Ted Trainer



Nowhere are the radical and coercive implications of the limits to growth more profound than with respect to the transition process. The Simpler Way argument is that the severity of the limits to affluence and growth mean the transition must be to far simpler lifestyles and systems than we have now, and that makes this revolution unlike any ever before.  It is different in its goals and in its means; it is not about an affluent industrialised society and its transition strategy does not focus on confronting the ruling class, taking state power or resorting to physical force. These are not options; they are unavoidable and necessary conditions. This revolution is primarily a cultural problem. The enormous changes in politics and the economy (and many other factors such as agriculture and settlement geography) can only be achieved after successful cultural revolution. Thus a very different “theory of revolution” is involved, one that contradicts conventional, Marxist and “green” views.

The situation; The nature of the required transition.

It is necessary to begin by being clear about the enormous magnitude of the sustainability and justice problem that we face.  The big global problems including resource depletion, environmental destruction, deprivation of the Third World, resource wars and deteriorating social cohesion, cannot be solved unless the amount of production and consumption going on is dramatically reduced. Present rich world levels of GDP per capita probably have to be cut by 90%. (The case is detailed in TSW: The Limits to Growth.)

This can be done, while actually improving the quality of life, but only if there is willing acceptance of Simpler Way procedures and values. (Detailed in TSW: The Alternative Society.) But these contradict the deeply entrenched ideas and values of consumer-capitalist society.  There is no possibility of them becoming normal practice unless there is a massive and historically unprecedented widespread transition to an utterly different culture, one which is primarily collectivist not individualist, cooperative not competitive, and not interested in affluence or growth. It must be a culture of happy acceptance of frugal but sufficient lifestyles and of deriving life satisfaction from other than material wealth. Communities must be mostly small, highly self sufficient and self governing; they must be run by conscientious citizens who take delight and pride in their towns. These are not optional conditions; no social form other than mostly small, integrated and self managing communities can provide high quality of life for all on very low resource use rates. (The reasons are spelled out in TSW: The Alternative Society.)

The magnitude of the challenge could not be exaggerated. For two hundred years the fundamental goals in our society have been to do with increasing production, consumption and affluence. Progress has been the taken for granted expectation and it has been conceived in terms of increasing control over and exploitation of nature, more and more technical power, more complex systems, greater resource use, and constantly getting richer. Commitment to this vision is almost universal, and indubitable; there are hardly any people in political leadership, business or media who hold a contrary view, let alone the ordinary consumers of rich and poor societies.

This means that the required structural changes in society, such as getting rid of the growth economy, cannot be undertaken unless there has been widespread adoption of the radically new ideas, practices and values. The practical question thus set is, how might such a cultural transition come about?

The enormity and nature of the required changes reveals the inadequacy of typical “Green” and “Red/left” thinking about transition.  Most people concerned about the environment assume that the problems can be solved by more effort within the existing system… more recycling, electric cars, renewable energy, water tanks, better efficiency, more national parks, and more funds for conservation. This perspective fails to grasp that such efforts cannot curb impacts if growth in production and consumption goes on increasing.  Reforms to and within the existing system cannot solve the problems; the need is for a new system that does not create the problems.

Consumer-capitalist society cannot solve the problems.


The general assumption is that the problems can and will be solved by the institutions and processes of our present society, such as by parliaments implementing effective policies in line with international agreements to cut carbon emissions, and ordinary people accepting significant legislated adjustments in their circumstances. But this expectation is a major mistake; the institutions and political process of our society are not capable of rationally facing up to and making the enormous and disruptive changes required. Consider:-

  1. This society is even incapable of understanding what the essential problem is and what has to be done about it. The essentialproblem is the commitment to affluence and growth when the planet’s limited resources mean pursuit of that goal is now a recipe for disaster, but very few realize this and the supreme goal remains blind and fierce commitment to increasing production and consumption.  The suicidal irrationality of this has been well understood for fifty years by many scientists and others who have documented the point in a now vast literature, but the mainstream, especially governments and general publics, have totally ignored this information.

This is a very strange phenomenon, occurring often through history. A society will staunchly and unthinkingly maintain cherished myths, assumptions, practices and values which an onlooker can see are problematic but which are not even thought about. Take for instance the acceptability of slavery, or pride in one’s empire, or in our times the fact that rich world affluence and comfort are built on the deprivation and exploitation of Third World people. Such realities do not enter consciousness and messages about them are ignored. We are dealing with a kind of collective feeble mindedness. A society so clever that it can put men on the moon does not have the wit to even see how it is destroying itself, let alone take effective action. It is not matter of intellect, it is to do with will, that is denial and refusal to consider, and its non-rational nature makes it intractable.

