The dominant view, almost never questioned, is that major global problems can be solved within and by the kind of society we have now, i.e., one providing high material living standards and increasing wealth, and driven by market forces and economic growth. Many believe the changes required will have to be big but hardly anyone seems to think that the kind of society we have built over several hundred years needs to be fundamentally reconsidered, let alone abandoned.
People who work in technical fields tend to be among those most firmly adhering to this view, and the most enthusiastic of all seem to be those involved in renewable energy. There are many highly impressive reports, detailed and in glossy format, written by a cast of thousands of heavy-weight academics “proving” that we could run the world on renewables.
I want to sketch the reasons why I believe that this dominant, never questioned conventional view is quite mistaken. For more than fifty years there has been gradually accumulating an overwhelming case that the global predicament is a) far too deep to be remedied without abandoning the fundamental structures, systems, world views and values of consumer-capitalist society, b) is being generated by those foundational structures and commitments, and therefore c) can only be solved by transition to a very different kind of society in which we do not have high “living standards”, globalisation, a central role for market systems, or any economic growth at all, and indeed in which GDP per capita must be cut to a small fraction of current levels.
To the conventional economist, business man, politician, or citizen, let alone to the typical energy technologist familiar with ever- increasing advances, such a claim is likely to sound ridiculously extreme and implausible. So I need to begin by sketching the reasons why I and many others think this general “limits to growth” perspective is overwhelmingly convincing. Then I will go on to outline the general form that a sustainable and just society must take if this analysis of our situation is persuasive. It would have to be an extremely radically different kind of society. My task will be to show that this The Simpler Way it would be workable and attractive.
There are three major faults built into the foundations of our society, to do with sustainability, injustice and quality of life.
Fault 1: Sustainability.
Most people seem to have no idea of the magnitude of the sustainability problem. Most people are familiar with the basic facts and figures here but do not grasp their significance. There is no possibility of the “living standards” of all people on earth ever rising to rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous etc. These rates of consumption are the basic cause of most of the alarming problems now threatening our survival.
Consider for instance:
- If all the estimated 9 billion people likely to be living on earth after 2050 were to consume resources at the present per capita rate in rich countries, world annual resource production rates would have to be about 8 times as great as they are now. At that rate all estimated potentially recoverable resources of fossil fuels would be exhausted in about 15 years.
- If all 9 billion were to have the present US timber use per person, the forest area harvested would have to be 3 to 4 times all the forest area on the planet.
- If 9 billion were to have a North American diet 4.5 billion ha of cropland would be required, but there are only 1.4 billion ha of cropland in use.
- It is now widely thought that global petroleum supply will peak within a decade at most, and could be down to half the present level by about 2030. We are so dependent on liquid fuels this prospect is alarming.
- If 9 billion people were to use minerals at the present per capita US rate of use, estimated potentially recoverable resources then 1/3 of the 36 most commonly used minerals would be completely exhausted in about 30 years.
- “Footprint analysis” indicates that the amount of productive land required to provide one person in Australia with food, water, energy and settlement area is about 8 ha. The US figure is closer to 12 ha. If 9 billion people were to live as Australians do 72 billion ha of productive land would be required. However the total amount of productive land available on the planet is only in the region of 8 billion ha. In other words our rich world per capita footprint is about nine times as big as it will ever be possible for all people to have.
- The atmospheric scientists are now generally indicating that the amount of carbon dioxide we release to the atmosphere must be reduced to zero by 2100, and probably by 2050. There is a strong argument that our energy-intensive lifestyles cannot be provided to 9 billion people by substituting renewable sources such as the wind for fossil fuels, burning coal and burying he CO2, or by the kind of nuclear reactors we have now. (Trainer, 2007, 2010a, 2011.)
