Permaculture: our story, our history…

The Trainer Papers: 4

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.

In 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. The Trainer Papers: 4 carries my comments. This conversation started with The Trainer Papers: 1.

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

February 3, 2010

Ted Trainer with a home made solar reflector cooker. Ted was an advocate of intermediate or appropriate technology and demonstrated a number of the technologies at his home.


This is a continuing conversation that started with Dr Ted Trainer’s allegation (The Trainer Papers 1) that the Transition Towns and permaculture movements are not addressing the critical need to change the economic system and to restructure society to take it towards a socially fairer, zero-economic growth economy.

I differ with Ted on a number of points.

The Transition Towns and permaculture movements are not structured and never were structured to address what he sees as the main challenge of moving to a zero-gowth economy. There was, in permaculture, a notion that a zero-growth economy was the sort of economy that would solve problems of environmental destruction and social equity, however permaculture focused on creating change at a local, smaller scale level. The idea is that a less-direct approach to changing society that makes changes from within will accumulate to bring about significant change over time.

This approach complies with the ideas diffusion model in which new ideas in societies spread from the early adopters to mass adoption and become established. Change is created from within. There are plenty of examples of this, such as how natural therapies started with the 1970s counterculture and over succeeding decades became mainstream.

Ted’s argument is that innovations coming out of this approach will be absorbed into the political economy because they are compatible with it as it presently exists. The adoption of natural therapies provides evidence for this. It grew from its origin on the social fringe to mainstream adoption, becoming absorbed into the market system as it did so. While it offered a challenge to medicine as conventionally practiced it did so within the growth economy and came to accompany it as ‘complementary medicine’. It is now a multimillion dollar industry within the growth economy.

Many in permaculture want to see the design system follow a similar path from social fringe to mainstream society. The evidence for this comes from repeated calls heard at permaculture convergences, the biennial conferences of permaculture practitioners, to ‘mainstream permaculture’. The move to institute permaculture education in the tertiary education system at the TAFE level would be an example of mainstreaming in trying to find a place for the design system within an established social institution. Were this to succeed there is potential to create pressure for change from within, however to adopt Ted’s scenario what is likely is the establishment of permaculture as commercial practice wihtin the growth economy. What its potential as a social change agent would then be is questionable.

In commenting on Ted’s paper, I do so as someone with great respect for Ted and his ideas. I learned that respect when working as tutor and guest lecturer on Ted’s UNSW course. My comments are offered in the spirit of constructive, critical dialog as a means of exploring questions that are relevant to the social movements of our time, particularly the Transition Towns and permaculture movements.

Sometimes in the text I refer to ‘environmentalists’ in a general and somewhat critical way. Being a generalisation, however, there are numerous exceptions and I recognise that many who call themselves environmentalists today take more of a sustainability point of view.

Readers should understand that my response is very much stream of consciousness, with all the omissions and clumsiness that implies.

Readers wishing to comment constructively on the conversation are welcome to respond via the ‘comments’ box at the end of the pieces.

First, a general response…

Routes to social change: is incremental enough?

Ted suggests that society must change to a zero-growth economy so as to achieve sustainability and social justice.

I don’t dispute this as a proposition. It is an idea approached by a number of authors over the years. What I find is that Ted offers no route from where we are to where he wants us to be. He describes a future in very general terms. As it does not exist this is is as it must be, however if people are to be attracted to his model of a sustainable society then it will be necessary to paint an attractive vision of what life in it might be like. Ted’s paper is strong in its general, broad vision but short on ideas for the route we would take to attain them.

This contrasts with the Transition Towns movement which appears to take an open ended laissez-faire approach to its desired future. They have a general and broad vision of the characteristics of their desired society that would be achieved by letting transition projects start and evolve and we will see where they take us. Permaculture lacks a cohesive vision of the future although it is strong on the practices that would build a more sustainable society. The diversity of thought, of attitude to mainstream society, of politics and of attitudes on social reform provide plenty of ideas but in crossing over each other they stymie the development of a cohesive vision of the desired future in permaculture.

Transition Towns and permaculture are incremental rather than revolutionary in the sense that implies large-scale and abrupt social change.

The Transition Towns movement has a methodology to take us to a largely undefined future through its Skill-up for Powerdown and Energy Descent Action Plan processes. These might not be the whole story, however they are clear and distinct steps into an unknown future. That it remains poorly described in Transition literature is okay because the future is essentially unknowable and many of us are quite at home living in a present that is heading for an uncertain future.

