The Transition Towns Movement … going where?

First Published at resilience.org

Ted Trainer

The global predicament cannot be solved other than through a Transition Towns movement, and the emergence of such a movement has been of immense importance. But I fear that the present movement is not going to do what’s needed. Four years ago I circulated reasons for this view. I recently made an effort to get current information from various people in the movement and I fear the case for doubt is even stronger today. Here is a brief indication of my main concerns.

I take it for granted we agree that the global situation requires massive system changes, including scrapping the growth economy, de-growth down to far lower per capita levels of production and consumption than rich countries have today, and the market must be prevented from determining our fate. These things cannot be done unless there is transition to a basic social pattern involving mostly small, highly self sufficient and self governing and collectivist communities that maximise use of local resources to meet local needs and which are content with very frugal material lifestyles. Only settlements of this general kind can get the per capital resource rates down sufficiently while ensuring ecological sustainability and a high quality of life for all. (Those rates will probably have to go down to 10% of their present levels: For the reasoning see TSW: 2017a.) This does not mean deprivation or hardship or abandoning high tech, universities, sophisticated medical facilities etc. (For the detail TSW 2018a.)

The transition needed is so historically massive and unprecedented that it is not likely to be achieved, but when our situation is understood it is the only goal that makes sense to strive for. It will not be done by governments. They will not attempt to do it. They will not even recognize that it needs to be done. They are totally locked into trying to make the growth and affluence system work. Virtually none of your politicians or bureaucrats grasp or have any interest in the basic limits to growth analysis of our global predicament or what changes are imperative.

Two classes are responsible for this suicidal commitment. The first is the capitalist class which must have constant expansion of opportunities to invest their ever-accumulating capital. The second includes…almost everyone else. Progress defined as increasing material wealth has been so deeply entrenched in the Western mentality since the Enlightenment that challenges to this conception are ignored.

The transition will only become possible as the coming time of troubles intensifies, i.e., as we descend into massive terminal depression. The task for us here and now is to try to increase the numbers who will be able to lead the way to the sane option when breakdown begins to make it obvious that the old system is no longer going to provide for them. Over the last few decades the Eco-village movement and the Transition Towns movement have been of immense historical importance in taking the first steps in what we must hope will be this process.

But what they are doing now could very well come to nothing. Many believe that’s what will happen, including I assume just about everyone on the red Left. This is primarily because when it comes to transition theory these movements are at present essentially mindless, theoryless, and deliberately so. They have nothing to say about how the things being done are going to lead to a world order that is sustainable and just. By what mechanisms or chain of causes is developing more community gardens etc. supposed to culminate someday in a society that is not run by and for the rich few, driven by market forces and geared to perpetual growth? Why is it a mistake to believe, as many do, that starting more community gardens etc. will only lead to a society that remains grossly unsustainable and unjust but has some community gardens etc. in it?

That there is no need to bother about these questions is made clear in the Transition Towns literature. It tells us to “just doing something, anything.” This is the message in one of the movements’ gospels, The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World. Their newsletters and other literature do not discuss how the activities enthused about at length are supposed to do what centuries of strategic thinking and hard work and fighting at barricades have failed to do. Two hundred years of struggle for a better society, suffering, organising, and bloody turmoil, informed by enormous amount of theorising, tract writing, conferences and intense debate between various transition theorists. Evidently all that can now be seen to have been unnecessary and a mistake; no need to form and debate theories of transition, just “do something–anything”, and in time we will find ourselves in a good society.

The literature does not even explain why localism is important, why it is necessary to achieve sustainability. Why isn’t it better to support green political parties towards the day when they take power and get the right policies enacted? Here’s why: only very small scale economies can cut the resource costs right down. I have recently completed a study comparing egg production costs for the typical supermarket/industrial path with those for the village or neighbourhood co-operative path. The ratios for dollar and energy costs are over 200 to 1. This is because proximity enables outputs such as manures from co-op production to go straight to nearby gardens, fish ponds and methane digesters, and it enables kitchen and garden “wastes” to go straight to the chickens, eliminating all need for transport, feed production factories, packaging, advertising, waste removal and dumping, and avoiding carbon emissions and soil damaging agribusiness etc. etc. See Trainer, 2018.

This readiness to just do anything that appeals and failure to think carefully about what needs to be done is also evident in the adoption of alternative currencies. Most if not all of these adopted within the movement are like the Brixton pound which involve substitution of new notes for old. These can have some publicity and feel-good value but cannot perform the most valuable function of alternative currencies; i.e., creating economic activity by enabling people dumped into idleness and poverty by the mainstream economy to begin producing and exchanging to meet each other’s needs. Varieties of a simple LETSystem can do this. I detailed the point in my earlier critique. More recently Marshall and Oneill, (2018), have found unsurprisingly that the Brixton pound is probably making no difference to the local economy.

It is not just that the strategic logic of the movement is not explained, it is also that the goals of the movement still remain extremely vague. Here is all that is said on the topic in the recent 63 page document,

“It is about communities stepping up to address the big challenges they face by starting local. By coming together, they are able to create solutions together. They seek to nurture a caring culture, one focused on connection with self, others and nature. They are reclaiming the economy, sparking entrepreneurship, reimaging work, reskilling themselves and weaving webs of connection and support. Courageous conversations are being had; extraordinary change is unfolding.”

So now you know precisely what the movement is all about, and how it is going to save the planet.

The rest of that document is like the movement’s other “explanatory” literature in detailing procedures for setting up and running groups and activities (e.g., “Awareness raising”, “Form subgroups”, “Build a bridge to local government”) but throwing no light on what the groups are then supposed to do or why. Presumably the answer is, “just do something/anything.”

Nor does this literature provide groups with any assistance or suggestions derived from experience regarding what might be the best projects to undertake, what has been found to work well, what ones are too difficult, what seem best for spreading public awareness, etc.

The most commonly expressed goal of the movement is for towns to achieve resilience, in the face of looming energy problems. I strongly disagree with this. The goal should be to develop settlements that enable a sustainable and just world, and these must have such simple systems and lifestyles that present rich world per capita resource use can be literally decimated. These settlements will indeed be highly resilient, but that is not a sufficient or focal factor; a settlement could be very resilient but still involve high levels of consumption of things provided by an unjust global economy.

Another major concern I have is that there is almost no reference to frugality and a simple lifestyles as a goal, let alone as the most important goal. The consumer society obsession with wealth, property, travel and affluence must be replaced by non-material sources of life satisfaction. Implausible? Too hard? Maybe it is, but then we will not make it. It is not possible to design and get to a sustainable and just world unless we make this huge cultural change. Again this goal cannot be achieved without the most massive transformation of systems far beyond the town borders; the elimination of the growth economy, the phasing out of most heavy industry, radical restructuring of national economies, global de-growth, etc. etc.

