(24 pages.)

Ted Trainer

(This discussion is basically the same as in Chapter 7 of The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, 2010.)

Many aspects of our society are now clearly getting worse from year to year, such as inequality, homelessness, drug abuse, stress, anxiety and depression. There is good reason to think that social cohesion is deteriorating and the average quality of life is now falling.

It is argued below that social breakdown is largely due to the fact that getting richer and "getting the economy going" are the dominant priorities. When maximising the growth of production, incomes and business turnover is the supreme goal then social cohesion, social bonds, mutual aid, public institutions, friendship, citizenship and concern for the common good are undermined, people become more individualistic, acquisitive, competitive and isolated, and resources which could have gone into building community are put into stimulating the economy.

 The problem of cohesion cannot be solved within/by consumer-capitalist society.  The necessary conditions require transition to The Simpler Way.


Even if we had no problems of resource scarcity, ecological damage or global justice there would still be a strong case for change from a society driven by the ceaseless quest for affluent living standards and economic growth. Not only is that quest not raising the quality of life in the rich countries, it is now seriously damaging our social fabric.

Most social problems have become worse in the last twenty years. Following is a list of the areas in which it can be argued that the quality of our society and the quality of individual life experience is declining.

- The incidence of anxiety, stress and depression has increased greatly, now possibly 10 times as common as it was 20 years ago.

- Inequality has increased considerably.

- There are many people living in poverty, or homeless.

- Youth suicide is high.  The rate doubled among Australian males in the last generation (although it seems to have declined recently)

- The sense of security has declined. A generation ago people felt safer on the streets, were more able to leave doors unlocked, could let their children go out unsupervised, worried less about unemployment or being able to pay for illness or aged care.  Their financial security in old age, is increasingly dependent on the fate of their savings invested in the stock market.

Drug and alcohol problems have escalated. A few decades ago there was almost no hard drug problem in Australia. The problem would hardly exist if people were not bored, deprived, stressed and discontented, or had access to healthy and supportive communities.  Similarly much of the self harm, smoking analgesic consumption, obesity and other eating disorders must be due in large part to the unsatisfactory social conditions many people experience.

The health and effectiveness of the family are a concern. There is a high rate of family break down. The family and community have less influence in socialising children than they used to, compared with the media and commerce. Both parents are less often at home. Commercial interests outweigh parents and community with undesirable images and values, especially with respect to aggression and violence.

Public services are deteriorating. Many public institutions, and services are being cut back, eliminated or sold off, or transformed into corporations that charge and must maximise profits (e.g.,  entry to museums used to be free, universities must make money.) Probably the worst effects are to do with the health system. There are too few hospitals, and they are grossly under-funded, with outrageous waiting times, and an incredible death rate from mistakes.  Large numbers of people can’t afford dental services. More than 40 million Americans have no health insurance. Australia is heading in the same direction, towards expensive private health services for the few and inadequate or no provision for the poor.  The increasing numbers of rich people can afford high class private health, education, aged care etc., and they don’t want to pay taxes to fund public services for others.

The death of rural towns.  All around the world the global economy is destroying rural life. The economy does not need many people in the countryside.

-  Public life has deteriorated.  Most people live only within their private world and have little to do with public affairs or cooperative activity intended to benefit their society.   The discussion of public issues mostly takes the form of a few spokespersons from large organisations commenting briefly on TV while people watch passively. The centralised nature of the media determines that most people can't be involved in such discussion. Public discussion then becomes 30 second exchanges between the highly paid smooth-talking, evasive and deceptive PR agents and spin doctors from large organisations. Leaving a favourable impression or denying accusations is what matters, not thorough and honest analysis. The symbolic significance or the image is important, not the substance. Public relations personnel are therefore crucial. They have to deliver good impressions. We have to judge products, candidates and claims in terms of these superficial and deliberately misleading representations, not solid evidence of the way things actually are.  Many are disgusted by all this, but then retreat into their private lives.

- There is political apathy, passivity, and little social responsibility. Professionals, bureaucracies and corporations make the decisions and provide most goods and services. So people live very privately, buy most of the things they use and produce little for themselves, either in their households or with others in their locality.  Identity comes from consuming, e.g., clothes, hairstyles, house styles…rather than from productive roles or community activity.  There is cynicism and lack of respect for politicians; many see little point in bothering about politics. 

- Work is far from satisfying for many people. It is just a means to earn money. This is one of the worst things about industrial-affluent society. We are forced to work far more than would be necessary in a sensible society.  Many are having to work longer and harder and in more insecure conditions. Many families need two incomes now.  The real incomes of 80% of Americans have hardly risen in 30 years.

- Most environmental conditions which impact on the experienced quality of life are deteriorating, such as traffic congestion and noise, pollution of air and water, urban sprawl, the distance that must be travelled to work.  The costs of energy, water, transport and food are set to rise markedly.

- The amount of vandalism, graffiti, car theft etc. indicates that many people have little respect for public property and many are so bored and lacking in purpose and decency that theft and destruction are attractive. Urban decay is rampant through many cities, especially in the US.  There is violent crime, squalor, homelessness, drug dependence, mugging, street gangs, police corruption, and whole regions without any hope of improvement.

- Consumer culture. People have become more materialistic, greedy, and hedonistic. The "normal" house or car most people want is luxurious. The average Australian house size has doubled in the last generation. People expect life to be about purchasing luxuries and having fun. “Instant gratification” is sought, e.g., young couples go into huge debt to have all the things their parents had to work years to pay for. Luxurious standards are accepted as normal, expected and deserved. Status display (of clothes, cars, houses) and style are important. Progress and the purpose of life are increasingly defined in terms of getting richer.  Shopping is an important part of life, one of its main satisfactions.

