Reply to Erik Lindberg’s thoughts on modernity, ecomodernism and Ted Trainer

April 27, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed


Erik’s discussion (1) of my critique of Leigh Phillips’ ecomodernism (2) is a valuable contribution on the question of whether we can get to a sensible society, and what form it must take. Erik is doubtful about my assumption that we can shift to localism, self-sufficiency, villagey and frugal ways, to “peasantise” as Chris Smaje might put it, while retaining desirable elements of modernism.

My concern in this brief comment is to further the case put in my critique that we could do this. In fact my “The Simpler Way” project (3) is about persuading people that it would be very easy to design and build an idyllic alternative society that was not just sustainable and capable of adoption by all the world’s people, but would actually greatly improve the quality of life of people in rich societies today. I hasten to make two points, firstly that I agree that at first sight this sounds too good to be true, and secondly that I do not think we have the wit or the will to do it. I plod on in the hope that I’m wrong about the second point.

Erik rightly points to some of the core and difficult problems in modernity, and to the integration within a culture whereby one element you might prefer to dump can be tightly connected to many others. I take him to be suggesting that a culture is a package deal which you must more or less take or leave as a whole. He points especially to the centrality and pervasiveness of individual freedom in modernity. This is persuasive.

Consider the “right” of the consumer to spend on whatever he/she likes, the freedom to “get ahead”, get rich, become a tycoon, and the freedom the neo-liberals have greatly increased for corporations and banks to go just about anywhere and do whatever will maximize their profits. I fully agree that a just and sustainable society cannot be achieved without dramatically curbing such freedoms, yet they are powerfully taken for granted. I have seen the core cultural fault in our society as the tight syndrome involving individual freedom, competitiveness and acquisitiveness.

As I have long argued, this revolution is not primarily political, or economic – it has to be based on a profound cultural transition. When the task was seen as simply taking power from the capitalist class there was little or no need to worry about the habits and values people held, so long as they had sufficient class consciousness to support the vanguard party. (Avineri (4) explains how Marx thought that at the time of the revolution workers would still be individualistic, acquisitive, competitive and work-disciplined; all that could be fixed later.)

But the coming of the limits to growth has meant that most previous thinking about transition, both conventional and radical left, has to be scrapped. Because the only viable form a sustainable and just society can take now has to centre on small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing communities in which there is no economic growth and no desire to get rich and a culture of cooperation and giving, run via thoroughly participatory processes and socially responsible citizens, it becomes obvious that unless unprecedented cultural change is achieved we cannot make it. Unfortunately this shows the traditional “socialist” revolutionary goal of taking state power to be not just insufficient but not even a priority.

Kropotkin and Tolstoy realized this and therefore focused their attention on helping people to get to the stage where they are ready and willing to govern themselves. According to Simpler Way transition theory (5) if/when that (enormous and difficult) cultural transition has been achieved, the revolution will have been won; remaking the state and dealing with the capitalist class will be consequences of the revolution.

I see the Russian revolution as a having been a tragic loss of opportunity. There had been the development of an extensive and strong desire on the part of ordinary people to take control of their own affairs via local and participatory processes, apparently deriving largely from the traditional collective village Mir, and evident in the spontaneous emergence of the soviets. (It is remarkable that late in his life Marx toyed with the possibility that the good society could be built on the Mir, which it seems to me contradicts his entire theory of history.) But within five years this possibility had been eliminated.

I take these ideas to define eco-anarchism, and to distinguish it from eco-socialism. Both are post-capitalist but whereas the socialist thinks the new society can be run from the centre, eco-anarchists realise that it can’t be. We would still need some, (remnant, powerless) centralized agencies, but communities that live in highly self sufficient ways requiring very few non-renewable resources must be largely self-governing.

Is the required and enormous cultural change too much to ask for now, given how deeply entrenched consumerism and its supporting capitalist ideology has become? Probably, but then, sorry, the kind of revolution needed to achieve a sustainable and just world will not be possible. This revolution is like no other before. We have entered a new era, one of savage limits to affluence and growth, and this completely changes the rules of the revolutionary game.

To repeat, now you cannot define a viable and desirable society unless you base it on principles of frugality, localism and self-sufficiency, participation and cooperation, zero growth and a GDP that is a small fraction of the present rich world one, so you will need a new kind of citizen to make it work satisfactorily.

Erik’s discussion supports a pessimistic view of the prospects. Why do I take an optimistic view, not about what will happen but about the very possibility which Erik doubts? Such citizens, habits, dispositions, values and ideas are not rare. Large numbers (but a tiny proportion) of people who live in eco-villages and transition towns hold them.

