Ted Trainer

Social Work, University of New South Wales, Kensington, Australia.


Keywords: Social responsibility, global problems, social change, apathy. Attitudes. Citizenship, ideology.

Abstract: It is argued that the lack of social responsibility is a remarkably important yet neglected topic. It can be seen as the key factor in the failure to remedy social problems, especially those most urgently threatening the planet. Attention is first given to describing the phenomenon and to reflecting on its nature and causes. Possible psychological and sociological aspects are considered. It is argued that many powerful forces within capitalist-consumer society militate against social responsibility. In view of looming global justice and sustainability problems the lack of social responsibility points to gloomy prospects for humankind. Yet it is argued that the solution is theoretically simple and three essential themes for the discussion of positive action are considered.


We are now plunging at an accelerating rate into a range of alarming global problems, especially the destruction of ecosystems, the increasing gap between rich and poor, resource depletion, armed conflict, the break down of social cohesion and a falling quality of life. Above all the taken for granted and almost never questioned supreme goal of consumer-capitalist society is grossly unsustainable. That goal is to raise "living standards", production and consumption and the GDP constantly and without any notion of a limit or a point at which we will be rich enough..

There are good reasons for thinking that we cannot now solve these problems and that Western civilization will quickly decline into a new dark age. Books are being written on the firm belief that chaotic breakdown and the die-off of billions of people is likely, and some believe inevitable. Unlike previous societies ours is extremely vulnerable and fragile because of its complete dependence on vast quantities of energy, and on its house-of-cards financial system. Either of these factors could trigger sudden collapse.

The following discussion is a personal reflection speculating on why humans have allowed themselves to get into this situation, and why they fail to get themselves out of it. It is not focally about the specific global problems and their causes. It is about the almost total failure to respond to the situation.

Surprisingly very few people have concerned themselves with this topic, judging by the fact that very little has been written on social responsibility. The issue is hardly recognised, let alone debated, let alone worked on. Higgins identifies the puzzling indifference and apathy regarding the problems threatening to destroy us as "The Seventh Enemy", the title of his book. Another considers humans as "Our Own Worst Enemy". Others have assumed that our situation derives from some evil or perverse element in human nature. This essay argues for a much less spectacular explanation, and asserts that the solution is theoretically simple and easily implemented, if we want to take it…which is not likely.

So why do we have the problems? Why do we not solve them? Put simply, the main reason we do not solve the major global problems, and the main reasons why humans have endured unsatisfactory social conditions for eons is because most people are not very or not at all interested in the problems or in solving them. If most people were sufficiently concerned about unemployment or poverty or hunger then the necessary action would be taken immediately. In human societies in general there is, in other words, little social responsibility. The fate of the planet hangs on whether it can be suddenly and dramatically increased.

Some cases.

Reflect on the appropriate response a "normal" human being would have to the following situations. How would you like to have to make breakfast for your children knowing that the water you are using is literally deadly, that it is contaminated and that using it has already killed one of your children, but you have to use it because there is no other water available and there is not enough fuel to boil it…and that most of the world’s fuel is being taken, i.e bought, by the rich countries to run their sports utility vehicles and to go on jet-away holidays. More than 1 billion people do not have safe water and about 6000 die from this cause every day. What is the proper or appropriate response to this situation? Surely it is a mixture of furious rage, feelings of how terrible it would be to be in that situation, and a powerful urge to fix the situation immediately so that no one ever has to suffer it again.

In the Video Bolivia; The Tin Mountain we meet Cesar who has worked every day for 13 years drilling for tin, with his cheeks puffed out by coca leaves to numb the mind from the boredom and the hunger. Where does the tin go? To make the tin cans on our supermarket shelves. Cesar is lucky because he has a job. When the video was made the mine was killing one person a day, mostly from the dust which causes silicosis TB. It killed Cesar’s father, and he now has it. It is fatal. He is weak and has difficulty walking. But if he does not work his family will be evicted and literally destitute. He should be in a sanitorium but there he is in the truck on his way up to the mine again. He is totally and inescapably trapped and he will die in that trap and he knows it. How do you feel about that?

We can literally multiply a story of that kind by millions. Tens of thousands of people die every day, mostly children, because they are trapped by their economic circumstances in conditions of appalling deprivation. But this is only part of the story. The important part is that many of the people in the world who are most deprived and impoverished are working to produce things that the rich one billion in this world buy in our supermarkets, or are excluded from access to the resources around them by a development process geared to those supermarkets.

In another video I have seen a young African man with a metre long Guinea worm in his leg can do no more than tie a piece of cotton around the protruding tail. How long has he been like that? What will happen? More than one billion people have no access to even the most rudimentary medical care. These conditions exist because our social arrangements deliver obscene wealth to a few and deprive many of basic necessities. Yet in general the few of the world’s people who benefit most from the way the global economy works seem to be totally indifferent to the grinding situation billions endure, or to the causal factors, or to the fact that their comfort and affluence are among the causes.

What can you say about a society in which it is legal to keep a chicken for its whole life in a cage the size of an A4 sheet of paper, a society in which too few care about this to make it illegal?

In the present economy, if a firm can beat many others to the scarce sales opportunities and take their business and deprive them of the livelihood they once had, that is quite acceptable. If no businessman can make money by giving you a job then you will be unemployed. That is an absurd and infuriating way to determine access to work and livelihood. In Australia one to two million people are forced to put up with everything unemployment involves because we refuse to move to a sensible system whereby everyone who wants work somehow gets allocated a share of the work to be done. This could easily be organised with a small amount of initiative, on the part of the state or via local groups regardless of the state. It is done in the Israeli Kibbutz settlements. Taxes might have to be increased a little to cover the added costs to employers (but there would huge savings in the elimination of stress, illness, suicide and unemployment payments.) Now if only a small number of people wanted this done and were prepared to vote for the party that proposed it, it would be done. But any party that made this a priority in its platform would be committing electoral suicide. The indisputable fact is that there is virtually no interest whatsoever in doing it. People in general could hardly care less about eliminating the experience of unemployment.

Consider the astounding level of economic injustice evident in a global economy which delivers affluent lifestyles to about 15% of the world’s people, by enabling them to take most of the world’s resource wealth, and thereby deprives billions of people of their fair share of it. This is the normal and inevitable way the market system functions. For example more than half the best Third World land is growing mostly luxury crops such as coffee to export to rich countries while those who work in the plantations are among the poorest and hungriest people in the world. What would the goods in our supermarkets cost if the people who produced them in the Third World were paid a decent wage. People who make shirts in Bangladesh are paid 15c an hour. How much coffee would we get and what would it cost if most of the 20 million ha producing it in the Third World were growing food for hungry people? But apparently in general people in rich countries could hardly care less about any of these things. The Third World problem has slipped off the public agenda in rich countries. (An indicator is the fact that in the mid 1990s aid had fallen to around 10% of the amount poor countries were paying back to rich countries every year as interest on their debt.)

