It is not generally understood that the extent to which industrialised societies have exceeded sustainable levels of production, consumption, resource use and ecological impact means that solutions must involve transition to far simpler lifestyles and systems. This makes the required transition unlike any previous revolution. It is unique with respect to both goals and means. It will be argued that it must involve major De growth from affluent, industrialised, globalized, competitive, individualistic, acquisitive and market-driven society to localized communities maximising self-sufficiency, self government and cooperative and non-material values.
Thus the goal has to be a transition to some kind of Simpler Way. This is not an option; these are necessary conditions if a sustainable and just society that all could share is to be achieved. The implications for the transition process are equally radical. Successful transition strategy cannot focus on political action within existing decision making institutions, let alone confronting the ruling class, taking state power or resorting to physical force. The required changes cannot be imposed. When the required new ways are understood it is clear that they cannot be implemented unless they are widely seen to be desirable.
Thus this is primarily a cultural revolution. These premises yield a very different theory of transition to that assumed by conventional theorists, “green” activists, “populists” or those within the Marxist/socialist camp. A major element within the theory of transition to be elaborated below is the claim that existing decision making structures and procedures are incapable of making the required changes. They will not be made by deliberate, rational analysis, planning and orderly managed processes.
It is necessary to begin by focusing on the enormous and poorly understood magnitude of the global sustainability problem. 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, probably literally decimated. There are two lines of reasoning leading to this conclusion, one to do with resource and ecological limits, and the other to do with the nature of the economy.
Situation 1: The limits to growth.
Following is an overview of the case that present rich world per capita levels of GDP probably have to be cut by 90%.
The commonly cited "Ecological Footprint" index shows that to provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy takes about 7 ha of productive land (World Wildlife Fund, 2016). If by 2050 the expected 9.8 billion people were to have risen to the present "living standard" in Australia, and the planet's amount of productive land will remain the same as it is today (an invalid assumption), then the amount for humans to use per capita would be 0.8 ha. In other words Australians today are using about ten times the amount per capita that would be possible for all to use. (And this assumes that only one-quarter of all productive land is sufficient to leave for all other species.)
There are other indices which yield worse multiples. The figures given by Hickel (2018) indicate that for materials consumption the ratio is 2.5 times as bad as for productive land. Wiedmann et al. (2014) state a similar conclusion; the average per capita consumption of the ten main iron ore and aluminium consuming nations is around 80 times the average of all the rest. The top 8 countries average 14 times the per capita consumption of the bottom 80 countries. Given their finding that a 1% increase in GDP is accompanied by a 0.6% increase in materials consumption, to raise all people in 2050 to the Australian per capita use rate by then, world resource production world have to be 10 times as great as at present. But global resource use is already well beyond sustainable levels.
However this has only been an indication of the present grossly unsustainable situation. There is also the universal fundamental commitment to ceaseless growth in production, consumption, trade, investment, "living standards", wealth and GDP. The impossible implications are easily demonstrated. If 9.8 billion people were to rise to the GDP per capita Australians would have in 2050 given 3% p.a. economic growth, then total world economic output would be approaching 18 times the present amount. But again the present amount is grossly unsustainable: The WWF estimates that even now we would need to harvest from 1.7 planet Earths to meet current resource demand sustainably.
Why analyse in terms of the possibility of 9+ billion rising to anticipated rich world living standards? Firstly it is not morally acceptable to assume a difference in levels. Secondly that is the goal to which almost all nations are committed, so whether we like it or not we will have to deal with the feasibility and implications.
Rejection of this limits to growth case is usually based on the belief that technical advance will deal with the associated problems, that is, enable continued increase in production and consumption while bringing environmental impacts down to sustainable levels. It is not difficult to show the extreme implausibility of this claim. The core assumption is that resource use can be "decoupled" from growth in economic output or GDP, i.e., that technical advances can bring resource and environmental impacts down to sustainable levels while enabling continued GDP growth. But the above figures show the enormity of the reductions that would be required. Impact rates per unit of GDP would have to be cut to the region of 2% of present rates by 2050. More importantly, all of the many studies of "decoupling" find that despite constant effort to improve efficiency and productivity, growth of GDP is accompanied by growth of resource use. (Wiedmann et al. 2014, Alexander, Rutherford and Floyd, 2018, Ward et al., 2016, Trainer 2016.)
To summarize, the overwhelmingly important conclusion to be drawn from the limits to growth case is that the overshoot, the degree of unsustainability, is so great that a sustainable society cannot be defined other than in terms of De-growth to levels of per capita resource use, production, consumption and GDP that are in the region of one-tenth of present Australian per capita levels. Few analyses focus on this multiple, and therefore few recognize the profound implications for thinking about a sustainable society must take, or for the transition path to it. It is the foundational premise in the following discussion of Simpler Way transition theory.
The magnitude of the challenge could not be exaggerated. For two hundred years the fundamental goals of Western 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 within the ranks of the ordinary consumers of rich and poor societies.
This means that the required structural changes in society, such as jetisoning the growth economy, cannot be undertaken unless there has been widespread adoption of radically new ideas, values and practices. The practical question thus set is, how might such an unprecedented cultural transition come about?
Situation 2: The limits to capitalism.
