THE GLOBAL SITUATION, THE SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY,

AND THE TRANSITION TO IT …

 

WE MUST MOVE TO THE SIMPLER WAY.

 

 

18.9.2019

 

Ted Trainer.

Our industrial-affluent-consumer society is extremely ecologically unsustainable and unjust. Global problems cannot be solved in a society that is driven by obsession with high rates of production and consumption, affluent living standards, market forces, the profit motive and economic growth. 

Most people do not realise the magnitude of the overshoot, the extent to which this society is unsustainable.  When the limits to growth are understood it is obvious that a sustainable and just world cannot be achieved until we move to very different lifestyles, values and systems. The Simpler Way refers to a vision of a viable and attractive alternative way, based on mostly small scale communities which are highly self-sufficient, cooperative, self-governing, within an overall economy which not only does not grow but which involves much lower levels of production and consumption than we have today and is not driven by profit and market forces. Above all there must be happy acceptance of frugal living standards.  This way could provide all people with a much higher quality of life than most have now, even in the richest countries.

The final section below argues that the top priority for people concerned about the fate of the planet should be working to build these new lifestyles and systems within existing towns and suburbs.

 

THE GLOBAL SITUATION

 

There are two fundamental faults built into our society.  The first is to do with over-consumption and unsustainability, and the second is to do with the injustice of the economy, These are causing the major global problems now leading towards catastrophic breakdown.

 

Fault 1: THE LIMITS TO GROWTH

 

The most serious fault in our society is the commitment to an affluent-industrial-consumer lifestyle and to an economy that must have constant and limitless growth in output.  Our way of life is grossly unsustainable.  Our levels of production and consumption are far too high to be kept up for very long and could never be extended to all people.  We are rapidly depleting resources and damaging the environment. Following are some of the main points that support these “limits to growth” conclusions.  (For a detailed case see TSW: The Limits to Growth.)

Among the most worrying ecological problems are,

Atmosphere and Climate. 

Our rate of release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is set to cause catastrophic problems in coming years.  There is considerable agreement among climate scientists that we should eliminate all emissions by 2050. There is a strong case that it will not be possible to do this while maintaining consumer-capitalist society.  Firstly it will not be possible to burn fossil fuels and sequester the resulting CO2 because only 80-90% of it in power station emissions can be captured for storage, and because the 50% of emissions from non-stationary sources such as cars cannot be captured.  Secondly there is a strong case that it will not be affordable to substitute alternative energy sources for carbon emitting fuels on the scale required. (See below.)

The finding by Meinshausen et al. (2009) is widely accepted: for a 75% probability of limiting global warming to 2 degree cumulative CO2 emissions in the period 2000 – 2050 must be less than 1000 GT CO2.  Between 2000 and 2010 around 350 GT had been emitted, so the remaining capacity is only 650 GT.  Emissions around 2013 were almost 50 GT/y, and increasing.  So we had less than 13 years at this rate to completely eliminate emissions. But the emission rate continues to increase.

The Australian per capita emission for fuels used is about the worst in the world, but in addition we export carbon in fuels equal to more than twice our domestic emissions.

The depleted ozone layer is another atmospheric concern.

Biodiversity loss.

We are eliminating species at such an alarming rate this is being labeled as the sixth era of mass extinction. The main reason is loss of habitat; humans are taking more and more of nature and damaging the rest.   

Chemical imbalances and toxicity. 

We are releasing such quantities of many chemicals that the planet’s natural cycles are being disrupted and poisoned. For instance the huge amount of artificial nitrogen entering the environment from fertilizers is causing algal blooms etc. The phosphorus cycle is also a concern, also due to the large amounts released in fertilizers. Soils are increasingly acidic due to fertilizers, and soil carbon levels have been depleted by farming.  The seas are becoming more acidic, threatening all the organisms with shells. Crib (2014) reports 8% of human deaths are due to poisoning. Vast amounts of plastic are accumulating in the oceans.

The reason for all this massive damage to the environment is simply that there is far too much producing and consuming going on. This is causing too many resources to be taken from nature and too many wastes to be dumped back into nature. How much will be left for nature if 9 billion rise to live like Americans? 

These have been some of the main limits to growth arguments which lead to the conclusion that there is no possibility of all people rising to the living standards we take for granted today in rich countries like Australia. The most important point is the magnitude of the overshoot.  Most people have no idea of how far beyond sustainable levels of consumption we are, and how big the reductions will have to be. We seem to be around 10 times over the crucial limits.  It is difficult to see how anyone could avoid the conclusion that there is far too much producing and consuming going on and therefore that we should be trying move to far simpler and less resource-expensive lifestyles and systems.

Now add the absurdly impossible implications of economic growth.

But the foregoing argument has only been that the present levels of production and consumption are quite unsustainable. Yet we are determined to increase present living standards and levels of output and consumption, as much as possible and without any end in sight. The impossible implications are easily demonstrated. If 9.8 billion people were to rise to the GDP per capita Australians would have in 2050 given 3% p.a. economic growth, then total world economic output would be approaching 18 times the present amount. But the present amount is grossly unsustainable: the WWF estimates that we’d need 1.7 planet Earths to meet current resource demand sustainably.  That means that by 2050 total world use of productive land would have to be around 30 times the amount which the Word Wildlife Fund estimates is available.

