Ted Trainer is one of the wisest, boldest, and most dedicated advocates of The Simpler Way. In 2010 he published a book called, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, and I have to say that it is one of the best books I have ever read in my life. If you only have time to read one more book in your life, consider reading this one. It speaks directly to our global situation and condition, and it does so with passion, humility, and penetrating insight. From cover to cover, its pages are positively alive with wisdom. I highly recommend that everyone gets a copy of this book, reads it, and then passes it on. Our world desperately needs this book.
Trainer does not shy away from the implications of his analysis (summarized below), which at times can be quite confronting. But although his critique is radical, it is very hard to fault his analysis. Trainer, however, is not satisfied with critique, merely. The book speaks of “the transition,” and many details are provided on what this transition might entail and where it might lead. Especially good is his chapter entitled The New Economy, in which he gives a uniquely inspiring account of what life according to The Simpler Way might look like (based on decades of lived experience). Perhaps the most important and original chapters of the book, however, are the final two, where Trainer rigorously engages the two vexed issues of ‘strategy’ (i.e. where to direct our energies) and “practice” (i.e. what to do).
Trainer is an anarchist. He feels that we are going to have to build the new economy ourselves, at the community level, without help from governments and probably with considerable resistance. Some will consider this anarchism to be a fault in Trainer’s analysis, and argue that it relies on a view of human nature that is too optimistic. That is a criticism all anarchists must deal with, and one that Trainer should probably give more attention. Others may argue that the state will need to play a larger role in “the transition” than Trainer allows, if only because a great deal needs to be done in a short time, and current structures are locking individuals and communities into unsustainable consumption patterns. The state certainly has the power to unlock those individuals and communities from those structures, and it could do so much more quickly than if we rely on grassroots resistance alone.
At the same time, Trainer’s insistence that we cannot wait for others (especially politicians) to solve our problems is a very healthy reminder of the importance of participatory, direct, grassroots democracy. At the end of the day, Trainer is quite right to insist that if there is to be a any transition away from consumer capitalism, it will be up to us – ordinary people – to make it happen. It remains to be seen whether such grassroots movements, as well as mobilising communities, are also able to mobilize the state. But after the debacle of Rio+20, I wouldn’t advise relying on our governments for anything at all. It seems we’re on our own now, and there is much work to do.
The basic points this book argues are:
Most current discussions of global problems, solutions and strategies are mistaken. The problems (environment destruction, resource depletion, Third World poverty and underdevelopment, armed conflict, social breakdown and a falling quality of life) are far bigger than most people realize, and they cannot be solved by technical advance within a society whose basic structures and values creates them.
We are entering an era of intense and insoluble resource scarcity. We must develop ways of living well on much lower rates of resource use.
The basic cause of the predicament is far too much producing and consuming going on. We are far beyond sustainable levels of resource consumption, “living standards” and of GDP. Rich world rates can’t be kept up for long and could never be extended to all the world’s people.
Yet our supreme goal is economic growth, i.e., increasing production and consumption without limit!
The global economy is massively unjust. It delivers most of the world’s resources to the few in rich countries, and gears Third World productive capacity to rich world super-markets, not to meeting the needs of the world’s poor billions. Rich countries must move down to living on their fair share of global wealth.
These faults cannot be fixed within or by a society driven by growth, market forces, production for profit, or affluence. These are the causes of the global sustainability and justice problems. Consumer society cannot be reformed to make it sustainable or just; it must be largely replaced by a society with fundamentally different structures.
The alternative has to be THE SIMPLER WAY, a society based on non-affluent lifestyles within mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies under local participatory control and not driven by market forces or the profit motive, and with no economic growth. There must be an enormous cultural change, away from competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness. The book details the reasons why this Simpler Way vision is workable and attractive, promising a higher quality of life than most people in rich countries have at present.
What then is the most effective transition strategy? Chapter 13 argues that most strategies, including green and red-left as well as conventional strategies, are mistaken. The essential aim is not to fight against consumer-capitalist society, but to build the alternative to it. This revolution cannot be achieved from the top, either by governments, green parties or proletarian revolutions. This can only be a grassroots transition led by ordinary people working out how they can cooperatively make their local communities viable as the global economy increasingly fails to provide. The Eco-village and Transition Towns movements have begun the general shift, but…
Local self-sufficiency initiatives such as community gardens and Permaculture must be informed by the awareness that reforms to consumer-capitalist society cannot achieve a sustainable and just society. Nothing of lasting significance will be achieved unless it is clearly understood that our efforts in these local initiatives are the first steps to the eventual replacement of the present society by one which is not driven by market forces, profit, competition, growth or affluence. This awareness is far from sufficiently evident in present green initiatives. The most important contribution activists can make is to join community gardens, Transition Towns movements etc. in order to help to develop this wider and radical global vision within participants.
The last chapter offers a practical strategy that can be implemented in existing suburbs, towns and neighbourhoods.
The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World is intended as a fundamental challenge to people concerned about the fate of the planet, arguing that most current analysis and action is tragically misguided and wasted. It seeks to show an irrefutable logic – i.e., when the magnitude and causes of our predicament are grasped it is obvious that the problems cannot be solved within consumer-capitalist society, and that the solution then has to be some kind of Simpler Way, and that working for the transition then has to center on the development of largely self-governing communities.
The book is addressed mainly to activists, hoping that it will help “green” people to apply their scarce energies to the most effective purposes. It should also be of interest to a wide range of students of social theory as it deals at length with crucial issues to do with social cohesion and change, sustainability, Marxism, Anarchism, economics, government, education, Third World development, globalisation, settlement design, limits to growth, values, global peace and justice, and the nature of the good society.
I have written a substantial Simplicity Institute Report on Trainer’s work, which is freely available here.
Re-posted from The Simplicity Collective, where you can find links to websites and academic articles on Trainer’s work.
— Samuel Alexander, Transition Voice