Take me for instance. In the essay “My (Delightful) Day” (6), I indicate how I enjoy my peasant homestead existence while consuming very few resources, even without access to any surrounding community … on a power consumption of about 8 Watts, around 1% of the Australian household average (which doesn’t have to pump all its own water or deal with all its own “wastes” as I do.)

My main concern here is to claim that the required value change is not necessarily that difficult, if we can get people to see the benefits. Firstly let’s get rid of the technical doubts. People often think that if we all shift to very low “living standards” it will not be possible to accumulate the surplus needed to fund high tech R and D and training. That reveals adherence to conventional economic theory whereby the only way to get a surplus is to encourage corporations to make profits doing something, anything, and tax them. But we are going to scrap that kind of economy.

Look at it this way. What proportion of the present R and D taking place is on things that range between utterly unnecessary and grossly immoral . I would guess at least 80%. So let’s phase out most of that effort but transfer a quarter of it to socially useful purposes. That would mean we had 25% more R and D going into sensible things than there is at present! This would include resources for training high-tech specialists. Of course you could only do that in an economy that was socially planned and controlled.

At this point someone is bound to be saying, “But where does your medicine, paint, dental care, roofing iron, garden tools come from…see, you can’t live as you do unless modern tech and systems remain.” Obviously this is so, but again it’s a matter of scale. My 60-page analysis of how my local suburb could be restructured along Simpler Way lines (7) derived conclusions re the amount of steel, poly-pipe, 12-volt motors etc. we would need. The general conclusion, far from confident at this stage, is that Australian average per capita dollar, energy and resource costs could be reduced by perhaps 90% (while cutting the paid work-week to maybe two days.).

So again when we phase out the astronomical volume of inexcusable production, including $1+ trillion/y on weapons, we will have plenty of capacity to produce the small amounts of chicken wire, poly-pipe, medicines and hospitals we need. (BTW, you will not have a peaceful world until you start living on your fair share of the world’s scarce resources; if you are not prepared to do that you will have to intensify your current resource wars, and my advice is to remain heavily armed.)

I am surprised that Erik thinks localism and simplicity are incompatible with modern technologies. ”…I can imagine a craft, small-farm, local and artisanal society based on moderation and genial satisfaction; but like Phillips, I can’t imagine how that society would also maintain the glimmering, climate-controlled multi-million dollar medical facilities…” But why can’t most of us live as I have all my life, being a scruffy peasant on my bush patch most of the week but going by train to work at my specialism maybe three days a week?

But Erik is more worried about the more subtle, cultural, systemic and non-technical reasons why it might not be possible to do this. As I indicated in my discussion of Phillips, it would involve selecting desirable things in modernism and dumping undesirable things, and Erik doubts whether this can be done. He anticipates my view when he says he thinks “… modern society cannot be transformed by way of reform, or by way of continued (and non-catastrophic) evolution, into an ecological society. Have I fallen for Trainer’s “uni-dimensional fallacy? I don’t believe so. “ What I think Eric is stating here and at other points is more accurately identified as an all-or-nothing position, again coming from his concern about the possibility that modernity is a more or less tight package that can’t be unravelled.

But it seems to me that we do at least some impressive picking and choosing, and all that I am asking is that we should do a lot more of it. Perhaps the best things about the Enlightenment and modernity are the beliefs in reason, emancipation and the possibility of progress (although today the dominant idea of what counts as progress is seriously flawed.) It is not clear to me why we can’t keep these and indeed apply them to the business of deciding what elements in modernism to scrap. Historically we have some spectacular examples, such as with respect to slavery, burning witches, bear baiting, tormenting the insane, honour killings… When I was young no belief was more deeply entrenched and indubitable than that homosexuality was an evil perversion. Can I rest my case here?

Secondly, it is not as if there is no sympathy for the ideas and values that must become the norm. Gramsci and Polanyi, threw light on the way the dominant ideology fails to completely eliminate dissent and resistance, the way decency, caring, generosity and reciprocity have somehow survived in our era despite the onslaught of self-interested and socially-destructive greed.

There is today a great deal of commitment to the values we need to become the norm, within green and localist movements, and this is typical of people who also adhere to many elements in modernism. I can’t see why there can’t be people who endorse science, the rule of law, freedom of speech, modern dental care, R and D, concern for the underdog, emancipation and progress … and, at the same time, frugality, crafts, gardening, darning, conversation, reading, mud brick building, afternoon tea, hand tools, caring, sharing and giving, and (selected) peasant ways …that is, people like me.

