Faculty of Arts, University of N.S.W.
Increasing numbers of people recognise that our industrial-affluent-consumer society is riddled with problems. It is unjust and above all it is ecologically unsustainable. Just about all social and economic problems are getting worse and measures show that the quality of life is falling now. The argument below is that these problems cannot be solved in a society that is driven by obsession with high rates of production and consumption, affluent living standards, market forces, the profit motive and economic growth. A sustainable and just world order cannot be achieved until we undertake radical change in our lifestyles, values and systems, especially in our economic system. There are now many people in many groups around the world working for a transition to The Simpler Way.
CONSIDER THE PROBLEMS FACING US
– Unemployment in Australia would probably be around 15% if properly measured.
– Inequality is extreme and getting worse. One-fifth of the world’s people receive 86% of all income while one-fifth receive only 1.5%. Even in the rich world there is rapid polarisation now towards a small rich class and a large poor class. Many in the middle classes are being squeezed by work stress, downsizing and insecurity and the high costs of housing, medicine, law etc.
– Debt throughout the world is alarmingly high, and has been increasing at three times the rate at which our capacity to pay it off is increasing! (Clairmont, 1996, p. 29.) The total American debt in the late 1990s is around $15,000,000,000,000. Rising even faster than debt are the interest payments due on debt. One-fifth of the American GDP is now required to pay interest on debt; i.e., Americans now work about one day in five just to pay interest to the very few who lend money. (In America about half the capital is owned by .5% of the people.) Such debt trends cannot continue for very long.
– Rural decline is a vast tragedy in most countries. This economy does not need many people on the land. It is cheaper to produce food on automated agribusiness farms, or in Third World plantations for dirt cheap wages. Country towns are dying. Australia’s rural debt multiplied by about 10 in the 1980s.
– Foreign ownership of the Australian economy is now extreme. It multiplied by 6 in the 1980s.
– The Australian Foreign Debt is huge, and growing. It multiplied by 6 in the 1980s.
– Public services and enterprises are being lost. We are rapidly becoming much poorer with respect to our schools, railways, libraries, aged care, health services, welfare systems etc., because governments are drastically cutting their spending in these areas.
– Conditions and hours of work are deteriorating. The average work week is rising, many are working long periods of overtime (much of it without pay), and workers rights and conditions are being driven back. There has been a large increase in the number of casual jobs.
– Even real wages are falling. The real wage for 80% of American workers has been falling for 20 years.
– Social problems are getting worse. Twenty years ago virtually all social problems were much less serious; consider drug abuse, homelessness, stress and depression, violence, insecurity and mental illness. The suicide rate for young males in Australia has doubled in a generation.
– The Third World problem is immense and getting worse. The poorest one third of the world’s people are actually getting poorer. (U.N., 1996)
– The global environmental problem is getting worse. This is a direct consequence of the affluent lifestyles and the obsession with economic growth that are built into the foundations of our society.
– We work far too hard! We produce much more than would be necessary to providE a high quality of life for all, yet we are driven all the time to be more productive and efficient and competitive. We have worked harder and increased productivity and national wealth…but we are getting poorer!
– Measures of the quality of life are falling. Measures such as the “Genuine Progress Indicator” are falling in Australia and Britain, and in the US have fallen for 20 years.
– The decline of civic culture. A generation ago there was more concern with things like the public good, social justice, a fair go, public service, the welfare of all and maintaining the standards essential for a good society. Now the emphasis is on insecure individuals striving to advance their own welfare, in competition with each other. This is the cultural damage the emphasis on the free market economic ideology has caused. It is now a more mean, selfish, greedy, callous and competitive culture than it was a generation ago. Not only is the emphasis on making it as an individual, there is declining sympathy for those who do not make it. In fact the unemployed and the poor are attacked and punished rather than seen as victims suffering social injustice.
This all adds to a far from a satisfactory situation. Our society does not provide well for all. In fact it probably only serves 40% of people in the rich countries. (Fotopoulos, 1997.) We have a socio-economic system that is not providing well for more than about 10% of the people in the world, and is reducing the real living standards and the quality of life of many even within the richest countries. It has condemned the poorest one-third of humanity to terrible conditions, which cause the death of 30,000 children every day.