About terminology

Ted seems to lapse almost into cliche in the terminology he sometimes uses, such as portraying those interested in sustainability in terms of ‘saving the whales’ or ‘saving the planet’. These are slogans from an early phase of the environment movement and are now a bit tired.

Saving the whales was an institutional initiative led by focused and determined action and lobbying groups and involving government at the international level. It was the focus of those with a specific interest. Generalising as if it were one of the main and immediate foci of the sustainability movement might have been true… in 1980. I assume that for those interested in the transition to a sustainable society, saving the whales would be a proposition that they support but that does not occupy much of their time.

Like ‘save the whales’, ‘save the planet’ is now a tired, worn-out cliche because we know that a resilient nature will adapt to climate change in its usual creative way but human cultures might not be so successful at doing that. Now, people are about saving those cultures, including ours, and human civilisation in general.

Sustainability education today focuses on changing the peoples’ behaviour. It does not lecture, hector, make people feel guilty or suggest that they follow the ideas of some economically of culturally elite environmental group. That was the way the environment movement operated a few years ago before it was shown to be outdated by the research of sustainability educators such as Bob Doppelt (2008; The Power of Sustainability Thinking; Earthscan).

The conversation

My comments are identified in the following text as RG:.

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 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 my “…prescriptively trying to design a simple society in advance. Transition Town’s Rob Hopkins feels the same way and I would think most transitioners would share that view.

Designing imaginary societies is a fun but ultimately a futile thing to do. Why? Because there are far too many variables that would substantially influence the zero-growth economy society that Ted postulates.

Societies are complex adaptive systems, and it is built into the dynamics of systems that they give rise to properties that are not visible at the present time. New characteristics emerge and societies change in unanticipated ways. For example, society reconfigured in the 1970s when the economy started to computerise. Then, in the 1990s it reconfigured around the opportunities brought by the internet. Reconfiguration came again when mobile phones were adopted. These changes were about the impact of the unexpected and it reshaped how societies went about their business. Unanticipated developments like these technologies trigger change in society without overthrowing the growth economy. None of these changes could have been foreseen or planned for, just as it would be difficult to plan for the type of society that would emerge as it transitioned to the zero growth economy Ted envisages.

A property of complex adaptive systems is that they are unpredictable. If we fail to acknowledge this and fail to expect the unexpected, then we risk getting stuck in our favourite ideological bubbles.

The Transition Towns model is predicated upon the extrapolation of present trends and makes use of scenario planning and other techniques, yet doing this has come unstuck in the past. Society might unfold in a linear manner according to existing trends for a time, however there are the unexpected and significant sudden changes which can alter society’s trajectory. We have already mentioned the advent of the internet. Step back two or three decades before that to see how in the 1970s the computerisation of technologically-advanced societies changed their economies and opened up new avenues of employment and innovation. Perhaps the peak oil future (the peaking of global oil extraction followed by declining reserves and rising oil prices) envisioned by those in the Transition Towns and permaculture movements could be bypassed as a problem thanks to the development of an unexpected new energy technology.

I believe that most of those in the Transition Towns movement are aware that their prognostications might be wrong. Sure, there are those that dogmatically parrot the ideas of others and mistake what are ideas for future reality, however it is my impression that most of those in Transition Towns are well-aware that the future is essentially unpredictable.

The best we can say at present is that the consensus emerging in the Transition Towns movement — that we face a world in impending transition under the influences of climate change, peak oil and fresh water shortfall — is the likely future based on what we know now. But, again, expect the unexpected. Maybe that should be promoted to a law like that of Newton’s Laws of Motion, or perhaps as a new permaculture principle.

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 the wider green movement is currently not about the crucial goals and practices necessary to get us to a sustainable and just society.

First, I don’t think you can closely control the trajectory of social movements. Take one that you know, Ted — the permaculture movement. I’m sure you will recall that in the movements earlier days there was a broader interest in social and alternative economic issues but in the popular interpretation of permaculture it devolved into a focus on gardening. This was not Bill Mollison’s dream, but the design system changed due to new people coming in and due to the influence of coverage by the gardening media, something that played a big role, I conjecture, in shaping the popular conception of permaculture altogether.

When Ted says that he finds Brian’s statement to be quite mistaken, I’m not sure if he is suggesting that, somehow and by persons unknown, the movement could be influenced to take a course preferred by him. How do you do that? The Transition Towns movement is like permaculture in that it consists of an amorphous conglomeration of ideas, priorities, politics and beliefs. The chance of succeeding in redirecting it onto the direction Ted wants? Zero.

