In this fourth contribution to the INSURGE symposium on future pathways to a post-carbon economy, academic Dr. Ted Trainer focuses on setting out his vision of how societies need to change in a world after fossil fuels: what he calls, the Simpler Way.
Advocating a form of voluntary ‘degrowth’, Trainer argues that smaller post-capitalist economies which build in localised forms of economic self-sovereignty at micro, community scales, represent a desirable vision for a very different kind of civilisation than what we’re used to: one that could avoid the catastrophic risks of modern industrial civilisation, while still ensuring that people lead fulfilling lives.
A techno-fix in the form of renewables, he says, cannot sustain consumer societies as we know them, which are already dramatically overshooting ecological limits. Therefore, we need to transition to simpler societies.
There is a rapidly increasing realization that consumer-capitalist society is not satisfactory and transition to something quite different is necessary. Unfortunately, however, there is much confusion about both the alternative goal and how to get to it.
My argument is that when the present global situation is understood it is clear the alternative has to be some kind of Simpler Way, and that there is only one general way we can get to it.
We cannot sensibly discuss transition unless we first clarify the situation we are in and the required alternative. Here is a brief summary of the Simpler Way perspective on these issues.
The global situation
The basic cause of the many alarming global problems we face is that we have exceeded the limits to growth. Our rates of resource consumption and environmental destruction are grossly unsustainable and there is no possibility that the per capita levels of resource use in rich countries can be kept up for long or spread to all the world’s people. Resources are becoming scarcer and ecosystems are deteriorating alarmingly.
Axiom 1: Global resource and environmental problems are moving us towards catastrophic breakdown within a few decades.
Yet our top priority is economic growth; i.e., it is to increase consumption without limit. But if by 2050 all the world’s people had risen to the “living standards” we in rich countries would have then given 3% p.a. growth, world economic output would be more than 20 times as great as it is now…and right now it is at a very unsustainable level.
The second fundamental fault in consumer-capitalist society is its massively unjust global economy. It is driven not by need, but by allowing the few who own most of the capital to produce whatever will maximise their profits. As a result richer people get most of the world’s resources because they can pay more for them, and the industries developed are mostly those which produce what richer people want.
The inevitable result is that the rich get richer and there is massive neglect of urgent social and ecological needs. There cannot be peace or justice in the world until the rich countries stop hogging most of its wealth and begin to live on something like their fair share. This cannot be done without scrapping the present capitalist economy, and the values that drive it.
These commitments to ever-increasing material wealth and an economy driven by profit, market forces, competition and growth are the basic causes of accelerating global problems, including rising inequality resource wars, the poverty of billions and loss of social cohesion.
There is a powerful case that technical advance, including adoption of renewable energy, cannot solve these problems alone. It is possible that we will see catastrophic collapse in rich societies within a decade (see Nafeez Ahmed’s Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Springer, 2017).
Insight 1: Therefore, these social, economic and ecological problems cannot be solved unless we face up to dramatic degrowth in levels of production, consumption and GDP.
Given the magnitude of the overshoot, the huge extent to which we have exceeded sustainable limits, there can be no solution unless there is enormous and radical transition to some kind of Simpler Way. Only this can enable per capita resource use to be cut to the region of, say, 10% of present levels. Thus, there must be:
- Much simpler lifestyles, far lower per capita resource consumption.
- Mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies, putting local resources into meeting local needs. When petroleum becomes scarce there will be no choice about this.
- Much more cooperative and participatory ways, enabling people in small communities to take collective control of their own development, to include and provide for all. We must develop commons, co-ops and working bees.
- The important decisions about local development and administration must be made by town assemblies, local committees and referenda involving the participation of all.
- A new economy, one that is not driven by profit or market forces, that has no growth at all, that involves far less production and work than the present one, and focuses on needs and rights and the quality of life of all. It might have many private firms and a market sector, but there must be (participatory, democratic, open and local) social control over what is developed, what is produced, and how it is distributed. All must be provided for, meaning no poverty or unemployment and everyone having a livelihood, the capacity to make a valued contribution.
- New values. These communities cannot work well unless people shift from the present individualistic, competitive and acquisitive orientation to a world view focused on being content with frugal sufficiency and living within a supportive community in which all enjoy a high quality of life. There must be conscientious and socially responsible citizens who prioritise the public good.
It is most important understand there is no choice about this; The Simpler Way is not an option among many.
If the foregoing limits to growth analysis of our situation is correct then a sustainable and just society must have these elements.
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Recognition of this has led to the emergence of the De-Growth movement, and many people in Global Eco-village and Transition Towns Movements are now attempting to move towards these goals.
A good illustration of how only localisation can dramatically reduce resource demand is given by egg production. The present commercial-industrial way involves global networks of farms, factories, chemicals, ships, trucks, battery chicken sheds, supermarkets, computers, satellites, people with degrees, advertising, packaging, soil nutrient loss and “waste” removal, all generating a huge energy cost.
But eggs produced in backyard chicken pens or small local farms involve almost none of those costs. Nor does fruit from community orchards planted throughout settlements and managed by working bees.