THE CAUSES; THE BASIC MISTAKES
The argument below is that there are two major faults built into our society which are causing the main problems facing us. The first is allowing competition within the market to be the major determinant of what is done in our society. The second and even more important mistake is the obsession with affluent living standards and economic growth; i.e., the insistence on high and ever-increasing levels of production and consumption.
Fault 1: THE MARKET.
Markets do some things well and in a satisfactory and sustainable society there could be a considerable role for them, but only if carefully controlled. It is easily shown that the market system is responsible for most of the deprivation and suffering in the world. The basic mechanisms are most clearly seen when we consider what is happening in the Third World.
The enormous amount of poverty and suffering in the Third World is not due to lack of resources. There is for instance sufficient food and land to provide for all. The problem is that these resources are not distributed at all well. Why not? The answer is that this is the way the market economy inevitably works.
The global economy is a market system and in a market scarce things always go mostly to the rich, e.g. to those who can bid most for them. That’s why we in rich countries get most of the oil produced. It is also why more than 500 million tonnes of grain are fed to animals in rich countries every year, over one-third of total world grain production while perhaps 1 billion people are malnourished.
Even more important is the fact that the market system inevitably brings about inappropriate development in the Third World, i.e., development of the wrong industries. It will lead to the development of the most profitable industries, as distinct from those that are most necessary or appropriate. As a result there has been much development of plantations and factories in the Third World that will produce things for local rich people or for export to rich countries. Their cities have freeways and international airports. But there is little or no development of the industries that are most needed by the poorest 80% of their people. The third World’s productive capacity, its land and labour, are drawn into producing for the benefit of others.
These are inevitable consequences of an economic system in which what it done is whatever is most profitable to the few who own capital, as distinct from what is most needed by people or their ecosystems. The Third World problem will never be solved as long as we allow these economic principles to determine development and to deliver most of the world’s wealth to the rich. The development taking place is mostly development in the interests of the transnational corporations, the Third World rich, and consumers in rich world supermarkets. Consequently conventional Third World development can be seen as a form of legitimised plunder. ( Goldsmith, 1997, Chussudowsky, 1997, Rist, 1997, Swhwarz and Schwarz, 1998.)
Rich countries could not have their high living standards if the global economy was not enabling them to take far more than their fair share of world wealth and to deprive Third world people. We can go to supermarkets to buy the coffee from land that should have been producing food for Third World people. Rich countries support many repressive regimes willing to keep their countries to policies that benefit the rich countries and the ruling classes in poor countries. (For an outline of contemporary imperialism, see Trainer, 1989, Chapter 6.)
Since 1980 the most powerful mechanism gearing the Third World to the interests of the rich have been the Structural Adjustment Packages of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. When Third World countries get into impossible debt problems these agencies agree to grant new loans etc, but only on condition that they accept fundamental changes. These are conventional economic strategies designed to cut costs and increase income and therefore “get the economy going again and become more able to pay off the debt. The changes enforced are delightful for the corporations and banks of the rich countries, e.g., increasing freedom for market forces and access for rich world corporations to the country’s resources and labour, devaluing its currency and therefore reducing export prices and increasing import prices, settling more favourable conditions for foreign investors, especially enabling them to buy up the country’s bankrupt firms. The consequences for most people are devastating. Most are pushed into much worse conditions than they had before. The economy is literally dismantled, and reassembled largely in the hands of foreign corporations.
It is likely that the Third World will accelerate into squalor and chaos from here on. The progress made between 1950 and 1980 is now being reversed. The United Nations concluded that 1.6 billion people, one third of all the world’s people, are getting poorer. (U.N., 1996.) The market system is now giving the corporations and banks much more freedom and power than ever before to develop in the Third World only those industries that will maximise their profits. Poor countries will have to compete more fiercely against each other to sell their commodities or labour, and many countries will simply be ignored and dumped. (For example most of Africa and the Pacific countries have no possibility of competing against the rest to win any export markets.)
Thus the Third World problem shows how grossly unsatisfactory and unjust the world market system is. It allows investment, jobs, incomes etc to flow to where the most profit can be made, it ignores the rest, it draws the productive capacity the poor once had into producing for the rich, it uses up Third World forests etc at negligible benefit to Third World people, and it devastates the environment. There is no possibility of satisfactory Third World development until the rich countries stop hogging far more than their fair share of the world’s resources, until development and distribution cease to be determined by market forces, and therefore until we develop a very different global economic system.