Above all there seems to be no interest in developing strategies to increase public awareness of the need for extreme, radical and rapid global transition towards localism. There is now widespread discontent with this society, hence Trump, but very little understanding that the big global problems are due to the consumer-capitalist-growth-and-affluence-forever commitment. The discontent is only fuelling demands to get the economy going again. Virtually all Australian politicians are fiercely dedicated to “growth and jobs” (the governing party’s winning election slogan) and most people only want higher wages, lower energy prices and more property and cruise ships. We will get nowhere unless and until there is a high level of public awareness of the need to scrap growth, market domination and wealth-obsession etc. At this early stage working on that mentality should be our top priority, and people involved in Eco-villages and Transition Towns are in an ideal position to do it because they can point towards viable alternatives. But they are more or less not doing it, certainly not prioritizing it.

I strongly believe that the things happening in the Transition Towns and Eco-village movements are of the utmost importance, and are crucial and necessary as the first steps that must be taken in the required revolution — but I believe that on their own a) they will come to nothing of global significance, and b) if they are to be significant they must be informed by the correct transition theory and strategy. That is, by a vision of how to get from here to there that is in fact correct, that will actually get us there. None of us knows what that theory is (I’ll sketch my view below), but we had better think hard about what it is if we are to have any chance of getting it right and not going down paths that cannot succeed.

People on the red left think the path the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements are taking are laughably wrong. Are they mistaken; can we show this? I think they are mistaken and have put my case in detail several times (e.g., Trainer, 2016), but my point here is that people within the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements appear to have no interest whatsoever in thinking about any of this. Just do whatever nice green local stuff takes your fancy and eventually the planet will have been saved.

The Simpler Way Transition Theory

From the perspective of The Simpler Way this revolution will have two stages. The first, well underway, involves increasing recognition that the old project of growth and trickle down in the pursuit of affluence is not going to provide for all and that radical system change is required. Stage 1 involves the gradual establishment of various aspects of the required alternative, i.e., those that can be set up now within the old system. These practical steps can have important educational effects, in spreading awareness of the feasibility and attractiveness of alternative ways, and more importantly of introducing a radically alternative world view. They can demonstrate lifestyles, values, systems and ways of proceeding that contradict the old competitive, individualistic, wealth and greed-obsessed culture. When the serious breakdowns and depression impact and increasing numbers are unemployed etc. hopefully people will be realize they can to come across to the new ways we are establishing in their neighbourhoods and towns, and quickly increase the numbers and scale.

But this localism is far from enough. Towns and suburbs and eco-villages will always be significantly dependent on distant inputs, on boots and chicken wire and electric pumps and stoves and medicines as well as on the distant mines and power stations, and ships and corporations that produce the resources and the factories that process them. Most of the things that Eco-villages today consume are being produced outside them. Towns will always be to some considerable extent dependent on their national and global economies. How is setting up a child-minding co-op today supposed to contribute to making these bigger and more distant systems sustainable and just? Clearly that cannot be done without astronomically big revolutions in national and international economies, political systems and, most difficult, in cultures. No need to think about it?

My (uncertain) view is that an effective causal chain to Stage 2 could eventually emerge if towns come to focus on gradually taking as much collective citizen control of their own fate as is possible, and then seek to continually extend this outlook and capacity beyond the town. Setting up nice green ventures that will function within the rules and limits of the existing economy, or parallel to it, as many community orchards and co-ops do, does not move us in this direction. But it is a quite different game when the town starts asking questions like, ”What are our most urgent needs in this town? Do we have bored teenagers and lonely old people? Do we have unemployed people? Are there people who don’t get enough good food, or need assistance with coping, or who are homeless? Governments and officials are not solving these problems. Let us think about what arrangements, what co-ops and mini-banks, and committees we can collectively set up to meet some of those needs drawing on our local resources, especially of time and skill and concern.”

This is to begin the creation of what The Simpler Way approach refers to as a town “Community Development Co-operative”, intended to start building an Economy B, i.e., our own mostly cooperative arrangements to meet urgent needs underneath the old Economy A. We clearly assert that the goals, means and values of Economy B flatly contradict those of the old economy, especially in …

  • targeting neglected community needs,
  • preventing market forces from determining what happens,
  • working cooperatively, not as individual entrepreneurs (although there can be a considerable role for small private farms and firms),
  • minimizing resource use,
  • maximizing local self-sufficiency by harnessing the time, skills and enthusiasm the town has.

The resources that exist in any town for building a powerful Economy B are considerable. Just reflect on the huge amount of time now wasted watching trivia on a screen. (My Remaking Settlements report, TSW, 2017, emphasised that if people in the small outer Sydney suburb studied gave a mere one hour a week to community working bees then 2,000 person hours a week could be going into enriching the suburb materially and spiritually. )

So to me the emergence of this determination of ordinary citizens to take collective control, to set up our arrangements to solve our town’s problems, is the crucial turning point. This is a going beyond merely setting up another enterprise within the old society. It involves the development of a consciousness whereby we feel we “own” and are responsible for our town; “This is our town and we have got problems. What are we going to do about them?” There are towns and regions operating with this orientation. Possibly the most impressive example is the Catalan Integral Cooperative (See TSW: 2017B) which provides many goods and services to many hundreds of people, while emphatically refusing to have anything to do with the capitalist market system or the state.

But back to how might Stage 2 goals be achieved. The core element in TSW transition theory/hope is that as the depression sets in and the supermarket shelves thin out people will recognize that their town must get those basic inputs from the national economy. Even if a town succeeds remarkably in cutting consumption, living frugally, sharing and building the capacity of the local economy to provide, it will realize it can’t survive long without lots of imported items. This will generate powerful demands from the towns on government to dramatically reorganise and restructure the national economy so that it redirects productive capacity towards providing the local economies with the (few) basic inputs they must have.

This is similar to what happens in wartime. Governments suddenly find that they must go heavily “socialist”, regulating, subsidizing, banning, relocating, rationing, phasing out whole industries and setting up new ones; so it is doable. We have to hope and work for widespread realization that this macro-economic restructuring must be done, and the coming break down will help us with this “educational” task.

But the situation will be far more difficult than in World War 2, where there was no energy problem and no threat to the basic economy driven by growth and market forces, and indeed and the new directions generated vast profits for the corporate sector (e.g. by transferring car production to tank production.) This time the restructuring will involve the phasing out of most industry. Remember the magnitude of the overshoot … we must de-grow to maybe 1/10 of present levels of production and consumption. And this will not be a matter of choice and most of it will not need to be done by heavy-handed government. The mother of all depressions will do much of the job, sending most firms bankrupt through lack of resources, energy and demand. Possibly the biggest task for national governments will be enabling the establishment of many new rural settlements to take in the many who no longer have jobs producing vast amounts of frivolous consumer rubbish.

