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Ted Trainer questions Uni-dimensional views on Development, Wealth and Progress

Social Scientist and petroleum depletion writer, Ted Trainer, gives his views on a way forward that does not involve growth. Most of you out there are working three times too hard, and going down with depression and obesity, as your social cohesion crumbles. How about trying a different, simpler way?

So much of the discussion of the human predicament takes for granted a uni-dimensional view of development, wealth, progress. For example many people (especially of the red-left variety) argue that there must be much more economic growth and therefore energy use to increase production so that the poorest billions can rise to satisfactory living standards. They therefore criticise the many green people who are saying that there is already far too much producing and consumption, production, energy and resource use going on. Many red left people argue for redistribution but many green people say that wouldn’t change the amount of consuming so it wouldn’t reduce resource and environmental pressure. So it looks like an insoluble dilemma.

Another way

The way out is to take The Simpler Way. I first put it in Abandon Affluence, Zed, 1985, and have detailed a more elaborate case in The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, 2010. The first point is that the big global problems cannot be solved unless there is dramatic reduction in the resource consumption, GDP and “living standards” we have in rich countries, probably to one-tenth of their present levels. Several lines of argument within the general “limits to growth” analysis should now leave no doubt about this. For instance the Australian per capita “footprint” is 8 ha of productive land but by 2050 the amount available in the world will be at best .8 ha; so we are 10 times over a level that it would ever be possible for all to have. ...and these numbers totally ignore the absurd commitment to economic growth. Anyone who thinks 9 billion can rise to the “living standards” Australians expect by 2050 given 3% economic growth is assuming the planet can sustain 30 times the present global volume of producing and consuming.

Logistics

It follows that we must move to ways of living, institutions and systems that allow us to live well on a small fraction of the our present rich world affluence affluence, and indeed of the present world resource production levels. The Simpler Way argument is that this could be done, easily and quickly, thereby defusing all the big problems...if enough people saw the sense of it. TSW involves mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies processing local resources to meet local needs, via intensely participatory and cooperative ways, with no economic growth, in economies that are not determined by market forces...and value systems in which there is no interest in competing or gaining.

Ecovillage and Transition Towns movements

Many of us in the ecovillage and Transition Towns movements live in very resource-cheap but quality of life rich ways. I live way under the “poverty line”, never travel, never watch TV, almost never buy new clothes, and could build you abeautiful small earth house for under $5000. My quality of life is high, but nothing like that in some of the communities I know. Meanwhile most of you out there are working three times too hard, going down with depression and obesity, as your social cohesion crumbles. Why don’t you come across to TSW and devote most of your week to your arts and crafts, conversation or just sitting in the sun (…working three hours a week in the remnant offices and factories we’d need)?

Prospects for Transition

Now you might think the prospects for such a transition are remote. My view is that the transition will not be achieved. But that’s not central here. What matters is that you are going to move towards TSW whether you like it or not. We are entering the era of intense and irremediable scarcity. The resources are already inaccessible for most people, and becoming scarcer, especially if you attend to declining EROI (energy return on investment) rather than price. (EROI has halved for oil in a couple of decades.) Only 1.5 billion are using the resources now...just wait until another 8.5 billion go after them. And we few in rich countries are losing our capacity to hog all the available resource wealth as we have for 500 years The Chinese are racing past us and Uncle Sam doesn’t seem to be able to win the necessary resource wars any more. You are in for a rocky road down to getting by on something like your fair share of the world’s resources for a change.

Exercise choice now because there may be no option later

So you might be wise to join us in trying to work out how to run very frugal and self-sufficient communities well, because the most likely alternative will be a nasty feudalism as the rich and the middle classes call for repressive state power to secure their property and privileges against the accelerating scarcity, discontent and breakdown.

Marxism and Capitalism both rooted in growth

My main point is that TSW represents a rejection of the uni-dimensional way of thinking, i.e., that the only way development can be thought about is in terms of moving up the slope of progress towards more jobs, production, income, GDP, wealth and development. No group has been more trapped in this mind-set than one of the teams I belong to, the Marxists. They adopt the same capitalist conception of development as the neo-liberals; development involves investment of capital to increase production for sale...how else could it be conceived? (Marxists just don’t want the capital to be privately owned.) So 3-4 billion Third World people are trapped in hopeless squalor waiting for trickle down from capital invested in the most profitable ventures ... when most of them have all around them the soil, rainfall, forests, traditions, networks, knowledge and labour that could quickly develop the simple but sufficient housing, cooperatives, chicken pens, permaculture gardens, swales, schools, woodlots, sheds, clinics etc. they need to meet most of their basic needs. Appropriate development needs little monetary capital.