2. The enormity of the changes required. Even the De growth literature fails to represent the magnitude and difficulty of the reductions required. Rich world rates of volumes of production and thus consumption of resources, must be cut by huge amounts, probably in the order of 90%. This means most of the present volume of industry, transport, travel, construction, shopping, exporting, investing etc. has to be phased out. How is this going to be done? It cannot be a matter of closing a mine and transferring the workers to some other jobs; because the amounts of work and jobs have to be cut dramatically. It has to involve totally new social structures and procedures, whereby most people can live well without producing much. This cannot be done in the present economy.

How for instance do you phase out the Australian coal industry, writing off a $56 billion annual income and relocating 55,000 workers. Where will the workers go? Again they can’t be moved to other jobs, because the point of the exercise is to reduce production and therefore jobs. The present economy runs into serious trouble if growth in output slows, let alone stagnates, let alone falls a little; businesses go bankrupt and unemployment rises and political discontent surges and governments get thrown out.

In this economy any reduction in production means people and towns get scrapped. A major force driving Australia to open more coal mines is the prospect of regional unemployment if they are not opened. A major force determining that far too much water continues to be taken from the Murray-Darling river system is the fact that any significant reduction means large numbers of farms and towns will cease to exist. Even the De growthers have not begun to think about what the answers here might be; they have not grasped the magnitude of the reductions required and they have not thought about what to do with the workers, towns, firms, capital, institutions etc. that will no longer be needed. They proceed as if somehow these people will go on living fairly normally, consuming energy and products more or less as before. What they fail to see is that the only way these huge puzzles could be solved is via the establishment of Simpler Way settlements.

3. There isn’t time.The major change required, keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees C, must be made in a mere thirty years. Wind and solar sources now only provide about 2% of energy used and the world is not close to making a serious effort to curb emissions?

Consider therefore the required build rate for renewable energy. At present renewable sources supply 10% (i.e., 58 EJ) of world energy consumed. By 2050 global demand will probably be around 890 EJ (Minqi, 2019.), so we would have to build capacity to supply 832 EJ in 25 years, which is about 33.3 EJ/y. Let’s assume we are gong to provide all energy from wind. At present the world is increasing wind generating capacity by 53 GW each year (WWEA, 2018), which corresponds to 18.5 GW delivered after taking into account a 0.35 capacity factor for wind. That’s an annual increase of 162,498 GWh, or 584.5 PJ. So to achieve the build rate we’d need to install turbines at about 57 times the rate we are installing them now.  That is not going to be done. In 2017 wind investment was $104 billion (Frankfurt am Main, 2018), so the capital cost would be close to $6 trillion, around 8% of world GDP. To this we would have to add the cost of the equipment to store energy and to convert it to non-electrical forms that presently make up 80% of energy uses.

And what might be the turn-around time to stop the accelerating loss of insect, bird, marine, mammal, plant and reptile species? The present rate is alarming and accelerating, the beginning of a holocaust. It is not going to be reversed and cut to an “acceptable” rate in 25 years.

3. We do not have political institutions capable of making changes of the magnitude required. They are fairly good at making small changes. Elections are usually won by small margins so governments cannot afford to irritate significant numbers of voters or they will be thrown out. They cannot adopt policies that go against the vital interests of various sectors, such as phasing out coal mining or returning 4,000 - 7,600 GL of water to the Murray-Darling (the scientists’ advice) compared with the present policy of returning only 2,750 GL.

This situation is exacerbated by the self-interested, competitive, individualistic ethos built into our culture and political system.  We refuse to share burdens. We are eager to dump them entirely on the groups who can’t avoid them.  If a venture or whole industry is to be phased out those workers lose their jobs and have to move and the firms have to close, inflicting immense monetary and psychological costs. Miserly compensation might be given but there is no interest in sharing all the costs equally among all people in the nation, who are to benefit by the restructuring. Is there any wonder why people fight so hard against restructuring and why it is so difficult for governments to get big changes through?

Of course the greatest resistance to any De growth initiative would come from the owners of capital and those who serve them. Significant De growth means  the elimination of many investments yielding them their great wealth. They own the media and the think tanks, and the politicians whose campaign funds they have so generously donated to. They have the power to move their factories overseas and thus devastate regions, currency values or trade balances if governments do not do what they want.

It is often asked, if we are so clever that we can solve difficult problems like getting men to the moon, how come we cant solve problems like poverty and plastic pollution? The reason is that solutions to social problems typically impact on the interests of the rich and powerful and are blocked. Again it’s about an unsatisfactory political system. Ours is not one in which we all sit down and work out the best option for all; it is one in which interest groups fight to get what suits them and disadvantages the rest.

But it is often said but Roosevelt did big things when he brought in the New Deal, and what about when the US restructured industry to fight WW2? For instance the car industry was told to stop making cars and start making tanks. But this is an unsatisfactory argument because that situation was totally different. It did not involve eliminating jobs and profitable production, and there was widespread political support deriving from the war effort. Imagine trying to tell Boeing and Ford to stop producing aircraft and SUVs…and not start producing anything else.