Such figures make two points glaringly obvious. The first is that we are far beyond sustainable levels of production and consumption, and the second is that it would be utterly impossible for all to have the ”living standards” we have taken for granted in rich countries like Australia. We are not just a little beyond sustainable levels of resource demand and ecological impact – we are far beyond sustainable levels, maybe by a factor of ten. Clearly rich world ways, systems and “living standards” are grossly unsustainable, and can never be extended to all the world’s people. Again, few people seem to grasp the magnitude of the overshoot. We must face up to dramatic reductions in our present per capita levels of resource use and therefore of production and consumption. The argument below is that the required reductions are so big that they cannot possibly be achieved in a society committed to affluence and growth.
Now add the commitment to economic growth.
But the main worry is not the present level of resource use and ecological impact discussed above. The fundamental problem is the levels we will rise to given the obsession with constantly increasing volumes of production. The supreme goal in all countries is to raise incomes, “living standards” and the GDP as much as possible, constantly and without any idea of a limit. That is, the most important goal is economic growth.
If we assume a) a 3% p.a. economic growth, b) a population of 9 billion, c) all the world’s people rising to the “living standards” we in the rich world would have in 2050 given 3% growth until then, the total volume of world economic output would be 20 times as great as it is now, and doubling every 23 years thereafter.
So even though the present levels of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable the determination to have continual increase in income and economic output will multiply these towards absurdly impossible levels in coming decades.
But what about technical advance?
When confronted by global sustainability problems most people simply make the knee-jerk assumption that technical advance will solve them and enable us to go on living with ever- increasing levels of affluence. People who work in technical fields, especially energy, are most likely to respond in this way. But the magnitude of the problems rules this possibility out.
Perhaps the best-known “tech-fix” optimist, Amory Lovins, believes we could cut the resource and ecological costs per unit of economic output to one quarter of their present levels. But this would be far from sufficient. Let us assume that present resource and ecological impacts must be halved (some of the above figures indicate that they must be reduced much more than that). Again if we had 9 billion people on the “living standards” Australians would have by 2050 given 3% growth then total world economic output would be 20 times as great as it is now. How likely is it that we could have 20 times as much producing and consuming going on while we cut resource and ecological impacts to half their present levels, i.e., a factor 40 reduction? Only 23 years later a factor 80 reduction would have to have been achieved. Remember that despite the wizard technical advances being made just about all global problems are becoming worse at an alarming rate. (For a more detailed discussion of the limits to technical solutions see Trainer 2011, and the critical analyses of the potential of renewable energy noted above.)
Global problems has to be seen in these limits terms.
This “limits to growth” perspective is essential if we are to understand the most serious global problems facing us:
- The environmental problem is basically due to the fact that far too much producing and consuming is going on, taking too many resources from nature and dumping too many wastes into nature. We are eliminating species in a fifth holocaust now mainly because we are taking so much habitat. We should be returning vast areas to nature, meaning making huge reductions in our fishing, mining, forestry, pastures etc. The environmental problem cannot be solved in an economy that is geared to providing present affluence, let alone ever-rising production, consumption, “living standards” and GDP. Yet just about all green agencies and parties ignore this glaring point, seeking only to achieve reforms within consumer-capitalist society and showing no recognition that such a society has powerful mechanisms built into its foundations that can only constantly generate and worsen the environmental problem.
- Third World poverty and underdevelopment are inevitable if a few living in rich countries insist on taking far more of the world’s resources than all could have. The Third World can never develop to anything like rich world ways, because there are far too few resources for that. Yes the conditions of some are being improved by the conventional “growth and trickle down” approach to development, but as has been made clear above, that process cannot go on much longer and it cannot lift all to reasonable living standards; there are not enough resources for that. (See http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/08b-Third-World-Lng.html.)
- Conflict and war are inevitable if all aspire to rich world rates of consumption, and if all countries insist on growth on a planet with limited and now rapidly dwindling resources. Rich countries must support repressive regimes willing to keep their economies to the policies that enable our corporations to ship out cheap resources, use Third World land for export crops, exploit cheap labour etc. We must be ready to invade and run countries that threaten to follow policies contrary to “our interests”. Our rich world “living standards” could not be as high as they are if a great deal of repression and violence was not taking place, and rich countries contribute significantly to this. If we are determined to remain affluent we should remain heavily armed! (See http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/13-Peace-Conflict.html.)