A few centralised media dominate thought and action. We can only form a view of the world in terms of very selected images and simulations presented to us by the media. It is in their interests to reinforce consumer values and the legitimacy of capitalist power, especially by distracting with mostly trivial, spectacular, violent entertaining material. There is obsession with sport, disasters, crime, scandals, soap operas and celebrities. The critical analysis of crucial social issues given by the media is very weak, and fundamental criticism (e.g., of capitalism or growth) almost never appears. Adverts and movies set models and ideals which can't be achieved unless people purchase things like beauty and slimming products. High rates of consumption are portrayed as normal. Media show violence as normal, exciting and attractive and a legitimate means of conflict resolution. It is in the interests of the media to screen out, exaggerate, distort and sanitise. They reinforce the impression that life is about acquiring lots of commodities and having a good time; i.e., self-indulgence.  The terrible consequences the system has in the Third World are kept out of view, or sanitised, or interpreted in ways that conceal what is happening. (For instance the Western bombing of Yugoslavia was described as “humanitarian intervention”.)

 - Post-modern culture”:  The preoccupation of popular culture with events and experiences that are trivial, fleeting, exciting, spectacular, e.g., adverts, sport, video games, the Olympics, popular music, celebrities. Throw-away cultural products. Superficial, temporary hedonism. Constantly looking for the next momentary thrill. Fantasy is important.  We have a culture largely of trashy, short-lived, throw-away plastic products, fleeting experiences and transitory relations. A culture of the shallow and superficial.  Not much value is put on old, simple, cheap, functional and durable .

There is great interest in the rich and famous; celebrities are envied and idolised, extravagant wealth is desirable and admirable. Stories about the rich and powerful are attractive. For most people those clothes, houses and lifestyles are impossible to attain, but they can enjoy them via fantasy -- and gamble in the hope of attaining them.

There is an increasingly self-centred and indifferent outlook. People are competitive and concerned with their private welfare. Narcissism, the "me generation". There is little serious concern about the world, let alone the way rich world affluence would not be possible if we were not taking Third World resources and gearing their “development” to stocking our supermarkets. Any political party suggesting that taxes be raised to eliminate poverty would lose an election. The richer majority and the very rich are OK. Walled housing estates are built for the middle class. There are more private police than public police in the US, to protect the property of richer people. Upper classes are refusing to pay as much tax as they used to for the maintenance of public services; they can go to private hospitals. The rapidly increasing inequality is not resented; the concern is to be among the winners, and the right of those who get rich to a privileges is accepted as rewards for their superior talent and energy. 

There is little citizenship or social responsibility or concern about "the common good". Society has become more selfish, greedy, indifferent, and predatory. People are increasingly willing to sue for damages. Goods are often shoddy and not made to last. Adverts are often fraudulent, but no one cares. Astronomical CEO salaries are tolerated. The legal profession booms, ordinary people cannot affored lawyers and many cannot afford dental care, but this is not important.  . Executives, consultants and professionals charge outrageous fees without challenge. Property values are pushed higher as affluent people compete for more and more expensive houses, and increasing numbers can never afford to own one.  No one sees anything questionable about making a lot of money because the value of the housing or shares bought ten years ago have doubled.  Above all, getting as rich as possible is regarded as morally good, respectable,.. a sign of talent and quality. If you win the lottery it is alright to never work again, although you will be consuming food and goods someone has to work to produce.

- ...and there is little or no dissent! The many serious social problems confronting us evoke little or no serious complaint, fundamental criticism or protest, e.g., the treatment of animals in factory farming, the existence of poverty, unemployment, shoddy products that are not made to last, the run down of public facilities such as hospitals, the stress and insecurity people experience, let alone the suffering within the Third World. The free enterprise market system seems to be accepted by all as the only and the best way. The collapse of communism seems to have sealed the triumph of capitalism.  Little effort is now needed to ensure that the system is seen as legitimise or to keep people in line. They have been seduced and pacified by affluence and consuming. Consuming can be seen as the powerful new source of compliance, stability and legitimacy in our society. There is no longer any need for repression, e.g., to put down rebellious workers threatening the system. People docilely and willingly conform through their obsession with getting richer, with trivia … and with consuming

Even the large numbers impoverished and dumped by the system accept their situation without a whimper, indeed they are among the most enthusiastic participants in consumer society; they happily devour the stupefying spectacles, sport, TV, trash products and the shopping mall experience.

More disturbing is the absence of criticism and dissent on the part of the "educated" and "intellectual" ranks. The middle and upper classes devote themselves to career advancement, renovating, trading up to a better house, getting their children into a private school, their share portfolios, and accumulating property.  They quietly enjoy what Galbraith has referred to as "the culture of contentment" and they have little interest in questioning the systems which deliver their privileges.  They are strongly inclined to see their wealth and comfort as just rewards for their hard work and to see poor people as deserving their fate, because they lack talent, credentials and application.

 Many aspects of our society are very satisfactory and on several fronts significant improvements are constantly being made. However many social analysts would agree that in the last 20 years we have entered a period of accelerating social decline and breakdown, in which stability, cohesion, citizenship and commitment to the good of others and society in general are deteriorating.  And these have been the most remarkably prosperous decades in history – just wait until petroleum scarcity impacts, or the global financial system collapses.


Passive acceptance; they will not complain


A 14 month old boy died after waiting 4 hours without being seen at a Sydney hospital casualty ward. This event made the news as a minor item in August 1994, while front pages were clogged with hysterical reports on Australia's success at the Commonwealth Games. There was almost no public comment on the incident nor on the failure of state governments to spend adequately on public facilities such as hospitals.


 Sydney Morning Herald, Tuesday, 30th August, 1994, p. 12.


"... they no longer have to turn the police or the military against people to     ensure their compliance."