Obviously no De growth initiative could begin to be taken seriously unless a) alternative ways of existing could be pointed to for large numbers of people whose work in factories and offices will no longer be needed, and b) people saw these alternatives as attractive and would willingly, voluntarily opt for them.  These conditions are a million miles from where we are, or from the thinking of present governments or the economic establishment.

But couldn’t a wise and bold government force these kinds of De growth changes through, knowing that they are necessary if the planet is to be saved?  No it couldn’t. How could a government committed to phasing out most of the economy get elected in the first place…while every elector is desperately hoping for more GDP and output and jobs and cheap products and higher incomes? And if it sneaked in by deception and then tried to De grow, how long would it last before the furious ruling class and masses lynched them?  The point is no step towards the required reconstruction could be taken unless and until there was more or less universal agreement with a plausible massive De growth agenda. That is, nothing of significance can be done before the most enormous cultural revolution has taken place, and that is not on the official pre-2050 agenda.

It should therefore be glaringly obvious that this society is not going to solve the problems. It will be argued below that we could get through to a satisfactory situation, but it will not be via governments and publics rationally, deliberately analyzing the predicament, getting the right answers, facing up to the difficulties, adopting the right policies, and working hard to achieve them, accepting immense disruption, loss of privileges, restructuring and difficulties in the process.    Few if any realise this, least of all people on the left.

What can we learn from Marxist transition theory?

Much that helps us understand the situation … but unfortunately not much that is useful to us for transition purposes. In fact with respect to this revolution Marx points us in the wrong direction.  Because most previous discussion of huge and radical social change has been more or less in Marxist terms it is necessary to devote some space to these here.

Marx’s analysis of capitalism and its contradictions, dynamics and fate are, in my view, of great importance; it’s his ideas on the transition process that are problematic. But first some of the helpful insights. Possibly the most important one is that capitalism has built into its foundations contradictions that will in time lead it to self-destruct. Automation provides a good example. The system’s relentless competitive dynamic drives capitalists towards automating their factories to avoid labour costs, but this reduces wages earned, and eventually no one will be able to afford to buy the factory’s products.

But the mot serious self-destructive contradiction would seem to be that capitalism inevitably generates greater inequality.  A few now possess most of the world’s wealth while large numbers in even the richest countries are quite poor, are not seeing significant increase in their incomes and are increasingly victims of capital; e.g., in now having to take on heavy loans to purchase housing and to pay for tertiary education that used to be free.  Hence the rise of the discontent that has led to Brexit, Trump, right wing extremism and the French “Yellow vests”. Marx was correct in saying capitalism would lead to increasing immiseration followed by trouble, (…although his timing seems to have been a long way out.)

The declining purchasing power of the masses would seem to be the major cause of the decades long global slowdown we are in, and of the resulting rise of debt to astronomical levels (now about 2.5 times global GDP and certain to end soon in devastating collapse.) Other factors are tightening the noose, especially the increasing resource and ecological scarcities and costs dragging down profit and growth rates.

So Marx helps by explaining how capitalism will be got rid of…it will get rid of itself (…although that does not mean there’s nothing for us to do.)

Now what aspects of transition strategy do Marxists and the general Left get wrong. Unfortunately, just about all of them. Firstly they get the goal wrong. They have a long and unblemished record of striving to free the forces of production from the contradictions of the capitalist mode of production so that the throttles in the factories can be turned up enabling “…everyone to have a Mercedes.” Indeed Leigh Phillips (2014) and Greg Scharzar (2012) insist that socialism must embrace the Ecomodernist ultra tech-fix faith, saving the environment by moving agriculture to skyscraper greenhouses, adopting nuclear power, and boosting economic growth.

In addition the standard “Marxist” model assumes means whereby the ruling class is overthrow by a determined vanguard party willing to use force. The goal is to take state power, in order to then bring about the necessary changes. In most if not all revolutionary movements in recent history this was probably the only option.  But the goal in those cases was basically to take control over the productive apparatus and then to run it more effectively and justly, getting rid of the contradictions previously impeding output. However that can no longer be the goal. The goal now has to be reduce output and “living standards” and that goal cannot be achieved by the state. It is a cultural problem, not primarily an economic or redistributive problem. It has to involve largely dismantling the existing industrial, trade, agricultural financial etc. systems and replacing them with smaller and radically different systems. More importantly, it cannot be achieved unless people understand and willingly accept simpler lifestyles and systems. The state cannot give or enforce the world view, values or dispositions without which such structural changes cannot be made. No amount of subsidies or information or secret police can make villagers cooperate enthusiastically to plan and develop and run thriving local economies.