 

COUNTER ARGUMENTS?

“De-materialisation”,”De-coupling”, the shift to information and services?

It is often argued that the economy can continue to grow in the service and information sectors, without increasing use of materials and energy. This is also known as the “de-materialisation” or “de-coupling” thesis.  There is an extremely strong case against this assumption. It is quite clear that this is not what is happening. Despite constant effort to reduce resource use and improve efficiency and productivity, over the last thirty years growth in economic output has been accompanied by increase in use of materials and energy, not decrease,. (Alexander, 2014, Ward et al., 2017, TSW, 2018b.)

But can’t technical advance solve the problems?         

Most people are "technical fix optimists", assuming that technical advance will make it unnecessary for us to change to simpler lifestyles and very different systems such as a zero-growth economy. They believe that smarter technology and more recycling, greater energy efficiency, etc., will enable growth of GDP and higher "living standards" with reduced total resource use and environmental impact. 

The most detailed and impressive arguments against the tech-fix faith have been from Hickel and Kallis (2019), and from the European Environmental Bureau (Parrique, et al., (2019.) The second of these lists over 300 studies. The conclusion stresses that in general  absolute de-coupling of resource use and environmental impact from GDP growth is not occurring, and that greater recycling effort and transition to “service and information economies” are not going achieve it. They emphasise that there are not good reasons to expect absolute decoupling in future; in fact the trends are getting worse. (This aligns with the fact that there has been a long term decline in productivity growth rates.)

The ‘tech-fix” faith assumes there is no need to rethink consumer-capitalist society, because technical advances will enable us all to go on living more and more affluently, for ever.  The Simpler Way view is that the enormous problems that consumer-capitalist society constantly creates are far too big for technical advance to solve.

If technical advance is going to solve our big problems, when is it going to start doing so?  They are all rapidly getting worse at present.

            Could renewable energy solve the problem?

There is a strong case that it will not be possible/affordable to run all activities in our present energy-intensive consumer-capitalist society on renewable energy.  (For the detailed case see Trainer, 2017.) The first of the two main problems is that because the sun and wind are very intermittent (… and might make no contribution for two weeks in a row in a European winter) a probably unaffordable amount of costly redundant or excess plant and/or energy storage capacity would be needed.  The second problem is that the world has far too little biomass to produce enough liquid fuel.

Note that even if we solved the energy problem many other serous global problems being caused by overconsumption etc. would remain.

The Simpler Way view is that we should move from fossil fuels to full dependence on renewable energy sources, and it will be possible to live well on them because lifestyles and systems would be far less energy-intensive… but we can’t run anything like the present energy-intensive consumer-capitalist society on them.

Conclusions on the limits to growth.

This “limits to growth” argument would seem to be beyond dispute. We are using up resources and damaging the environment at grossly unsustainable rates, even though only about one-fifth of the world’s people are living affluently. Yet we are determined to increase “living standards” and economic output without end. The important point is the magnitude of the overshoot, the degree of unsustainability, the fact that we are living far beyond levels all could ever rise to. The obvious implication is that we must move to very different systems and lifestyles enabling good quality of life on very low resource use rates.

Yet the issue is almost entirely ignored by the mainstream, including politicians, media, educational institutions, and the general public. It is likely that this will change suddenly within a decade or so, as the limits begin to impact on the comfort and complacency of the rich countries. It is by no means obvious that we will be able to cope with the probably very serious combination of problems that will then confront us.

     Fault 2:   THE MASSIVE INJUSTICE OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY.           

It is not possible to solve the main global problems in this economic system, because it is what is causing them. It inevitably generates them. The way its commitment to growth does this has been discussed. The focus below is on the injustice built into the market system.

Markets do some things well and in a satisfactory and sustainable society there might be a considerable role for them, but only if they were carefully controlled and not allowed to make the important decisions.  It is easily shown that the market system is responsible for most of the deprivation and suffering in the world.  The basic mechanisms are most clearly seen when we consider what is happening in the Third World.

The enormous amount of poverty and suffering in the Third World is not due to lack of resources. There is for instance sufficient food and land to provide for all. The problem is that these resources are not distributed at all well.  Why not?  The answer is that this is the way the market economy inevitably works.

The global economy is a market system and in a market scarce things always go mostly to the rich, that is, to those who can pay most for them.  That's why we in rich countries get most of the oil produced. It is also why more than 500 million tonnes of grain are fed to animals in rich countries every year, over one-third of total world grain production, while almost one billion people are hungry.  A market system automatically and inevitably allocates most wealth to the rich.

