved in producing the goods they import is equal to a significant fraction of those from fuel burning within each country. (Clark, 2011, Australian Government Climate Change Authority, 2013.) When total emissions underlying national consumption are accounted properly it is obvious that there has been the reverse of a decoupling of their emissions from economic growth.

It is often claimed that the “energy intensity” of rich world economies, i.e., ratio of GDP to gross energy used within the country, has declined and this is seen as evidence of decoupling, but this is misleading. Firstly it does not take into account the energy embodied in imports. Possibly more important is the long term process of “fuel switching”, i.e., moving to forms of energy which are of “higher quality” and enable more work per unit, e.g., from coal to gas and electricity. (Stern and Cleveland, 2004, p. 33, Cleveland et al., 1984,)

Decoupling can be regarded as much the same as productivity growth and this has been in long term decline since the 1970s. Even the advent of computerisation has had a surprisingly small effect, a phenomenon now labelled the “Productivity Paradox.” 

The highest estimate of the materials decoupling achievement over recent years appears to be the 1.5% p.a., stated by Hattfield-Dodds et al. (2015), but they give no evidence for this and other sources (below) indicate that the figure is too high. In addition it is not stated that embodied quantities have been included. Numerous sources give much lower figures. Weidmann et al. (2014) show that when materials embodied in imports are taken into account rich countries have not improved their resource productivity in recent years. They say “…for the past two decades global amounts of iron ore and bauxite extractions have risen faster than global GDP.” “… resource productivity …has fallen in developed nations.” “There has been no improvement whatsoever with respect to improving the economic efficiency of metal ore use.”

Giljum et al. (2014, p. 324) report only a 0.9% p.a. improvement in the dollar value extracted from the use of each unit of minerals between 1980 and 2009, and that over the 10 years before the GFC there was no improvement. “…not even a relative decoupling was achieved on the global level.” They note that the figures would have been worse had the production of much rich world consumption not been outsourced to the Third World. Their Fig. 2, shows that over the period 1980 to 2009 the rate at which the world decoupled materials use from GDP growth was only one third of that which would have achieved an “absolute” decoupling, i.e., growth of GDP without any increase in materials use.

Diederan’s account (2009) of the productivity of minerals discovery effort is even more pessimistic. Between 1980 and 2008 the annual major deposit discovery rate fell from 13 to less than 1, while discovery expenditure went from about $1.5 billion p.a. to $7 billion p.a., meaning the productivity expenditure fell by a factor in the vicinity of around 100, which is an annual decline of around 40% p.a. Recent petroleum figures are similar; in the last decade or so discovery expenditure more or less trebled but the discovery rate has not increased.

A recent paper in Nature by a group of 18 scientists at the high-prestige Australian CSIRO (Hatfield-Dodds et al., 2015) argued that decoupling could eliminate any need to worry about limits to growth at least to 2050. The article contained no support for the assumption that the required rate of decoupling was achievable and when it was sought (through personal communication) reference was made to the paper by Schandl et al. (2015.)  However that paper contained the following surprising statements, “ … there is a very high coupling of energy use to economic growth, meaning that an increase in GDP drives a proportional increase in energy use.”  (They say the EIA, 2012, agrees.) “Our results show that while relative decoupling can be achieved in some scenarios, none would lead to an absolute reduction in energy or materials footprint.” In all three of their scenarios “…energy use continues to be strongly coupled with economic activity...”

Sandu and Syed (2008) report that the energy efficiency of Australian energy-intensive industries is likely to improve by only 0.5% p.a. in future, and of non-energy-intensive industries by 0.2% p.a. In other words it would take 140 years for the energy efficiency of the intensive industries to double the amount of value they derive from a unit of energy.

Alexander (2014) concludes his review of decoupling by saying, ”… decades of extraordinary technological development have resulted in increased, not reduced, environmental impacts.”  Smil (2014) concludes that even in the richest countries absolute dematerialization is not taking place. Latouche (2014) reports that for Europe, Spain and the US GDP increased 74% in 20 years, but materials use actually increased 85%. Similar conclusions re stagnant or declining materials or energy use productivity etc. are arrived at by Aadrianse, (1997), Dettrich et al., (2014), Schutz, Bringezu and Moll, (2004), Warr, (2004), Berndt, (undated), and Victor (2008, pp. 55-56).