It is clear from the above discussion of limits that the economy we have is a major element in the causal chain, and that a sustainable economy must not just be a steady state economy but one which has undergone De-growth down to a small fraction of present levels of production for sale. The present economy cannot do this. Growth is one of its indispensable, defining characteristics. For instance, one consequence is that in a steady state economy there can be no interest paid on loans, because if at the end of the year a lender is to pay back more than was borrowed at the start, value greater than the loan must have been created during the year.
Similarly, the required economy could not be driven by market forces. This mechanism inevitably generates inequality and injustice. It allocates scarce resources and goods to richer people and nations, simply because they can pay more for them. Thus almost a billion people are hungry while about one third of world grain production is fed to animals in rich countries, and most of the best land in some hungry countries produces crops to export. More importantly in the Third World the market mechanism inevitably produces development that is mostly in the interests of the rich. Capital is invested not in projects most likely to meet need but those most likely to maximize the profits of investors, that is, projects that will produce goods richer people wish to purchase in the market. As a result resources which could be put into development of capacities to meet the urgent needs of the poorest flow out to enriching distant investors and consumers.
The justification for the economy’s distribution and development effects has been the claim that eventually the wealth it generates will “trickle down” to enrich all. Smaje (2019) is one who provides plots that ridicule this offensive myth. His Plot 2 shows that in 1960 the per capita of the richest one-fifth of the world’s people was 28 times that of the poorest one-fifth but by 2017 the multiple was 48. In those 57 years the income of the poorest fifth rose by $500, while that of the richest fifth rose by $34,000. At that rate of trickle down it would take 5,472 years for the average income of the poorest fifth to rise to the 2017 level of the rich one-fifth.
Even more importantly, the foregoing discussion of limits rules out trickle down because there is no possibility of global resources enabling growth to the point were trickle down has lifted all to acceptable living standards.
The present economy leaves as much as possible to be determined by market forces. However a society that operated within in coercive biophysical limits would have to carefully plan and regulate the use of very scarce resources. Its economy would have to be at least predominantly “socialized”.
This economy has now led to disturbingly high global levels of debt, inequality, social breakdown and discontent. The 1% have risen to extreme wealth while the take home pay of the average American worker has hardly risen in forty years.
The advent of robotics is very likely to rapidly exacerbate these deteriorating conditions and trends. Their introduction will be determined by what maximises the profits of investors, so “effective demand” within the economy can be expected to deteriorate significantly.
In Marxist terms these phenomena represent the inevitable playing out of the contradictions built into the capitalist economy, eventually producing the “immiseration” which leads to the system’s self-destruction.
There is therefore a strong case that this economy is a major generator of the global problems facing us, and that it cannot solve them. It would seem to be clear that a sustainable and just economy cannot be driven by growth or by market forces. This in turn would seem to conclusively determine that a sustainable and just alternative society economy cannot have a capitalist economy. (From the Simpler Way perspective much could be left to small private firms and farms and to the market but the economy would have to be under some form of social control. However that form must be small scale, local and participatory-democratic, not centralised or authoritarian: see below.)
What then is the alternative?
The Simpler Way answer to this question has been detailed in various places and will only be briefly summarized here. (TSW: The Alternative.) The argument is that if the limits are as outlined above then the only way to get the per capita resource use rates right down while ensuring a good quality of life for all is through transition to settlements in which are core elements are;
Thousands now live in these kinds of conditions within the global Eco-village Movement. (See GEN). The government of Senegal is working to convert 1,400 villages to these principles. (St-Onge, 2015.)
The Remaking Settlements study (Trainer 2019) derives 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 by the Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in Missouri. See Lockyer, 2017.)
To summarise, when the discussion begins with an understanding of the situation in terms of biophysical limits, the logically inescapable conclusion is that only settlements of this general kind can enable a sustainable and just society. This transition goal is unlike those motivating previous revolutions.
Beyond these settlements there would still be “state” bureaucracies dealing with railways for instance, some large scale and mass production industries, such as for steel and cement, universities to train professionals, and cities. However their scale would be greatly reduced, although resources available for socially useful R and D could be significantly increased. (For the detail see TSW: The Alternative.)
This society cannot solve the problems.
The conventional 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 legislated adjustments in their circumstances. But from the perspective of The Simpler Way this expectation is now clearly mistaken. Given the foregoing account of the magnitude and nature of the problems, the institutions and political process of this society are not capable of rationally facing up to and making the enormous and disruptive changes required. Consider the following reasons:
1. The enormity of the changes required.
Even the De growth literature fails to represent the magnitude and difficulty of the reductions required. If rich world volumes of production and thus consumption of resources must be cut by up to 90%, then most of the present quantities 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 coal mine and transferring the workers to other jobs; because the amounts of work and jobs have to be cut dramatically. It has to involve the creation of totally new social structures and procedures, whereby most people can live well without producing anywhere near so much as before. This could not be done unless there was widespread public acceptance of radically new systems and arrangements which would be immensely disruptive and could be expected to generate a vast amount of disputation and resistance.
How for instance can the Australian coal industry be phased out, writing off a $56 billion annual income and relocating 55,000 workers? Where will the workers go? 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, towns deteriorate, political discontent surges and governments are thrown out. 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 growth literature has hardly begun to consider what the answers here might be.
