The Required Alternative Society: The Simpler Way.
(Long version: 29 pp. )
Given the limits to growth analysis of our global predicament, we have no choice but to undertake radical changes in lifestyles, values, the geography of our settlements, and especially the economy. We must move to the Simpler Way, enabling far lower rates of resource consumption and environmental damage. This must mean materially simpler lifestyles, in highly self-sufficient and cooperative communities, within an economy that is not driven by market forces and profit and that does not grow over time. The Simpler Way would not involve hardship or giving up all modern technology. It would improve the average quality of life. It would easily be achieved if enough of us opted for it.
The ways required are being worked for in many communities around the world, especially within the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements. This article provides a detailed statement of what the Simpler Way could look like and how it might function.
Overview of Principles.
Our present consumer-capitalist society, based on market forces, the profit motive, affluent living standards and economic growth, is grossly unsustainable and unjust. It has run into the limits to growth. Our per capita resource use rates are around ten times those that would be sustainable if all people were to live as we do. Our rich-world ‘living standards’ could never be extended to all the world’s people. Furthermore, we could not have them if we were not taking far more than our fair share of the world’s resource output, leaving billions of people in the Third World to live in deprivation and poverty. (For the detailed cases see TSW: The Limits to Growth and TSW: Third World Development.)
Now, if this limits analysis of our situation is valid then some of the key principles for a sustainable society are clear and indisputable.
- Material living standards must be far less affluent. In a sustainable society per capita rates of use of resources must be a small fraction of those in rich countries today.
- The norm must be mostly small scale highly self-sufficient local economies, whereby local resources are devoted to meeting local needs.
- There must be mostly cooperative and participatory systems whereby small communities control their own affairs, e.g., through town assemblies.
- A very different economic system must be developed, one not driven by market forces or the profit motive, and in which there is no growth. It must be geared to meeting needs and maintaining the welfare of all. (This does not mean there can be no private firms or private property.)
- There must be much use of alternative technologies, which minimise the use of resources, such as organic gardening and building with earth.
- We must shift to some very different values, especially away from competition, individualism and acquisitiveness, to frugality, cooperation, caring and non-material sources of enjoyment.
A very satisfactory society based on these principles can imagined, and it could be developed easily and quickly – if people wanted to do that. We could all live well with a far smaller amount of production, consumption, work, resource use, trade, investment and GNP a than we have now. This would allow us to escape the economic treadmill and to devote our lives to more important things than producing and consuming, activities such as arts and crafts, gardening, community development, festivals, helping to run the local community, and personal development. More important, it would enable global problems to be defused because they are mostly due to struggles to secure scarce resources.
Any suggestion of moving to less affluent ways is usually instantly dismissed, because people do not realise that the Simpler Way is not a threat to a high quality of life or to the benefits of modern technology. The following discussion is intended to show that in fact the Simpler Way is the key to a greatly improved quality of life, even for those who live in the richest countries. To save the planet we do not need miraculous technical break throughs, or vast amounts of investment. What we mostly need is basically a change in thinking, and values and in systems and procedures.
We are likely to run into very serious problems in the next few decades, most obviously scarcity of petroleum. This will jolt people into realising that consumer society is not viable and that radically different ways must be sought. Governments will not and cannot lead the transition to a Simpler Way. It can be made only by people coming together in their towns and suburbs to start organising the frugal, cooperative and self-sufficient ways that will be required.
Following is an elaboration of the arrangements we need to establish in our new suburbs and towns derived from the foregoing principles. These should be understood as the initial steps to be gradually taken within existing society, probably over a period of decades. In the more distant future, we will have become clearer about what are the best arrangements and it is likely that we will opt to go well beyond the measures sketched here, for instance probably to completely eliminate any need for a market economy.
Living more simply does not mean deprivation or hardship. It means being content with what is sufficient for comfort, hygiene, efficiency etc. Most of our basic needs can be met by quite simple and resource-cheap devices and ways, compared with those taken for granted and idolised in consumer society. How many pairs of shoes would suffice? How big a house would be quite adequate? There is no hardship in wearing old and patched clothes most of the time, or keeping an old bike going.
Living in materially simple ways can greatly reduce the amount of money a person needs to earn. Consider housing. A perfectly adequate, and indeed beautiful small mud brick house for a small family could be built for well under $(A)15,000 (For basic costing for a $5-6000 house see TSW: Housing.) The average home buyer pays at least ten times too much for a house (excluding land) This indicates how the Simpler Way will liberate people from having to earn large amounts of money, enabling most of their time to be put into more fulfilling activities. Various advocates of simplicity throughout history, such as Henry David Thoreau, realised the importance of liberating oneself from enslavement to pursuing wealth and status, thereby giving oneself time and resources to do fulfilling things.
Living in ways that minimise resource use should not be seen as an irksome effort that must be made in order to save the planet. These ways can be important sources of life satisfaction. There can be great enjoyment in activities such as growing food, ‘husbanding’ resources, making rather than buying, recycling, composting, repairing, bottling fruit, giving old things to others, making things last, and running a relatively self-sufficient household economy. (For more detail on the benefits of living according to the Simpler Way, see the TSW: The Way It Could Be.)
In the new society the household, neighbourhood and the local small community will be at the centre of most people’s lives. People will only need to go to paid work one or two days a week (discussed further below). There will be many interesting skills to use in productive and leisure activities around the house, garden and neighbourhood, and in a well organised community there will be many festivals, concerts, working bees, art and craft groups and other activities to participate in.
So the Simpler Way is actually the richer way, in terms of life satisfactions. It aligns with the Buddhist goal of a life ‘simple in means but rich in ends.’
We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can at the national level (meaning less global trade), at the household level, and especially at the neighbourhood, suburban, town and local regional level. Most importantly we need to convert our presently barren suburbs into thriving local economies which produce much of what they need from local resources.
Households can again become significant producers of vegetables, fruit, poultry, preserves, fish, repairs, furniture, entertainment and leisure services, and community support.
Neighbourhoods would contain many small businesses such as the local bakery. Some of these could be decentralised branches of existing firms, enabling most of us to get to work by bicycle or on foot. Most of the basic goods and services will come from within a few kilometres of where we live, so there will be far less need for transport, or for cars to get to work. Therefore, we could dig up many roads, greatly increasing city land area available for community gardens, workshops, ponds and forests. Leisure will also be mostly localised, further reducing car use.
Households and backyard businesses engaged in craft and hobby production could provide most of our honey, eggs, clothing, crockery, vegetables, furniture, fruit, fish and poultry. It is much more satisfying to produce most things in craft ways rather than in industrial factories. However, it would make sense to retain some larger mass production factories and sources of materials, such as mines, steel works and railways. There will be no need to give up valuable high-tech ways.
Almost all food could come from within a few hundred metres of where we live, most of it from within existing towns and suburbs. The sources would be, a) intensive home gardens, b) community gardens and cooperatives, such as poultry, orchard and fish groups (using ponds, tanks, streams and lakes), c) many small market gardens located within and close to suburbs and towns, d) extensive development of commons, especially for production of fruit, nuts, fish, poultry, animal grazing, herbs, and many materials such as bamboo, clay and timber.
The scope for food self-sufficiency within households and small communities is extremely high. It takes about 0.5 ha, 5,000 square metres, to feed one North American via agribusiness. However, Jevons (2002) and also Blazey (1999) document the capacity for a family of three to feed itself from less than one backyard, via intensive home gardening, high yield seeds, multi-cropping, nutrient recycling, and eating mostly plant foods. Blazey documents production of 1000 times as much food from each square metre of home gardening as can come from the same area devoted to standard beef production.
Most of your neighbourhood could become a permaculture jungle, an ‘edible landscape’ crammed with long-lived, largely self-maintaining productive plants, especially on the public spaces, parks, footpaths and the roads that have been dug up. In addition, backyards and parks can produce large amounts of vegetables, fruit, nuts, herbs, poultry, rabbits and fish. Food production would involve little or no fuel use, ploughing, packaging, storage, refrigeration, pesticides, marketing or transport. Having food produced close to where people live would enable all nutrients to be recycled back to the soil through compost heaps, animals, composting toilets and garbage gas units. Therefore, there would be no need for sewers, pumping stations or treatment works. This is crucial – a sustainable society must have complete nutrient recycling, and therefore it must have a local agriculture.
The local food committee would research what useful plants from around the world thrive in your local conditions, and investigate the development of food, materials, chemical and medicinal products from these. Synthetics would be derived primarily from plant materials. Landscapes would be full of these resources. For instance, salad greens, timber, fruit, fibres, oils and craft materials would be growing wild as ‘weeds’ on the commons throughout your neighbourhood.