These many sources and figures indicate the lack of support for the ecomodernists’ optimism. It was seen above that they are assuming that in 35 years time there can be massive absolute decoupling, i.e., that energy, materials and ecological demand associated with $1 of GDP can be reduced by a factor of around 27. However there appears to be no ecomodernist literature that even attempts to provide good reason to think a general absolute decoupling is possible, let alone on the required scale. (Note again, such support has been sought from major Ecomodernist authors via personal communications a number of times.)

The overlooked role of energy in productivity growth and decoupling.

Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the significance of increased energy use. Previously productivity has been analysed only in terms of labour and capital “factors of production”, but it is now being recognized that in general greater output etc. has been achieved primarily through increased use of energy (and switching to fuels of higher “quality”, such as from coal and gas to electricity.)  Agriculture is a realm where technical advance has been predominantly a matter of increased energy use. Over the last half century productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door, and then dealing with the waste food and packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) Similarly the “Green Revolution” achievements have involved significant increases in energy use. 

Ayres, et al., (2013), Ayres, Ayres and Warr (2002) and Ayres and Vouroudis (2013) are among those beginning to stress the significance of energy in productivity, and pointing to the likelihood of increased energy problems in future and thus declining productivity. Morillo-Zamorano, (2005, p. 72) says  “…our results show a clear relationship between energy consumption and productivity growth.” Berndt (1990) finds that technical advance accounts for only half the efficiency gains in US electricity generation. These findings caution against undue optimism regarding what pure technical advance can achieve independently from increased energy inputs; in general its significance for productivity gains appears not to have been as great as has been commonly assumed.

The productivity trend associated with this centrally important factor, energy, is itself in serious decline, evident in long term data on ratios for Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI). Several decades ago the expenditure of the energy in one barrel of oil could produce 30 barrels of oil, but now the ratio is around 18 and falling. The ratio of petroleum energy discovered to energy required to do the discovering has fallen from 1000/1 in 1919 to 5/1 in 2006. (Murphy, 2010.) Murphy and others suspect that an industrialised society cannot be maintained on a general energy ratio under about 10. (Hall, Lambert and Balough, 2014.)

Thus it is evident that sheer technical advance has had less effect than it might seem to have had, and that advances in productivity measured in yield or dollar value per unit of labour have been significantly due to increases in energy inputs not to improved technology.

The changing make up of GDP.

There is another factor that makes decoupling and productivity achievements less than they might seem.  Over recent decades there has been a marked increase in the proportion of rich nation GDP that is made up of “financial” services. These stand for “production” taking the form of key strokes moving electrons around.  A great deal of it is wild speculation, involving risky loans and computer driven micro-second “investment” switches. These operations deliver massive increases in fees, commissions and interest to banks and managers, and these are accounted as additions to business turnover and GDP. In one recent year “finance” generated 40% of profits made in the US.  It could be argued that this domain should not be included in estimates of productivity because it misleadingly inflates the numerator in the output/labour ratio. 

However when output per worker in the production of “real” goods and services such as food, ores and vehicles is considered very different impressions can be gained.  For instance Kowalski (2011) reports that between 1960 and 2010 world cereal production increased 250%, but nitrogen fertilizer used in cereal production increased 750%. This aligns with the above evidence of steeply falling productivity of various inputs for ores and energy.

            The mistaken “uni-dimensional” assumption.

Frequently evident in ecomodernist thinking is the way that development, emancipation, technology, progress, comfort, the elimination of disease and hunger are seen to lie along the one path that runs from primitive through peasant worlds to the present and the future.  At the modern end of the dimension there is material abundance, science and high technology, the market economy, freedom from backbreaking work, complex civilization with high educational standards and sophisticated culture. It is taken for granted that your choice is only about where you are on that dimension. Third World “development” can only be about moving up the dimension to greater capital investment, involvement in the global market, trade, GDP and consumer society. Thus they see localism and small is beautiful as “going back”, and condemning billions to continued hardship and deprivation.  Opposition to their advocacy of more modernism is met with, “…well, what period in history do you want to go back to?”