J. Seabrook, The Myth of the Market, p. 32.


It is well established that increasing economic wealth does not raise the quality of life, so long as wealth is above poverty level.  Long ago Easterlin (1972) reviewed more than 30 studies and found that the experienced quality of life does not increase as the GDP increases. Even with a doubling of the US GNP per capita in deflated terms there has been no increase in the experienced quality of life.  We are about three times as rich as our grandparents were but it cannot be said that we enjoy life any more. Douthwaite's The Growth Illusion, (1992) argues in detail that economic growth is not increasing the quality of life. In fact he claims it has fallen in Britain since 1955 (pp. 3, 9).  Hamilton’s Affluenza and Growth Fetish, and Gustav Speth (2007) and Richard Eckersley (1997) review the extensive and convincing evidence that quality of life does not increase with increasing income. The above list of social problems suggests that in general the experienced quality of life in the rich countries is now actually deteriorating as GDP increases. 

This theme is extremely important but its significance is largely ignored.  The supreme goal of all governments and of just about all people remains increasing monetary wealth – yet it is clear that this does not increase happiness, or any of the factors connected to the quality of life, while it is the main cause of damage to social cohesion and the environment.  Politicians do not ask “What policies might best increase the quality of life?”  They only ask, “What will maximise the GDP?”, when it has been established for a long time that this will not increase the quality of life.

Politics should be driven by concern to improve the quality of life of all, and effort should constantly be going into monitoring the many factors involved and developing better indices.  By making growth of GDP the supreme goal of social policy is geared to the interests of those who benefit most from selling things in a market.  It is encouraging that increasing public attention is now being given to indices of the quality of life.


Community is a most important element in a satisfactory quality of life, yet its significance is rarely given the attention it deserves. Many of the problems our society is encountering can be explained in terms of the lack of community.

Community is an imprecise concept but it would seem to involve the following elements.

-       Having many familiar personal relations. Having access to or contact with many people who you know well. It involves friendliness and feeling connected to many people.  Important here are “face to face” communication, meeting, talking to, and sharing with other people (so an internet group or people with the same religious outlook who do not meet would only constitute a weaker kind of community.)

-       Identification with a place or group. "This is my town. I like this place. I feel at home here. I belong here."  In The Simpler Way bonds to a location are important; i.e., “bioregional” connectedness and “earth bonding”.

-       Solidarity and cohesion. "People around here cooperate and support each other. We are in some sense comrades. There are bonds between us. We are concerned with the welfare of this place and its people. There are people around here who would look after me if I were in need. I can trust them and rely on them".  Therefore strong community provides much security, whereas in an individualistic society your security depends on your own strength or wealth because you can’t depend so much on others coming to your assistance.

-       Mutual concern and assistance, concern for the common good. People care about and do things for each other. There are gifts and debts, gratitude and obligation, interdependence, voluntary contributions and reciprocity. "Fred helped me fix the fence so I'll take him some of our peaches."  Concern for our town, our library, our older citizens – and our problems and needs. Especially important are common responsibilities, such as the need to keep the town bushfire equipment in good order. Hence a sense of civic responsibility and concern for the common good.  In other words, there is a strong collectivist outlook.

-       Traditions, rituals and celebrations. A sense of our local history. Events and dates that are significant in the history of this town. Things we celebrate together.

-       Moral debts and obligations.  In a strong community people are doing things for each other all the time, giving and receiving “gifts” and help.  This creates many strong moral debts, feelings of obligation to repay, to give in return.  This is an important source of security; people will help others in time of need knowing that if they all do things like this they will all be able to get help when they need it.  This is not calculated self-interest; in a good community people help each other because they want to and like doing this, just as members of a good family want to do things for each other, because you want the other to thrive and because of the nice climate created by cooperation and helping.

Note how none of these elements has anything to do with money or conventional economic theory and practice.  They are all about the social forces, structures, bonds and rewards that make a society strong and satisfying and noble, or otherwise. 

These factors are also sometimes thought of as making up "social wealth" or "social capital". In a strong community people have a many relationships, habits and expectations which guarantee access to friendship, security, cooperation, civil interactions, assistance and pleasant social experience. These sorts of factors are much more important in enriching life than financial wealth is. In pre-industrial societies people devote a great deal of time to maintaining these social relations, which then give them community, support, security and satisfactions.

            We should not use the term “social capital”.

Social cohesion is quite different to mere monetary capital and it is important not to think about social issues in the way that conventional economists think.  They collapse everything into the single dimension of monetary value, and thereby grossly distort understanding.  The stuff sometimes referred to as “social capital” is very complex and incomprehensible, involving many mysterious factors such as pride, friendship, memories, morale, manners, social connections, history, ideology, tradition, emotional bonds, religion, and feelings of security, reciprocity, obligation, debt, gratitude, generosity…It is impossible to think of all these in terms of one dimension that can be quantified, like monetary value.  You can’t take a quantity of it from one place and invest it or spend it somewhere else, as you can with money from a bank.  (It’s not “fungible”.) Often when you “spend” social wealth you then have more of it than you had before, such as when you give gifts or assistance or tell a joke. Social wealth has no financial value and does not behaviour according to the “laws” of the market place.

So don’t let the economists with their paltry, impoverished conceptual tool box (containing only one thing, monetary value) take over the discussion of social phenomena and the nature of a good society.


How much community is there in the typical city suburb? Some of us do enjoy considerable experience of community, e.g., in football clubs and churches, but many do not and this must be a major source of social breakdown.

-       Many people live as isolated individuals or in nuclear families. Many of us have little or nothing to do with the people next door. We live very privately, without much sharing or cooperation.

-       Life in our society is a competitive struggle between individuals in a situation where all cannot succeed. Even in the richest countries maybe a third of all people are dumped into considerable deprivation, including the soul-destroying experience of unemployment. “Losers” are not given much assistance or sympathy. Even those who succeed must constantly strive as insecure individuals to get scarce things others are after. Even the large middle classes who are among the economic winners in the competitive scramble suffer high rates of anxiety, stress, and depression. This competitive situation in which many must lose does not facilitate cooperation and community. Our society is not organised in terms of working collectively to improve the welfare of all, especially those in most need.