Meat consumption would be greatly reduced as we moved to eating more plant foods, but many small animals such as poultry, rabbits and fish could be kept in small pens spread throughout our settlements. The animals could be fed largely on kitchen and garden scraps and by free ranging on commons, while providing manure and adding to the aesthetic and leisure resources of our settlements. Some wool, milk and leather could come from sheep and goats grazing meadows within and close to our settlements. The animals would help to recycle all nutrients from households back to soils.
The commons would be of great economic and social value. They would include the community owned and operated woodlots, bamboo patches, herb gardens, orchards, ponds, meadows, sheds, clay pits, machinery, workshops, windmills, water wheels, bicycles, vehicles, buildings for craft groups, drama clubs etc. Commons can be located in parks, beside railway lines, on abandoned factory sites, and on the many roads that will no longer be needed. They would provide many free goods. They would be maintained by voluntary working bees and committees.
We should convert one house on each block to become a neighbourhood workshop, including community tools, a recycling store, craft centre, meeting place, surplus exchange, theatre, museum, art gallery and library.
Settlement design will focus on basically permaculture principles, such as the intensive use of all food producing niches within a space (‘stacking’), complex ecosystems (not monocultures), multiple cropping and overlapping functions e.g., poultry provide meat, eggs, feathers, pest control, cultivation, fertilizer and leisure resources. These techniques will enable huge reductions in the present land area and energy costs for the provision of food and materials.
It will not be necessary for everyone to be involved in agricultural activities. Providing food now takes perhaps one-fifth of work time, when transport, packaging and marketing are added to the farm work. That’s about eight hours a week per worker. Intensive home gardening might require only about four person-hours per week per household, so averaged across the town and including small farms food production would probably require well below the present amount of time going into food production. The difference derives from the much greater productivity of home gardens and small farms, and the elimination of much intermediary work such as transport and packaging, (and producing all those trucks etc.). In addition, much food production would be a leisure activity.
There is great scope for community self-sufficiency in many areas beyond food, notably entertainment, infrastructure maintenance, services, aged care, education, building and repairs. When communities take on more of these functions they become more resilient and cohesive.
This shows how the solution to many problems will mostly involve carrots rather than sticks. We will reduce travel not by penalties but by eliminating the need for most of it, by ensuring that work and leisure sites will be close to where we live.
To repeat, a high level of domestic and local economic self-sufficiency is crucial if we are to dramatically reduce overall resource use. It will cut travel, transport and packaging costs, and the need to build freeways, ships and airports etc. It will also enable our communities to become resilient, that is more secure from devastation by distant economic events such as depressions, interest rate rises, trade wars, capital flight, and exchange rate changes.
Local self-sufficiency means we will be highly dependent on our region and our community. Because most of our food, energy, materials, leisure activity, artistic experience and community will come from the soils, forests, people, ecosystems and social systems close around us we will all recognise the extreme importance of keeping these in good shape. We will realise that if we do not do this we will have to pay dearly for goods and services brought in from other regions. This will force us to think constantly about the maintenance of our ecological, technical and social systems. This will be the main reason why we will treat our ecosystems well – because if we don’t, we will soon wish we had.
Similarly, we will clearly understand that our welfare and quality of life depends almost entirely on how cohesive our social systems are, how well people come to working bees and committees and concerts. Therefore, this dependence will reinforce cooperation, collectivism, conscientiousness and town solidarity.
For a detailed analysis of the changes that might be made in a typical Sydney outer suburb see the Remaking Settlements study. (2019). This estimated that most food could be produced within the suburb, probably enabling energy and resource costs to be cut by 90%, while greatly increasing social and quality of life benefits.
However, towns and suburbs will also need to import a variety of goods and materials that they cannot produce for themselves, such as radios, boots, appliances, chicken wire, cement, pipes and light steel products. Some of these will come from regional factories near towns, within bicycling distance for workers. Others, such as the national steel works, might be a long way away, distributing by rail. Towns near the steel works would pay for their imports from other factories and regions by contributing to the steel exports to them. This points to the very important role for the (remnant) state bureaucracies. There will have to be careful national organisation of the distribution of these export opportunities, so that all towns can contribute to the production of exports via factories located near them, thus earning the capacity to import that (small) volume of goods and materials they need. (This would involve elaborate state-level planning, implementation and restructuring, which will only become possible when people in general support the replacement of the market mechanism as the determinant of economic organisation by deliberate, rational, democratic (not top down) social planning of the basics. (See further below.)
The Simpler Way will dramatically cut the demand for energy and materials. Lifestyles will involve far less consumption, and because it will be a stable economy few resources will be going into construction. Just about all ‘wastes’ will be easily recycled and reused at the town level. There will be benefits from overlaps and synergisms, for instance keeping ducks will eliminate the need to produce snail killing chemicals.
In general, solar passive building design will greatly reduce the need for space heating and cooling. As explained above, almost no (non-human) energy will be needed for food production. Only a little energy will be needed for pumping clean and waste water, as these will be collected and dealt with locally. The need for transport, refrigeration, packaging and marketing will be greatly reduced. Most leisure needs will be met within the settlement at little energy cost. Industrial production will be greatly reduced, and most of it will take place in small local enterprises operating in more labour-intensive and craft ways. Only a little heavy industry will be needed, e.g. basic steel, railways, buses, and therefore mining and timber industries will be small. There will be little need for shipping or air transport. Most cooking would be by wood, gas produced from biomass wastes and electricity from local renewable sources.
The crucial significance of integration..
The fundamental reasons why only settlements of this kind can enable the huge reductions in resource use required are to do with the integration of functions that localism, proximity and smallness of scale make possible. This enables the elimination of many processes needed in globalised consumer society. Consider the supply of eggs, examined in the study by Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, (2019).
- Industrial/commercial/globalised egg production involves lots of steel, fuels, international transport, machinery, trucks, tractors, ships, chemicals, bank loans, insurance, outrageous CEO salaries, agribusiness feed production, warehouses, packaging, advertising, cool rooms, supermarket lighting, offices and computers, experts with PhDs, and chickens crammed into bad conditions in big sheds. Agribusiness feed production mines the soil of nutrients, that can't be returned. Manures become a waste problem because they are contaminated with chemicals and anyway are far from the distant soils they came from. Artificial fertilizers must be trucked to the fields producing the chicken feed, damaging soils and waterways. Chemicals are needed to control disease in the crammed sheds etc.
- In contrast, backyard, co-op and local small farm egg production makes it possible to eliminate almost all those costs. Kitchen and garden scraps can be fed to chickens and manure can go into the gardens and aquaponic ponds. Chickens clean up and cultivate garden beds, eat slugs, reducing the need for pesticides, they reproduce themselves, find some of their own feed by free-ranging, provide meat, and are a source of diversity and entertainment in settlements. Backyard chickens are happy. Because people and other functions are close by, ‘wastes’ can be passed directly to users. There is no need for vast armies of expensive professionals in suits operating computers.
These multiple and overlapping functions, recyclings and synergies are possible because of the very small scale in localism and the closeness of activities to each other. ‘Wastes’ from one operation can become inputs to another close by with no transport energy cost. Overlapping and multiple functions can be organised; ducks eat slugs, provide feathers and manure and entertainment, and ducklings. Familiar people close by can exchange information, organise, cooperate in managing systems without offices or staff. Thus, sub-systems and operations are highly integrated. This includes social and psychological functions. For example if facilities for care of aged and unwell people are located in the middle of town beside the main community garden the people in them will be able to interact and observe and be involved, the gardeners will benefit from their experience and thus older people can feel they still have a valued role, the need for expensive professional ‘carers’ will be reduced while greatly improving the experience of the older people. In a caring community where people only have to earn money a few days a week many will have time to help out and chat, and to enable old people to remain in their homes longer.
In addition, there is the even more important phenomenon: social integration. You will have many overlapping relationships with people. In present society we tend to have only one weak connection with most of the people we deal with; for instance, you might know Mary only as the supermarket check-out lady. But in a village the person who bakes your bread could also be the wicket keeper in your cricket team, the comedian at the concerts, chair of the fruit tree committee, the one who enticed your cat down from the roof last Easter, and your go-to man for bee hive advice. This is a multi-faceted familiarity involving a history of many connections and bonds with most of the people around you. Your neighbourhood would have an extremely complex network of these connections feeding into many factors such as reputation and respect, moral debt and gratitude, friendships, trust, readiness to care and support, collective wisdom, community solidarity and resilience, feeling of security, and capacity to find solutions to problems. This enables synergism to flourish in small communities. One consequence is that the presently huge dollar and psychological costs of social breakdown will probably be largely if not entirely avoided. Of course, small communities can be oppressive too, but Eco-villages work on procedures and skills to make sure that discontents and problems are aired and dealt with.
Redundancy and resilience, independence and security.
In consumer-capitalist society there is a high level of dependence on complex and fragile globalised systems beyond the control of ordinary people. You need experts to fix everything; you can’t repair your own car. If one global bank fails it could trigger a global financial meltdown in which we could all lose our savings. If oil supply falters the supermarket shelves could be bare in a few days.