Now consider the core assertion in economic liberalism, i.e., that the best way to organise an economy is to let a few who are extremely rich and who own most of the capital and productive capacity decide what to produce, by asking themselves what will maximise their profits and wealth, with as little social control and regulation over what they do as possible. This is the principle on which the global economy works. It is rapidly reducing the already appalling living conditions of the poorest of the world's people. (See Note 1.) Within the anti-globalisation movement there is some discontent with this situation, but a negligible number of people in rich countries are calling for fundamental change from a consumer-capitalist society.

The most stunning and important blind spot of all is to do with the manic obsession with the limitless pursuit of higher living standards and economic growth, when present rich world levels of consumption are already far beyond those that are sustainable or that all the world's people could ever reach. We are grossly overproducing and over-consuming and therefore racing towards catastrophic breakdowns on many fronts, especially with respect to the environment and the depletion of crucial resources. The rich world per capita "ecological footprint" is about six times the area of productive land available to each person on the planet. We might be within a decade of the peak in petroleum supply. If this is so then the consequences for a world extremely dependent on petroleum will be unimaginable. Two billion are fed by fertilisers produced from petroleum, and 480 million by the ground water pumped by it. The Australian per capita carbon dioxide emission rate is more than twenty times the limit that the climate scientists are telling us will be the sustainable maximum.

This detailed and overwhelmingly convincing "limits to growth" case has been accumulating for 40 years. (See note 2.) Obviously there is far too much producing and consuming going on yet there is almost no recognition of the analysis at all among politicians, journalists, educators, economists or the public in general, who all remain blindly and fiercely determined to pursue ever increasing levels of income, consumption, investment, trade, business turnover and GDP.

The appropriate emotional response a normal human would have to the kinds of cases and situations indicated above is intense outrage and anger, a severe, painful compassion for the human beings who suffer these experiences, and a desperate panic-like urge to do something to get rid of the problem right now. If your car were to roll onto your dog or your baby daughter, how would you respond? To put it mildly you would feel distressed and you would leap into action because every microsecond would count. If you were there, beside someone who is malnourished, or one of the thousands of children who lose their sight each year because of a vitamin A deficiency that could be remedied for a few cents, what would you feel? There is no doubt whatsoever that you would be very disturbed. You would suffer too, in fact any normal person would probably never get over such an experience. And you would feel a powerful drive to do something to get rid of the problem as quickly as possible.

Even more puzzling and annoying than indifference to the plight of others is the failure of people to respond appropriately to social problems which directly impact on their own welfare. Take for example the huge deterioration in health services that have occurred in Australia in the last twenty years as governments have cut spending. I have just been listening to an account on ABC Background Briefing on the crisis now set by the many nurses who are leaving their profession because of the stress caused by insufficient resources. A patient interviewed was a bystander injured in a bar room brawl and in need of surgery. He had been sitting in a waiting room for 12 hours. In another case an elderly man was left unattended on a trolley for a long time, fell off and broke a hip. In 1999 a report estimated that every year possibly 18,000 Australians are killed by mistakes made in Australian hospitals. The figure is incredible, 40 people every day!…but there was no outrage. There was in fact almost no comment. People simply accept all this even though they themselves suffer the consequences. They apparently do not care even though many of them will end up in those waiting rooms every day.

To take a final example, rich people pay little or no tax. The Matthews Report on Australian Taxation said the problem is not to get the rich to pay more tax -- it is to get them to pay any tax at all. Half the foreign corporations with branches in Australia pay no tax at all! (That is why the hospitals are so bad.) But evidently no one cares. There is no discussion or outrage about this. How long would this situation continue if people in general did care, just a little, let alone if they were bellowing with rage as they should be.

A "normal" human being cannot but be wounded and feel pain by exposure to another who is suffering serious harm, or to a social issue where there are grossly unsatisfactory effects. (Of course the reference here is not to statistically normal, i.e., typical humans.) The problem of social responsibility is that there are very few normal people. It would seem that we must accept that most people are zombie monsters.

Zombies are dead. They are not conscious of their surroundings. They do not grasp what is going on around them. And only monsters can be in the presence of extreme injustice, suffering or destruction without being emotionally shattered. Clearly our problem is that most people are zombie monsters.

The proximity to the suffering is not cucial here. Just to know that somewhere in the world a child is hungry should evoke profound disturbing compassion in any "normal" human. But it does not, and the research task is to understand the forces and conditions that generate these dispositions and behaviours. Is distance in time any more significant? Should the Irish Potato Famine evoke within us a different response to a current famine?

Somehow we humans seem to develop an emotionally protective cocoon, a shell which ensures that the emotional significance of things we know about does not get through. When we hear on the news of a murder or a famine it usually has little or no emotional impact. Occasionally the emotional significance of something does break through and we get a shock. I was sitting on a quiet railway station recently, daydreaming, when a train I had not heard approaching suddenly thundered through jolting me into fear at the sense of tremendous noise and power and violence, and how puny a human body would be if something like that ran off the rails. My mind raced to what it must be like to be in a grass hut on the Bangladesh floodplain when a cyclone comes through hurling palm tree logs like straw. It made me feel how absolutely terrifying it would be if a tank ran over your mud hovel. It made me think how immeasurably important it is to make sure that things like that never ever happen to anyone. Yet on that same day I probably heard of many violent deaths on the radio news without being moved.

Obviously to respond emotionally to all such information would be totally debilitating, but to not respond emotionally at all is problematic. Central in the problem of social responsibility is this emotional shell that inhibits an appropriate response.

Consider WarHow many wars would not have happened had there been just a little more social responsibility? How many appalling bungles on the part of kings and politicians too arrogant to back down or to question their prejudices or listen would not have led to armed conflict if publics had had even a little more sense, let alone had they demanded to be given a full, clear and convincing account of the situation and why war was a the appropriate option. For a start World War I could not have happened (20 million dead),which ended in a way that set up World War II (another 50 million dead), which ended in a way that set up the Cold War and the nuclear arms race (nearly another 5 billion dead; see the film Thirteen Days.)Millions of men eagerly enlisted to fight in World War 1 without the slightest understanding of the issues. How many would have been so eager had they clearly understood that for centuries previously Britain had killed and looted and enslaved and fought 72 colonial ways to acquire, i.e., conquer, an empire -- but was monumentally offended when Germany tried to push into the same plundering game. World War II in the Pacific was in large part about the Japanese having the same effrontery, seeking to grab an empire and thereby threatening the empires the British, Dutch and Americans (the Philippines) had previously grabbed, and having their access to oil blocked by the Americans. The "All the way with LBJ" Australian political leadership tripped over themselves in their eagerness to get us into the Vietnam war. In fact it seems that Menzies could not wait for the call and badgered the Vietnamese government to invite us. When we now look back over the graves of 500 young Australians surely we grasp how extremely important it is that a nation’s people have the capacity and determination to discuss such an issue competently and thoroughly and to get the right answer. Again this is inconceivable without a far high level of social responsibility than there is at present.At the time of writing this a handful of Americans have decided to launch that country into a war on Iraq. One man, the Australian Prime minister, has decided that if they do, Australia will help. Such a war could mean 10,000 to 200,000 Iraqi civilians would be killed. What is most remarkable here is that Australian people have allowed this situation to develop, a situation in which one person has the power to decide whether or not we are going to inflict massive destruction and death on another country and in which, if he did make such a decision, people would comply with no more than a little grumbling.

