THE GLOBAL SITUATION, THE SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVE SOCIETY, AND THE TRANSITION TO IT…
WE MUST MOVE TO THE SIMPLER WAY:
Our industrial-affluent-consumer society is extremely ecologically unsustainable and unjust. Its accelerating 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. Because this is so great there must be vast and radical system changes if the big global problem are to be solved. A sustainable and just world cannot be achieved until we move to very different lifestyles, values and systems, especially to a new economic system, enabling dramatic reduction in levels of consumption.
The Simpler Way is an alternative vision based on frugal "living standards", co-operation, high levels of local economic self-sufficiency, and a zero growth economy that is not driven by profit and market forces. It 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 three fundamental faults built into our society. The first is to do with over-consumption and unsustainability, the second is to do with the injustice of the economy, and the third with the falling quality of life.
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.
The top ten iron ore and bauxite consuming nations have per capita use that is around 65 and 90 times respectively the rates for all the other nations. (Weidmann et al., 2014.) There is obviously no possibility of all people ever rising to anything like present rich world levels of mineral use.
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 coal and sequester the resulting CO2 because only 80-90% of it 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 possible to substitute alternative energy sources for carbon emitting fuels on the scale required. (See below.)
The Australian per capita emission rate is the worst in the world … not including imports and exports.
The depleted ozone layer is another atmospheric concern.
Biodiversity loss. We are eliminating species at an alarming rate, and seem to be entering a period of massive loss of species, a sixth era of mass extinction.
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 artificial 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 deaths are due to poisoning.
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 some crucial limits. It is difficult to see how anyone could avoid the conclusion that we should be trying move to far simpler and less resource-expensive lifestyles and systems. The necessary reductions cannot be achieved without dramatic reductions in the amount of production and consumption and therefore economic activity going on.
These limits problems are very likely to begin to hit us hard in the next decade, as petroleum becomes more scarce and the effects spread through the whole economy. Few people grasp the seriousness of the situation, certainly not within mainstream political, media and academic circles or within the general public.
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. In other words, our supreme national goal is economic growth. Few people seem to recognise the absurdly impossible consequences of pursing economic growth.
If we have a 3% p.a. increase in output, by 2080 we will be producing 8 times as much every year. If by then all 9 billion people expected had risen to the living standards we would have then, the total world economic output would be more than 60 times as great as it is today! Yet the present level is unsustainable.
“De-materialisation”,”De-coupling” the shift to information and servics?
Some people assume 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. It is now clear that this is not what is happening. (Alexaner, 2014.)
Services already make up about 75% of economic activity in rich countries, and services are quite resource intensive. (Sorrell, 2010, Allocott, 2012.) Common (1995) estimates that they account for 27% of Australia's energy use. Several, such as transport, tourism and construction, involve high energy and resource use. Several others such as retailing, insurance and advertising, involve servicing the production and consumption of material goods. Universities produce nothing but services yet are very intensive users of paper, computers, travel to conferences, coffee, and especially energy. All require lighting, offices, electricity etc. Very important and overlooked is the fact that labour is materials-intensive; materials and energy have to be used to enable a person to work.
. A good measure of materials consumption is the volume of garbage we throw out, and in rich countries this is increasing (… and in addition there are the materials built into structures, or turned into pollution flows.)
Some materials and energy use per unit of GDP in rich countries appear to be falling, but this is misleading. It seems to be due to a) shift to higher quality fuels such as electricity and gas (more value can be derived from a unit of energy in the form of oil than in the form of coal, because coal use involves higher costs for transport etc.), and b) manufactured goods increasingly coming from the Third World, as distinct from being produced in rich countries and having their energy costs recorded there. Trade figures seem to show that this is what is happening.
The empirical evidence seems to show that “de-materialisation” is not taking place, even in the richest countries. Aadrianse (1997) concludes that materials used per capita in rich countries are still increasing. Morrow (p.172.) finds that even though about 80% of a rich economy is to do with services, resource consumption is still increasing at 1%. Over 20 years GDP in Spain, Europe and the US has risen 74% but materials use has risen 85%. (…and this probably would not have included materials in imports.)(M. Alvarez, quoted in S. Latouche, Essay 3, 2014.) Weidmann, Shandl and Moral (2014) find that iron ore and bauxite consumption in rich countries has not decoupled from GDP growth, and that there is no level of consumption evident where it might do so.
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.