Ted — I wonder about including ecovillages in your conceptualisation of a “Transition/permaculture/ecovillage” movement. While Transition Towns and permaculture are closely coupled, the development of ecovillages was less so although permaculture designers sometimes played a role and permaculture educators taught the idea. The ecovillage movement—and I’m uncertain it constitutes a social movement—followed its own trajectory. Ecovillage development can be seen as a subset initially of permaculture but now of others, including property developers.

Also differentiating it from permaculture and Transition Towns is that to participate in the ecovillage scene you need access to capital to buy into an ecovillage and build your home. This is different to participating in permaculture. When we look around we find permaculture has a broad wealth distribution among its practitioners. Sure, those owning or with secure access to land and a house are the predominant focus of the movement. Others are both younger and older people without access to the needed capital and who rent their accommodation, limiting their capacity to carry out the works recommended in permaculture courses and literature, or to buy into an ecovillage.

Looking back on permaculture’s history I see ecovillages being based on Australia’s intentional communities movement of the 1970s. The permaculture influence came later in the form of the prototype using permaculture design, the creation of Max Lindegger and his crew at Crystal Waters in SE Queensland. Crystal Waters ecovillage, which describes itself as Australia’s first permaculture ecovillage, is still there after 20 years.

What I am saying is that the ecovillage scene is more selective of its participants than permaculture or Transition Towns. This suggests it might not be a good fit in yout triad of closely-coupled social movements.

I am a bit uneasy with the lumping of Transition Towns and permaculture as some seemingly unitary movement although Transition Towns is essentially a reconfiguration, an adaptation and restatement of permaculture with new elements and a clearer focus. While Transition Towns has attracted many from within the permaculture milieu there are others with little or no connection to permaculture who are active in it.

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.

Question: what economic structure would a steady-state society adopt? Would it include capitalism in some form, perhaps what I call the ‘natural market’ consisting of small scale enterprises and sole traders buying and selling basic, necessary goods and services? We see this in microcosm at farmers’ and other markets.

Presumably, and I leave this for those with the depth of knowledge to answer, the natural market would be what we might anticipate in a society organised along anarchist lines (anarchism as a socio-political system, not anarchism in its common usage implying chaos), especially the social libertarianism of Murray Bookchin.

What other economic forms would be possible? During its trial period in the 1930s, fascism gave us nothing more than corporatism (and here) in an authoritarian ethno-cultural package. Communism, despite its rhetoric, gave us authoritarian state control of the economy such that any innovative entrepreneurial spirit amongst the people was thwarted. Some called it ‘state capitalism’. The model of the late 1990s promised a socially liberal economy based upon innovation and imagination, originally in opposition to the big, established corporations. It was a form of techno-libertarianism.

In contrast to the sometimes social darwinian approach of techno-liberarianism stands the alternative model of worker, consumer and financial cooperatives. These are worker or member-owned, democratically run entities that have the potential to offer job security and not-for-profit production for social goals akin to that of social enterprises. Ted has talked elsewhere of the potential of industrial worker co-operatives, like Mondragon (and here) in Spain, as a suitable structure for production in a zero-growth society.

So, what model for a no-growth economy do we have? I assume Ted imagines an economy which fluctuates around some economic mean at which people have their basic needs met and which can generate the surplus capital to invest in the scientific and technological research. I think we should aim higher than simply meeting peoples’ basic needs of food, clean water, shelter, healthcare, personal security and education. I would aim for a modest prosperity for all, not in terms of material possessions, although they should be adequate— we as a society have the technological capacity to produce enough or all—but more in access to opportunity.

…because by definition a market attends only to the demand of those with most money to pay and totally ignores need, justice, rights etc.

If we understand markets as soft-systems for the exchange of goods and services, we can imagine them as both profit-seeking and not-for-profit, social-goal-oriented structures. We would have markets in a zero-growth economy too. People would still need to access goods and services they cannot produce themselves and to exchange what they can produce for other goods and services or for some kind of agreed-upon-value-medium of exchange such as money or the local currencies that have come and gone over the years.