To summarise, these notes indicate that for reasons confined to sustainability consumer-capitalist society is so grossly unsustainable that it cannot be fixed. You cannot reform such a system so that it remains focused on affluence, market forces, and growth yet does not cause ever-increasing problems of resource depletion, environmental destruction and social conflict. If you still want to claim that such a system is redeemable the above discussion makes clear the magnitude of the problems you will have to show can be solved by technical advance; statements of faith in technology are not acceptable here.
Fault 2: It is a grossly unjust society.
Even if we did not have an enormous sustainability problem we would still have an extremely disturbing global justice problem. We in rich countries could not have anywhere near our present “living standards” if we were not taking far more than our fair share of world resources. Our per capita consumption of items such as petroleum is around 17 times that of the poorest half of the world’s people. The rich 20% of the world’s people are consuming around 75% of the resources produced. Many people get so little that around 1000 million are hungry and more than that number have dangerously dirty water to drink. Three billion live on $2 per day or less.
This grotesque injustice is primarily due to the fact that the global economy operates on market principles. In a market need is totally irrelevant and is ignored. Goods go mostly to those who are richer, because they can offer to pay more for them. Thus we in rich countries get almost all of the scarce oil and timber for sale, while millions of people in desperate need get none. This explains why one third of the world’s grain is fed to animals in rich countries while around 20,000 children die every day because they have insufficient food and clean water.
Even more importantly, the market system explains why Third World “development” is so very inappropriate to the needs of Third World people. What is developed is not what is needed; it is always what will make most profit for the few people with capital to invest. Thus there is development of export plantations and cosmetic factories but not development of farms and firms in which poor people can produce for themselves the basic things they need. Many countries get almost no development at all because it does not suit anyone with capital to develop anything there…even though they have the land, water, talent and labour to produce most of the things they need for a simple but satisfactory quality of life. (On Appropriate development, see (See http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/08b-Third-World-Lng.html.)
Even when transnational corporations do invest, wages can be 15-20c an hour. Compare the miniscule benefit that flows to such workers from conventional development with what they could be getting from an approach to development which enabled them to put all their labour, applied via mostly cooperative local firms, into producing the simple things they most urgently need. But development of this kind is deliberately prevented, e.g., by the Structural Adjustment Packages which the World Bank and IMF make them accept in order to get rescue loans. These packages are now the main mechanisms forcing them to do things that benefit the rich countries and their corporations and banks. “Assistance” is given to indebted countries on the condition that they de-regulate and eliminate protection and subsidies assisting their people, cut government spending on welfare, etc., open their economies to more foreign investment, devalue their currencies (making their exports cheaper for us and increasing what they must pay us for their imports), sell off their public enterprises, and increase the freedom for market forces to determine what happens. All this is a bonanza for our corporations and for people who shop in rich world supermarkets. The corporations can buy up firms cheaply and have greater access to cheap labour, markets, forests and land. The repayment of loans to our banks is the supreme goal of the packages. Thus the produce of the Third World’s soils, labour, fisheries and forests flows more readily to our supermarkets, not to Third World people.
For most Third World people the effects of “neo-liberal” globalisation are catastrophic. (For many quotes from the vast literature documenting these themes see http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/DOCS.ThirdWorld.html.) Large numbers of people lose their livelihood, access to resources is transferred from them to the corporations and rich world consumers, and the protection and assistance their governments once provided is eliminated.