Even more important is the fact that the market system inevitably brings about inappropriate development in the Third World, i.e., development of the wrong industries. It will lead to the development of the most profitable industries, as distinct from those that are most necessary or appropriate.  As a result there has been much development of plantations and factories in the Third World that will produce things for local rich people or for export to rich countries. But there is little or no development of the industries that are most needed by the poorest 80% of their people. As a result the Third World’s productive capacity, its land and labour, have been drawn into producing for the benefit of others, especially rich world corporations and consumers. This is most disturbing in those many countries where most of the best land is devoted to export crops.

Consider the situation of the people in Bangladesh who produce shirts for export, being paid 15c an hour. Obviously it would be far better for them if they could be putting all their work time into small local farms and firms that used local land, labour and skills to produce for themselves the basic things they need. But in capitalist development this is deliberately prevented. Third World ruling classes and rich world governments will only support development that is led by whatever will maximise the profits for some investor. The conditions of the “Structural Adjustment Packages” imposed by the World Bank on indebted countries prohibit any other kind of development, indeed they make poor countries open their economies more to market forces and corporate investment and make them reduce spending to assist those in most need, such as on subsidies to poor farmers.  Often their land is transferred to export producers because unless national income can be increased debt can’t be paid off. 

The poorest people live in countries where corporations can’t make any profit so there is almost no “development” in them, yet those countries could be solving their basic problems via appropriate or Simpler Way development, quickly and without much capital or dependence on the global economy. (For the detailed account see TSW, 2018c.)

In other words the affluence and comfort we have in rich countries like Australia are built on massive global injustice. Few people in rich countries seem to understand that they could not have their high "living standards" if the global economy was not enabling them to take far more than their fair share of world resources and to deprive Third world people of a fair share.                                                            

These are inevitable consequences of an economic system in which what it done is whatever is most profitable to the few who own capital, as distinct from what is most needed by people or their ecosystems.  (See TSW 2018d for a detailed critical discussion of the economy.) The justification given for this approach to development is that in time wealth will trickle down to enrich all. The Third World problem will not be solved as long as we allow market forces and the profit motive to determine development and to deliver most of the world's wealth to the rich. Conventional Third World development can be seen as a form of legitimised plunder.

The unjust share of world wealth we in rich countries receive is not just due to the way the global economy works. Rich countries put a great deal of effort into getting control of the resources and markets of others. The rich countries have and control an empire. They support dictatorial and brutal regimes willing to rule in our interests, they enable and actually engage in terrorism, they organise coups and assassinations, they invade and attack and kill thousands of innocent people, in order to ensure that regimes and regions keep to the economic and development policies that suit the rich countries. (For extensive documentation on the nature and functioning of the empire see TSW, 2018e.)

There is no possibility of satisfactory Third World development until the rich countries stop hogging far more than their fair share of the world’s scarce and dwindling resources, until development and distribution begin to be determined by need and not by market forces and profit, and therefore until we develop a very different global economic system. Again this must mean huge and radical structural change on the part of the rich countries, to simpler living standards and to an economy that is geared to meeting need rather than maximising profit.

                                    THEREFORE … WE HAVE HUGE GLOBAL PROBLEMS.

It should be clear that the commitment to affluence and growth, the fundamental principles in our society, is the direct cause of the huge problems now threatening to destroy us. As has been explained, it is the reason natural resources are being depleted, why the environment is being destroyed, and why billions of people live on an unjust share of world resources. It is also the cause of two major problems not yet mentioned.

             The loss of social cohesion and the declining quality of life.

Even in the richest countries we are experiencing accelerating social breakdown and a falling quality of life.  This is because the supreme goal in this society is the maximisation of monetary wealth and business turnover within the market system.

It has been clear for a long time that raising GDP and monetary “wealth” adds little or nothing to the average quality of life in countries that have reasonable “living standards”.  Measures now typically show that as the GDP in rich countries rises indices of the quality of life can actually fall.

Many people cannot get a satisfactory share of the wealth, jobs and resources, and are having to work harder in more stressful conditions.  Many are being dumped into unemployment, poverty and “exclusion”. It is no surprise therefore that there is so much drug and alcohol abuse, crime and social breakdown, loneliness, or that depression is now a major illness. There is little or no investment in the development of community or cooperative institutions, while billions flow into investments that will produce and sell more.  Social attitudes are becoming more selfish and mean. Neo-liberal doctrine advocates that all must compete against each other as self-interested individuals for as much wealth as possible, but the sensible way for humans to relate to each other is via co-operation, sharing, mutual assistance, giving and nurturing. Increasing numbers of people believe the future will be worse than the present. 

Much of this is due to allowing the market to become the dominant determinant of what happens in society.  Market forces drive out good social values and behaviour, because they are only about individuals competing to maximise their self interest. There is no place in a marketing situation for generosity, care, collectivism or concern for the other or for the public good.

It is not possible to have a good society unless we make sure that considerations of morality, justice, the least fortunate, the public good and environmental sustainability are the primary determinants of what happens. This means what is done must not be determined by what will maximise profit within the market for those with capital, and that there must be much social control and regulation of the economy. 

Global peace and conflict.