I was watching an ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) video podcast featuring Cherryl Kurnow who now goes around promoting social enterprise. She was saying, as do other social entrepreneurs, that not-for-profit and for-profit businesses with social goals can primarily serve society. That’s within a capitalist society and by using a business model. What she was talking about some of us would be familiar with. Our food co-ops operate this way, as social enterprise. They are essentially small businesses in which profits are reframed as ‘operating surplus’ and are fed back into the business rather than distributed to shareholders or owners. On a larger scale, there are the cooperatives of Mondragon in the Basque country of Spain and the co-ops of Maleny in south-east Queensland.

Markets can priovide for more than those with most money to pay.

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.

As I understand it, what you are suggesting is that only a complete social, cultural and economic transformation will bring about a sustainable and socially just society. I grant that this is theoretically possible. To expect a community-based formation such as Transition Towns or permaculture to achieve this is unrealistic. Permaculture has no means of carrying off something on the scale you envisage. It would be a part of such a transformation in as much as it has a body of knowledge around how to go about small-scale development, however it has little by way of political organising capacity.

Ted describes permaculture’s ethics as motherhood statements. They are very general and hard to disagree with and do not set out how they could be achieved, which opens them to cramming a wide range of practices into them. Mainstream economists could argue that for-profit environmental business achieves care of the Earth, the social welfare system achieves care of people and taxation achieves distribution of surplus. Many in permaculture would disagree. They see the ethics as throwing down a challenge to existing societal models, capitalist and socialist. Bill Mollison used to describe permaculture as subversive.

Permaculture, we know, includes people with a diversity of political attitudes ranging from capitalist to socialist, even some with anarchist tendencies and a few with what would be considered rightwing views. It is like a microcosm of society in this regard. We see this in the championing of the Cuban experience of recent years in the form of that country’s commendable self-rescue from its own peak oil future through the application of organic food production to agriculture both urban and rural, and to its accomplishments in the medical services field. Yet we hear little from permaculturists about human rights in Cuba. People tend to focus on the positive and ignore the negative.

Permaculture’s approach is not revolutionary. It is evolutionary. It proposes developing a model of the preferred-new within the body of the old. Permaculture’s approach, and I think few within that milieu have much of an inkling of this, is akin to Buckminster Fuller’s notion that if you want to change something then you develop a new model that is so compellingly attractive that it makes the old obsolete.

Transition Towns initiatives do not have a revolutionary or society-changing agenda. Rather, they seek social adaptations to the potential challenges of peak oil and climate change. Transition Towns is a reformist movement that seeks change within the existing socio-political system. Perhaps its potential is to demonstrate what can be achieved within that system until it hits the wall beyond which the barriers to change are too great. Then, it becomes the time for a political movement for change.

The present thrust of Transition Towns initiatives is production of an Energy Descent Adaption Plan and handing that on to local government. Doing that is only the start of the process because after planning comes implementation. Adoption of a policy in government requires the development of an action plan so a budget and staff time can be allocated to it. There is also Transition Town’s community education component of skills development called Skill-up for Powerdown, however this is certainly no agenda for social change as it lacks political context and content.

Transition Towns is a new phenomenon, only being unleashed in 2006 or thereabouts. That it has gone global in the short period since is remarkable and is testament both the stickiness of the idea itself and to the power of digital communications. It remains uncertain how effective or durable Transition Towns will be in Australia. Will it persist and run parallel with permaculture as both are so closely-coupled that they are similar in content and direction? Will the similarities lead to one of them becoming dominant at the expense of the other? I suspect the situation is like two similar species trying to occupy the same niche. There is room only for one, not two. Could it be that permaculture, now established these past 30 or so years, survives the push into its intellectual territory by Transition Towns ?

Transition Towns is a community-based movement that seeks links with local government and, potentially, other planning entities. Here, the type of people it attracts are crucial. Unless it attracts the right people with the right background and skills it might have difficulty bridging the civil society-government gap.

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 but not only has no interest in challenging the growth economy, but actually argues that it is a good thing.

To reiterate what I said about Transition Towns and permaculture, the Australian Conservation Foundation is not a revolutionary social movement. It works within the existing political paradigm because it can bring about reform there and achieve its goal of saving natural systems. Thus, it doesn’t seek substantial socio-political change and pins its agenda and hopes to the Greens and the social democrats, the Australian Labor Party.

The growth economy is a complex adaptive system. It is capable of absorbing challenging ideas and in some cases turning them into industries by opening an economic niche for them. The mainstream economy and polity can adapt to new pressures coming from environmentalism. It institutionalised the social concern over waste and turned it into the waste management industry, including recycling. It took the one-time subcultural preference for organic food and turned it into a multimillion dollar, new food industry. It is taking the practice of permaculture and turning it into workplace education through TAFE courses adopting permaculture’s accredited training program.