The same mechanisms are the basic causes of the main social problems of the richest countries, although the effects are less glaring than in the Third World. An economy driven by profit within the market is greatly enriching the few and depriving increasing numbers.
Market relations destroy social relations
The government’s top priority is to stimulate more production for sale; i.e., to do to whatever will enable businesses to sell more. This means that relatively few resources are devoted to building supportive communities, and providing well for less skilled or able people. Many who can’t compete well are dumped into poverty and despair, which has damaging effects on social cohesion.
More importantly, the more attention that is given to economic goals the more that the values and concerns that are crucial for a good society are driven out. There cannot be a satisfactory society unless people put considerable value on things like the public good, the welfare of all, social justice and the situation of less fortunate people. However in a market situation you have to be concerned only with your own advantage; i.e., with self interest. There is no incentive to think and behave cooperatively or to focus on what is good for society. The more we commercialise all aspects of life, the more space buying and selling take up in our lives, the more we have to deal in a market place to get what we want, then the less attention we give to social values, such as concern for the welfare of others or for the public good. We should not be surprised that our society is more selfish, competitive, mean, indifferent and callous than it was a generation ago, nor that the goal for many is to get what they can rather than to contribute.
The economic historian Polanyi stressed how misguided it is for a society to allow the market to be as dominant as it is in our society. (Dalton, 1968) No society previous to ours has done this. Polanyi insisted that unless market forces are under tight social control they will destroy society and its ecosystems; everything will be open to sale for maximum profit.
Fault 2: THE LIMITS TO GROWTH
There is an even more important and alarming mistake built into the foundations of our society. This is the commitment to an affluent-industrial-consumer lifestyle and to an economy that must have constant and limitless growth in output. Our levels of production and consumption are far too high to be kept up for very long and could never be extended to all people. We are rapidly depleting resources and damaging the environment. We can only achieve present “living standards” because we few in rich countries are grabbing most of the resources produced and therefore depriving most of the world’s people of a fair share. Because we consume so much we cause huge ecological damage. Our way of life is grossly unsustainable.
Yet we are obsessed with economic growth, i.e., with increasing production and consumption, as much as possible and without limit!
If this “limits to growth” analysis is valid we must work for eventual transition to ways of life and to an economy that will enable all to have a high quality of life on far lower levels of resource consumption. (It will be argued below that such ways are available, and attractive, and easily developed if enough of us want to adopt them.)
Following are some of the main points that support limits to growth conclusions. (For more detail see Trainer, 1995a, 1998, 1999.)
Rich countries, with about one-fifth of the world’s people, are consuming about three quarters of the world’s resource production. Our per capita consumption is about 15-20 times that of the poorest half of the world’s people. World population will probably stabilise around 10 billion, somewhere after 2060. If all those people were to have Australian per capita resource consumption, then world production of all resources would have to be 8 to 10 times as great as it is now. If we tried to raise present world production to that level by 2060 we would by then have completely exhausted all probably recoverable resources of one third of the basic mineral items we use. All probably recoverable resources of coal, oil, gas, tar sand and shale oil, and uranium (via burner reactors) would have been exhausted by 2045.
Petroleum is especially limited. The recent Petroconsultants Report (Campbell, 1994.) concludes that world oil supply will probably peak by 2010 and be down to half that level by 2025, with big price increases soon after the peak. If all the people we will have on earth by 2025 were to have Australia’s present per capita oil consumption world oil production would have to be 15 times what it will probably be then.
If all 1o billion people were to use timber at the rich world per capita rate we would need 3.5 times the world’s present forest area. If all 10 billion were to have a rich world diet, which takes about 1 ha of land to produce, we would need 10 billion ha of food producing land. But there is only 1.4 billion ha of cropland in use today and this is not likely to increase.
Recent “Footprint” analysis estimates that it takes at least 4.5-5 ha of productive land to provide water, energy settlement area and food for one person living in a rich world city. (Wachernagel and Rees, 1995.) So if 10 billion people were to live as we do in Sydney we would need about 50 billion ha of productive land. But that is 7 times all the productive land on the planet.
