Bill Totten's Weblog

Friday, February 25, 2005

Imperatives for Transition to a Sustainable and Just Society

by Ted Trainer (November 2004)

Before it makes sense to discuss the form a sustainable and just society must take it is important to be clear about the nature of the global predicament we are in. Most people do not grasp how grossly unjust and unsustainable our society is. Consequently few realise that we must face up to vast and radical change.

1. First, What is Our Situation?

There is no possibility of the "living standards" of all people on earth ever rising to the present rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous, and so on. These rates of consumption are the direct cause of the many numerous alarming global problems now threatening our survival, especially resource depletion, Third World poverty, armed conflict, the destruction of the environment, and a falling quality of life.

Many lines of argument lead to this general conclusion regarding the magnitude of the overshoot. Consider for example,

<> If all nine billion people soon to be living on earth were to consume resources at the present per capita rate in rich countries, world annual resource production rates would have to be about eight times as great as they are now. All estimated potentially recoverable resources of fossil fuels (assuming two trillion tons of coal) would be exhausted in about eighteen years.

<> "Footprint analysis" indicates that the amount of productive land required to provide one person in Australia with food, water, energy and settlement area is about seven to eight hectacres. The US figure is closer to twelve hectacres. If eight billion people were to live as Australians do, approximately seventy billion hectacres of productive land would be required. However the total amount available on the planet is only in the region of eight billion hectacres.

<> Atmospheric scientists have estimated that if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is to be kept below twice the pre-industrial level, annual emissions must be in the region of nine billion tons. (Enting, 1994.) For a world population of nine billion this means a per capita limit of one ton per year. Yet the present Australian per capita rate of emission from fuel burning alone is sixteen tons.

The point which such figures makes glaringly obvious is that we are not just a little beyond sustainable levels of resource demand and ecological impact - we are far beyond sustainable levels. Rich world ways, systems and "living standards" are grossly unsustainable, and can never be extended to all of the world's people. We must face up to dramatic reductions in our present per capita levels of production and consumption.

Now add the absurd commitment to economic growth.

We now come to the biggest problem. The main worry is not the present levels of resource use and ecological impact. It is the levels we will rise to given the obsession with constantly increasing production and consumption. The supreme goal in all countries is to raise incomes, "living standards" and the GDP as much as possible, constantly and without any notion of a limit.

Few economists or politicians would be satisfied with 3% rate of economic growth. If we assume a) a 4% per year economic growth, b) a population of nine billion, c) all the world's people rising to the "living standards" we in the rich world would have in 2070 given 4% growth until then, the total volume of world economic output would be 120 times as great as it is now. Even if we assume only 3% growth in rich countries and the Third World rising only to the present "living standards" of the rich countries, the multiple is 14.

So even though the present levels of production and consumption are grossly unsustainable, the determination to have a continual increase in income and economic output will multiply these many times in coming decades. Yet it is impossible to get people or governments to even think about this "limits to growth" critique of our situation.

It is also a grossly unjust society.

We in rich countries could not have anywhere near our present "living standards" if we were not taking far more than our fair share of world resources. Our per capita consumption of items such as petroleum is around seventeen times that of the poorest half of the world's people. The richest 1/5th of the world's people are consuming around 3/4ths of the resources produced. Many people get so little that malnutrition affects 1.2 billion people and more than that number have dangerously dirty water to drink.

This grotesque injustice is primarily due to the fact that the global economy operates on market principles. In a market, need is totally irrelevant and ignored; things go mostly to those who are richer, because they can offer to pay more for them. Thus we in rich countries get almost all of the scarce oil and timber traded, while billions of people in desperate need get none. Even more importantly, the market system explains why Third World development is so very inappropriate to the needs of Third World people. What is developed is not what is needed; it is always what will make most profit for the few people with capital to invest. Thus there is development of export plantations and cosmetic factories but not development of farms and firms in which poor people can produce for themselves the things they need.

These are the reasons why many now regard conventional development as a form of plunder. The Third World has been developed into a state whereby their land and labour benefit the rich, not Third World people. Rich world "living standards" could not be anywhere near so high if the global economy was just.

2. The Required Alternative: The Simpler Way.

There are inescapable implications from the foregoing analysis for the form that a sustainable and just society must take. The basic principles must be:

<> Far simpler material living standards,

<> High levels of self-sufficiency in households, nations and especially neighbourhoods and towns, with relatively little travel, transport or trade. Mostly small, local economies in which most of the things we need are produced by local labour from local resources.

<> Basically cooperative and participatory local systems,

<> A quite different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit, and in which there is far less work, production, and consumption, and in which there is no growth. There must also be a large cashless sector, including many free goods from local commons, and mutual aid, et cetera.

<> Most problematic, there must be a radically different culture, in which competitive and acquisitive individualism is replaced by frugal, self-sufficient collectivism.

Following are some thoughts on the practical implications of these principles.

Living more simply.

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

Living in ways that minimize 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 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.

Local self-sufficiency

We must develop as much self-sufficiency as we reasonably can at the national level (meaning less international 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, 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.

Many market gardens could be located throughout the suburbs and cities, for example on derelict factory sites and beside railway lines. 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, including a 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, et cetera. 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.

There would 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, clay pits, forests, ponds, meadows, and so on. 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.

