Third World Development: The Simpler Way Critique

of Conventional Theory and Practice.


                                            Ted Trainer



Thinking about development is dominated by a conventional conception which takes for granted the centrality of increasing production for sale, integration into the globalised market place, moving to more sophisticated technologies, and rising to affluent, rich-world living standards. Basic criticisms of this conception of development are briefly summarised, mainly to do with the way it has primarily benefitted the rich. In addition, the viability of this form of development is contradicted by the ‘limits to growth’ thesis: global resource and ecological conditions do not enable its realisation.

There has been remarkably little thinking in terms of a radically different conception of development goals and means. The Simpler Way project is concerned to show the necessity for, and desirability and workability of, the development of mostly small scale, cooperative, highly self-sufficient and self-governing local economies focused on meeting basic needs, and not concerned with economic growth, globalisation, competing in the global market place, or aspiring to rich-world ‘living standards’.


The Situation.


Despite considerable evidence that conditions in poor countries have improved markedly in recent decades the situation remains far from satisfactory. Large numbers in poorer countries are receiving little benefit from the development taking place, and the conditions for many are either stagnating or deteriorating. The inequality evident within the world economy remains extreme. The richest 20% of people are receiving around 86% of world income, while the poorest 20% are getting around 1.3% and about half the world's people have an income of under $3 per day (Phillips, 2018). By some measures the inequality has increased over recent decades. In 1960, rich world average income was 20 times poor world income, but in 1980 it was 46 times poor world income, and in 1990 the ratio was 55. The ratio is now well over 80 to 1. At least 850 million people suffer chronic hunger. About 1.8 billion do not have safe drinking water. Thousands of children die every day from deprivation.

Far from progressing towards ‘self-sustaining, economic growth and prosperity’, most Third World countries have high levels of debt. Governments are obliged to gear their economies more firmly to meeting debt repayments, often involving significant reduction in provision for the most disadvantaged groups. The magnitude of the debt problem sets a major challenge to the assumption that the conventional development strategy can lead the Third World to prosperity.

However, it is not the state of things that is the major concern in this discussion. Beyond the levels of policy and action lie deeply held and often unwitting assumptions about the nature of ‘development’. A particular conception of what constitutes development and how to achieve it has been overwhelmingly dominant since at least the 1950s. The first section of this article offers a summary statement and critique of core elements in this largely taken-for-granted conception.

In the 1990s a ‘post–development’ literature arose expressing a variety of discontents with the orthodox view. Differences between that literature and the perspective to be presented in this article are discussed later, but at this point it should be noted that whereas the post-development commentary has been predominantly critical, and has been criticised for failing to offer positive alternatives, the main concern in this paper is not just to put forward an alternative conception but to argue that that there is no viable alternative to it. This is a bold claim and the grounds for it will be detailed below.

What follows then is a summary perspective on the essential elements and claims in conventional development and critiques of these. It is necessary to highlight these features in order to proceed to the elaboration of a perspective which it is claimed avoids them.


The Centrality of Economic Growth.


The defining characteristic of conventional development theory and practice is the tight connection between development and economic growth. Growth of GDP is commonly taken to be development. Even where other criteria are included in the concept of development, such as declining infant mortality or malnutrition rates, economic growth is typically regarded as the prerequisite or enabler of development. Theory and practice proceed as if the overriding priority is increasing the amount of economic activity, i.e., of business turnover, production for sale, investment, trade, and thus GDP. The rationale is that the more goods and services produced and sold the more ‘wealth’ that is being generated, the more taxes governments can collect and spend on problems such as health and education, the more jobs and incomes for people, the more that can be spent on infrastructures etc., and the more that the capacity to export and pay for imports will increase.

However, development should be thought of as involving the improvement of all aspects of the whole society, not just its GDP, especially many non-economic factors such as political processes, social cohesion, civility, artistic and cultural life, crime and corruption rates, security, care of older people, equality, civil liberties and ecological sustainability and quality of life. Further it should not be assumed that the best way to improve these factors is to grow the economy. Indeed, it will be argued below that when the supreme goal is economic growth many important aspects of a society are not just neglected but are seriously damaged. 

Secondly, even within the economic sector of society, development is not equivalent to growth. When a tadpole develops it does become bigger but it also changes its form; it becomes a frog and it then stops getting bigger, because it has then finished developing. Conventional economics involves no concept of what the end goal of development might be. It deals only with an economy that constantly increases in size, with no concept of sufficient development, or whether there can be over-development.

The most important contradiction is between development that will maximise GDP and development that is appropriate in view of the needs and welfare of individuals and society. For instance, when maximising GDP is the goal, the owners of capital will be encouraged to put more land into export crops even if there is an urgent need to produce more food for hungry people. However, if the land was taken out of production of export crops and put into growing food for poor people, GDP would be reduced. Conventional economic theory focuses on the benefits of growth but does not attend to the ways in which growth reduces benefit.

