De growth: Some suggestions from the Simpler Way Perspective.

Ted Trainer

(Adapted from Ecological Economics, Jan. 2020.)

The emergence and rapid growth of the De growth movement has been enormously encouraging. There is hardly an issue of more importance for the planet, given that just about all its major problems are directly due to the fact that there is far too much producing and consuming going on. For many decades some of us have been trying to get attention given to the absurdity of a growth economy, with little success. Thirty four years ago I published Abandon Affluence and “Growth (original but amended title), (Zed Books) … with negligible effect, but in the last few years there has been a remarkable surge in the attention being given to the De growth case.

However there is considerable need for friendly-critical thought about various aspects of the movement, especially about goals and strategy. There seems to be a healthy willingness to engage in this (which unfortunately I do not think is evident within the Transition Towns movement; see Trainer, 2018a.) Following are some friendly criticisms and suggested directions that I would like to see given more attention within the movement.

In these early days it is understandable and healthy that a wide variety of ideas and proposals is being discussed under the general De growth heading, but it is important that there should be effort to move towards some clear and agreed themes and directions. Much of the present discussion goes far beyond the issue of growth and includes varied critiques of consumer-capitalist society and a range of “utopian” proposals. These are in general valuable and desirable but my main concern is that they do not derive from a satisfactory account of the global situation. The argument below is that such an account must be firmly based on an understanding of the magnitude of the limits to growth problem. Therefore the following discussion begins by sketching The Simper Way perspective on the global predicament and goes on to show how this yields clear and I believe inescapable radical implication for what the goals and the means of the De growth need to be.

The situation.

There are two major considerations for thinking about De growth, the first to do with the limits to growth and the second with the nature of the economy.

The situation: 1. Biophysical limits

The essential element in the global predicament is that consumer-capitalist society is far beyond levels of production and consumption that could be sustainable or just or provided to all people. Advocates of degrowth recognise that reductions are needed, but there seems to be little understanding of just how huge they must be. Following is an indication of the reasons why they must be in the region of 90%. Unless this is understood and accepted solutions put forward will be mistaken and ineffective.
One well known indicator is the World Wildlife Foundation's Footprint measure (2018). This puts the average Australian per capita use of productive land at 6–8 ha. Thus if the 9–10 billion people expected to be on earth by 2050 were to live as Australians do now, up to 80 billion ha of productive land would be needed. But there are only about 12 billion ha of productive land on the planet. If we set aside one third of it for nature then each Australian would be living in a way that would require about 10 times as much productive land as all people could ever have.

If it is assumed that renewable energy can completely eliminate carbon emissions (which is highly problematic, see TSW, 2018a), the multiple would reduce to 5. However other indices lead to the need for reductions in rich word per capita levels of production and consumption greater than 90%. For instance the iron ore and aluminium consumption rates for the ten largest consuming nations are in the region of 80 times the average for all other nations (Wiedmann et al., 2014). Note that these figures do not take into account the fact that in future years scarcities and difficulties will increase.

To this must be added the implications of growth. If the Australian GDP rises by 3% pa and by 2050 all 9–10 billion people rise to the “living standards” Australians would then have, each year the global economy would be producing and consuming about 18 times as much as it does now. Yet the present amounts are unsustainable; the WWF estimates that the global footprint is now 70% higher than the planet’s resources could enable.

Why analyse in terms of 10 billion people rising to the GDP per capita rich countries anticipate? Even if the moral case for equal access to the word's resources is ignored, raising “living standards” to rich word levels is the almost universally accepted supreme development goal so the consequences of its continued pursuit will have to be dealt with.

As has been pointed out well in the De growth literature, the claim that technical advance can enable economic growth without growth in resource use is contradicted by a large amount of evidence. Many studies show that despite constant effort to improve productivity and efficiency, productivity growth is low and falling and growth of GDP is accompanied by growth in resource use. (See for instance the reviews by, Ward et al., 2017, Alexander et al., 2018, Trainer, 2016, and by the recent powerful reviews and refutations by Hickel and Kallis, (2019) and by Parrique et al., 2019, (reporting on over 300 papers). This would seem to decisively rule out the faith of the “tech-fix” and “Green Growth” believers.