These are the reasons why conventional development can be regarded as a form of plunder. The Third World has been developed into a state whereby its land and labour benefit the rich, not Third World people. Rich world “living standards” could not be anywhere near as high as they are if the global economy was just. Global justice is not possible unless rich countries shift down to living on something like their fair share of global resource wealth. Again it is clear that we in rich countries should be working out how to live on a small fraction of our present levels of production, consumption and GDP. And it is also clear that a morally satisfactory situation cannot be achieved while we adhere to social and economic systems committed to affluence and growth. As Gandhi said long ago, “The rich must live more simply so the poor may simply live.”
Fault 3: Deteriorating cohesion and quality of life.
In the richest countries there are increasing levels of social disintegration, such as drug and alcohol problems, eating disorders, community breakdown, homelessness and family breakdown. Levels of stress and anxiety are high; in fact depression is almost the most common illness.
These problems are basically due to prioritising the ceaseless increase of production, consumption and GDP. Resources are not invested in building supportive communities, eliminating unemployment and homelessness, and providing for all and making sure no one has to struggle. Nothing is more important that promoting growth of GDP, although it is now well established that beyond a low level increasing monetary wealth makes no significant difference to happiness or quality of life. It should be no surprise that measures of the quality of life are in general declining now.
A major cause of the social problems is the triumph of neo-liberal doctrine, whereby we are urged to compete as individuals to maximise self-interest, and market forces are to be as free as possible to determine everything. Cooperation and caring are not focal. All this means the rich and energetic few are free to get much richer, so it is no surprise that the real wage of 80% of Americans has barely increased in decades while the super-rich are rocketing to ever higher levels of wealth.
The fundamental mechanisms and values in consumer-capitalist society, most obviously the competitive, individualistic pursuit of limitless wealth via market mechanisms, destroy and drive out social cohesion and directly generate social problems. Again we can’t expect to solve these problems unless we undertake vast and radical change to very different systems and values.
Conclusions on our situation.
These considerations of sustainability, global economic justice and social cohesion show that our predicament is extreme and that it cannot be solved in consumer-capitalist society. This society cannot be fixed, because its problems are caused by its fundamental structures and processes. There is no possibility of having an ecologically sustainable, just, peaceful and “spiritually” satisfactory society if we allow market forces and the profit motive to be the major determinant of what happens, or if we seek economic growth and ever-higher “living standards” without limit. Yet most people who claim to be concerned about the fate of the planet, especially green people, refuse to face up to this.
The Required Alternative; The Simpler Way.
If the foregoing analysis of our situation is valid we must move to ways that allow us to live on a small fraction of present resource consumption and ecological impact, in very different social arrangements. The argument following is that there is an alternative way that would solve the big global problems, would work well, and would be attractive and enjoyable.
The basic principles must be:-
- Far simpler material living standards … which in no way means hardship or deprivation.
- High levels of self-sufficiency at household, national and especially neighbourhood and town levels, with relatively little travel, transport or trade. There must be mostly small, local economies in which most of the things we need are produced by local labour from local resources.
- Basically cooperative and participatory local systems,
- A very different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit, and in which there is far less work, production, and consumption, and a large cashless sector, including many free goods from local commons. There must be no economic growth at all. The basic economic decisions must be made cooperatively by local communities focused on local needs, not left to market forces. (Most production could be via privately owned small firms and farms.)
- Most problematic, a radically different culture, in which competitive and acquisitive individualism is replaced by frugal, self-sufficient collectivism. The Simpler Way cannot be achieved if gain remains a dominant value, either on the part of individuals or national economies.
Detailed elaborations on this vision are given in Trainer 2010b and at http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/12b-The-Alt-Sust-Soc-Lng.html. It is not easy to convey its plausibility briefly, however some of the elements are, — mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies with many little firms, ponds, animals, farms, forests throughout settlements – participatory democracy via town assemblies – neighbourhood workshops – many roads dug up, and planted with “edible landscapes” providing free fruit and nuts – being able to get to decentralised workplaces by bicycle or on foot — voluntary community working bees – committees — town meetings – many productive commons throughout the town and suburb (fruit, timber, bamboo, herbs…) – being able to live on a very low cash income and thus having to work for money only one or two days a week – no unemployment – living with many artists and crafts people – strong community –small communities making many of the important development and administration decisions regarding their region.
