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How we could live well on far fewer resources: The Simpler Way video

November 6, 2023

This video illustrates the scope for very low impact lifestyles and systems that I have detailed in academic papers. It focuses on the tour of my sustainability educational site Pigface Point which we have been conducting since the early 1980s.

For decades attempts by pioneers such as Georgescu-Roegen, Paul Ehrlich, Serge Latouche and Herman Daly to draw attention to the possibility that the pursuit of limitless growth and affluence might be problematic fell on very deaf ears.  In the early 1970s the book The Limits to Growth made quite an impact but did not go into possible alternative social goals or forms. My Abandon Affluence published in 1985 did sketch an alternative which I have since termed The Simpler Way, but was hardly noticed. But the rapid surge of the Degrowth movement since 2000 has been a remarkable and long overdue phenomenon.

However the focus within Degrowth and related initiatives has (understandably) been on why the pursuit of growth is a bad idea and little attention has been given to two crucial themes.  Strategy is one, and this lack is recognised within the movement. The other which has received little mention is simplicity.

“Degrowth” is now not a good descriptor of the movement. The attention is going into asserting a wild variety of criticisms of and alternatives to the present globalised, industrialised, urbanised, financialised, neo-liberal, sexist, grotesquely unequal, extractivist, imperialist etc. society. Its goals include all manner of social ideals and policies, including many that have nothing to do with the reduction of consumption, economic turnover or the GDP.  It has been a magnet for post-capitalism utopian dreams.

This is marvellous! It shows that discontent and disgust with consumer-capitalist society is finally starting to boil over. For seventy years its legitimacy and desirability have been largely unquestionable. But now the empire is self-destructing and crumbling, most significantly within the ideological domain. Everything is getting more difficult, due to the problems we are causing ourselves, people are hurting (30% of Australians are reported to be going without sufficient food), debt is totally unrepayable, we can’t win the necessary resource wars anymore, and the masses are getting so cranky that it looks as if Trump will be elected again.

But unfortunately even within the Degrowth movement there is little realisation that the predicament cannot be resolved unless there is the most astronomically big and difficult revolution whereby most of the elements within our present economic, political and cultural systems are scrapped and replaced by radically different procedures. And the crucial point here is that the new lifestyles and systems must be materially very simple. Little of the Degrowth literature recognises this, let alone focuses on it. Most of it proceeds as if we can all go on living more or less as we do now, in more or less the same kinds of institutions that we have now. The purpose of our Pigface Point site is to show the very different ways we would have to shift to. We stress that we could easily do this — if we wanted to— while improving the quality of life. An indication of what is possible will be given below, but first it is necessary to make clear the largely unrecognised seriousness of the global predicament, the extent to which we have overshot sustainable limits, and thus the extent of the degrowth needed.

The situation

Most people do not grasp the magnitude to which this society has become unsustainable. The basic cause of the many alarming global problems we face is the pursuit of affluent “living standards” and economic growth…the determination to produce and consume more and more, without limit, even in the richest countries.  We have far exceeded the limits to growth. There is no possibility that the per capita levels of resource consumption in rich countries can be kept up for long.  Only a few of the world’s people have these “living standards” and the rest can never rise to anything like them. This is the basic cause of the big global problems, including resource depletion, environmental damage, the deprivation of billions in the poor countries, and resource struggles,

There is a strong case that if we are to live in sustainable ways all could share then rich world per capita rates of consumption must be reduced by 90%. The common response is the “the-fix” claim that technical advance will enable GDP growth to be “decoupled” from resource and environmental impact. There is now overwhelming evidence that apart from in some limited areas this is not happening and is not going to happen. (Haberle’s review examined over 800 studies.) If GDP is increased impacts increase. It is not possible to solve the big problems if we are determined to maintain present levels of consumption and production – the solution can only found on the demand side, that is by reducing production and consumption.