So from time to time the issue is whether our children should be sent to slaughter the children of other people just like us. At such times you begin to wish that one or two generations previously someone had put in place the educational, media, political and cultural institutions that would have ensured that now people in general were able and determined to work out what is the right thing to do.

Of course if we had any significant level of social responsibility then wars would never occur in the first place. The time to end a war is several years before it breaks out. If and when it comes to blows then you have failed abysmally to do the sensible thing, i.e., to see trouble coming, to work out accurately what is causing it, and to face up to the fact that often it is our own greed and previous thuggery that has been the major causal factor.

Now reflect on the probable near future of armed conflict on a planet in which one fifth have levels of resource consumption that are seventeen times the average of the poorest half, resources are alarmingly scarce, the global economy is essentially a system that enables the rich to take most of them, the number of people scrambling for them will soon be 8 - 9 billion, the poorest of those billions are eager to be as rich as the rich few, all economic and development theories assume without question that getting rich is what development is about, and we in rich countries are determined to be at least eight times as rich by 2070 — this set of conditions provides a watertight guarantee that the coming century will be one of extreme and massive armed conflict.

Rich world affluence would not be possible in a just global economy. We could not be affluent if we were not getting most of the scarce resources, and gearing the productive capacity of the Third World to our benefit. The system is kept in place mostly by acceptance of the market system, which automatically enables the rich to take most of what is available and to develop what is most profitable to them. But in addition our empire can not be kept in place without violence, especially without supporting the brutal regimes that will follow the policies that suit us. Poor Third World people would prefer that their soils and fisheries and forests and labour were put into development that would produce things they desperately need. But the regimes we support ensure that the land and labour go into producing exports to enrich themselves and our corporations and shoppers. (For detailed documentation on the maintenance of our empire, see Note 3.)

Thus if we wish to remain affluent in a world where affluence is not possible for all, we must remain heavily armed. We will need military forces to defend "our" oil fields and mines. If on the other hand we want security it cannot be achieved without global justice. Security can only be found in a world where no one takes more than their fair share. Yet in general international relations are about everyone trying to outsmart or intimidate everyone else to take as much as they can.


Responsible citizens would see that the only solution to the scourge of war has to be in terms of transition to lifestyles and systems that enable all to live well without taking more than their fair share.

The power of the masses.

The painful irony is that in general it would only take the most miniscule response on the part of the mass of people to quickly remedy the kinds of situations and policies noted above. For at least thousands of years billions of people have suffered social and political conditions that were somewhere between bad and appalling. Although some societies seem to have been remarkably satisfactory, especially many tribal societies, in most a few thugs and manipulators have dominated the rest. They have bossed and bullied, and hogged most of the wealth and privileges and sat around in luxury while others had to work to provide for them and often have had to fear for their lives. How could this be?

In the world today there is an enormous and increasing problem of domination. A tiny few are taking most of the wealth and running the world in their own interests. In America the richest 1% have more than half of all the capital and more wealth than 90% of people. The rich manage to keep in place systems in which the majority of people increasingly work mostly for the benefit of the few while billions either get relatively little in return, or are totally "excluded". The present global economy probably only works well for less than 10% of the world’s people. (Foutopolous, 1997.) Inequality is rapidly increasing. Globalisation is giving the corporate super rich the freedom and the right to take even more and to condemn more people to miserable conditions. Even the rich world’s middle classes are being driven off the levels of affluence and comfort they have become accustomed to. But few seem to see any problem with the domination that exists, nor with other problematic conditions such as the unnecessary competition, the shoddy products, the plight of those dumped into unemployment and poverty.

All this could be thrown off very quickly if there was a significant amount of concern about social problems and their causes. The many tyrants and bullies and plundering ruling classes that have made life a misery for countless people throughout history could have been tipped out at any time had a significant proportion of their victims said "Enough! Get out! From here on people around here will run things in everyone’s interests." What proportion of people today in Australia think like this?

Chomsky puts it in terms of Hume’s paradox; " any society the population submits to the rulers even though force is always in the hands of the governed...the rulers can only rule if they control opinion -- no matter how many guns they have." (Chomsky, 1986-92, p. 81.) Gandhi put it more colourfully noting that if all Indians merely spat the British would drown.,

Of course a few do respond appropriately, but very very few. At the peak of the Peace Movement, when the Cuban missile crisis brought us very close to nuclear war, only .7% of Australians marched on the main annual protest day.

In other words, who is the problem? Rarely is power taken and exercised against the will of the oppressed. Mostly power is given, permitted. Legitimacy is about acquiescence. The problem therefore is not the few who the situation benefits, it is the many who accept situations which disadvantage themselves. Yet the focus of dissenting thought and action has usually been the dominators and scarce energy and resources have typically gone solely into (usually self-destructive) struggle against the dominators — when they are not the crucial element. The key is the consciousness of the dominated. If only a small proportion of them came to see the situation differently, as illegitimate, the dominators would be immediately dumped, probably in non-violent ways, perhaps simply by being ignored from thereon.

Of course, the persistence of unsatisfactory social conditions is usually due in large part to the fact that a few have far more capacity than others to influence ideas and decisions and therefore to keep in place the arrangements that suit themselves. But again if many people objected those situations would be changed. It takes remarkably little public outcry or action to get things changed. Publics are like large and fierce dogs that sleep most of the time allowing a few sneaky mice to get away with what they want, but if they are roused and angered just a little the mice have to scurry for cover. In 2001 the very powerful drug corporations moved to stop the South African government from producing anti-Aids drugs at a price Africans could afford, below the prices the obscenely rich drug corporations wanted to charge. Drug companies have got away with these kinds of actions for years, including refusing to develop the drugs that would do most good in the world, i.e., drugs for the diseases that afflict Third World people, while focusing on the high priced and often trivial lines that sell well in rich countries. (For instance only 1% of new drugs developed are for tropical diseases.) Somehow the tiny groups working against the drug companies in the South African case managed to stir up enough public attention, not much really, but enough to panic the drug companies into giving up. The space in our newspapers given to this issue at its peak would have been about .1% of that given to sport, but that relatively minute amount of public interest and discontent was enough.

Just ask for how many milliseconds would any other outrageous situation last if people in general became appropriately aware of it and annoyed about it.