Perhaps the major fault in Marx’s view of transition was the complete failure to recognize the significance of this cultural factor. He saw transition solely as a matter of economics and power, of getting rid of the ruling class, of getting hold of state power and thus getting the capacity to force change through. As Avineri (1968) explains, he assumed that even after the state had been taken the masses would still hold the old capitalist world view, focused on better incomes, accepting bosses, accepting alienating work conditions, being disciplined workers, being individualistic and competitive, and wanting affluence. Marx assumed that these dispositions could be attended to much later, during the slow transition from “socialism” to “communism”. That might have made sense in a revolution involving violent takeover of industrial apparatus to be run by an authoritarian group intent on turning those throttles up, but it’s not relevant to our revolution.

“But…”, at this point the Eco-socialist would surely insist, “… if we had state power we could facilitate that change in consciousness, help people to see the need for localism etc..” Consider the monumental logical confusion in this response.  No government with the required policy platform, one focused on transition to simpler systems and lifestyles and decimating the GDP, could get elected…unless people in general had long before adopted the associated extremely new and radical world view. Yes it is important to work for the election of such a government but that would have to focus on getting local economic and social initiatives going as a means to grass-roots consciousness change, and if that project succeeded to the point where the right kind of party got elected, again, the revolution would have already been won!  The essence of this revolution is in the cultural change, and if that is achieved then the taking of state power and the changes thereby enabled will best be seen as consequences of the revolution.

The role of force and power.

It is commonly assumed by people on the Left that radical system change will inevitably involve force, the exercise of power, and overt, intense and violent conflict, on the grounds that ruling classes do not voluntarily step aside but have to be pushed.  (This derives from Lenin rather than Marx.) However from The Simpler Way perspective force and power have little or no relevance let alone value. 

Consider again the logic of the situation.  Thriving local economies cannot come into existence unless people in general willingly adopt the new ways and make them work because they understand why such arrangements are necessary, and more importantly, because they want to live in those ways. The Simpler Way cannot work unless people in general find strong intrinsic values and rewards in living simply, cooperatively and self-sufficiently and living in the knowledge that only by following these values can they enable a satisfactory life for themselves and all others.  There must be a powerful desire to “own” their town, to exercise control of it, to think and care and contribute to the working bees and committees, and to gain satisfaction from doing so. Force, power and confrontation can make no contribution to creating this state of mind, or to people gradually learning how to run autonomous local economies well. Communities that run themselves well as many Eco-villages do strive to avoid any notion of domination or passive submission, of some having power over others or of passively following orders. There must be a strong sense of equality among conscientious caring citizens. Similarly it makes no sense to think about getting rid of the old system as a step that can be taken prior to or separately from building the new one that this revolution is about.

This rejection of resort to force, power or violence is argued by some of the best known anarchists of the past, including Tolstoy and Kropotkin.  (Marshall, 1992.) If they had been given state power on a plate they would have turned away knowing that it is of no use. Kropotkin urged revolutionaries to simply get on with the task of developing within their communities the awareness that would enable and motivate self-government.  If people will not rise to the opportunity to take control of their own affairs this means there is still a lot of consciousness-raising work to be done.

Must there be a long march through capitalism?

A significant strand in Marxist thinking has been the idea that according to the “laws of history” capitalism must mature before it dies or can be overthrown. This is why some Marxists have argued against revolutionary initiatives they see as premature.  (Warren, 1980.)

Marx’s views about the use of force connect with this. He thought that if there is resort to force to get people to go in the right direction then this shows that conditions are not yet ripe. This is the reasoning behind his criticism of the Jacobins in the French revolution and of the Paris Commune, although he was sympathetic to their goals. (Avineri 1968.) (The readiness of “Marxists” to resort to force is more accurately identified with Lenin than Marx; remember that Marx once said “I am not a Marxist.”) Simpler Way transition thinking aligns with this view, firstly in focusing on the prior need for (cultural) conditions and secondly on the uselessness of force.

However late in his life Marx appears to have flatly contradicted this “maturity”  thesis. His major claim to fame was to have discovered the “laws of history” whereby change follows a dialectical process culminating in overthrow of over-ripe capitalism and the shift to communist society. But in his last years he expressed sympathy for a possible way forward which does not involve waiting until capitalism has matured and been overthrown.  He toyed with the possibility that Russia, then far from being even a bourgeoise society, might go directly to socialism by adopting the existing model of the Mir, the traditional peasant collective village. (See Shannin,1995, Bideleux,1985, Bookchin, 1977, Buber, 1958, and Kitching,1989.) In addition, at the time of the revolution there had been widespread spontaneous establishment of Soviets or workers councils further enhancing the potential to carry out a direct transition to a post-capitalist and grass roots democratic socialist society. Ironically Marx might be blamed for this not happening because the idea was rejected by his staunch disciples Kautsky and the “Russian Marxists” who insisted on the need to wait for the “laws of history” to first produce capitalism in Russia and thus prepare the way for it to be overthrown.