In highly self-sufficient Simpler Way communities’ technologies are mostly very simple, meaning that many people can fix things, supply chains are local and there is a lot of food growing all the time. There is, in other words, a great deal of redundancy and resilience. If the global economy self-destructs, we will still be able to provide ourselves with good food. If a flood wipes out an orchard there are others nearby. There are networks between the many villages and towns within the region, enabling rapid emergency responses. This makes communities relatively safe when breakdowns and challenges occur. Above all there is the collective security that exists within a supportive community.
More communal, prticipatory and cooperative ways.
The alternative way must be very communal, participatory and cooperative. This will be essential if communities are going to cope in the coming times of severe scarcity. They will not get their localities into good shape unless they work together to find and develop the right cooperative strategies. If their attitude remains focused on competitive struggle as individuals to win and beat others to an unjust share of the available resources, there will be chaos.
The sensible way for humans to go about things is by cooperating. Competition is morally undesirable, and in most practical situations is silly, wasteful and results in unfair outcomes. A competitive economy is obviously very productive and has powerful incentives for ‘efficiency’ (narrowly defined), and innovation -- but it has brutally unacceptable consequences. The problem with competition is that someone wins…and then takes much more than their fair share. There is clear evidence that in many situations, including education and within organisations, competing is about the worst, most inefficient way to organise things (Kohn, 1992). When people compete much of their energy goes into thwarting others, whereas if they cooperate all their energy can go into achieving the mutually beneficial goal. When people compete, one gets the prize and the rest get resentful and then are likely to react destructively. When competition is the mode, nastiness is encouraged. When people cooperate, goodness magnifies; there is synergism.
It is disappointing that today few know of Kropotkin’s powerful analysis of the role of mutual aid in nature and especially in human society are not remembered today. (His Mutual Aid was published in 1902.) He provided abundant documentation on their importance; humans have a strong drive to enjoy cooperating and helping and interacting with each other, and. This has great evolutionary significance; it strengthens capacity for the group or species to survive. The recent book Human Kind by Bregman documents much the same point at length.
In our new suburbs and towns we will share many things. We could have a few stepladders, electric drills, etc., in the neighbourhood workshop, as distinct from one in every house. Many garden surpluses would be given away or left at the neighbourhood centre.
We would be on various voluntary rosters, committees and working bees to carry out most of the windmill maintenance, construction of public works, child minding, nursing, basic educating and care of aged and disadvantaged people in our area, as well as to perform most of the functions councils now carry out for us, such as maintaining our own parks and streets. In addition, working bees and committees would maintain the many commons. We would therefore need far fewer bureaucrats and professionals, reducing the amount of income we would have to earn to pay taxes to fund big government. When we contribute to working bees we are paying some of our ‘tax’, by giving to the town.
Especially important would be the regular voluntary community working bees. Just imagine how rich your neighbourhood would now be if every Saturday afternoon for the past five years there had been a voluntary working bee doing something that would make it a more pleasant and productive place for all to live. Trainer (2019a) explains that if people in the Sydney suburb of East Hills gave a mere hour a day then each week 15,000 person-hours of voluntary working bee labour would be going into community gardens, services and infrastructure maintenance in an area about 1 km across. That’s time which is now being spent watching screens producing nothing and generating no community bonds.
There would be far more community than there is now. We would realise the importance of coming together to work on the systems our welfare depended on so there would be powerful incentives for mutual concern, facilitating the public good, watching for problems and improving arrangements, and making sure others were content. The situation would be quite different to consumer-capitalist society where people tend to live as isolated individuals and families with little or no incentive to work with others in the neighbourhood on important community tasks. We would know many people in our area well and there would be strong bonds from appreciated contributions, sharing of surpluses, giving of gifts and mutual assistance. One would certainly predict a huge decrease in the incidence of personal and social problems and their dollar and social costs. The new neighbourhood would surely be a much healthier and happier place to live, especially for older and disadvantaged people.
Our life experience will mainly be enriched not by personal wealth or talents, but by having access to public assets such as a beautiful landscape containing many forests, ponds, animals, herb patches, bamboo clumps, clay pits, little farms and firms, and leisure opportunities close to home, a neighbourhood workshop, familiar people ready to advise or assist, many cultural and artistic groups and skilled people to learn from, community festivals and celebrations and a thriving and supportive community. It is therefore not surprising that eco-villages rate highly on community and quality of life. (Grinde, et al., 2017, and Lockyer, 2017.)
Government and politics.
The political situation would be quite different compared with today. The ‘governing’ of most of the activities that were important for everyday living would (have to) take place at the town and neighbourhood level, where there would (have to) be thoroughly participatory democracy. This would be made possible by the smallness of scale. Big centralised governments cannot run all our small communities. That can only be done by the people who live there because they are the only ones who understand the ecosystem, who know what will grow best there, how often frosts occur, how people there think and what they want, what the history and traditions are, and therefore what arrangements will and won’t work there.
There would still be some functions for state and national governments, but relatively few, and there would still be some need for national governments and international agencies, treaties etc. But most economic and political activity that affects ordinary people would be down at the town and local region and that’s where the thinking and decisions must take place. Some projects and policies would be drafted by our elected unpaid committees, but we would all vote on the important decisions concerning our small area at regular town meetings.
Big social institutions, such as states, can only be run by a very few people with immense power. These then tend to become arrogant and secretive, and are easily seduced, bought or fooled by the richest and most powerful groups in society. The smallness of scale we will be forced to by resource scarcity will largely liberate us from rule by centralised governments, and from representative democracy.
Our intense dependence on our ecosystems and social systems will radically transform politics, towards collectivism and responsible citizenship and local power. We will practise participatory democracy. Politics will not be primarily about individuals and groups in zero-sum competition to get what they want from a central state. There will be strong incentives towards a much more collectivist, participatory and consensual outlook, concerned with what policies will work best for the town and region. We will all know that we must find solutions all are content with because we will be highly dependent on good will, people turning up to committees, working bees, celebrations and town meetings. Your fate will depend on how well the town functions, not on your personal wealth and capacity to buy. We will therefore be keen to work out and do whatever will contribute to town solidarity and cohesion. The town will work best if there is a minimum of discontent, conflict, inequality or perceived injustice, so all will recognise the need to make sure all are provided for and none are dumped into unemployment or poverty, and that sensible and just decisions are made. We will realise it is important to avoid decisions that leave some people discontented. Therefore, the situation of dependence on our ecosystems and on each other will require and reinforce concern for the public good, a more collectivist outlook, taking responsibility, involvement, and thinking about what’s best for the town.
The core governing institutions will be voluntary committees, town meetings, direct votes on issues, and especially informal public discussion in everyday situations. In a sound self-governing community, the fundamental political processes take place informally through discussions in cafes, kitchens and town squares, because this is where the issues can be considered and thought about until the best solutions come to be generally recognised. The chances of a policy working out well depend on how content everyone is with it. Consensus and commitment are best achieved through a slow and sometimes clumsy process of formal and informal consideration in which the real decision-making work is done long before the meeting when a vote is taken. Usually votes would not occur. Their main function would be to show how close we are to agreeing on a policy. If the vote is split it means we have a lot more talking to do. Note that with a question such as what to plant in the old parking lot the aim is to work out what is best for the town and this is usually a technical question that more evidence and discussion will clarify. In general, the aim is not to get a decision that suits one group and disadvantages another.
Thus the nature of politics would be transformed. At present it is an arena in which individuals and groups fight to win out comes favouring themselves. Often it ends in a 51/49 vote that forces many to go along with the majority, to suffer a loss the others gain. Instead, politics will again become participatory and part of everyday life, as was the case in Ancient Greece. Secondly the point will mostly be to find the way that is best for all, because we will all realise that if we don’t think that way the town will not work well. This means not must making the town thrive but also looking after everyone, including the person who wants to be a baker when we already have enough bakers. Note that this is not optional; we must do things in these participatory and inclusive ways or the right decisions for the town will not be made.
The political situation described is in fact classical Anarchism. In general people at the local level will govern themselves via informal discussion, referenda and town meetings. We will not be governed by centralised authoritarian states and bureaucracies, nor by representatives. At present representatives are elected and then they govern us.
Governing your town would involve a lot of monitoring, reviewing, research and administration but most of this could be carried out by voluntary committees. A small number of paid bureaucrats and experts will probably be needed, but people will have a lot of time to volunteer for public activities, and the systems involved would mostly be technically simple (e.g., running town waste water to orchards and ponds.) The remarkable citizen-run government carried out by the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s involved much monitoring and record keeping of needs, resources and production, by ordinary citizens, not paid bureaucrats (See Trainer, 2010).