Thus there is a strong case not just that the pursuit of growth is undesirable but that it is likely to lead to major and possibly catastrophic global problems within a few decades. The crucial point made clear by the above multiples is the magnitude of the overshoot. Unfortunately the significance of this does not seem to be generally appreciated by people concerned with sustainability. Again the numbers mean that rich world per capita resource consumption rates probably need to be cut by around 90% before they reach levels that could be sustainably extended to all people.

The fact that the global limits to growth have been exceeded is the basic cause of the ecological problem, resource depletion, Third World deprivation, armed conflict over access to resources and markets, and deterioration in social cohesion and quality of life in even the richest countries. (These causal connections are detailed in TSW; The Limits to Growth.)

It is likely that within a decade or so the consequences of exceeding the limits to growth will trigger sudden collapse of the global economy. (Korowicz 2012, Morgan 2013, Kunstler 2005, Greer 2005, Bardi 2011 and Duncan 2013). It seems clear that conventional oil supply is now declining from a plateau reached after 2005 and growth in total supply has been maintained by the advent of “fracking”. However there are strong reasons to expect this source to peak and decline soon. (Hughes, 2016, Cunningham, 2019, Whipple, 2019, Cobb, 2019.) The major producers have not made a profit in any year of operation but have accumulated a debt that is over one quarter of a trillion dollars. It seems that an oil price high enough for them to break even is too high for the economy to avoid recession. Unless there are major and unforeseen technical breakthroughs reducing costs, at some point in the near future lenders are likely to withdraw. In addition Ahmed (2017) presents a persuasive case that most Middle East oil producing nations are encountering such serious ecological, food, water, population growth and climate problems that their capacity to export could be largely eliminated within ten years.

The financial context underlying these trends is a global debt that has risen to around twice the level it was before the GFC. Should confidence in fracking waver there is likely to be a sudden debt collapse causing possibly terminal havoc in the fragile global financial system and its credit/trust based and “just-in time” supply chains.

It must be stressed again that the limits predicament will soon become far more serious than has been indicated by the above numbers, because they do not take into account the fact that in coming years many crucial scarcities, problems and costs will worsen at an accelerating rate. Mineral ore grades are falling, Energy Return On Energy Investment values are falling, water is becoming more scarce, a holocaust or biodiversity loss seems to have begun, fish stocks are declining, oceans are warming and rising and becoming more acidic, toxic chemicals are accumulating in the soils, agricultural land is being lost at an alarming rate, cities which are resource intensive are growing, and global temperatures will rise causing a range of serious problems. Third world middle classes are expanding and boosting resource demand. Attempting to deal with these trends will add large amounts to resource and ecological demand, reducing amounts available to provide “living standards”. Thus the combined effects can be expected to tighten the noose severely, and to make the foregoing numerical case much worse than is indicated above.

Thus there is a very strong case that these rapidly worsening trends cannot be remedied without massive, historically unprecedented and extremely radical change away from lifestyles and systems driven by the quest for affluence and growth. The factor being emphasized here is the magnitude of the overshoot and the enormity and radical nature of the changes therefore required. My concern is that the De growth literature does not adequately represent and focus on the magnitude and difficulty of the reductions needed, or draw the radical implications for new social goals and forms, and for ways they might be achieved. These re so profound that reductions within the existing system cannot solve the problems; there must be transition to very different systems, and the De growth movement is not sufficiently aware of this.

Satisfactory responses to the situation would have to be immensely disruptive. Most of the present volume of industry, transport, travel, trade, construction, shopping, exporting, investing etc. would have to be phased out. How is this going to be done? It cannot be a matter of closing a mine or factory and transferring the workers to some other jobs; because the amounts of producing, work and jobs are to be cut dramatically.