Psychological factors

It seems that we can discern three psychological components of social responsibility. a) The intellectual capacity or readiness to see, attend to, focus on unsatisfactory situations, b) The emotional response of feeling discontented about the situation, empathising with those who suffer the consequences, and feeling strongly that something should be done, and c) The will, the urge to take some remedial action.

The first factor would seem to include the capacity to recognise the relative importance of things. The opposite of this is preoccupation with trivia. Post modern society is characterised by a stunning level of preoccupation with trivia. Most people spend most of their time doing or thinking about things that are of no importance whatsoever in view of the global situation we are in. All around us there are serious, skilled, intelligent, conscientious people who actually think it is important who wins the next test match, or that it is important to write another cookbook, or dictionary, or buy that album, or make a career move, or work for years to win a gold medal or shave 1 sec of their PB. Turn on the radio and imagine what a visitor from Mars would conclude about our mentality --he would get no clue that one-fifth of us are hungry, or that petrol supply will probably peak in 10 years bringing on a collapse of industrial civilization that might kill off 2 billion of us.

The tendency to "familiarise".

Social responsibility seems to involve a powerful tendency in human minds to make the world familiar. We seem to have evolved in ways that make social responsibility difficult for us. We are wired to respond immediately and appropriately to problems that directly confront us as individuals or our families, but our evolution for millions of years in tribal groups does not seem to have developed much capacity to recognise and respond to abstract social issues that we do not experience directly or immediately, that might require critical thought about social structures and systems, and that might manifest themselves to us only in the form of dry statistics, or that only involve experiences that will not occur until far in the future.

We have a strong tendency to normalise and routinise the world, to adapt, to focus on the immediate, everyday, familiar world of ordinary routine. We have a strong tendency to construe our world as intelligible, predictable and non-surprising, and to tune out disturbing information and ideas. We like a familiar world. Some degree of novelty and excitement is welcome and is given immediate attention, but in general we like to feel that we know our everyday world well and need not expect to be thrown off balance by confronting things that are inexplicable or strange or troublesome. Indeed it might be said that the typical state of mind homo sapiens defaults to is borderline boredom.

The paradox is that we actually live in a puzzling, indeed an incomprehensible universe. We can not even get our minds around things like where is its boundary --- if it has one what is on the other side of that -- and if it does not how can something spatial not have any boundary? We don’t worry about such questions. We hardly ever think about them, let alone become disturbed by them. We choose to define that problem out of our everyday world and to construct ourselves into a familiar, understandable and routine universe enabling us to get on with the immediate business of living from day to day

Yet when ordinary people are directly confronted face to face with another in serious trouble, for example at an accident scene, there usually is an appropriate emotional response, and an appropriate urge to do something to solve the problem, leading to immediate and energetic action. But social responsibility is about something different. It is to do with the failure to respond appropriately to social problems that are known about only at a distance, problems such as unemployment, homelessness, the destruction of the environment, the poverty of the Third World, corporate tax evasion, slave labour, youth suicide, homelessness, political corruption. How can we get to the stage where being confronted by statistical information about distant social issues evokes strong feelings of anger and compassion and strong desire to solve the problem?

This capacity for indifference is very likely to have considerable functional significance for the human mind. Obviously to become disturbed about every problem one hears about would be totally debilitating. Everyday functioning seems to be made possible by mechanisms that enable us to see the world as routine, ordinary and non- disturbing. It would seem that we have a strong predisposition to set aside disturbances and to focus on, attend to interpretations of our situation as familiar, the OK world, the taken for granted.

In Berger’s terms (1966) it is the task of the sociologist to practise "exstasy", by which he means standing outside one’s society’s normalising definitions and interpretations, in order to recognise and study its practices and assumptions. When this is done the ordinary can come to be seen as extraordinary, problematic, a puzzle to be explained. "Why do these people think appearing without clothes is embarrassing?" The connection with social responsibility here would seem to be in coming to see something that is ordinary, unremarkable and non-problematic as a multifaceted problem, a cognitive, emotional and volitional problem. "Why do these people not respond to that."

Sartre’s account of "bad faith" (1969) would also seem to be relevant to our problem. He noted how people tend to appeal to concepts such as "duty" to justify action, e.g., where a soldier says he had no choice about doing something because he had to obey orders. Sartre emphasised that one is always totally free to choose this way or that, although the consequences of some choices might be extremely unpleasant, and thus the appeal to social norms and conventions is an invalid denial of responsibility. Yet it is understandable given the dreadful burden of "angst" that full recognition of freedom brings. I am for example quite free to draw all my savings from the bank and give them to an aid organisation that would use them to save many lives. I am totally free to bring about either of the two sets of consequences that would follow from acting or not acting in this way, so it is not surprising that we tend to cling to concepts like duty to enable us to deny the existence of such "dreadful" freedom and responsibility. Note that responsibility here does not mean obligation. It is simply a reference to the fact that my action will cause, bring about one set of consequences or another.

Some Sociological connections

There are many ways in which capitalist-consumer society weights heavily against social responsibility. Firstly the sheer size of modern societies is a problem. Social responsibility is facilitated by smallness of scale, so that people are able to get together to take some control over their local affairs. When societies are big individuals feel powerless and things are inevitably left to "leaders" and bureaucracies at the centre.

There have been societies in which there would seem to have been a remarkable degree of social responsibility. In ancient Greece citizens put a high priority on the discussion of public affairs and participation in government. (The word they used for anyone who did not do this much is said to translate into English as "idiot".) Bookchin (1967) explains how they saw this as not just a duty but as a crucial element in the education of the citizen. Unlike our society, the individual was trusted with making decisions concerning the welfare of society and was therefore conscious of the responsibility and of the importance of helping to sort out issues effectively and to find the right answer. There were issues which the Greeks failed to question, most obviously the use of slaves and the exclusion of women from public affairs, but in a world where the norm since the tribal period seems to have been unquestioning obedience to tyrannical kings and states the Greeks stand out for the remarkable extent to which citizens concerned themselves with social issues.

Bookchin argues that the situation was similar in Medieval towns and in the towns of New England USA. Ordinary people carried out the governing via highly participatory democratic procedures and were therefore very involved in the discussion of social issues. In both cases the situation would have provided powerful incentives because small isolated communities without a state to provide for them knew they had to take responsibility for their own fate. Many of the Israeli Kibbutz settlements, and the intentional communities of the Global Eco-village Movement also involve remarkable levels of social responsibility on the part of ordinary citizens.