In many Eco-villages, voluntary committees and people spontaneously coming together to do things eliminate the need for lots of middlemen, professionals, bureaucrats, transport and infrastructures.
Insight 2: The problems cannot be solved unless there is transition to some kind of Simpler Way. This is an Anarchist vision, whereby communities self-govern via voluntary, participatory, spontaneous, cooperative processes.
The basic focus
The foregoing account of our situation and the required alternative society has decisive implications for the transition process, and it shows various current efforts to be mistaken. It makes clear that the focus must be on helping ordinary people to see the need for moving towards a simpler way, and to recognize that this would be a delightful liberation.
The focus for our efforts at this point in time should not be the at the level of the state or the normal political party arena. The transition can’t be initiated or managed by state-level authorities.
Obviously the new highly self-sufficient and self-governing local communities sketched cannot be built and cannot work unless the people understand clearly why this is the way we have to go and unless they find it attractive.
The new communities have to be motivated by conscientious, eager, socially-responsible, caring citizens who are content to live frugally and cooperatively, are not interested in getting rich for its own sake, and prioritise the welfare of their admirable town and enjoy contributing to it. Thus the initial problem is to do with culture, not with the economy or power.
In addition there is the logistic problem; only the people in local communities can make the right decisions and run things well, because only they are familiar with the local environment, soils, people, history, traditions, needs and problems. In addition, centralised state bureaucracies will have neither the resources nor the administrative capacity to run millions of towns and suburbs.
The new ideas and values we need contradict some of the taken-for-granted assumptions that have driven Western society for more than two hundred years. They define the historically novel revolution we have to work for. When the goal of the revolution was industrialized, centralized, resource-intensive societies delivering affluent lifestyles to all people it aligned with Enlightenment ideas and values. But in our situation satisfactory revolution requires some of those core ideas and values to be abandoned, most obviously the conventional notion of “progress”.
So there is no point in appealing to existing governments or global institutions to undertake the required changes. Governments have no choice but to make the consumer-capitalist system work. If they don’t deliver more economic growth they will be faced with increasing unemployment, recession, discontent and fierce attack. Politicians could make no move in the right direction unless there had first been enormous change in the ideas and values of the mass of people. Thus the essential transition task must be working to bring about those grass roots changes.
Insight 3: This revolution must be bottom-up; it cannot be initiated or run by the state. It can only be generated by citizens who have come to hold the new ideas and values.
Therefore Eco-socialism is insufficient
It should be obvious that the required society must be post-capitalist, that is, a “socialism”: of some kind involving social control over the core economic functions.
Most green thinking and action fails to grasp this and is focused on trying to reform capitalism. But the foregoing discussion makes it clear that traditional left transition thinking is also mistaken, because it focuses on attempting to take state power and it assumes that the changes can be driven through from there. In previous revolutions that made sense, but they were essentially about attempting to take control of society from the ruling class … and then run the same old industrial-growth system (more justly).
Marx didn’t think there needed to be any change in mass culture while the vanguard party took power. The working class would continue to accept competition and consumer goals, obedience to bosses, factory work conditions and individual advancement and they would still aspire to greater wealth. Their liberation from these ideas and values could be slowly attended to long after the taking of power, in the transition from socialism to communism. (See S. Avineri’s The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge University Press, 1968)
Anarchists such as Kropotkin and Bakhounin who wanted to see a revolution to self-governing communities realized that this was not possible unless people understood and embraced the ways and values that would make these communities possible. Thus they saw that the initial task is to develop those dispositions, and that it is a mistake to prioritise the taking of power or control of the state. If you had given them state power on a plate they would have turned away knowing that it is of no use. It can’t create cooperative autonomous citizens who will run their own villages well. They urged revolutionaries simply to get on with the task of developing in people the awareness that will motivate self-government. If people don’t rise to the opportunity to take control of their own affairs this means there is a lot of consciousness-raising work still to be done, so get on with it. Don’t waste your time trying to confront the ruling class head on or take control of the state from them because that can make no contribution to raising the crucial awareness. When the awareness-raising job has been well-enough done there will be little or no need to confront or fight; people will just vote with their feet and ignore the old ways and build the new ones, and the faulty old structures will be dumped, possibly with relatively little fuss.
Let us consider further the confused chicken-and-egg logic in the ”take state power” view. There are only two ways that the control of a state intending to implement The Simpler Way could come about. The first is via some kind of coup whereby power is seized by a vanguard party which has that goal. In our situation this is not worth much discussion.
The second path would be via the election to government of a party with a Simpler Way platform. But that could not happen unless the cultural revolution for a Simpler Way had previously been won! We could not get control of a state that is committed to Simper Way principles unless there had been an election in which most people voted for a party with that platform. But that couldn’t happen unless most people had previously come to endorse The Simpler Way … and if that had happened they would have been building the new local economies long before the election!
Getting control of a state committed to the new ways will be a consequence of the revolution (its Stage 2, below.) The core of this revolution will be the advent of the new world view and values.
Thus it is not sensible to put much energy into fighting directly against the system here and now. Consumer-capitalism has never been stronger than it is today (… although it is in the process of self-destruction.)