Consider for instance the task of phasing out the Australian coal industry, writing off a $56 billion annual income and relocating 55,000 workers. Where are the workers to go? They can't be moved to other jobs if 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, unemployment rises, political discontent surges and governments are thrown out. A major force driving Australia to open what would be the world's biggest coal mine, Adani, is the prospect of regional unemployment if it is not opened. A major force determining that far too much water continues to be taken from the Australian Murray-Darling river system is the fact that any significant reduction would mean large numbers of farms and towns would cease.

This is mainly because most if not all De growth advocates fail to recognise the magnitude of the De growth required and proceed as if what is needed is a reduction in the scale of economic activity and resource use taking place within present society. This is a fundamental mistake. That assumption might be true if the De growth needed was minimal, but because it is so huge it can only be achieved by radical and multi-factorial system change, involving the scrapping of consumer society the financial system, consumer society and much of the cultural baggage that has prevailed for hundreds of years. (E.g. notions of progress, industrialisation, centralisation, the state, technical advance, satisfactory “living standards” and the good life; see further below.

The argument below is that if De growth theoreticians think carefully about the implications of this magnitude point they will recognize that De growth cannot just be about reducing scale and that there is no option but to focus on the design and building of radically simpler lifestyles, systems, settlements and economies. These are the logically inescapable implications of grasping the magnitude point. Yet the literature tends not to go much beyond patently inadequate strategies such as reducing hours of work or transferring workers to service industries.

The situation 2: The economy

The De growth literature is by definition clearly aware of the fact that the economic system is unacceptable because of its commitment to growth. However in my view there is not sufficient concern with the fact that it is a capitalist economy and thus operates according to market principles. Some contributors endorse the market and believe that a satisfactory de-growth economy can be a capitalist economy. Following is a brief indication of the reasons why both assumptions are mistaken, and thus of the reasons why De growth must come to be understood and promoted as an unambiguously anti-capitalist position. (See also Trainer, 2016.)

Only about one-sixth of the world's people live affluently and they do so mainly because the rules of the global economy ensure that they have most access to the world's resources and markets. The basic causal mechanism is the market principle; this is allowed to determine production, distribution and development. Markets respond solely to “effective demand” and therefore allocate primarily to richer bidders. Thus the rich secure most of the available resources and development is mostly of those industries and systems that will attend to their demand. The market determines that production is for profit not need.

This for example explains the essential nature of the Third World situation, wherein several billion people struggle with deprivation and repression, and approaching one billion are hungry despite the fact that they have around them sufficient resources to eliminate these conditions. The dominant conventional conception of “development” asserts that it can only be the result of the investment of capital by those who possess it, in those ventures which will maximise their wealth. Consequently Third World resources must be converted into commodities for sale within the global market. The majority of people must be grateful for the resulting minute trickle down benefits while they see the land, forests, fisheries, mines, skills and labour produce goods to flow out to enrich corporations and supermarket shoppers far away, when they could have been devoted directly to meeting urgent basic needs. The freedom for the owners of capital to operate according to market forces has been the major determinant of the unjust state the Third World has been developed into.

The same mechanism is the cause of accelerating inequality. Rich people have wealth to invest, and they only invest it in those options which yield them most return in the market, and thus they become richer, while poor people do not have capital to invest.
In addition as Marx, Polanyi and many others have pointed out, the market inevitably destroys social cohesion. It is about self-interest and the drive to maximize individual advantage and wealth. It is not influenced by considerations of morality, justice, environmental sustainability, or by impacts on social cohesion. Indeed these factors interfere with the smooth functioning of market forces, and market forces drive them out.

In the previous era when limits were not a problem these considerations could be ignored. Concerns about inequality could be dealt with by the assurance that growth would trickle down to enrich everyone. But in an era of severe scarcity and limits it should be clear that a sustainable society cannot be driven by market forces. (From The Simpler Way perspective the market could play a role, but only a quite minor one. See TSW: The New Economy.)