The enormity of the technical (as distinct from economic and political) challenges is illustrated by a study of what would be involved in transitioning to 100% renewable energy supply. Trainer (2017) took the production cost findings of Lenzen et al. (2017) for 100% renewable electricity supply in Australia and extended these to cover the other 80% of energy demand that is not electrical by assuming conversion of electricity to hydrogen. Other assumptions were, electric drive for all light vehicles and trucks, use of all available Australian biomass for ethanol to fuel heavier trucks, shifting much freight to rail, conversion of a large amount of hydrogen to deal with the energy storage task and to meeting the non-electrical demand. Several important costs were not taken into account, including the capital cost of the biomass to ethanol conversion plant, the cost of the hydrogen generating, compression, pumping, storage and distribution plant, and the energy costs embodied in all the required equipment. It was found that electricity generating capacity would have to be seven times as great as at present, and that the annual energy cost would be 27% of GDP, compared with 8% now. Nothing like that percentage would be affordable. When US energy costs have risen to over about 6% of GDP recession has tended to occur. (Hall and Klitgaard, 2014.)
2. There isn’t time.
Even if the understanding and the will existed, changes of the huge and radical nature required would take many decades. They involve reversing what have been some of the fundamental drivers of Western civilization for the last two hundred years. Yet it is probable that the three main global threats each give us no more than ten years if they cannot be eliminated.
According to various estimates the “carbon budget” to limit temperature rise to under 1.5 degrees will have been exhausted within about twelve years (and by 2045 for a 2 degree target, Levin 2018.) But energy demand is likely to rise 55% to 890 EJ/y by 2050 (Minqui, 2019) and the IEA (2018, p. 7) expects carbon emissions to increase until 2040. Input from renewable sources would have to increase by 27 EJ/y but the current rate of increase is only 0.72 EJ/y. (Our World in Data, 2019.) There is therefore no possibility of achieving the 1.5 degree goal. In addition that budget only gives a 67% chance of remaining under 1.5 degrees, meaning that to have an acceptable chance the budget would have to be much smaller.
It is likely that a major and permanent collapse in oil availability will occur within a decade (IEA 2018, Energy Skeptic, 2019, ). It is generally recognized that the availability of conventional petroleum peaked around 2005 and has declined significantly since then. World supply has continued to increase, due to the remarkable rise in output from the advent of “fracking” in the US tight oil regions.
However there are strong reasons to expect this source to peak and decline soon. Almost none of the major producers have made a profit in any year of operation, while the industry has accumulated a debt over one quarter of a trillion dollars. This is despite extremely low interest rates, without which the industry might not have begun. 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, which is unlikely, at some point in the near future lenders are likely to cease providing the large sums needed to maintain output as wells rapidly deplete.
In addition Ahmed (2017) presents a very 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. Meanwhile the amount of energy it takes to produce a barrel of oil is increasing significantly. Despite these alarming observations the precariousness of the petroleum situation is attracting little attention.
After remaining more or less stable for two decades, global debt has doubled in the last two, is now equivalent to around three times global GDP, and is far higher than before the GFC, is accelerating. It is difficult to imagine how a massive collapse in the near future can be avoided. Keen (2017) is one who provides an impressive case that it cannot.
Many other increasing difficulties will weigh against the prospects for dealing with the major problems in the short time available. Resource costs are rising. So are ecological costs, firstly due to increasing damage from extreme events such as droughts, fires, floods and storms, and secondly due to the cost of attempting to remedy previous long term damage such as plastic pollution of oceans, air pollution threats to health, loss of soil carbon, ocean acidification, protecting threatened species, sea level threats to island communities, etc. And what might be the turn-around time for stopping the loss of insect, bird, marine, mammal, plant and reptile species? The present rate is alarming and accelerating, generally regarded as the beginning of a holocaust. (UN, 2019.) It is a direct function of the loss of habitats and their pollution which are direct consequences of the growth of production. How likely is the acceleration of the damage to be stopped and sufficiently reversed in 30 years?
A counter argument is that Roosevelt did remarkable things when he brought in the New Deal, and similar fundamental restructuring was achieved when the US focused industry on fighting World War 2. 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 quite different to the one we are in. It did not involve eliminating jobs and profitable production, and there was widespread political support deriving from the war effort. The present task involves instructing Boeing and Ford to stop producing aircraft and SUVs but not to start producing anything else.
If the changes argued for were to be achieved they would constitute the greatest social revolution in history. They involve far more than the dissolution of capitalism. There are two powerful classes that would resist such a revolution strenuously. The first is the capitalist class, along with its many managerial and professional staff. The second class is made up of … just about everybody else. To say the least, there is little reason to think that our political and technical systems are going to put the required transition through in the face of this reality before the problems overwhelm us.
3. We do not have political institutions capable of making changes of the magnitude required.
Our systems 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 mainly a consequence of the self-interested, competitive, individualistic ethos built into our culture and political system. We refuse to share burdens appropriately. We dump them 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 is usually 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?
Because dealing with the predicament effectively would involve painful adjustments on a massive scale people would be acutely sensitive to perceived inequities in the adjustments they were called upon to make. Resistance, disputes and appeals would surely proliferate over the new options presented, the changes in locations, and especially the dramatically reduced levels of income, purchasing and consumption.
4. The problems interact, positively feedback, and compound.
The global economy involves a network with many complex and fragile links, and the difficulties evident with respect to many components have multiplicative interactions with each other. For instance Ahmed’s analysis of Middle Eastern oil producers shows how climate change, drought, rising temperatures, soil loss and rapid population growth are multiplying together to generate revolutionary challenges for governments, while these factors are reducing their revenues for dealing with the problems. Their declining capacity to cope leads to repression in an effort to contain discontent and maintain order, which meets with resistance, further disrupting productive systems and intensifying dissent.