The Simpler Way perspective obviously aligns with this direct and “here and now” view.  It sees the possibility that the new can be built within the old, as distinct from having to wait for it to mature and self-destruct, it focuses on the development of local autonomy rather than action at the centre, and it identifies ideas and values as the basic factors determining transition. By focusing on the task of building aspects of the post-revolutionary society here and now it embraces the Anarchist notion of “prefiguring” (See further below.)

The ultimate heresy; the working class will not be the agent of change.

The left has a fundamental faith in the importance and the role of the working class in the revolution. However there are a number of reasons why it is not likely to lead the coming revolution. Unfortunately the traditional class interests of “workers” in capitalist society do not align well with The Simpler Way.  They are about better conditions, bigger pay packets enabling increased consumption, more jobs and production, more trade, a greater role for the state in running things, redistribution of wealth and provision of better “welfare” by the state.  In general the working class is strongly in favour of economic growth. 

This revolution is not just or primarily about liberating the worker from capitalist conditions. It is about liberating all people from consumer-capitalist society, and all people not just the working class must be the revolutionary agents through their participation in the development of the emerging new local communities.

Hence the major tactical principle: Do not confront capitalism.

It is understandable that when faced by an oppressor it might seem necessary to confront it head-on and fight it strenuously.  The assumption is that we must grt rid of the old before the new can be built …on the rubble. There are situations in which this is the appropriate response and it probably was in most if not all previous liberatory movements and revolutions. However the historically unique situation we are now entering presents us with the need for a non-confrontational strategy, one that involves turning away and “ignoring capitalism to death.”  

Capitalism cannot survive if people do not continue to purchase, consume and throw away at an accelerating rate.  The Simpler Way strategy (in the present early Stage 1 of the revolution; see below) is to gradually build the alternative practices and systems which will enable more and more people to move out of the mainstream, to spurn consumer society, and to secure more of their material and social needs from the alternative systems and sources emerging within their neighbourhoods and towns. People will come across to The Simpler Way because as the ecological and financial crises intensify and seriously disrupt supply to their supermarkets they will increasingly come to realise that this is their best, indeed their only option. 

The radical left is strongly inclined to dismiss this approach as naïve, on the grounds that the rich and powerful do not willingly give up their privileges. Yet this turning away strategy is now widespread, for instance among the large scale Andean peasant movements, most notably the Zapatistas. (Appfel-Marglin, 1998, p. 39. See also Relocalise, 2009, Mies and Shiva, 1993,  Benholdt-Thompson and Mies, 1999, Korten, 1999, p. 262,  Rude, 1998, p. 53, Quinn, 1999, pp. 95, 137.) 

The standard Marxist retort here is that the ruling class must be fought because if you begin to become a significant threat it will crush you.   But in the coming and unprecedented era of intense scarcity, will it be able to?  Mason (2003), Korowicz (2012), Morgan (2013), Kunstler (2005), Greer (2005), Bardi (2011) and Duncan (2013) are among those who discuss the multi-dimensional global breakdown likely to be brought on before long by limits and scarcity. This will reduce the power of ruling classes to maintain “order”, especially when the availability of liquid fuels will be one of the biggest problems, and when their opposition will not be striking and rioting workers that the army can be set on but a multitude of community gardeners spreading throughout towns and suburbs.

Progress in society and especially in science often takes the form not of decisive victory for one thesis in a set-piece battle but the fading away of its rivals. As Max Plank said” Science progresses one funeral at a time”. This revolution is likely to come about mainly through desertion; as the old system increasingly fails to provide for material, social, security and spiritual needs people will (have to) flee to their local communities to try to get by.

This is not to say that the coming crises will see a Simpler Way emerge inevitably or peacefully.  On the contrary, the most likely outcome will be general and irretrievable planetary breakdown. The outcome will depend largely on the extent to which the alternative argued here comes to be accepted in the probably short time available before the time of troubles seriously impacts.

Interim summary.

The foregoing argument has been firstly that the problems are not going to be solved by rational action within or by the existing system; it is incapable of doing that.  Secondly this is a historically unique revolution, because its goals have to be to do with simplicity and stability, not affluence and growth. It is therefore essentially a cultural revolution; to focus on the economy and the state and power at this stage is a mistake. This unique situation makes most if not all previous transition theory largely irrelevant and useless, especially Marxist theory.

This sets the questions, how then will this revolution transpire, and what are the implications for strategy.

      What will happen?