These conclusions regarding growth and markets determine that a satisfactory society cannot be a capitalist society. Firstly consider an economy in which the amount of production for sale has been reduced to possibly 10% of today's volume and it does not increase over time, and things are made to last including productive plant. The amount of investment taking place would therefore be well under 10% of the present amount. That is, the scope for a capitalist class to thrive on returns on investment and loans would be a tiny fraction of what it is today. In a world where severe limits and zero growth economies determined that investment must be entirely devoted to maintenance or replacement (or rearrangement) of existing plant, and where most of the basic investment decisions must be under social control, the scope for the owners of capital to invest would be miniscule. In the localized economy discussed below, the social control would be via the decisions of town assemblies and cooperatives, committees and working bees, and these are institutions and arrangements which contradict capitalism. But nevertheless could the remainder of the economy be capitalist?

In a steady state economy there could be no accumulation of capital. But capitalism is fundamentally about ceaseless accumulation in order to increase the amount of capital to invest. If a society with a stable economy allowed aspiring tycoons to accumulate capital by driving rivals out of business then before long a few of them would own all of the small and fixed amount of productive capacity, and eventually each industry would be in the hands of one surviving capitalist. A sensible society would inevitably regulate heavily to prevent this and would therefore at least be far more socialist than capitalist.

Nevertheless it is conceivable that competition in markets between private firms for a set and limited volume of sales could take place in quite selected and regulated sectors. Again such a sector would be very small, hobbled and not a normal form of capitalism. However it is conceivable that a few might own capital and lend it out for a fee which they spend and recycle into the stable economy. But a sensible society would recognize that this is parasitic and avoidable because public banks can provide all necessary loans at the miniscule charges that would just cover administrative costs.

Most importantly, in a zero growth economy there could be no lending in order to receive interest payments. If money is lent out on condition that it is to be repaid a year later plus interest then in that year its borrowers must produce more value than they borrowed, and if they did that then the economy would have grown. Thus there could only be a minute financial sector, confined to recycling some of the money saved.

Finally there is Herman Daly's case based on the notion that technical advance would enable productivity gains, i.e., make it possible for competitive, innovative capitalists to continually squeeze more sales value out of the set quantity of resources used, and thus accumulate wealth and grow the GDP. But the scope for this would be very small and it would diminish over time. Firstly productivity growth is low and falling. The Australian Government Productivity Commission (2018) figures show that over the past ten years Multi Factor Productivity accounted for under 25% of the country's GDP growth. The growth there has been is now recognized to have been significantly due to increased energy inputs. Berndt (1990) says that by the 1970s it was clear that at least 50% of apparent technology gains were due to increased energy use. The Australian Bureau of Agricultural Economics (ABARE, 2008) says that the energy efficiency of energy-intensive industries is likely to improve by only 0.5% p.a. in future, and of non-energy-intensive industries by 0.2% p.a. In other words for the energy efficiency of the intensive industries to double the amount of value they derive from a unit of energy would take 140 years. Most important is the fact that EROIs (energy returned on energy invested to produce it) are falling, that is, its productivity is deteriorating. Energy is very likely to become much more scarce and costly in the near future, and (Ayres et al., 2013) believe it will probably terminate productivity gains within the general economy

Daly's thesis is a version of the “decoupling claim”, i.e., that GDP could increase without increasing resource use. As noted above, there is a large literature showing that despite technical progress and constant effort over recent decades to cut resource use, as GDP increases resource and energy use increase. Again the major review by Parrique et al. (2019) concludes that absolute decoupling is not at all likely to be achieved in future.

These considerations would seem to emphatically rule out any possibility of an economy that is sustainable and just, given severe limits to growth, being capitalist. It would seem inescapable that it must be socialist in some sense. The De growth literature needs to put more emphasis on this theme.

The task is therefore not reduction in scale.

“De-growth” is in fact not the most appropriate term for what we have to do. If the task was only to reduce resource use by say 10% then we could just cut industries and forms of consumption in the present system by 10%. But the task is to reduce by such a very large amount that it can only be achieved by shifting to radical different economic, political, social, settlement and cultural systems. The central concerns of The Simpler Way project are to explain the nature of these required new systems, to show that they could be easily implemented (if we wanted to do that), and that they would significantly improve the quality of life.
The alternative?

