REMAKING SETTLEMENTS: THE POTENTIAL COST REDUCTIONS
ENABLED BY THE SIMPLER WAY.
(This is a short summary account. For the full 53 page 22,000 word derivation see thesimplerway.info/RemakingSettlements.htm)
Limits to growth and Footprint analyses show that the current resource and environmental costs of rich world societies must be reduced by something like 90% before levels enabling all to live sustainably could be achieved.
This study used data on typical Australian consumption rates, food production yields, suburban geographies, etc. to derive possible reductions in dollar, resource and ecological costs that might be achieved if suburbs and towns were radically transformed according to Simpler Way principles, that is, to be highly self sufficient and self-governing.
The study indicated that dollar, energy and footprint costs could be cut to around 10% of the present Australian averages, while improving the quality of life.
The Limits to Growth analysis shows that we must develop ways of life whereby we can live well on far lower per capita resource consumption rates than we have now, in a zero-growth economy. (See thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm.) Even within the De-Growth movement it is not clearly understood that the magnitude of the reductions needed is huge, probably to 10% of present levels. The Simpler Way argument is that this can be done, but only if there is enormous change away from the structures, systems and values of consumer-capitalist society. (See thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm) Only in highly localised, cooperative and self-sufficient communities will it be possible to achieve globally sustainable and just ways.
The de-growth movement lacks persuasive visions of alternative possibilities and providing these is the top priority of The Simpler Way project. People will be more likely to abandon unsatisfactory systems if they can see plausible, workable and attractive alternatives.
The quite frugal lifestyle and systems assumed here are highly attractive to me and I would opt for them whether or not they were necessary. They could significantly raise the quality of life of people even in the richest countries.
Following are brief summary notes on the findings derived in detail in the main report. The study examined each of several consumption/supply categories, such as food, buildings and leisure, to work out what the land area, dollar and energy costs would be if an outer Sydney suburb (East Hills) was converted to The Simpler Way. The proposals would be much more easily implemented in rural areas. Several of the figures are first estimates and are quite uncertain and the intention is to refine these as time goes by.
It was found that most and possibly almost all food could come from within settlements, that is from home gardens, community gardens, neighbourhood commons, and very small farms, at a very low dollar cost and energy costs, assuming radical restructuring of areas.
Some of the principles assumed are,
- Use of almost all available space, including the digging up of most roads, densely packed with “edible landscapes”.
- Overlapping functions e.g., orchards also graze animals and are leisure resources.
- Multi-cropping; the small scale enables new seeds to be planted immediately an area becomes vacant, keeping the whole area in continual use.
- Use of imperfect produce that cannot now be marketed, and recycling “wastes” to animals, fish ponds and compost heaps.
- Mostly hand tools and labour-intensive gardening, with a little use of light machinery on the small farms, where equipment can be shared.
- No “wastes”, no sewers or disposal costs due to strict recycling of all nutrients, from gardens, animals and humans, to animals, gas digesters, fish ponds and compost heaps, The goal is a sufficient quantity of nutrients constantly recycled between soils and kitchens.
- Thus no purchase of fertilizers, or pesticides.
- Seed saving.
- Only use of fresh foods in season.
- Much reduced consumption of meat, to come mostly from small animals, especially poultry, rabbits and fish via intensive use of ponds and small tanks.
- Many commons, especially on retrieved road space, containing gardens, orchards, woodlots, fish ponds, processing and storage sheds, “food forests”, maintained by voluntary working bees and committees.
- Surprisingly it would seem to be possible for the settlement to meet its (considerably reduced) meat demand from small animal production withinitsborders.
- Many co-operatives, e.g., for neighbourhood fish supply.
- Family farms, from very small to tiny, in backyards, vacant blocks, on commons, and on larger blocks just outside the settlement, producing for local use.
- Almost no packaging, energy-intensive storage, “marketing”, transport costs, high tech corporations, professionals in suits, corporate profits or bank interest payments adding to the cost of produce.
Area and yield figures.
The notes in the following box illustrate the kind of numerical assumptions and derivations detailed in the full report for each field.
Summary of food findings.