Few people recognise the direct connection between affluence and war. Throughout history armed conflict has mostly been caused by the determination to take the resources of others, or to take more than a fair share of the available resources. Our high "living standards" in rich countries would not be possible without great effort to secure “our” sources of resources all around the world. This incudes assisting nasty regimes willing to rule as we wish, getting rid of those which are not willing, and often invading to bring about “regime change”. If we insist on remaining as affluent as we are while resources become more scarce and world population increases, then we will have to remain heavily armed.  If on the other hand you want peace, you must be willing to live frugally, on your fair share of world resources. There can be no solution other than through acceptance of far less resource-intensive lifestyles and systems. (For a more detailed case see TSW: Peace and Conflict. thesimplerwayinfo/PEACE.htm

Conclusions on the situation.

The problems cannot be fixed in a consumer-capitalist society. That kind of society creates the problems. If for example you have a growth economy that will inevitably generate  problems of resource depletion and environmental destruction. A sustainable society must have a zero-growth economy. Similarly if you let market forces determine production, distribution, exchange and development the rich will be able to take more and more and will inevitably deprive most people of a fair share. A just society must make sure that need not profit or market forces determines distribution and development. This means that we must try to change to a very different kind of society and culture. 

The foregoing general analysis of our grossly unsustainable and unjust global situation has been argued by many scientists and others for more than 40 years now, but it has been almost impossible to get the mainstream to take any notice. Politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, journalists, economists and ordinary people flatly refuse to even think about the way the quest for affluence and growth, and an economic system driven by these obsessions, are the basic causes of our alarming global problems. The problem is one of dominant ideology, a wilful self-delusion and refusal to question cherished assumptions.  

 

“No country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately harm jobs and growth in their country.”

Tony Abbott, Prime Minister of Australia, Melbourne Age, 10th June, 2014.                         

 

“No country is going to take action on climate change that will deliberately destroy growth and jobs.”

     S. Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, ABC News, Tuesday c. 10th June, 2014.

 

“The American way of life is not negotiable.”

President G. H. Bush.

 

What will happen? 

Many have warned that we are heading for an enormous breakdown. It is likely that increasing resource scarcity, especially of energy, will trigger either a series of worsening crises and rallies within the global economy, or a sudden large scale collapse, to a state from which there will be no return to nornal. Important here is the immense complexity, fragility and interdependence of the global economy today.  (The alarming situation is analysed by many, including Tainter 1988, Korowicz 2012, Beddington 2009, Morgan 2013, Mason 2013, Kunstler 2005, Rauscher 2019, Greer 2005.)

As noted above, energy is the extremely important factor, and it is highly problematic. Whenever US expenditure on energy has risen to 10% of GDP there has almost always been a recession.  Energy prices are likely to rise significantly as oil and gas fields run down and efforts are made to reduce coal use. However Tverberg has pointed out that high energy prices coupled with low wages push the economy into recession because people can't afford to purchase as before. Therefore some people expect a “bumpy road down” into worsening conditions as energy prices oscillate. It would seem that the near future depends heavily on supply from fracking, and there are strong reasons to expect that this will soon decline.

The most fragile element in the global scene is the financial system. Global debt has now reached gigantic proportions, far higher than before the GFC. It will collapse when creditors suddenly lose confidence that it is going to be repaid, (…probably triggered by investors finally realising that their loans to the fracking industry are lost.). They will suddenly refuse to lend and will frantically try to claw loans back, and thus refuse to extend further loans. This will immediately have catastrophic effects, terminating the availability of credit and thus stopping most production and supply networks.  Systems now have little resilience; e.g., if supplies are cut supermarkets will run out of food in a few days. “Just in time“ supply to producers means that failure at one point can have rapid cascading effects, e.g. in crucial spare parts for electricity, water or sewage systems.

These difficulties will increase political tensions between nations, primarily to do with their efforts to get hold of more resources. Within nations discontent will increase, making it more difficult for governments to keep “order” and leading them to implement more repressive measures….which will accelerate the discontent. The middle classes and the rich will support these repressive measures, to protect their property and privileges, thus moving political systems towards fascism. Welfare etc. expenditures will be savagely cut (except for police and prisons) as state budgets deteriorate. Environmental protection will be cut back as unaffordable and an impediment to economic recovery. Thus many feedback effects will intensify the crisis.

It is difficult to see how these effects could possibly be avoided now. The overshoot is too great, the problems are too big, our systems are incapable of dealing rationally with them, and there is too little time. Above all, the basic cause of the situation, the absurd and suicidal obsession with increasing consumption and GDP, is not even recognised.

However from The Simpler Way perspective there is a path that might get us through to a satisfactory society.  This will be sketched after indicating the kid of alternative society we must work for.

 

 THE ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY: THE SIMPLER WAY

If the foregoing argument is basically valid the key principles for a sustainable and just society must be:

The following elaboration on these principles indicates the reasons for thinking that it would be easy to move to The Simpler Way --- if we wanted to --- and that it would liberate us from the consumer-capitalist rat race and provide all people with a much higher quality of life.

