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Synthesis/Regeneration 57   (Winter 2012)

Two Letters

from Ted Trainer and Paul Palmer

To the editor:

A recent email discussion with Don Fitz revealed an important issue we thought it would be valuable to air. Don thinks that the transition strategy I argue for in my The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World is of the “change your lifestyle” variety, and therefore fails to acknowledge the need to focus on the traditional radical left concern with taking state power, confronting the capitalist class and ending their domination, and replacing the basic structures of capitalist society. Here’s a brief indication of how I think this apparent difference in view is resolved.

The first 250 pages of the book detail the claim that we are entering a historically unique situation in which the 300-year obsession with increasing industrialization, trade, investment, wealth and GDP will cease. We have already gone through the limits to growth. There is no possibility of rich world “living standards” being kept up for much longer, let alone of being extended to all the world’s people.

…the initial focus on … “lifestyle changes” is only a sub-goal … that will eventually enable achievement of the big, radical structural change.

Therefore, the only possible solution is dramatic reduction in levels of resource consumption, via transition to some form of Simpler Way, i.e., a society based on mostly highly self-sufficient cooperative and participatory and zero-growth local economies geared to meeting needs, and based on frugal, non-material values and satisfactions. The coming era of intense and irremediable scarcity will force us in this direction whether we like it or not (but that does not mean we will inevitably develop sensible new societies).

Few if any previous theories of social transformation are based on an understanding of the historically novel situation we are in. It completely recasts thinking about transition strategy. There is, for instance, no point in trying to take state power to replace capitalist control of the moribund industrial/affluence/growth system with socialist control of it. The goal has to be largely self-governing local economies run by their citizens, and states can’t make that happen. The transition strategy problem then becomes, “What can we do here and now to start moving to that goal?”

Chapter 12 of the book argues that by far the most important action for activists to take today is to join in the efforts to build things like community gardens, farmers markets, skill banks, etc., in the suburbs where we live. We should, in other words, plunge into the Transition Towns movement. But we should do this not primarily in order to have more community gardens, etc. We should do it in order to be in the best possible position to get our friends and neighbors to realize the need to go beyond these purposes to embrace the big, radical structural change goals, such as scrapping this economy. In other words, the initial focus on what Don sees as “lifestyle changes” is only a sub-goal, and my argument is that it is the best path to developing the awareness that will eventually enable achievement of the big, radical structural change he and I want to see.

It is very important here for traditional left people to think about the very limited relevance of the state in the coming revolution. As noted above, the goal is a basic social form best described as political anarchism. In conditions of severe scarcity, requiring very high levels of local self-sufficiency, satisfactory communities can only be run by intensely participatory and cooperative processes. People in consumer society are a very long way from having the required skills, attitudes or dispositions.

It is … important … to think about the very limited relevance of the state in the coming revolution.

The remarkable achievements of the Spanish anarchist collectives in the 1930s would not have been possible had these qualities not been developed over many previous years. As Kropotkin and Tolstoy realized, getting state power is of little or no relevance in building them. The only way to do it, if it can be done given the damage consumer society has caused, is via ordinary people gradually coming to grapple with the actual process of building increasing levels of self-sufficiency and self-government where they live. As the Anarchists say, we have to “prefigure” here and now the kind of structures and systems and world views that will characterize the post-capitalist society. Again, the question for activists and theorists now is, how best can we contribute to such a process, and my answer is, get involved in those gardens in order to talk, persuade, inspire, enlighten. The best way is not to work to take state power.

This is not well described as “lifestyle change” strategy. It is best understood as a means to the big, radical structural change goals Don wants to see. In other words, the ultimate goal is indeed getting rid of capitalist control, etc., but the new conditions the world is entering, along with the coming severe limits to state power, mean that our best strategy to achieve that goal is not to work directly to take state power or indeed to directly confront capitalist domination.

But if we start to become a threat, won’t they crush us? Again, the coming scarcity is crucial. When millions of villages start taking control of their local affairs and oil becomes very scarce, the police and the CIA and the Strategic Air Command will not be in a very strong position to stop us.

None of us has an infallible recipe for revolution, and I am very pessimistic as to whether mine will work—indeed whether we are going to avoid descent into a catastrophic century. However, my argument is that our best option is to work at the grassroots level within what might be described as “lifestyle changes” if we want to contribute to eventual system replacement. Of course, that’s not the only thing to do; contributing to the kind of discussion intended to alter world views, which S/R is involved in, is another important activity.

Ted Trainer

To the Editor:

I have been reading issue 56 of Synthesis Regeneration and enjoying it all.

What I see is a dichotomy between two ways of viewing needed social change. Perhaps I have just been preparing myself to see this pattern, which preparation is now fulfilling itself. It is not that there are two visions of a better world. Mostly everyone wants a world with more justice, less violence, greater equality, an end to obscene power (both economic and political), an end to planetary destruction and a more humanistic attitude generally. But what are the levers to press to get there assuming that is somehow possible?