The kinds of analyses in the above box were also carried out for grain, dairy, fish, fruit, animal feeds, meat, beverages and sweeteners. The initial analysis using Australian average farm yield figures indicated that the land area available would enable about 60% of food to be produced within the suburb.
However the figures derived are probably much too high, mainly because yields from intensive home gardening and small farms are much higher than the figures used which came from national commercial production. For instance urban agriculture in Havana Cuba is reported to produce 21 t/ha/y of vegetables. (Koont, 2009.) Watson (2015) reminds us that the “Victory Gardens” planted by ordinary people in England during World War 2 achieved on average 10 times the typical agricultural yield. Diggers Seeds, (Blazey, 1999) claims that their trials using intensive home gardening, multi-cropping and heirloom seed varieties produce c. 40 t/ha/y. Joe Dervaes (2014) operates a remarkable “urban agriculture” in Pasadena where he claims to produce 2,727 kg of food p.a. from his 0.04 ha house block. This corresponds to a barely credible 68 t/ha/y. In addition the above initial area figure does not take into account use of roofs and walls, greenhouses, elimination of much pet food demand and of waste in marketing, or aquaculture.
These figures for probable yields from intensive local agriculture indicate that the initial area figure could be at least halved. If so, all food could be produced within the settlement.
The tools and equipment needed for food production were listed, and their dollar, embodied energy costs and lifetimes were estimated. (For the detail see thesimplerway.info/RemakingSettlermentsToolInventory.htm) It was assumed that 25% of food would come from local small farms.
No dollar costs have been included for labour. Much of the “work” would have no dollar cost, as it would be willing home gardening and contributions to cooperatives and community gardens. A thorough accounting would need to include paid work on small farms.
Dollar operational/running costs would be negligible. The constant dollar cost (i.e., based on equipment lifetimes) of total equipment stock came to $1,026/pp or $34/pp/y. Energy operational/running cost would be very low as this is mostly via hand tools, but the small amount for pumping and small farm machinery would need to be added for a thorough account. Embodied energy cost of equipment stock was 3,304 MJ/pp or 81 MJ/pp/y.
These are extremely low figures and the comparison with conventional agribusiness is stark. In 2007 the operational energy cost of the US food supply system (not including energy embodied in machinery replacement etc.,) was taking around 16% of national, energy, which is about 47 GJ/pp/y. (Canning, et al., 2010.) The operational energy cost associated with the above restructured system would be close to negligible, and almost all would be available from 12 V PV systems. The above figure for operational energy, i.e., energy consumed in US producing food, is about 670 times the estimated annual embodied energy cost of the local system.
Little needs to be said here on this topic as the study assumed that all new buildings would be as small as possible and mostly built from earth, via well established practices and designs. However the detailed accounting of dollar and energy costs indicates that these can be much lower than is often stated. This is partly because dollar costs for labour can be largely avoided, by people building their own small dwellings at a relaxed pace, with assistance from friends and experienced builders, and by construction of community facilities by voluntary working bees. Detailed itemized costing for a small house of approximately 50 m2 floor area indicates an overall cost of under $6,000, (using 2010 new materials prices). This is around 4% of the amount per square metre that would have to be earned (when bank interest and taxes are included) to purchase a normal house. (See thesimplerway.info/HOUSING.htm)
New premises for most local firms, shops and community facilities would be at most three stories in height, eliminating the need for lifts. In general finishes would be rough/rustic, not slick, e.g., barked saplings, mud walls, unpainted wood, with few metal or plastic surfaces.
These requirements do not have to imply drab or impoverished appearances. Simple earth-built structures can be beautiful, idiosyncratic and decorated in a wild variety of styles. The resulting landscapes can be unique and interesting leisure resources.
The detailed itemized list given for domestic houses plus community buildings yields continuing/lifetime costs of $63/pp/y, and 74 MJ/pp/y. The Australian 2010 average expenditure on housing was about $1,061/pp/y, 17 times as high. Simple mostly craft-built furnishing, appliances and equipment would add $165/pp/y and 300 MJ/pp/y.
The costs derived from the inventory of tools needed for (home plus community) workshops and food production were $165/pp/y and 300 MJ/pp/y. (See (thesimplerway.info/RemakingEquipmentInventory.htm)
IRRIGATION AND PLUMBING.