A major cause of our predicament is the fact that we have an economic system which must have growth and which allows the market and profit to determine what happens. As a result what is produced, who gets it and what is developed, is what is most profitable to the few who own most of the capital. It is not what is most needed. That is why the 1% now own about half the world’s wealth, and the poor countries have been developed into a form which ships their resources out to enrich the corporations and rich world shoppers, while most people in even the richest countries struggle to get by.

The crucial point is that we have to try to shift to values and ways that enable all to live well on a very small fraction of the per capita resource and environmental impacts we in rich countries have now. We cannot achieve a sustainable way of life which all could share unless there is an enormous degrowth transition to far simpler lifestyles and systems. Over many years I have put forward such a vision, labelled The Simpler Way, and introduced visiting groups to it at Pigface Point. Following is an outline, and some thoughts on how it might be achieved.

The required alternative

The basic element in the required sustainable social form must be most people in living in small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing, cooperative local communities, willingly embracing far simpler lifestyles and systems.  (For the detailed account.) This enables huge amounts of resource, environmental and dollar costs to be avoided. Our study of egg supply shows why. We compared the dollar and energy cost of eggs supplied by the normal supermarket path with eggs from backyards and village cooperatives. The dollar and energy costs of the former were found to be in the order of 50 to 200 times those of the latter.

The supermarket egg has a vast and complex global input supply chain involving fishing fleets, agribusiness, shipping and trucking transport, warehousing, chemicals, infrastructures, supermarkets, storage, packaging, marketing, finance and advertising and insurance industries, waste removal and dumping, computers, a commuting workforce, OH&S provisions, and highly trained technicians. It also involves damage to ecosystems, especially via carbon emissions and agribusiness effects including the non-return of nutrients to soils.

However, eggs supplied via integrated village cooperatives can avoid almost all of these costs, while enabling immediate use of all “wastes” and providing many collateral benefits. Recycling of kitchen and garden scraps along with free ranging can meet total poultry nutrient needs. Poultry and animal manures, including human, can be directly fed into compost heaps, methane digesters, algae and fish ponds, thereby eliminating the need for inputs to village food production from a fertilizer industry. No transport need be involved. Care and maintenance of systems can be largely informal, via spontaneous discussion and action. Workers can get to their jobs on foot or bicycle. In addition, cooperative care of animals adds to amenity and leisure resources and facilitates community bonding.

These kinds of arrangements enable similar reductions in many other domains, including most other food items, dwelling construction, clothing supply, welfare and educational and other services, and especially in provision for leisure and entertainment.

The video shows models of a typical suburb before and such changes have been made. The second model illustrates things like — extensive development of commons providing many free goods especially “edible landscapes” — building using earth, enabling all people to have very low-cost modest housing — voluntary working bees developing and maintaining community facilities — many committees, e.g., for agriculture, care of aged, youth affairs, entertainment, leisure and cultural activities — production of most basic goods by many small local firms and farms (some cooperatives, some privately owned) within and close to settlements — much use of intermediate and low technologies especially craft and hand-tool production, mainly for their quality of life benefits — few paid officials — large cashless, free goods and gifting sectors — little need for transport, enabling bicycle access to work and conversion of most suburban roads to commons — the need to work for a monetary income only one or two days a week, at a relaxed pace — thus enabling much involvement in arts and crafts and community activities — town-owned banks — local currencies that do not involve interest — relatively little dependence on corporations, professionals, bureaucrats and high-tech ways – no unemployment because communities organize to use all productive labour and to ensure everyone has a livelihood.

Another diorama represents the kind of small mixed farm that could be just outside the town, enabling food scraps to be returned to the soil, while serving as a leisure and holiday resource.

My study of an outer Sydney suburb found that it could be restructured (e.g., by digging up most roads) to almost meet its food needs, although the ideal arrangement would also involve surrounding small farms. About one-eighth of the present land area of the suburb is devoted to roads which are unused most of the time because they serve only as driveways for vehicles to get out to the main road once a day.