Some people (notably Weisacker and Lovins, 1997, Factor Four, and Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, 2000, Natural Capital) argue that in general we could produce with only 1/4 (or perhaps eventually 1/10) of the resources and energy now needed. But even if this is possible the reduction would be far less than would be necessary to enable all people to have present rich world living standards. Let us just assume that we have to halve resource and environmental impacts per unit of output (the above figures indicate much higher reductions are required.) If by 2050 9 billion have risen to the “living standards” we in Australia would then have given 3% p.a. economic growth, meaning world output would be 20 - 30 times as great as it is now … then we would have to achieve a Factor 60 reduction in impact per unit of output. A Factor 4 reduction would be insignificant.
Discussions of technical advance and economic growth have generally failed to focus on the fact that these typically need increased energy use. (Ayres and Vouridis, 2013). For example, over the last half century agricultural productivity measured in terms of yields per ha or per worker have risen dramatically, but these have been mostly due to even greater increases in the amount of energy being poured into agriculture, on the farm, in the production of machinery, in the transport, pesticide, fertilizer, irrigation, packaging and marketing sectors, and in getting the food from the supermarket to the front door and then dealing with the waste food and packaging. Less than 2% of the US workforce is now on farms, but agriculture accounts for around 17% of all energy used (not including several of the factors listed above.) The “Green Revolution” depended largely on ways that involve greater energy use. Unconventional measures of agricultural productivity, such as food energy produced per unit of fossil fuel used, have actually plummeted.
If there is a commitment to constant, limitless increase in economic output then the reductions in resource use and environmental damage that can be achieved by technical advance are soon likely to be overwhelmed. For instance if we cut use and impacts per unit of GDP in half, but continued with 3% p.a. growth, then in 23 years the resource demands and impacts would be back up to as high as they were before the cuts, and would be twice as great in another 23 years.
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.
Finally, 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 functions in our present energy-intensive consumer-capitalist society on renewable energy. (For the detailed case see Renewable Energy, 2014.)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 fuel transport globally.
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 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 unsustainable rates, even though only about one-quarter of the world’s people are living affluently – and we are determined to increase “living standards” and economic output without end. The important point is the magnitude of the overshoot, the unsustainability, and the fact that we are living far beyond levels all could ever rise to.
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 be upon us.
Fault 2: THE MASSIVE INJUSTICE OF THE GLOBAL ECONOMY
It is not possible to solve the problems in this economic system, because it is their main cause. 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. 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 skill 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 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 1 to 2 billion people live in countries where corporations can’t make any profit so there is almost no “development” in them, when those countries could be solving their basic problems via appropriate development, quickly and without much capital or dependence on the global economy. (For the detailed account see Third World Development, 2013.)
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 Note 3 for detailed critical discussion of the economy.) The Third World problem will never be solved as long as we allow this economic principle to determine development and to deliver most of the world's wealth to the rich. For these reasons, 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. We must recognise that the rich countries have and control an empire. They support dictatorial and brutal regimes willing to rule in their 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 Note 4.)
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 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.
Since the 1970s we have entered a period in which all these problems are accelerating, because of the globalisation of the economy. The big corporations and banks have pushed through a massive restructuring of the economy, sweeping away the controls which previously hindered their access to increased business opportunities, markets, resources and cheap labour. The supreme, sacred principle now is to “free market forces”. This is enabling the transnational corporations to come in and take more of the businesses, resources and markets local people once had, and to gear "development” to whatever suits them rather than to what is needed by most people.
Globalisation is eliminating the regulation, protection and assistance which used to ensure that many little people could sell and work and trade, and that local resources such as land would produce things they need. Now n de-regulated and “free” markets the corporations are able to come in and take over those opportunities to increase their sales. The resulting skyrocketing wealth of the global super-rich should be no surprise. Globalisation has been a gigantic takeover of economic wealth by the big corporations and banks, a sudden and stunningly arrogant grab that has delivered greatly increased incomes to the few owners of capital and the high skilled professionals and technocrats who serve them, while it has had catastrophic impact on the lives of most of the world's poor people. (See The Economic System, 2013 for the detail.)
Fault 3: THE LOSS OF COHESION AND QUALITY OF LIFE.
In addition to the foregoing global resource and environmental problems, in the richest countries we are experiencing accelerating social breakdown and a falling quality of life. This is the result of the triumph of neo-liberalism which has made the maximisation of monetary wealth and business turnover within the market the supreme social goal. It has been clear for a long time that in rich countries raising GDP and “wealth” adds little or nothing to the quality of life.