This category was for gardening, not domestic uses. It included small 12 volt pumps an cement for setting up systems, especially small tanks. The energy cost figure is for embodied costs, not for the very low running or production costs. The totals for system establishment plus annual maintenance/replacement etc. costs were $13.7 pp/y and 102 MJ/pp/y.
Furniture and many other items such as sheds, animal shelters, and boats would be simple, cheap, robust and durable, made from local materials, mostly wood. Items would be repairable, and most would be home-made. Some would come from local craft businesses in which people could enjoy making good solid furniture. These pieces might be relatively expensive, but they would last for generations, and cost would not matter since in general monetary needs might be met with two days paid work a week (see below.)
Annual equipment maintenance costs (excluding TV and computers, and some other minor items) were $165/pp/y and 300 MJ/pp/y. The Australian average household expenditure on “furnishings and equipment” is $1,136/pp/y. (ABS. 2015.)
There would be little use of energy-intensive metals and plastics. The reduced quantities of glass, steel, cement (little use of aluminium) might be produced regionally by solar and wind generated electricity in those periods when there was surplus supply. There would be intensive research into local plant sources for chemicals, adhesives, medicines, paints, lubricants, fibres and fabrics. Most of the dangerous and pollution generating synthetic chemicals in use today would not be necessary.
Timber would be a major material, replacing most metals and plastics. It could all be produced from local woodlots and neighbourhood mini saw mills within and close by settlements, (e.g., old car engines running on methane or ethanol.) Timber needs would be low in a stable economy, called on only to maintain stocks of housing and furniture. Considerable use would be made of clay and ceramics, fired by wood in local kilns, including for plumbing and drainage, and eventually for replacement of tin roofing with tiles.
Some materials would be produced in bulk in large regional or national factories, such as fabrics, metals and irrigation pipe, and distributed to many small factories, hardware stores and workshops. Demand for paper would be greatly reduced, especially as there would be little packaging, and it might be met from local forests and recycling. Little high quality paper would be needed given the general concern to have standards that are as low as possible but sufficient.
Almost all the clothes worn could be simple, tough, cheap and durable, old and much repaired. Few if any would need to work in a suit or tie, let alone new clothes. Much clothing and footwear could be made at home via hobby production. Some people could specialise in small business dress making and tailoring. There would be a great deal of that miraculous art form, knitting, using wool spun from the local sheep.
Based on my clothing and footwear use an uncertain annual expenditure estimate might be $100/pp/y, (mainly for work shoes.) The Australian per capita average spending on clothing and footwear is $982/y. (ABS, 2015.)
Most manufactured items would be produced in households, neighbourhood workshops and small local firms or cooperatives, and they would be produced in craft ways, not via industrial factories.
Small regional factories (e.g., within 5 – 10 km) would produce many basic items such as bicycles, cutlery, pots and pans, roof tiles, and bolts. There would be intensive recycling, and items would be made to last and to be repaired. Only small quantities of more elaborate items such as electronic devices would need to be imported from the national economy.
Some but few items and materials including metals and some chemical inputs would need to be produced at larger industries in more centralized locations and moved into the regions close to towns. The very few items imported long distances or internationally might include high-tech equipment for health, research, electronics, communications, IT, some manufactured products, but few of these would be needed in everyday life around a suburb or town.
The few specialized or large scale factories needed, e.g., to produce lathes and drill presses, cloth, cement and steel, would be distributed throughout the nation so that all towns could contribute to meeting national needs and earn the mall amount of income they would need to import basic necessities from other regions. Little international trade would be needed, for instance for high-tech medical equipment.
Because the new agriculture would rely heavily on permanent crops, especially trees, and relatively little meat would be consumed, and all domestic water would be recycled to gardens, the water demand associated with annual crops would be greatly reduced. Water would be scrupulously harvested locally, from rooftops, catchments and creeks, there would be intensive mulching, and all household water use would be recycled to food production. There would therefore be little need for big dams, mains, large pumping stations, and the bureaucracies to run them. Windmills and small electric pumps would do most of the fresh and waste water pumping.
An estimate of operational energy costs for pumping based on my homestead might be well under .05 kWh/pp/d, or 18 kWh/pp/y.