At Pigface Point use of electricity is about 0.065 kWh/pp/day, delivered by solar panels. Australian household per capita average electricity consumption is around 7.6 kWh per day, 117 times as high as for our homestead. No energy goes into ironing, vacuuming or floor scrubbing/polishing, TV, air conditioning, fans, dish washers or clothes dryers. The Australian household expenditure on electricity is around $2,500/y. The Pigface Point expenditure on PV panels, batteries etc. and associated lifetimes and replacements, is in the region of $160/y, that is, around 6% of the national figure.

The potable water use at the site is around 4% of the US and Australian household averages. Because old clothes can be worn almost all the time, and repaired, expenditure on clothing is negligible. The Australian average purchase of new clothes is reported to be an incredible 14 kg p.a.

Models shown in the video illustrate various house building techniques using earth, which is by far the best material for housing. And it’s dirt cheap. We stress how very low cost humble and beautiful earth houses could be home-made at very low dollar cost. One of our models represents a cost per square metre that is 1/13th that of the average house being built today. The embodied energy cost per square metre of the materials is around 1/9th the cost of a conventional house.

These low resource use figures align with evidence from existing alternative settlements. Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri has the following consumption figures as percentages of US  averages:- Car use, 8%. Distance driven, 10%.  Liquid fuel use, 6%. Solid waste generated, 18%. Proportion of solid waste recycled on site, 34%. Electricity use 18%, with three times as much electricity sent to the grid as is used. Water use, 23%.

At Pigface Point we use hand tools and appliances although there is some basic 12 volt machinery in the workshop. Hobbies replace TV, restaurants, theatres and bought entertainment. Fire wood is cut by hand. Most things are home made, including a house and a 17 m high windmill. The main house is a modified WW2 army storage igloo. A swampy patch has been made into a Peter Pan area with winding paths, ponds, pagodas and bridges, (and a 6 metre crocodile.) Many devices illustrate alternative technologies, including the 4 metre water wheel.

The long term embodied energy cost per person at the site comes to 84 MJ/pp/y, which is equivalent to a constant energy flow of under 3 Watts. The long term dollar cost of operations, maintenance and materials is about $54 per person p.a. mostly due to the pumps. We do all our own carpentry, electrical and plumbing etc. work.

The comparison between these energy costs and those for the conventional agribusiness-to-supermarket food supply system is stark. In 2007 US food production was taking 16 times as much energy as was contained in the food produced, and the amount has been claimed to be as great as all energy going into gasoline for cars. In 2007 the US food supply system was taking around 16% of national, energy, i.e., around 15 EJ/y, or 47 GJ/pp/y. That is around 200 times the above figure arrived at in the Remaking study for local production, even though the conventional agribusiness figure does not include any embodied energy costs such as in machinery, ships, feed factories, roads or trucks. The ratio for operating costs at Pigface Point is in the region of 1,200/1.

In the settlements being described there would be little need for transport to move people to work places because much less work in offices and factories would need to be done, and most work places would be localised and accessible by bicycle or on foot. The few large factories would be close to towns and railway stations. Fewer goods would need transporting and distances would be shorter. Neighbourhoods and their surrounding regions would be leisure-rich, reducing long distance travel for holidays and tourism.

If in the Remaking Settlements suburb adults devoted 3 hours a week to community committees and working bees, 10,000 person hours a week, at least 1000 times as much as the local council contributes today.

Much of the care of older people would be carried out by the community via the committees, working bees, rosters and informal and spontaneous contributions. With five days a week not working for money many people would be able to drop in frequently to chat and help out. Old people would be able to remain in their homes much longer, and there would be far less need for retirement “homes” and expensive specialised staff.  Most hospital-level care could be provided in small units in busy parts of town and near gardens and animals. Thus the experience of old, infirm, mentally and physically disadvantaged and ill people could be expected to be far better than it is now. Compare the way present society isolates older people, invalids and mentally disadvantaged people in expensive institutions with nothing to do or to be involved in or contribute to.  They are often intensely bored, lonely and convinced they are worthless burdens.  (It has been estimated that 40% of people in Australian aged care institutions receive no visitors.) Then expensive professional staff have to be paid for to deal with the consequences.