The De growth literature and that of many other movements includes considerable discussion of possible alternative structures and procedures, but the claim being elaborated here is that these are not derived from the kind of diagnostic analysis engaged in above, and that as a result they are typically unsatisfactory, misleading and/or mistaken. Most De growth literature proceeds as if somehow people will go on living fairly normally, consuming less energy and products but delivered by a reformed and more regulated variety of capitalism.

The foregoing discussion has been that the magnitude of the De growth required rules out that possibility and the following argument is that the only logically coherent option is via the establishment of Simpler Way lifestyles and systems. Given the situation described above the core principles of a viable alternative must be:

A profoundly different culture, one involving far less production and consumption per capita, or concern with luxury, affluence, possessions and wealth, and instead focusing on non-material sources of life satisfaction. In addition the predominant outlook would have to be cooperative not competitive, much more collectivist and less individualistic. The enormity of such a cultural transition contradicting some of the core Enlightenment ideas and values could hardly be exaggerated.

Mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies, largely independent of national or global economies, devoting local resources to meeting local needs, with little intra-state let alone international trade. This means transition from globalized to localized systems.

A new economy, one that is a small fraction of the size of the present economy, is not driven by profit or market forces, does not grow, and ensures that needs, rights, justice, welfare and ecological sustainability determine the purposes to which limited resources are devoted. It might have a place for private firms and markets, but these would not be allowed to determine provision for basic social needs.
A new form of government
, primarily involving people in small communities taking cooperative and participatory control over their own local economies, via voluntary committees, working bees and town meetings.

The main concern of the Simpler Way project has been to show that a society of this kind could function well, could be easily built (if that was what we wanted to do), and could provide a higher quality of life than most people experience in rich-world societies today. The somewhat detailed vision (TSW: The Sustainable Alternative) is not offered as a precise prescription but as an illustration of possibilities intended to indicate feasibility. As will be explained further below, the account generally corresponds to the nature of many existing Eco-villages and to goals to be found within the Transition Towns movement. Following is a brief elaboration on some of the elements indicated by the above statement of principles.

Production of most basic goods by many small firms and farms (some cooperatives, some privately owned) within and close to settlements – much use of intermediate and low technologies especially craft and hand-tool production, mainly for their quality of life benefits – extensive development of commons providing many free goods especially “edible landscapes” – building using earth, enabling all people to have low-cost modest housing – voluntary working bees developing and maintaining community facilities – conversion of existing towns and suburbs into highly self-sufficient communities – many voluntary committees, e.g., for agriculture, care of aged, care of youth, entertainment and leisure, cultural activities – few paid officials – large cashless, free goods and gifting sectors – little need for transport, enabling bicycle access to work and conversion of most suburban roads to commons – the need to work for a monetary income only one or two days a week, at a relaxed pace – thus enabling much involvement in arts and crafts and community activities – town-owned banks – local currencies that do not involve interest – relatively little dependence on corporations, professionals, bureaucrats and high-tech ways – no un

employment because communities organize to use all productive labour and to ensure everyone has a livelihood.
The study Remaking Settlements, (Trainer, 2019) derives detailed estimates supporting the claim that these procedures could cut the energy, dollar and footprint costs typical of a Sydney suburb by more than 90%, while improving all dimensions of the quality of life. Reductions of this magnitude are achieved within the Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in Missouri (Lockyer, 2017).

The crucial point here is that only in small, and highly integrated communities can per capita resource and ecological costs be dramatically reduced. For instance a study of inputs to local cooperative egg production (Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, 2019) found that dollar and energy costs are typically around 2% of those for eggs supplied by the commercial/industrial path. In consumer society egg supply involves complex international networks involving agribusiness, industrial feed and fertilizer production, production of steel for factories, tractors, shipping, warehousing, battery farming, logistics, advertising, trucks, super marketing, IT, finance, consultants, packaging, waste removal, and expensive technical skills. However eggs produced in backyards, community co-ops and local small farms eliminate almost all of these costs while adding benefits such as enabling “waste” kitchen scraps to become chicken feed, and “waste” chicken manures to go directly to soils, thus eliminating dependence on a fertilizer industry. The proximity and smallness of scale make possible much recycling and reuse, without need for transport etc., and enable arrangements and problem solving via spontaneous communication among neighbours, as well as creating community, leisure resources and resilience. The same principles can apply to the supply of most basic necessities, including almost all other food items, preserving, building, much clothing, footwear and furniture production, and especially many services including education and aged care.