These are some of the main limits to growth arguments which lead to the conclusion that there is no possibility of all people rising to the living standards we take for granted today in rich countries like Australia. We can only live like this because we are taking and using up most of the scarce resources, and preventing most of the world’s people from having anything like a fair share. Therefore we can’t morally endorse our way of life. We must accept the need to move to far simpler and less resource-expensive ways.
But What About Nuclear Energy?
If you think we can solve these problems using nuclear energy then you are assuming about 1000 times the world’s present reactor capacity (before fusion power can be developed, assuming that’s possible.) They would mostly have to be breeder reactors, with about 1 million tonnes of Plutonium in circulation, and more than 25 worn out reactors to be buried every day. In any case reactors only produce electricity and that only makes up 17% of rich world energy use.
What About Solar And Wind Energy?
We must eventually move from fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy, but it is not likely that we can all live in energy affluent ways on those energy forms. (For the detail see Trainer, 1995c.) This is because there are large energy losses in converting sunlight into electricity and then into a storable form, such as hydrogen, in transporting the energy to cold northern American or European countries, and then converting it back to electricity. At present efficiencies less than 5% of the solar energy collected in Sahara desert solar plants would be delivered as electricity in northern Europe in winter. The cost of a solar plant would probably be 50 times as much as a coal fired plant in Europe that would deliver the same amount of electricity (and twice that when interest charges on the money borrowed to build the plant is taken into account).
There are similar problems with wind energy, especially the fact that there is always a probability that at some point in time all mills will be idle. This limits this source even in high wind areas to providing only about one-quarter of the electricity needed. (Grubb and Meyer, 1993.)
There is far too little available biomass to provide liquid fuel for the world’s present car fleet. If 10 billion people were to have cars at the American per capita rate, 10 times as much fuel would be needed. To produce fuel for one car would take as much land as would feed 9 people. (Pimentel, et al., 1984.)
Certainly we should be developing renewable energy sources as fast as we can, but more important is developing ways of living well on per capita levels of energy use that are a small fraction of those we have now.
The Environment Problem
The reason why we have an environment problem is simply because there is far too much producing and consuming going on. (For the detailed argument see Trainer, 1998.)
Our way of life involves the consumption of huge amounts of materials. More than 20 tonnes of new materials are used by each American every year. To produce one tonne of materials can involve moving or using up 15 tonnes of water, earth or air. (For gold the multiple is 350,000 to 1!). All this must be taken from nature and most of it is immediately dumped back as waste and pollution.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that in order to stop the carbon content of the atmosphere from rising any further we must reduce the use of fossil fuels by 60-80%. If we did cut it by 60% and shared the remaining energy among 11 billion people, each of us would get only 1/18 of the amount we now use in Australia per capita. Most people have no idea of how far beyond sustainable levels we are, and how big the reductions will have to be.
The Worldwatch Institute’s annual figures seem to show that we are reaching plateaus in many indices of biological and agricultural productivity, including world grain production, cropland area, irrigated land, experimental farm yields, and fertiliser use. World fish catch seems to be going down. Even a decade ago they concluded that “The biological productivity of the planet is declining now.” (Brown, 1990, p. 7.) Yet we are feeding only 1 billion people well, and will probably soon have to feed 11 billion.
One of the most serious environmental problems is the extinction of plants and animal species. This is due to the destruction of habitats. Now remember the footprint concept mentioned above; if all people living on earth today were to have rich world “living standards” humans would have to use three times all the productive land on the planet. Clearly our resource intensive lifestyles , which require so much land, are the basic cause of the loss of habitats and the extinction of species.
Some of the most unsustainable aspects of our society are to do with our agriculture. It is dependent on heavy inputs of energy. It loses soil to erosion (5 tonnes lost per person per year, about 15 times the weight of the food we eat). It damages the soil through the use of chemicals and pesticides, and it fails to recycle nutrients back to the soil. Many civilisations have collapsed because they depleted their soils. We cannot recycle nutrients unless we have a localised agriculture, in which food is grown very close to where people live. In other words industrialised agriculture is not sustainable.
If all nations go on trying to increase their wealth, production, consumption and “living standards” without limit in a world of limited resources, then we must expect increasing conflict. Our affluent lifestyles require us to be heavily armed and aggressive, in order to guard the empires from which we draw more than our fair share of resources. We cannot expect to achieve a peaceful world until we achieve a just world, and we cannot do that until rich countries change to much less extravagant living standards.