There are similar compounding interactions in rich countries and in the general global economy between factors such as the declining EROI of energy production, the deterioration of ore grades, increasing costs of climate damage, the need to spend to replace coal-fired power, the loss of forests, soils, increasing water scarcity, etc., and increasing popular discontent. An important example is the fact that as the price of energy increases then the amount of mineral ores that are economically accessible declines. Mason is one who recognises the way these many deteriorating factors are likely to culminate in “the 2030 spike, the title of his book. (Mason 2003.) Others have detailed how the combined effects are likely to lead to sudden and catastrophic breakdown in the global economy via its dependence on now extreme levels of debt. (E.g.,Morgan 2012, and Korowits 2012.) A point will come when lenders cease to believe their debts can be repaid, triggering a cessation of credit and a panic to salvage, involving bankrupting firms and selling of productive assets. The global economy cannot function unless a great deal of credit can constantly be secured, for instance to ship ordered goods on the expectation that they will later be paid for. Korowitz and others argue that given modern “just in time” supply systems the supermarket shelves could be bare and the oil refinery tanks empty within a matter of days.
Thus the difficulties now being experienced due to climate change and oil supply are likely to soon be dwarfed by a tidal wave of compounding effects.
5. Effective action could not be taken unless governments were predominantly “socialist”, but that is regarded as totally unacceptable.
The required restructuring could not be carried out in any society like this one unless powerful centralized states could drive them through despite strenuous resistance. Current political systems usually determine governments by small electoral margins and thus are well deigned for stability as they enable minor sectors to block changes which threaten their interests. It is difficult to imagine how any level of De growth could be achieved by governments that did not have very strong and authoritarian powers (…that is, unless publics had previously undergone a cultural revolution to the Simpler Way world view.) Needless to say it is not likely that readiness to accept “socialist” governments with the required powers is going to emerge any time soon. (The present increase in sympathy for “socialist” policies, such as those of Bernie Sanders and the Green New Deal in the US are far from those that would be needed for De growth.)
Resistance can be expected to be especially fierce on the part of those with most to lose and most power to thwart De growth, viz. the rich. A sufficient amount of De growth would mean the elimination of most of the investments yielding their wealth. They own the media and the think tanks, and the politicians to whose campaign funds they have donated. They have the power to move their factories overseas and thus devastate regions, currency values or trade balances if governments do not adopt policies that suit them. The world is driven by their determination to maximise access to profitable resources and markets and they will fight furiously to keep things that way.
6.The conventional world view is oriented in the wrong direction.
The dominant world view takes for granted that solutions to problems must involve high-tech “end of pipe” fixes that deal with the effects of unsustainable practices, as distinct from moving away from the practices that generated the effects. Minerals getting scarce … then mine the moon. The automatic tendency is to go for more complex, energy and capital -ntensive supply side technologies. The world view also takes it for granted that individual and national progress equals getting wealthier, that purchasing is the key to the good life, that competitive self-interest is socially progressive and collectivism is mistaken, that luxury and indulgence are attractive, and thus that frugality and self-sufficiency are not. Bigger houses are preferable to smaller ones, globalisation is desirable because it enables access to more and cheaper goods and services, if you can afford it then it is in order to consume it, travel is morally unproblematic, small farming is for peasants, the future of food is high-tech agribusiness preferably in multi-story greenhouses, intense specialization is the future so the Jack-of-all-trades belongs to history, simplicity and frugality are not fashionable and why repair it when you can throw it away and buy another one cheaply.
In addition modernity has developed structures and systems that would now make it difficult or impossible to implement the necessary solutions, notably evident in the modern city where high rise and freeways have eliminated backyard fruit and vegetable gardening and have made energy-intensive transport, water, sewer, power etc. systems essential. Nations have become heavily dependent on trade to secure things they once made for themselves, meaning vast commitments to air and sea transport systems. Settlements have become leisure deserts meaning that resort must be made to energy-intensive globalized sources, including international holiday travel. Even more difficult to reverse would be lifestyle habits and skills. Large numbers now know little about sewing clothes, growing food, keeping chickens, making and fixing things and other aspects of frugal self sufficient living, and few see such activities as attractive.
Perhaps most problematic is the absence of any idea of ordinary people taking control over the running of their own neighbourhoods and towns. Councils and state governments decide what is to be done and they look after maintenance and attend to any problems that arise. Post modernity focuses attention on trivia, predominantly electronic but also in the form of sport, fashion, Facebook gossip, celebrities and spectaculars. Individuals consume fleeting thrills, which add to the factors distracting from any sense of collective concern to get together to do something about shared problems. These taken for granted outlooks and predispositions constitute a mentality that is contrary to that required for the necessary transition.
But these reasons pale beside the most powerful one.
7. There is not even the capacity to recognize the fundamental nature of the predicament and therefore what has to be done to solve it.
l cause of the predicament is over-production and over-consumption, i.e., the commitment to affluence and growth when the planet’s limited resources means that pursuit of that goal is generating the major global problems and leading us towards terminal collapse. This is why there is resource depletion, environmental damage, Third Word poverty and armed conflict. However very few people understand this and the almost universally held supreme goal among governments, economists and publics remains strong commitment to limitless increase in production and consumption. The self destructive irrationality of this has been heavily documented over the past fifty years by various scientists and others who have elaborated the basic “limits to growth” case in a now vast literature, but the mainstream has more or less totally ignored this information and has little or no grasp of the situation.