Globalisation works against self-sufficiency

Of course the rich countries work hard to prevent the available resources being devoted to such purposes; they must be kept free for use by transnational corporations, and devices such as deb t and the Structural Adjustment Packages ensure that they are. (And any country foolish enough to still deviate is likely to find itself invaded on some pretext.) But the main factor preventing appropriate development is the mentality that can’t deviate from the development=growth dimension. It’s as blindingly dominant within NGOs as within the IMF.

Scarcity will undermine the centralisation dreams of Marxists and Capitalists both

The main reason why I don’t think we will make it is because the commitment to affluence is now so deeply entrenched. No one wants to think about moving to any alternative to it. It has a firm grip on academics in general and Marxists in particular. Their classic statement is that the revolution will take the factories off the capitalist class and then everyone can have a Mercedes. The left has no idea about, and evidently no interest in living simply in highly self-sufficient communities. It is still focused on getting control of the state to organise utopia from the centre. Scarcity rules that out; from here on there can be very little centralisation, heavy industrialisation, globalisation, transport , travel or tourism. Now a satisfactory society all could share can only be organised and run by small towns, suburbs and regions via political systems directly involving all in the decision making and implementation. Sorry but the Anarchist have the right vision now. (There will still be a remnant role for centralised “state” bureaucracies...which are given no power...see Chapter 10.)

The Transition book argues that both red and green people urgently need to take these simpler way themes on board.

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Comments

Fred Magdoff wrote:

Ted,

There is much in what you write that is admirable-- we do have to live a simpler life and that must specifically address the wealthy (I recently came across the 2008 World Development Indicators from the World bank in which their economists estimate that the wealthiest 10% of people (that would be about 700 million) consume 69% of the worlds private consumption while the bottom 40%--3.5 billion people-- use about 4.8% of the private consumption. Any discussion that ignores this reality gets nowhere fast.)

The transition communities are important--because they demonstrate that people can live productive and interesting lives with lots of free time to pursue recreation/intellectual/artistic/social interests, without using a lot of resources.

I would like to explain a bit more about what you see as the left (or Marxist) position on all this. I think that it is true that much of the left, including some Marxists, are Johnny come latelys to the environmental crisis. This point is made clear in Naomi Klein's blurb for What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism:

“I’m not sure who needs to read this relentlessly persuasive book more: environmentalists who imagine we can solve the ecological crisis without confronting capitalism, or leftists who have yet to recognize the ecological crisis as the highest expression of the capitalist threat. How about both, and then some. Indispensable.”

However, there is an important progressive and insightful Marxist tradition on environmental issues going back to the works of Marx and Engels that is actually quite advanced. Some of the quotes that we used in the book "What Every Environmentalist...." from Engels are truly amazing. They could (and should) be made environmentalists nowadays. Perhaps the person that has helped to develop that theme is John Bellamy Foster (I refer you to some of his books) plus there have been many articles in Monthly Review).

It is certainly true that there were (and perhaps still are) people who consider themselves Marxists and look at things as you describe--everyone has their Mercedes. I have not come across them, but that doesn't mean they don't exist. However, there is a truly vibrant Marxist/left that completely understands that we all must live a very modest standard of living.

with best regards,

FRED

It is mind boggling to me to read serious treatises which are based upon assumptions of humans being rational, giving up hierarchy, and thinking long term. We have evolved with fitness characteristics which are contrary to those assumptions. You can wager for charity on future outcomes if you think otherwise. See longbets.org

Homo superstitius-hierarch is in numerical overshoot. This does not negate inequality of all kinds; it exacerbates it. Does anyone think humans will voluntarily return to muscle power rather than use tractors, push buttons, drive vehicles, etc? Wanna bet?

Voluntary simplicity is a small tail on the Bell Curve. Greed and power mongers (top dogs who are also sociopathic?) are the other small tail. The bulk of us are in the fat middle. Guess which tail has more of a 'magnetic pull' to those in the middle.

I rest my case. No socio-economic engineering can cure what is primarily a scale problem unless massive reduction in scale is effectively targeted. With Governments, Businesses, and Religions (the three main global institutions) addicted to growth, how is that to be managed? I'm all ears. ;-)