The noose will tighten, hopefully slowly but probably too fast. We will soon enter a time of great and terminal troubles. Many factors are gathering momentum and interacting to increase our difficulties. The energy return on energy invested in getting energy is accelerating downwards, environmental deterioration is increasing many costs, notably from extremes of droughts and storms, land and water are becoming scarcer, refugee numbers are increasing, soils are being lost and poisoned, ore grades are falling, inequality is skyrocketing and reducing the purchasing power of the masses. About 500 million people are being fed by water pumped from deep wells by petrol engines. The same number are being fed by artificially produced and energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizers. Two to three billion live on the waters coming down from the Tibetan plateau, and the glaciers are drying up. About one-third of our food requires insect pollinators, and a sudden plunge in insect numbers seems to have begun. And now the robots are poised to attack. They will throw large numbers of workers into unemployment, meaning far fewer pay packets to sustain demand. Many analysts have tried to draw attention to where these limits are heading. Mason (2003) for instance thinks the many problematic trends will culminate in “The 2030 Spike”, the title of his book. The likely trajectory is to a sudden catastrophic break down of the global economy, quite conceivably involving the mass die off of population.

It clear that even now before most of the above impacts have hit the global economy is in trouble. Profit rates have been falling, interest rates have been lowered almost to zero in a futile effort to kick start the economy, and the wheels have been kept turning primarily by taking out and “spending” astronomical amounts of debt. Collins (2019) points out that the economy has shifted into a “catabolic” or “cannibalistic” phase.  As the capacity to do good business producing and selling  useful things deteriorates, investors turn to activities that plunder the economy. It is as if a hardware firm starts selling its own roofing iron.  The illicit drug industry and the Mafia are similar; rather than producing new wealth the owners of capital turn to ways of extracting previously produced wealth.

Much financial activity is of this nature, such as “short selling” and “asset stripping”. In the GFC a lot of money was lent to home buyers clearly incapable of meeting the repayments, because investors could not find less risky outlets. When the borrowers could not pay their interest installments their houses were repossessed by the banks and sold off, (transferring more  asset wealth to the rich.) Similarly in the US some of the money in the worker’s pay packet is put into a company pension fund to be paid out to him when he retires, but many corporations have taken these funds to invest, and “lost” them. Often they have been lent to smart operators in the financial sector to put into speculative ventures, siphoning out fees in the process. Sometimes money is borrowed to buy weak firms, arrange for them to borrow too much and thus drive them into bankruptcy, and then sell them off.  Because the pension money has become an asset of the firm it was invested in it goes to the purchaser of the firm and is lost to the workers who had set it aside for their retirement. So accumulation and profit making are being kept up by activities which enrich big and smart investors (lenders) by getting hold of the wealth of little/naive investors (borrowers), through granting them loans they cannot repay.

A common mechanism is simply commercialising activities that the state once carried out without charge. A good example is where students must now pay for college and university education which used to be free, meaning large loans must be taken out, and large interest payments flow to lenders from the earnings of students and their parents. Again the process does not involve lending capital to produce anything new, it just enables wealth previously produced by those parents to be acquired by lenders. Collins and others see this process accelerating as the ever-increasing volumes of accumulated capital find it increasingly difficult to find investment opportunities in producing anything of value. This cannibalism, the system having to feed off itself, is a sure sign that it has entered a death spiral.

But there are two more immediate factors that will be the most important determinants or our fate. The first is the peaking of petroleum supply. Output from many fields is dwindling, as is the total supply of conventional petroleum. The capacity of most of the Middle East suppliers to export oil is likely to decline markedly within a decade. This is firstly because of deteriorating production rates but more importantly because their worsening ecological conditions mean they are having to use more and more of the oil they produce. Ahmed (2017) details the situation; rapid population growth along with climate change, temperature rise, dwindling water and agricultural capacities are creating conflicts, refugees and discontent with governments, which cannot cope. Discontent rises so governments crack down on protest, which fuels the anger and further undermines capacity to keep order. Hence many failed states are on the agenda. Ahmed argues persuasively that for these reasons our capacity to get oil from the Middle East could dry up within a decade.

“But what about fracking? Hasn't it save us?” It now seems very likely that within ten years fracking will blow out.  Even by 2019 almost none of the firms involved had ever made a profit; in fact the industry has run up an extremely large debt. Thus the remarkable surge in oil supply from this source has been made possible only by the willingness of investors to gamble on the hope that before long it will yield big profits; that is the supply has been paid for by the accumulation of huge debt.

The relation between oil availability and price on the one hand and the ”health” of the economy is turning out to be complex.  It is not simply that as oil becomes mores scarce its price rises and the economy goes into recession. In recent years the price has at times been very low. Tverberg and others have argued that as price rises it increases the costs of goods and in a world where there is extreme inequality many people are forced to cut back on their purchasing, bringing on recession … and a fall in the demand for and price of petroleum. In other words an underlying trend to greater scarcity and cost can actually result in a dramatic fall in oil price, due to falling capacity to purchase.  Thus some say we are in for “… a bumpy road down” as price and GDP oscillate.