The way we think we can beat it in the long run is to ignore it to death, i.e., to turn away from it and start building its replacement and persuading people to come across.
The Anarchists see this as working to “Prefigure” the good society here and now within the old. The purpose is partly to start bringing the new systems into existence, but more importantly it is to establish the examples that will help others to see the sense of the new ways as the old system increasingly fails to provide for them; i.e., the purpose is mainly educational.
Insight 3: The transition process too must follow Anarchist principles, especially consciousness raising through “prefiguring”.
The second stage of the revolution
The foregoing discussion has been about Stage 1 of this revolution, that is, the development of localism, involving both the creation of new citizen-run institutions and more importantly the spread of the new world view. Stage 1 is actually well underway, although it has a very long way to go. There are many people now involved in inspiring Eco-village and Transition Towns initiatives.
However there are severe limits to what can be achieved in Stage 1. The local economies being built today cannot rise to a high level of self-sufficiency, or independence from the national and global economies, and they cannot reduce their “footprint” very much. They will always need many goods and services that they cannot produce for themselves.
It is not satisfactory if a town or eco-village runs itself well but uses bolts, light switches, tooth brushes, shoes and salt imported from a national or international economy that is unsustainable and unjust. Our ultimate concern must be transition to sustainable and just national and global economies, and this will involve the most enormous, radical and difficult changes in national and global systems.
It will be necessary to plan and regulate a great deal, reverse economic growth, reduce the amount of trade, investment, industry, producing and consuming by maybe 90%, prevent the market from being a major determinant, and somehow engineer the relocation of large numbers of people from industries being phased out.
These massive and historically unprecedented changes cannot be achieved unless there is enormously radical action at the level of the state, pursuing totally new policies that flatly contradict the free market capitalist ideology. The list is so daunting that one must rate our chances of achieving so pervasive a “socialism” as very unlikely. Unfortunately many/most green people (including most in the Transition Towns movement) do not seem to understand that there is no possibility of saving the planet unless capitalism is scrapped. (Those who doubt this should read Richard Smith’s Green Capitalism: The God that Failed)
However, there are reasons for thinking that the task will be somewhat more tractable than at first sight it appears to be. The most important of these is that The Simpler Way involves a far simpler economy than we have now, and much of it will function more or less automatically down at the town and suburban level, without any need for policies or bureaucracies at the state level. The remnant state will have far fewer functions than at present. Its main task will just be to organise the relatively few inputs and services the towns and regions need from further afield.
How might this new state come into existence? Here’s what we have to hope and work for.
As local economic self-sufficiency develops communities will become more aware of their limits, especially their need for inputs from the wider regional and national economies.
Towns will need chicken wire, poly-pipe, 12 volt pumps, shovels, etc. which they cannot produce for themselves.
Hospitals and universities will still be needed, and (some) big and centralized industries such as for steel and cement. It will be rapidly realized that the national economy must be restructured to provide towns and suburbs with the (relatively few) basic inputs and services they need.
This is the mechanism that will generate the mass pressure for transition to a very different kind of national economy and a very different kind of “state”, i.e., one that serves the local communities and is under their control.
Towns and suburbs acutely aware that their fate depends on being able to get simple but crucial inputs will start to demand that states gear their activities to this end. Before long they will go further, developing systems whereby their delegates are involved in the state-level discussions, decision making and restructuring.
In time this will lead to full citizen control via the classic Anarchist “confederations” model of higher-level issues being dealt with by delegates from the towns who take all proposals back down to the towns for acceptance or rejection.
This does not mean there can be no place for private firms or markets. In fact my preferred model would have most production in the form of family owned and cooperative small farms and firms. As time goes by we can see what the best arrangements seem to be. The Anarchist vision is that ultimately there would be little need for formal social controls because conscientious citizens would spontaneously work out mutually beneficial arrangements.
Insight 5: Ultimately there must be a “socialist” state, that is the remnant central functions must be under social control…located down at the level of the towns and suburbs.
My argument has been that both the goal of this revolution and the path to it are best seen in classically Anarchist terms. We cannot cut the resource and ecological impacts right down unless we develop settlements that function according to Anarchist principles, and the best, only, way to establish these is via prefiguring and working on changing ideas and values so that in time enough people will enthusiastically take up the building
The last thing we want is a sudden collapse of the economy. We need a slow continuation of the present deterioration so systems remain in place to give increasing numbers of people the time to work on remaking their localities.
Unfortunately we are not likely to have enough time for a smooth transition. Nafeez has shown that oil could be debilitatingly uneconomical in just over ten years. A second global financial crash will probably hit well before then.
But that makes no difference; given the limits and the impossibility of industrial-affluent options we must do what we can to transition to some kind of Simpler Way. The more who adopt it before the crunch, the better the chance that the sane option will be taken after it.
This vision has the very important merit of enabling us to enjoy aspects of post-revolutionary society here and now, especially the experience of community solidarity in a crucially important cause. The focus is mainly positive, as distinct from being on attempting to fight and demolish capitalism before being able to build and enjoy new ways. And it holds open the possibility that this revolution could be relatively peaceful.