Simpler lifestyles

Living more simply does not mean deprivation or hardship.  It means being content with what is sufficient for comfort, hygiene, efficiency, etc. and a pleasant life.  Most of our basic needs can be met by quite simple and resource-cheap devices and ways, compared with the luxury, expensiveness and waste taken for granted and idolised in consumer society.

Simpler ways can be important sources of life satisfaction.  Much enjoyment can be had from activities such as gardening, "husbanding" resources, making rather than buying, composting, repairing, bottling fruit, giving surpluses and old things to others, making things last, and running a productive and relatively self-sufficient household economy.  In addition there will be many resource-cheap sources of interest and enjoyment within the local community, including the arts and crafts groups, the working bees, and the celebrations, concerts and festivals organised by the leisure committee. (See TSW: The Case for Simplicity.)     

A major benefit is all the time one would have to devote to interesting activities, when freed from a lifetime struggling to earn enough to pay for a consumer lifestyle.

Local economic self-sufficiency

We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can at the household level, at the national level (meaning far less international trade) and especially at the local level, that is within the neighbourhood, suburb, town and small region.  We need to convert our presently barren suburbs into thriving economies which produce most of what they need from local resources. They would contain many small enterprises, such as the local bakery, enabling most of us to get to work by bicycle or on foot.  Households, backyard businesses and neighbourhood cooperatives engaged in craft and hobby production would produce much of our honey, crockery, vegetables, furniture, fruit, fish and poultry. It is much more satisfying to produce in craft ways rather than in industrial factories. Some firms an farms would be co-operatives and many could be privately owned, giving people the satisfaction of running their own small business. Nit much would be exported from or imported into the region. Thus most people would work locally, eliminating most travel to work.

Many very small market gardens could be located throughout the suburbs and cities, e.g. on derelict factory sites and beside railway lines. Having food produced close to where people live would enable all nutrients to be recycled back to the soil through animals, compost heaps and garbage gas units. Grain and dairy products would come from areas as close to towns as possible.  Meat consumption could be greatly reduced and could mostly come from small animals such as poultry, rabbits and fish, rather than cattle.  Some sheep would graze orchards and woodlands to produce wool for hobby spinners and knitters. Food quality would be much higher than it is now. There would be almost no need for food packaging, transport, or marketing and little need for other than community fridges.

Because there will be far less need for transport, we could dig up many roads, greatly increasing city land area available for community gardens, workshops, ponds, forests etc.  Most of your neighbourhood could become a Permaculture jungle, an "edible landscape" crammed with long-lived, largely self-maintaining productive plants such as fruit and nut trees. We should convert one house on each block to become a neighbourhood workshop, including a recycling store, meeting place, craft rooms, art gallery, tool library, surplus exchange and library.

There would also be many varieties of animals living in our neighbourhoods, including an entire fishing industry based on small tanks and ponds. In addition many materials can come from the communal woodlots, fruit trees, bamboo clumps, ponds, meadows and clay pits. Thus we will develop the “commons”, the community land and resources from which all can take food and materials.  All the wood needed for making furniture could come from those forests, via one small saw-bench located in what used to be a car port. Small clay pits would provide clay for pottery and earth for mud bricks. The holes left would become ponds producing water plants, ducks and fish.

It would be a leisure-rich environment. Suburbs at present are leisure deserts; there is not much to do so money and energy has to be spent purchasing entertainment.  The alternative neighbourhood would be full of gardens, familiar people, small businesses, common projects, drama clubs, craft groups, animals, farms, forests and alternative technologies and therefore would provide lots of interesting things to observe and do.  Many crafts and hobbies are productive, such as gardening, sewing, knitting, and woodwork.  Any neighbourhood has abundant unused potential cultural and leisure resources including comedians, actors, artists, musicians, play writers, acrobats, jugglers and dancers. At present most people are watching a screen many hours a day for “leisure” purposes.  Because there would be so many interesting things to do people would be less inclined to travel at weekends and holidays, which would greatly reduce the national per capita footprint and energy consumption. The local leisure committee would organise a rich variety of concerts, festivals, mystery tours, visiting speakers and other activities.

It must be emphasised here that resource use rates can only be drastically reduced in small scale, cooperative and highly self-sufficient communities. This is shown by the study Trainer, Malik and Lenzen (2019) have carried out comparing the supply of eggs via the normal industrial/supermarket path with the local cooperative supply path. The dollar and energy costs of the former were found to be in the order of 50 to 200 times those of the latter.

Such remarkable achievements are due to the smallness of scale, proximity, self-sufficiency, cooperation and integration that is found within small communities. These make it possible to totally eliminate many costly inputs, to recycle “wastes”, to benefit from “co-products”, and to administer via spontaneous and informal social interaction. For instance to supply the typical supermarket egg involves vast and complex global input chains including distant fishing fleets, agribusiness, shipping and trucking and thus roads and petroleum, warehousing, chemicals for disease control, infrastructures, supermarkets, storage, packaging, marketing, legal services, the finance, advertising and insurance industries, waste removal and dumping, computers, a commuting workforce, and expensively trained high-tech personnel. It also involves damage to ecosystems, especially via carbon emissions and agribusiness effects including the non-return of nutrients to soils.