Summary

All of my above theorizing might be totally mistaken. But theorizing like this is absolutely crucial, and the Transition Towns movement isn’t doing it. Many have a very different theory of transition to that sketched above; many think nothing can be done until the capitalist system is overthrown and this will probably involve a lot of violence, Fotopoulos ridicules Marxists but thinks all energy should go into re-gaining national sovereignty and dumping policies imposed by the transnational elite so we are then in a position to decide what kind of society we want. Most green people seem to think getting more green politicians elected can achieve planet-saving legislative change. These differing theories have very different implications as to where our scarce energies should be directed. The Marxists think Transition Towns people are wasting their time. The typical green thinks Marxists are wasting their time. I think the greens are wasting their time. It should be obvious that we urgently need more thinking about how Stage 2 of this revolution can be achieved and what you and I should be trying to do to advance it.

To summarise what I would like to see people in the movement do:

  • Talk about and debate these issues, at least a whole lot more.
  • Clarify your goals. I hope you emphatically decide the ultimate one is to model and start moving us to a globally sustainable and just society.
  • Focus attention on the claim that a good society must be extremely different to this one, requiring the eventual scrapping of some of its core institutions and systems. Or do you think your goals can be achieved within this society i.e., via some reformed version that is still driven by growth, or market forces or the quest for “high living standards”.
  • Give much attention to the logic of strategy; what should we be doing here and now because it will eventually lead to our ultimate goals.
  • Especially, encourage thought and discussion about the Stage 2 goals, and about how Stage 1 activities can contribute to their eventual achievement of the necessary Stage 2 national and global restructuring, i.e., to a zero-growth and non-market driven new economy.
  • Think about my argument that the crucial sub-goal or turning point is the emergence of a determination to take control of your town’s fate, by collectively developing your own Economy B.

References

Marshall, A. P., and D. W. (Oneill, (2018), The “Bristol Pound; A tool for localisation?”, Ecological Economics,146, 273-81.

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2017.11.002

The Transition Team, (2016), The Essential Guide To Doing Transition. Totnes, Devon.


TSW (2017a), The Limits to Growth
, thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm

TSW (2017b), The Catalan Integral Cooperative. thesimplerway.info/CATALAN.htm

TSW (2018a), The Simpler Way; Main outline. thesimplerway.info/Main.htm

Trainer, T., (2016), “A critique of Leigh Phillips’ assertion of the Tech-Fix Eco-modernist faith”, Resilience, 7th April.

Trainer, T., (2017), Remaking Settlements, thesimplerway.info/Remaking.htm

Trainer , T., (2018), “Comparing the monetary, resource and ecological costs of industrial and Simpler Way local production: Consider egg supply.” Thesimplerway.info/EGGS.htm

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The Simpler Way: Action and Research Priorities – Ted Trainer

pigface3The basic global sustainability problem involves two gigantic mistakes, the first is to do with the fact that this society involves levels of production and consumption that cannot be kept up much longer let alone be spread to all people, and the second with an economic system based on growth and the market mechanism. When the magnitude of the overshoot is understood it is clear that the problems cannot be solved unless there is enormous de-growth down to perhaps 10% of present economic output and per capital resource consumption.  This cannot be done unless enough people a) understand that it must be done, and b) want to do it.  This sets the action tasks and the kinds of research needed by people who understand the predicament.

We need to think carefully about what to apply very scarce resources to. There are many aspects of the situation that do not need further study. We know quite enough about the nature of many of the problems. What we most urgently need to focus on is finding what strategies and policies are likely to increase readiness to move to the required simper lifestyles and systems, and on beefing these up.

Following are some thoughts on possible lines of inquiry and action research.

Literature reviews might reveal that useful answers to some of these questions already exist.

Focus group and survey studies of ideas and attitudes.

This is to do with individual ideas, understandings, beliefs and attitudes and values, and how best to influence them. Unless we know what people are thinking we will not know what messages to focus on. We need to explore questions such as:

  • What do people think about the limits situation; do they realise how serious it is but feel powerless? Do they not care much?
  • To what extent is the general failure/refusal to act explicable in terms of busy lives and preoccupation with struggle to get by?
  • Do people think it is up to governments and agencies to solve the problems, not them?
  • Do they think that the problems could be solved by individuals adopting greener lifestyles, e.g., recycling more?
  • Do they see the distinction between personal lifestyle change and system change?
  • Do they think the problems can be solved without reduction in their “living standards”?
  • How strong is the belief that tech-fix solutions can/will solve the problems, eliminating the need for de-growth?
  • Which demographics are the best to focus on to try to change ideas or to recruit activists?
  • How do they see the general simpler way perspective. Do they see that it must be adopted? Do they believe it is not going to be taken seriously? Do they think it is unworkable, and/or unattractive?
  • How persuasive are videos of eco-village life etc., illustrations of how nice life could be? What are the best educational strategies?
  • What do studies of this general kind indicate re the best ways to go about persuading people? Is it best to focus on threats and dangers ahead, or on the positive messages re the way things could be? What themes are to be avoided? What approaches seem most likely to persuade people to at least agree that some kind of simpler way needs to be accepted?
  • Is there a strong tendency to denial and delusion; to opt to believe that the problems are not so big, or to ignore them…or is it that most people are fairly rational and realistic about the seriousness of the situation?

Studies of whole communities, towns.

The goal here is to explore how we might go about slowly encouraging a town or suburb to move towards being a highly self sufficient and self-governing community focused on collective action, frugal ways and non-material satisfactions etc. The approach might be to look for towns with a degree of cohesion and community self-help, but struggling in the global economy and with a high unemployment rate.  A public meeting might begin with a brief low-key sketch of our limits perspective and solution, explaining how the town could help us develop an effective strategy and stressing how important we think this  project is. The hope is that a small group of locals might be keen to form an embryonic Community Development Cooperative to explore what might be possible in their town.

Townspeople would have to be in charge; no good outsiders coming in to tell them what to do, but we would assist and advise and try to get them to take on the kinds of ventures we are most keen to see tried.

Development of “educational” materials.

The eco-village and transition towns movements have been very unsatisfactory at spreading awareness of the merits of their ways. Far more effort needs to go into making effective documentaries etc., especially portrayals of how good life could be in an alternative simpler way society.  We need R and D on finding which accounts are most effective in impressing people. Should we concentrate on videos, is there a place for written/academic accounts, do media gurus have most effect, what materials are best to get into teachers’ hands…?