TRANSPORT AND TRAVEL.
In the new economy of The Simpler Way there would be little need for transport to get people to work, because much less work in offices and factories would be done, and most work places would be localised and accessible by bicycle or on foot. The few large factories producing necessities for the national economy would be close to towns and railway stations.
A few cars, trucks and bulldozers would be needed but the vehicles in most use would be bicycles, with some but relatively little use of buses and trains. Horses could be used for some transport, especially carting goods the mostly short distances required, for instance from local farms. Most roads and freeways would be dug up and the space used for gardens. Railway and bus production would be one of the few activities to take place in large centralised heavier industrial centres.
Very few ships, large trucks or aircraft would be produced because there would be little need for the transport of goods or people over long distances. There would be little international travel, partly because the fuel for that will in future be extremely scarce, and secondly because there would be relatively little need for it. There would be far less of that huge energy-intensive indulgent luxury that is travel for leisure purposes. The main reason why we would not travel much for leisure or holidays is because there would be many interesting alternative things to do in and around our settlements. (See Leisure, below.)
The potential travel and transport total for the restructured suburb was about 2.4 GJ/pp/y, and the dollar cost of travel and transport $400/pp/y. The present Australian average per capita household transport energy consumption is costing $4,014/pp/y. Household petroleum use is 457 PJ, or 20 GJ/pp/y.
Because in a Simpler Way society people would be content to consume only what is sufficient, and because many goods and services could be acquired without money, for instance ”free” from commons and via swapping and gifting arrangements, most people would probably need to go to work for money only one or two days a week. They would enjoy working with friends, in control of their contribution to meeting local needs, or running their own little shop or farm, knowing they were helping to maintain a thriving community. This assumes considerable collective control over the economy to make sure there is no growth, no significant inequality, no unemployment, no poverty, all have a worthwhile and respected livelihood, and above all that top priority is given to meeting individual and social needs. These conditions are not possible in competitive, winner-take-all consumer-capitalist society. (For the detail see thesimplerway.info/THENEWECONOMY.htm.)
Most production would not require highly specialized skills. For instance much/most food could come from home and community gardeners and commons. The “Jack of all trades” might be the most valuable worker, able to make and fix many things. People would be able to move between several quite different tasks each week, in their garden, hobby and craft groups (e.g., knitting, pottery), and on working bees and committees. They could volunteer at schools and hospitals or on committees organizing concerts, leisure activities and festivals. Thus the problem of alienated labour could be entirely eliminated; “work” time would also be enjoyable leisure time, and the work/leisure distinction would largely disappear.
HEALTH AND MEDICINE.
The far more healthy circumstances in Simpler Way settlements would dramatically reduce the incidence of mental and physical illness and the associated resource costs. Most people would be much healthier than they are now due to the more labour-intensive lifestyles and the high quality food. Even more important would be the psychological factors, the elimination of insecurity, unemployment, poverty, loneliness and stress, long work and travel times and the worry about housing loan interest rates. Everyone would experience a supportive and cooperative community, a stress free and relaxed pace, interesting projects, having a sense of purpose and being valued for making a worthwhile contribution.
RETIREMENT AND OLD AGE.
Older, experienced people would be highly valued contributors to production and more importantly to social functioning, given their wisdom and their knowledge of local people, conditions and history. There would be no compulsory retirement age, and few would retire in the normal sense. People could slowly phase down their level of activity as they wished. Most would want to remain active contributors.
Much of the care of older people would be carried out spontaneously by the community via the committees, working bees, rosters and the informal involvement of people. With five days a week to spare many people would drop in frequently to chat and help out. Old people would be able to remain in their homes much longer, there would be little need for retirement “homes” and specialised staff. There would be small local hospitals and nursing facilities close to where people had lived, set within the busiest parts of settlements so people could drop in and residents could see and be involved in activities around them. Thus the experience of old, infirm, mentally and physically disadvantaged, and mentally ill people would be far better than it is now.
A major element in The Simpler Way is the devolvement of most governing to the level of the neighbourhood, suburb, town and region. Few functions would remain for state and national systems. The form would (have to) be thoroughly participatory, involving town meetings and referenda, but mostly informal processes that do not involve bureaucracy or professionals. Dollar costs would be a minute fraction of present levels.