As for people making no contribution to saving the planet, what is it that they are expected to do? Should they stop doing the small actions that are within their capacity in their homes, workplaces and community organisations? And do what instead? Those small actions might not change the trajectory of the political economy but they engage people in action. It is up to sustainability educators to build on this. You have to start where people are at. The big changes that Ted proposes are simply too big for people to comprehend or take action on. They need breaking down into achievable steps.

Edward de Bono has written that criticism, such as that directed to the growth economy, is a good thing, but criticism that simply aims to demolish an idea is unhelpful. I think much of academic criticism is of this type. It reminds me of what Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, that philosophers have merely interpreted the world while the real need is to change it. What is needed is the constructive criticism that makes suggestions for improvement.

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.

Those cliched whales again! The mention of these marine mega-mammals seems to come around so often in this conversation as a simplistic example of what the environment movement does. It’s not 1980 anymore and the whales are being saved thanks to international agreements. It is 2010, a new century with new priorities, new trends, new challenges. Most of us have long ago passed the Great Age of Whale-Saving and moved on to contemporary reality.

Forget whales and think climate change, oil shortfall, fresh water shortage, increasing poverty, industrially-trashed environments, habitable and humane cities, renewable energy, how to double food production on the same area of land within the next 40 years. These are the things that are going to be the real limits. These are the crucial things we face.

Similarly developing more community gardens in Totnes is a good thing, but you tell me how that is contributing to the day when the people of Totness have taken control over the local economy and run it without economic growth.

There’s a simple answer to that, Ted, and it is this: community gardens are not set up to change entire economic systems. That’s not their role, not their mission. To place such an expectation on them is to completely miscomprehend their reason for existence.

A different view of community gardens, and here we could substitute other community initiatives, is that they offer people a measure of control over their civic space, of public land use. The role here for Transition Towns and permaculture folk is to make explicit the politics around this, politics of community control, effective resource management, co-operation, and to point out how this could be extended into other areas. With the notion of co-operative community management made clear, the path is open to larger-scale co-operative initiatives such as the formation of worker, food and consumer co-operatives and democratic decision-making.

But again, how would what Ted suggests make this come about? Do people in Totnes actually want to take over their local economy? Maybe with the Totnes Pound they are doing an experiment in managing a local economy and this could be the first step towards greater self-reliance and economic and local political power. At least they have an idea to move from vision to actuality.

As for community gardens, they are a means for people to reclaim public land and to put it to productive use. Not a bad idea, really… just the sort of thing that might happen in a zero-growth economy to supply people with locally-grown food. Bit revolutionary in its own way, too, sort of the social revolution of the radish.

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 we control.

At present these crucial higher-order goals are rarely if ever evident in green movements, especially in the permaculture and Transition Towns literature.

First, I think Ted is extrapolating the particular to the general in linking the planting nut trees with the creation of a zero-growth society. It seems a false equivalence based on an activity which would be common in such a society. You could say a zero-growth society might make the planting of nut trees more likely. That goes from the general to the particular and I think it is better in the logical sense.

Ted’s last sentence is generally true: “Crucial higher-order goals are rarely if ever evident in green movements, especially in the permaculture and Transition Towns literature.”

Bill Mollison did address these big economic and political issues by encouraging people to go out and create the systems they needed irrespective of established economic and political power structures. His was more the ‘water logic’ of Edward de Bono of going around blockages, like boulders in a stream, rather than confronting them as conventional politicos do and that requires having greater strength and power than what you are trying to knock out of the way. By going around blockages, and here we take those boulders in the stream as social, economic and political blockages in the system, we sidestep them while at the same time wearing them away.

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.

Sure, these are motherhood statements in today’s understanding, however we must remember that they are the product of late-1970s thinking, the time when permaculture emerged. They remain good ethics that have stood the test of permaculture’s existence over the past 30 or so years because they capture in concise and pithy form all those things that progressively-minded people want to achieve. Each of them contains a package of approaches and techniques. I have to disagree with Ted about their not being of much use for developing sub-gaols. I think there are numerous projects, programs and initiatives we could hang from them.