It is also important to understand that the people of your town would not just participate in making the decisions; they would also participate in implementing them. We would (have to) organise the working bees, the monitoring, the resources etc., and then do the work, firstly because in the era of scarcity councils and corporations will not be able to do all this for us, but more importantly, because we will do the job best, and enjoy the control over developing and running our town, and doing these things will build town solidarity.
Most issues will be local, not national, but there will be some tasks left for state and national governments involving professional experts and administrators, such as coordinating national steel and railway industries, and especially distributing industries to enable all towns to earn income by exporting to other towns. But these decisions will not be made by centralised ‘authorities’ which have power over us. The classical Anarchist principle involves delegates from all the local communities coming together to work out what seems to be the best decision for all concerned, and then taking these recommendations back to the communities where everyone has a vote on what is to be done. Note again that there would be far fewer issues that concern large regions or whole nations, there would be far less ‘development’ to be pushed through despite resistance, and so politics would have little to do with struggles for wealth and power.
Because it will be a stable economy many political issues will have been eliminated, such as struggles over new developments, re-zonings, freeway construction, more mining or logging leases, and especially those to do with trade, foreign investment and finance. Many problems such as unemployment will not exist (towns will make sure everyone has a livelihood) and many such as aged care will be handled at the local level, again greatly decreasing the need for centralised decision making, professionals or bureaucracy.
The revolutionary significance of the kind of ‘state’ described here could not be exaggerated. Throughout history a few central rulers have forced people to obey, but now we in a situation where that model cannot work, where sustainable, cohesive communities can only function well if they control their own affairs (within national systems of law etc.). Equally profound is the order of events; it cannot be that the new form of ‘state’ comes into being and then establishes the new kinds of communities and culture. Communities determined to run their own affairs must emerge first and in time they will begin to demand radical restructuring of the present centralised state so that it supports and serves the towns, and the latter make the decisions. (On these questions of transition strategy and ‘socialism’ see further below.)
The New Economy.
There is no chance of making these changes while we retain the present economic system. The fundamental principle in a satisfactory economy would be totally different – it would be to apply the available productive capacity to producing that stable amount (no growth) of the things all people need for a good life, with as little resource consumption, work and waste as is reasonably possible and in ecologically sustainable ways. Our present economy operates on totally different principles. It lets profit maximisation for the few who own most of the capital determine what is done, it therefore does not meet the needs of most people, and it seeks to increase consumption and GDP constantly.
Far less work and production will take place.
In the new society levels of consumption will be far lower. As has been explained the limits to growth means that production and consumption must be reduced to small fractions of present levels. We will have eliminated the huge amount of more or less unnecessary production going into things like advertising, packaging transport, construction, cosmetics, fashion, waste disposal, sewage treatment, shipping, insurance, shoddy goods that don’t last and can’t be repaired, roads and freeways, unemployment agencies, and provision for people who crack up and become mentally ill or take to alcohol or drugs. We will need far less aged care, financial advice, paid entertainment, health care, professionals, car repairs etc. We will save billions by not having to produce arms anymore, because most armed conflict is about trying to take more than a fair share of the word’s resources.
In addition, many of the things we will need will be produced far less resource-expensive ways, for example we will not need to produce trucks to bring food to our towns. There will be far less government, crime, police, illness and need for a ‘welfare’ industry. Consequently, there would be far less need for prisons, courts, hospitals, and ‘welfare’ agencies. The savings in dollars and resources would be enormous, not to mention the effects on quality of life. Disabled people will have many important things to do and to contribute, which will reduce the need for tax and professionals to care for them. People will have far more interesting things to do than go shopping, so acquiring and consuming will not be important life purposes. Large numbers of people will not be stressed, depressed, over-worked, worried about mortgages, bored or lacking purpose (which is the core problem generated by the conditions indigenous people are forced to endure.)
The GDP would be a small fraction of its present value, because we would be producing and consuming far less, and most of that would not be within the monetary economy. No one would calculate or attend to the GDP as it would not tell us anything that matters. There would be no economic growth.
As has been explained a sustainable economy has to be a zero-growth economy. We would produce only as much as is needed to provide all with a high quality of life. In fact, we would always be looking for ways of reducing the amount of work, production and resource use. It should be obvious that this does not mean there cannot be improvement and innovation.
Many shops would open only two or three days a week. If you need a pair of shoes you might get them on Tuesday or Saturday. In familiar neighbourhoods some shops and local firms might operate without shop assistants, via stalls where you serve yourself, further reducing the amount of work that needs doing.
Reducing the GDP does not mean that the living standards of the poorest must sink even lower than they are now. The goal would be to enable all to have access to all the things that are sufficient to make a high quality of life possible regardless of income, such as community workshops, festivals, free fruit, a humble house, a livelihood, a caring community and a leisure rich environment. The average dollar income and GDP per person would be far lower than they are now, people would be far less wealthy in conventional dollar terms, but the quality of life of all could be far higher than the rich world average now. One will need very little money to live well, and one’s monetary income or wealth will not influence one’s quality of life. That will derive primarily from one’s public and social context, including the landscape, supportive community, festivals and social activities to participate in. Therefore, inequality of monetary income will not be important, and the solution to problems such as poverty will not be via redistribution of income. The monetarily ‘poorest’ will have as much access to all these things as anyone else.
The most profound and currently unthinkable implications are to do with finance. Because there will be no economic growth there will not be any interest paid on loans. If you borrow a dollar and have to payback more than a dollar you can’t do this unless you generate more wealth than you borrowed, meaning you have increased the GDP. This means most of the present financial industry will cease to exist. Very different arrangements will have to be made to provide for retirement. Town banks will hold our savings for security, and their elected boards will organise loans for purposes the community decides are worthwhile, receiving back only the sum plus an administration fee. Thus the loan is best thought of as a licence by the town to use some of its scarce resources to build something of value to the town (which includes the borrower.) Investment of would only be for replacing worn out plant or restructuring the stable productive system. Needless to say the vast parasitic structure enabling large numbers of very rich people to live on interest from their investments, without having to do any work for it, would cease to exist.
This zero-growth situation is a longer-term goal, to be moved to gradually. What is easily overlooked is that it means that eventually the value put on gain must be completely abandoned. Logically there cannot be a zero-growth economy if there remains any interest in getting richer, either on the part of individuals or nations. People must eventually be driven by enjoying stable and secure lives within caring communities which are rich in interesting an purposeful opportunities to gain satisfaction from growing things, making things, chatting, working with comrades to produce things people need, reading, thinking, sitting in the sun… The recent emergence of a global degrowth movement means many are waking up to these themes.
Mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies.
As has been explained, in a world of scarce resources shared among all, most of the goods and services we use will have to come from close to where we live. Economic self-sufficiency should be seen in terms of concentric circles. In the centre is the most important economic and social unit, the household. This will be more important in most people’s lives than their ‘career’. Outside this will be the neighbourhood, then the suburb or town where less frequently needed goods and services will be available, e.g., doctors. Then the town’s surrounding region will contain a dairy, timber plantations, grain and grazing lands, and some of the factories that would supply into the surrounding region, e.g., for fridges and radios. Some of these items would be exported out of the region. Much less will come from the state and national economic sectors, and very little from overseas, perhaps some high tech medical or computer equipment.
Few big firms or transnational corporations would be needed. Those that were appropriate, such as steel works, would best be owned and run by society, to serve society. Their elected boards would be visible and accountable to all, and they would be bound by publicly set policy guidelines.
Market forces and the profit motive.
In an acceptable alternative economy market forces cannot be allowed to continue as major determinants of economic affairs. The market is a major cause of global problems, mainly because it cannot yield just or ecologically acceptable outcomes. In addition the fundamental motivation within markets is not acceptable. In markets prices are set as high as possible, which means that the driving principle is to maximise self-interest, i.e., it is greed. Price is not set by reference to the cost of production, or the capacity of the seller to make a sufficient income, etc. Markets are about buyers and sellers trying to get as rich as possible, and that is not a satisfactory motive in an ideal society. (Again, it is explained below that a satisfactory society is not possible unless there is profound value change, e.g., away from concern with maximising or gain.)
In the distant future what is produced, how it is distributed, and what is to be developed will be relatively unimportant problems decided without fuss by routine rational decision-making processes which focus on what is needed to give all people a high quality of life. Humans will preoccupy themselves with more important things. However, at present we are far from being capable of organising things that way, so in the near future we will probably have an interim arrangement which still uses the market for some purposes but begins to subject it to greater social control and shifts important production and supply issues out of it.
So much of the economy might remain as a (carefully monitored) form of private enterprise carried on by small firms, households and cooperatives. Market forces might operate in some regulated sectors. For example, the kinds of bicycles on sale probably could be left entirely to the market. Local market days could enable individuals and families to sell small amounts of garden and craft produce. However, the market must not be allowed to determine important issues, especially whether people have jobs or what developments take place in the town. In other words, market forces might be allowed to make most of the economic decisions – but none of the important ones! The sector we will develop whereby we will ensure provision of basic necessities, Economy B (below), will be run via deliberate, collective rational decisions about what we need.