Of course most of the blame must fall on the rich. It is in their interests that the mass of people are acquiescent and they go to a great deal of effort to reinforce the system and to goad people to be rampant consumers and to preoccupy them with trivia. (It is reported that US spending on "marketing" is now said to exceed $1t per year.) The very rich own the media and they can hire the intellectuals, especially economists, to do the vital work of maintaining the dominant ideology. In any society there are taken for granted ideas defining what is normal, right, to be accepted, to be done, and not thought about. Not surprisingly the ideas that are taken for granted regarding privilege and inequalities are in general the very ideas that the rich and powerful few would like us to hold. So for instance in our society just about everyone accepts that market forces should determine the distribution of resources and what is developed, and that it is in order for the strongest corporations to take all the sales, resources and markets that millions of little people once had just because they can produce more cheaply.

Marxists tend to exhonorate the working class (which in their terms includes most of what is usually referred to as the middle class today, i.e., the highly paid technocratic and professional workers), attributing all social ills to the capitalist class. Clearly their account of ideology explains much about the lack of social responsibility, but the working classes in rich countries are also culpable. Yes they are under great stupefying pressure, but they know that many people in the Third World endure very unsatisfactory conditions, producing their coffee and running shoes. They eagerly devour the trivia and the sport and spectacles. (An Australian today lost the Wimbledon tennis final, and the first five pages of the Daily Telegraph were almost entirely given to the event.) Corporations cannot make profits unless people buy their products, and working class people are no less happy to buy the products from Third World plantations and factories than are middle class or rich people.

Although the lowest classes are the ones most impacted by the injustices within their own societies, they show little or no sign of discontent. They endure the waiting rooms, and then pay the outrageous specialist and legal fees without dissent. They would rush to be rich and privileged if they could, with little or no thought that in a world of great scarcity this is not possible for some unless many are deprived. They buy the magazines that idolise the lifestyles of celebrities. Not surprisingly evidence of discontent does not increase as attention shifts from the lower working class to the "excluded", and the "welfare" industry which manages them. The acquiescence of the victims and their minders can be more disturbing than the smug complacency of the privileged.

But surely it is the middle class that is most morally problematic. They are "educated" and literate, so they know more clearly than others that bad things are happening and they are in the best position to take action, and if even a tiny proportion of them spoke out the world would change. It is not a matter of courage or intimidation or powerlessness. There is no danger in speaking out. The problem is simply that taking social issues seriously seems never to occur to most of them. They are too busy thinking about the coming career move, the kitchen renovation, the trip to Bali, getting the kids into that private school, their investment plan, and the wine rack.

The power of affluence.

The addiction to affluence seems to be an especially important impediment to social responsibility. There is considerable readiness among the small green, left and anti-globalisation groups to attend to the injustice of the global economy and to worry about what globalisation is doing. But critical tendencies seems to instantly disappear the moment it is suggested that over-consumption or affluent lifestyles are a problem, let alone the major cause of global problems. What almost all people seem to want above all are wealth and possessions, property, travel, comfort, status, a nice house, financial security, and a good investment fund manager. In general even those professing concern about the environment refuse to listen to anyone suggesting that a just and sustainable world order is not possible unless there is dramatic reduction in rich world per capita levels of consumption. This is glaringly evident in the failure of peak aid, justice and environmental groups to give any attention to the problem of affluence and growth. Unfortunately most "intellectuals", including those on the Left would strongly prefer to think critically about anything but challenges to their own material comfort.

These comments derive from decades working at the task of drawing attention to "the limits to growth" analysis of the global predicament. Those of us who have been doing this can testify to the immense difficulty of getting anyone to take any notice. Indeed the readiness to attend to "limits" themes is distinctly less now than it was decades ago. (Hence David Suzuki regards himself as a catastrophic failure.)

The performance of the Left is especially lamentable here. Marxists have seen emancipation in terms of turning up the throttles in the factories "so that everyone can have a Mercedes", and have tended to be among the last to acknowledge that an ecological sustainable society cannot have affluent living standards or a growth economy. It is one thing to be boldly socially responsible when that involves blaming the capitalist class for all the problems, but it is quite another when one’s own "living standards" are suggested as a cause.


The individualistic strand in Western culture is clearly central in our topic. Consider the fact that during the "great depression" large numbers of people were forced to suffer intense hardship, when in principle it would have been easy for people to get together to organise the collective production that would have given everyone the means to a frugal but adequate life -- the collective gardens, workshops, poultry pens, social activities, entertainment and social services. It is not just that authorities did not do this. More disturbing is that except in a very few cases it did not occur to the victims to do it.

Individualsm weakens awareness, resistance and action since it casts problems as things individuals must grapple with or accept on their own, as distinct from problems that might be tackled collectively. If you think collectively you are more likely to think about how others and the group are faring. In an individualistic culture even the capacity to think in terms of what is wrong with social arrangements is impoverished. Problems, adversity and deprivation are more likely to be interpreted as due to individual failure to achieve, stay at school, work hard, etc., rather than as due to faults in society.


The problem of lack of social responsibility is in large part due to the massive default on the part of the "intellectual" ranks in society, the teachers, writers, journalists, professionals and especially the academics. These are the people who are most highly educated and are supposed to be the thinkers, analysers and educators. Their cleverness enables space travel, computers and atom splitting, yet historically the intellectual classes have failed to think critically about their society and have served the privileged classes (which hired them). Today only a very small proportion of them ever attend to the critical issues now confronting us (in my estimate, less than 1% of those in my university.) Even less ever speak out on the issues that now threaten us with mass die-off.

This is a huge and inexcusable moral failure. These are the people with the intelligence, education, position, security, comfort and time to at least draw attention to the problems. They are supposed to be the deep and critical thinkers. Questioning fundamentals and assumptions is supposed to be their role. Yet almost all of them refuse to think about or comment on the core justice and sustainability problems, let alone work on solutions. A considerable proportion of them teach conventional economic theory without any reference to its flaws or its central role in causing the global situation, let alone to critical or alternative economics.

Most academics even within the "humanities" devote themselves to studying and teaching about topics that are of the utmost triviality given the situation we are in. We do not really need another translation of Ovid or treatise on Medieval poetry or a dictionary of Australian slang. Indeed right now we do not need anything going on in many entire fields of academic inquiry, such as Linguistics, English Literature, or Astronomy (… a keen hobby interest of mine.) Let us get back to such things later if we can after we save the planet from collapse and make sure no one is hungry.

Academics spend many years learning how to research, but their training allocates no time to the question, "What kinds of problems ought I apply my skills to?" Evidently it never occurs to most of them that they should devote their talents to trying to do something about the terrible problems impacting on people all around them and indeed now threatening their own privileges. Most enjoy extremely privileged work conditions, with great freedom to decide what to work on. Most exhibit immense self-indulgence in their pursuits, often following unimportant obsessions, totally free from challenge regarding relevance or misapplication of scarce resources.

The neglect cannot be explained in terms of fear or danger. It is not that courage is required to study the crucial topics despite the opposition of authorities or public opinion. It is simply a matter of complete indifference, the absence of any sense of the importance or necessity for these issues to be taken up, and the self-indulgent study of what is fond to be most interesting. How can one explain that of the many thousands of well-paid academics in Australia barely a handful are grappling with the core sustainability problems? And what does this say about our potential for saving ourselves?