-       There are powerful forces and structures in our economy towards cutting people adrift and dumping them.  All must struggle constantly to find and keep a job, and it is not possible for all to do this – there are always more people seeking jobs than there are jobs.  It is an economy in which the strongest are always trying to take the sales and markets others have.  Thus it forces many to lose their livelihood.  In a good society effort would be made to provide for all, to make sure no one is dumped, excluded, or without a livelihood.

-       We move a lot. On average each American family probably moves house each five years. This reduces the tendency to "put roots down" and to become identified with a place. We also move to work each day, meaning that we are not interacting with our local community most of the time.  We live in  dormitory suburbs, often hardly knowing anyone we live near.

The significance of mobility is most evident when it comes to the care of old people. This is best carried out by the members of a community, such as the whole tribe as distinct from the members of as single family, many of whom were cared for as children by the people who are now old. The carers would then know that they would in turn be cared for many years hence when they are old.  These understandings cannot develop when people come and go rapidly from a locality. This makes it impossible to build up and pay off moral debts and obligations between young and old. It makes it important to accumulate monetary wealth so you can buy assistance and security as an  individual trading in the market place, and that does not establish social bonds.

-       Because we live in cities we have many impersonal relations, with relatively few familiar people. How well do you know the people you buy your food from? In a city most of the people we meet might as well be machines. Hence the term "the lonely crowd".  Familiar personal relations are more likely in small stable settlements.

-       Many people have little access to emotional support. Large numbers are lonely and depressed. Many people are allowed to become homeless or impoverished, therefore it is no surprise that many turn to alcohol and drugs, self-destruct or become socially destructive.

-       This society deliberately and energetically teaches children hostility, violence, predation and contempt for others.  Many TV shows (e.g., cartoons) and electronic games, are about little more than aggression, violence, destruction and defeating and trashing others. We also teach people to be fiercely competitive rather than cooperative, especially in sport, school, social life and the economy.  By comparison little effort goes into encouraging people to be friendly, cooperative and helpful to each other.

-       Many people have too little time to become involved in local affairs.

-       Our society is very elitist. The winners, heroes, champions and big achievers are idolised.  This fits in with the ideology of competitive individualism whereby we come to think it is legitimate and acceptable for a few to win and take most of the wealth, status and power. If you are poor, lonely or unemployed it is your own fault for not being more skilled and energetic. However in a satisfactory society the emphasis would be on participation and equality, on organising to make sure the least able were provided for, and especially on the capacity of all ordinary people to be responsible and skilled citizens who help to run their local socio-economic system. A good society must be an intensely participatory democracy, in which we all take responsibility and control and don’t leave things to elites.  A good society would discourage or prevent he development of significant inequality, because it is socially destructive. (“Primitive” tribes often have mechanisms that prevent anyone becoming dominant or rich.)

-       There is little identification with one's area or place of living. Suburbs are dormitories. Houses are often just temporary conveniences or commodities.

-       People have few common tasks and responsibilities. We do not spend time working together in our neighbourhoods to improve it or perform useful public functions .  Distant bureaucrats and corporations do all that.

-       The public sphere is being reduced, especially as state spending is cut and state institutions and services are "privatised";; i.e., taken over by corporations and run for profit. Shopping malls are private spaces. Museums, railways, schools, prisons, hospitals, aged care facilities, universities, leisure spaces are increasingly being run by private corporations; we are less able to think of these as "our" public institutions, services and spaces, functioning to serve us (as distinct from make profits).

-       There are few meaningful festivals, rituals and traditions. Compare white Australia to any peasant or tribal society, including Aboriginal tribes.

-       There are few forces on people to get together, cooperate, take collective responsibility, think of the good of their community.  They are not responsible for running important local functions – councils, corporations and professionals do everything.

-       There is little citizenship; how many give time to working for the good of their localities?

-       The climate of opinion has become more selfish, competitive, greedy and callous and predatory.  The triumph of neo-liberal globalisation over the last 30 years has asserted the normality and legitimacy of individuals seeking to maximise their own advantage, and it has ridiculed and eliminated collectivist attitudes.  Adam Smith is taken to have shown that by seeking to get as rich as possible individuals actually make their greatest possible contribution to society.  This has reinforced the tendency for governments to de-emphasise public goods, services and property.  Instead of focusing on arrangements that would provide well for all, redistributing wealth where necessary, attention is given to enabling people to compete to be among the winners.  Collectivism has been made to appear mistaken and passé.  Greed is good (for everyone).  Losers are a drain on our taxes.

One way of expressing this problem of community is to say, "We have lost our tribe". People living in tribal societies do not have these problems of lack of community.

The lack of community most seriously affects people with difficulties, most notably the single parent, the disabled, poor people and the aged. The young and the affluent can to some extent find or buy alternative satisfactions, but without community many old people are condemned to a life of isolation and boredom.  (Elderly men have a high suicide rate.)

The community is a crucial and irreplaceable agent of socialisation. As people interact with others in a satisfactory community, good social values are constantly reinforced. They experience the benefits of helping and cooperation. Children hear their parents chatting to others about important local issues, expressing concern for the welfare of each other and of the area, and for standards and traditions. We experience parents and friends helping each other, cooperating to do important things for our community, expressing concern for others.  We get satisfaction from participating in the festivals and civic duties that we can then see contributing to the welfare of all. We come into frequent contact with many others and share their perspectives on the locality.   These experiential learnings about the way the world is and about what it is rewarding to do cannot be learned from books or from the pronouncements of parents and teachers.  Contrast this with the socialisation experience of children who live in high-rise units without contact with neighbours and who shop as isolated individuals in supermarkets.

Especially unwise is the way we neglect young people. They have no important role in society, no valued status and no important contribution to make, precisely at the time when they need to form identity and see themselves as useful and as worthy of respect.  More than 200,000 teenage Australians are not in work or in school. This is no way to form a good citizen.  It is not surprising that many turn to drugs, alcohol, hooliganism, graffiti, fast cars, etc. to achieve status and to defeat boredom.