This world-view fails to grasp several things.  The first is the possibility that there might be more than one path; the Zapatista’s do not want to follow our path.  Another is that we might deliberately select desirable development goals rather than just accept where modernization takes us. With respect to some factors we might choose not to develop any further, because they have been developed enough.  Many eco-villages are developed enough. Ecomodernism has no concept of sufficiency or good enough; Smaje (2015a) sees how it endorses being incessantly driven to strive for bigger and better, and he notes the spiritual costs.

Possibly most important, it is conceivable that we could opt for a combination of elements from different points on the path. For instance there is no reason why we cannot have both sophisticated modern medicine and the kind of supportive communities that many humans have enjoyed for millennia, and have both technically astounding aircraft along with small, cheap, humble, fireproof, home-made and beautiful mud brick houses, and have modern genetics along with neighbourhood poultry co-ops. Long ago humans had worked out how to make excellent and quite good enough houses, furniture, strawberries, dinners and friendships. We could opt for stable, relaxed, convivial and sufficient ways in some domains while exploring better ways in others, but ecomodernists see only two options; going forward or going backward. They seem to have no interest in which elements in modernism are worthwhile and which of them should be dumped. The Frankfurt School saw some of them leading to Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

The inability to think in other than uni-dimensional terms is most tragic with respect to Third World “development”.  Conventional-capitalist development theory can only promise a “growth and trickle down” path, which if it continues would take many decades to lift all to tolerable conditions while the rich rise to the stratosphere, but which cannot continue if the limits to growth analysis of the global situation is correct. Yet The Simpler Way could quickly lift all to satisfactory conditions using mostly traditional technologies and negligible capital. Trainer (2012, 2013a, 2013b) elaborates the theory, Leahy, (2009) describes the impressive Chikukwa instance.

The inescapable implications for the general form post-capitalist society must take.

If the foregoing arguments are valid then the most profound and radical implications follow for the nature of good society that must be worked for, and these confront some of the most firmly held assumptions of the left.  None is more crucial than the fact that a sustainable and just post-capitalist society cannot be an affluent society and it cannot have any economic growth.  In fact it must have an average GDP per capita that is a small fraction of that the current rich country average. This is increasingly being recognised, and as a result De-growth, Ecovillage and Transition Towns movements are gaining momentum. It is of great importance that the left should embrace this world-view, abandon its ecomodernist attachments, and reconfigure its critique of capitalism and its revolutionary project along the lines of what can be termed “The Simpler Way”.  In order to make clearer what this would involve it is necessary to elaborate briefly on the general form a satisfactory post consumer-capitalist society has to take. (For the detailed account see Trainer, 2011.)

The basic settlement form has to be the small scale town or suburb, restructured to be a highly self-sufficient local economy running mostly on local inputs and requiring a minimal amount of resources and goods to be imported from further afield.  State and national governments would still exist but with relatively few functions. There would be extensive development of local commons such as community watersheds, forests, edible landscapes, workshops and windmills etc. and community owned cooperatives would provide many goods and services. Considerable use could be made of high tech systems but mostly relatively low technologies would be used in small firms and farms. These local arrangements are the only ones that can deliver a good quality of life with extremely low resource and ecological impacts.

These settlements would have to be self-governing via thoroughly participatory processes, including town meetings and referenda. Systems, procedures and the overriding ethos would have to be predominantly cooperative and collective, but the centralized, bureaucratic (and often authoritarian) governing structures frequently assumed by the left cannot run these communities.

An entirely new kind of economy would be needed, one that did not grow, rationally geared productive capacity to social need, had per capita levels of production, consumption, resource use and GDP far below current levels, was under public control, and was not driven by market forces, profit or competition. However, there might also be a large sector made up of privately owned small firms and farms, producing to sell in local markets, but operating under careful guidelines set by the town to ensure optimum benefit for the town. The transition period would essentially be about slowly establishing those enterprises, infrastructures, cooperatives, commons and institutions making up an Economy B, whereby the town took control of developing its capacity to make sure that what needs doing was done, within of under the exiting mainly fee enterprise system (Economy A.) Over time experience would indicate the best balance between the two, and whether there was any need for Economy A.