Communities will function satisfactorily in these ways only if there are strong dispositions to cooperate, help others, take social responsibility, support community events, contribute to working bees and be concerned about the public good. However the experience of living in the conditions described strongly tends to automatically elicit and reinforce these dispositions. All realize that their welfare derives not from individual income or property but from the solidarity and “spiritual” wealth of their community. In contrast with consumer-capitalist society, cooperation and collective values are encouraged and there is little incentive for individualistic accumulation.

The economic focus therefore tends to shift from getting to giving; people know that when they give generously they are likely to receive abundantly. Whereas consumer society typically involves competitive and often less than zero-sum interactions, in The Simpler Way the feedbacks are positive meaning that goodness generates further goodness and reinforces a climate of concern to see the other thrive. To give, care and contribute brings out in others appreciation and a desire to reciprocate. Thus the spiritual benefits of The Simpler Way become evident; it enables liberation from the major burdens of consumer society (where depression is one of the most common illnesses now) and opens the way to a high quality of life for all despite, more accurately because of, very low material “living standards”.

There would still be an important though much reduced role for some more distant and centralised institutions, such as teaching hospitals, universities, steel works, large and complex factories, railway systems, wind farms and (small) cities. However there would be little or no need for many industries, such as advertising. In a greatly reduced economy which has no growth and therefore no interest payments, almost the entire current financial industry would cease to exist. The elimination of most of the present vast quantity of unnecessary productive effort would enable considerable increases in resources available to flow into arts, education and socially desirable research and development.

Although this vision involves decimation of per capita consumption rates it does not imply hardship or deprivation. It involves shifting to lifestyles and systems which enable all to enjoy non-material sources of purpose and satisfaction. Studies of Eco-villages find that the quality of life experience is higher than in mainstream society (Lockyer, 2017 and Grinde, et al., 2017).
Over the past thirty years a concern to move in this general direction has emerged and is gathering momentum, most evident in the Permaculture, Voluntary Simplicity, Localism, Commons, Municipalism, Dual Power, Downshifting, Eco-village and Transition Towns literatures. (For an outline of the remarkable achievements of the Catalan Integral Cooperative see Trainer, 2018b.)

It should be emphasized that the above vision is not a utopian ideal or a wish list of preferred elements. Nor is it presented as one option among several other possibilities. It is derived from the foregoing analysis of the global situation and the core Simpler Way argument is that there is no alternative.

To repeat, the argument is that when the discussion of a sustainable and just world begins with the magnitude of the limits to growth situation it logically and inescapably leads to a solution that centres on localism and simplicity. Again the main aim of this paper is to persuade the De-growth movement to focus on this logic and its conclusion. There will soon be transition to much simpler and more localized lifestyles and systems. The only options are whether the transition will be made in a deliberate and rational way or via chaotic breakdown.

Thus the inadequacy of the shopping list approach to defining the alternative.

De growth proposals typically take the form of a “shopping list” of unconnected macroscopic or state/global-level goals, such as the ten points given by Georgios Kallis (2015). These typically include for example limiting inequality, implementing cap and trade systems, and implementing ecological tax reform. Such lists are almost always made up of highly desirable items but they are problematic for a number of reasons, primarily because they fail to derive from a satisfactory theory of where we are and where we need to go. They typically implicitly assume positions on goals and means which from the Simpler Way perspective are insufficient or mistaken, and as a result they involve ineffective implications for strategy and action. Only if the analysis begins with a clear understanding of the magnitude of the limits problem can the basic elements of the solution be arrive at, and only when this is done are we in a position to judge the relevance and value of items in the typical shopping list.