It is likely that positive messages will be more effective than negative and scary ones. Bad news about where we are heading is essential but too much of it is likely to lead to paralysis. It needs to be mixed with enthusiastic demonstrations of the solutions. Early on we need review effort put into seeing whether the attitude change literature can assist us.

Exploration of possible transition pathways for macro level political and economic systems.

The transition can only grow out of the small scale local initiatives currently gaining momentum within the Transition Towns movement. The changes needed to solve the big global problems will not be made from the top; governments, authorities and elites will not do other than try to preserve the growth and affluence trajectory.

But unfortunately no thought is being given to how the things happening at the local level could eventually lead to massive and radical macro transformations. These must eventually include managing a maybe 90% de-growth, preventing many functions and all the important ones from being made by the market, taking control of finance away from private banks and corporations,  redirecting the economy to meeting needs as distinct from making profits…i.e., how capitalism might be eliminated and replaced by a sustainable and just macro-economy.  And, how we can eventually “take the state”; that is how might rule by distant top-down, authoritarian, centralised agencies eventually be devolved down to local levels … that is to the basic Anarchist model, including local participatory democratic control of those few functions which need to remain at a broader/state level.

These tasks will involve extremely difficult and complex processes whereby many massive systems are phased down while transferring people and resources to others, most obviously from industrialised, urbanized, centralised, energy-expensive, high-tech and professional-ridden systems to totally different lifestyles and systems in small scale collectivist local communities geared to sustainability and quality of life and with no concern with accumulating wealth.

Again no thought seems to being given to this intimidating mountain of problems, from the localism beginning point. We need to think hard about possible ways of eventually tackling them, especially about what not to do.  For instance, no concept of working for crash or sudden revolutionary change makes any sense to me.  The focal concerns must be, firstly to find ways that people and resources could be gradually moved out of those industries that will disappear and into local economies in which maybe only 10% of the previous amount of conventional (dollar based) economic activity is going on. How can we organize the non-chaotic elimination of 90% of economic activity? How can much activity now taking place in terms of dollar values be moved into the non-dollar realm involving voluntary working bees, gift exchange, free fruit from community orchards, giving away surpluses, free leisure opportunities…? Everyone will be becoming much materially poorer, and many owners of capital will find that their capital is worthless (mainly because their factories will be going bankrupt through lack of resources and demand.) How can they best be moved into utterly different roles in utterly different economies … in which the average paid work week might be two days? Disputes about the inequality of adjustments and burdens are likely to be extremely difficult to deal with (…and one of the industries most likely to be unaffordable is the legal industry.) Remember that the process will be greatly assisted by the coming breakdown in existing systems. Hopefully the owners of capital will realise that the old game is up; good business can no longer be done and most of their assets will be written off by the onset of the permanent depression.

Such enormous and difficult changes will not be accepted and cannot succeed unless a) it is generally understood that they have to be made because adhering to the old ways will rapidly lead to chaos, b) people can see that the new ways are attractive.

The attitude to all this within the Transition Towns movement is totally unsatisfactory. It is, just ignore these questions, don’t think about how the things we are doing are going to eventually bring about the crucial global system changes … just get down to the community garden and plant some more cabbages.  In fact this “just do something anything” strategy is explicitly proclaimed, evident in the title of one of the movements’ gospels, The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World. Their newsletters and other literature refuse to discuss how the activities enthused about at length are supposed to do what centuries of strategic thinking and hard work and fighting at barricades have failed to do.

The red-left understandably sees the movement as laughable, primarily because it deliberately will not discuss the source of the problems, i.e., capitalism. Some Trans Tons “leaders” argue that the concern here is to avoid politics and conflict and to be positive, but this does not deal with the fact that you must think carefully about the cause of the predicament, and get some correct answers, if you are to see what needs doing, and to have any hope of solving it.  The left would say that all that community gardening will come to nothing if it does not somehow confront and get rid of capitalism. At least the red left has a strategy, a line of reasoning as to what must be done and how it would fix the planet. They would say capitalism couldn’t care less about the gardening, and such things will only develop to the point where a relatively few are enjoying growing their cabbages rather than buying them, … while remaining obliged to go into the global economy to purchase most of what they want, from global corporations.  So they would see the many thousands in the Transition Towns movement as inexcusably deluding themselves and wasting their time. We need to give far more attention to trying to think out what the right perspective and strategies are.

This area includes the debates between Socialist and Anarchist approaches. For instance the Socialist focuses on trying to get state power early on, whereas the Anarchist thinks this is a mistake and can only be done very late in the revolution, because this revolution is unlike any other in that it is essentially  cultural and when ideas and values have been transformed the restructuring of power, the state, the economy will follow easily and quickly.( The detail is at thesimplerway.info/TRANSITION.htm.)

So, a major research domain is to grapple with these high-level theoretical issues, to see if we can throw some light on how the present localism can connect with and lead to history’s greatest ever revolutionary transformation. We need to at least try to think out possibilities here, and try to work out the most promising path to work for. Otherwise there is little or no point in beavering away at feel-good green campaigns just believing/hoping that someday it will all somehow result in a sustainable and just world.

 

George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage: A friendly critique.

By monbiotTed Trainer

Few have made a more commendable contribution to saving the planet than George Monbiot. His recent book, Out of the Wreckage, continues the effort and puts forward many important ideas…but I believe there are problems with his diagnosis and his remedy.

The book is an excellent short, clear account of several of the core faults in consumer-capitalist society, and the alternatives advocated are admirable.  George’s focal concern is the loss of community, and the cause is, as we know, neo-liberalism. He puts this in terms of the “story” that dominates thinking. Today the taken for granted background story about society is that it is made of competitive, self-interest-maximizing individuals, and therefore our basic institutions and processes are geared to a struggle to accumulate private wealth, rather than to encouraging concern for each other and improving the welfare of all. Thatcher went further, instructing us that there is not even any such thing as society, only individuals. George begins by rightly contradicting such vicious nonsense, pointing out that humans are fundamentally nice, altruistic, caring and cooperative, but we have allowed these dispositions to be overridden primarily by an economic system that obliges us to behave differently.

He gives heavy and convincing documentation of- this theme. Chapters 1 and 2 deal with several indicators of the sad state of affairs.  “ … this age of atomization  breeds anxiety, discontent and unhappiness.” (p. 18.) “An epidemic of loneliness is sweeping the world.” (p. 16.) Chapter 3 deals with the way neoliberalism has caused the social damage that has accumulated over the last forty years.