However eggs supplied via cooperatives within integrated villages can avoid almost all of these costs, while enabling immediate use of all “wastes”. Permaculture design ensures that elements in a system are highly self-maintaining and perform many functions automatically. Mutuality, synergism and redundancy increase resilience. All “wastes” become valued resources. For instance recycling of kitchen scraps along with free ranging can meet total poultry nutrient needs. Animal manures, including human, can be directly fed into nearby methane digesters, compost heaps, algae and fish ponds, thereby eliminating the need for inputs to village food production from the fertilizer industry. No transport is required. Poultry perform multiple functions automatically, including providing meat, fertilizing orchards, cleaning up garden beds and fruit fly lavae, producing the next generation of chicks, and maintaining fire breaks. All monitoring and maintenance of systems can be informal, via spontaneous discussion and action within the community. In addition cooperative care of poultry and other animals adds to amenity and leisure resources and facilitates community bonding.

These concepts can apply to many other domains, including other food items, dwelling construction, clothing supply, many services, and especially the provision of leisure, entertainment and various educational contributions. The Remaking Settlements study (Trainer, 2019) explores their potential when applied to an outer suburb of Sydney, finding that radical restructuring might enable almost all food needs to be met within the suburb while enabling many other material and social benefits. These include eliminating unemployment, avoiding the need for a sewer system, dramatically reducing the need for transport and for work and income, and creating thousands of person-hours of community improvement per week via voluntary working bees and committees.

The foregoing discussion of theoretical possibilities is supported by evidence from actual communities functioning along the lines being advocated. Lockyer’s (2017) study of the dancing Rabbit Eco-village in Missouri found the following per capita use rates compared with national US averages. Car use, 8%. Distance driven, 10%.  Liquid fuel use, 6%. Solid waste generated, 18%. Proportion of solid waste recycled on site, 34%. Electricity use 18%, with three times as much electricity sent to the grid as is used. Water use, 23%, with two-thirds of this collected from village roofs. The community’s quality of life indicators align with the evidence from other studies of Eco-villages; e.g., 81% of respondents rate happiness with life situation at 7/10 or better, and almost all say life had improved since moving to the community. (For similar findings see Grindle, 2017.)

More communal and cooperative ways.

We would be sharing many things, including food surpluses and tools. We could have a few stepladders, electric drills, etc., in the neighbourhood workshop, as distinct from one in most houses. We would be on various voluntary rosters, committees and working bees to carry out most of the orchard pruning, child minding, nursing, basic educating and care of aged and disabled people in our area. We would also perform many of the functions councils now carry out for us, such as maintaining our own parks and streets. We would therefore need far fewer bureaucrats and professionals, reducing the amount of income we would need to earn to pay for services and to pay taxes. (In the 1930s the Spanish anarchists ran whole towns without any bureaucracy, via many citizens’ committees and assemblies.  (See Dolgoff, 1990, and TSW 2018f.)  Especially important would be the sense of cooperation, solidarity, responsibility and empowerment that would be built by the voluntary community working bees and town meetings.  We would be proud of the admirable town we worked together to build and run. 

The new economy

There is no chance of making these changes if we retain the present economic system.   The fundamental concern in a satisfactory economy would simply be to apply the available productive capacity to producing what all people need for a good life, with as little bother, resource use, work and waste as possible. The local economy would be the basic unit, with only a minor role for state and national economic activity.

Most obviously there would have to be far less production and consumption going on, and no economic growth. Market forces and the profit motive might have a minor place in an acceptable alternative economy, but they could not be allowed to continue as major determinants of economic affairs. The basic economic priorities must be decided according to what is socially desirable and sensible. The deciding must be via the town’s participatory democratic processes (below), not dictated by huge and distant state bureaucracies. Centralised, bureaucratic, authoritarian, big-state "socialism" could not run satisfactory town communities. This does not mean the town must own all enterprises or control everything. Most of the small firms and farms might remain as privately owned ventures or cooperatives, so long as their goals did not include profit maximisation or growth.  Their goals would be to provide their owners and workers with stable, secure incomes and satisfying livelihoods, by supplying goods and services the town needs, and ensuring that all people have a secure and rewarding livelihood.

One of the most important aspects of the new town economy would be that there would be no unemployment.  It is easily eliminated, just by setting up cooperative gardens and workshops whereby those without jobs can work to produce things we need, being paid in a local currency. This enables them to have a share of the things produced by our many cooperatives. 

Most people would need to work for money only one or two days a week, because they would not need to buy much, and many of the things they need such as fruit from the commons would come freely or could be paid for by contributions to community working bees. (In consumer society we probably work three times too hard!)  We could spend the other 5 or 6 days working/playing around the neighbourhood doing many varied, interesting and useful things.