The Absurdly Impossible Implications Of Economic Growth.
The foregoing argument has been that the present levels of production and consumption are quite unsustainable. They are too high to be kept going for long or to be extended to all people. But we are determined to increase present living standards and levels of output and consumption, as much as possible and without any end in sight. Few people seem to recognise the absurdly impossible consequences of pursing economic growth.
If we have a 3% p.a. increase in output, by 2060 we will be producing 8 times as much every year. (For 4% growth the multiple is 16.) If by then all 10 billion people expected had risen to the living standards we would have then, the total world economic output would be more than 100 times what it is today! Yet the present level is unsustainable. (For a 4% p.a. growth rate the multiple is 220. In the 1980s Australia had a 3.2% p.a. growth rate, which was not sufficient to prevent virtually all our problems becoming worse.)
We have entered a period in which all these problems will rapidly accelerate, because of the globalisation of the economy. Since 1970 the world economic system has run into crisis. It has become much more difficult for corporations and banks to invest their constantly accumulating volumes of capital profitably. One consequence has been the rise of “casino capitalism”; frantic speculative investment gambling on stock markets, takeovers, futures and derivatives.
Thus the big corporations and banks are now pushing through a massive restructuring of the global economy, the development of a unified system in which they have swept away all the arrangements which previously hindered their access to increased business opportunities, markets, resources and cheap labour. The pressure is on governments to remove the protection, tariffs and controls which they once used to manage their economies, and to sell government enterprises to the corporations, to cut government services, to reduce taxes on corporations, and above all to increase the freedom for market forces; i.e., the freedom for corporations to operate. These changes are enabling the transnational corporations to come in and take advantage of more business opportunities. The emphasis is therefore on deregulation, freeing trade and investment, privatising and reducing government activity. A huge critical literature now explains how these
changes are devastating the lives of millions of people, especially in the Third World, and their economies and ecosystems, but they are a delight to the corporations and banks.
Why do governments willingly go along with these “economic rationalist” policies? They have no choice if they are to survive in a globalised
economy. Governments must seek to cut production costs, free corporations to do more business, make national exports cheaper and more competitive, and attract more foreign investment. This is the only way they can “get the economy going again.” If the government doesn’t do these things the country will not survive in the increasingly open and competitive global economic. It will not attract foreign investment;, its credit rating will be dropped and its exports will not be able to compete in the global market.
Globalisation will oblige Australian workers to compete against the lowest paid workers in the world. Because the freedom of trade is now of supreme importance, governments will not be able to ban imports of goods produced in environmentally unacceptable ways or unsafe conditions, or goods containing pesticides, or to make woodchip companies pay for replanting, because these steps would be regarded as infringements on the sacred freedom of trade. Governments are increasingly unable to govern, because the real control over economic affairs and conditions is in the hands of transnational corporations and banks and World Trade Organisation officials.
Corporations are able to minimise their tax payments. They avoid much tax through “transfer payments”. Governments must lower taxes on corporations or the corporations will locate their plants in some other country. (Half the transnational corporations with branches in Australia pay no tax at all!) Therefore governments have drastically cut state spending; they can’t collect much tax from corporations and if they try to the corporations will take their investment somewhere else. Tax burdens are being shifted from corporations to workers, and state spending on welflare, education, health etc., is being dramatically reduced.
Globalisation constitutes a crushing triumph for the corporations, the banks and the rich. Inequality is rapidly worsening; a few are becoming much richer, the poor are becoming poorer and even the middle classes of the rich countries are being hollowed out. The new rules the World Trade Organisation is trying to bring in to guarantee freedom of investment are almost the final blatant grab that will deliver just about everything that’s left to the corporations and banks. The prospect is alarming; we are rapidly heading towards a world run by a few corporations, doing only whatever suits their shareholders.
Hence we have the absurd situation where Australia could be running its own economy at a relaxed pace to give all people a high quality of life, importing only a few necessities and securely in control of our own fate, but instead we must work harder, accept reduced wages and the takeover of our economy by foreign firms, and complete more furiously to export … while all other countries are locked into the same frantic struggle.
Conclusions On Our Situation.