We pay a high price for our poor level of community, not just in terms of the isolation many people experience, but in terms of the costly social problems it generates. If people experienced more community fewer people would become depressed or turn to drugs or crime. Friends would foresee many problems emerging such as domestic violence, mental illness and child abuse before they became serious. It costs a lot to keep an individual in an institution such as a prison or a drug rehabilitation unit. Add the costs of break-ins and muggings to pay for drugs etc. and the cost of all the police, courts, prisons and social workers. Add the economic and psychological damage caused by the alcohol-related violence, street racing crashes, vandalism, petty theft, break-ins…by rebellious, bored teenagers. Far more important is the emotional cost associated with violence, drug abuse, loneliness, depression, suicide etc.

Again, possibly most serious of all is the effect on “collectivist” spirit.  Community is self-reinforcing and when it is weak or damaged things spiral in the opposite direction, towards a more fierce struggle between individuals for self interest.  Since the 1970s in the era of globalisation Neo-liberal doctrine has powerfully  reinforced and legitimised this.

The term "anomie" refers to the lack of social bonds. In pre-industrial societies social bonds were strong and took up and played their roles without any need for a state. By contrast in our society there has to be a huge state with vast powers and budgets and hoards of bureaucrats and experts in order to perform all the functions that communities once performed for themselves, such as looking after old people.   Then we need armies of social workers, police etc, to deal with those who deviate.  How is it that the Kalahari Bushmen have no police, no courts, no prisons and no social workers, yet none of them seem to be lonely, to suicide or to turn to alcohol or drugs?

Perhaps most distressing is the “spiritual” cost.  Even in the richest societies large numbers of people are far less contented than they could be, living stunted and isolated lives struggling with unnecessary difficulties or boring work.  Many are nowhere near as enthusiastic, thriving and fulfilled, as they could be.  Many lack purpose and/or the capacity to pursue goals, most obviously the unemployed, homeless, aged, and indigenous groups.  (See The Spiritual significance of The Simpler Way.)


If the top priority in a society is merely increasing the amount of production for sale then many things that undermine community will occur. Many industries and regions will be "restructured" as factories close down or open in new areas, changing familiar townscapes, depriving people of livelihoods and requiring many families to move and break emotional ties to people and places. Freeways will be put through stable neighbourhoods. Peasants will lose their livelihood as foreign corporations come in and take their land and their markets.

Especially important is the increasing pressure to commercialise as many functions as possible, i.e., for corporations and professionals to take over the supply of many things we once did for ourselves. The more they do this the more the GNP rises, but individuals and communities lose functions, control, autonomy, livelihoods, self respect and the incentive to interact and to take responsibility. For example we are now preparing less of our own food, while buying more take-away food and we purchase entertainment, furniture, child minding, counselling, insurance, security, education, aged care….

Especially disturbing is the effort to get rid of community ownership of land in the Third world, and to have land owned by individuals.  The World Bank does this, on the grounds that it facilitates “development” and increases the capacity of people to earn money and improve their welfare.  Apart from the fact the land soon ends up in the hands of the rich few, or the banks who foreclose on loans to failed ventures, the privatisation of community-owned land is sociologically catastrophic.  It shreds and eliminates the enormously rich and complex social relationships that provided meaning, purpose, security, conviviality and enjoyable experience, and in time it drives many to city slums as they lose their private lands.

It is of course very much in the interests of the corporations for us to exist as isolated individuals who do less and less for ourselves and have to buy everything from them. It is not so good for them if we opt to live cooperatively and meet our needs through mutual assistance rather than going to the supermarket as individuals.  So they spend vast sums on advertising to persuade us to buy products but no one makes any effort to persuade us to get together to meet our needs. When isolated individuals become bored or lonely or depressed they have to try to buy entertainment or pay for professional counselling – or go shopping.

Very important here is the fact that most of our society's capital and development resources flow only into ventures that will increase production for sale and therefore lead to more passive, private consuming. Few resources go into projects that might stimulate more community self-sufficiency and involvement or mutual support independent of the market place. For example almost no resources go into developing neighbourhood workshops, drama clubs and leisure-rich environments. Those developments would not only contribute nothing to "getting the economy going".  They would actually reduce GNP by enabling people to live better while purchasing less.

Most important of all is the destructive connection between community values and market relations.

            Market relations destroy social relations.

This is a marketing society and when buying and selling within a market situation is allowed to become the main mechanism whereby people acquire the things they need, then desirable social attitudes, bonds and relations are damaged or driven out.

When you enter a market situation to buy or sell you have to be selfish. You go into the market to get things for yourself, and you must focus on how to maximise your own advantage and to minimise that of the other person.  Markets allow things to go to those who can pay most for them. The situation does not stimulate thought about what would be good for other people or society as a whole. But it is impossible to have any society, let alone a good one, unless there is much more than self interest; i.e., unless there is concern with what would be good for others and for the society as a whole. Self-interest is only one of the many motives and values people have, and the quality of their society depends on their social and moral values, not on their self interest, competition and acquisitiveness.

In other words a society is not possible unless people have concern for more than their own self interest. There must be concern for social values such as being honest, doing the right thing, seeing justice done, standards, decency, the public good, and supporting what is good for others, traditions and customs, religious commitments, cultural values and practices, equity, and the situation of the least fortunate, for morality, pride in society, respect for law, appreciation for good institutions, concern for the environment and desire to see social progress.  These are the things that constitute society; if they are absent you do not have a society. The more emphasise we put on mere market relations, i.e., trading to maximise our individual advantage, then the less attention and value will be given to the other-regarding values that make society possible, let alone satisfactory or admirable.  The two are contradictory.

What would happen if mum made the toast and sold it to the highest bidder?!

Dad would get the toast, because he can pay more for it. The kids, and grandma, would starve.

The things that make a family satisfactory are precisely the many non-market relations, the giving, mutual aid, and concern for the welfare of others, and the satisfaction that comes from doing what will make others thrive.  When you let market relations determine what happens you drive out these good human relations and replace them with self-interest, suspicion and predatory behaviour.