Following are some further reasons for being optimistic about the possibility of this core problem of radical change in ideas and values. I believe the present obsession with possessions and getting richer and the mindless trivia of sport, fashion, TV and IT, is mainly due to the lack of other options. Commerce has largely eliminated homemaking and the skill and purpose that went with it (see John Seymore’s remarkable Forgotten Crafts), community, creative hobbies, playing cricket in the street, exploring the neighbourhood bushland. Leisure and entertainment are now purchased from global corporations, not home-made. Work is extremely specialized, and it’s no good trying to fix your own car…

The Simpler Way contradicts all that; it provides abundant sources of interest and activity, learning, interaction, comradeship, community, arts and crafts, town meetings and committees to serve on, in a beautiful landscape and a polity and an ecosystem to be proud of, and people eager to chat and show you how to grow things, keep bees, sculpt, paint… Your town will be full of little firms and farms, co-ops, working bees, committees, Jack’s of all trades along with expert specialists, and wise village elders, and you might have five days a week away from your from paid work to be involved in all this. As anyone in an eco-village will tell you, there are far more rewarding things to do than strive to get rich.

The main task The Simpler Way project is concerned with is trying to help people to see that to live in these ways would be a) to live well under present poverty lines (which is where my personal expenditure is) and b) to enjoy a far higher quality of life than your average CEO or banker. In my discussion of the case for simplicity (8) I argue that material wealth is not just unnecessary for a high quality of life, it interferes with that outcome. For instance Thoreau emphasized how much time he had to pursue his main interest, writing, because he didn’t have to work long hours to pay off an elaborate house.

Another cheer up is the synergism and positive feedback that would reinforce the new culture if we could just get it going. In consumer-capitalist society the core values are socially destructive. They might have built giant corporations and jumbo jets but as Polanyi, Tawney, Marx and many others have stressed individualistic, competitive greed shreds the social bond, as well as inflicts alienation on the individual. Again The Simpler Way totally reverses these causal chains. The new communities cannot function well unless people cooperate, share, volunteer, help, give generously, turn up to working bees and prioritise the welfare of the town knowing that their personal wealth is of little significance and the richness of their lives depend on whether the town is thriving. If it isn’t, then the concerts, readiness to help, access to good conversation, as well as the availability of free fruit from the community orchards, will deteriorate.

Thus The Simpler Way requires and rewards good values and behavior. Doing the socially desirable thing will in general not be a reluctantly accepted burden, but a source of life satisfaction. Goodness will generate more goodness; when I give my surplus strawberries to others nice vibes are created and further acts of generosity are likely to result. But in competitive individualistic consumer-capitalist society most of the incentives are around the wrong way; if I share a new idea my competitor might use it to drive me bankrupt.

So if we can just get the new systems based on this new culture going we might be surprised how easy it is to keep it going. It’s not as if in order to save the planet we have to reluctantly accept hardship and deprivation before those resource consumption rates can be brought down far enough. The Simpler Way would in fact be a delightful liberation from the insane, suicidal rat race that is consumer-capitalism.

Erik might be right; maybe the evils of modernity are too deeply entrenched now. He hasn’t said my recommendation is impossible, just difficult to achieve. But the important point is that we have no choice but to proceed as if he isn’t right.

I have lived through decades in which a tiny number of us were trying to draw attention to the limits to growth issue and the alternatives required, with no discernible effect, but in the last twenty years we have started to get somewhere. Now large numbers are working in eco-villages and transition towns. Although I think these movements are seriously mistaken about some very important issues (9) this is the arena in which this revolution will be won or lost and it is of the utmost importance that we encourage people to join these movements. (One of my main concerns is to persuade the left into them.)


  1. Lindberg, E., (2016), "Remembrance of Things Yet to Come: An Anti-Modernist Response to Ted Trainer", Resilience, 19th April
  2. Trainer, T. (2016), "A critique of Leigh Phillips’ assertion of the Tech-Fix Ecomodernist faith". Resilience, 7th April.
  3. Trainer, T., "The Simpler Way: Working for transition from consumer society to a simpler, more cooperative, just and ecologically sustainable society"
  4. Avineri S., (1968), The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
  5. Trainer, T., "How Might We Make the Transition to the Simpler Way?"
  6. Trainer, T., "My (Delightful) Day: The benefits of life in The Simpler Way,"
  7. Trainer, T., "Remaking settements: The potential cost reductions from The Simpler Way,"
  8. Trainer, T. "The Case for Simplicity,"
  9. Trainer, T., "Transition Townspeople, We Need To Think About Transition. (Just Doing Stuff Is Far From Enough!),"


Photo: Hurdal Økolandsby ecovillage with a horse, Norway. (2013), Photo by Øyvind Holmstad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Ted Trainer

Dr. Ted Trainer is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales. He has taught and written about sustainability and justice issues for many years. He is also developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney. Many of his writings are available free at his website The Simpler Way.

Tags: anarchism, culture change, The Simpler Way