But there is a second extremely important determinant of our fate; the global debt, now standing at over $250 trillion, more than three times total global annual GDP and far higher than before the first GFC. That is a bubble that must soon bust. Debt is lending undertaken on the expectation that borrowers will use the loans to create enough sales to pay back the loans plus interest, and this cannot be done unless there is significant economic growth. But there is little growth now and a point in time will come when lenders cease to believe they are going to get their loans paid off, they will suddenly panic and rush to get their money back, bankrupting borrowers and seizing their assets, leading at least to sudden deep economic depression.

The coming mother of all crashes might not be the last; there might be a spluttering recovery of sorts slowly setting us up for the next mega-crash. But we are inevitably in for a smooth or bumpy or catastrophic descent into terminal global breakdown. Remember that capital has been accumulating for a long time and at an ever-increasing rate. There is now an astronomical amount of it desperately seeking profitable investment outlets, while galloping inequality is cutting down the capacity of the masses to purchase and therefore inhibiting growth of investment outlets. Meanwhile resource and environmental costs are cutting into profit rates and raising prices, thus further reducing capacity to purchase. Given how fragile the global economy is and how dependent it is on trust in its financial system ( e.g., exporters will not dispatch if they fear payment will not be received via the banking system), a more or less instantaneous seizing up of the global economy is highly likely. (This is explained at length by Mason (2003), Korowicz (2012), Morgan (2013), Kunstler (2005), Greer 2005, Bardi, and Duncan (2013.)

Unfortunately the situation will be chaotic and confused. It will not be clearly understood. There will be anger, blame, scapegoating, recriminations and attacks on the wrong targets. Class, racial and national tensions and conflicts will be fuelled and groups will scramble to defend their threatened interests.  The middle class will be willing to see the state take coercive powers and reduce civil liberties to maintain “order” and protect their property and privileges. Trade wars and protectionism will flourish. The intense interest in looking for someone to blame will lead immigrants and foreigners to be accused of “taking our jobs.” There will be a surge in readiness to call for strong leadership, ruthless if necessary. The climate will weigh heavily against quite, sober, rational cooperative reflection on what is going wrong and what needs to be done. The situation will be ripe for fascist regimes to emerge, or for descent even further to rule by local war lords.

What we have to hope for is a Goldilocks depression, one that is not catastrophically disruptive but is savage enough to jolt people into realizing that the system is irretrievably broken and can never be restored, and that their only hope is to organise cooperative local economies as fast as they can, and to accept very frugal ways.

At least some people will do this. Indeed it is possible that most ordinary people will realize that they must work out what they can do in their neighbourhoods to collectively provide as much as possible for themselves.   Their circumstances will make it obvious that they must cooperate and work out how to convert their living places into gardens, workshops, co-ops, orchards etc. Surely they will see that they must set up committees and working bees and town meetings to sort out what to do. Most important will be the enforced shift in mentality, from being passive recipients of government, accepting rule by distant officials, to collectively taking control of their own fate. Similarly there will be a rapid shift in expectations; people will realise that they cannot have their old resource-squandering self-indulgent affluence back. They will see that they will have to be content with what is sufficient, and would have to cooperate and prioritise the common good, not compete as individuals for selfish goals. (Ironically it is very likely that the experienced community and quality of life will immediately improve.) Things like this are already happening where Neoliberalism has had its most destructive effects, for instance in Detroit and in Greece.

            The heroic pre-figurers.

The chances of the right things being done have been greatly increased over the last three decades by the emergence of the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements.  There are now thousands of people living in highly self-sufficient intentional communities, and involved in efforts to make their towns more self-sufficient, cooperative and self-governing. This practical phenomenon is being accompanied by a large literature elaborating the intellectual case for local alternatives.

In my view some of the initiatives are quite mistaken, for example regarding the kind of alternative currencies being adopted, and the general reluctance/refusal to think about transition strategy (Trainer, 2010, 2018), but the historical significance of the emergence of these ventures would be difficult to exaggerate.  Here probably for the first time in history we are seeing the rapid spread of a “utopian” practice, mostly among ordinary people in rich and poor regions. A remarkable example is provided by the Catalan Integral Cooperative involving thousands of people in activities explicitly designed not to have anything to do with the market or the state. (TSW: The Catalan Integral Cooperative.) In the Third World many more are involved in developments such as the Via Campesino peasant movement. The government of Senegal has the goal of transforming 1,400 villages into Eco-Villages. (St Onge, 2014.)

This scene provides us with the answer to the general question of transition strategy.  What is to be done?  The answer is, build Eco-villages and Transition Towns.  This is the Anarchist principle of “pre-figuring”; that is, work on establishing the new systems here and now within the old. Don’t wait until the old system has been swept away and don’t prioritise fighting head-on against it. (Rai, 1995, p. 99, Pepper, 1996, pp. 36, 305, Bookchin, 1980, p. 263.)