The new national economy must be mostly made up of many small scale, local economies, so that most of the basic items everyone needs are produced close to where they live, from local soils, forests and resources, by local skill and labour. However some things such as fridges and stoves would come from regional factories somewhat further away. Very few items such as steel and cement would be moved long distances from big centralised factories. Very little would be transported from overseas, perhaps items such as high tech medical equipment that we could not produce conveniently.

These local systems would need to be supported and provided for by arrangements at the state level, for instance coordinating the rail system. There would have to be a planned distribution of medium sized industries (e.g., producing fridges, vehicles, railway carriages) throughout the land so that all towns could earn the small amount of export income they needed to import the relatively few items not produced within their region.

Much of the new local economy would not involve money, and most people would not need to earn much money.  Many goods and services would be “free” from the commons and cooperatives run by our voluntary committees and working bees, and many would come to us via barter and the giving away of surpluses.  However we would have town banks and business incubators to enable us to set up the firms we need. Some people might pay all their tax by devoting time to working bees.

A major and little understood point is that in a zero-growth economy there can be no interest paid on loans or investments. That means most of the present finance industry would cease to exist. It also means that the presently taken for granted capacity of rich people to get income without having to do any work for it will also cease. (For the detail see TSW: 2018.)

There would be many co-operatives and “mutuals”, groups of people with common needs and interests, e.g., child-minding, house building, or bee keeping, who come together to share ideas, labour and good will and to develop and run various operations. In general co-ops are far more efficient and productive than private firms. The town would assist co-operatives to provide necessary goods, providing working bee labour and (interest-free) loans.

The town economy will have two sectors.  The foregoing discussion has been of those activities which the town sets up and runs to meet its basic needs, to ensure that everyone is provided for well enough to have a satisfying life. Our town meetings and committees would research what the town needs, for instance is more company for isolated older people needed, or more activities for bored young people?  It would then organise its resources to meet those needs. In this sector, referred to as the Needs-Driven-Economy (or sometimes Economy B) , what happens would not be deternined by market forces or profit. There would be rational, collective decisions focused on applying the town’s capacities to eliminating problems, making the town highly productive and self-sufficient, and maximising the welfare of the people living there.

The Needs-Driven-Economy  would be gradually built up alongside the old Profit-Driven-Economy (or Economy A), which would continue to provide some essentials that we could not produce in the town. Over time as the town became more self-sufficient Economy A would shrink. It might remain as the domain in which non-essentials were provided. For example if someone wants to make elaborate furniture or clothing they could see if there were enough people willing to buy these items, or if a hobbyist wants special materials she could see if these were being sold by a firm within Economy A. In the longer term future we might see that various important goods can come from this private sector, or we might opt to phase it out entirely; we don’t have to decide now.

  Government and politics.

The political situation would be very different compared with today. The focus for government would not be at the state level, but at the level of the town or suburb. That’s where most of the decisions that determine our welfare would (have to) be made. There would (have to) be genuine participatory democracy. This would be made possible by the smallness of scale.  Big centralised governments cannot possibly run our small local communities. That can only be done by the people who live in them because they are the only ones who understand the local conditions, know what will grow best there, how people there think and what they want, what the traditions are, what strategies will and won’t work there, etc. They have to do the planning, make the decisions, run the systems and do the work. The town will not function well unless its people “own” it. In any case in an era of intense scarcity we will not be able to afford much centralised and professional government. Above all the town will not work well unless people contribute willingly, enjoy doing this, and have control over their situation. These conditions are incompatible with centralised control.

Most of our local policies and programs could be drafted by elected unpaid committees, with advice from experts where appropriate, but all people in the town would vote on these at regular town meetings. There would still be some functions for state and national governments, but these would be few, and there will be a role for some international agencies and arrangements. The production of items such as steel, computers and railway equipment would need to be coordinated across large regions and internationally. (In the 1930s the Spanish anarchists were able to organise and coordinate these big wider regional economic functions via their citizen assemblies and committees, without any paid politicians or bureaucracy.) 

The core governing institutions will (have to) 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 through discussions in cafes, kitchens and town squares, because this is where the issues can be slowly thrashed out until the best solutions for all come to be generally recognised. The chances of a policy working out well will 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 the vote is taken. 

So politics will again become participatory and part of every citizen’s daily life, as was the case in Ancient Greece. This is not optional; we must do things in these participatory, cooperative ways or the right decisions for the town will not be found and people will not “own” the decisions and will not try hard to make them work.

Thus our intense dependence on our local ecosystems and social systems will also radically transform politics. The focal concern will be to work out what policies will work best for the town and region. 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 powerful incentives towards a much more collectivist outlook, to find solutions all are content with because they are the best for the town. Everyone’s welfare will depend on there being a high level of morale, good will, concern for the public interest and eagerness to contribute. We as individuals will only live well if our town thrives. Without a cooperative and happy climate people will not conscientiously and energetically turn up to committees, working bees, celebrations and town meetings.  The situation would require good citizenship, but it will also reward good citizenship.