On the one hand, the more standard approach is a discussion redolent with sociological, political and economic terms. There are analyses of the economic relations between all the players in society, both in and out of government and in and out of elites and minorities. There are the attitudes of individuals viewed as groups and classes, there are the forces unleashed by economic realities and there are the histories of laws, agitation, political change and societies. Usually these are accompanied, in the writings of activists, with hopes and invocations to change realities for better versions. Nothing new here.

The newer way (or is it really new?) is what I call structural analysis. Some writers, often without even realizing it, are identifying particular changes that can be made in the details of the way societies, industries, commerce, information, travel, etc. work that may, if successful, ramify to improve life and move us away from the destructive path we are on. They are not the political-sociological levers of the standard approach though there can be an overlap. They are not hopes for “let’s make a better world” but for fixing a broken way of dealing with reality. They may illuminate an assumption that has been taken for granted forever and yet, when viewed critically, is seen to be no more than a mere assumption that serves some powerful group and that everyone else goes along with. Or they may identify a better way to perform a daily task that is never disassembled because no one has shone a light on it yet.

Powerful groups will resist this structural change to the death.

There is a huge example in front of all our eyes right now. For 200 years, there has been an assumption that this industrial society will be run on energy resulting from fossil fuel combustion. For 200 years there was no quarreling with this assumption and yet, now, we see that it has been unnecessary, and is going to disrupt all our lives. Many people have organized a better way known as renewable energy, and the sheer logic of it has shaken us all. Powerful groups will resist this structural change to the death—the death of their companies and the death of affected individuals—but this is normal. What I hope to contribute here is to point out that this is a newish way of getting around to social change, one that, while subject to political power, is not directly of political power but comes out of a more technical analysis.

Another example is that of the internet, which has revolutionized the way we are able to communicate. WikiLeaks has shown the effect that the internet can have on a secretive state. Cheap universal communication has changed the way that protests and social movements can be organized. Naturally the power elites want to deny the internet to any but themselves and their loyal servants. The result may hinge on some technical decision, some internet protocol or the design of servers. Probably it won’t be quite that technical but it will depend on how distribution channels are set up. The social-commercial-political consequences will affect us all, yet the standard analyses of political power—while operating as always—will not be the lever being pressed. The demand for a free, uncontrolled communication system can be made under any political system.

Let me give one last illustrative example before turning to the discussion of the articles in S/R 56 as I started out to do. I work with the design of industrial processes and products. I analyzed the world of obsolescence and garbage a long time ago and realized that it is no accident that products fall apart and that industrial processes are set up to waste every input they can. It is because powerful elites profit by this kind of wasting. I identified the act of discard as a seminal act—the core of the concept of waste. Eliminate discard and you eliminate waste.

Cheap universal communication has changed the way that protests and social movements can be organized.

But how can discard be eliminated? It’s easy when you once ask the question. You stop designing for discard and you design for reuse. But here you run up against a cultural assumption, expressed in the common nostrum, “There has always been garbage and there will always be garbage!” It makes little difference that this is purely a piece of propaganda, an installed attitude with no scientific basis. It makes little difference that I can demonstrate in product after product how discard can in fact be designed out, resulting in a long-lived, superior, stronger, more effective product.

Social engineering of the human mind starts with childhood and always teaches that whatever one is used to is divinely ordained. If you ever get close to penetrating a mind’s defenses, the elites that profit from wasting have put in a secondary defense. They put forward the lowest grade of reuse possible, taking discards and destroying them in a process called recycling, to capture an insignificant portion of the discard, the mere materials; and their new propaganda says: “All reuse is the same. Recycling is perfect reuse.” And this canard has gone viral.

Except for a few free thinkers who can cut through the crap and recognize propaganda, the environmental movement has been wrapped around the finger of the incredibly powerful garbage industry. The identification of design for wasting—and for reuse—is a perfect example of a structural analysis. And the way in which the entire environmental movement has been snookered is a perfect example of how difficult it can be to apply a cogent analysis in the face of power, even when it is clearly presented.

I gave away my point when I identified the mode of obtaining energy as one of my structural analyses, because what is this issue of S/R about but the effect that the Fukushima events are having on that very structural point. The explosion of the reactors is not in itself a new relationship between the governed and the governors or in its essence the effect of laws on legitimate protest. It all revolves around a technical issue which is not easy to understand.

The details of how reactors work, of how cooling is used and how it all worked out technically, is a new lever on the political system and one which will probably seize the political realities and set it down on its rump saying, “Now shut up and listen to me! This is the way things are going to go from now on whether you can protect your money and power or not!” Maybe not quite so severe but almost. An earthquake spoke and so many people listened that the world changed. Washington DC in its enormous, swashbuckling arrogance hopes to ignore Mother Nature’s statements but will probably get its comeuppance and soon. Solar energy sources are now first on the menu.

