January 21st, 2003

This is the second of a three part series describing a path to sustainability: 1) Our Global Situation 2) A Sustainable Alternative, and 3) The Transition

The Simpler Way : A Sustainable Alternative

Ted Trainer

If the foregoing limits to growth analysis is basically valid some of the key principles for a sustainable society are clear and indisputable.

  • Material living standards must be much less affluent. In a sustainable society per capita rates of use of resources must be a small fraction of those in Australia today.
  • There must be small scale highly self-sufficient local economies.
  • There must be mostly cooperative and participatory local systems whereby small communities control their own affairs, independent of the international and global economies.
  • There must be much use of alternative technologies, which minimise the use of resources.
  • A very different economic system must be developed, one not driven by market forces or the profit motive, and in which there is no growth.

The alternative way is The Simpler (but richer) Way. We can and must all live well with a much smaller amount of production, consumption, work, resource use, trade, investment and GNP a than there is now. This will allow us to escape the economic treadmill and devote our lives to more important things than producing and consuming.

Simpler lifestyles

Living more simply does not mean deprivation or hardship. It means focusing on what is sufficient for comfort, hygiene, efficiency etc. Most of our basic needs can be met by quite simple and resource-cheap devices and ways, compared with those taken for granted and idolised in consumer society

Living in ways that minimise resource use should not be seen as an irksome effort that must be made in order to save the planet. These ways can and must become important sources of life satisfaction. We have to come to see as enjoyable many activities such as living frugally, recycling, growing food, “husbanding” resources, making rather than buying, composting, repairing, bottling fruit, giving old things to others, making things last, and running a relatively self-sufficient household economy. The Buddhist goal is a life “simple in means but rich in ends.”

Local self-sufficiency

We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can at the national level, meaning less trade, at the household level, and especially at the neighbourhood, suburban, town and local regional level. We need to convert our presently barren suburbs into thriving regional economies which produce most of what they need from local resources. They would contain many small enterprises such as the local bakery. Some of these could be decentralised branches of existing firms, enabling most of us to get to work by bicycle or on foot. Much of our honey, eggs, crockery, vegetables, furniture, fruit, fish and poultry production could come from households and backyard businesses engaged in craft and hobby production. It is much more satisfying to produce most things in craft ways rather than in industrial factories. However it would make sense to retain some larger mass production factories.

Many market gardens could be located throughout the suburbs and cities, e.g. on derelict factory sites and beside railway lines. This would reduce the cost of food by 70%, especially by cutting its transport costs. More importantly, having food produced close to where people live would enable nutrients to be recycled back to the soil through compost heaps and garbage gas units.

We should convert one house on each block to become a neighbourhood workshop, recycling store, meeting place, surplus exchange and library. Because there will be far less need for transport, we could dig up many roads, greatly increasing city land area available for community gardens, workshops, ponds, forests etc. Most of your neighbourhood could become a Permaculture jungle, an “edible landscape” crammed with long-lived, largely self-maintaining productive plants such as fruit and nut trees. Especially important will be achieving a high level of local energy self-sufficiency, through use of alternative technologies and renewable energy sources such as the sun and the wind.

There would also be many varieties of animals living in our neighbourhoods, including an entire fishing industry based on tanks and ponds. In addition many materials can come from the communal woodlots, fruit trees, bamboo clumps, ponds, meadows, etc. These would provide many free goods. Thus we will develop the “commons”, the community land and resources from which all can take food and materials. Many areas could easily supply themselves with the clay to produce all the crockery needed. Similarly, just about all the cabinet making wood needed could come from those forests, via one small saw-bench located in what used to be a car port.

One of the most important ways in which we will be very self-sufficient will be in finance. Virtually all neighbourhoods have all the capital they need to develop those things that would most enrich them, yet this never happens when our savings are put into conventional banks. We will form many small town banks from which our savings will only be lent to firms and projects that will improve our town. Many neighbourhoods and towns are now starting their own banks and money-less trading systems.

It would be a leisure-rich environment. Suburbs at present are leisure deserts; there is not much to do. The alternative neighbourhood would be full of familiar people, small businesses, common projects, animals, gardens, forests and alternative technologies and therefore full of interesting things to do. Consequently, people would be less inclined to go away at weekends and holidays, which would reduce national energy consumption.

Local economic self-sufficiency is crucial if we are to reduce overall resource use because it cuts travel, transport and packaging costs, and the need to build freeways, ships and airports etc. It also enables communities to become independent of the global economy.

More Communal and Cooperative ways.

The third essential characteristic of the alternative way is that it must be much more communal and cooperative. We must share more things. We could have a few stepladders, electric drills, etc., in the neighbourhood workshop, as distinct from one in every house. We would be on various voluntary rosters, committees and working bees to carry out most of the child minding, nursing, basic educating and care of aged and handicapped people in our area, as well as to perform most of the functions councils now carry out for us, such as maintaining our own parks and streets. We would therefore need far fewer bureaucrats and professionals, reducing the amount of income we would need to earn to pay taxes and for services.

Especially important would be the regular voluntary community working bees. Just imaging how rich your neighbourhood would now be if every Saturday afternoon for the past five years there had been a voluntary working bee doing something that would make it a more pleasant place for all to live.

There would be far more community than there is now. People would know each other and be interacting on communal projects. One would certainly predict a huge decrease in the incidence of social problems and their dollar and social costs. The new neighbourhood would surely be a much healthier and happier place to live, especially for old people.