This seems to be a common characteristic of human society, evident throughout history. A society will maintain without question cherished myths, assumptions, practices and values which an onlooker can see are at lest invalid or morally abhorrent, and at times patently suicidal. Glaring realities do not enter consciousness. Take for instance the acceptability of slavery, or pride in the British empire, or in our times the fact that rich world affluence and comfort are built on resource flows which deprive and impoverish Third World people. Such realities are simply not attended to and attempts to draw attention to them are ignored. In our case where the realities involve threats to our very survival the phenomenon represents a collective feeble mindedness. A society so clever that it can put people on the moon does not have the ability to even see that it is being destroyed by some of its fundamental and cherished commitments. This is not primarily a matter of intellect, it is to do with will, a refusal to consider, and it is this non-rational nature which makes it so intractable.
But it is often said Roosevelt did remarkable things when he brought in the New Deal, and similar fundamental restructuring was achieved when the US focused industry on fighting World War 2. For instance the car industry was told to stop making cars and start making tanks. But this is a weak argument because that situation was very different to the one we are in.. 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.
These seven considerations constitute an overwhelmingly strong case that this society is not capable of dealing with the predicament. Its decision making institutions are not able to analyse the situation accurately, face up to it, work out viable strategies, mobilise to achieve them, almost totally remake its economic, political, geographical and cultural systems, deal with the equity problems, or shift to a world view which contradicts and repudiates affluence and growth, globalization, high-tech salvation, complexity etc. Thus the fundamental premise in Simper Way transition theory is that there is no prospect of achieving transition to a sustainable and just society deliberately and rationally via the official policy making institutions and processes. The problems will not be solved. The only way a satisfactory society might be achieved is discussed below.
The inadequacy of common transition theories.
If the foregoing account is accepted, little space needs to be given to assessing the merits of conventional, green and Left thinking about transition strategy. Conventional strategies are only to do with lifestyle and legislative reforms to and within the current system and thus fail to grasp that the problems cannot be solved unless there is change from the system that inevitably generates them. This also rules out almost all green thinking, parties, and campaigns as these are not concerned with fundamental system change. Consider for example the “green growth” initiative.
Marx and eco-socialism.
Much more space needs to be given to the “Eco-socialist” perspective, although it too is unsatisfactory. Unfortunately with respect to this revolution Marx points us in the wrong direction.
Marx’s analysis of capitalism and its contradictions, dynamics and fate are of great importance; it’s his ideas on the transition process that are problematic. But first some of his helpful insights should be noted. 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 most 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 severely deprived, 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, the French “Yellow vests” and right wing extremism. Marx was correct in saying capitalism would lead to increasing immiseration followed by trouble, (…although perhaps not as fast as he might have expected.)
The declining purchasing power of the masses would seem to be the major cause of the current global economic slowdown, and of the resulting rise of debt to astronomical levels (now about 2.5 times global GDP and certain to end soon in a devastating collapse.) Other factors are tightening the noose, especially the increasing resource and ecological scarcities and costs dragging down profit and growth rates.
These two themes yield a core element in Simpler Way transition theory. They help to explain how capitalism will be got rid of … it will get rid of itself.
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 Phillips (2014), Scharzar (2012) and Bastini (2-019) 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.
Use of force, power and violence.
It is interesting that Marx pointed out that if force and violence have to be resorted to then conditions were not ripe for revolution. (Avineri, 1968.) He argued that a system's adaptation in the face of contradictions, challenges and resistance produces social forms and institutions, such as unions and the vote for all, that both increasingly undermine it and are essential elements needed in the system that will eventually replace it (Marx 1887). To attempt to replace it before the institutions the new system requires have developed is a mistake that will tempt a resort to force to drive change through. Use of force shows that conditions are not yet ripe, hence Marx's (sympathetic) critique of the Jacobins in the French Revolution and of the 1871 Paris Commune.
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 dive the necessary changes through from the new centre. 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 interfering with output and distribution. 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 cooperative, self-governing and frugal local economies.
This concern with maturity has led some Marxists to argue against various revolutionary initiatives underway on the grounds that they are premature. (Warren, 1980.) Many of those seeking to overthrow the Czar in Russia argued that the country must develop into a capitalist society before socialism could become achievable.
Marxists have been quite willing to resort to force, power and violence, but it should be noted that Marx wasn’t so eager. The readiness appears to be largely due to Lenin (Avineri, 1968.) (This is not to deny that there are obviously many situations in which dictatorial and brutal regimes cannot be overcome without resort to force.)
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 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.
From The Simpler Way perspective on our situation force and power have little or no relevance let alone value, again because the essential issue in the transition that must take place is profound cultural change. 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.
Note that Marx’s notion of maturity referred only to institutional level, to the need for things like unions to have emerged, and not to the realm of ideas and values. The focal concern of the Anarchists and within Simpler Way thinking is that in this revolution nothing can be achieved unless the right ideas values and dispositions have been developed.
The cultural factor.
Perhaps the major fault in Marx’s entire social theory, let alone his view of transition, was the 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 after the revolution 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.
Getting state power as the key strategic goal.
“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 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. Again, if they had done this so strongly that they were prepared to elect a party with the required platform … then 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.
Getting rid of the old before building the new.