But my first concern with the book is that disastrous as it is, neo-liberalism isn’t the main problem confronting us and likely to destroy us.  The main problem is sustainability.  George does refer to this briefly and rather incidentally (e.g., p. 117) and again it seems to me that what he says is correct… it’s just that he doesn’t deal adequately with the magnitude or centrality of the problem or it’s extremely radical implications.

I need to elaborate here.  Few seem to grasp that the “living standards” enjoyed in rich countries involve per capita use rates for resources and environmental impact are around ten times those that all people expected to be living on earth by 2050 could have.  For fifty years now a massive “limits to growth” literature has been accumulating. For instance the Australian per capita use of productive land is 6 – 8 ha, so if the almost 10 billion people expected to be living on the planet by 2050 were to live as we do now, up to 80 billion ha would be needed.  But there are only about 8 billion ha of productive land available on the planet and at present loss rates more than half will be gone by 2050. Many other areas, such as per capita minerals use, also reveal the largely unrecognized magnitude of the overshoot. (For a summary of the situation see TSW: The Limits to Growth.)

The inescapable implication is that we in rich countries should accept the need to shift to lifestyles and systems which involve enormous reductions in resource use and ecological impact.  A De-growth movement recognizing this has now emerged. Yet the supreme goal in this society remains economic growth, i.e., increasing production, consumption, sales, and GDP without limit. To refuse to face up to the absurdity of this, which is what almost everyone does, is to guarantee the onset of catastrophic global breakdown within decades.

Thus the sustainability problem cannot be solved unless we abandon affluence and growth (…the title of my 1985 book.)  Just getting rid of neo-liberal doctrine and exploitation is far from sufficient.  Even a perfect socialism ensuring equity for all would bring on just about the same range of global problems as that we face now if the goal was affluence for all.

When all this is understood it is clear that the solution has to be transition to some kind of “Simpler Way”.  That is, there can be no defensible option but to shift to lifestyles and systems that involve extremely low per capita throughput.  This cannot be done unless there is also historically unprecedented transition to new economic, political and value systems. Many green people fail to grasp the magnitude of the change required; reforming a system that remains driven by market forces, or growth or the desire for wealth cannot do it. Just getting rid of capitalism will not be enough; the change in values is more important and difficult than that. Yet we advocates of simplicity have no doubt that our vision could be achieved while providing a very high quality of life to everyone.  (For a detailed account of how thing might be organised see TSW: The Alternative.)

George doesn’t seem to grasp the significance of the limits, the magnitude of the overshoot, or therefore the essential nature of the sustainability problem and its extremely radical implications.  Above all he does not stress the need to happily embrace extremely frugal “lifestyles”. Sustainability cannot be achieved unless the pursuit of affluence as well as the dominance of neo-liberalism ceases, and he therefore does not deal with what is in fact the main task for those wishing to save the planet; i.e., increasing general awareness that a Simpler Way of some kind must be taken. George does not discuss the simplicity theme.

This has been a criticism in terms of goals. I think the book also has a problem regarding means.  The book is primarily about politics.  It is a sound critique of the way the present decision making system works for the rich and of the need for us to take control of it into our hands via localism. But George is saying in effect, ”Let’s get out there and build community and take control and then we can fix things.” Unfortunately I think that advice is based on a questionable analysis of the situation and of how to fix it.

My case requires some discussion of what I see as perhaps the book’s major problem, which is to do with the nature of community, more accurately with the conditions required for it to exist or come into existence. Again George’s documentation of the sorry state of community today is to be applauded.  But I think his strategic recommendations mostly involve little more than a plea for us to just come together and commune, as if we have made the mistake of forgetting the importance of community and all would be well if we just woke up and knocked on our neighbour’s door.

Firstly George’s early pages give us powerful reasons to believe that such “voluntaristic” steps are not going to prevail against the massive and intensifying forces at work driving out community.  Economic reality gives most people no choice but to function as isolated, struggling, stressed, time-poor, insecure individuals competing against all others to get by, having to worry about unemployment, the mortgage and now the robots. Mobility obliges the individual to move through several careers in a lifetime, “development” eliminates stable neighbourhoods and rips up established support networks. Developers and councils prosper most when high rise units are thrown up everywhere, and the resulting land prices weigh against allocating space to a diverse landscape of mini-farms and firms and community gardens and leisure facilities likely to increase human interaction. Smart phones preoccupy with trivia and weaken parental control. Commerce and councils takes over functions families and neighbourhoods once performed for themselves, making us into privatized customers with fewer social responsibilities.  People understandably retreat to TV and IT screens for trivial distraction, and to drugs and alcohol. No surprise that the most common illnesses now are reported to be depression and loneliness.

Just ask yourself what proportion of national productive capacity and investment is explicitly targeted to building cohesive and mutually supportive communities … try finding that line item in the Budget Papers. Now how much goes into trying to increase business turnover and consumption. I rest my case.  George is more aware of all this than most of us but he falls far short of explaining how it can be overcome … or that it can be overcome. In my firm view it cannot be overcome until the capitalist system and several other unacceptable things have been scrapped, and that will take more than knocking on your neighbour’s door.

More important than recognizing the opposing forces, George’s recommendations for action seem to me to be based on a questionable understanding of community, leading to mistaken ideas about how to create it.  As I see it community is most important for a high quality of life, but it is strange, very complicated, and little understood.  It involves many intangible things including familiarity, a history of interactions, close personal relations, habits and customs, a sense of common interests and values, helping and being helped, giving and receiving, sharing, lending, debt, gratitude, reciprocity, trust, reliability, shared tasks, resilience, concern for the community and readiness to act collectively to achieve common goals.  It is analogous to an ecosystem, a network of established dynamic interrelationships in which a myriad of components meshing spontaneously contribute to the “health” of the whole …  without which the components couldn’t do their thing.  But the community ecosystem also involves consciousness, of others and of the whole, and it involves attitudes and bonds built by a history of interactions.  This history has established the values and dispositions that determine the communal behavior of individuals and groups. Community is a “property” that emerges from all this.

Community is therefore not a “thing” that can be set up artificially at a point in time, nor is it a property or ingredient that can be added like curry powder or a coat of paint.  It cannot be brought in or installed by well-intentioned social workers, council officers or government agencies.  It is about deep-seated ideas, memories, feelings, habits and social bonds. It therefore has almost nothing to do with money and economists can tell us almost nothing about it. You could instantly and artificially raise the “living standards” of a locality just by adding dollars, but you can’t just add social bonds. They can only grow over time, and under the right conditions. George explains clearly why neo-liberalism eliminates those conditions – my problem is that he doesn’t explain how to get them back and he proceeds as if it is simply a matter of individual will or choice, of volunteering to go out and connect. As I see it we won’t get far until social conditions make us connect. George’s urging will prompt some few to make the effort, and he refers to many admirable initiatives underway including community gardens, local currencies and cooperatives. I see these “Transition Towns” ventures as extremely important and George is right to encourage people to get involved in them. They are the beach-heads, establishing the example local institutions that must eventually become the norm and that people will be able turn to when the crunch comes, but I do not think they will grow beyond the point where a relatively few find them attractive … until macro conditions change dramatically.