There would be genuine participatory democracy. Most of our local policies and programs could be worked out by elected non-paid committees and we could all vote on the important decisions concerning our small area at regular town meetings. There would still be some functions for state and national governments, but relatively few.

The core governing institutions here will be voluntary committees, town meetings, direct votes on issues, and especially informal public discussion in everyday situations. In a sound self-governing community the fundamental political processes take place informally in cafes, kitchens and town squares, because this is where the issues can be discussed and thought about until the best solution comes to be generally recognised. The chances of a chosen policy working out well depend on how content everyone is with it. Consensus and commitment are best achieved through a slow and sometimes clumsy process of formal and informal consideration in which the real decision making work is done long before the meeting when the vote is taken. So politics will again become participatory and part of everyday life, as was the case in Ancient Greece.

The new economy

There is no chance of making these changes while we retain the present economic system. The fundamental concern in a satisfactory economy would simply be to apply the available productive capacity to producing what all people need for a good life, with as little bother and waste and work as possible. Our present economy operates on totally different principles. It lets profit maximisation for the few who own most capital determine what is done, it does not meet the needs of most people and it now condemns us all to becoming more and more productive while actually becoming poorer.

Market forces and the profit motive could have a place in an acceptable alternative economy, but they cannot be allowed to continue as major determinants of economic affairs. The basic economic priorities must be decided according to what is socially desirable (democratically decided, mostly at the local level, not dictated by huge and distant state bureaucracies — what we do not want is centralised, bureaucratic big-state socialism). However, much of the economy could remain as a (carefully monitored) form of private enterprise carried on by small firms, households and cooperatives, so long as their goals were not profit maximisation and growth. Market forces could operate in carefully regulated sectors. For example local market days could be important, enabling individuals and families to sell small amounts of garden and craft produce. (This is not capitalism because these small private firms only yield “wages” to those who own and work in them.)

The new economy would have a number of overlapping sectors. One would still use cash. In another market forces would be allowed to operate. One sector would be fully planned and under participatory control. One would be run by cooperatives. One large sector would be cashless, involving barter, working bees and gifts (i.e., just giving away surpluses), and totally free goods (e.g., from the commons, such as the roadside fruit and nut trees.)

Unemployment and poverty could easily be eliminated. (There are none in the Israeli Kibbutz settlements). We would have neighbourhood work coordination committees who would make sure that all who wanted work had a share of the work that needed doing. Far less work would need to be done than at present. (In consumer society we probably work three times too hard!)

Most of the things we need would be produced within a few kilometres of where we lived but items such as fridges and stoves would come from regional factories. Very few items, including steel, would be moved long distances, and very little (perhaps items such as high-tech medical equipment) would be transported from overseas.

Above all in the new economy there would be no economic growth. In fact we would always be looking for ways of reducing the amount of work, production and resource use. Obviously this does not mean that there cannot be improvement and innovation.

When we eliminate all that unnecessary production, and shift much of the remainder to backyards and local small business and cooperatives and into the non-cash sector of the economy, most of us will need to go to work for money in an office or a mass production factory only 1 or 2 days a week. In other words it will become possible to live well on a very low cash income. We could spend the other 5 or 6 days working/playing around the neighbourhood doing many varied and interesting and useful things everyday.

The new values and worldview.

The biggest and most difficult changes will have to be in values. The present desire for affluent-consumer living standards must be replaced by a concern to live very simply, cooperatively and self-sufficiently. People working for the alternative way have no doubt that the quality of life for most of us would be much higher than it is now. We would have fewer material things and would have much lower monetary incomes but there would be many less obvious sources of life satisfaction.

It is very important to see the huge quality of life benefits that The Simpler Way can provide to all. These include a much more relaxed pace, having to spend relatively little time working for money, having varied, enjoyable and worthwhile work to do, experiencing a supportive community, experiencing giving and receiving, growing some of one’s own food, keeping old clothes and devices in use, running a resource-cheap and efficient household, practising arts and crafts, participating in community activities, having a rich cultural experience involving local festivals, performances, arts and celebrations, being involved in governing one’s area, living in a nice environment, and especially knowing that you are not contributing to global problems through over-consumption.

Only if these alternative values and satisfactions, which contradict those of consumer society, become the main factors motivating people can The Simpler Way be achieved. Our main task is to help people to see how important these benefits and satisfactions are, and therefore to grasp that moving to The Simpler Way will greatly improve their quality of life. This is the most powerful force we can develop for bringing about the transition.

A step backwards?

We would have all the high tech and modern ways that made sense, e.g., in medicine, windmill design, public transport and household appliances. We would still have national systems for some things, such as railways, telecommunications and taxes, but on nothing like the present scale. We would have far more resources for science and research, and for education and the arts than we do now because we would have ceased wasting vast quantities of resources on the production of unnecessary items, including arms. We could go on living in private houses with our different amounts of private wealth. We could move to a different place to live whenever we wanted to. We would not be confined to unstimulating, closed villages because there would be many cultural activities in our localities, and we would have easy access by public transport to (small) cities and cultural centres.

It must be emphasised here that if the limits to growth analysis is basically correct, then we have no choice but to work for the sort of alternative society outlined here. In rich and poor countries a sustainable society can only be conceived in terms of simpler lifestyles mostly in highly self-sufficient and participatory settlements, and zero growth or steady state economic systems.

NEXT: The Transition

Copyright 2003 Ted Trainer

Visit Ted Trainer’s website: The Simpler Way 

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