Marxists take it for granted that capitalism has to be eliminated before the new society can be built … on the rubble. In this new kind of revolution it is not necessary or wise to try to get rid of the old system as a step that can be taken prior to or separately from building the new one. Simpler Way theory assumes the necessity for ”prefiguring”, building the new within the old, which is a central element in Anarchism.
It is remarkable that late in his life Marx appears to have flatly contradicted the “maturity” thesis. His major claim had been 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 short cut 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 capitalist 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 Bolsheviks wiped out any chance of a new society led by village and workers councils.
The Simpler Way perspective obviously aligns with this direct and “here and now” prefiguring 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.
The role of the working class.
Perhaps the greatest heresy here is to deny the left’s fundamental faith in the importance and the role of the working class in revolution. Not only is it is not going to lead the coming revolution, in our situation workers are not good revolutionary material.
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 has no interest in simpler ways and is strongly in favour of economic growth.
Bookchin (1973 pp. 183, 1977) points out that the industrial worker is intensely disciplined by the factory mode of production to acceptance of authoritarian conditions, the puritan work ethic, doing what one is told and not seeking autonomy or imagining a post-capitalist world. His or her experience does not include co-operating with others to take charge of his or her own situation, or to "own" or feel responsibility regarding social problems. Illich (1973) has emphasized the conditioned lack of autonomy and responsibility, the readiness to leave things to corporations, governments and experts.
In addition the worker is a specialist, without the multi-skilled "jack of all trades" orientation that the peasant, small business person or homesteader must have. The latter must be autonomous and responsible, monitoring, planning, fixing, adjusting, anticipating problems, improving, thinking about the whole system all the time. Workers can knock off at five and do not need to think about or assume responsibility for how well their factory or their neighborhood is going. The conditions they experience in an industrialized society tend to produce more interest in a good wage enabling a good car, shopping at a good supermarket, and watching a good large screen TV.
Marxists in particular seem not to have noticed that their present goals do not question the fundamental transition underlying the historical emergence of capitalism: when people lost their capacity to provide for themselves from their small plots, commons and collective arrangements and were forced to work for wages. The worker now needs a job and monetary wages to acquire necessities and the typical Marxist revolutionary vision does not challenge this. There is little or no interest in self-sufficiency, or the skills that enable it, such as gardening and craft, or in commons or town self-govenment. Industrialisation, electrification, centralization, globalization, infrastructures and freeing the forces of production from capitalist relations of production will provide the goods for workers to buy. There is no interest in enabling small communities to maximise their collective productive capacity and security outside the market. That is the "subsistence" you find in peasant societies and Marx regarded it as a mode of production to be eliminated. The contrast with The Simpler Way could not be more stark, since it focuses on reversing the original separation of people from their means of production and the prevention of communities from controlling their own affairs.
Perhaps most significant is Bookchin's claim that the worker is not inclined to utopianism, to thinking in terms of a new and better society. As he also points out, to Marx the industrial worker's revolutionary role is to revolt against one set of authoritarian rulers, and then submit to the next set. Like Avineri, he also notes that Marx did not think this issue of world view (or "personality" as it was referred to) was important; it could be attended to long after the revolution as the vanguard gradually developed communist consciousness in the masses. However from The Simpler Way perspective the revolution cannot take place unless the required “post-revolutionary” consciousness has first become widespread at the grass roots level before the revolution in power, economy and structures.
It might come as a surprise to learn that the working class was considered by Lenin and Mao to be dubious revolutionary material. The Bolsheviks believed the peasant only wanted better access to land and then he would become a mini-capitalist farmer. They believed that the mentality of the worker was not much better. It seems that it was not a worker or peasant revolution; the Bolsheviks made the Russian revolution, harnessing the peasants and workers to their cause. Evidently Mao did much the same in China. (Smaje, 2019.)
Our revolution is not just or primarily about liberating the worker from capitalist conditions. It is about liberating all people from consumer-capitalist society. In addition the worker will not be the privileged liberator; all people be the revolutionary agents through their participation in the development of the emerging new local communities. And, again contrary to Marxists, the working class will not be the new ruling class; everyone will rule, via thoroughly participatory democratic town assemblies.
These challenges to Marxist theory lead to a major Simpler Way tactical principle again contradicting standard radical left strategic doctrine; i.e. do not confront capitalism.
It is understandable that when faced by an oppressive regime it might seem necessary to confront it head-on and fight it strenuously. The general socialist assumption is that we must get rid of the old before the new can be built. There are situations in which this is the appropriate response and it probably was in most if not all previous liberation 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.
Note that this is not to advocate “voluntarism”, which Marxists rightly disparage, but unfortunately many/most green people implicitly accept. That is the belief that if more and more people just opt out of consuming etc. this will lead to system change. (See further below.)
The radical left would dismiss this idea of choosing not to fight capitalism as naïve, on the grounds that the rich and powerful do not willingly give up their privileges and must be forced to do so. But it was argued above that the coming collapse will do the forcing; our job is to get the replacements up and running.
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.) Holloway (2002 p. 254) puts it this way; “Revolution is not about destroying capitalism, but about refusing to create it...”
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? Within a decade or so a multi-dimensional global breakdown is likely to be brought on by limits and scarcity, eventually eliminating capitalism (or transforming it into a fascist or feudal form.). 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) turn to their local communities to try to get by.
This rather lengthy section has been concerned to show that existing thinking about transition strategy is in general mistaken, due largely to the historically unique situation we are in. The Simpler Way approach will be outlined below, but the reasons for it will not make much sense unless we first consider where consumer-capitalist society is likely to go in the next few decades,
What will happen?