Thus we can see the serious mistake in identifying society with its economy, which economists are strongly inclined to do.  Markets, wealth seeking, trading, investing and making money are dangerous to society, because they are about individuals pursuing self-interest. It might be satisfactory to have a market sector within a society, so long as it is a minor part of the society and subject to moral, pro-social values and rules (i.e., “embedded”.)  But ours is a market society;’ i.e., a society in which the market is the overwhelmingly dominant process.

Again these damaging effects on solidarity are the most disturbing consequences of the recent triumph of Neo-liberalism.  It is eliminating concern for the common good.  It makes us all into individual entrepreneurs who must focus on our own self-interest and survival in a difficult and hostile market place, working against all others, knowing that not all can get jobs or prosper or can be secure.  It generates rapidly increasing inequality.  It makes altruism and cooperation and concern about social issues irrelevant at best, or liabilities holding us back.  But in a good society the basic outlook is collective; people are concerned about what is good for their society and for those least fortunate.  Neo-liberalism is not just generating a more selfish, mean, unequal, predatory, brutal and callous society, it is destroying the fundamental social bonds, solidarity and cohesion, without which you cannot have a society.

Polanyi has written influential works on the history of the transition to predominantly market relations which our society began some 500 years ago. (Dalton, 1968.)  He stresses that no previous society allowed the market to be the dominant factor in society. But that is what our society does. In all societies before our own, if there was a market sector it was kept under firm social control. The main factors that determine what goods were produced and how things were distributed were considerations of morality, justice, tradition, and what is good for people and the environment. (This is not to say that those rules would be ones we would approve.) Polanyi argues that allowing the market to have so much influence has been a very serious mistake. If the market is not kept under social control it will actually destroy society and its ecosystems. Many would say this is precisely what we are seeing in the Neo-liberal era.  Increasingly everything becomes a commodity that can be sold to maximise profit and this can’t be restrained by considerations of morality or public interest etc.  The result is accelerating inequality, ecological destruction and deterioration in the attitudes and values that produce social cohesion.

We urgently need to, as Polanyi says, "re-embed" the market within society, i.e., to put the market under social control, so that the main considerations are not whether some action will maximise profit, but whether it is morally right and socially desirable.  However, since 1970 the global economy has plunged in the opposite direction.  Globalisation represents an increasingly ruthless drive by capital to push into additional profitable investment outlets, and therefore to get rid of the social regulation, the considerations of justice, etc. which used to restrain profit seeking and self interest.

(On the remarkable difference between the strongly collectivist Medieval world view, and the individualistic views and values which came with the Protestant revolution and which facilitated the rise of capitalism, see Notes on Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.  See also Notes on Polanyi’s The Great Transformation.)


There can be no solution to the deterioration of community, cohesion and quality of life while an industrial-affluent-consumer-capitalist society remains. The problems are caused by the fundamental structures and processes of such a society, by the competitive individualistic pursuit of affluence and economic growth and especially by the excessive and increasing freedom given to market forces. 

Community cannot be band-aided on, added to, a social system whose defining structures and processes embody the very opposite of community, the forcers that destroy it.   A society whose basic nature inevitably and increasingly damages community, cannot be reformed to restore community. Community and cohesion will only be strongly evident in a society that is involves people in mutually beneficial social relationships and bonds, in familiar and face to face relations, in dependence on each other and on place, in mutual assistance and debts and obligations, and which more or less meets the needs of all, doesn’t dump and deprive people, doesn’t pit all against all in competition, doesn’t polarise into fabulous winners and trashed losers and can be regarded by all with pride, …and therefore leads people to want to be good citizens and good contributors.  Consumer capitalist society cannot be reformed, fixed, to have these characteristics.  It must be replaced by a very different kind of society that automatically generates them.  The Simpler Way embodies the necessary conditions for community and cohesion; it requires and reinforces cohesion.

It is not that we must build a sustainable society and we must also build good community, (and we must build a society that does not deprive the Third World, and one which defuses war…) – it is that The Simpler Way solves all these problems at once, because it is a way that cannot exist unless there is strong community and solidarity, and ecological sustainability and living standards which do not require others to be deprived, etc.)

Consider the centrality in The Simpler Way of some of the main factors that are important for social cohesion.  (Note that this is not a wish list.  These are conditions which must exist if communities are going to survive in the coming era of intense and irremediable resource shortage.)


The basic unit in The Simpler Way will be the small highly self-sufficient local economy in which many of the exchanges will not involve cash sales but will take the form of giving (and therefore receiving).  For example the surplus from your fruit trees or any left-over materials from a repair job would be given to others or left at the neighbourhood recycling centre for others to use. We would also give our time to voluntary neighbourhood working bees. 

The distinction between giving and getting is important here, and easily overlooked.  In consumer–capitalist society the dominant outlook and motivation is to get.  People work to get money, they go shopping to get things, the compete to get, they live as individuals who have to get what they want.  Their lives do not involve much giving.  However in The Simpler Way this situation is reversed.  All will give much time to working bees (voluntarily), will give surpluses away, and will give attention to social issues and needs, give help to each other.  Why?  Because if they don’t do these things their society will not work, but more importantly the giving will be enjoyable.  This situation will build solidarity.  The society requires giving, but it also reinforces it.  Giving brings out the best in us, and makes us feel good.  If people are doing a lot of giving, they are also doing a lot of receiving.  More importantly, giving creates the right climate and outlook; it generates the generosity that releases and multiplies goodness, concern for the other, etc.  In The Simpler Way giving is the basic economic mechanism – most of the things you need will be given to you, from others or from the commons and social institutions, rather than bought.

            “Why would I want to sell it if I can give it to someone?”


The fear of insecurity that consumer-capitalist society imposes on everyone generates great pressure to accumulate monetary wealth. Unless you can pay for insurance, educational credentials, superannuation, health insurance, aged care, etc., you will suffer, because your fate depends on your individual capacity to buy the things you need.  But in a tribe anyone who suffers a loss will be helped by all the others.  Most tribes people are far more secure than we are in western society. 