One occasionally encounters the claim, "People think it’s wrong, but what can they do about it?" In other words, sometimes it is argued that the problem is powerlessness, not indifference. The argument is easily refuted, by pointing to the absence of rage. Social responsibility involves concern of such a magnitude that the emotions and the will are moved. Social responsibility blocked by powerlessness could therefore be expected to manifest intense discontent. Yet what we are dealing with is indifference.

Post modernism.

The advent of "post-modern society" can be taken as the entrenchment of all that denies and destroys social responsibility. It is an era in which attention is focussed on trivia, fleeting images and experiences, celebrities, spectacles, thrills, sport, TV, and moment to moment hedonism. Satisfaction comes from purchasing ephemeral, throw-away products and experiences, so dissatisfaction quickly returns. Ever-increasing levels of violence, destruction and horror are required to satisfy debauched audiences. The focus is on the superficial and fleeting, so underlying purposes, structures, meanings and historical origins are not thought about.

The forces of consumer-capitalist society have removed most sources of deeper purpose or identity, such as the experience of community, self-sufficient household production, participation in self-government, crafts, hobbies, life-long trades, while providing easy access to superficial replacements such as TV and computerised games. For many it has eliminated the notion of career which once provided central and lasting identity, purpose and satisfaction. Now many jobs can be expected during a working life.

As Harvey argues (but not well) all this aligns beautifully with the needs of late capitalism, which has brought it about. The system must maximise the amount of purchasing going on, so frenetic consumption of throw away products, pop music, celebrities, spectaculars, and fashion is highly functional. Image and identity must be sought through purchases, for instance of branded products. Because satisfaction cannot be found in the consumption of such short-lived trivia, the drive to consume is never satiated. The only solution for discontent is to go shopping again. The only available salve for the dissatisfaction the system generates is to feed the system with the ceaseless consuming it requires.

In addition, the process deals very effectively with the problem of dissent -- , because none arises. No police or riot control equipment, indeed no effort is needed to keep the system in place despite rebellious masses -- because there aren’t any…they are all preoccupied consuming the ephemera. Remarkably the very things to which people turn when discontented not only reinforce the system but increase sales! What do unhappy, anxious, lonely, bored or isolated people do? That’s right -- they go shopping, or turn to more spectacular entertainment or buy booze or a jet-away holiday or valium or if all else fails, counselling. The very things that dissipate the discontent that the corporations have caused, and dissent that might occur, also make good profits for corporations.

The post modern mentality even eliminates the kind of thinking that resistance requires. To begin with individuals focused on trivia and hedonism are not inclined to think about social structures and causes or enduring principles like justice or emancipation. More importantly, post modern theory regards the quest for "totalising" or universalising" accounts, theories, general social structures and principles as mistaken and futile. Yet without these revolutionary thinking, let alone organising, is not possible.


The post-modernists ridicule the Enlightenment belief in the power of reason to understand and control the world, and guide the emancipation of human kind. Reason, they argue, has led to the Twentieth Century wars and death camps, atomic weapons and corporate rule.

Consider also the massive contradiction between the incredible, meticulous rationality evident in the design and construction of a biro, or a wrist watch, let alone a battleship or space shuttle. Reflect on the vast amount of careful, patient, logical thinking, the R and D, the planning, the system development, the discipline, hard work and organisation to achieves all this. Now consider the staggering, incomprehensible, imbecilic lack of rationality evident in, for instance the prison system or the money creation system (Note 4.), or any one of countless other examples that could be given.

Post-modernists are clearly wrong here. The paradoxes and tragedies of the Twentieth Century are not due to rationality — they are due to insufficient rationality and most if not all would be eliminated by the rationality embodied in socially responsible citizens.


Little needs to be said in this context about the failure of the vast and elaborate "educational" systems we have. Suffice it to note that virtually all university graduates have spent thousands of hours over some fifteen years, learning things like quadratic equations and Shakespeare and how to make bridges, but they have spent not one minute studying the limits to growth analysis of our probably terminal global predicament. The NSW Board of Secondary Studies lists 47 subjects taught in the state’s high schools, but neither Social Responsibility nor the limits to growth is given space in any of them. Almost none of the students who enrol in my university level course on global problems have ever been introduced to the notion that their society is fundamentally unsustainable and unjust and that their everyday behaviour and taken for granted "living standards" are the direct cause of the global catastrophies occurring all around them.

Evil is not the problem.

It is common for those contemplating our appalling history to identify evil as the source of our difficulties. But the overwhelming majority of people are not malicious, i.e., they do not in general have any desire to harm others. A few seem to, or to have little inhibition about doing so when it suits their interests. As Crossman stresses, in general it takes a great deal of effort to turn a human into a killer or a torturer.

Certainly a few "evil" leaders have caused immense harm, but again that’s because they have been allowed to. Socially responsible citizens would not tolerate such behaviour for an instant, so evil leaders would not emerge. The planet’s misery is not primarily due to any desire to inflict harm — it is primarily due to the indifference ensuring that potentially harmful situations are not attended to.

Citizenship, civilization and social responsibility — consider Ladakh.

What is it to be civilized? What are the criteria by which we should judge how civilized a society is. At around 14,000 ft in the Himalayas there is a tiny country, Ladakh, which has thrived in extremely difficult conditions for 800 years. In our terms these people are extremely backward and poor. Their most sophisticated technology is a primitive water-driven grindstone. Their average GNP per capita is almost nothing. Yet this is a complex, culturally rich, and admirable society, with a great deal to teach the rich countries about civility, humanity, community, social justice and ecological sustainability. (Norberg-Hodge, 1991.)

The Ladakhis are kind and generous. They have extensive community support systems. They look after and value their old people, they have a rich spiritual life, a relaxed lifestyle, and robust and sustainable food producing systems despite fiercely cold winters and a short growing season. Their production is labour-intensive, yet the pace of work and life in general is slow, with much time for ceremonies and religious observance. There are powerful formal structures and informal arrangements and traditions that reinforce the strong sense of community. No one is isolated or lonely. They do not waste anything. They have no interest in power, domination or competition. They are very conscious of their dependence on nature, they are multi-skilled and practical, and they live extremely simply in terms of material consumption. There is no crime and no poverty and no drug problem and no social breakdown. It would be difficult to imagine a culture less assertive, aggressive, violent or warlike. They have a rich cultural and religious life. They use very few non-renewable resources, recycle everything, have a sustainable agriculture, and are ecologically impeccable. Above all they are notoriously happy people.

I have no hesitation in claiming that the Ladakhi society is far more civilised than our society is. Their technology is primitive. Their GDP per capita is zero, their aerospace industry does not exist, but on almost all the factors on which I think a civilization should be rated they are far superior to us.