Here is a brief indication of how Simpler Way transition theory sees it.

There is now no possibility of heading off an extremely serious multifactorial global breakdown.  For instance, greenhouse gas emissions would have to be reduced at maybe 8% p.a., and yet they are rising.  Renewable energy would have to replace fossil fuels in a few decades … but presently it contributes only 1.5% of world energy use. There are strong reasons to think that oil will become very scarce within ten years. (See Ahmed, 2017.) Global debt levels are so high now and rising so fast that the coming CFC 2.0 will dwarf the previous GFC1. Did you know that global insect populations have suddenly begun to plunge? Forget about your white rhino, it’s the little fellows at the base of food chains that really matter. Need I go on.

There are many other accelerating problems feeding into what Mason (2003) described as the coming 2030 spike. What we have to pray for is a slow-onset terminal depression, not a sudden one, giving people time to wake up and realize that we must move to The Simpler Way.  The Transition Towns movement is the beginning of this but I do not think it will really take off until the supermarket shelves thin out.  Then people will be forced to come together in their suburbs and towns to work out how they can build cooperative local self-sufficiency. They will realize this must be done collectively, that the market must be prevented from determining what happens, and above all that the competitive quest for wealth is suicidal and that frugal “lifestyles” must be embraced. In other words, if we are lucky and the breakdown in global systems is not too rapid, the coming conditions of intense scarcity will force us to create local economies, committees, cooperatives, working bees, commons etc. … and these conditions will produce community … out of the wreckage.

But community is not the crucial goal. What matters most at this early stage of this revolution is people coming together to take collective control of their town, that is, to go beyond setting up a local swap shop here, a community orchard there a cooperative bakery somewhere else, and to start asking questions like, “What are our most urgent needs in this town … bored teenagers, homeless people, lonely older people, too few leisure activities…well let’s get together to start fixing the problems.” Essential to The Simpler Way vision is citizens in direct participatory control of their own situation, i.e., the classic Anarchist form of government.  The big global problems cannot be solved any other way because only settlements of this kind can get the resource and ecological impacts right down while providing well for all.  For thousands of years people have taken for granted being governed. That is not just political immaturity, it is not viable now. Distant, central agencies like the state cannot run the kinds of settlements that will enable per capita resource rates to be decimated. These can only be run by conscientious, cooperative citizens aware of their local needs and keen to work together to build and maintain their own local water, energy, agricultural, social etc. systems. (There will still be a remnant role for central agencies.)

In TSW: The Transition it is argued that this taking of control at the town level must be seen as the beginning of a process that in time could lead to revolutionary change at the level of the national and international economies, and of the state itself. As townspeople realize they must prevent the global economy from determining their fate and as they find they must build their power to take control of their own situation they will increasingly pressure state policies to be geared primarily to facilitating local economic development…and in time they will replace state power by citizen assemblies.

The activities and projects George advocates could be most important contributors to this process, but I don’t think they will add up to the required revolution unless they are informed by a basically Anarchist vision whereby people come to understand that the main goal is not a town containing nice things like community orchards, nor indeed one with robust community, but a town we run on principles of frugal, cooperative, needs-focused, local self-sufficiency.

Ahmed, N. M., (2017), Failing States, Collapsing Systems, Dordrecht, Springer.

Mason, C., (2003), The 2030 Spike, Earthscan Publications.

Monbiot, G., (2018), Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis, London, Verso.

TSW: The Limits to Growth, thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm

TSW: The Alternative, thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm

TSW: The Transition.  thesimplerway.info/TRANSITION.htm

The challenge of Climate Justice – Talk at Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair 2016

How do we achieve climate justice? It’s a profound and complex question. But in another sense its disarmingly simple. All we have to do is rapidly decarbonise the economy – right? In 2014 it was calculated the global economy needs to decarbonise at 6.2 percent a year, more than five times faster than the current rate, every year from now till 2100. A tall order, but the solutions are simple –  right? After all, to dramatically cut our emissions we just have to rapidly move to 100% renewable energy and do things a little bit more efficiently. It’s just those damn fossil fuel companies and their crony fossil addicted governments who stand in the way – right?

If only! How I wish this comforting story was true.  At best it’s a simplistic one; at worst its an outright delusion –  but one we are all too willing to believe. In truth, to defuse the climate crisis, as well as the wider eco-justice crisis of which it is just one part, we have to engage in a process of organised, egalitarian, de-growth. That is, a historically unprecedented economic contraction and reorganisation of the economy. Obviously capitalism can’t do this. Capitalism has a growth compulsion built into its very fabric. So we will need to embrace some kind of socialism– albeit a totally reconceived version from the industrial-consumer-hierarchical-20th century brand and, we hope, with a strong anarchist twist. But the task is not just to scrap capitalism. Sorry, this revolution is much bigger and more challenging than that. Among other things, we will need to radically localise economies and settlements. Substantially de-urbanize. Embrace simpler, more frugal lifestyles. And, of course, all that implies profound and far reaching cultural change. It need not be a matter of extreme sacrifice to save the planet. There is a strong case the quality of life could be improved for most people within well designed and run new local settlements. Imagine, for example, having a lot of free time, because you only work for money about 2 days a week, thus having much time for arts, crafts, gardening, home-making, learning, personal development. Or thriving within a highly supportive and friendly local community. But while the benefits could be rich, what is certain is that sustainability will not make us wealthier – in fact total wealth and income will be greatly reduced.

How we achieve these huge changes is beyond my scope today. It’s a big subject, which I still grapple with. But, however we do it, that is the task. By the way, do you still want climate justice?  Or do people only want climate justice if they get to keep consumer affluence and convenience? I’m challenging you to consider that we cannot have both.

But, I sense some of you are not convinced. Why can’t green-growth, renewable energy, techno-fixes and smarter, efficient practices solve this crisis? Let me, very briefly spell out four fundamental reasons why not.