The noose will tighten, hopefully slowly but probably too fast. We will soon enter a time of great and terminal troubles, very likely within two decades but probably well before that in view of the combined oil and debt situation. Many factors are gathering momentum and interacting to increase our difficulties. Even the IEA (2018) expects a major petroleum supply crisis around 2022. The energy return on energy invested in getting energy is accelerating downwards, environmental deterioration is increasing many costs, notably from extremes weather events, land and water are becoming more scarce, refugee numbers are increasing, soils are being lost and poisoned, ore grades are falling, inequality is rising and reducing the purchasing power of the masses. About 500 million people are being fed by water pumped from deep wells by petrol engines. About as many are being fed by artificially produced and energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizers. Similar large numbers live on the waters coming down from the Tibetan plateau, and the glaciers are diminishing. 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 problems interact and compound, leading Mason to see them culminating in “The 2030 Spike”, the title of his book. (2003.). The likely trajectory is to a sudden catastrophic and irretrievable break down of the fragile and highly interdependent global economy, quite conceivably involving the mass die off of population. Many analysts have tried to draw attention to way these factors are heading towards an inevitable system breakdown, including Korowicz 2012, Morgan 2013, Kunstler 2005, Greer 2005, Bardi 2011 and Duncan 2013.
It clear that even now before most of the above factors have begun to impact significantly that the global economy is in long term 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 on and spending astronomical amounts of debt.
Collins (2019) points out that the economy has shifted into a “catabolic” or “cannibalistic” phase. (Greer has also been arguing this for some time; 2005.) 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 shop starts selling its own roofing iron. The illicit drug industry and the Mafia are similar; rather than producing new wealth there is a 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 instalments 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, these then borrow too much and go bankrupt, and are sold 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 and 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. The focus becomes acquiring assets that enable rents to be siphoned off via lending to people who must now pay for services. This cannibalism, the system having to feed off itself, is a sure sign that it has entered a death spiral.
The role of the oil price?
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 quite 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 oil price and GDP oscillate.
As has been argued the major determinant of our fate will be the peaking of shale or tight oil. This is likely within a decade or less, as US fields decline, and as investors give up on getting their loans to the industry repaid. Again few companies in the field have ever made a profit and the industry has only continued because a massive debt has been run up, and because very low interest rates enabled it to get started in the first place.
The second extremely important determinant of our fate will be 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 their loans are going to be paid off. At that point 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 crisis might not be the last but it is difficult to see how in the long term descent into unprecedented and probably terminal global breakdown could be avoided. The situation will be chaotic and confused and will not be clearly understood by governments. 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 its 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 quiet, 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, especially as the capitalist class would welcome and fund them. The most impacted regions are likely to see descent towards rule by local war lords.
The most likely outcome is sudden collapse into a catastrophic global breakdown of “civilized” society, probably accompanied by major armed conflicts. Because the resource base will have been depleted, along with the sophisticated and energy-intensive systems it depends on, there will be no possibility of reconstructing existing systems. Very large global population decline is likely.
Implications for Simpler Way transition strategy.
The following discussion is based on the assumption that the breakdown will not be as serious as it probably will be. The hope must be for a slow Goldilocks depression, one that does not eliminate the possibility of building simpler systems but is savage enough to jolt people into realizing that the old system is irretrievably broken and can not be restored and that their only hope is to organise cooperative local economies as fast as they can. Hopefully it will be a slowly worsening deterioration spread over at least a decade. Unfortunately the above discussion indicates that it will not be slow but will be a sudden collapse due to the debt based global financial system.
Almost all people, along with governments, media and official agencies, presently share and cannot question the growth and affluence mentality. There is no possibility that rational discussion of the situation will lead them to accept the need for De growth, frugal lifestyles and radically new settlements and economies. They will only attend to such themes when their taken for granted world crashes around them. Even then it is likely that they will not make the right response and complete and irretrievable chaos will prevail, but without major system breakdown transition to a sensible alternative will not take place.
However it is plausible that a Goldilocks event will lead most ordinary people to realize that they must work out what they can do in their neighbourhoods to collectively provide for themselves as far as possible. There would probably be a rapid surge in involvement in the Transition Towns initiatives that have been growing over the last two decades. 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 how to get by. 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 will have to cooperate and to prioritise the common good, not compete as individuals for selfish goals. (Ironically it is 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 prefigurers.
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 case for local alternatives.
In my view some of these 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, 2018a), 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. (Trainer, 2018b.) 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, Holloway, 2002.)
The less important reasons for this focus are firstly that it increases the resilience of towns and suburbs to cope with the coming time of troubles, and secondly that it takes 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 particular 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? As time goes by ideas and findings will accumulate and spread so that new town initiatives can quickly benefit from the experience of the pioneers.
Note again, the state cannot do these things. It can facilitate them especially by making resources available by diverting them from the most profitable ventures, changing laws relating to planning and cooperatives etc., and enabling non-profit public banks, mostly at the town level. However the state will do these things only if and when the new world view and goals have become sufficiently widespread.
The point of pre-figuring can easily be misunderstood. It is not primarily to increase the number of post-revolutionary ways in existence, 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 localism preoccupations to the more distant Stage 2 problem of dealing with growth, the state, the market and the capitalist system. (See further below.) By establishing small examples of the radical new arrangements before society deteriorates too far we will best be able to get people to see the desirability of those ways.