The essential sociological aspect of Ladakh is that the culture is based on concern for the common welfare. This valuing derives to a considerable extent from their Buddhist spiritual tradition and it is deeply embedded in the social structure. There are rituals and arrangements (e.g., for harvesting, herding, dealing with birth and death) whereby people contribute and are looked after in a cooperative way. When one turns from this noble and beautiful culture to contemplate ours one can only be deeply ashamed. How oafishly inadequate are our arrangements, how grubby are the values that fuel the scramble for selfish advantage and trinkets while trashing our own social fabric and the ecological preconditions for our survival. How proud of all this can one be?The anthropologist Maybury-Lewis reports a member of a desert tribe saying to him, "A poor man among us would shame us all." Consider the enormity of that statement in the light of the Western mentality of selfishness, competition, greed, acceptance of vicious inequality, predation, and the readiness to condemn those who fail. (The now-common term "loser" says it all.) The right response to the existence of a poor man is indeed shame and disgust that we have allowed this to happen. If your dog messed in the living room and trampled it all through the house would you clean it up? Would you be content to leave a smelly shambles for others to see? Would you not be ashamed to think that people might judge you to be the sort of person who would tolerate such squalor and not want to fix it up? I can not see much different between this and being a member of a society that is grossly ugly and disgusting. One can not but be deeply ashamed of Australian society which has allowed 200,000 young people to become heroin addicts and one million to be unemployed and many young people to become so disenchanted and hopeless that they take their own lives. It is a mark of lack of civilisation that we do not feel intense shame that there are poor among us. Similarly only barbaric, callous and primitive societies tolerate unemployment. Many societies do not. One cannot but be ashamed to be part of a society that refuses to make any realistic effort to get rid of the scourge.

Conclusions on our situation?

Toynbee analysed history in terms of the rise and fall of civilizations. He concluded that about 26 had come into being, and most of these had died out (…and that ours is dying.) The factor which he thought determined whether a civilization thrived or declined is its capacity to respond to challenges. It is not technical cleverness or military might or productive capacity or education or wealth or great artistic achievement. Gigantic imperial powers such as Rome can collapse because of the internal failure to maintain the necessary energy, organisation, solidarity, vision or commitment. Now how do we rate on this scale. For instance how likely are we to respond to the challenge set by the greenhouse problem, to recognise the correct and unpleasant answer, and then to implement it? The Kyoto agreements only called for about a 5% reduction in carbon emissions by 2010 from 1990 levels, but the atmospheric scientists have told us that to stop the problem getting any worse than it is now we must cut carbon emissions by 60-80%. What has been the response to this challenge by the worst carbon emitters? Australia fought furiously and successfully to be allowed to increase its emissions by 8% and in mid 2001 the US simply refused to have anything to do with the proposals, as soon as it had sunk in that cutting carbon emissions would impact on their affluent living standards and on business turnover. Meanwhile sales of four wheel drive vehicles have accelerated and the average Australian house size has doubled in a generation. Obviously there is no possibility of the right response to difficult issues such as greenhouse being made in rich countries until there is a vast improvement in the level of social responsibility within the general public.

But what about our leaders, bureaucracies and parliaments? Are they not there to deal with social problems? The fundamental assumption under this discussion is not just that it is not satisfactory to leave social issues to "leaders" —indeed it is to reject the notion of leadership. If in the far distant future humans manage to establish a satisfactory society it will not be one in which governing is left to governors, that is in which people are led. Citizens will govern themselves. The quality, viability and nobility of the society, its level of civilization will be a function of its political culture, its citizenry. These do not depend on the sophistication of technology, the power of military machine, the brilliance of leaders, or the size of the GDP. They depend on the level of social responsibility among people in general. And that is where a society’s security lies. That is what gets you into wars or keeps you out. Appalling national policies are adopted because people in general want them, or do not object to them. It is a mistake to see Australia’s recent grubby and vicious treatment of refugees as the work of it’s Prime Minister or his government. It was what the majority of Australians wanted, or would not object to.

Our planetary salvation, or damnation, is in the hands of ordinary people. They are the one’s who will determine whether we will do anything about the greenhouse problem, or the Third World or nuclear weapon proliferation. What then matters more than the average capacity of people for social responsibility?

The Solution?

Despite the despair transparent in the foregoing discussion, I firmly believe that the solution is in principle simple. Three elements are crucial for the existence of a socially responsible society. These are, a) educating for social responsibility, b) the development of particular information institutions, enabling understanding of social issues, and c) the development of a arrangements whose everyday functioning requires and reinforces social responsibility.

The educational task.

Social responsibility does not come "naturally" to humans. It involves ideas, sensitivities and dispositions that must be artificially developed via considerable conscious effort and social organisation. However this is no more problematic than developing the readiness to brush one’s teeth or get up when the alarm bell rings, actions and habits that are quite "unnatural" for humans yet easily accomplished.

Development of social responsibility is essentially about developing awareness of social issues, concern about them, and readiness to take action, so it should not be very difficult to design experiences for young people which achieve these goals. They would however need to be given considerable space and attention within curricula. It is after all the most important of all educational goals. Miracles might be achieved simply by exposing young people to particular themes, especially via films of current and historical problems, social arrangements, and utopian visions, and inviting them to frequent discussions and reflections and campaigns.

This is not to say that such means and ends could easily be introduced into the educational systems of societies that are unquestioningly obsessed with pursuing the capitalist-consumer path. Existing "educational" systems are remarkably effective in producing the personnel such societies want and there would be fierce resistance to any suggestion that studying for the exams that are the gateway to privilege should make way for the development of social responsibility.

Enabling information institutions.

The greatest institutional impediment to social responsibility is to do with the difficulty the ordinary individual has in getting to understand public issues. If it is claimed that a petrol shortage is coming, or some regime is a terrorist threat, or hospital funding is inadequate, or the Great Barrier Reef will have been destroyed by 2050, or the Atkins diet is bad for you, it is extremely difficult for the ordinary person to come to a well informed, clear and accurate understanding of the issue. Usually there are many interest groups eager to persuade publics to accept their interpretation of the situation and the process of public discourse is typically riddled with dishonesty and deception, including outright deliberate lying, rumour mongering and "spin ".

It is therefore not surprising that many people make little attempt to understand public issues or that public discourse often involves little more than exchanging ill-informed prejudices and dogmas based on scraps of unreliable evidence and unexamined assumptions. In an era that is defined in terms of information, this is an astounding contradiction. One can easily get abundant information on what video games or cosmetics are on sale, but it is in effect impossible to get even the simplest "one page" analysis of a controversial public issue which one can rely on as sound, let alone as a thorough overview.

Most culpable here is the Left. They fully understand the revolutionary significance of ideology, critical social awareness and the need to form class consciousness, yet far from having worked on systems enabling the understanding of issues, the Left’s language and accounts are among the most deliberately turgid, pretentious and obscure, and are typically of interest to only a very few of their own kind.