Underlying these issues is the powerful but rarely acknowledged assumption regarding the ‘unidimensional’ nature of development. It is thought of as capable of varying only along one dimension, to do with the amount of business turnover or production for sale and the associated level of industrialisation, trade, infrastructures etc. All nations can be lined up according to their GDP per capita, and development is about moving up the slope towards the rich world end of the dimension.

But again, there are many dimensions relevant to assessing development, and some are much more important than the economic dimension. For instance, the US is generally regarded as highly developed but on almost all social criteria it is at or nearly at the bottom of the list of OECD countries (See Speth, 2012). On the other hand, many countries with low GDP per capita rate well above rich western countries on quality of life indices. Cuba for instance has a relatively low GDP per capita but has topped a list of countries on environmental impact in relation to GDP (Eras, et al., 2010).

These have been reasons why GDP should not be regarded as the, or even an important, index of development, appropriately defined. Development should be understood as multifactorial, indicating the need to list incommensurable goals in order of priority and to design a range of specific policies to achieve each of them. That would involve terminating much of the development that currently is being pursued. It hardly needs to be pointed out that making growth the goal of development aligns with the interests of the owners of capital since it prioritises investment in whatever will maximise the amount of business turnover.

But there are far more powerful grounds for recognising that growth can have no place in an acceptable conception of development.


The Limits to Growth Perspective: The Overlooked Implications for Development.

It is remarkable that the development literature has given so little attention to the ‘limits to growth’ analysis of the global predicament. No other set of considerations has such profound implications for development in rich and poor worlds. Over the last fifty years there has accumulated an extensive and overwhelmingly convincing case that global resource consumption and ecological impacts are far beyond sustainable levels. This rules out any possibility of all the world’s people rising to the material ‘living standards’ presently enjoyed by the one-fifth who live in rich countries, let alone to the consumption levels growth would lead them to (TSW, 2018).

The magnitude of the overshoot needs to be stressed. The World Wildlife Fund’s Footprint index (WWF, 2016) shows that to provide one Australian with the amount of food, water, energy and settlement area now used, about 7 ha of productive land are required. Therefore, if the possibly10 billion people expected to be on earth by 2050 were to live as Australians live now, around 70 billion ha would be required. However, there are only about 8 billion ha of productive land available on the planet. This indicates that Australians are consuming natural resources at close to 10 times the rate all people in the world could rise to.

But to this picture the implications of growth must be added. If the 10 billion people expected to be on earth by 2050 were to rise to the ‘living standards’ Australians would have then given 3% p.a. economic growth, the amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be twenty times as great as it is now, and by 2073 the multiple would be forty.

The common response to this case is to claim that technical advance will make multiples of this order possible. It is not difficult to point out the extreme implausibility of this ‘tech-fix’ faith. The WWF Footprint measure indicates that world resource use is now around 1.7 times the sustainable amount, meaning that world GDP is already 70% too high. Therefore, if a GDP 20 times as great was to be sustainable the current footprint per unit of GDP would have to be reduced by more than 97%.

Ecomodernists (Blomqvist, Nordhaus and Shellenbeger, 2015) argue that technical advance, recycling and efficiency effort can achieve large reductions. This is the ‘decoupling’ thesis, i.e., the claim that economic growth can be separated from growth in resource use, allowing GDP to go on rising while ecological impact is sufficiently reduced. However, many studies of this thesis have found that despite decades of constant effort to improve productivity, recycling and efficiency, productivity continues its long decline and most studies show that growth of GDP continues to be accompanied by growth of impacts and materials demand (Ward, et al., 2017; Trainer, 2017). (In some rich countries there has been some absolute decoupling of energy consumption from carbon emissions, due to adoption of renewables.)

Appropriate development must therefore be conceived in terms of a zero-growth or steady-state economy, operating at levels of GDP that are a small fraction of those in rich countries today. There is now a significant De-growth movement based on this recognition.


The Connections Between the Market and Inappropriate Development.

No principle is more fundamental in conventional development theory and practice than that maximum freedom should be given for market forces to determine what happens. However, it is not difficult to refute the claim that the resulting form of development i.e. it is not, and cannot be, geared to the most urgent needs.

The global economy is a market system and the three major effects of the market system on development are:


Market forces allow the relatively rich few to take most or all the available resources.

For example, while possibly 850 million people lack enough food, which might require 40 million tonnes of grain p.a. to remedy, over 40% of world grain production is fed to animals each year, mostly in rich countries (FAO, 2013).

These extremely unequal distributions of the world's resource wealth come about primarily because it is an economic system in which individuals and countries can afford to pay more to purchase scarce goods. Market forces inevitably allocate scarce items to those who are able and willing to pay more. Markets do not take into account what is needed, what is just, what will contribute to social cohesion or ecological sustainability. Goods are distributed according to ‘effective demand’, which means that richer participants in the market place are most able to acquire them.


Market forces have mostly developed in the Third World industries that are

inappropriate to the needs of people and ecosystems.