Simpler Way settlements and lifestyles are rich in resource-cheap leisure opportunities. A walk around the town would involve one in conversations with familiar people, observing activity in small farms and firms, and the enjoyment of a beautifully gardened landscape.
Any town or suburb includes many talented musicians, singers, storytellers, actors, comedians and playwrights, presently unable to perform because the globalised entertainment industry only needs a few super-stars. These people would thrive, having several days a week to practise their art and being appreciated for their (largely unpaid) contributions to the many local gatherings, concerts and festivals. In addition much leisure time would be spent in productive activities, such as gardening and arts and crafts. In other words leisure will often involve negative dollar costs.
There would be leisure and cultural committees organizing a rich variety of interesting activities and holiday options. Thus the astronomical sums of energy and resources going into overseas travel and the tourism industry might be more or less eliminated.
Based in these kinds of assumptions and practices at Pigface Point the study arrived at leisure and holiday costs of 44 MJ/pp/week or 2,290 MJ/pp/y. Australian per capita expenditure on recreation, sport and holidays is around $3,900/pp/y. (sic!) (ABS. 6530. 2015.)
WORKING BEE LABOUR AVAILABLE.
In the suburb of East Hills there are probably 2,500 adults plus children old enough to contribute to voluntary working bees. If 80% of them participated in a one hour working bee each week, then 2,000 person-hours per week could be going into community production, maintenance, services, development and activities. This is equal to having 50 people working full time, or one for each three hectares. At present Council labour going into maintenance within the suburb would be a tiny fraction of this amount.
If many people moved to part-time paid work, and if informal “drop-in and help-out” activity was included, the total work time for community operation, maintenance and development could be many times the above total. In a well-established alternative economy, as on many Eco-villages today, the time a person could comfortably give to community maintenance and production could be several days a week.
These working bee and committee functions would be crucial not just for achieving technical goals such as maintaining windmills, but for the ensuring high levels of solidarity, mutuality, social consciousness and responsibility, and morale, pride and empowerment.
Far less energy would be required than at present. This would firstly be because there would be far less producing and consuming going on, and because much of what remained would be carried out without heavy industry, ships, aircraft, trucks, storage, rods, ports, marketing, machinery, and commuting to employment. We would be living in solar passive mud brick houses, recycling, getting to work on a bike, with close access to local sport, cultural and leisure facilities, and not traveling much for leisure.
A significant proportion of the small quantity of energy needed would come from human energy, most obviously in food production, construction, bicycle travel, craft manufacture and working bees using shovels rather than bulldozers. There would be “negative costs” in terms of enjoyment, social interaction, and especially physical exercise.
Thus dramatic energy reductions would be possible. The average per capita electricity use at Pigface Point for all purposes including lights, computer, workshop machinery, and garden water pumps but not refrigeration is well under 8.3 W, or 71 kWh/pp/y or 255 MJ/pp/y. A small electric refrigerator might consume another 36 W. (At present refrigeration is by a much more energy-consuming LPG fridge.)
The present Australian household electricity consumption is 217 PJ/y, 9.4 GJ/pp/y, 2,610 kWh/y, or .3KW, about 7 times larger than the Pigface Point figure which includes more functions sucvh as garden irrigation.
INDICATIVE TOTAL DOLLAR AND ENERGY BUDGETS.
The dollar total for all the above estimates was $2,918/pp/y, which can be compared with the 2009 Australian average expenditure on household goods and services of $26,780/pp/y. (ABS, 2009.)
The estimated energy total demand came to 5,538 MJ/pp/y = 1,538 kWh/pp/y, half of which was for transport. If transport is excluded the figure becomes 2,846 MJ/pp/y. This is about 14% of the present average household non-transport energy consumption of approximately 20,000 MJ/pp/y, (even though that figure does not include any of the embodied energy costs included here.) (Dept. Env., Water, Heritage and Arts, 2008, Department of Industry and Science, 2015, p. 15.)
It should be stressed that the alternative ways discussed would have their greatest reduction effects not at the household level but on national and international energy and dollar budgets, for instance by eliminating global food transportation, and most water and sewage pumping.