In addition the typical list fails to recognize the most crucial implication of all for goals and action; it makes no reference to the fact that a sustainable and just society cannot be achieved unless rich world “living standards” and GDP are more or less literally decimated. Consequently the list reflects no recognition the goal is not mere reduction but that radically new economic and cultural systems must be adopted. The lists do not state that the basic institution has to be the small, self-governing local economy that enables the integration, proximity and informal handling of productive activity which cuts resource costs. In turn there is no recognition of the overwhelming importance of community dynamics, cohesion, morale, and citizenship in ensuring that such communities can function well. And stating the list does not make clear that its items could not be achieved until after there was huge cultural change, nor that the revolution could only emerge as communities grapple with conditions of breakdown and severe limits (see below). In addition the typical shopping list only includes changes at the state policy level, i.e., at what Simpler Way theory identifies as Stage 2 of the revolution (below), and thus will not be achieved until well after revolution at the local level is underway.

A consequence is that lists appear to indicate causes we can put in motion, actions we can take to fix the global predicament. But they are better regarded as consequences, changes that will become possible when and because Stage 1 of the revolution has been achieved.

In addition lists give no clue as to how they could possibly be achieved when growth and affluence are the unquestionable and strenuously pursued supreme commitments of the two dominant classes, i.e., the capitalist class and almost everyone else. This is not a matter of wrong-headed choice or will on the part of people in general; the pursuit of affluence and growth are necessary for the present economy to function. As has been emphasized above, if growth in production and consumption merely slows there is serious disruption and suffering.

More importantly, all of the typical list of goals could actually be implemented in capitalist society, and without solving the fundamental problems of limits to growth, sustainability and economic injustice.

The point is that merely stating shopping lists is not satisfactory, because goals must be derived from a sound theory of the situation, and in general the De growth literature is not based on such a theory.
Transition strategy issues.

The above perspective on the global predicament and the required alternative has coercive implications for how the goal could and could not be achieved. The De growth literature is also unsatisfactory in this domain. It has little to say about how the transition might be made and the implicit theory would seem to be a kind of democratic socialist strategy, which it will be argued below is mistaken.
Typical goal lists constitute demands being made of the state, and thus reveal the belief that the required changes can be made by the state. Strategic thinking is therefore directed at this level, that is, at getting governments to implement the goals. However Simpler Way transition theory (for the full account see TSW: Transition.) argues that this approach is fundamentally mistaken. While ever consumer-capitalist society remains in place governments will not and indeed cannot implement those goals.

Obviously no government could pursue any kind of simpler way unless it had previously received general public approval for extreme restructuring, including phasing out entire industries and providing for masses of displaced workers and impacted towns. Given that the intention is De growth, people could not be shifted to alternative industries, so to what kind of circumstances are they to be relocated? The paradox is that if the electorate had come to hold the new world view it would long before have been building local economies based on collectivism, localism and frugality. Thus the essential change dynamic would not have been about calling for governments to initiate these developments.

Clearly then the first and massive task is establishing the awareness and willingness without which the plan could not be accepted. Thus the central element in Simpler Way transition theory is the need to build that awareness and willingness, not calling for governments to implement currently impossible marcro policy demands. This means the revolution is essentially not an economic or political one; this is a cultural revolution. More accurately, only if the cultural revolution that Simpler Way theory identifies as Stage 1 is achieved can the structural changes identified in shopping lists be achieved in Stage 2.

This reveals the mistaken logic of the “Eco-socialists”. They are working to install parties that have adopted policies that include shopping lists of the kind Kallis (and “steady state” economist Herman Daly, 2013) offer, but because such a program could not possibly be implemented in the present kind of economy this project would be futile unless it was regarded as within a wider vision involving more or less scrapping this economy and replacing it with an entirely different one. Again the new one would include terminating most of the producing and consuming going on, meaning dramatic reduction in “living standards” and somehow dealing with large numbers of workers and surplus firms. No government proposing such change could possibly come into existence unless elected by a majority of people who have previously knowingly and willingly come over a long period to opt for such enormously radical policies. So if transition to some kind of Simpler Way is to be the goal, then no movement in this direction would be conceivable unless and until a profound cultural change had first occurred. Such change is not going to be achieved by agitating now or in the near future for states to implement typical shopping list items.