It should be obvious from the above discussion that our socio-economic system is extremely unsatisfactory and cannot solve our problems. There is no possibility of having a just and morally satisfactory or ecologically sustainable society if we allow the economy to be driven by market forces, the profit motive and economic growth. In a satisfactory economy the needs of people, society and the environment would determine what is done, not profit. (N.B. We could have markets and private enterprise in a good society; see below.) These economic faults cannot be remedied without radical change in values and world views, away from individualistic competition, greed and selfishness.
The present economy gears most productive capacity primarily to the interests of the rich. Look at our abundant productive capacity and ask who is benefiting most from all the work being done and from all the production and development. Ask what is being developed? Why for example do none of the resources used to produce houses go into making very cheap but adequate houses for the thousands of Australians who would like a house of their own. Ask yourself what developments would make your neighbourhood into a very pleasant place to live, or make the lives of aged or mentally ill people more enjoyable, or enable unemployed people to have a worthwhile role? These are not the things that are being developed. What is being developed? Mostly things that are likely to maximise the income of corporations and banks, because they are the ones who control and invest most of the capital and they only invest in the most profitable ventures, and those are always ventures which produce what richer people want.
We let what happens in our society be determined by the few who most of the capital. From here on such an economic system will inevitably lead to more polarisation and more deprivation for the majority, and to more destruction of the environment. We cannot achieve a sane, peaceful, just or sustainable world unless present economic theory and practice are almost completely scrapped.
We have allowed ourselves to be misled into thinking that we need more production, more efficiency, more GNP, more science and technology and harder work. But we already produce far more than would be necessary to give a high quality of life to all, and we work much harder than is necessary. We could easily develop a society in which we do much less work and producing and have much more time to enjoy life, without stress and insecurity, and knowing that we are not damaging the environment or depriving the Third World. We do not need better technology or more GDP to solve our problems.
Above all it must be stressed how far beyond sustainable levels of production and consumption we are. The foregoing figures show that we must develop ways of living in which we can have a good quality of life on per capita resource rates that are a small fraction of today’s rates.
THE ALTERNATIVE: THE SIMPLER WAY
There are now many books and articles dealing with the general form that a sustainable society must take. If the foregoing limits to growth analysis is basically valid some of the key principles for a sustainable society are clear’ and indisputable. (For a detailed discussion see The Conserver Society, Ted Trainer, 1995.)
· Material living standards must be much less affluent. In a sustainable society per capita rates of use of resources must be a small fraction of those in Australia today.
· There must be small scale highly self-sufficient local economies.
· There must be mostly cooperative and participatory local systems whereby small communities control their own affairs, independent of the international and global economies.
· There must be much use of alternative technologies, which minimise the use of resources.
· A very different economic system must be developed, one not driven by market forces or the profit motive, and in which there is no growth.
The alternative way is The Simpler Way; we can and must all live well with a much smaller amount of production, consumption, work, resource use, trade, investment and GNP a than there is now. This will allow us to escape the economic treadmill and devote our lives to more important things than producing and consuming.
Living more simply does not mean deprivation or hardship. It means focusing on what is sufficient for comfort, hygiene, efficiency etc. Most of our basic needs can be met by quite simple and resource-cheap devices and ways, compared with those taken for granted and idolised in consumer society. A wardrobe sufficient for comfort and acceptable appearance is far less dollar and resource expensive than one typical of a rich world person. Compare a modern car with one that might have been designed to minimise resource use and to be repairable, safe and durable. Modern houses are often palatial. The more we simplify our ways the more we avoid unnecessary work, production, resource use and environmental impact.
Living in ways that minimise resource use should not be seen as an irksome effort that must be made in order to save the planet. These ways can and must become important sources of life satisfaction. We have to come to see as enjoyable many activities such as living frugally, recycling, growing food, making rather than buying, composting, repairing, bottling fruit, giving old things to others, making things last, and running a relatively self-sufficient household economy. The Buddhist goal is a life “simple in means but rich in ends.”
We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can at the national level, meaning less trade, at the household level, and especially at the neighbourhood, suburban, town and local regional level. We need to convert our presently barren suburbs into thriving regional economies which produce most of what they need from local resources. They would contain many small enterprises such as the local bakery. Some of these could be decentralised branches of existing firms, enabling most of us to get to work by bicycle or on foot. Much of our honey, eggs, crockery, vegetables, furniture, fruit, fish and poultry could come from households and backyard businesses engaged in craft and hobby production. It is much more satisfying to produce most things in craft ways rather than in industrial factories. However it would make sense to retain some larger mass production factories.