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 “exclusion”. It is no surprise therefore that there is much drug abuse, crime and social breakdown, or that depression is now a major illness. Public institutions including hospitals, universities and public transport are deprived of sufficient funds. There is little or no investment in the development of community or cooperative institutions. 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, when the sensible way for humans to relate to each other is via co-operation, sharing, giving and nurturing. It is no surprise that 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 self interest. They allow no scope for giving, generosity, care, collectivism or concern for the public good.
It is not possible to have a good society unless we make sure that considerations of morality, justice, 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.
Conclusions on the global situation.
The foregoing argument has been that the way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable and unjust and inevitably damages the environment and the quality of life. Some of the core lines of argument indicate that we in rich countries should be trying to reduce per capita resource consumption by 90% or more. Nothing like this can be done without huge and radical change to new systems.
The crucial point here is that 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 a problem of resource depletion and environmental destruction. A sustainable society must have a zero-growth economy. Similarly if you let market forces determine production, distribution and exchange and development you will inevitably deprive most people of a fair share. A just society must allow need not profit or market forces to determine distribution and development. Easily overlooked is the fact that there is no possibility of a peaceful world if all strive for greater affluence and increased GDP and therefore compete more and more fiercely for resources. “If you want affluence then arm heavily.” You can only solve these problems if you 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 people in the mainstream to take any notice. Politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, journalists, economists and ordinary people flatly refuse to even think about the possibility that the obsession with affluence and growth is the basic cause of our problems and should be abandoned. The problem is one of ideology, a wilful delusion and refusal to question cherished values.
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 full recovery. Important here is the immense complexity, fragility and interdependence of the global economy today. (Tainter, Korowicz, Beddington, Morgan, Mason and many others detail the alarming situation.) Systems now have little resilience. The huge levels of debt mean that if creditors lose confidence and refuse to extend further loans production and supply networks can block immediately; e.g., exporters will not despatch unless their payments are promised and the importers might not be able to get more credit. “Just in time“ supply to producers means that a shortfall can have rapid cascading effects, e.g. in electricity, water or sewage systems.
It is increasingly being understood how heavily the economy depends on the price of energy. Whenever US expenditure on energy rises to 10% of GDP there is almost always a recession. Energy prices are rising and this is very likely to accelerate as oil and gas fields run down and efforts are made to reduce coal use. Meanwhile the Energy Return on energy invested in producing energy is falling fast, meaning availability and price will deteriorate.
These difficulties will surely increase political tensions between nations, primarily to do with their efforts to get hold of more resources. Poorer and weaker nations will be trampled in these struggles, increasing discontent and destabilising regions, adding to the difficulties and costs of securing resource lines.
A sudden catastrophic financial collapse is very likely at some point, in view of the astronomical levels of debt already hanging over all nations, and the difficulties that increasing scarcity will add to finding profitable investment outlets for the now vast amounts of capital available for investment.
The very large numbers in the Third World who have been drawn/forced into dependence on the global economy for jobs and necessities will be hardest hit. The few still living as peasants and tribal people will be in the best position of all the world’s people.
In the richest countries governments will have to resort to increasing repression and denial of civil liberties as economies falter, in order to control increasing angry and desperate people being cast further into deprivation. Many will turn to the urban underworld economy. The middle classes will support these repressive measures, to protect their property and privileges. Welfare etc. expenditures will be savagely cut (except for prisons) as state budgets deterorate. Environmental protection will be cut back as unaffordable and impeding economic recovery. Thus many feedback effects will intensify the crisis.
It is very difficult to see how these kinds of developments could be avoided, unless there is fundamental change to very different systems. The hope is that as the problems begin to impact this will lead enough people to see the need for radical transition.
THE SIMPLER WAY
If the foregoing argument is basically valid the key principles for a sustainable and just society must be:
The following elaboration 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 with a much higher quality of life.
Living more simply does not mean deprivation or hardship. It means being content with what is sufficient for comfort, hygiene, efficiency, etc. Most of our basic needs can be met by quite simple and resource-cheap devices and ways, compared with the luxury, expensiveness and waste taken for granted and idolised in consumer society.
Living in ways that are frugal and that minimise resource use should not be seen as an irksome sacrifice that must be made in order to save the planet. These ways can be important sources of life satisfaction. We have to come to see as enjoyable many 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 crafts, the working bees, celebrations, concerts and festivals.