Note that an economy containing these small private firms would not be a capitalist economy because these small firms would best be regarded as the tools people possess and work with to earn a modest, stable income and thus a secure livelihood. They do not involve investing capital in order to accumulate capital in order to constantly increase investments and wealth, without having to do any work. Market forces would never be allowed to settle the distribution of income or the access to a livelihood.
In the present economy the idea of having firms under social control is assumed to mean big, authoritarian, centralised bureaucracies and states which make and enforce all the economic decisions. This is not necessary or desirable and will be avoided by having the control in the hands of the small localities where citizens can deal with a greatly reduced economic agenda through direct, open and participatory procedures. Again, because local conditions, resources, skills and traditions will be the important factors determining how local economies can best function, local people are the ones who know these and are in the best position to make the decisions most likely to satisfy local needs. It will make no sense for distant governments to decide what is best for your town to plant when another parking lot has been dug up. Thus, the form of social control here has nothing to do with ‘big-state socialism’, as socialism is usually conceived and has mostly been practised.
In making these decisions communities will consider all relevant moral, social and ecological considerations, not just dollar costs and benefits to capitalists or purchasers. If a firm was struggling or becoming inefficient, we would not let market forces dump those workers or owners into unemployment. We would make community decisions about what to do. We might work out whether assistance, including loans and grants from the town bank, would be appropriate, or whether technical advice is needed. A community might decide to keep a small bakery or boot repairer from going bankrupt because that is best for the town and for the family running it. Or it might decide that it has too many bakers and work out how best those resources might be reorganised via adjustments which were good for all concerned. Similarly, the community might decide not to buy from a firm that was behaving in an unacceptable way, such as sacking people unnecessarily, or threatening to take over other little firms that are viable, depriving people of their livelihoods.
We will be in a position to retain or establish some firms that are important for the town even though they would not survive in a free market situation. These actions protect and subsidise, and therefore involve costs. Goods would be cheaper if purchased from a transnational corporation which can minimise prices. But these costs are among those we will be willing to pay in order to make sure the town runs well.
Although most firms might be privately owned, we would regard the economy as ; i.e., as arrangements and institutions which the town ‘owns’ and runs in order to make sure the town gets the basic goods and services it needs and to make sure it provides its people with livelihoods. So, if a transnational corporation came into the town intending to drive our bakery bankrupt and take its business, we could make sure it couldn’t succeed – simply by refusing to buy from it. Obviously, things like this cannot be done without vigilant, caring, public-spirited citizens. Note how the new economic system cannot be thought of separately from the new political system, and neither can function without new ideas and values, that is, a new culture.
Provision of livelihood to all.
Above all, these strategies will enable us to ensure that all people have a livelihood. This is very important. The conventional economy sees no problem in allowing those who are most rich and powerful to take or destroy the business, markets and livelihoods of others, and thus accumulate to a few the opportunities to earn that were spread among many. Its fundamental competitive design constantly worsens this problem. Globalisation eliminates the livelihoods of millions of people and enables a few giant corporations to get the business and the resources little people once had access to. A satisfactory society will not let this happen. One of its supreme priorities will be to ensure that everyone has a livelihood, and clearly this is only possible if local communities have control of their own local economic development and can operate contrary to market forces.
This aligns with the old Catholic principle of ‘distributivism’. It recognises that it is not satisfactory to allow some to get very rich and then redistribute (a little of) their wealth to the poor; the sensible approach is to make sure opportunities to produce and earn are well distributed, and this means curbs must be put on the capacity of the rich and energetic to take more than they need.
The town bank and the business incubator.
The town will set up and run its own bank, and experienced people will be advisers for the business incubator that helps new co-ops or firms to start up safely. These will enable us to devote our savings to setting up the kinds of firms we want. (The success of Mondragon is due in part to use of these two institutions.)
No unemployment or poverty.
Unemployment and poverty could be and will easily be eliminated. There are none in many kinds of society, such as the early Israeli Kibbutz settlements. We would have neighbourhood work coordination committees who would make sure that all who wanted work had a share of the work that needed doing. (Far less work would need to be done than at present. In consumer society we probably work three times too hard.) It is most annoying that unemployment is not seen as an appalling and easily eliminated fault in this society. It suits the owners of capital for labour to be treated as a mere commodity to be used only if profit can be made from it, and otherwise left to rot.
Only one or two days a week working for money.
When we eliminate all that unnecessary production, and shift much of the remainder to backyards, local small business and cooperatives, and into the non-cash sector of the economy, most of us will have little need to go to work for money in an office or a mass production factory. In other words, it will become possible to live well on a very low cash income earned by only one or two days paid work per week. We could spend the other five or six days working/playing around the neighbourhood doing many varied and interesting and useful things every day.
In the Simpler Way there will be far less emphasis on work and production and economic affairs, and therefore, much less stress and worry, and human attention will shift to much more important things.
The large money-less domain.
Many and possibly most goods and services will come from the household sector (which at present is where most of the work and producing actually takes place) and from the give–away and swap networks, local commons and cooperatives. These will probably not involve any money, wages, prices or payments, although some contributions will be recorded. Many goods will be ‘free’, e.g., from the community orchards. Many people might live almost entirely within this money-less realm.
It is very likely that as the coming era of severe scarcity impacts, especially regarding petroleum, we will quickly, automatically and inevitably build up this moneyless sector – because we will have to.
The short-term vs the long-term future.
As we increase the size of Economy B and its money-less sector in the near future there will still be many normal firms operating within the continuing market economy. However, these firms will be running into increasingly serious difficulties as scarcity intensifies, especially scarcity of petroleum. At best there is likely to be a slow descent into deep and lasting depression, but more likely will be sudden crashes, especially within the financial world.
Let's proceed as if the troubles will come upon us in a relatively gradual and non-chaotic way. Two important things will happen at the same time; the town will recognise a vital need for important businesses to function effectively – and those firms will recognise their utter dependence on the town. These two forces will push us to organise cooperatively and rationally, i.e., to intervene and act to make sure that we keep those vital firms going well. Local small businesses will realise how important our assistance is and they will understand that if they don't do what the town needs we will not buy from them. We will need them so we will help them to work well, e.g., by organising working bees and loans.
When scarcity impacts seriously, we will move quickly towards a largely socially-controlled local economy – one in which many firms will remain privately owned, will still operate for profit and will respond to market forces – but the most important determinants of their performance and welfare will be the deliberate decisions the town makes. If the town sees that it can meet some needs better by setting up its own cooperatives in that area of the economy, then the old firms will phase out. The town would have the sense to organise for the labour, experience and skill of the small business people in that area to move into the new co-ops.
The town or suburb will therefore remake its economy, because it will see that it has to do so if it is to survive. The forces at work in the new situation of scarcity will inevitably push us in the right direction, i.e., towards much social control, participatory processes and towards a cooperative and collectivist outlook. If we don't take this control over our fate, but leave it to the market, we will quickly descend at best into stagnation, as in the Great Depression, where market forces cannot make the right things happen but will trap us in the ridiculous situation where huge productive capacity sits idle while the many needs it could be meeting fester on.
People will realise that firms that are failing tie up crucial productive resources that could be redeployed. They will realise that their prospects will be best if they take deliberate planned action and if they try to provide well for all, because no one will be able to survive on their own. Their mutual dependence will be glaringly obvious. It will be clear to people that their fate depends on the town working well, on cooperation, on focusing clear thinking and planning on what we all need around here, on being responsible and on helping others. In affluent times there is no need to think like this. Because ou. There will be no interest payments, and this will sweep away most of the finance industry with its problem-generating speculation. There will be no growth, so economies will be mostly about managing stable systems. Above all there will be clear recognition of mutual dependence; we will all realise that if we don’t make our local economy work well we will all be in a lot of trouble. These conditions will make it much easier for us to cooperate in getting the new economies going.
Economic motivation, efficiency, restructuring and innovation.
Conventional economists are adamant that there is no realistic alternative to leaving these processes to competition within the market. The market certainly acts quickly and decisively to maximise ‘efficiency’ (very narrowly defined) but it does so in an unacceptably brutal, unjust and wasteful way. How then might these tasks be carried out in the eventual economy of the Simpler Way? The argument below is that this will not be so difficult, mainly because of the historically novel conditions the Simpler Way will set.
Work motivation and efficiency.