It is probably true you couldn’t rally a social movement around them today. They are self-evident ideas that are hard to disagree with (ie. the definition of m ohherhood statements) but are of less value in bringing people together given the sophistication of today’s society and in light of the challenges we face. That’s why permaculture and Transition Towns people develop more tangible goals that still fall within the ambit of these permaculture ethics. We know from experience that the principles of permaculture design capture peoples’ imagination because they are tangible, implementable things applicable within the opportunities and constraints of our daily lives. They are the means, to use Ted’s term, of enacting sub-goals.

My plea to you is to ask yourself: can the ultimate sustainability and justice goals 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?

I feel a little uneasy trying to persuade people of anything these days. Better, I think, to accept that within these movements we operate in a context of uncertainty about the future and about what these movements might evolve into. There is something liberating in this, something that offers a sense of possibility, of exhilaration and adventure. I think I know what Bill meant when he used to speak of permaculture as “adventures in good design”.

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.

Ted, I love your books and your ideas, your patience and foresight, your persistence in continuing with the Limits to Growth idea over the decades. I have been fortunate to visit your Pigface Point property. I even worked for you at UNSW. But the thing is this: there is no single track, no single objective we can adopt to take us to the radical change you mention and into a future that we can only imagine. Our existence is mired in a world of complex adaptive systems that are essentially unpredictable. We might be able to intercede in those systems when circumstances are right, however we need the capacity to recognise when the time is right to deflect the systems in a direction we would like them to take, and that requires organisations capable of doing that. The only future we experience is the one we continually move into, minute by minute. In doing that there lay opportunity for doing whatever it is that we do, just a little bit better, a little more cooperatively, a little more effectively, a little more sustainably.

People have only so much time and energy to devote to pursuing the goal of sustainability, so it is the responsibility of people like you and me, Ted, people who have chosen to make the time available to explore this sustainability stuff, to accept whatever it is that people in their busy lives can offer. To expect people to give their time completely to doing this is the road to activist burnout, a phenomenon that has plagued social change movements since the 1960s. People have their livelihoods, their home life, social life and families to attend to. All of these things are important elements of a sustainable society and to neglect them is to step off the track to sustainability. Let’s help people to attend to those things a little more sustainably and let’s congratulate them even is all they do is install a compost bin or a nut plantation, cultivate a community garden or a garden in a pot on their windowsill, reduce their energy use or participate in developing an Energy Descent Action Plan.

Moving towards a resilient future is a collective work, an amalgam of ideas, of trial and error, your ideas and mine, the ideas of all of those others out there in the permaculture and Transition Towns worlds and their fellow travellers marching along that same road. Together, we create a future none of us yet see the distant outline of, however it is a future that we collectively sing into existence and that our children and grandchildren inherit.

Heading towards an unknown but desired future. Destination. The route to that future. It reminds me of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses:

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move

Let us go forward in the knowing that whatever it is that we do, however small the contribution we make, that we walk a common direction of many paths toward a future that becomes visible as we move. The future is not a distant destination. It is what unfolds minute to minute as we create it.

The track to sustainability is no narrow, single route through the wilderness of ideas and chaos. It is a path made up of many twisting, twining tracks. Permaculture, one of those tracks, is a many-worlds phenomena — it is many different things to many different people. All of those paths must be trod according to people’s interests and skills. But, and this is the important part, those paths move in the same general direction no matter how different they look and somewhere, where those paths go over the curve of the horizon, in our lifetimes or beyond, they at some point have the potential to converge in the future we seek. Make it so.

The Trainer Papers

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

Readers comments

Following the original publication of The Trainer Papers on a now-defunct website, a conversation started to develop among readers. Here are some of the comments.

Joan, February 9, 2010

Actually, community gardens, like other components of the local food movement, really are a threat to Big Food.

Most of us don’t realize how fragile the corporate food system is. It operates with very thin profit margins. If even 5% of our food was local and fresh, obtained outside the corporate system, Big Food would be brought to its knees.

Terry Leahy, March 6, 2010

Thanks for putting up this interesting discussion Russ and also to Ted for his initial contribution and continuing inspirational work on these topics.

It is hard to know where to begin with this and I suppose from my perspective I would urge people to have a look at my site and especially the paper Anarchist and Hybrid Strategies for an alternative way of looking at the issues of transition that are being addressed here. So just a few points.

Ted does actually have a fairly definite idea about how to implement this vision. He thinks an organization like Transition Towns should start setting up an alternative economy not dominated by market principles (but more by permaculture ethics). For example, rather than have people unemployed, you would see that the local community provided everyone with a job that could pay them enough to live. You would permit or allow businesses to operate depending on whether they would help the community to achieve self-sufficiency.