 In The Simpler Way all would be very secure. It would (have to) be a mutually supportive community, in which all would know they are making a valued contribution.  All would have a strong incentive to contribute, help each other and do what is best for the community (because if they don’t their society will not function well) and there would be many cultural and social activities, festivals, celebrations and meetings and market days. There would be many important productive and maintenance tasks, such as at community gardens and workshops.  These would bring people together into important cooperative activity.  These acts and experiences of mutual aid and social contributing would generate strong feelings of familiarity, solidarity, support, debt and gratitude. We would clearly understand that our own individual welfare depended on how well the local society functioned, and that if we did not contribute conscientiously it would not function well. Thus again the situation would require and it would reward behaviour that benefited others and the community. 

     The new economy

We would have transferred much economic activity into a large non-cash sector where giving, cooperatives, mutual aid, working bees etc. would build community, social bonds and cohesion.  We would have taken control over much of our own government, i.e., of determining how things will be organised and run.  Because all will have a valued, rewarding contribution to make, a livelihood, no one will suffer unemployment, or lack of purpose or self respect.  We will organise such a cooperative economy, under social control, because we will have to. We will see local productive capacity geared sensibly to meeting local needs.  The new economy must have many commons, working bees, committees and town meetings, and it must be driven by citizens focussed on what is best for all, not what will make most profit.  (There could still be many small private firms.)  Again if these conditions are not there the town will not work well.

The limits to growth analysis of our global situation indicates that conditions of serious scarcity are likely to impact in coming decades. Such conditions will have the valuable effect of forcing us to come together to cooperatively organise our own local economic affairs, and this will help to create familiarity, mutual concern, responsibility and community. (Of course if situation is too difficult or destructive conflict and breakdown is quite possible.)


In The Simpler Way our mutual dependence would generate powerful bonds and quality of life benefits.  Any individual’s quality of life would depend clearly on whether his or her local ecosystems, windmills, economy, water supply, workshops, committees, working bees, concerts etc. were functioning well…and they would not do so unless all contributed conscientiously and willingly.


The dominant assumption in consumer society is that all that matters is economic or monetary wealth.  If this is high and increasing then everything else will either be OK, or much better than it otherwise would be.  However, from the perspective of The Simpler Way wealth and welfare are seen in a totally different light.

In the present “social-democratic” systems of the rich countries people compete to get and take as much as possible, a few succeed most and become obscenely rich while most struggle and many remain poor, then those with incomes pay taxes to enable some of the wealth to be redistributed to those at the bottom.  In the process the most successful few take livelihoods from many others; e.g., many little shops are wiped out as supermarket chains take their business.  Therefore there is a strong tendency for the numbers of people needing welfare to increase.  Even in the richest societies large numbers are dumped and “excluded”, without employment, in lousy jobs, homeless etc. The avoidable economic cost (e.g. in bureaucrats and social workers), let alone the social cost, is enormous.

The Simpler Way scraps this entire concept of “welfare” as compensation.  Income, inequality of income and redistribution of income are not important.  Instead, the Simpler Way ensures that all have access to the things that enable a high quality of life.  This is not achieved by having big enough incomes to purchase all they want or need from the normal economy.  It is about not having many material demands in the first place, but more importantly about establishing a new cooperative and socially controlled economy which provides for all in the locality, including basic goods and a livelihood and abundant leisure and cultural activities, regardless of monetary income.

Thus it is possible for people with extremely low monetary incomes to be very “rich”, i.e., to have access to the things that make their lives very satisfying, such as freedom from insecurity, strong community and support, access to many familiar and friendly people and to great teachers of craft etc., worthwhile work, a role in running the community, great concerts and festivals, and much time for learning and creating.

The irrelevance of wealth.

Firstly, monetary wealth is not important for quality of life.  The things that are important for a satisfying life include,

       Good health.

       Enough good food, shelter, clothes.

       Safety/security, from poverty, violence…

       Family, friends.

       “Work” that is enjoyable, valued, valuable.

       Time, slow pace.

       Purpose; things to do.

       Creativity; arts, crafts, gardening, cooking…

       Being respected, for one’s contribution.

       Personal growth; sense of becoming wiser better person as time goes by.

       Community, comrades.

       Pride in one’s society.

       Sense of control; participating in governing one’s community.

       Sense that the world is well, that others are not in difficulties.

These conditions do not require monetary wealth; all people could experience them in a society with very low GDP per person.

Secondly, wealth impoverishes!  It is not good for you!  Wealth debauches, desensitises.  The more one has and the more one can consume, the less one appreciates the value of things, especially simpler things.  Consider Kerry Packer, a billionaire who gambled millions of dollars at a single sitting. If that’s what it takes to make you feel good…

Wealth distracts you from the things that matter.  There are far more important things to focus on than getting rich and purchasing.  Wealth also interferes with identity: your worth, status, the kind of person you are in your own eyes and those of others, should not depend on how much wealth you have.  It should depend on how nice, resilient, kind, thoughtful, generous etc... you are.

           “He is so impoverished, poor.  All he has is wealth.”

The important sources of wealth are public.

In affluent consumer society an individual’s capacity to have enjoyable life depends primarily on the private capacity to purchase and privately own or consume things.  In the new society a high quality of life for all will come mostly from public things, such as, the beautiful landscape with its rich variety of gardens, farms, little firms, forests, the friendly community, the festivals, the free concerts and plays, the help and advice generously given, the institutions such as the community workshops, the working bees, the sharing, the art and artists, and especially the cultural atmosphere.  These are the things that make a society rich, and that enrich the lives of its individual people. In The Simpler Way we will all be very conscious of the importance of contributing to our community and its public wealth, knowing that when we do this we are enriching everyone as well as ourselves.