In the household and community sectors of the new economy there will be no problem getting people to work conscientiously. People will enjoy running a thriving household economy and participating in the working bees that make their locality into a beautiful, rich landscape providing abundantly. They will also know that their welfare depends greatly on making these sectors work well. Owners of little firms and farms would know most of their customers and enjoy seeing their produce benefiting familiar people. ‘Workers’ in for example regional bolt factories would be conscientious because it is satisfying to know you are making a valued contribution, participating in the management of the plant, and working at a relaxed pace (maybe only two days a week).
But what if one of our bakeries started to become inefficient, or if someone wanted to set up another bakery when we had enough, believing he could do the job more efficiently than the others? And if all knew that the town would not let market forces dump anyone into bankruptcy, what would ensure that firms kept on their toes?
In such cases, the town would have a perhaps difficult problem which it would have to grapple with deliberately and not leave to market forces. It might examine the situation and decide to help a failing firm to lift its game, possibly with advice, loans or training. It might eventually decide a firm is no longer viable or needed, but it would restructure sensibly, by looking for another productive role that family might like to move to, and how best to reorganise the resources. The town might decide to let the new bakery compete with the others, then intervene when it is clear which one would best be phased out. Remember that all people would realise that the supreme goal is to organise for all people in the town to be content in a livelihood so any displaced workers or owners would be helped into other satisfying occupations.
Adjusting supply to demand.
The market is usually assumed to be the only way to decide supply. It is taken for granted that planning by central bureaucracies as was the case in the Soviet Union is absurdly unsatisfactory.
But supply is in fact presently highly planned and organised through millions of deliberate rational planning decisions within the bureaucracies of corporations, based on information from shops etc. on what is being demanded. With computers there would now be no difficulty determining what is being demanded, what faults there are in the product designs, what supply bottlenecks there are, etc. and thus what necessities to produce. Remember, economies would be far simpler than present economies, and the social/public planning might only need to apply to basic necessities.
The core problem is making sure that producers and suppliers respond to demand satisfactorily, and from time to time introduce better or new products. At present entrepreneurs respond quickly because they are competing for sales. In the new economy this mechanism will be replaced by a) the desire of factory managements (i.e., boards including representatives of all workers and members of the community) to provide what people need, b) again the fact that all operations and decisions would be completely visible to the public, c) the access all have to information from all around the world on how well similar factories are performing elsewhere.
R and D.
Research and development are generally best carried out in public institutions. There is no reason to think that salaried scientists perform better in private corporations. Most importantly, when the agencies are public, we can make sure they research important problems, as distinctly from only those that will maximise corporate profits. This is very important; corporations ignore the most urgent human needs, such as drugs for malaria, because they can make more from developing trivial cosmetic etc. for rich countries.
There would be no need to reduce socially-useful R and D or universities providing high-tech training. There will be moreresources for these things when we phase out the massive waste of resources producing consumer trivia.
We would also have extensive arrangements and institutions for monitoring performance, problems, needs, possible innovations, for all our firms and other institutions and systems. This information would be quickly available for all to examine. Also available will be analyses of quality of life indices, footprint, resource use etc. These systems would enable us to be aware of performance in other towns and sites around the world. The purpose would be helpful not punitive; i.e., to enable us to see where our local systems and firms can be improved, and what assistance they need. This would be one of the many functions carried out by our voluntary committees. (Monitoring and record keeping were most important elements in the success of the Spanish anarchists in the 1930s.
In the period of transition to the Simpler Way small communities will create their own new money systems and currencies (e.g., LETS) to use in their Economy B. This ‘new money’ can be thought of as simple IOU tokens indicating how much value one has contributed and therefore how much one has the right to take from the produce others have contributed. We will simply organise people who previously were idle and poor to start producing things for each other and selling them using these tokens. This will enable all those who were cut out of economic activity to produce and sell, via the new Economy B sector which uses this new ‘money’. This form of money enables people with no normal money to produce, sell, and earn … and buy things produced by others within the network.
It is important to re-think the concept of capital. For most of the important development, none will need to be borrowed. Consider a town which wants to build a community hall, and ‘owns’ surrounding forests and clay pits and has its own labour via working bees. It would make no sense to borrow a lot of money to hire contractors to supply these inputs and build the hall, then pay them back twice as much as was borrowed, when the townspeople could build the hall themselves using their own timber and mud and working bees.
Obviously larger regions and nations are in an even better position to organise such things as they have more resources within them to draw on. Thus, the present taken-for-granted dependence on banks, the finance industry and money markets can be seen to be a serious mistake and a bonanza for the rich. It means that instead of organising to do many things for ourselves without borrowing capital, we go to them and pay them maybe twice as much as the dollar cost of the job. To avoid that all a co-op or town or nation has to do is create its own money, in the form of IOUs to be paid back by the income the venture will make when it begins to produce for sale.
In consumer-capitalist society leisure is typically spent in resource-squandering luxurious activities, such as travel and tourism, and shopping. Vast numbers travel overseas; over a million people are in the air at any one time. The cruise ship industry is booming. What would people do if these indulgences were no longer possible?
The simpler way must be embraced willingly and because it is experienced as enjoyable; there is no possibility of it being viable if reluctantly adopted or felt to be a burden. However it will be experienced as a major source of life satisfaction, for several reasons. Firstly it will be recognized as enabling global sustainability and justice. We will see our town as a noble undertaking to be proud of. Secondly the activities that produce goods and services and maintain the community will be enjoyable. But in addition there must be rich sources of leisure and holiday experience, many things to do and enjoy mostly in the town and nearby.
Firstly the town itself is a rich leisure resource. It is full of familiar people to chat to, little farms and firms run by friends happy to have you drop in for a cuppa, a beautiful landscape full of gardens, ponds, mini-forests, tree houses, caves and castles, pagodas and caves. A stroll can be a significant leisure activity. Hop on your bike and within twenty minutes start exploring the neighbouring town’s landscape also deliberately designed to be leisure-rich.
Then there are all the hobbies and crafts you will have several days a week to devote yourself to, and the water colour group and the electronics group and Fred’s pottery and Mabel’s sculpture studio. There will be expert potters and painters everywhere, happy to teach you. Or pack a picnic lunch and ramble out to Paddy’s farm and chat to old Dobbin. Or wander down to the community centre and watch the drama group rehearsing. Always plenty of people at the community workshop café at morning and afternoon tea times.
Much leisure activity is productive; the repairing, knitting, sewing, sandal making, pottery, carpentry, leatherwork, candle making, gardening, cooking.
And there would be lots of concerts, festivals, celebrations, games and activity centres…the flying fox across the pond and the canoes on it, the mazes to master, the ropeways.
One of the most important of the community’s institutions would be the leisure committee, constantly organizing events and reviewing the provision of leisure opportunities, adding new walking tours of neighbouring towns, local bushwalking maps, adventure and mystery tours, guest speakers, troubadours, film nights, discussion groups, hay rides, hikes etc. The committee would always be carefully reviewing and monitoring to find ways of enriching the leisure scene. It would compile many possible holiday options in the region; how about hiring a gypsy wagon and horse to plod around a map of camping spots, scenic highlights, open gardens and farms, museums and town festivals.
None of these things need be at all resource-costly; mostly it is just a matter of organizing and facilitating activities making use of existing natural resources, especially the landscape and the people with their varied skills, gardens, farms and firms. The town has plenty of comedians, poets, singers, musicians, from grandpas to toddlers, from clumsy to classy, happy to add to the memorable concerts.
So The Simpler Way is easily organized to be a leisure-rich way, and this is crucial in making it as enjoyable as it must be if people are not to be content with frugal and self-sufficient lifestyles.
Care of the aged and disabled.
One of the worst aspects of present society is the way older and disabled people are treated. Usually they are separated out of society, without a role or contribution to make and therefore useless and a burden on the rest of us. They are removed from familiar surroundings into “homes” to be cared for by paid professionals and without control over their situation. They are not involved in society. Often they are bored and lonely, with no purpose and no community to feel that they are a valued a part of.
Most are in the hands of the aged care industry, and this is grossly unsatisfactory. Giant corporations run it for profit and therefore…surprise surprise…expenses are cut to the bone. In Australia their food budget is around $6 per person per day and staff are too few and thus overworked. Providing things for people to do adds to costs, so most residents sit around all day watching TV. The literature exposing the inadequacies is voluminous and the recent Australian aged care inquiry scathingly criticized the industry. Propping up its profits is a $12 billion p.a. subsidy from the government.
The conditions older people would experience in the alternative way are totally different. To begin there would not really be “retirement”; people would just phase down their activities comfortably, continuing to be involved in the functioning of the community. They would not be removed from society; the smallness of scale and the proximity would enable people to remain in their homes as long as possible getting the care they needed mostly from community rosters and informal drop in visits. The community would see these processes as among the many that must be attended to in order to make life satisfactory for all.