Local economic self-sufficiency
We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can at the national level, meaning much less international trade, and especially at the household level, and the neighbourhood, suburban, town and local regional level. 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. Much of our honey, crockery, vegetables, furniture, fruit, fish and poultry production could come from households and backyard businesses engaged in craft and hobby production. It is much more satisfying to produce in craft ways rather than in industrial factories. There would be many little firms throughout and close to settlements, some would be co-operatives but many could be privately owned, giving people the satisfaction of running their own small business. They would mostly produce for local use, not to export from 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 but 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. 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 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 tanks and ponds. In addition many materials can come from the communal woodlots, fruit trees, bamboo clumps, ponds, meadows, clay pits etc. 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.
It would be a leisure-rich environment. Suburbs at present are leisure deserts; there is not much to do so much money and energy is spent purchasing entertainment. The alternative neighbourhood would be full of familiar people, small businesses, common projects, drama clubs, animals, gardens, farms, forests and alternative technologies and therefore providing 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 entertainers such as comedians, actors, artists, musicians, play writers, acrobats, jugglers and dancers. At present most Americans are watching a TV or computer screen 4+ hours a day for “leisure” purposes. People would have many interesting things to do and therefore 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.
More communal and cooperative ways.
We must share more things. 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 most 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. (The Spanish anarchists ran whole towns without any bureaucracy, via many citizens’ committees and assemblies. (See Dolgoff, 1990, and The Spanish anarchists)) Especially important would be the sense of cooperation, solidarity, responsibility and empowerment that would be built by the voluntary community working bees. 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 local productive capacity to producing what all people need for a good life, with as little bother, resource use, work and waste as possible.
Most obviously there would have to be far less production and consumption going on, and there would have to be no 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 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. 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 and growth. Their goals would be to provide their owners and workers with stable, secure incomes and satisfying livelihoods, to provide goods and services the town needs, and to provide a sense of making a worthwhile contribution.
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 our local currency which 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 and interesting and useful things every day.
The new economy must be mostly made up of many small scale, local economies, so that most of the basic items we need are produced close to where we live, from local soils, forests and resources, by local skill and labour. Some things like fridges and stoves would come from regional factories somewhat further away. Very few items, including steel, would be moved long distances from big centralised factories, and very little would be transported from overseas, only important items such as high tech medical equipment that we could not produce.
These local systems would need to be supported and provided for by arrangements at the state level, although the role of the state in The Simpler Way vision is minimal. (See below.) A nation would need a good rail system and a steel works for instance, and a good distribution of medium sized industries (e.g., producing fridges, vehicles, railway carriages) so that all towns can earn the small amount of export income they need 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, via zero interest loans and grants. (In a zero-growth economy there can be no interest paid. That means most of the finance industry has to be phased out!)
There would be many “mutuals” and co-operatives, just 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 things. In general co-ops are far more efficient and productive than private firms. The town would assist co-operatives to provide necessary goods, using working bee labour and interest-free loans.
The town economy will have two sectors. The foregoing comments refer to those processes 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 old people needed, or more activities for bored young people? It would then organise our resources to deal with those needs. What happened in this sector, Economy B, would not be driven by market forces or profit. It would be planned and operated via 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.
Economy B would be gradually built up underneath and alongside the old 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, or if a hobbyist wants special materials she could see if these were being sold by a firm within Economy A. However in the longer term future we might opt to phase it out entirely.
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 would understand the local conditions, know what will grow best there, how often frosts occur, 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 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 relatively 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. (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 work 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. Everyone’s prospects will be highly dependent 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, conscientious, happy climate people will not conscientiously and energetically turn up to committees, working bees, celebrations and town meetings. The situation would require and 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 world view and values. The present commitment to individualistic competition for affluent-consumer “living standards” and endless increases in wealth must be replaced by a strong desire to live simply, cooperatively, and self-sufficiently, and by concern for the common good. Only if these alternative values and sources of satisfaction, which contradict those of consumer society, become the main factors motivating people can The Simpler Way be achieved.
Obviously the chances of the present society making such a huge change in world view are not at all good. However the coming era of intense scarcity will jolt people into facing up to these issues.
A higher quality of life.