This increases the resilience of towns and suburbs to cope with the coming time of troubles. It is also to take up the R and D task. It will take a lot of time and effort to work out the systems, arrangements, geographies (where to put what kinds of community gardens) that suit the probably unique conditions within each individual town. More importantly it will take time and trial and error to work out the social and political arrangements that work best… what committees, what town meeting procedures, what working bees, what expectations and rules? And we need time to accumulate and spread ides and findings so that new town initiatives can quickly benefit from the pioneering experience.

Note again, the state cannot do these things. It can facilitate them, but only to the extent that the new world view and goals have become sufficiently widespread to make the state move in these directions.

The point of pre-figuring can easily be misunderstood. It is not primarily to increase the number of post-revolutionary ways that exist, and the assumption is not that just setting up post-revolutionary arrangements one by one will lead to these eventually having replaced consumer-capitalist ways. The main point is educational/ideological.  By becoming involved in the many emerging local initiatives activists are likely to be in the most effective position to acquaint participants and onlookers with the Simpler Way perspective, and with the need to eventually go on from the present localist preoccupations to the more distant Stage 2 problem of dealing with growth, the state, the market and the capitalist system. (See further below.) The point is in other words, cultural and educational. By establishing small examples of the radical new arrangements before society deteriorates we will best be able to get people to see the desirability of those ways, and to see the need to abandon conventional ideas, systems and values.  Only when there is widespread acceptance of the new worldview will it be possible to make changes at the level of the state and the national and global economies.

Thus in this revolution it is necessary to think in terms of two stages. The focal concern in the present Stage 1 is slowly building in our towns an “Economy B” under the old economy, whereby people can devote local productive capacities to collectively meeting as many local needs as possible.  The crucial sub-goal here is increasing the extent to which citizens take control of their town, as distinct from allowing their fate to be determined by distant politicians, bureaucrats, market forces and corporations.

Stage 2 of the revolution.

Following is a brief indication of how the latter stages of the revolution might eventuate, if we are lucky and if we work hard at it.

As local economies become more widespread and elaborate and as the global economy faulters it will become increasingly obvious that scarce national resources must be deliberately and rationally devoted to the production of basic necessities, as distinct from being left for market forces to allocate to the most profitable purposes. There will always be items that towns cannot produce for themselves. Most of these can come from surrounding regions, including grain and dairy produce, tools and light machinery, materials, appliances, glass and irrigation equipment (…although the Remaking Settlements study finds that surprisingly little would need to be imported from further afield.) However some will have to come from more distant steel and cement works. It will therefore be necessary for all towns and regions to be able to import these few but crucial items from the national economy, and to be able to produce some of them to export into it.

These conditions will generate the pressure that in time will force states to carry out revolutionary change in national economies. People will become acutely aware that scarce national resources must not be wasted and must be devoted to providing settlements and regions with the crucial materials and manufactures they cannot produce for themselves. This will require planning to distribute to all towns the opportunity to produce and export some few items, so that they can pay for their importation of those few they need. There will also be tasks and functions that must be planned and administered from the centre, such as allocating water use throughout a river basin, and facilitating the movement of workers from moribund industries to new ones again bearing in mind that the total volume of producing going on will have to be cut to a small fraction of the present amount.

Thus the survival imperatives emanating from the grass roots will force central governments to greatly increase intervention, planning, regulation and restructuring. It might at first sight seem that this means the emergence of or need for greatly increased state power.  On the contrary it is likely to be a process whereby power is taken away from the centre, and whereby citizens exercise increasing control over central governments, via their town assemblies. The tone will shift from making requests on the state to making demands, and then to taking increasing power over the planning and decision making processes.

It will be increasingly recognized that the local is the only level where the right decisions for self-sufficient communities can be made. Thus the remnant state-level agencies will in time become controlled by and servants of the towns and regions, run via the typical Anarchist processes involving thoroughly participatory town self-government. Eventually all significant decisions including the biggest, will be made by town assemblies voting on policy options brought down to the town level from conferences of delegates from towns and regions (drawing on professional expertise where appropriate.)

The chances of the transition proceeding as has been outlined here are not at all good, but the argument has been that this is the path that must be worked for. One of its merits is that it envisages a transition that could be entirely peaceful and non-authoritarian.

It should be evident that both the nature of the alternative society that has been sketched here, and the transition path to it, embody classical Anarchist principles. In the coming era of limits, scarcity and frugality only communities running on Anarchist principles can deliver a sustainable and just society, and the path to the establishment of those communities cannot be other than via pre-figuring and ordinary citizens in existing settlements building thoroughly participatory arrangements.  Neither the new society nor the path to it can involve significant degrees of centralization. The appropriate world view is therefore Eco-Anarchism, rather than Eco-Socialism




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