April 08, 2012

The Simpler Way from Down Under

I think I mentioned a while back that as the result of writing about Craig Dilworth's book Too Smart For Our Own Good here at the Pond, I had heard from Prof. Dilworth himself, and that resulted, through the "connective tissue" of the Internet, in access to a lively discussion going on among those one might call Deep Ecologists. These are academics, thinkers and writers whose appreciation of the ecological predicament of mankind goes beyond the conventional "Green" narrative popular in America. The Green narrative suggests that if we all just insulate our houses a little better, support photovoltaics and windmills, and drive a Prius, we probably won't even notice a change from the current American lifestyle. One might even surmise that this way of thinking about the problem is the "Manufactured Consent" (in Chomsky's terms) of the issues: the mainstream media define the divide this way, between business-as-usual and slight tweaking along environmental lines to keep growth humming along and a bigger and brighter future on the horizon forever.

I asked permission from Ted Trainer, one of my new correspondents, who is based in Australia where he writes on Transition issues and oil depletion, if I could post one of his letters contributed to a recent discussion as a particularly good and concise introduction to the notion that the "Green" solution, as popularized in America, is way off the real mark, and Mr. Trainer graciously agreed. So, without any redactions, the letter follows:

[text of letter]

I was not able to contribute to your recent interesting discussion about the global predicament but I’d like to feed in what I see as a game-changing point of view that usually goes unrecognised.

So much of the discussion of the predicament takes for granted a uni-dimensional view of development, wealth, progress. For example many people (especially of the red-left variety) argue that there must be much more economic growth and therefore energy use to increase production so that the poorest billions can rise to satisfactory living standards. They therefore criticise the many green people who are saying that there is already far too much producing and consumption, energy and resource use going on. Many red left people argue for redistribution but many green people say that wouldn’t change the amount of consuming so it wouldn’t reduce resource and environmental pressure. So it looks like an insoluble dilemma.

The way out is to take The Simpler Way. I first put it in Abandon Affluence, Zed, 1985, and have detailed a more elaborate case in The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, Envirobook, 2010. The first point is that the big global problems cannot be solved unless there is dramatic reduction in the resource consumption, GDP and “living standards” we have in rich countries, probably to one-tenth of their present levels. Several lines of argument within the general “limits to growth” analysis should now leave no doubt about this. For instance the Australian per capita “footprint” is 8 ha of productive land but by 2050 the amount available in the world will be at best .8 ha; so we are 10 times over a level that it would ever be possible for all to have. ...and these numbers totally ignore the absurd commitment to economic growth. Anyone who thinks 9 billion can rise to the “living standards” Australians expect by 2050 given 3% economic growth is assuming the planet can sustain 30 times the present global volume of producing and consuming.

It follows that we must move to ways of living, institutions and systems that allow us to live well on a small fraction of our present rich world affluence, and indeed of the present world resource production levels. The Simpler Way argument is that this could be done, easily and quickly, thereby defusing all the big problems...if enough people saw the sense of it. TSW involves mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies processing local resources to meet local needs, via intensely participatory and cooperative ways, with no economic growth, in economies that are not determined by market forces...and value systems in which there is no interest in competing or gaining.

Many of us in the ecovillage and Transition Towns movements live in very resource-cheap but quality of life rich ways. I live way under the “poverty line”, never travel, never watch TV, almost never buy new clothes, and could build you a beautiful small earth house for under $5000. My quality of life is high, but nothing like that in some of the communities I know. Meanwhile most of you out there are working three times too hard, going down with depression and obesity, as your social cohesion crumbles. Why don’t you come across to TSW and devote most of your week to your arts and crafts, conversation or just sitting in the sun (…working three hours a week in the remnant offices and factories we’d need)?

Now you might think the prospects for such a transition are remote. My view is that the transition will not be achieved. But that’s not central here. What matters is that you are going to move towards TSW whether you like it or not. We are entering the era of intense and irremediable scarcity. The resources are already inaccessible for most people, and becoming scarcer, especially if you attend to declining EROI (energy return on investment) rather than price. (EROI has halved for oil in a couple of decades.) Only 1.5 billion are using the resources now...just wait until another 8.5 billion go after them. And we few in rich countries are losing our capacity to hog all the available resource wealth as we have for 500 years The Chinese are racing past us and Uncle Sam doesn’t seem to be able to win the necessary resource wars any more. You are in for a rocky road down to getting by on something like your fair share of the world’s resources for a change.

So you might be wise to join us in trying to work out how to run very frugal and self-sufficient communities well, because the most likely alternative will be a nasty feudalism as the rich and the middle classes call for repressive state power to secure their property and privileges against the accelerating scarcity, discontent and breakdown.

My main point is that TSW represents a rejection of the uni-dimensional way of thinking, i.e., that the only way development can be thought about is in terms of moving up the slope of progress towards more jobs, production, income, GDP, wealth and development. No group has been more trapped in this mind-set than one of the teams I belong to, the Marxists. They adopt the same capitalist conception of development as the neo-liberals; development involves investment of capital to increase production for sale...how else could it be conceived? (Marxists just don’t want the capital to be privately owned.) So 3-4 billion Third World people are trapped in hopeless squalor waiting for trickle down from capital invested in the most profitable ventures ... when most of them have all around them the soil, rainfall, forests, traditions, networks, knowledge and labour that could quickly develop the simple but sufficient housing, cooperatives, chicken pens, permaculture gardens, swales, schools, woodlots, sheds, clinics etc. they need to meet most of their basic needs. Appropriate development needs little monetary capital.

Of course the rich countries work hard to prevent the available resources being devoted to such purposes; they must be kept free for use by transnational corporations, and devices such as debt and the Structural Adjustment Packages ensure that they are. (And any country foolish enough to still deviate is likely to find itself invaded on some pretext.) But the main factor preventing appropriate development is the mentality that can’t deviate from the development=growth dimension. It’s as blindingly dominant within NGOs as within the IMF.

The main reason why I don’t think we will make it is because the commitment to affluence is now so deeply entrenched. No one wants to think about moving to any alternative to it. It has a firm grip on academics in general and Marxists in particular. Their classic statement is that the revolution will take the factories off the capitalist class and then everyone can have a Mercedes. The left has no idea about, and evidently no interest in living simply in highly self-sufficient communities. It is still focused on getting control of the state to organise utopia from the centre. Scarcity rules that out; from here on there can be very little centralisation, heavy industrialisation, globalisation, transport , travel or tourism. Now a satisfactory society all could share can only be organised and run by small towns, suburbs and regions via political systems directly involving all in the decision making and implementation. Sorry but the Anarchists have the right vision now. (There will still be a remnant role for centralised “state” bureaucracies...which are given no power...see Chapter 10.)

The Transition book argues that both red and green people urgently need to take these simpler way themes on board.

1 comment:

  1. hammerud1:55 PM

    The main reason I don't think we'll make it is because human nature throws a monkey wrench into our best intentions, and human nature isn't going anywhere. As a Christian, I think that is why Jesus said, "ye must be born again." Maybe my take on things is sort of like just giving up, but the reality is that the world will never prosper ecologically or economically until He reigns. The good news is that He will. Apart from that, our best efforts will fail -- as one person said, and I've stated before, "no combination of rotten eggs makes a good omelette."