Nursing homes for the very old and infirm would be right in the centre of town and within community gardens and animal pens, so that older people could observe and be involved in vital ongoing activities. The café would be a few metres away across the green where the kids play and the outdoor concerts are held. Old people have lots of skills and knowledge that it would be silly to waste, especially their capacity to teach youngsters how to keep the town’s technical and social machinery in good shape. They would continue to be on committees and to join in working bees, and therefore to be valued members of society. They have wisdom deriving from many years experience of the town and its people and problems and so they would be regarded as “village elders” and go-to people for advice. Some tribes and ecovillages recognize various older people as the one’s to run ideas past or chat to quietly when there’s a problem to be defused. Grandmas know lots of great recipes and the old fellows know how to fix everything and why that flat is not suitable for fruit trees. Thus old people would not be forced out of their community, they would continue to contribute, to see familiar people all the time, never be bored, and be valued, influential, and have considerable control of their situation. They would have interests and purposes, and a sense of having helped to make this a community to be proud of.
These conditions would be almost costless in dollar terms. There would be little need for specially constructed “homes” or paid staff. As with just about all functions in the town voluntary committees, rosters and working bees would do most of what needed doing. Obviously there would be professional medical and other personnel on hand. Providing for one’s aged care would not mean paying out vast sums of money to corporations.
In consumer-capitalist society Education is not important and little attention is given to it. Few think about it, attempt to do it, or to research it. But a great deal of attention is given to schooling and training. These have almost nothing to do with Education.
Schooling forces all kids to spend at least ten years learning things they are mostly not interested in. They have to do lots of exams to get credentials, which are crucial in getting jobs, escaping struggle and poverty, and for getting into university. They do such a lot of imposed boring work. The “hidden curriculum” of schooling thereby develops diligent, obedient hard workers, just what the industrial system wants, and sorts them into those with “brains” who are allowed to go on to training for higher paid jobs, and those who will accept rotten jobs or none at all. Thus schooling legitimizes the social allocation and stratification systems; few if any who have to do the rotten jobs are likely to protest that this is unfair, and after passing all those exams the former group have no doubt they deserve their more comfortable and secure lifestyles.
The system is extremely effective in training the workers, innovators and managers consumer capitalist society wants. Occasionally a little Education somehow manages to occur but in general schooling does more to destroy Education than enable it. Most people come out of their schooling years not very interested in the world, critical thinking, learning and inquiring and thinking and becoming a wiser person, let alone in trying to improve the world. If Education was a goal that was taken seriously there would be a lot of research to see how well Education is taking place, but there isn’t any at all. It is no surprise therefore that when they are told to go and kill the enemy in Vietnam or Iraq so few of them ever stop to ask if this is a good idea. Among other things Education produces good responsible critical concerned citizens, and there are not that many of these around.
But what is Education? That’s for you to decide; there’s no objective “true” answer. Here’s an indication of my conception. In the cognitive and the overlapping emotional domains the supreme concern is interest in the world, desire to know more about it, to understand what’s there and how things work…intellectual curiosity, an inquiring mind, readiness to observe and ask why. As John Dewey stressed, the point of gaining knowledge is to be able to make greater meaning, to make more sense, of what one experiences.
But the supreme goal of Education is more emotional than cognitive; it is enchantment. It is to come to see the world as fascinating, astounding, awe-inspiring, beautiful and terrifying, a source of wonder and mystery. Closely related is purpose; having things one wants to understand or do, sources of enjoyable activity, from hobbies to saving the planet. And this domain includes values; what’s regarded as important, and how important.
Which leads to the domain of will, the readiness to do something about it, to plant out those seedlings or to abolish nuclear weapons. There are times for sitting in the sun, contemplating, appreciating…but there are also times to plunge into doing, fixing, building, opposing.
Education never ends and no one is ever “Educated”. Exams, grades, credentials, coercion, punishment and teacher power have nothing to do with Education and can only damage it.
Simpler Way communities would be intensely intellectually and morally stimulating. They would be Educative places, both deliberately and spontaneously. Their everyday functioning would automatically immerse kids and everyone else in activities, conversations, situations that involved thinking carefully about arrangements, how things work, what everyone wants, what’s good for the town etc. Adults would be continually aware of the importance of helping younger ones broaden their horizons re practical, theoretical and philosophical issues. All would realise the importance of Educating, both for the good of the individual and because there cannot be a good society without Educated citizens.
The main educative force would simply be living in the community. Kids would grow up in a highly stimulating and action packed environment, with lots working bees and little farms and firms and knowledgeable people doing interesting things and eager to explain and “teach”. The town and its functioning would be the classroom. Everyone in town would be a teacher…and learner. The town would have many experts, highly experienced in the skills and practicalities and theory involved in keeping the machinery and gardens going well. Crucial practical activities such as maintaining the waterwheels and solar panels would provide lots of learning opportunities adults would take advantage of. When the pump is fixed they’d go to the text books back in the library to go into the physics theory. Kids would attend the town meetings and be on committees. Maybe the teenagers could take responsibility for running the fish and poultry co-ops. People who need to work for money only two days a week would have plenty of time to read up on topics and to find things to introduce youngsters to. We would have some but not many paid or professional teachers.
As Bookchin pointed out re the ancient Greeks, being involved in decisions about how to run you’re your society is of great Educational significance. You must think carefully and take responsibility for getting it right or you will all be sorry.
All this would be carefully monitored and detailed records would be kept on all the youngsters. Has Mary been to Henry’s discussion group on philosophy of religion yet, or to Alice’s introductory sessions on chemistry? Where is she at with maths now. Adults would discuss what we might get her into next. The drama group would organize regular events such as taking kids to simulated peasant village during the Irish potato famine, setting up many issues to be discussed later (such as the economics behind the starvation while Ireland was exporting food).
There could be detailed national “curricula” indicating the fields and experiences and ideas we want all to proceed through We would watch for opportunities to get kids interested in these. There could be formal “classes”, for instance to run when a group of kids seemed ready to be introduced to a field. Communities would work out the arrangements they were comfortable with, but it is very unlikely that any sense of coercion or authoritarian “teacher-power” need be involved. Exercises and observations to determine an individual’s undestandings or skills would be important but there would be no pace for exams or grades or competition for marks.
There would be little need for school buildings, trained “teachers”, bureaucracies or vast budgets. Because people would not need to work much for money they’d have plenty of time to be involved in these activities, as well as in many other community maintaining contributions.
Universities and trade schools night proceed more or less as they do now, providing formal training leading to credentialed careers. Anyone deciding to become a plumber or brain surgeon could enroll in the relevant preparatory courses…without paying fees. Society needs highly trained specialists so we should pay for their preparation and provide these students with a sufficient income to live well through their training period. (And when they graduate they should be paid a low but quite sufficient monetary salary.)
Law, crime, police, courts, prisons.
No need to spend much time on these…because there would be few if any. People living in secure, caring, communities in beautiful landscapes, with no need to struggle or to fear unemployment, with lots of interesting and valuable things to do, would probably be good citizens. The new zero-growth and shrunken economy would have eliminated the legal battlefields surrounding competition for commercial advantage, and the incentives on the precariat to steal or cheat, or resort to alcohol or drugs. There would be very little need for police, courts, prisons or lawyers. If someone did transgress the question would be how best to get him/her to be a good citizen again.
In a good society it’s very hard to find charities, poor people, depressed people, criminals or lawyers.
Again, quickly dealt with. We’d all be pretty healthy, given the perfect food, the exercise in the gardens and on the working bees and in the activities the leisure committee organizes. The doctors would have the task of making sure we all led healthy lifestyles. Above all the situation described above would be conducive to good mental health; plenty to do in an inclusive and supportive community, being secure, being regarded as a valued contributor and with lots of time to engage in artistic etc. activities. High tech hospitals and medical training might continue more or less as they are now, although resources available to them would be greater than at present.
…would be largely irrelevant for most of us. It would be important in many fields such as research, coordinating railway timetables, communications and the running of large organisations. At the community level it would be valuable for keeping records, analysing how our systems were going, accounting, record keeping, and for small firms and farms in keeping track of their affairs. And it would be generally important in enabling information to be tapped and exchanged, locally and globally.
But the currently astronomical amount of time and talent and resources going into trivial time wasting electronic entertainment would cease … because we would have more important and rewarding things to do with our time. There would be hobbies, arts, crafts, community issues to talk about, discussion groups, activities in the community workshop to engage in or watch, committee meetings, mini-cafes and common rooms and many friends and within a few metres, the drama and poetry etc. groups, and the many sources and activities organized by the leisure committee. At present neighbourhoods are riddled with problems that could be easily solved if , people got together on them but they are all isolated watching stupefying distractions on a screen.
Electronic media would however be important in keeping us informed about the world, via for instance documentaries, opinion and perspective pieces, and especially travelogues, which will have to be your substitutes for globe-trotting trourism.
Third World Development.