The first reason why renewables can’t save capitalism is that they won’t be scaled up in time – unless you also dramatically cut energy demand. The experts predict they will need to roughly double energy supply from current use – and, remember, that is assuming a world of grotesque inequality. You will probably need at least six times today’s energy to provide all 9 billion with a Brunswick lifestyle. But let’s take the more moderate goal. How do you double energy demand, at the same time as massively cutting back on fossil fuels, as we so urgently need to do to reach the 2 degree target? Answer: you have to massively, and I mean massively, scale up renewable energy. But here’s the thing: on the scale needed and the time we have, it won’t happen. While the modern renewables are growing fast, they still only account for 1.3% of rise and fallworldwide primary energy . But big energy transitions take decades; they don’t happen overnight. In their excellent book “the rise and fall of carbon civilization” (2011) Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery show that to meet the 2 degree target and provide for expected energy growth, 2050 wind power would have to supply “twice the most optimistic estimates’ by authoritative bodies such as the Global Wind energy council (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). Solar thermal would have to scaled up ‘four orders of magnitude over current use,’ (i.e 10,000 times) which would be ‘many times greater than even the most ambitious solar farm schemes being discussed for the world’s deserts’ (Moriarity & Honniery, 2011: 182). And this is even after factoring in optimistic assumptions for take up of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), and nuclear energy. Instead, these experts argue that our only hope is to actively reduce total global energy use 9 (from i.e 500 EJ to 300 EJ), from current levels – the exact opposite of what all governments, global institutions and even green NGOs are planning! And remember, capitalism doesn’t like reductions…

The second reason why the renewable revolution is insufficient is that wind and solar, only produce electricity from stationary power – and that’s a small part of the overall GHG problem. Globally speaking, electricity only makes up roughly 1/5 of world energy use. The other 4/5 comes from a whole variety of sources including transport, industry and heating. So even if tomorrow we moved to 100% renewable electricity, we would only have addressed 1/5 of the problem. Well, you say, let’s just electrify everything and run it on renewables! Well, maybe you could do that for some things like cars and heaters, but it will be difficult for big trucks and aeroplanes. And even if we did that, as John Hinkson points out, we would still have only dealt with 70% of the problem. That’s because the burning of fossil fuels only accounts for about 70% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The remaining 30% comes from a number of causes, including deforestation, the degradation of soil caused by industrial agriculture and the methane generated by livestock farming.

Thirdly, even if we address all these issues and move to 100% renewable energy, then there is a very strong case that we are going to have to get by on far less net energy. Why? I am no expert, but from what I understand there are two fundamental reasons. First, because, today, renewables receive a huge, but hidden, fossil fuel subsidy. Think, for example, of all the fossil energy it takes to create a single wind-farm. Oil-based combustion engines are used from start to finish, to mine the material to make the windmills, fabricate them, and deliver the components to the installation site. Then you need to make and pour the enormous amount of concrete needed, and run the required maintenance vehicles. But what happens when we have phased out fossil fuels, as we must? Will renewables be able to reproduce themselves and provide enough energy for society? I think they can, but not as much energy as fossil fuels have provided. Recent estimates suggest that the energy return on solar PV in Spain is only 2.45:1, when reasonable estimates are made of all the energy inputs that go into to making a solar panel. Historically fossil fuels provided us with well above 20 units of net energy – though this ratio is fast declining as we desperately frack and deep sea mine our fast depleting fossil bounty. And there is a second problem with renewables. They are intermittent – the sun does not always shine and the wind blow. This is a big drawback. To overcome it, you either have to build huge amounts of backup plant or work out how to store electricity on an industrial scale – something the science techies do not yet know how to do. In any case, a renewable energy system will be costly. And a costly energy system, means there will be less capital left over for cars, i-phones, big-screen TVs and Pokémon. So renewables won’t sustain “green-growth”.

But my fourth and final point is the real kicker. Suppose I am wrong and we can indeed decarbonise capitalism. What then? I’ll tell you what then – we would still be faced with a huge and ever worsening eco-justice predicament. As Steb Fisher has said, “our sustainability problems didn’t start and won’t stop with climate change”. With all that economic growth, and therefore energy growth, we would still be rapidly deforesting, over-fishing,chemical polluting, degrading the soil and destroying precious habitat. And, according to a report from the CSIRO, there would still be six billion people excluded from the consumer class – you can bet they won’t be peacefully celebrating “green capitalism” to the end of history.

To be clear, and to conclude, we must move to a society run on renewables. We must do this as fast as possible. But for all the above reasons, we will monumentally fail, if we try to do so via mere reforms within our current socio-economic system. Instead we need to build a big, forceful, global, new society movement, demanding  de-growth! Demanding a simpler way! And yes demanding Climate Justice! And not just demanding it, but building and demonstrating the new ways at the grassroots. Our chances may seem slim, but we must try. Needless to say, the situation is urgent. We have no time to waste.

 

Why we should reject the CSIRO’s ‘Sustainable’ Growth Scenario

The CSIRO has put out a National Outlook Report (NOR), which claims Australia – and indeed the world– can almost triple GDP by 2050 and increase affluent ‘living standards’, while at the same time significantly reducing environmental impacts.

But although the reports findings are likely to be widely accepted – and has already received positive reviews – thoughtful people have ample reason to be critical. I encourage readers to look at Dr Ted Trainer’s review of the paper, which highlights many reasons for skepticism. The most serious being that, in fact, the report does not explicitly state the reasons and assumptions underpinning its key, highly questionable, claim – i.e. that Australia could, if it chooses, massively decouple economic growth from environmental/resource impacts.

My criticism of the report is more basic. It only took me a cursory reading to reject it, simply because I don’t accept the basic assumptions underpinning all 20 of the reports future 2050 scenarios. In my view there are at least three assumptions, all of which crucially undermine its basic claims about ‘sustainability’.

Assumption 1: The Global Economy will face no resource supply constraints to 2050

This is a highly challengeable assumption. For example, a recent peer reviewed paper estimating ultimately recoverable resources of fossil fuel resources, including unconventional, found that total fossil fuel supplies are likely to peak around 2025, with the only uncertainty being how fast they decline thereafter (in the ‘high’ estimate, they plateau until 2050). If these findings are even close to the mark, then fossil fuel supplies – the lifeblood of the capitalist growth economy – may well face major constraints before 2050.

Dr Graeme Turner, himself a former CSIRO staffer, certainly thinks this is possible. Turner has shown that all current indicators have us on track with the Business as Usual (BAU) scenario of the famous 1972 Limits to Growth report. The BAU scenario, Turner warns, results in catastrophic collapse of the global economy by the middle of the 21st century. The key driver of collapse in the BAU scenario is, again, mounting energy supply costs – the very factor that appears to have been overlooked by the CSIRO. To put it mildly, if the BAU scenario turns out to be on track, then the world in 2050 – including Australia – will look very different to any of the CSIROs 20 scenarios.

Faulty Assumption 2: The world can continue to increase energy supply and mitigate global warming.

All 20 scenarios in the CSIRIO report assume at least a doubling of global and Australian energy supply. But there is a very strong case this is totally incompatible with achieving the “safe” 2-degree climate threshold.