A great deal of development has taken place in the Third World but little of it has been development of the most needed industries and systems. Because it has been determined largely by market forces it has been mostly the development of industries to provide commodities and consumer goods for the benefit of local elites and for export to the rich countries, while the labour, land and infrastructures involved could have been devoted to meeting urgent needs. Thus, inappropriate development can be seen as an inevitable consequence of allowing market forces to be the main determinants of development.


Much of the Third World's productive capacity is geared to the demand of the rich.

This is most evident in the case of export crops. When Third World productive capacity is put into producing exports the people of the Third World receive only a small proportion of the wealth generated. In some poor countries most of the best land grows crops to export to the rich countries, including fodder for animals in feedlots. Again, this is a direct consequence of allowing the highest bid to determine the uses to which the Third World's productive capacity is put.

Clearly the core problem is not the lack of development; it is the inappropriateness of the development the current economic system generates. Conventional development can be seen as a process which draws Third World productive capacity into producing mostly for the benefit of the local rich classes, the transnational corporations and banks, and consumers in rich countries.


Integration within the global economy.


The imperative is to export as much as possible into the global economy in order to earn the money to be able to pay for the importation of goods from it, as well as to build infrastructures and meet debt obligations. Even the poorest countries must compete against all others to sell something. This does give countries access to benefits from the global economy but makes them dependent on being able to compete in it, and on changes in conditions within it. The country will tend to rely heavily on the one or few exports it can best produce, meaning that if the global demand for them falls the economy can be devastated. It also makes poor countries compete against each other to win sales, minimising prices for rich world buyers.

It is in the interests of richer individuals, transnational corporations and countries for there to be a single global economy in which all must participate since this maximises their access to global resources, labour and investment opportunities.

Because globalisation prioritises capacity to export in order to be able to import necessities it weighs against developing the capacity to meet local needs directly. Capital flows into building infrastructures required by corporations and not into increasing the capacity of people to provide for themselves.


The ‘Trickle Down’ Assumption.


The basic justification for conventional development is that although it mostly enriches the rich, in time ‘wealth will trickle down to benefit all.’ There is indeed a tendency for this to happen, but this does not mean that the process is acceptable. There are several reasons for rejecting this strategy.


 Little trickles down.

In the global economy the amount of benefit that trickles down is evident in the fact that one-fifth of the world's people now receive about 70 times the amount of world income the poorest one-fifth get, and according to several studies, such as by Hickel (2017), the ratio is getting worse. Edward and Summer (2013) report that between 1990 and 2010 global consumption increased by $10 - $15 trillion, but 1% of people received 15% of it. The gain for each of them was 637 times as much as the gain for the poorest 53% of the world’s people.

The strongest justification for the trickle-down strategy is the claim that poverty has been greatly reduced. The conditions large numbers experience has indeed improved greatly, but the situation is complex, and the overall effects are debated. Firstly, there is the issue of the definition of the poverty line, commonly taken to be an income of $1.25 or $2 or $2.25 a day (Hickel, 2017). The income necessary for a minimally acceptable lifestyle would be much higher. This means that the numbers still experiencing serious hardship would be far greater than the official poverty statistics indicate. In addition, that so many live in highly unsatisfactory conditions after many decades of trickle-down development is a significant indicator of its ineffectiveness.

Secondly, the reduction in global poverty rates seems to have been due mostly to achievements in China. (Hickel, 2017). Edward and Summer (2013) find that if Chinese figures are omitted then there has been little if any improvement in global inequality and poverty rates in recent decades. In addition, whether or not China is a satisfactory example of development is debatable (see Smith, 2015). McRae (2008) believes it is mostly benefiting a small proportion of the people, leaving perhaps 800 million in rural poverty. He says inequality is ‘appalling and getting worse.’


The rate of trickle-down development is extremely slow

At present rates it would probably take more than a hundred years for the ‘living standards’ of the poor majority in the Third World to rise to present rich world levels. By that time rich world GDP per capita would have become extreme. Yet if the available resources could be applied directly by people to meeting their own needs rapid improvements would easily be achieved.


Conventional ‘development’ also impoverishes: what are the net effects?

Conventional economists typically enthuse about gains and benefits but fail to attend to the losses and costs. Conventional development drives some people into poverty, mainly by depriving them of resources and livelihoods they once had. For instance, Structural Adjustment Packages (see below) require removal of protection and subsidies and permit foreign corporations to enter and take over markets and productive activity. When governments allow corporations to log forests and build dams and mines tribal and peasant people can be removed from their ancestral lands. Fletcher (2016) quoting the U.N. Human Development Report says that in 2003 after decades of neoliberal development, 54 nations were poorer than they had been in 1990, and Sub-Saharan Africa had a lower per capita income than 40 years before. (See also Hickel, 2016.)


It is not clear how big the net gains in income, employment and welfare have been but the above evidence on global poverty changes suggest that they have not been as spectacular as is commonly claimed.

The moral issue.

