s/r home  | issues  | authors  | 51 contents

Synthesis/Regeneration 51   (Winter 2010)

Thoughts on the Transition to a Sustainable Society

by Ted Trainer

Only when we are clear about the nature of our global predicament and the radical system changes that are needed, and about the form a sustainable society must take, are we in a position to think about the best way to work for the transition.

The global situation: Consumer-capitalist society is grossly unsustainable and unjust. We are far beyond levels of production and consumption that can be kept up or spread to all. It provides a few with "high living standards" by delivering to them far more than their fair share of world resources. Technical advance cannot solve the problems; they cannot be fixed in or by consumer-capitalist society. There must be dramatic reductions in levels of economic output, and therefore there must be radical and extreme system change. [1]

The Solution: There must be transition to The Simpler Way, involving simpler lifestyles, high levels of local economic self-sufficiency, highly cooperative and participatory arrangements, an almost totally new economic system (one that is not driven by market forces or profit, and has no growth), and fundamental value change. Many realize a sustainable and just society must be made up mostly of small local economies in which people participate collectively to run their economies to meet needs using local resources, and in which the goal is a high quality of life and not monetary wealth. This is a largely anarchist vision and the coming conditions of scarcity will give us no choice about this. Big, centralized authoritarian systems will not work.

Following are some important implications of the foregoing analysis for the transition process.

There is therefore no value in working to take state power.

The conditions we are entering, the era of scarcity, rule out most previous thinking about the good society and social transition. The good society cannot be affluent, highly industrialized, centralized or globalized, and we cannot get to it by violent revolution led by a vanguard party. Governments cannot do it. The new local societies can only be made to work by the willing effort of local people who understand why The Simpler Way is necessary and who want to live that way and who find it rewarding. Only they know the local conditions and social situation and only they can develop the networks, trust, cooperative climate, etc., that suit them. The producing, maintaining, and administering will have to be carried out by them and things can't work unless people are eager to cooperate, discuss, turn up to working bees, and be conscientious, and unless they have the required vision. A central government could not provide or impose these even if it had the resources. These dispositions must be developed, learned by us as we grope our way towards taking control of self-sufficient local economies.

The transition therefore has to focus on helping ordinary people to understand the need for The Simpler Way and to move towards willing acceptance of the new ways, and towards enthusiastic participation in the long process of learning how best to organize in their area.

The way we think we can beat it...is to ignore it to death.

Thus our strategy differs from the classic Left/Marxist one which focuses on building a political movement that will take over the state and then reorganize things from the center, perhaps with a heavy hand (although Marx thought that in time the need for a central authoritarian state would fade away). That made more sense when the goal seemed to be to shift energy-intensive, centralized, and industrialized systems from capitalist control to "socialist" control.

There is therefore no value in working to take state power, either within the parliamentary system, or by revolution. Even if the Prime Minister and cabinet suddenly came to hold all the right ideas and values, they could not make the required changes - in fact they would be instantly tossed out of office if they tried. The changes can only come from the bottom, via slow change in ideas, understandings, and values, and these cannot occur except through a lengthy process of learning the new ideas, ways, and values in the places where people live.

Working for Green parties to get Green candidates elected is not the best use of scarce energy. They can't get the necessary radical changes through parliaments, given the dominant ideology. The task is to change that ideology, and that is not best done by working in the electoral political arena. Green parties and movements are now largely only reformist; they do not challenge growth and affluence.

We do not have to get rid of consumer-capitalist society before we can begin to build the new ways. The consumer-capitalist system has never been stronger than it is today. The way we think we can beat it in the long run is to ignore it to death, i.e., to turn away from it as much as is possible and to start building its replacement and persuading people to come across. The anarchists provide the most important ideas, especially that of working to "prefigure" the good society here and now.