People working for The Simpler Way have no doubt 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 other powerful 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, experiencing 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 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 research and production, including most arms, advertising, aircraft and ships and roads, commercial entertainment, skyscrapers, packaging, fashion, electronic games…
Following is the Simpler Way perspective on the transition process, and how best to work for it.
Our chances of achieving such an enormous transition are not good. It will only be when people are jolted by something like a serious and lasting petroleum shortage that they will start to doubt consumer-capitalist society, and be ready to consider the alternatives we are putting forward. Our task is to work hard at spreading Simpler Way ideas so that when the troubles begin people will realise these 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; we just need to start replacing it.
“But if we become a threat won’t they will crush us?” As the troubles compound no one will be able to stop us in the millions of little towns and suburbs where people have realised that they must take control of their own affairs. Anyway, the dominant powers won’t have enough oil to fuel the helicopters.
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 plunge into building it. It is by definition about eagerness to live frugally in highly self-sufficient 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.
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 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 is therefore working to get 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 grant it to them. 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 fade away.
Therefore the most effective thing for activists to do is to work here and now, within the settlements we live in, to create elements of the new society. Simpler Way activists should join the Permaculture, Voluntary Simplicity Transition Towns etc. movements not to construct more compost heaps and community gardens etc., important though that is, but to be in the best position to persuade the people in the town or suburb towards The Simpler Way perspective.
On the last decade or so many people around the world have begun to build, live in and experiment with more sustainable settlements especially within the Eco-Village and Transition Towns movements. But these initiatives are not clearly driven by a Simpler Way perspective; they do not focus on radical lifestyle simplicity, the need for communities to take control of their fate via town self-government, or the fact that the global economy has to be largely scrapped. The things they are doing will not achieve the big structural changes needed. (For the detailed case see The Transition Towns movement.)
We need to link with the many people working in environmental, charity, welfare, Third World aid, peace, social justice, etc. projects, so that we can all gear our specific concerns to contributing to the transition. Unfortunately at present many people in these kinds of movements are only band-aiding faults within consumer society. Campaigns such as working to save the whale, increase recycling, or stop wood chipping are obviously good causes, but working for them will not replace consumer-capitalist society. It is not that these projects should be given up, but that we need to encourage their participants to gear their campaigns to the goal of radical system change.
Change will be rapid when it comes, because people will realise that the old system cannot provide for us. But it is not inevitable and indeed not likely that the desired new systems will emerge. That will happen only if enough people with the vision work hard for it.
It could be a very peaceful revolution…if we can get enough people to see the sense of moving to The Simpler Way.
It should not be assumed that this transition strategy is just about setting examples and exhorting people to make “lifestyle changes” (e.g. to ”downshift”.) This is easily misunderstood. The key to transition is a change in consciousness that will lead to deliberate and strenuous rejection of consumer-capitalist society and eager acceptance of The Simpler Way. At a later point in time huge structural changes will have to be made at the level of the state and the national economy; see Stage 2 below.
Outline of a practical strategy.
When there is sufficient support a small group should form itself into a Community Development Collective (CDC) with the purpose of identifying and organising the locality’s unused productive resources of skill, energy, experience and good will towards enabling local people to produce some of the basic goods and services they need. They would set up a community garden and workshop in which participants can work together to produce food and other items for their own use. Especially important is drawing in low income and unemployed people, thereby enabling those excluded from the normal economy to become economically active again.
We would record time contributions and these would entitle people to their share of what they have helped to produce. (This is creating our own “Time Dollar” money; see below.)
The CDC would then look for further areas in which cooperative production could be organised. An early possibility would be a baking day. Once or twice a week a cooperative working bee might produce most of the bread etc. the group needs, selling some to outsiders for cash. Another early possibility would be the repair of furniture, bicycles and appliances. The workshop could become a shop where surpluses and recycled and repaired items are for sale. Scavenging from the locality, especially on council waste collection days, would provide furniture, appliances, bicycle parts and toys to be repaired and materials for use in the workshop. Other possible areas of activity would be house repair and maintenance, nursery production, herbs, poultry, fish (in tanks), honey, sewing and clothes repair, weaving, preserving and bottling fruits and vegetables, making slippers, sandals, hats, toys, bags and baskets, car repair and the “gleaning” of local surplus fruit from private back yards. Many services including child minding and care of older people could be organised via the recording of time contributions. The CDC would set up cooperatives to run some of these activities. Many of these could be located in private household backyards.