The trickle-down rationale promises to improve the welfare of those in great need via crumbs from the tables of the rich. Most of the benefit of conventional development goes to national elites, foreign corporations and rich world consumers. A morally acceptable development process would prioritise improving the conditions of the poorest.

The global resource situation will not permit Trickle Down to work.

Possibly the most effective argument is that the limits to growth rule out any chance that development which promises to lift the poor to rich world affluence via trickle down benefits can succeed, simply because there are far too few resources for this to be achieved.


Development is Capital Intensive.

Conventional development cannot take place unless large amounts of capital are acquired and invested. Land, equipment and expertise must be paid for to set up plantations, factories, mines, fishing fleets, logging operations etc. Because there must be large scale export of commodities or manufactured goods, costly infrastructures must be built. Foreign investors will be less likely to be attracted if there are not good roads, railways, shipping terminals and airports. This means governments need to take on large scale debt to provide the infrastructures required by corporations and consequently little capital is available to facilitate other development goals.

A major characteristic of the alternative, appropriate development path to be discussed below is that it requires little monetary capital; indeed, in some important sectors such as basic food production almost none might be required.



The conventional approach to development assumes that movement towards a single unified global economic system is desirable. This is seen as providing greater access for all to markets, productive and export opportunities, and sources of imports. Globalisation involves reducing impediments to trade and investment such as tariffs, protection, subsidies and government intervention in the market. The pressure is on economies and individuals to produce for sale into the global economy in order to earn the income needed to purchase from it.

This arrangement has notable social benefits, but it forces all nations, regions and individuals into competing in the one market and many inevitably fail to do this very effectively. Nations must focus on selling whatever resources they have cheaply. The poorest people and regions, and some entire countries, especially in Africa and the Pacific, are largely irrelevant to the interests of any transnational corporations and therefore cannot expect much development. They have no cheap resources to attract foreign investors and could not compete in export markets if they did.

Globalisation is in the interests of rich nations and their corporations because it increases their freedom of access to resources and consumers in all countries. It involves leaving development to market forces, which in effect means that there will only be development of whatever it suits the corporations to develop.

A large literature has now accumulated documenting the damaging effects neoliberal globalisation has had on large numbers of people. Alternative/appropriate development is not possible unless governments exercise significant levels of control and regulation over their economies, trade, foreign investment etc. Its core principle contradicts globalisation; appropriate development must be localised.


The Structural Adjustment Packages.

The most powerful forces imposing these forms of developments on the Third World over the last several decades have come via the Structural Adjustment Packages of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. When a Third World country's debts become impossible for it to repay it must go to these agencies for assistance. They arrange for more loans to enable debt repayments to be made, but they do so on condition that a Structural Adjustment Package is accepted. This package obliges the country to implement a number of policies that are supposed to improve the economy, such as cutting government spending including assistance to poor people, opening the economy to more foreign investment, increasing exports, devaluing currency (making exports cheaper for rich countries to buy, and making the country pay more for the imports from them), reducing government regulation, reducing government ownership and control and generally increasing adoption of free market policies.

These conditions are supposed to ‘get the economy going again’, i.e., to increase business activity, investment, export earnings, and to reduce government spending, so that the country becomes more able to pay back its debt. There is considerable evidence that in many instances these measures have had little or no effect in achieving these objectives (Thompson, Kentikilensis and Stubbs, 2017, Shah, 2013)(reference). More importantly, the packages promote the interests of the rich countries and their corporations and banks. Impediments to their access to Third World resources and markets are removed, they can buy up the firms that go bankrupt, they can hire cheaper labour, they can import more cheaply from the country while being paid more for exports to it. In addition, SAPs make repayments to rich world banks top priorities for national governments.


Conventional Development as a Form of Legitimised Plunder.

Although intentions and expectations may for the most part be benevolent, conventional development can be seen as a process whereby most of the Third World’s productive capacity is geared to rich world demand and most of its produced resource wealth flows to the rich countries and their corporations. Long ago Third World countries had control over their own forests and lands and ordinary people were able to use most of them to produce what they needed – of course, this is not to say that the situation was always satisfactory or that poorer people received a fair share of available resources. But the result of conventional development is that these resources have come to be owned by, sold to, or to produce for the benefit of, the small local rich classes, the transnational corporations, and consumers in rich countries.

Thus, the global political economy can be regarded as an imperial system. Rich world living standards could not be as high as they are if rich world people were not securing far more than an equal share of the world’s resources. Unlike previous imperial systems this one functions mainly through financial arrangements, especially surrounding debt. In general gunboats are not required for its maintenance and extension.

This general view of the development field has been argued by many analysts over recent decades. For instance, Goldsmith (1997) discusses ‘development as colonialism’. Rist (1997, p. 243.) says, ‘development has resulted in material and cultural expropriation.’ Schwarz and Schwarz (1998, p. 3) say, ‘development now seems little more than a window dressing for economic colonialism.’ Chossudowsky (1997) details the mechanisms, especially in relation to finance and especially Structural Adjustment Packages. Reference is made below to the more recent ‘post development’ critical literature. These are a few of the sources that have documented the reasons why conventional development can be regarded as a form of legitimised plunder.