The video stresses the scope for leisure and entertainment in the new settlements. It shows some of our hobby creations, sculptures, paintings and ship models, indicating how leisure-rich our neighbourhoods could be, overseen by the imaginative leisure committee. It would ensure that there were abundant resources providing leisure and holiday activities in the region, such as concerts, visiting speakers, art and craft groups, mystery and adventure tours, celebrations and festivals. The community itself would be a spontaneous leisure resource. A walk around a typical eco-village involves one in conversation with many familiar people, observations of activities in family firms and farms, and the enjoyment of an enthusiastically gardened landscape. The leisure and cultural committee would be one of the most important in the town. For these reasons it is likely that there would be far less desire than there is now to purchase energy-intensive leisure and entertainment, or to travel for leisure, let alone to travel overseas.

Consequently at Pigface Point there is almost no dollar expenditure on leisure. In 2016 the average person in Australia spent $63 each week on “recreation”. About 6.3 million Australians travelled abroad in 2019 for leisure purposes, at an average expenditure of $4,750 per person.

The complex and leisure-rich environment at Pigface Point explains why I don’t own a car, television set, or smart phone, never play video games, never go away on holidays and have never got on an aircraft for leisure purposes. My total dollar expenditure is under the poverty line. Yet I go without nothing I want, except community; we are not connected to the closest suburb (full of McMansions and SUVs). My rich and too-busy lifestyle could be far more rewarding if I could be immersed in a thriving small town busily running its own systems.

To repeat, these per capita dollar and resource cost reductions indicated above are remarkably large. Compared with national averages they are in the range of, for food expenditure in general potentially 1/30+, household water use volume 1/25, clothing 1/8, housing 1/23 and household energy use 1/11. Travel expenditure is reduced from $17/pp/d to almost zero, and for IT and for leisure expenses the reduction is similar.

It should be stressed that these large scale reductions in expenditure do not involve any sense of burden, deprivation, hardship or sacrifice in order to save the planet. They are consequences of ways that are chosen for their quality of life benefits. Further, costs and quality of life benefits could be significantly improved if the site was close to a thriving local community.

It is not that everyone needs to adopt ways as frugal and self-sufficient as those at this site, but these examples show how easily we could achieve huge reductions in resource use.

Beyond the town; manufacturing and the national economy

So towns and the regions within say ten km of them could be highly self-sufficient. Most basic and simple manufactured items would be produced in households, neighbourhood workshops and small local firms. However some materials and goods would need to be imported from more distant sources.  These would constitute a greatly reduced national economy organised to supply the towns with basic necessities such as hardware, light steel, small scale machinery, irrigation pumps, fabrics and poly-pipe, etc. Some of their factories would produce items to feed into the national economy the equipment and services needed at the national level, such as components for railways, and communications.

Although some items would best be mass produced in large factories, many would be produced in craft ways. The video shows our little pottery (built from earth) which is  a good example of a tiny family-based industry. The low crockery replacement needs within suburbs and towns could be met by hand production, from local clay and wood fuel, produced by people who delight in doing pottery. As many items as possible should be produced in craft ways, because they are enjoyable. No one likes making coffee mugs in a factory.

Only small quantities of technically sophisticated items such as electronic devices and medical equipment would need to be imported from the national economy, and even less from overseas.  Effort would go into developing excellent designs for all items, especially models that would last a long time and be easily repaired.

Thus there would be little need for international trade and it would be confined to items that could only be produced within the nation at great difficulty or cost. Various manufactured items might cost much more than at present, given that they would be produced mostly in craft ways and that at present imports from corporations located in low income countries are dollar-cheap. This would not be important as not much money is needed to live well in The Simpler Way, and dollar costs would not be overriding considerations.