Simple traditional alternative technologies will be quite sufficient for many purposes, especially for producing earth-built houses, furniture, food and pottery. Much production will take place via hobbies and crafts, small farms and family enterprises. However many useful modern/high technologies can be used extensively where appropriate, including IT. The Simpler Way will free many more resources for purposes such as medical research than are devoted to these at present, by phasing out many wasteful, unnecessary and luxurious industries and reallocating some of these resources. Sophisticated high-tech, and the training of specialists in it would be important, and could take place in universities etc. more or less as at present, but we would need far less emphasis on this because in general quite satisfactory local systems can be technically simple and maintained by local people.
There could be many small private firms, and market forces could have a role, but the economy must be under firm social control, via local participatory arrangements. Thus local town meetings would make the important economic decisions in terms of what’s best for the town and its people and environment. We would not allow market forces to bankrupt any firm or dump anyone into unemployment. We would make sure everyone had a livelihood and an opportunity to contribute. The town would have to work out how to adjust its economy over time in the best interests of all.
Because we will be highly dependent on our local ecosystems and on our social cohesion, e.g., for most water and food, and for effective committees and working bees, all will have a very strong incentive to focus on what is best for the town, rather than on what is best for themselves as competing individuals. Cooperation and conscientiousness will therefore tend to be automatically rewarded, whereas in consumer society competitive individualism is required and rewarded.
Such largely self-managing communities cannot be governed by distant central states. In the coming era of intense and irremediable scarcity states will not have the resources, and they cannot know the conditions, needs, climate of the many small towns and suburbs. Remnant state and federal governments would therefore be quite small, dealing mostly with issues that involve large regions, such as national steel supply, railways, research, universities etc. Very little would need to be imported into countries.
Advocates of the Simpler Way believe that its many benefits and sources of satisfaction would provide a much higher quality of life than most people experience in consumer society, especially as the total amount of production, work and problems thus created might be cut by 80%.
It does not need to be said that the chances of achieving such a huge and radical transition are remote, but the crucial question is, if the beginning of this document summarised our situation validly, can a sustainable and just society be conceived other than as via some form of Simpler Way?
Over the past twenty years many small groups throughout the world have begun working to build settlements and systems more or less of the kind required, many of them explicitly as examples intended to persuade the mainstream that there is an alternative that is sustainable, just and attractive. The fate of the planet will depend on how effective these Transition Towns and Global Eco-village Movements become in the next two decades. At present they are (understandably and inevitably) focused only on establishing things like community gardens and not on the big difficult structural changes such as getting rid of the growth economy. The task is to work with these movements to help them gradually see the need to focus on the crucial higher level changes. (For a critique of the Transition Towns movement see http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TRANSTOWNS.html)
Those who wish to contribute to the transition to The Simpler Way should firstly work hard at getting this perspective onto the agenda of public discussion. Most important however is helping to establish aspects of the Simpler Way here and now in the suburbs and towns where we live, ventures such as community gardens and workshops, local cooperatives, and community supported small farms and businesses. Our goal must be to eventually develop these towards being the new cooperative, self-sufficient local economies that people can turn to when the mainstream runs into increasingly serious problems, such as petroleum scarcity. However, just creating more community gardens etc. is not enough; we must do this in order to raise consciousness regarding the need to scrap consumer-capitalist society and build a very different one. (On transition strategy see http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/15-Transition.html or the last two chapters in Trainer 2010b.)
Trainer, T., (2007), Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society, Dordrect, Springer.
Trainer, T., (2010a), “Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case”, Energy Policy, 38, 8, August, 4107 – 4114. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.037
Trainer, T., (2010b), The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, Sydney.
Trainer, T., (2011), The limits to renewable energy, a 60 page summary. http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/RE.html