There would be many “free” goods from the commons, a large non-cash sector involving sharing, giving, helping and voluntary working bees, and almost no finance sector. Communities would ensure that there was no unemployment or poverty, no isolation or exclusion, all felt secure, and that all had a livelihood, a worthwhile and valued contribution to make to the town. Because the goal would be material lifestyles that were frugal but sufficient, involving for instance small and very low cost earth built houses, on average people might need to work for money only two days a week. Lest these ideas seem fanciful, they describe the ways many thousands now live in Eco-villages and Transition Towns.

Beyond the town or suburban level there would be regional and national economies, and larger cities containing universities, steel works, and large scale production, e.g., of railway equipment, but their activities would be greatly reduced, and re oriented to provisioning the local economies. There would be little international trade or travel. The termination of the present vast expenditure on wasteful production would actually enable the amount spent on socially useful R and D to be significantly increased.

A detailed analysis of an Australian suburban geography (Trainer, 2016) concludes that technically it would be relatively easy to carry out the very large reductions and restructurings indicated, possibly cutting in energy and dollar costs by around 90%.

Thus from The Simpler Way perspective the solution to global problems is not a technical issue; it is a value issue. We have all the technology we need to create admirable societies and idyllic lives. But this can’t be done if growth and affluence remain the overriding goals.

            The implications for transition theory and practice.

This is the domain in which the limits set the greatest challenges for the left. The required kind of communities cannot come into existence or function unless there is enormous and historically unprecedented “cultural” change, especially away from competitive, acquisitive, maximising individualism and towards frugality, collectivism, sufficiency and responsible citizenship. Above all a sustainable and just world cannot exist unless people are content with frugal but sufficient material living standards and have no interest in wealth or getting richer.

Thus the core problem for the revolutionary is how can such settlements and personalities be created?  The inadequacy of traditional left thinking is quickly apparent. What about electing a green-socialist government to implement these changes?  Obviously that could not be done unless most people had first come to hold the necessary ideas and values, which just shows that the basic problem is the cultural problem. Well, how about taking state power via a ruthless vanguard party and forcing the changes through? The foregoing discussion should make it obvious that the required communities cannot be made to work; they will only be viable and effective if run by citizens with the radical new grass roots and localist vision. Avineri (1968) provides a valuable account of the way Marx failed to deal with this. Marx thought that in the immediate post revolutionary time people’s world views and values would still be individualistic, competitive and acquisitive, and that it would take a long period of rule by the party for these dispositions to be transcended. Few today would be likely to opt for such a strategy.

The anarchists, notably Kropotkin and Tolstoy, got the order of events right. They realized that taking state power is a waste of time unless and until people in general have come to understand that the solution has to be self-sufficient and self-governing communities.  The transition to that state of affairs is the revolution; it will make possible the changing of structures. The taking and/or elimination of state power is at best regarded as a consequence of the revolution. 

Thus Simpler Way transition strategy focuses on working within the emerging Transition Towns, De-Growth, Permaculture, Eco-village etc. movements that are now building aspects of the required localist solution. The reason for doing this is not to construct more community gardens and clothing swaps.  It is to become involved in these kinds of activities in order to be in the best position to connect red and green, to be able to help the communitarians to build and run an Economy B, to take control of their fate, and to see that their ultimate goals require capitalism to be scrapped.

In this coming era of limits and scarcity will need to relinquish its tech-fix tendencies, rethink the kind of world it is for, and realize that its best strategy will be to work with the emerging localist movements.


At present there would seem to be little chance that a transition to The Simpler Way will be attempted let alone achieved, but that is not central here; the issues are whether this vision or that of the ecomodernist makes more sense, and whether the left can focus its efforts on the establishment of some kind of Simpler Way.

The first step must be for the left to rethink its often implicit ecomodernism. In the increasingly problematic years ahead the left’s best chances will be found by joining with the those who realize that ecological and resource limits require capitalism to be replaced by a local, self-sufficient, participatory and frugal variety of socialism.


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