Many market gardens could be located throughout the suburbs and cities, e.g. on derelict factory sites and beside railway lines. This would reduce the cost of food by 70%, especially by cutting its transport costs. More importantly, having food produced close to where people live would enable nutrients to be recycled back to the soil through compost heaps and garbage gas units.
We should convert one house on each block to become a neighbourhood workshop, recycling store, meeting place, surplus exchange and library. Because there will be far less need for transport, we could dig up many roads, greatly increasing city land area available for community gardens, workshops, ponds, forests etc. Most of your neighbourhood could become a Permaculture jungle, an “edible landscape” crammed with long-lived, largely self-maintaining productive plants such as fruit and nut trees. Especially important will be achieving a high level of local energy self-sufficiency, through use of alternative technologies and renewable energy sources such as the sun and the wind.
There would also be many varieties of animals living in our neighbourhoods, including an entire fishing industry based on tanks and ponds. In addition many materials can come from the communal woodlots, fruit trees, bamboo clumps, ponds, meadows, etc. These would provide many free goods. Thus we will develop the “commons”, the community land and resources from which all can take food and materials. Many areas could easily supply themselves with the clay to produce all the crockery needed. Similarly, just about all the cabinet making wood needed could come from those forests, via one small sawbench located in what used to be a car port.
One of the most important ways in which we will be very self-sufficient will be in finance. Virtually all neighbourhoods have all the capital they need to develop those things that would most enrich them, yet this never happens when our savings are put into conventional banks. We will form many small town banks from which our savings will only be lent to firms and projects that will improve our town. Many neighbourhoods and towns are now starting their own banks and moneyless trading systems.
It would be a leisure-rich environment. Suburbs at present are leisure deserts; there is not much to do. The alternative neighbourhood would be full of interesting things to do, familiar people, small businesses, common projects, animals, gardens, forests and alternative technologies. Consequently, people would be less inclined to go away at weekends and holidays, which would reduce national energy consumption.
Local economic self-sufficiency is crucial if we are to reduce overall resource use because it cuts travel, transport and packaging costs, and the need to build freeways, ships and airports etc. It also enables communities to become independent of the global economy.
More Communal And Cooperative ways.
The third essential characteristic of the alternative way is that it must be much more communal and cooperative. We must share more things. We could have a few stepladders, electric drills, etc., in the neighbourhood workshop, as distinct from one in every house. We would be on various voluntary rosters, committees and working bees to carry out most of the child minding, nursing, basic educating and care of aged and handicapped people in our area, as well as to perform most of the functions councils now carry out for us, such as maintaining our own parks and streets. We would therefore need far fewer bureaucrats and professionals, reducing the amount of income we would need to earn to pay taxes and for services.
Especially important would be the regular voluntary community working bees. Just imaging how rich your neighbourhood would now be if every Saturday afternoon for the past five years there had been a voluntary working bee doing something that would make it a more pleasant place for all to live.
There would be far more community than there is now. People would know each other and be interacting on communal projects. One would certainly predict a huge decrease in the incidence of social problems and their dollar and social costs. The new neighbourhood would surely be a much healthier and happier place to live, especially for old people.
There would be genuine participatory democracy. Most of our local policies and programs could be worked out by elected non-paid committees and we could all vote on the important decisions concerning our small area at regular town meetings. There would still be some functions for state and national governments, but relatively few.
The New Economy
There is no chance of making these changes while we retain the present economic system. The fundamental concern in a satisfactory economy would simply be to apply the available productive capacity to producing what all people need for a good life, with as little bother and waste and work as possible. Our present economy operates on totally different principles. It lets profit maximisation for the few who own most capital determine what is done, it does not meet the needs of most people and it now condemns us all to becoming more and more productive while actually becoming poorer.
Market forces and the profit motive could have a place in an acceptable alternative economy, but they cannot be allowed to continue as major determinants of economic affairs. The basic economic priorities must be decided according to what is socially desirable (democratically decided, mostly at the local level, not dictated by huge and distant state bureaucracies — what we do not want is centralised, bureaucratic big-state socialism). However, much of the economy could remain as a (carefully monitored) form of private enterprise carried on by small firms, households and cooperatives, so long as their goals were not profit maximisation and growth. Market forces could operate in carefully regulated sectors. For example local market days could be important, enabling individuals and families to sell small amounts of garden and craft produce.