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. There would be many festivals, drama clubs and celebrations. Consequently people would be less inclined to go away at weekends and holidays, which would reduce national energy consumption.

More Communal and Cooperative ways.

We must share more things. We could have a few stepladders, electric drills, and so on, 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 disabled people in our area. Committees will also 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, and this would reduce 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.

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.

There will be little place for international trade, foreign investment and transnational corporations. Most of the things we will need will be produced within a few kilometres of where we live.

Because we will be highly dependent on our local ecosystems and on our social cohesion, such as for water and effective committees and working bees, all will have a very strong incentive to focus on what is best for the town, rather than on what is best for themselves as competing individuals. Cooperation, helping, responsibility and good social behaviour will be automatically rewarded. This is firstly because these behaviours are satisfying, and more importantly because we will realise that it is very much in our interests to think about what is good for the neighborhood or town ... because we can't prosper unless it does. This situation is very different from that in consumer capitalist society. It will transform politics from conflict-ridden pursuit of self-interest, to striving for the right decisions for all.

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.

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 maximization and growth. Market forces could operate within 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.)

Unemployment and poverty could easily be eliminated. (There are none in the Israeli Kibbutz settlements). We would have neighborhood work coordination committees which 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 things, including steel, would be moved long distances, and very little (perhaps items such as high-tech medical equipment) would be transported from overseas. We would still have national systems for some things, such as railways and telecommunications, but on nothing like the present scale. Above all, in the new economy there would be no economic growth.

When we eliminate all that unnecessary production, and shift much of the remainder to backyards and local small businesses 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 one or two days a week. In other words, it will become possible to live well on a very low cash income. We could spend the other five or six days working and 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. Our main life goals must be things like reading, learning, working with others for the social good, gardening, arts and crafts, and participating in self-government, as distinct from getting richer. The quality of life for most of us would probably 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. These would 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.


Modern and sophisticated technology is not very relevant to solving the global problem - that requires change in systems and values. However, adopting The Simpler Way does not mean abandoning modern science and technology.

We would have all the high tech and modern ways and R & D that made sense, for example in medicine, windmill design, public transport and household appliances. 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.

Simple traditional alternative technologies will be quite sufficient for many purposes, especially building houses, and furniture, and producing food, pottery and many clothes. Much production will take place via hobbies and crafts and small farms and family enterprises, because these are much more satisfying ways to work.

3. Implications for the Transistion?

If the limits to growth analysis is basically correct, then in rich and poor countries we have no choice but to work for the sort of alternative society outlined above. Following are the main implications for transition strategy.

The transition cannot be imposed by a state or an authoritarian or revolutionary group. The new local societies can only be made to work by the willing effort of local people who have come to understand why The Simpler Way is necessary and who want to live that way and who find it rewarding.

There is therefore no value in working to take state power, either within the parliamentary system, or by revolution.

The main target, the main problem group, the basic block to progress, is not the corporations, the rich or the capitalist class. They have their power because people grant it to them. The problem group, the key to transition, is people in general. If they came to see The Simpler Way as preferable, consumer-capitalist society would immediately collapse.

The main task therefore has to be gradual grass-roots education about the need for The Simpler Way, and its rewards. The changes can only come from the bottom, via change in the ideas, understandings, and values people in general hold. These cannot occur except through a lengthy process of experiencing and practising the new ideas, ways and values in the places where people live. Small communities have to develop their own systems and procedures and traditions in line with their local conditions; these things cannot be imposed from above or from the outside. The Simpler Way cannot exist unless there is willing acceptance of the new practices and systems, and enthusiastic participation.

We do not have to get rid of consumer-capitalist society before we can begin to build the new way. The way to replace the old system is to ignore it to death, that is, to start building its replacement and persuading people to come across.

There is no possibility of significant change for a long time to come. We are nowhere near the necessary level of public awareness of the need.

It could be a very peaceful revolution ... if we can get enough people to see the sense of moving to The Simpler Way. The rich and the corporations will have no power if enough of us decide to ignore them.

There are two things that anyone concerned about the fate of the planet must work at.

<> Help as many people as possible to understand that capitalist-consumer society has to be largely abandoned, and that there is a far better way,

<> Contribute to the building of elements of The Simpler Way, here and now. This can best begin by setting up cooperative community gardens and workshops to enable local people to begin using local resources to meet local needs, thus initiating the new kinds of economic and social systems. To this base can be added things like working bees, committees, development of commons, initiation of small firms, cutting town imports, with a view to taking more control of the local economy. The visibility of these ventures will be our main educational device. The fate of the planet depends on whether we can get enough impressive examples going before the mainstream's problems become too serious.

For detailed analyses and documentation on these themes, see

Ted Trainer is a lecturer in the School of Social Work, University of New South Wales. His main interests have been global problems, sustainability issues, radical critiques of the economy, alternative social forms and the transition to them. He has written numerous books and articles on these topics, including, The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability (Zed, 1995), Saving the Environment; What It Will Take (University of New South Wales Press, 1998), and What Should We Do? (in press). He is also developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney, and a website, ]

Bill Totten


  • For a world population of nine billion this means a per capita limit of one ton per year. Yet the present Australian per capita rate of emission from fuel burning alone is sixteen tons.

    By Anonymous About Medicine Blog, at 8:54 PM, February 18, 2011  

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