Note that these crucial changes must be made in economic, geographical and political structures and systems.  They can’t be made just by individuals changing their lifestyles.

The  new values and worldview.

The biggest and most difficult changes will have to be in culture, in world view and values.  The present commitment to individualistic competition for affluent-consumer “living standards” and endless increases in wealth must be replaced by being happy to live simply, cooperatively, and self-sufficiently in caring communities, and to find purpose and enjoyment in non-material pursuits. 

Obviously the chances of the present society making such huge changes in world view are not at all good.  However the foregoing argument has been that if we don’t make them we will not get through to a sustainable and just society. The coming era of intense scarcity will jolt people into facing up to these issues. If the new ways can be established, even on a small scale, their benefits will become more evident.

A higher quality of life.

People working for The Simpler Way know that the quality of life for most of us would be much higher than it is now. We would have fewer material possessions and we would have much lower monetary incomes but there would be many other much richer sources of life satisfaction. These would include a much more relaxed pace, having to spend relatively little time working for money, having varied, enjoyable and worthwhile work to do, living in a supportive community, giving and receiving, growing some of our own food, keeping old clothes and devices in use, running a resource-cheap and efficient household, practising arts and crafts, participating in community activities, having a rich cultural experience involving local festivals, performances and celebrations, being involved in governing one’s town, living in a nice environment including farms and gardens, and being secure from unemployment and poverty and insecurity in old age or illness. Especially valuable would be the peace of mind that would come from knowing that you are not contributing to global problems through over-consumption. 

The main sources of our quality of life would be public. Our private wealth and possessions would be of little significance. What would matter is whether we lived in a culturally and ecologically rich community with lots of top quality artists, magical picnic spots, concerts and festivals.

Abandon modern technology?

It should be stressed that the Simpler Way would enable retention of all the high tech and modern ways that are socially desirable, e.g., in medicine, windmill design, public transport and household appliances.  We would still have national systems for some things, such as railways and telecommunications, but on nothing like the present scale.  We would have far more resources for science, research, education and the arts than we have now because we would have ceased wasting so many resources on unnecessary production and research, including most arms, advertising, aircraft and ships and roads, commercial entertainment, skyscrapers, packaging, fashion, electronic games…More than $1 trillion is spent/wasted every year on marketing.)

 

THE TRANSITION?

Following is an indication of the Simpler Way perspective on the transition process, and how best to work for it. (For the detail see TSW, 2018h.)

Our chances of achieving such an enormous transition are not at all good. There is a strong case that there will be a catastrophic global collapse and no recovery. It will only be when people are jolted by something like a serious and lasting petroleum shortage that they will realise that consumer-capitalist society is not going to provide for them, and become more interested in the alternatives put forward above. It is likely that within the next two decades global resource and ecological problems will begin to impact heavily on the rich countries. Our task is to work hard at spreading Simpler Way ideas so that when the serious troubles begin people will realise these ways make sense.

We do not have to get rid of consumer-capitalist society before we can begin to build the new way. Fighting directly against the system at present is unnecessary and unwise.  The concern should not be to defeat it; it is too strong at present, but it is in the process of self-destruction. We just need to start replacing it, by seeking to create a Needs-Driven-Economy in the suburbs and towns where we live.

The transition will not be, and cannot be led by governments. The Simpler Way cannot come into existence unless people in general want it and enthusiastically begin building it. It is by definition about the willingness and eagerness of ordinary people to live frugally in highly self-sufficient, cooperative and self-governing communities. It can only be built and run by aware and conscientious citizens. The required understandings and values cannot be given or imposed by centralised governmental authorities. Consequently in our situation it is a mistake to set out to take state power in order to change society.  Changing the state will take place much later, after the crucial cultural revolution has taken place. (See on Stage 2 below.)

This is the classical Anarchist perspective on transition, which recognises that a genuine revolution cannot take place unless it comes from deep and widespread commitment by the people to a new worldview.  Nothing would be achieved by taking state power while most people do not have the ideas and attitudes required to run the new communities well. When most people opt for The Simpler Way the revolution will have been won, and remaking the state etc. along new lines will be a fairly easy consequence.

The task for activists here and now is therefore working to help people to see the desirability of moving to The Simpler Way in the places where they live.  The main target, the main problem group, the basic block to progress, is not the corporations or the capitalist class.  They have their power because people in general allow them to have it.  The problem group, the key to transition, is … people in general.  If they came to see The Simpler Way as preferable, consumer-capitalist society would quickly be abandoned. 

Therefore the most effective thing to do is to work here and now, within the settlements we live in, to create elements of the new society. The main purpose of this is not to construct more compost heaps and community gardens etc., important though that is, but to be in the best position to raise the awareness of the need to work for the kind of transition outlined above. An impressive illustration of what can be achieved is given by the Catalan Integral Cooperative.

At a later point in time huge structural changes will have to be made at the level of the state and the national economy; that is Stage 2 of the revolution, and it could be relatively easily achieved if Stage 1 is achieved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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