The Connection with Oppressive Foreign Policy.

The forgoing argument has been that much of the injustice evident in the world is due to the normal working of the global economy. However, from time to time people who are deprived and exploited tend to become discontented and can only be kept working in the mines, plantations and sweatshops through violent repression. This is usually readily imposed by the local ruling classes, but often rich countries provide arms, training, and other assistance to put down dissent or assist rebels undermining a non-compliant regime. From time to time rich countries invade to install regimes willing to rule in their interests, or take steps to get rid of those that are not.

Thus, there are strong causal connections between conventional development and rich world affluence, Third World deprivation, imperial domination and armed conflict. If the rich few are determined to continue to secure their disproportionate share of increasingly scarce world resource, they would be well advised to remain heavily armed (for more detail on this issue, see ‘If you want Affluence, Prepare for War’ in this volume).


The Cultural Realm.

The foregoing discussion has been mostly about economic issues, because conventional theory is framed almost entirely in economic terms. However, it also embodies the powerful and usually implicit assumptions that ‘modernisation’ is desirable and that ‘West is best’. Thus, there is pressure for traditional ways to be abandoned in favour of the ‘rational’ scientific and bureaucratic ways characteristic of rich countries. This often shifts the focus away from collectivist and cooperative practices and contentment with material sufficiency to values of individualism, competition and acquisitiveness. The alternative vision enables the option of retaining traditional culture.


Alternative, Appropriate Development: The Simpler Way.

The tragedy of development theory and practice is that so few realise that satisfactory, appropriate, development would be easily achieved – although it would require radical change in lifestyles, systems and aspirations.

If the foregoing account of conventional development, and especially of the limits to growth analysis of the global predicament are sound, then it is difficult to understand firstly why it remains so dominant, and secondly, how the following implications for a satisfactory vision of development can be seriously challenged.

Let us begin by asking what factors are most important for a high quality of life? What goals would satisfactory development be aimed at? There would probably be a high degree of agreement on the following list.

It is important to note that money, wealth or possessions are hardly relevant to any of these items, and none requires a high GDP. All can in principle be achieved easily by reorganising social systems along the following lines.


Enable people to begin applying the existing resources and productive capacity around them, especially their own labour and skills, to producing the mostly simple things that are needed to give them the highest possible quality of life.

Most if not all Third World regions have all the resources they need to build the basic structures and systems which would provide a high quality of life to all in a few years at most, via relatively simple technologies, lifestyles, and systems. Achieving these goals in a short period of time is possible via simple structures, systems and arrangements, with little or no foreign investment, trade, heavy industrialisation, aid, external expert advice or sophisticated technology, and with little monetary capital.


Priority is put on cooperation, participation and collective arrangements and effort.

Most farms and firms might be privately owned but the members of the settlement must have control over the basic functions and must gear these to maximising the welfare of all. All people and resources must be seen as in a sense ‘belonging’ to the community and organised to meet its needs. People arrange and contribute to town meetings, working bees, cooperatives, committees, commons, and town mini-banks. Villagers govern themselves, researching, planning, deciding development action via thoroughly participatory procedures such as village and town assemblies.

Thus, the conventional assumption that the best for all results if individuals compete against each other pursuing their self-interest and trying to get rich in free markets is rejected. There can be much freedom for individuals, many small private firms, and a place for market forces – provided they are under careful social control – but the top priority must be to cooperatively seek what is best for all.

Very simple material living standards must be willingly accepted. Affluence and rich world living standards must be understood as impossible for all to have.

The goal must be material sufficiencyon levels of per capita resource consumption that are as low as possible while enabling a good quality of life. Many goods will be produces less ‘efficiently’ or dollar cheaply than the transnational corporations can produce them. ‘Living standards’ and GDP per capita will be far lower than they are in the rich countries, but this does not mean deprivation or hardship must be accepted. Rich world standards are not necessary for a high quality of life or an admirable society. Very satisfactory lifestyles and systems can be provided on per capita resource consumption levels that are literally around 10% of rich world national averages (see further below).


The basic element in appropriate development is the small, highly self-sufficient and largely co-operative local economy.

Most of the basic goods and services used by people must be produced in and close to the towns and suburbs they live in, by local people using local resources mostly in cooperative local firms and farms. These must focus on the production of necessities and on minimising exports to and imports from the wider national economy. Some goods and services would come from light industries within the region containing several towns, reducing the need to import from the national economy.

The village and regional economies might contain mostly private firms and most of these might operate wholly or partly within markets. However, responsibility for all important activities that the market economy does not perform satisfactorily must be undertaken by the Community Development Cooperative. It will have considerable power to either get the market sector to attend to necessities, or organise community provision by establishing cooperatives etc.