QUALITY OF LIFE, COMMUNITY.
Obviously the level of “austerity” assumed in this vision would not be acceptable to most people today but it is important to emphasise that it does not involve hardship or deprivation. In fact advocates of The Simpler Way would insist that it promises a higher quality of life than people in the suburb average today. East Hills is a typical dormitory suburb, with almost no discernible community. Few people living there today would have any association or interaction with any others in the suburb. The streets are almost completely deserted all the time, apart from a few walking to and from the railway station. Most of the roads serve only as driveways enabling cars to get out to through roads. Residents probably exhibit the high national average rates of depression, unemployment, alcoholism, suicide etc. If the geographical, economic and social rearrangements described above could be implemented it is likely that there would marked improvements in all quality of life indices. The alternative arrangements sketched provide major opportunities to reduce or eliminate problems of insecurity, unemployment, bored youth, loneliness, homeless and aged care, and to ensure abundant access to the conditions that define genuine welfare. (See thesimplerway.info/YOURDAY.htm and thesimplerway.info/SIMPLICITY.htm.)
Although the above estimates are uncertain they suggest that the restructuring described could reduce the present dollar and energy costs of living in rich world settlements by perhaps 90%, and therefore enable a globally sustainable and just society.
Consider especially the implications for Third World ”development”. Billions of people are presently trapped in the capitalist ”growth and trickle down” paradigm, which ensures that many suffer in squalor while the resources that they could be using to meet most of their own needs flow out to enrich the global rich. The conventional economist insists that the only way to raise their “living standards” is to produce more to sell into the global market economy so they can earn more income … to purchase goods from that economy, and accumulate the capital needed for developing the power stations, freeways, ports, houses etc. to eventually achieve the taken-for-granted goal of development, i.e., the kind of industries and lifestyles the rich world has.
The Simper Way shows that this entire world view is not just totally mistaken, it masks the plunder that conventional development involves. Conventional theory is an ideology endorsing practices that enrich the rich by transferring to them the resources of the poor, asserting that exporting resources to earn money is the only way to increase ”wealth”, and thus achieve satisfactory development.
But the above analysis shows that a radically different kind of development is conceivable. Simpler Way communities enabling a high level of provision of basic necessities could be developed quickly by ordinary people using local resources, with very little need for engagement with national or international economies, or for capital. They would need access to only small quantities of basic materials and equipment from beyond local boundaries.
Of course Simpler Way alternative development clashes head on with the interests of global corporations and banks and local elites. These groups prosper most when people have no alternative but to work in plantations and corporations for wages which they then have to spend purchasing necessities from corporations. No good to them if people grow their own carrots rather than buy them from supermarkets, or develop local economies that operate outside the normal economy and might not even use money. Simpler Way communal self-sufficient development is a mortal threat to capitalist development which seeks to maximize business turnover.
Consider also the way this alternative can defuse global ecological threats. What will happen to the global atmosphere if 2.5 billion Chinese and Indians frantically build more coal-fired power stations because everyone knows that this is the only way to generate the economic growth that is essential for raising their “living standards”…when that is totally avoidable. How many people would resort to the ivory or bush meat trades, piracy or drug running if they had livelihoods in highly self sufficient villages? How many refugees would there be. How many armed conflicts would thee be given that many of these are due to the quest to secure the dwindling resources needed by consumer-capitalist development?
ABC, (2014), Gardening Program, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
ABS, (2015), Household Expenditure Survey. 6530.
Blazey, C., (1999), The Australian Vegetable Garden, Diggers Seeds, Dromana, Victoria.
Canning, P., A. Charles, S. Huang, K. R. Polenske, and A. Waters, (2010), Energy Use in the
U.S. Food System, US Dept. Of Agriculture.
Dept. of Environment, Water, Heritage and Arts, (2008), Energy Use in the Australian Residential Sector, 1986 – 2020.
Department of Industry and Science, (2015), 2015 Australian Energy Update, Canberra, August.
Dervaes, Joe, (2014), Homegrown Revolution, 15 min video.
Koont. S., (2009),“The urban food gardens of Havana”, Monthly Review, 60.8 Jan, 44-63.