Conventional economic theory and practice can only think of development in capitalist terms; i.e., as a process whereby those with capital invest it in using Third World resources and productive capacity to make as much money as possible for themselves by producing mostly what richer people want to buy. Good profits cannot be made developing what is most needed in a poor country, so the productive resources of any Third World countries are mostly put into developing industries to serve the rich. If those with capital see no opportunity for this there is no development. Governments think they must attract and assist investors to set up industries. At best the rich get most of the benefits and people get miniscule trickle down, while the country’s resources flow out to the rich world consumers. The debt repayment conditions imposed by the IMF and World Bank force poor countries to conform to this approach, meaning there are few resources to allocate to doing what is most important.
Yet in any country there is immense productive capacity which only needs organising so that people can get together to produce for themselves most of the basic goods and simple systems they need for a satisfactory quality of life, trading only a few surpluses in order to import a few necessities. The Simpler Way enables a high quality of life for all via simple technologies such as poultry co-ops, gardening, mud-brick building, cooperatives, leisure committees etc.
Even the poorest countries can work miracles with very little capital, using mostly local land, labour and traditional technologies, preserving traditions and ecosystems, not letting market forces or owners of capital determine what happens, and therefore avoiding dependence on foreign investors, loans, trade or the predatory global market.
The New Values and World View.
The new economy cannot possibly work unless there is radical change in culture. The biggest and most difficult changes will have to be in values and outlooks. The foregoing changes in economy, geography, agriculture and politics cannot work unless people think and act according to some quite different ideas, attitudes, values and habits compared to those dominant today. This again is crucial. You cannot design a sustainable and just society full of competitive, acquisitive individualists! It is therefore a serious mistake to say, “But we want a path to sustainability that will work for us, for ordinary people today.” The point is there isn’t one! That’s like asking for a path to slimness for people who refuse to even think about reducing their gluttony.
The present desire for affluent-consumer living standards must be largely replaced by a willingness to live very simply, cooperatively and self-sufficiently, and derive life satisfaction from non-material pursuits. People must be conscientious, caring responsible citizens, eager to come to working bees, to think about social issues, and to participate in self-government. They must be sociologically sophisticated, aware of the crucial importance of cohesion, cooperation, conflict resolution, etc. They must have a strong collectivist outlook. They must understand and care about the global situation, recognising for instance that the Third World cannot have a fair share of global resources unless we in rich countries live much more simply. Above all they must willingly choose and find satisfaction in materially simpler lifestyles.
This means that a sustainable and just world cannot be achieved until all interest in gain and wealth has been abandoned. This is the most difficult change in values and world view we have to face up to. It is not logically possible to have a zero-growth economy if individuals and nations retain a desire to increase consumption and monetary wealth. But the important point is that there are alternative values, purposes and sources of satisfaction we can turn to other than consuming and getting wealthier.
It is not that we will make these changes reluctantly or just because they are morally or ecologically right. The goal is to help people to eagerly embrace Simpler Way values because these enable a far more enjoyable quality of life. We must get to the situation in which people focus on things like enjoying community activities, stability and security, a relaxed pace, practising arts and crafts, beautiful landscapes and towns, valued contributions to make, time to learn and create and grow.
It is not that everyone has to hold these values before we can save the planet. It is a matter of degree. There must only be a sufficient level of cooperation, responsibility, frugality and readiness to share and give, etc. It will not be necessary for all people to attend all working bees, but there must be a considerable willingness to do such things. Many could be less than ideal citizens so long as the average commitment is good enough. This means that the town’s fate will not be undermined by those who do not pull their weight, so long as enough do. Those who do not pull their weight will not enjoy good reputations.
This much more collectivist ethos need not set any significant threat to individual freedom or privacy. We can still have our own private houses, property, values, religious views, interests and goals (and in my view, small private firms.) It’s just that we must also have some much stronger common values than at present and the present dominance of individualistic orientations must be replaced by predominantly collectivist outlook and values.
Our dependence on our local ecosystems and community will have a positive self-reinforcing effect on good values. As has been explained it will be obvious to all people that it is in their interests to cooperate, come to working bees and meetings, be responsible, think about issues, and care for local ecosystems. We will all know that our welfare depends on how well our town and its social and ecological systems are working, so if we don’t behave sensibly these systems we depend on will deteriorate and we will all be in trouble. More importantly, doing these things will be enjoyable. It’s nice to go to working bees. It will not be a matter of forcing ourselves to practice the right values. The new society will not work unless people find it enjoyable to do things like share and help, and the conditions we will be in will tend to make good citizenship enjoyable. The Simpler Way requires and rewards good values and behaviour.
The awareness of our dependence on our local ecosystems will also restore the ‘earth-bonding’ that has been lost in consumer-capitalist society. We will be much more aware of and appreciative of our nearby soils and forests and ecosystems because most of our food, water and materials will be coming from them. We will feel bonded to our ‘place’, and therefore we will be much more inclined to care for it.
The difference between these values and those dominant today is so great that at first one might conclude there is no possibility of a general shift to the Simpler Way. It constitutes a fundamental break with some of the core elements in Western Culture, especially regarding competitive individualism, self-interest, power and domination, progress, and acquisitiveness. It contradicts consumer society in many ways. However again the transition is best seen not as a need to reluctantly forego satisfactions in order to save the planet, but as the substitution of new and better sources of life satisfaction.
Advocates of the Simpler Way have no doubt that despite extremely low levels of income, possessions, wealth and non-renewable resource consumption, it will provide all people with a much higher quality of life than most have now in even the richest countries.
Can’t be done? Many are doing it!
Many of the things discussed above are being done by thousands of people living in Eco-villages and Transition Towns all around the world. Just glance through the Global Eco-village Network site. (https://ecovillage.org/.) In Senegal the government’s goal is to transform 14,000 villages into Eco-villages. In Spain the very impressive Catalan Integral Cooperative movement now involves thousands of people in highly-self-sufficient cooperatives and networks run by ordinary people, with their own currency, extensive food distribution systems, all emphatically opposed to control by the state or by the capitalist system. The Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in Missouri aims to become an example town of 500. Lockyer’s study (2017) of its resource consumption found that its per capita figures for energy use, cars, transport, waste etc. were a mere 10% or less of the American average. The most important goal and achievement of Eco-villages is community; all experience a high level of inclusion and care, and indices of quality of life are high. (See for instance Lockyer, 2017.) So there should be no doubt that these ways are both workable and desirable.
Stage 2 of the revolution.
The above discussion has only been about Stage 1 of the transition, which is to do with the town or suburban level. It does not refer to the huge structural changes that must also be made at the national and international levels. The wider economic context cannot be made satisfactory unless we achieve the most enormous, radical and difficult changes in structure, functioning, and most importantly, in underlying world view and culture. These change include, scrapping economic growth, marked De-growth, preventing the market from being the determinant of economic functioning and development, eliminating interest payments, distributing productive capacity evenly throughout the land so that every town can earn some export income, reorienting state and national governments to maximising the welfare of the towns…and getting the control of state and national governments into the hands of the towns. That is, the ultimate task is to transform these levels of government into thoroughly participatory forms under the direct control of citizens intown assemblies.
The immensity and difficulty of achieving these kinds of changes could not be exaggerated. They involve implementing a great deal of regulation, planning, phasing out, relocation, and thus many big problems to do with efficiency and justice. Whether you like it or not this means some kind of “socialism”, but it is crucial to stress that there are many highly unacceptable varieties of socialism and the version we have to work for must be thoroughly participatory and not the centralized, authoritarian and bureaucratised form usually assumed. State-level functions must be controlled by the participatory local assemblies at the town level, via completely open and accountable processes such as town meetings and referenda, and recallable delegates and bureaucrats who have no power to make policy or decisions. This is non-negotiable. If government is not eventually in this form the new communities will not work; they cannot make the right decisions for themselves or maintain the necessary sense of empowerment and morale unless they have the power to control their own situation, and are provided for by state-level functions, e.g., coordinating supply of steel and operation of railways. Centralised agencies must be primarily about provision of the (few) goods, materials and services the towns cannot prouce for themselves.
Obviously none of this will become possible unless most people come to see the desirability of these changes. The work for activists in the present Stage 1 is to build that understanding. (Stage 2 including the way centralized functions might be shifted to local control is discussed at more length in TSW: Transition Theory.)
It must be emphasised again that if the limits to growth analysis is basically correct, then we have no choice but to work for the sort of alternative society outlined above. It would be very easy to establish and run The Simpler Way – if enough of us wanted to do it! It does not involve complicated technology or solutions to difficult technical problems, such as how to get fusion reactors to work. lt does not require vast bureaucracies or huge sums of capital. The SimplerWay is primarily about reorganising in order to harness the abundant existing local resources, now largely wasted. We could actually achieve major transformations in existing suburbs in a few months, using mostly hand tools, and those enjoyable working bees.