If lifestyles are frugal and most basic items are produced locally there can be dramatic reductions in dollar and resource costs. For instance, there would be little need for transport to bring goods into settlements, or to move workers out to distant work places. Most people might need to engage paid work only twice a week, and most of this might be accessed on foot or by bicycle. Especially important is the development of local leisure and entertainment options, overseen by village leisure and educational committees.


Sophisticated technology is of little importance for meeting basic needs.

Although many modern ways would be of considerable value, a well-developed village or region might be achieved with little more than traditional hand tool technologies. These can provide quite satisfactory gardens, orchards, animal production, housing, small dams, clothing, and entertainment and leisure sources. Voluntary working bees can build the simple structures needed, especially community centres and workshops, clinics, stores and business premises, using mostly local materials such as earth, stone and timber.

Trainer (2018) estimates the sufficient lifetime tool and equipment inventory for rich-world households and small communities. It contains mostly hand tools for workshop and garden uses and indicates very low per capita lifetime dollar and energy costs (see further below).

Simpler, non-industrial ways are often superior, especially in food production. Large scale agribusiness involves several undesirable processes and effects (see below). Small scale and local food production avoid these effects, usually provides better quality food, and can actually greatly exceed industrial farming yields (Montgomery, 2017).

There are however areas in which sophisticated technologies are important, most obviously to do with health services, and these require arrangements which extend beyond the village.


Satisfactory material living standards are easily achieved, without sophisticated technology and with minimal resource use.

This is probably the most important point for advocates of the alternative path to make clear and convincing as the claim can seem to be quite implausible. The quality of life goals listed above depend almost entirely on social arrangements, not on individual wealth or material resources. Where material standards are relevant, structures and systems usually can be simple and frugal yet entirely adequate, indeed often functionally and aesthetically superior.

Food supply provides probably the most effective illustrations. Many rich and poor world villages meet most or all their food needs via their gardens, orchards fields, forests, fish ponds and animals. On all dimensions these systems can be far more satisfactory than agribusiness supply. Permaculture design principles (Mollison, 1988) enable provision of many goods and services largely automatically and at negligible cost in resources, environment or labour. These principles include ensuring that ‘waste’ outputs from one activity become valuable inputs to another, organising each component to performs as many other functions as possible - e.g., poultry provide eggs, fertiliser, weed control, fire breaks, meat, feathers, pest elimination, and cultivation – and carrying out many ‘system management’ tasks through everyday informal and incidental interactions between ordinary citizens, at no dollar cost. Chickens can find much of their food free ranging in gardens and orchards while manuring fields, cleaning up garden beds and eating pests. Manures from pens can conveniently be taken to nearby compost heaps, methane digesters and fish ponds. Kitchen ‘wastes’ alone can provide adequate poultry feed for egg supply (Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, 2019). In fact, thorough recycling of garden weeds, kitchen scraps and animal and human manures can completely eliminate the need to import fertilisers for a settlement’s food production, while producing high quality methane gas. Ideally a set quantity of nutrients would be constantly cycled through gardens, kitchens, toilets, ponds and animal pens and back to gardens.

Globalised supply systems cannot benefit from these links. Animal feeds might be produced on another continent meaning that manures cannot be recycled to the soils they came from, and a waste removal industry is needed, along with an artificial energy-intensive fertiliser industry. Large quantities of food’ wastes’ contribute to land-fill problems. Vast energy-intensive shipping, trucking, advertising, chemicals, packaging and supermarket networks are involved, staffed by expensively trained professionals.

Trainer (2019) derives detailed estimates of the dollar and energy costs that would be theoretically achievable within a rich world outer city suburb, partly based on records from the Pigface Point homestead. These indicate greatly reduced costs compared with present rich world national averages, and little need for goods and services that cannot be produced within small towns and regions. For instance, the per capita energy costs of food in the US are literally several hundred times as great as those estimated in this study for locally produced food. Lockyer’s (2017) study of the Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in Missouri found that per capita rates of electricity, fuel, vehicle use, water use, and garbage generation are in the region of 5-10% of US national averages. Similarly, the study by (Trainer, Malik, and Lenzen, 2019) comparing industrial/supermarket egg supply and production via village level cooperatives found that the dollar and energy costs of the former are fifty to one hundred timesas great as those of the latter.

There are three crucial elements embodied in the alternative approach which make possible these dramatic reductions in dollar costs, resource use and ecological impact. These are, a) the complex integration of functions and processes, b) the close proximity of functions, and c) the informal ‘administration’ by ordinary people as they go about their daily activities. A core Simpler Way claim is that because the fundamental cause of the global predicament is over-production and over-consumption the solution must be based on small scale integrated systems and materially frugal lifestyles embodying these principles.