“My garden is one kilometre across.  It is crammed with every imaginable kind of plant, with ornaments, waterfalls, dells, pagodas, giant forests, nooks, ponds, stonework, orchards,  fountains, statues, bamboo thickets, urns, elves…It is kept in immaculate shape by a large team of fanatical gardeners, who think and plan and fuss and work harder than any slaves could.  And a large part of heir motivation is to create and maintain this beautiful landscape for me and others to enjoy.  I can just walk through it any time and find so many things, fruit, vistas, flowers, that I can’t recall ever seeing before.  I don’t own it.  I could never afford to make or buy such a garden, but that’s not important.  I have it because it’s my village.”


In a good society there are mutually reinforcing effects, positive feedbacks, … synergism. Consumer society is very competitive so if you beat someone to a job or a deal he’s resentful and the relation between the two of you is damaged, and then he won’t be inclined to help you or be nice to you, or to others because he’ll be in a bad mood.  

But in The Simpler Way all the incentives and the rewards are the other way around. If I help you get what you want, or do things that make our institutions function well and enable you to thrive, then you’re more happy and therefore more inclined to be nice and helpful to me and to others, and if you’re nice to someone else then that person is more likely to be nice to me.  So goodness multiplies.  If I show you how to grow good strawberries then there will be more people in town who can provide us all with good strawberries.  But in consumer society, if I show you how to grow good strawberries you might then put me out of business.  The goal in a good society must be to keep in place and to foster those conditions and arrangements that require and reward cooperation, so that all things flourish…because they all help each other to survive and thrive by all contributing to the maintenance of the conditions they all need.  Synergism can’t thrive in a competitive situation.

Synergism flourishes only in an economy of giving. It dies in an economy of getting.  Consumer society has an economy where individuals try to get things, income, goods, wealth, prestige, property, power.  Goodness can’t multiply there.  But when I give you something the value received is more than that which I gave, because my giving makes you happy and then you treat others well and those people in turn are more likely to do nice things for me.  Miserable, stingy, warped, narrow conventional economic theory can’t deal with any of this.  It’s only good for accounting the zero-sum amounts of money wealth.

The importance of collectivism.

In a good society the ideas and goals that preoccupy people must be predominantly collective.  In our present society they are predominantly and increasingly individualistic or selfish.  In a good society much time and energy could go into individual goals but the main concerns must be things like the welfare of all, the public good, morality, justice, pride in one’s society, and standards.

The importance of self-government.

In a good society there must be self-government by willing, responsible citizens. Allowing ourselves to be governed by leaders, whether kings, dictators or elected representatives, is a dreadful mistake.   Humans will not have achieved social maturity, and indeed are not likely to survive, if they do not become capable of and fiercely determined to take responsibility for governing themselves through the direct participation of all citizens in public assemblies. It’s no good if governors, no matter how well-meaning, govern passive and uninvolved masses; that’s a recipe for trouble, and it’s not good for you!  You should be directly involved in making the decisions.

In the coming era of intense scarcity where states cannot be large, communities will have to govern themselves.  They will not flourish or even survive unless the right decisions are made, and these can only come from the participation of all who have to be content with what is decided and who must work willingly to achieve group goals.


A good society is a matter of organisation.  It is not a matter of technology, GDP, wealth, etc.  Some societies that are very “poor” or “primitive” have been pretty good (e.g., Ladakh, Kerala, many tribes.) ln a good society the existing resources, especially labour, skill, time, care, rationality…are applied well to meeting needs and providing all with a high quality of life.  In our society many suffer boredom, deprivation, lack of care…within metres of many others who are watching TV four hours every day, and many of them need things produced yet suffer unemployment.  In other words, things are not well organised; existing productive capacity is not geared to meeting existing needs. In The Simpler Way there is constant intensive concern to identify needs and resources and bring them together.  In consumer-capitalist society this is not done well and all suffer the myth that only if much more “wealth” is created will there be enough to meet unmet needs…a recipe that is a delight to the rich and the business class.

In competitive consumer society doing the socially appropriate thing is usually difficult and unpleasant, because to do it you have to go against your immediate self interest.  You pay your tax but that means you have to send in money you’d rather keep. You stop at red lights, but that clashes with your desire to get there fast.  Individual interests are felt as clashing with the good of society.  In The Simpler Way it is much more likely that doing what is good for all will be seen by the individual as enjoyable and satisfying, e.g., turning up to working bees.

            Liberating, releasing, harnessing up potential.

When social resources are organised well vast productive capacity and much more importantly enjoyment and personal growth, are enabled.  Those people now watching TV four hours a day have huge capacities for play writing, helping, creating, teaching, supporting, governing, growing…but none of these are exercised when attention is preoccupied with trivial distractions.  People have within them the capacity to create miracles, yet they sit in traffic jams and stupefied before the television set for many hours every day.  Any neighbourhood has immense power, talent, labour, knowledge, that could be put to work to generate a marvellous quality of life for all, yet it is not applied to these ends.  In a satisfactory society things would be organised in ways that release and harness these capacities, for the good of individuals themselves and for the good of others.

The Simpler Way liberates and stimulates.  It nurtures, enthuses and inspires,  because it surrounds people with interesting and important and enjoyable things to get involved in, and energetic people doing all sorts of enjoyable, creative things.

Thus the motivation in a good society is almost entirely positive.  There’s no point in trying to force people to be good, creative, helpful or conscientious, by threatening to punish them if they aren’t.  Things can only go well if people want to create, help, take responsibility, come to working bees, because they find these socially-crucial activities enjoyable. 


For a detailed account of The Simpler Way...

Easterlin, R. A., (1972), “Does economic growth improve the human lot?  Some empirical evidence”, in D. A. David and M. W. Reder, (Eds.), Nations and Households in Economic Growth, Stanford, Stanford University Press.

Eckersley, R., (1997), Perspectives on Progress; Is Life Getting Better?, Canberra, CSIRO.

Dalton, G., Ed., Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economics, Essays of Carl Polanyi, New York, Anchor, 1968.

 Speth, G., (23001), Bridge at the End of the World.

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