The new economy would have a number of overlapping sectors. One would still use cash. In another market forces would be allowed to operate. One sector would be fully planned. One would be run by cooperatives. One large sector would be cashless, involving barter, working bees and gifts (i.e., just giving away surpluses), and totally free goods (e.g., from the commons, such as the roadside fruit and nut trees.)
Unemployment and poverty could easily be eliminated. (There are none in the Israeli Kibbutz settlements). We would have neighbourhood work coordination committees who would make sure that all who wanted work had a share of the work that needed doing. Far less work would need to be done than at present.
Above all in the new economy there would be no economic growth. In fact we would always be looking for ways of reducing the amount of work, production and resource use.
When we eliminate all that unnecessary production, and shift much of the remainder to backyards and local small business and cooperatives and into the non-cash sector of the economy, most of us will need to go to work for money in an office or a mass production factory only 1 or 2 days a week. In other words it will become possible to live well on a very low cash income. We could spend the other 5 or 6 days working/playing around the neighbourhood doing many varied and interesting and useful things everyday.
The biggest changes will have to be in values. The present desire for affluent-consumer living standards must be replaced by a concern to live more simply and self-sufficiently
People working for the alternative way have no doubt that the quality of life for most of us would be much higher than it is now. We would have fewer material things and would have much lower monetary incomes but there would be many less obvious sources of life satisfaction, including a much more relaxed pace, having to spend relatively little time working for money, having varied, enjoyable and worthwhile work to do, experiencing a supportive community, growing some of one’s own food, keeping old clothes and devices in use, running a resource-cheap and efficient household, practising arts and crafts, participating in community activities, being involved in governing one’s area, living in a nice environment, and especially knowing that you are not contributing to global problems through overconsumption.
A Step Backwards?
We would have all the high tech and modern ways that made sense, e.g., in medicine, windmill design, public transport and household appliances. We would still have national systems for some things, such as railways, telecommunications and taxes, but on nothing like the present scale. We would have far more resources for science and research, and for education and the arts than we do now because we would have ceased wasting vast quantities of resources on the production of unnecessary items, including arms. We could go on living in private houses with our different amounts of private wealth. We could move to a different place to live whenever we wanted to. We would not be confined to unstimulating, closed villages because there would be many cultural activities in our localities, and we would have easy access by public transport to (small) cities and cultural centres.
It must be emphasised here that if the limits to growth analysis is basically correct, then we have no choice but to work for the sort of alternative society outlined here. In rich and poor countries a sustainable society can only be conceived in terms of simpler lifestyles mostly in highly self-sufficient and participatory settlements, and zero growth or steady state economic systems.
The Transition To A Sustainable Society.
In the last 20 years a Global Ecovillage Movement has developed, in which many people all around the world are building, living in and experimenting with new settlements of the kind sketched above. The Directory of Eco-villages in Europe lists 57 settlements. (Grindheim and Kennedy, 1998.) Some of the most promising developments are in Australia, including the Crystal Waters and Jarlanbah Permaculture villages and the town of Maleny. (Reviews are given by Douthwaite, 1996, and Swhwarz and Schwarz, 1998.)
The transition will not be assisted most by people attempting now to change their personal lifestyles in conserver society directions. “Voluntary simplicity” etc. is important, but the transition can’t get far until we can eventually make vast changes in our society’s structures and systems, e.g., unless we dig up lots of roads, take control of the market system, locate market gardens in cities, phase out whole industries etc. so that it becomes easy for many people to live more simply and self-sufficiently. Such changes can only come when the majority of people understand why the simpler way is necessary and understand how satisfying it could be. The most important thing to be done therefore is not to change one’s own lifestyle, but to help us with the huge task of public education about the need for transition.
By far the most valuable contribution one can make is to help us to establish inspiring examples of alternative settlements, so that more people in the mainstream will be able to see that The Simpler Way is viable and attractive. However not all of us are in a position to do that. What we can all do though is talk; i.e., we must explain to as many people as we can that the consumer society is grossly unsustainable and that there is a Simpler Way.
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