The key to achieving the Stage 1 cultural revolution is the “educational” work of spreading the understanding that the growth and affluence world view must be abandoned and that there are workable and attractive alternatives. This is what The Simpler Way project is about, attempting to show that we could easily build highly satisfactory communities in which per capita rates of resource use, ecological impact, work and stress are decimated if not entirely eliminated, thereby defusing global problems, while greatly improving the quality of life.

This is an Eco-Anarchist perspective. It focuses on the development of small, largely self-sufficient and cooperative communities self-governing via town assemblies, in which no one rules over us but we rule ourselves, equal citizens focus on the public good and it is understood that everyone's welfare depends greatly on the town's welfare. It assumes that “spontaneous” action by people who recognize their mutual dependence will attend to most everyday issues. It also recognises that at the present stage of the transition the primary task is to, as the Anarchists say, “prefigure” the new ways as much as is possible. These things are being done within the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements. The main purpose within these initiatives should be to establish illustrative examples for “educational” purposes, that is, to increase public understanding of the required changes in ideas and values. If this can be done then Stage 1 of the revolution will be seen to have been the revolution; the structural changes in Stage 2, including many of the typical shopping list items, will then be seen as consequences of the revolution.

Simpler Way transition theory denies two common assumptions. Firstly the idea that merely building alternative systems will in time add up to the existence of the desired new world; it is not the case that just by adding more community gardens and clothing swaps we will eventually have replaced consumer-capitalist society. The national and global structural changes such as De growth will only be achieved by huge political processes beyond the town that will not be conceivable until Stage1 has created widespread demand for them.

Secondly, current society is incapable of making the latter kind of changes rationally and smoothly, via existing institutions of government. They can only be achieved after the coming era of global system breakdown, and there is no guaranteed that they will be achievable thereafter. The task here and now is to try to ensure that those who emerge from it are determined to build simpler way systems and lifestyles. (These theses are argued at length in TSW, 2018e).

These have been some themes which it is hoped the De growth movement will focus on in future. The movement is extremely important and encouraging, but there has been a failure to join the dots; if one begins with the magnitude of the limits and the inevitable working of the market, then one must recognize that De growth has to lead to a discussion of an alternative defined in terms of radical simplicity in lifestyles and systems, and that the dots then lead to strong implications for thinking about transition strategy.

For Simper Way analyses see


Australian Government Productivity Commission, (2018), Annual Report, 2017-18.

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Duncan, R. C., (2013), “Olduvai Theory; Heading into the gorge”, The Social Contract Theory Journal, Winter, (23), 2.

Greer, J. M., (2005), How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse .

Grinde, B., et al., (2017), “The Quality of life in intentional communities”, Social Indictors Research, March.

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Kallis,G., (2015), “Yes, We Can Prosper Without Growth: 10 Policy Proposals for the New Left”, Common Dreams, 28 Jan.

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Trainer, T., (2018a), “The Transition Towns Movement … going where?” Resilience, 7th June.

Trainer, T., (2018b), The Catalan Integral Co-operative: The Simpler Way revolution is well underway! Resilience, Jan 17.

Trainer, T., (2019), “Remaking settlement for sustainability”,
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Trainer, T., A. Malik and M. Lenzen, (2019), "A comparison between the monetary, resource and energy costs of the conventional industrial supply path and the “Simpler Way” path for the supply of eggs.", Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality, 4(3), pages 1-7, September.

Ward, J. L., Fioramonti, K. Chiveralls, P. Sutton, R. Costanza, (2017),
“The decoupling delusion: rethinking growth and sustainability”, The Conversation, March 13, 2017.

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World Wildlife Fund, (2018), The Living Planet Report, World Wildlife Fund and London Zoological Society, tp://