Permaculture: our story, our history…

The Trainer Papers: 3

The Trainer Papers were first published in 2010. I am republishing them 21 years after first publication because their perspective may be of historical value to the story of the permaculture design system and associated initiatives like the Transition Towns movement, and because of the upsurge in interest in ideas about sustainability and regenerative systems.


The Trainer Papers document the late-2009-early-2010 conversations between UNSW lecturer, Ted Trainer, and journalist, Russ Grayson.

The Trainer Papers: 3 documents Ted Trainer’s response to my comments on his critique of the Transition Town and permaculture (and here) movements that appeared in The Trainer Papers 2. Ted’s initial critique appears in The Trainer Papers: 1.

Russ was a tutor and occasional guest lecturer in Ted’s UNSW course which was based on the ideas appearing in the Club of Rome’s 1972 book, The Limits to Growth.

February 3, 2010

Ted Trainer

Some thoughts on Russ Grayson’s comments on my friendly critique of the Transition Towns movement.

Russ discusses what I think is the crucial issue of what changes we are or ought to be working for in society, and how to try to achieve them. Russ thinks my approach to these issues is different from the permaculture way. Like some of the people in the UK Transition Town movement who are uncomfortable with my readiness to make statements about what the movement should be for, Russ says, “…you really can’t tell people all over the world what structures and systems they need. They have to work that out for themselves.”

Brian Davey recently expressed his unease at me about: “…prescriptively trying to design a simple society in advance. Rob Hopkins feels the same way, and I would think most Transitioners would share that view.” (Rob Hopkins founded the Transition Towns movement in the UK).

Brian said that we should let the movement go where it wants to go and it will eventually achieve what I want anyway. I think this is quite mistaken and it is very important for us to think very carefully about the issue.

It is my very firm view that the general Transition/permaculture/ecovillage or indeed wider green movement is currently not about the crucial goals and practices necessary to get us to a sustainable and just society. They are about many very relevant and necessary and valuable goals, but not the crucial ones. This will surely strike most good, green people as offensive so please let me elaborate by quoting from my recent reply to Brian Davey.

One’s position on all this depends on one’s answers to two crucial issues:

  • what form would/must a sustainable and just society take?
  • will the present green/transition movement automatically result in such a society?

I have very strong views on both issues. I might be completely wrong and I am happy to reconsider, but you should be willing to think about my cases.

What would a sustainable society look like?

My view on the first question is that consumer-capitalist society is so intrinsically grossly unsustainable and unjust that its fundamental structures and systems cannot be made sustainable and just. You can’t reform it so that the big global problems are not created, yet we still have the same basic systems.

The most obvious example is that sustainability requires a steady state economy, so you cannot reform a growth economy to meet this requirement while you retain a growth economy—you have to scrap and replace a growth economy.

Similarly, you cannot have a society which focuses on meeting needs and prioritises justice, rights, the interests of future generations and those of all other species if you let market forces determine what happens in society because by definition a market attends only to the demand of those with most money to pay and totally ignores needs, justice, rights, etc,

In other words, it seems to me that when you analyse the state of the planet you can see very clearly a number of procedures and systems that have to be scrapped and replaced or we have no chance of avoiding catastrophic breakdown. That means you see inescapable implications for the basic nature that a satisfactory society must have.

It seems to me, for instance, that there can be no argument that a sustainable world must have zero-growth economies. Nor can it be determined by market forces. Nor can it be driven by a culture of competitive acquisitiveness. You might not be sure about such conclusions, but I am prepared to assert them pretty confidently/dogmatically. If you think I am mistaken about these (dogmatic) claims then let’s discuss.

Given my views on these issues it is understandable that I would want to persuade people within the Transition Towns movement to hold them too.

The question this sets us all is, what should our goals and sub-goals be?

Systems change, not the reform proposed by the Transition Towns movement is what’s needed

If you see the world the way I do then certain general but very firm answers are obvious and I don’t think these are the goals most people within the Transition Towns movement hold at present. Of course, most people in the movement would surely say they are for sustainability and justice, but my argument is that they can’t achieve these goals unless they adopt as sub-goals things like scrapping growth and affluence, taking control of local economies, and not letting market forces determine our fate.

I’m claiming that most people in the movement are (understandably) not clear enough about the fact that we cannot get to a satisfactory world through reforms that leave those basic structures in place, and without at some stage focusing on these fundamental/radical system-change goals.

Permaculture, Transition Towns, environmentalism no challenge to growth economy

On the second issue, Russ and Brian expressed the very common assumption that we needn’t fret about all this because if we just help the movement go where it is going then it will in time end up where I want it to be. This view is in effect that if we just facilitate ventures which are in line with the permaculture ethic of care of earth and people and distribution of surplus, then the movement “should evolve in the direction you want anyway.” Again, I think this is profoundly mistaken.

In my view, almost the entire green movement is:

  • full of good, concerned people working hard for good causes
  • making little or no contribution to saving the planet because it is predominantly only about bandaiding particular problems and it is not about getting rid of the structures and systems that are causing the problems.