In their book the ‘rise and fall of carbon civilisation‘ Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery show that decarbonizing at the rate needed, while energy growth continues, even at ‘carbon constrained’ levels (i.e to 850 EJ by 2050, up from present 550 EJ), would be unachievable. It would involve, they argue, an implausible scaling up of renewable energy technologies – particularly solar and wind – even when optimistic assumptions have been made about the potential of Coal Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) and nuclear technologies. It should be remembered that today solar and wind energy account for a mere 0.4% of final world energy supply (IEA, 2015). But to effectively decarbonize the growth economy by 2050 these technologies would need to supply more than half of world energy. This would involve a level of investment far beyond even the most optimistic projections for these technologies. Thus, Moriarity and Honnery argue that the only realistic way for humanity to achieve a safe climate by 2050 is if energy demand, far from doubling, is actually reduced from present levels. Outspoken Climate Scientist, Kevin Anderson, has made a similar claim.

The CSIRO authors might argue that such critics are overlooking the potential for bio-sequestration – i.e. planting trees to sequester carbon, which makes up a large portion of the carbon reductions in their Australian scenarios. But even if this is possible in Australia – and people should read Trainer’s paper for reasons to doubt it – it is unlikely to make much of difference globally given most regions have far lower per-capita land availability than Australia, and pressing global food problems will only intensify in the years ahead, limiting the extent to which land can be used for reforestation.

Faulty Assumption 3: Australia could be ‘sustainable’ while continuing to take more than our fair share of world resources.

All 20 Scenarios take it for granted that in 2050 the world will, as today, be characterized by global apartheid between rich and poor. Figure 5 on p.8 of the report depicts a 2050 global order in which three billion people will form part of the global ‘consumer’ class. The consumer class is defined as those with annual incomes of at least $12,000 U.S – i.e. less than a third of the current Australian per capita income (a ratio that will be larger, if by 2050 Australia trebles its GDP, as the authors assume). This also means there will be another six billion people – i.e. two-thirds of humanity – who will be totally excluded from the ‘consumer’ club!

All globally minded people should reject this state of affairs, and be working for a more just world order. As Saral Sarkar and Bruno Kern put it:

If we do not want to disregard this global horizon, then we cannot avoid the insight that the people of the industrial countries, but also the rich and the middle class of the Third World, with their ecologically unsustainable mode of production and way of life, are participating in a worldwide chauvinistic selection process, which robs others of their chances of survival.

But, even putting aside the demands of justice, the failure of the authors to think about fair shares, crucially undermines their entire ‘sustainability’ case. One only needs to ask, how sustainable would the Australian and/or world economy be if attempts were made to globalize rich world affluence – that is, the implicit or explicit, global ‘development’ goal?

Predictably, the report never attempts to answer this question. Obviously, its most ambitious, and highly questionable, ‘decoupling’ scenarios would be pathetically inadequate. These scenarios assume a factor four reduction in Australian resource use to GDP. But if by 2050 all 9.7 billion people were to have risen to projected Australia per capita income, world GDP would have to multiply by 20 times present levels. In other words, factor 20 (not 4), resource reductions would be required, just to maintain already too high resource consumption levels. Do the CSIRO authors think that is possible? Or, to take another measure, the global 2050 energy supply target would have to be at least trebled for all people to have Australian 2050 per capita energy consumption (i.e. from 850 EJ to 2100 EJ). And yet, as noted above, the 850 EJ target will, in all probability take us well past safe climate levels.

What then is the answer?

Our limits to growth predicament, which the CSIRO has not effectively refuted, suggests that sustainability – true sustainability – requires a multi-dimensional, transformational process of change, which enables the world to greatly reduce current levels of resource/energy consumption. There is a case this could be done, without causing severe deprivation, and indeed improving the quality of life, even in rich countries. But it could not be achieved in any thing like today’s globalized capitalist-consumer society. In other words this type of society needs to be replaced (not reformed) with utterly new/different social order – in both rich and poor countries – based on i.e. intense localism, a new settlement geography, new non-capitalist economy, participatory governance, and very different cultures – what some describe as a Simpler Way.

A letter from Saral Sarkar – New arguments for socialism in the 21st century….

saralsarkarBelow is a letter from prominent eco-socialist Saral Sarkar which I am republishing here. It was written in response to a debate that I was having with a U.S activist who was skeptical (like most) about the need for socialists to advocate for an egalitarian contraction of industrial economies, towards a simpler egalitarian society. Saral’s letter outlines four critical reasons why this is, today, necessary.

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The Four Tectonic Splits within the Global Left

It occurred to me recently that there are four central tectonic splits within the worldwide left. The first two are relatively recent and the last two are more enduring. Like the tectonic plates that shift beneath the surface of the earth, these represent fundamental cleavages between different tendencies, parties and groups under the broad umbrella of the worldwide left. And, like tectonic plates, these positions clash. Making matters worse, adherents of each typically don’t talk to one another, at least in order to aid mutual understanding, let alone resolution.

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Book Review: The Ecological Hoofprint

Tony Weis’ new book, the Ecological Hoofprint is an outstanding work of activist scholarship. Even though, at a personal level, I was already aware of some of the problems associated with the industrial livestock industry, the book helped to both deepen my understanding and increase my moral and intellectual concern about the issues involved. I found Weis’ central contention – that ‘the deindustrialsation of livestock and the demeatificaiton diets are central to the hope of a more sustainable, just, and humaecological hoofprintne world,’ (p.12) – to be overwhelmingly persuasive.

The central aim of the Ecological Hoofprint is to challenge and expose the many unrecognized costs and problems associated with what Weis calls the growing ‘meatification’ of diets. The title is, of course, an allusion to the now well-known ecological footprint, which has successfully raised awareness about the unsustainable nature of high consumption lifestyles more generally. In the same vein, the Ecological Hoofprint seeks to draw ‘attention to the resource budgets and pollution costs that are embedded and under-accounted for in production and consumption’ of livestock (p. 129).

A related aim is to challenge the way in which dominant development narratives uncritically take for granted high-meat consumption. The livestock industry has used a range of strategies – most noticeably the (misleading) claim that meat is an indispensible source of quality protein – to reinforce the association between high meat consumption and successful societal development. Weis shows how this has influenced future development goals, such as the widely promoted imperative to ‘double food production’ by 2050. Such projections come with embedded assumptions about the continual ‘meatification’ of diets. As Weis points out ‘the scale of chronic hunger (nearly one billion) and malnourishment today, and expected population growth (more than two billion) still does not come close to adding up to a doubling scenario, which also must be understood to contain an uncritical expectation that meat consumption will continue to rise rapidly’ (p.3).

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