The main target, the main problem group, the basic block to progress, is not the corporations or the capitalist class. The problem group, the key to transition, is people in general. If they came to see how extremely unacceptable consumer-capitalist society is, and to see that The Simpler Way is the path to liberation, then the present system would be quickly abandoned. The battle is therefore one of ideology or awareness. We have to help people to see that radical change is necessary and attractive, so that they enthusiastically set about building new local economies on mostly collective principles. The Left has always understood the importance of ideology and consciousness but has failed to focus on the task of developing the necessary awareness and values in people in general.

There is no possibility of significant change in the near future.

There is no possibility of significant change in the near future. We are nowhere near the necessary level of public awareness of the need. There will be no significant change while the supermarket shelves remain well stocked. However, problems are becoming more acute and this will help us as time goes by - it will make people more likely to realize that a consumer-capitalist society will not provide for them and that there must be a better way. If/when an oil shortage occurs it will concentrate minds wonderfully. But when it comes, the window of opportunity could be brief and risky. If things deteriorate too far there could easily be too much chaos for sense to prevail and for us to organize cooperative local systems.

Therefore the top priorities for anyone concerned about the fate of the planet must be to help as many people as possible to understand that capitalist-consumer society will not provide for all, cannot be fixed and has to be largely abandoned, and that there is a far better way, and to contribute to the building of elements of The Simpler Way, here and now. In the last 20 years many people around the world have begun to build, live in, and experiment with new settlements which enable simpler ways. When things begin to shake loose we need to be ready, to have built enough impressive examples of The Simpler Way, so that people can see there is a better alternative, and so they can quickly move into it.

There are many "light green" actions that make no contribution whatsoever to the transition.

Just building examples and "exhorting" people to change from consumer-capitalist society is not sufficient and is not the essence of The Simpler Way Transition Strategy. The core of the strategy is about changing consciousness, by working within alternative initiatives within existing communities to get the new ways going. This will give us our best opportunities to explain our vision; how else could we get such access to people?

The most promising development to work within is the rapidly growing Transition Towns Movement. [2]

Beware of the mistakes that could waste your valuable time and energy! We must think very carefully about what we can do that will make the biggest contribution. There are many "light green" actions that make no contribution whatsoever to the transition. For instance, working to save the whale, increasing recycling, stopping wood chipping, are good causes, but they do nothing to move us towards a sustainable society, because that requires transition from consumer-capitalist society, and more recycling etc. does not contribute to that.

Change will be rapid when it comes. The problems in consumer-capitalist society are intensifying. If we do achieve transition it will be via rapidly increasing discontent with the failure of the present society to provide.

The breakdown of consumer-capitalist society will force people towards small, local economies whether they like it or not, to cooperate and to shift from high consumption. Local farms, jobs, etc., will emerge as petroleum dwindles and transport and travel become too costly.

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 and to build our own local systems. The corporations and banks will probably soon be grappling with the breakdown of their systems and will not have the resources to block the initiatives people will be taking up in thousands of towns and suburbs. They can't run armies and secret police forces very well without lots of oil.

At this point in time our chances of a successful transition would seem to be very poor. Very few people have any idea that it is required, hardly anyone wants to even think about the need for transition to The Simpler Way. It contradicts the most cherished values in modern Western Culture - and time is running out.

They can't run armies and secret police forces very well without lots of oil.

Not only is working together to build elements of the Simpler Way the best effective purpose for people concerned about the planet to put their energy into, it provides the best possibility of maintaining morale and enthusiasm. This strategy enables us here and now to practice and experience, and get some satisfaction and peace of mind from, elements of the post-revolutionary society.

Ted Trainer teaches at the University of New South Wales in Kensington, NSW, Australia. For more detailed discussion see The Simpler Way website, http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/


1. For the detail see Part 1 of http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TSW.14p.html

2. The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience by Rob Hopkins, Foreword by Richard Heinberg. (Chelsea Green Publishers).

[22 dec 09]

Synthesis/Regeneration home page | s/r 51 Contents