A very important aspect would be the leisure sub-committee’s organising of entertainment, concerts, talks on gardening etc., craft activities, visiting speakers, adventure tours…
These activities would also provide important intangible benefits, such as the increased familiarity, access to support, experience of community and worthwhile activity and the sharing and development and skills. Ideally the garden and workshop would become a lively community centre with information, recycling, and meeting and leisure functions. Specific times in the week should be set when all would try to gather at the site for a working bee, followed by dinner, discussions, entertainment and social activities.
The CDC would organise voluntary neighbourhood or town working bees, perhaps occasional at first but eventually occurring at set times aimed at developing the locality in desirable ways, e.g., planting fruit and nut trees in local parks, or building simple premises for new little firms.
A market day could be organised to sell CDC produce and products.
At some later stage the town or region should establish its own (public and non-profit) bank or credit union, business incubator and voluntary taxation systems. The simple IOU “Time Dollar” form of money introduced above should develop into a town currency controlled by the town bank and lent (at no interest) to proposals that will benefit the town.
The CDC must constantly focus attention on the importance of living simply. The CDC woul also focus on town skill development in many areas such as gardening, pottery, basket making, woodwork, preserving, sewing, sandal making, weaving, leatherwork, blacksmithing, etc. The great importance of the household economy would be emphasised.
All this would be about establishing our Economy B. The crucial element is the emergence of conscious, deliberate determination within the town to take control of its own fate, to collectively begin to identify the town’s problems and needs and take action to deal with them.
The next step would be to enable people in the new economic sector to trade with the normal/old firms within the locality. These old firms are selling many goods low income people want but can’t produce for themselves via our cooperatives, and can’t purchase because they have little “normal” money. The CDC would find out what items our new Economy B can start providing to some of the firms in the old/normal economy. It will discuss with existing firms what they might be able to buy from us, and it will consider setting up new firms within the CDC to supply these items (e.g., vegetables to the restaurants). Clearly we within the CDC cannot buy things from the old firms unless the people in our new sector are able to produce and sell as much to the old sector as they buy from it.
Later in the process the CDC must take on the import replacement task. The proportion of a town or suburb's consumption that is met by imported goods is typically very high. The CDC must look for imported items that local firms might begin supplying.
Councils, churches and charities are in an ideal position to enable the beginning of a process of this kind, if only at first to provide for homeless etc. people. They have the land and resources to start cooperative community gardens, firms, and farms in which people can work together to produce some of the things they need.
The CDC must emphasise the global vision throughout. The goal is not just to make the tow “resilient”, it is to contribute to the replacement of consumer-capitalist society. It must constantly make this clear in its educational activities.
This revolutionary strategy involves people immediately in activity that is positive, constructive and enjoyable. In working for the revolution we will be starting to learn and practise the ideal ways that will be the norm after the revolution is completed – as distinct from having to fight and defeat a powerful enemy before we can start to build a good society.
Stage 2 of the revolution.
However suburbs and towns cannot produce for themselves all the things they need. As they develop Economy B they will become increasingly aware of their need for many basic materials and goods that have to come from regional and national factories, such as steel, cement, poly-pipe, boots, radios… Meanwhile the global economy will increasingly fail to provide for people, so they will become more acutely aware that if their emerging local economies are to be viable then national economies must be reorganised to provide the small community economies with these crucial inputs. This will in time fuel strong demand for radical restructuring of national economies, including greatly increased regulation, the phasing out of unnecessary industries, transferring resources to vital industries, enabling the establishment of new local communities, locating factories in and near every town so they can export something into the national economy to pay for their necessary imports from it. The immensity of these Stage 2 structural changes cannot be exaggerated; at present they would be regarded as absurdly unacceptable levels of state control.
But by then people will a) have recognised that such changes must be made if the emerging town economies are to be viable, and b) will have seen that participatory grass-roots-controlled democracy is the only acceptable way. They will have been practicing this in their development of Economy B and they will know that the right decisions cannot be made by centralised government and handed down. As they develop Economy B they will be extending their local planning, decision making and implementation procedures into the wider regional, levels, and eventually this will built to the point where people insist on bringing state-level functions under this kind of control. Only when they realise that their very survival in a world of scarcity and troubles depends on the town economies being viable, and that this requires those inputs from a reorganised national economy, will they support and demand those huge structural changes in the national economy.
Obviously these are not predictions as to what will happen. The above ideas should be seen as a vision, a path we should be working for and goals we should be trying to achieve.
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