Saturday, February 2, 2013

Defending Ted Trainer’s article in ‘the Conversation’:

Ted Trainer recently submitted a no holds barred article for the Conversation in which put his argument that the only way to solve the climate problem – and most other large scale problems confronting humanity – is for us to adopt some form of the Simpler Way (TSW). TSW is a vision for the world in which the ‘core characteristics must be mostly small and highly self-sufficient and self-governing communities, within an economy not driven by market forces and profit and with no growth, and priority given to frugality, community, cooperation and giving rather than getting.’ (Trainer, 2010) 

 The article generated lots of conversation. Most of this, depressingly, had little relevance to Trainer’s thesis and focused instead on the veracity of climate science. Why do people bother giving these ‘sceptics’ the time of day? Amidst the clutter, however, some people did offer thoughtful comments. Since I am an advocate for TSW, I thought I would briefly respond.
The crucial point Trainer makes is that we are not just a little bit unsustainable: we are grossly unsustainable! This is easily shown, as he points out, by the ecological footprint. This shows that the average Australian per capita footprint is something like 10 times what all 9 billion people expected to be living in 2050 could have. All potential solutions to our global predicament have to be seen in light of this huge overshoot.
A whole group of respondents, predictably, suggested Trainer was overlooking the ‘real’ problem: over-population. I find this response so infuriating! Yes, obviously, population growth is a serious ecological concern. But, as can be easily demonstrated, so is OUR over-consumption. We can do very little about global population growth – most of which occurs in the third world – but we can do plenty about our over-consumption. First rule of ethics everyone; focus on what you are responsible for and have the power to change! Eco-socialist Saral Sarkar puts it well: ‘the most important contribution of the third world countries towards global sustainability should be an early end to population growth, while that of the industrial countries should be a drastic reduction in total resource consumption (Sarkar, 1999, 137).

A number of people felt that, while reductions may be required, capitalism was still viable. I can’t see how. Capitalism is a social system that requires accumulation of capital in a never-ending spiral. The minute growth ceases you have stagnation, bankruptcy, unemployment and depression. There is, in other words, no chance of reaching a politically viable ‘steady-state’ within capitalism, let alone contracting the economy as is required. The only viable alternative to this market madness is a democratic and planned contraction i.e some form of socialism. This need not be carried out by centralised authoritarian bureaucracies, as in the past. The TSW vision is for (the much reduced/simplified) planning to be carried out by ordinary people democratically at the local/regional level.  
Another correspondent thought that capitalism must be part of the solution because of the powerful incentives it generates to innovate and invest. This is true, but misleading. As Trainer notes ‘the present economy is very powerful here, ensuring a constant blizzard of change and innovation, motivated by the prospect of huge profits for the successful innovator, or bankruptcy if a competitor gets there first’ (Trainer, 2010). But, in view of our ecological crisis, the present economy innovates too much, producing a vast amount of unnecessary, wasteful and ecologically damaging stuff. Still, the problem of how we could ensure there was sufficient amounts of innovation and investment in a socialized economy is very real. I encourage readers to look at Trainer’s  thoughts on how we might deal with these difficult problems in his ‘New Economy’ document.
Finally, there were plenty of techno-optimists. Surely an efficiency/technical revolution will allow us to decrease energy/resource throughput while continuing to increase GDP? The evidence to date, however, for ‘dematerialisation’ of the economy at the macro (as opposed to micro) level is very thin, especially when it comes to energy use which continues to increase ever year even in affluent countries like Australia (about 2.1% per year in the 2000s acording to the ABS).
Even if significant dematerialisation was occurring, it would be unlikely to produce the massive reductions required at the global level (remember the extent of our overshoot), given, as Trainer pointed out, 'six times as many people will soon be aspiring' to the affluent lifestyles that only around 1.5 billion of us currently 'enjoy'. Trainer sums up the scale of the task:
 Let us assume that present global resource and ecological impacts must be halved (and much more than that is needed.) It has been explained that if we in rich countries average 3% growth, and 9 billion rose to the living standards we would then have by 2050, total world output would be almost 20 times as great as it is today. Now do you think technical advance will make it possible to multiply total world economic output by 20 while halving impacts, i.e., enable a Factor 40 reduction? (Trainer, 2011)
But couldn’t our environmental and resource problems be solved if we just got access to cheap clean renewable energy? This argument was well put by one respondent:
We don’t need to move to a low energy civilization. ‘Most, if not all, of the limitations of water, land, fertile soil and space can be solved by the correct application of cheap energy. WE should indeed strive to raise the standard of living of all people on the Earth, and the fundamental requirement for this accessible, cheap energy. Clearly coal is not cheap when the cost to our environment are factored in, but this means we need to turn to alternatives, not abandon the program.’
This argument begs the question; are we likely to get a renewable source of cheap energy? Trainer argues (along with others), to the contrary, that running our energy guzzling consumer economies on 100% renewables would be quite unaffordable. He estimates we would be paying somewhere between 10-15 times what we currently do for energy!  If Gillard’s pathetic carbon tax is unpopular now, imagine how the voters would react to these price hikes! The main reason for the high cost is the intermittent nature of renewables (the sun does not always shine or the wind blow) which would therefore require lots of additional back-up plant, adding significantly to the capital costs of the entire system. So, unfortunately, for the respondent, it looks very likely that once fossil fuels become expensive (or for climate reasons we have the sense to move off them soon), we will have no choice but to move to a ‘low energy civilization.’

We should not assume, however – as the above correspondent does – that such a civilization will necessarily lead to ‘lower living standards’. The enduring value of Trainer’s work, in my view, is to inspire us with a plausible vision of a simpler society that could actually improve the quality of life, even for those of us in presently affluent societies! Imagine working for money only two days a week! Imagine living in a tight nit community with many friendly and helpful neighbours. Or enjoying a  co-operative economy in which much is shared and gifts are regularly given. Imagine having heaps of time to engage in many creative activities. And to be empowered to participate in democratic town meetings in which vital decisions are made about the local area on which you depend. These are just some of the hidden benefits we would gain from moving to simplified community economies. As Trainer said in the original article, ‘the quality of life would be higher than it is now in the consumer rat race.’  

Advocates of TSW are not deluded. We understand that our chances of achieving such a vision are minimal given the overwhelming ideological dominance of capitalism, growth and affluence. An objective assessment of our situation makes it hard not to agree with one commentator: ‘If your right Frederick Trainer, and I think you are, we are all fornicated.’

If we are indeed ‘fornicated’ we still should try to bang on about TSW. This is because, even if we fail, it is important to have established in the cultural memory that TSW is (more or less) the only way to achieve a just and sutainable world order. As Trainer says:

‘What we can now see is that a sustainable world order, if and when it is ever achieved, must be based on principles of simplicity, self-sufficiency, co-operation, localism etc. We must ensure that even if we can’t make any of the required changes in our time these crucial ideas have been sown and have sprouted and taken hold and become widely understood, so that when greed-and-growth society is finally scrapped there will then be within people in general sufficient understanding of what the sane, just and sustainable path is’ (Trainer, 1995, 221).

Trainer, T., (2006) The Simpler Way website,

Trainer, T. (F. E.), (1995b), The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability, London, Zed Books.

 Sarkar, S (1999) Eco Socialism or Eco-Capitalism: A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s fundamental choices, London, Zed Books.


1 comment:

  1. I think a TSW world is necessary even if climate change is not driven by humans. We are destroying the planetary ecosystem enough even without factoring the climate in the equation. And we are poisoning ourselves and the world with all our pollutants and chemicals.