Of course there can never be any single "true" account of a social issue. There are always only accounts from different perspectives, which are often irreconcilable and argued with rancour. But this is not a problem here. The accounts we need would succinctly represent the differing interpretations to be found on the topic. The kind of institution we need is akin to a constantly updated and reworked encyclopedia of current and standing social issues. Some of its topics would be classic issues, such as the causes of World War I. Others would be current affairs which might come on the scene quickly and develop over time, so the coordinating agency would need to be able to establish ad hoc panels quickly. Although it might require many contributors it would not be a difficult task to organise. Access to its offerings should be the first item to come up when one conducts a web search on a topic.

For any selected issue expert editorial panels would work through the available evidence, theories, and texts to put together a "nested" series of accounts increasing in complexity. The first would be a one page summary statement enabling anyone of any age or with little time to spare, to quickly form a basic understanding of the structure of the issue. The second might be a five to ten page account providing more detail. There might then be a 30 page account, and finally a very detailed account including links to the many related issues and sources.

The task of the panel on the topic would be to help the reader to form his own analysis of the topic in view of the time he wishes to devote to the task, by setting before him the available facts, theories, interpretations etc., in the most accurate, succinct and helpful way it can. Its task is to represent the state or structure of the issue, not necessarily to resolve it. For example the panel on the philosophy of religion should have no difficulty setting out clearly and briefly the main arguments that have been given for and against the existence of God, commenting on their validity, difficulty and imnplications where appropriate.

There should be provision for challenges to the panel’s account, and for the revision of accounts over time, and for alternative analyses. All discussion might be archived for those who wanted to delve into it.

Mostly the accounts provided would come direct from the existing literature, being selected by people familiar with the field as being the best treatments available. But at times the panel would see the possibility of putting together a better account than any that could be found.

The undertaking would be of inestimable importance in clearing away most of the deliberate and unwitting obfuscation that blocks the light now. If individuals knew they could grasp a social issue easily and confidently via this kind of institution there would surely be a huge increase in their willingness to be socially responsible. Citizens would be greatly empowered by the knowledge that they can quickly and easily develop sound and informed views and enter public debate competently.

Social structures that require and reward responsibility

There are strong feedback relations between social responsibility and social structures. In consumer-capitalist society many forces thwart social responsibility, and because there is little social responsibility there is little pressure to improve those structures and institutions. On the other hand a satisfactory society is not possible without a high level of social responsibility among citizens, and the institutions and structures of such a society would require and reinforce and reward social responsibility. The relation becomes clearer when the core elements of The Simpler Way are outlined.

If the fundamental criticism of consumer-capitalist society indicated previously, in terms of the limits to growth and global injustice, are valid, then the basic form that a sustainable and just society must take are inescapably given. It must be chararacterised by much simpler "living standards", high levels of self-sufficiency within small local economies, mostly participatory and cooperative systems, an almost totally new economy, not driven by market forces and profit and without any growth, and needless to say, some very different values. (For the detailed account, see Note 5.)

Such a society could not function without strong willingness to contribute to the committees, working bees and town meetings that will run the new communities. Because there will be a extreme dependence on local ecosystems and social systems and because these must be kept in good order, people will have a strong incentive to cooperate and to think about social decisions and problems and to get the right answer for the town. This dependence will radically transform politics to be mostly be about, not individuals and groups competing to get the decisions that advantage them and disadvantage the others, but about the quest for what is best for the community. In addition "government" will have to be highly decentralised and devolved. There are several reasons for this. There will be too few resources for huge centralised bureaucracies. Only local political processes are capable of understanding and running local systems involving familiarity with complex local ecosystems and social networks and requiring willing voluntary inputs. And in principle government should be carried out by citizens running their own local affairs, and this is only possible on a small scale. Thus the sham of "representative democracy" will be replaced by participatory self-government.

One’s quality of life would derive primarily from the many public sources of welfare, rather from private wealth, effort or talent. In other words access to commons, community workshops, free goods, artists and crafts people, festivals, a supportive community and mutual aid would be important. Any individual would therefore be quite aware of the fact that his or her own welfare depends heavily on the welfare of the community and its ecosystems, and therefore aware of the importance of cooperatively keeping these systems in good shape.

The smallness of scale will give individuals a sense of being able to make a difference in the decisions that affect them. Participation in the development, maintenance and governing of one’s community will be satisfying, indeed this will be a major source of life purpose, self-esteem and enjoyment and empowerment. Contributing to working bees, committees and town meetings will be enjoyable. Thus there will be many forces built into the situation which reward social responsibility, as well as require it.

The incentive structure would therefore be the reverse of what it is in consumer-capitalist society where all must compete fiercely against each other to be among the survivors, let alone prosper, and there is little reason to consider the public good or the welfare of the other. By contrast, the conditions and characteristics of The Simpler Way would require and reinforce social responsibility

Whether or not we are likely to make a transition to The Simpler Way is not central in this discussion. I do not think it is likely. The central point here is that social responsibility and a good society both require and reinforce each other. The "ecology" of a sustainable and just society is like that of a tropical rainforest. Once established a vast and complex set of actions, relations and conditions among plants, animals, landscape, climate etc., mutually support and maintain and reproduce the whole system, ensuring its robust continuation over time. Similarly a good society reproduces the conditions, especially the social responsibility it must have if it is to continue. But if the rainforest is cleared away the land turns to laterite and desert conditions consolidate and perpetuate themselves, eliminating any possibility of the rainforest returning. Similarly a bad society reproduces itself and thwarts the emergence of social responsibility.

My not very confident thoughts on how we might best work against the heavy odds, to begin the building of a just and sustainable society focus on the anarchist vision of "prefiguring". This involves building here and now impressive examples of the new way, so that as the mainstream encounters more serious problems in the years ahead, more people will be able to see that small groups among them are living in ways that make more sense. (Note 6.)





  1. See extensive evidence at
  3. See summary at, and collected documentation at
  4. Governments should create all the money that needs to flow into circulation, spending it on public works, and gaining any interest on loans for the public purse. However almost all new money is now created by private banks when they make loans, and they are paid interest on these. It has been estimated that this costs the British people 66 billion pounds p.a.

6. Thoughts on the transition, within

ABC Radio, Background Briefing, 7th July, 2001.

Berger, P., (1966), Invitation to Sociology, London, Penguin.

Bookchin, M, (1967), The Rise of Urbanisation and the Decline of Citizenship, San Francisco, Sierra Club.

Chomsky, N., (1986-92), The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many, Odonian.

Foutopolous, T., (1997), Towards an Inclusive Democracy, London, Cassell.

Norberg-Hodge, H., (1991), Ancient Futures; Learning From Ladakh, San Francisco, Sierra.

Sartre. J, (1969), Being and Nothingness, London, Methuen.