In addition, these dramatic reductions the alternative path enables in resource, dollar and ecological costs are also typically associated with a higher experienced quality of life. The Global Ecovillage Movement holds community as one of their three supreme goals. These psychological and social welfare benefits are evident in various studies, especially those by Lockyer (2017) and Grindle (2017). Another essay in this anthology, ‘Your Delightful Day’, illustrates these kinds of materially simple practices and the quality of life experience that could be the norm. The main task advocates of the alternative path have is to provide convincing accounts of the sufficiency, achievability, and desirability of these simpler ways.


Little role is necessary for corporations, big banks, capital, loans and debt, or for involvement in the global economy.

Because the Simpler Way requires few elaborate structures or systems there is little need for monetary capital. Most of the development needed can be achieved by drawing on ‘capital’ in the form of local skills, labour and enthusiasm. Often the necessary material resources are locally available in the form of land, earth for building, timber, stone, rainfall, manures and plant and animal materials. Because levels of town and regional self-sufficiency are high and lifestyles are materially simple there is little need to export into the global economy to earn the money to purchase from it, and therefore little need to build infrastructures such as ports and airfields. Because there is also little need for capital borrowing and debt can be minimal.

There need only be sufficient concern with exporting into the global economy to acquire enough capacity to purchase crucial necessities from it. Similarly, foreign investment should be carefully assessed in terms of its capacity to provide necessities.


Social, cultural and ecological goals must take priority over economic goals.

Development decisions must be based on considerations of social need, morality, justice, rights, tradition, social cohesion and ecological sustainability. No attention need be paid to the GDP; whether it rises or falls is irrelevant. In fact, if appropriate development strategies are adopted these will in general reduce GDP (e.g., by taking land out of export cropping and making it available to villagers). A wide range of appropriate development measures should be developed, such as those included in Bhutan’s index of Gross National Happiness.


National governments must do as much regulating, subsidising, planning and controlling of the economy as is necessary to enable the foregoing goals.

National governments should prioritise assisting the industries and infrastructures needed to maximise local self-sufficiency, while organising access to those items that must be produced elsewhere in the relatively small remaining national economy. They should distribute mostly light industries across the rural landscape, so that all villages can earn small amounts producing for the national economy and thus be able to pay for the few items they need to import from it.

National governments should work to reduce national, regional, village and individual dependence on surviving in the global economy, i.e., assist them to become less tied to exporting, borrowing and importing.

It is important for national governments to seek to minimise their activities and powers, confining attention to enabling local self-government. Central agencies cannot run small villages satisfactorily because this depends on local knowledge, conditions, traditions, social cohesion etc. Their role is mainly to set overall operating conditions, prevent undesirable development, and ensure that the national economy provides the inputs villages need.


Ideally the transition would be gradual.

The transition to the desired situation should be seen in terms of slowly initiating and elaborating the appropriate approach as a new ‘Economy B’ underneath the old conventional ‘Economy A’. It can begin by a few coming together as a Community Development Cooperative to organise the provision of some neglected basic goods and services, for example via community gardens, poultry groups or aged care rosters. Their long-term goal would be to increase these cooperative, socially desirable non-market activities until they might largely replace the old economy (for details on Simpler Way transition theory, see Part Five of this volume).


Preserve and restore desirable cultural traditions.

Think carefully about the extent to which Western ideas, values and ways should be adopted. Do not assume that ‘West is best’ or that there must be ‘modernisation’. Above all reject consumer society and its culture; it is not sustainable and it is spiritually problematic. A conception of development which focuses on the local level enables traditional cultural ways to be preserved.


Nothing is more important than the understanding of ‘development’ that people have.

It is crucial that people be helped to see that conventional/capitalist theory and practice is an ideology legitimising wealth extraction, and to see that there is an alternative. It is distressing that billions of people do not realise that there can be other than the conventional ‘uni-dimensional’ approach which locks them into continued poverty and deprivation waiting for trickle down, when they could be developing relatively simple systems that would quickly enable them to experience far better conditions.

It hardly needs to be pointed out that this alternative conception constitutes a head-on contradiction of conventional development theory and practice and therefore sets a mortal challenge to the interests of large numbers of rich and powerful agencies, classes and individuals. The more that local self-sufficiency and frugal lifestyles are adopted the less participation in and dependence on the global market system there will need to be and the less opportunity for capital-intensive development. It is therefore not surprising that the alternative is largely ignored in mainstream discussion and projects.

Nevertheless, many of the alternative elements listed above are increasingly being embraced and are informing practice in rich and poor worlds. Examples include the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Via Campesino movement involving an estimated 200 million people, the Chikukwa movement in Zimbabwe (See Trainer, 2013), the Catalan Integral Cooperative in Spain (see the essay on this in the present volume), the Global Eco-village Movement now including thousands of people in rich and poor countries (GEN, 2018) and involving the intention of the Senegalese government to develop 1,400 Eco-villages, and the Voluntary Simplicity (Simplicity Institute, 2018), Downshifting and Transition Towns movements.


Relation to post-development and other critical literatures.