Many productive enterprises would be community-owned cooperatives. A town or suburb that found it needed more eggs or preserves or apples or overalls might lease premises to a private family business to supply them, or set up another town non-profit cooperative to meet this need.

Macro-economic implications

More important than the savings implications of simpler personal lifestyles are the reductions that would be made in systems, especially in national transport, manufacturing construction and finance industries, and in trade and infrastructures such as roads. In an economy that no longer expanded and had been dramatically reduced in scope, there would be very little investing going on, only sufficient to maintain (or rearrange) the stable amount of infrastructure. The effects would be huge as there would be far less need for goods to be produced, for them to be transported or for the associated infrastructures, the ships, ports, roads and freeways, warehouses, airports, supermarkets, refrigeration, insurance, computers, bureaucrats or technocrats etc. And therefore there would be far less need for maintenance, hospitals, and “security” services. And the social benefits of more cohesive and caring communities would greatly reduce “welfare” expenditure such as for unemployment benefits, police, prisons, drug and alcohol dependence and for dealing with what is now our biggest health problem…depression. Fresh food, more labour-intensive work (but far less time at work), a pleasant landscape and a caring and supportive community would also mean more healthy people, and therefore lower health costs.

Most dramatic would be the effect on the financial industry, so gigantic that it was recently making 40% of U S corporate profits. It would almost cease to exist.  Most investment would be decided by community-owned banks, not profit-seeking private banks. Maleny in Southern Queensland formed its own community bank, and set its charter to lend only to citizens of the town proposing socially-beneficial projects.

But most catastrophically devastating to the capital-owning class is that there could be no interest paid on loans. There can be no payment of interest in a zero growth economy.  If at the end of the year an economy allows loans taken out at the start of the year to be repaid plus interest then during the year there must have been more  wealth created than there was at the start. That is, interest could only have been added to the repayment if there had been economic growth during the year. Very few degrowth advocates seem to realise that what they are calling for is death for the capitalist class, and therefore there will be, to put it mildly, strenuous resistance from a formidable foe.

This is the “Degrowth conundrum”. It means writing off, scrapping, astronomical amounts of production, work, jobs, factories, corporations, mines, banks, investments … and capitalists. More or less none of the degrowth enthusiasts have thought about what possible strategy could handle this? About 350,000 Australians depend for their livelihoods on mining coal. What are you going to do with them? You can’t just shift them to other jobs, when the degrowth task is to reduce production and consumption and the GDP. And you cannot do it in a politico-economic system remotely like the present one.

The video ends by briefly indicating Simpler Way transition theory. Consumer-capitalist society is totally incapable of solving its big problems now. They are too many, too big and there isn’t enough time. We are sliding down into a time of great troubles which could be terminal. Our decision-making institutions cannot organise the huge changes required, the main reason being that governments, elites, economists, media and general publics do not even have any idea that their plight is due to their fierce addiction to affluence and growth.

The hope has to be for a slow-onset Goldilocks depression, just savage enough to jolt enough people into realising that they must go local, cooperative and frugal. If the required revolution occurs it will be at the grass roots, not led by states or elites. The chances of us getting through to the desired outcome are not good, but what we must do here and now is clear; it is to work hard to persuade people to the foregoing vision while there is time. There are good reasons of optimism, evident in the surge in interest in Transition Towns, Ecovillage, Campesino, Degrowth and related movements.

The purpose of the video is to show firstly that very significant reductions on the demand side are necessary for sustainability to be achieved, and secondly that these can be achieved without hardship or abandonment of high tech, by shifting towards the kind of lifestyles and systems evident at Pigface Point and to settlements designed according to Simpler Way principles. It hardly needs to be pointed out that these ways could not be adopted without extreme cultural change from currently predominant world views and values. However it is likely that the increasing difficulties affluent-consumer-capitalist society is running into will be powerful incentives for such a shift. Hopefully the video persuades many that the transition could be less problematic than it might at first have seemed.

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.