Bandaids are very important. The green movement is patching up lots of damage but it is not about moving to the kind of society that would not destroy the environment. For instance, the Australian Conservation Foundation does heroic work trying to save forests and whales etc, but not only has no interest in challenging the growth economy but actually argues that it is a good thing. Its CEO has lectured me on this. The world is full of good people in aid, justice, environmental etc groups whose efforts are only to achieve reforms to consumer-capitalist society, not to replace it.

These good, green efforts and campaigns are not going to get us to a society that doesn’t cause the problems because these efforts have nothing to do with the changes that requires. Saving the whale is a good thing but it can make no difference whatsoever to the commitment to a growth economy. Similarly, developing more community gardens in Totnes [ed: the UK base of the Transition Towns movement] is a good thing, but you tell me how that is contributing to the day when the people of Totnes have taken control over the local economy and run it without economic growth.

Those are goals that we do not move closer to by planting more nut trees, and there is no reason to think that if we just go on planting more nut trees we will eventually end up with a zero-growth economy that we control. These are two utterly separate sets of goals and we cannot expect to achieve the second set unless at some stage we start explicitly asserting and endorsing them and working out how we are going to achieve them. At present these crucial higher-order goals are rarely if ever evident in green movements, especially in the permaculture and Transition Towns literature.

The goals presently stated within these movements, planting of the commons, setting up the farmers markets etc can all be achieved without any significant effect at all on consumer-capitalist society. They are all quite compatible with a growth economy, affluent lifestyles and market forces. Consumer society can accommodate them comfortably and they are no threat to such a society.

If you want us to get rid of a growth economy then you have to make that an explicit aim, and to achieve it you will have to do things quite different to setting up more farmers’ markets and planting nut trees. I don’t think any of the projects I am presently aware of within the Transition Towns movement are going to make any contribution whatsoever to getting rid of a growth economy even though all of them seem to me to be valuable.

If you see things the way I do then it is not sufficient if people just set up whatever good, green thing takes their fancy, which is what Russ, Brian and Rob Hopkins seem to be happy with. If you think vast and radical structural change is necessary then you want to see these as strongly-held explicit goals within the movement, and my pretty strong impression is that at present they aren’t. That’s not really a criticism of the movement, it’s more appropriately seen as a comment about the present early state of the movement and the state that I hope it gets to before long. I think it is quite understandable that at this point in time it is mainly about reforms and good works within existing society.

More than permaculture motherhood statements needed

So, my concern is to badger people within the movement to think carefully about what their ultimate goals are and what it will take to achieve them. Few would reject the general permaculture ethic of care for people and environment and sharing the surplus, but these principles are so vague and motherhood that they aren’t much use in helping us work out what sub-goals to adopt.

My plea to you is to ask yourself whether the ultimate sustainability and justice goals can be achieved if we do not endorse sub-goals such as getting rid of a growth economy, and if you agree with me on that, is it not appropriate that you and I should try to persuade people in the movement to adopt such sub-goals?

Russ suggests that my approach is about “complete destruction and replacement” and is …”more like that of the social revolutionaries.” If you see the world the way I do then what we have to work for is the most enormous revolution in history, so big indeed that I do not think it will be achieved.

For decades, my writings have attempted to show in detail that sustainability and justice cannot possibly be achieved without very radical change in our economic, social, geographical, agricultural, political and most difficult of all, cultural systems. If you think I’m wrong about this, if you think we can solve the big problems while we retain a growth economy driven by market forces and limitless acquisitiveness, then please let me know how.

None of this implies any need for destruction, violence or force. Actions of those kinds cannot help achieve this revolution. The task is to get enough people to see the desirability of moving to the alternative ways so that they willingly dump consumer-capitalism as its difficulties accelerate and happily take up the better option. If we fail at that then the revolution is lost.

The way I see the transition process is spelled out in Thoughts on The Transition.

Best wishes,

NEXT: The Trainer Papers 4

The Trainer Papers — a four part series

The Trainer Papers 1
The Trainer Papers 2
The Trainer Papers 3
The Trainer Papers 4

Ted Trainer on Permaculture

Simpler Way podcast

Ted Trainer has recorded a podcast about his Simpler Way concept. Find it just down from the top of the list of Michael’s podcasts, which the following link goes to. 53 minutes. Critical feedback welcome.

Books by Ted Trainer…

  • The Conserver Society: Alternatives for Sustainability. 1995, Ted Trainer; Zed Books, UK. ISBN 1856492753.
  • Towards a Sustainable Economy: The Need for Fundamental Change. 1995, Ted Trainer; Carpenter Publishing. ISBN 1897766149. A critique of economics as it exists and the story of how it could be in setting up regenerative local economies.
  • Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society. 2007, Ted Trainer; Springer. ISBN 140205548X. A challenge to the assumption that simply switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy can sustain our consumer society.
  • The Simpler Way: Collected Writings of Ted Trainer. 2020, Ted Trainer; Simplicity Institute. ISBN 0994282877. An anthology contains some of Trainer’s most insightful essays about sustainable society, a new economy and local self-management while living within ecological limits.

Books mentioned in the text…

The Limits to Growth. 1972, Donnella H Meadows, Dennis L Meadows, Jorgen Randers, William W Behrens 111; Signet. ISBN 0451057678




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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.

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