The foregoing account aligns with many elements expressed by ‘post-development’ theorists. These include the claims that conventional development represents only one of a number of conceivable forms of development, assumes the superiority of a globalised economy and thus rejects localism, takes a narrowly economic view of welfare and progress, imposes a form of development that suits the rich, has failed to solve development problems, accepts goals which are not achievable in view of the limits to growth, and assumes the superiority of Western culture and thus disregards the cultures of Third World people. Especially relevant to the above discussion is the recognition of development as a ‘discourse’ or ideology which misleads thinking in the interests of the powerful and causes people to fail to see what is in their interests.

However most of the ‘post-development’ commentary has been merely critical and has had relatively little to say about desirable alternative forms of development which is the Simpler Way focus. Especially neglected has been the central role frugality, small scale and local self-sufficiency must play. In addition, proposals have been mostly at highly abstract and directed at centralised/state action, (e.g., reduce inequality) and not aimed at explaining the possible structure and functioning of a local economy.

The general ‘Unequal Exchange’, Dependency and Marxist accounts of underdevelopment can be criticised for unwittingly adopting the conventional ‘uni-dimensional’ view of development. The former is concerned with the loss of monetary wealth from Third World countries due to trade conditions which involve unequal exchange. This is seen as hindering development, but development is conceived in conventional terms, i.e., growth of GDP and rising to rich world levels of industrialisation and affluence, with no attention given to global resource limits.

Similarly, Dependency theory is concerned with the ways development in poorer countries takes forms that are dependent on the interests of dominant powers, such as relying primarily on resource extraction, but again the goal and means are basically conventional.

Marxist theory is focused on the exploitative nature of capitalism but at least implicitly assumes that if this was eliminated development towards conventional goals would be enabled. Again, development is conceived in terms of stimulating productivity and technical advance to enable investment designed to increase GDP per capita. It also endorses centralised control, heavy industrialisation, high material ‘living standards’, large scale, and technical advance, and has little regard for localism or ‘peasant’ ways. Marxist theory can therefore be viewed as a variety of capitalist development; one in which the capital is not privately owned.

These three theories do not recognise that the core problem is to do with what is being developed and the kind of society that is to be built. The argument above has been firstly that a market system inevitably develops the wrong things, and secondly that only a conception based on localism, self-sufficiency and frugality can enable development that is satisfactory. Thus, the core element in Simpler Way theory is not the faulty productive relationship in capitalism which Marxist theory focuses on; it is the market system. This is what determines that conventional development can only result in inappropriate development.

Some Marxists have not only adopted the conventional definition of development but have insisted that Marx’s theory of history requires the maturation of capitalist development in the Third World before conditions enabling revolutionary transition to a post-capitalist society will have been created. This has led to attempts to block revolutionary movements (See for example, Avineri, 1968, and Warren, 1980, and the pre-revolutionary Russian Marxists).

However late in his life Marx entertained the possibility of a quite different transition path, one which aligns to a considerable extent with the alternative being argued for here, i.e., building on the model of the traditional Russian collective village, the Mir. Simpler Way transition theory assumes not only that appropriate development can be worked for here and now before the demise of capitalism (i.e., ‘prefigured’) but that this is the most likely strategy to bring that event about. Thus, this conception of both the goal of development and the means to it are best regarded as a variety of ‘eco-anarchism’ as distinct from ‘eco-socialism’ (for more detail on transition, see Part Five of this volume).

From the Simpler Way perspective, the historically novel and unique conditions brought about by exceeding the sustainable limits to growth have determined that the revolution to come will be historically unlike any before it. Those in recent times have been primarily intended to liberate impoverished masses to rise to greater material wealth. But the goal of sustainable and just development must now be conceived in terms of radical and extensive degrowth, localism, and above all willing acceptance of materially simpler lifestyles and systems. The enormity of the cultural change this requires from the taken for granted ‘imaginary’ of consumer-capitalist society is so great that the prospects for successful transition must be regarded as very poor. The supremely important determinants are cultural; they are to do with recognition of and willing acceptance of ideas, world views and values regarding limits, de-growth, simplicity, frugality, non-material life satisfactions.



This contradiction between conventional and alternative conceptions of development are of great and tragic significance. Billions of people struggle to survive in appalling conditions when these could be largely eliminated if people were able to put the resources they have around them into creating the simple industries and systems that would meet most of their basic needs. But this could not be done until the rich ceased taking far more than their fair share of scarce global resources and unless the current development model is abandoned.

Consider those who must suffer the indignity, boredom and danger of begging all day, or trying to sell a few boxes of matches or shine a few shoes to be able to feed their families. Or those who need to sell drugs, or steal, or the lucky ones who have jobs in sweatshops, mines or plantations. Consider the conflicts over water and land due to desperate struggles to get enough to live on, while food is air-freighted out to rich world supermarkets and feedlots. Consider the international conflicts, the wars inevitably generated by nations trying to get control over resources to provide their consumers with affluent ‘living standards’. None of these problems can be eliminated unless and until conventional development is scrapped and the goal of development becomes some kind of Simpler Way.




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