I suppose what I am not clear about is how in the present political situation we could actually do that by mobilizing the 5 per cent of the population we have now. For example, it would be illegal to ban a business and could 5 per cent mobilize to stop it? A serious problem for us in Newcastle as you must all be aware!!!

But anyway, it is just not true that he does not have any plan for transition. Equally he is in fact very definite about what such a future society would look like. He has both a technological vision of it and a social and economic description of how it would work. Go to the simpler way website to find this.

Russ does not like this because it is a “blueprint”, but actually I think some vision of what we propose as an alternative is actually necessary—in other words, what are we transitioning towards? I just don’t think you can avoid talking about this and Russ does it continuously–“natural markets” and so on. And yes, one of our key problems is that we do not agree about this!

Of course, the other thing that Ted talks about all the time is necessity to agree that capitalism cannot work and that we need an alternative. I must say that Russ’s comments are not very reassuring here—he implies that we cannot be sure that capitalism cannot be successfully reformed and that markets are a problem.

Within the framework I would put forward (which is quite different to either of these) you have to make a distinction between the end point which you are working towards and what can work now. The way I conceive it is hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism. So something like ‘right livelihood’ as applied now is both something that has to work within the market economy that we now have but is also something that works to redirect the economy towards the gift economy and has elements of the gift economy embodied in it. For example, you do not always decide to do what is the most profitable thing but also make decisions about what is the more ethical way to proceed. These are non-market giftings to other people and the planet.

On the other hand, in order to keep getting paid within the capitalist economy at least some of what you do has to make good market sense. My view is that the proliferation and intensification of these alternatives can actually bring about a change in which capitalism is totally replaced—money and the market wither away (to use a discredited phrase!)—as more and more decisions are being made on a non-market basis and these initiatives start to support each other.

I am totally in agreement with Ted that the capitalist mode of production cannot be compatible with environmental goals. Whatever we are doing has to end up by replacing it, even if what we do now is to attempt reforms of one kind or another rather than attempting to live now like we would in the environmentalist (anarchist gift economy) situation of the future.

Unlike Ted I do not put such a lot of emphasis on people having a clear sighted vision of what they need to do although like him I would like to see a bit more of this from those leading the environmentalist movement or even this part of it. Unlike Ted I think that social movements do in fact often achieve something different from what the people in them want. The fact is that the people who want to reform capitalism for the sake of the environment may end up by doing things that destroy capitalism and save the environment. And of course they will never successfully reform capitalism and save the environment but Ted and I agree about that.

A last comment. I worry about some of the way that Russ has responded to Ted’s writings. You tend to imply that he is a bit of an out of touch ‘grumpy old leftist’. This is a little bit ad hominem. I find this personally something of a worry in so far as I think people who have an account that talks about social structures from a left perspective get replied to like this while those who criticize them constantly invoke social structures to explain what is going on in their own writing.

To me the basic insight that sparks off a response such as Russ’s is that capitalist forms and institutions are often subverted and used to ends which do not really support capitalism as a system. This insight, which is common if unconscious in the environment movement, gets blown into the false idea that there are no such things as social structures and the capitalist economy. The fact is that if these institutions really are plastic to a certain extent, that is not because capitalism itself is plastic but because these changes work against capitalism as a system. The analogy I use is the end of feudalism in Britain. Lords and ladies kept their titles and land, there was still a feudal monarch and a hereditary aristocracy, but the real substance of feudalism as a social system had vanished.

We could (hopefully) be starting to see some developments like this in capitalism. At least that is part of what is going on at the moment. To save this insight people tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The fact is that if we reformed all of capitalist society in this way we would not have reformed capitalism but a completely different economy.

I am sorry, one last point. A good new social theorist that is worth reading on this kind of transitional politics is the authorial duo Gibson-Graham and their book Post Capitalist Politics.

That’s all folks.

…Terry Leahy

Russ Grayson responds to Terry Leahy, August 14, 2010

Thanks for your comments Terry.

You say that Ted “does actually have a fairly definite idea about how to implement this vision. He thinks an organization like Transition Towns should start setting up an alternative economy not dominated by market principles (but more by permaculture ethics)”.

The notion of a Transition Towns team actually setting up an alternative economy is unrealistic, given that Transition Towns teams are unfunded, community-based organisations. Clearly, something like this is of mega-project scale and well beyond the capacity of a community organisation.