In line with this analysis, I am lumping together all those excellent articles in S/R 56 on various aspects of the Fukushima events as being solidly in the structural camp. There are more.

The need to abandon on-time departures of public transit and replace them with on-full departures is still one more example of structural analysis.

My own article on the need to abandon on-time departures of public transit and replace them with on-full departures is still one more example of structural analysis. It is not a matter of whether or not some politically powerful industry prefers the wastefulness of having empty buses and trains and vans running around the countryside. Renewable energy is not going to fuel the same kind of wanton consumption of needless and endlessly remade goods that we all take for granted today. We are going to use fewer products and less energy, and on-full departure is just one of those many changes that have to occur, whether we like it or not.

Patrick Bond writes a story about the rough seas that microcredit is encountering, beginning with the sinking of the Grameen Bank and its guru, Mohammed Yunus. I had no idea that the World Bank had mixed into poor people’s credit to the extent of investing $200 million in the Grameen Bank. Wow! Is this not one more example of a structural innovation? Here is an intervention, way outside of traditional political and social relationships, that is nevertheless critical and life changing. Admittedly the story is about the collapse of the microcredit experiment but I refuse to take that grim result as final.

It seems to me that Yunus identified a social and economic intervention that is critical and cannot be allowed to fade away because the conventional banks have managed to scuttle it. We need to find new ways to make this work, hopefully by excluding the banks and the political institutions with all of their excess capital sloshing around. Microcredit needs to be a lever on changing social relationships, not a tragic story of failure by the poor because of an attack by the rich.

Last in this list is Yves Engler’s article about bicycles which ends up being more about cars. Yet his report, while outlining the astounding, cascading impact of automobile manufacturing and enforced usage on our economy, is also about bicycles and their structural power. It doesn’t matter if cars can be exploited for endless economic power.

A new world of conservation is coming at us like a freight train and we will not be able to afford cars the way we are used to. I loved his comment that “Capitalism would prefer everyone traveling to the grocery store by private jet, but since that’s not practical, 3,000 or 4,000 lb. metal boxes will have to do.” Bicycles are going to be a necessary structural innovation, whether we like it or not. So will dolmushes, and maybe moving sidewalks or personal hovercrafts but the auto industry can no longer control all the decisions.

Bicycles are going to be a necessary structural innovation.

That brings us to the pair of articles authored by Don Fitz and Ted Trainer, which document so authoritatively the changes that are coming, whereby we are going to have to reduce our footprint. That sounds so innocent. Yes we will have to step a bit more lightly on the beach with our sandals. But no, they both stress how wrenching that is going to be for elites and those without imagination who cannot see a different way of life as valid. A lighter footprint means that most (80% ?) of the easy, wasteful way we live will need to vanish. Maybe fans will replace air conditioners and trains will replace airplanes.

Trainer is pretty harsh. He sees an end to interest on loans, since it is interest that spurs endless growth to pay debts and create additional money, thus leading to the endless growth of excess capital that scours the earth for new developments to earn still more interest. He sees an end to social growth. I can’t believe he means that parts of society, like a new business, cannot grow and displace another business or product, but the end of constant, demanded, commercial growth is a wrenching change if it comes about.

The one article that sticks out like a sore thumb is that by Mark Jablonowski in which he struggles to justify the idea of central planning and urges all of us individualists to embrace it. I had to wonder, as I read it, where he could be coming from. Can he really expect to get a hearing today? Has he ever testified to a planning commission and learned that they only need to listen politely, after which they can ignore everything you said and pursue their own agendas? Does he realize that commissions are either appointed, which is a nexus of power, or elected, which requires another nexus of manipulative power? And what happens when a central planning commission makes its decision which is then ignored or opposed? That’s where the police come in, to enforce their decisions. No, this reader was not even slightly convinced.

But then editorial wisdom asserted itself because the very next article was about the breakdown of the central planning that took place in Japan which resulted in the Fukushima disaster. The article “Hubris Punished,” by Gavan McCormack, astoundingly reported that in order to work with the American nuclear industry, the decisions by the Japanese government to work towards 50% nuclear electricity generation had to be kept secret for years from the Japanese people. The disaster of secret central planning may mean that a few politicians will lose one job to gain another but thousands of the Japanese people will lose their health, their livelihoods and their lives. It was clever to put those two articles together.

Structural changes are not social revolutions in themselves, but there are going to be thousands of them and maybe, collectively, they will turn out to constitute the backbone of a revolution. Maybe this destructive, wasteful, hyperconsumptive society will evolve whether the power elites like it or not. The story hasn’t been written and I don’t presume to be the author.

Paul Palmer
Vacaville, The Zero Waste Institute

[14 dec 11]

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