Only when there is widespread acceptance of the new worldview will it be possible to make changes at the level of the state, 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 falls into greater difficulties it will become increasingly obvious that scarce national resources must be deliberately and rationally geared 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, Trainer 2019, 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, coordinating national rail systems, and facilitating the movement of workers from moribund industries, 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 need for and emergence of 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 pushing in to take increasing power over the planning and decision making processes. (Versintjan and Herson-Ford, 2019, put a similar argument.)
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 being 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. It is the only way we can get through to a sensible society. 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 building self sufficient, cooperative and thoroughly participatory arrangements within existing settlements. Neither the new society nor the path to it can involve significant degrees of centralization of top down power. The appropriate world view is therefore Eco-Anarchism, rather than Eco-Socialism.
Ahmed, N. M., (2017), Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Dordrecht, Springer.
Appfel-Marglin, F. A., (1998), The Spirit of Regeneration; Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development, London, Zed Books.
Avineri, S., (1968), The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Bardi, U., (2011), “The Seneca effect: why decline is faster than growth”, Cassandra’s Legacy, August 28. https://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2011/08/seneca-effect-origins-of-collapse.html
Benholdt-Thomsen, V. and M. Mies, (1999), The Subsistence Perspective, London, Zed.
Bideleaux, R., (1985), Communism and Development, London, Methuen.
Bookchin, M., (1977), The Spanish Anarchists; The Heroic Years, New York, Free Life Editions.
Bookchin, M., (1980), Towards an Ecological Society, Montreal, Black Rose.
Buber, M., (1958), Paths in Utopia, Boston, Beacon Press, pp. 90 – 94.
Duncan, R. C., (2013), “Olduvai Theory; Heading into the gorge”, The Social Contract Theory Journal, Winter, (23), 2.
energyskeptic, (2019), IEA 2018 World Energy Outlook: Peak oil is here, oil crunch by 2023, March 10.http://energyskeptic.com/2019/iea-2018-world-energy-outlook-peak-oil-is-here-oil-crunch-by-2023/
Frankfurt am Main, (2018), Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment, Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF. http://www.fs-unep-centre.org
Greer, J. M., (2005), How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse .
Hall, C. A. S and K. A. Klitgaard, (2014), Energy and the Wealth of Nations, Dordrecht, Springer.
Holloway, John. 2002. Change the World Without Taking Power. London: Pluto
IEA World Energy Outlook 2018, OECD Executive Summary p. 7.
Korowicz, D., (2012) Trade : Financial System Supply-Chain Cross-Contagion: A study in global systemic collapse. Metis Risk Consulting & Feasta.
Korten, D. C., (1999), The Post-Corporate World, West Hartford, Kumarian Press.
Kunstler, J., (2005), The Long Emergency; Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, New York, Grove/Atlantic.
Marshal, P., (1992), Demanding the Impossible: The History of Anarchism, London, Harper Collins.
Mason, C., (2003), The 2030 Spike: Countdown to Catastrophe, London, Earthscan.
Mies, M. and V. Shiva, (1993), Ecofeminism, Melbourne, Spinifex.
Minqi L., M., (2019), World Energy 2018-2050: World Energy Annual Report, (Part 1),Peak Oil, https://peakoil.com/consumption/world-energy-2018-2050-world-energy-annual-report-part-1
Pepper, (1996), Modern Environmentalism, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Morgan, T., (2012), Perfect Storm: Energy, Finance and the End of Growth. Tullet Prebon.
Phillips, L., (2014), Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts; A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff, Zero Books, Winchester UK.
Quinn, D., (1999), Beyond Civilization, New York, Three Rivers Press.
Rai, M., (1995), Chomsky’s Politics, London, Verso.
Relocalise, (2009). http://www.postcarbon.org/relocalize
Rude, C., (1998), "Postmodern Marxism; A critique", Monthly Review, November., 52-57.
Shannin, T., (1995), Late Marx and the Russian Road, New York, Monthly Review Press.
Sharzer, G., (2012), No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won't Change The World, Zero Books.
Smaje, C., (2019), “The history of the world in 10 ½ blog posts; 9. The twentieth century – four doctrines.” Nov 17. Resilience.
St-Onge, E., (2015), “Senegal Transforming 14,000 Villages Into Eco-villages!”, Collective Evolution, June 17. https://www.collective-evolution.com/2015/06/17/senegal-transforming-14000-villages-into-ecovillages/
TSW: The Limits to Growth. thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm
TSW: The Alternative Society. thesimplerway.info/AltSoc.Long.htm
Trainer, T., (2010), “The transition towns movement; Its huge significance and a friendly critique”, Resilience,
Trainer, T, (2018), “The Transition Towns movement … going where?’”, Resilience, 7th June.thesimplerway.info/TRANSITIONERS.htm
Trainer, (2018b) Trainer, T., “The Catalan Integral Co-operative: The Simpler Way revolution is well underway!”, Resilience, Jan 17. thesimplerway.info/CATALAN.html
Vansintjan, A. and M. Herson-Ford, (2019), “How radical municipalism can go beyond the local”, Resilience, Sept 24.
Warren, B., (1980), Imperialism; Pioneer of Capitalism, London, New Left Books.
WWEA (World Wind Energy Association), (2018), Wind power capacity reaches 539 GW,52.6GW added in 2017, Feb 12. http://wwindea.org/blog/2018/02/12/2017-statistics/