Do you mean that Transition Towns teams can set up local economic structures? They already have in the UK, including issuing their own currency. That was done in northern NSW in the late 1990s, well before Transition Towns came over the horizon, through the regional LETS (Local Exchange and Trading System). Often, such schemes have a limited life because they encounter difficulty in establishing exchange in basic life needs.

Secondly, an economy is necessarily something based on markets. Even a reciprocal economy is still a market economy. The term ‘market’ is not one confined to a narrow economistic, monetary definition. Rather, a market develops when people exchange goods and services in any way, whether through the representative medium of cash or credit, through direct exchange such as barter or through a non-monetary community trading system such as LETS or Time Dollars.

The statement that “You would permit or allow businesses to operate depending on whether they would help the community to achieve self sufficiency” implies a high level of community sovereignty. Who would be the “you” and on what legal basis would such a decision be made? It implies the existence of statelike functions and agencies of enforcement to enact such a ruling.

Terry says that I dislike Ted’s “blueprint” and that “some vision of what we propose as an alternative is actually necessary–in other words, what are we transitioning towards?”. Let me agree and disagree.

It’s not that I have a personal dislike of blueprints for future societies, it’s just that I think they are most unlikely to eventuate. Societies are complex adaptive systems that follow their own evolution. This makes trying to forecast the structure of future society a doomed exercise. It’s fun and it stimulates thinking to do so, but we should only take our findings as rough ideas of what could happen but probably won’t. I do agree, however, that we benefit from identifying the values we want in a future society and it is this that provides a vision for Transition Towns participants.

Perhaps it’s true that the capitalist mode of production is incompatible with environmental goals. I suspect so. There are currently a number of ideas to reform capitalism to these ends and I suggest we observe these over time and see what evolves. Then we will know whether the two are compatible.

I don’t see Ted as “an out of touch ‘grumpy old leftist’”. I see Ted’s approach as transcending both the Left and the Right. Both of these political ideologies have landed us in the trouble we are surrounded with today and I think it’s reasonable to view both as wrong directions. I believe my own approach also sidesteps Left and Right. They are presented as political polar opposites, however many people are happy to take from both as they try to create something better.

You speak of anarchism, Terry, a political system which is based in grassroots democratic decision making at the local level. Murray Bookchin has described such a model that steps from local decision making to regional and national. This is his ‘municipal libertarianism’. Like socialism, anarchism comes in a range of flavours and I understand they offer different approaches to organising societies and obtaining life needs, however as a political economy, anarchism stands outside Left and Right and for some that offers a path out of the quagmire those polar opposites have created as our political options.

I think the world has moved on from how it was when Ted wrote his earlier books. Ted’s ideas have a basis in the Limits to Growth theories that appeared in the 1970s. They were ahead of their time and it’s only now that we start to see the validity of much of what they say. My comments about Ted’s dialogue were about some of the cliches he uses to describe what he still sees and an ‘environment’ movement.

My observations that come through participation in social movements suggests that the term ‘environment movement’ is itself somewhat dated and is unrepresentative of current thinking. That’s why I sometimes make a distinction between the environment movement, some of which originated decades ago in reaction to pressures on the natural environment, and the broader and more contemporary ‘sustainability’ movement that incorporates urbanism, resource use, economy, localisation and other current foci. This is so much more than a mere focus on natural systems. It subsumes that focus.

Rather than the older, professionalised environment movement, it is movements like Transition Towns and permaculture that are today’s grassroots initiatives. Both of these remain community formations with all of the resource and capacity limitations that comes with organising in civil society. Of the two, it is Transition Towns that shows signs of greater political savvy with its calls for collaboration with local government. Doing this requires an approach largely absent from permaculture.

Antonia Vorner, March 7, 2010

Thank you Russ Grayson for this discussion paper, it is imperatively important to get people excited, involved and moving to action.

I especially relished reading your closing paragraph. It outlines very well why the Permaculture and TT [ed: Transition Towns] movements are such successful ways of getting people moving. While it is important to vision possible future economic and social systems, change does not come overnight.

I was a bit surprised by the lack of answer by Dr. Ted Trainer on the question of how to achieve the goals he aspires to. Arguing people out of their hopes and excitement for possible change will not get us anywhere at all. It is a recipe for collective depression and/or burnout. All big things start with a small step, as Confucius wisely pointed out.

…Greetings from Belgium, Antonia Vor

Intermediate technology: Ted Trainer with Archimedes screw at his Pigface Point home.

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

More brain food in Permaculture Journal…




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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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