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Ted Trainer and the Simpler Way

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 (summarised 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 mobilise 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 grass-roots 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 centre 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.

TO ORDER TRAINER’S BOOK:

By email: — Contact pat@envirobook.com.au for procedure.

By post (within Australia): –   Envirobook, 7 Close St., Canterbury,

NSW, Australia, 2190.  $30, Post free.

Overseas orders: Contact pat@envirobook.com.au for procedure.

 

Trainer has also posted some of his diverse writing on his website, available here.

I’d like to bring your attention, especially, to the following essays (although his website addresses many other interesting and important subjects too):

http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TSWmain.html (summary of the Simpler Way)

http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TheAltSoc.lng.html (sketching an alternative society)

http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/TheTransitionProcess.html (on the transition process)

http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/D65TW-Benefits.html (a short list of some of the central benefits that flow from the Simpler Way)

http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/HOWCHEAPLY.htm (on how cheaply we could live well)

 

For those interested, a list of some of his recent academic work is posted below (I haven’t read all these but everything I have read is excellent):

Trainer, F. E., (T.), 2005, “Development. The radically alternative view,” Pacific Ecologist, Summer, pp. 35 – 42.

“Social responsibility; the most important, and neglected, problem of all?” (2005). International Journal of  Social Economics,  682 – 704.

Trainer, T., (2006) The Simpler Way website, http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/

Trainer, F. E. (T.), 2006, “Renewable Energy:  No Solution for Consumer Society <http://www.inclusivedemocracy.org/journal/vol3/vol3_no1_Trainer_renewable_energy.htm> ,” Democracy and Nature, 3, 3, 1.

Trainer, T., (2007), Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society, Dordrect, Springer.

Trainer, T., 2007, “The Stern Review; A critical assessment of its mitigation optimism,” , http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/Stern.18.12.07.html

Trainer, T., (2007), “A critical discussion of the IPCC analyses of carbon emission mitigation possibilities and costs“,  http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/IPCCcrit.html

Trainer, T., (2007/8), ”What if Stern is wrong?“,  People and Place, 15, 4, 65 -71.

Trainer, T., (2008),The greenhouse problem; The refusal to recognise the siituation,“ Journal of Inclusive Democracy,  4, 2, April.

Trainer, T., (2008),  Estimating the potential of solar thermal power, http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/solarthermal.html

Trainer, T., (2008), “The Garnaut Report: A critical comment.” http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/Garnaut.crit.html

Trainer, T., (2008), “Renewable energy – cannot sustain an energy-intensive society”, http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/RE.html <http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/REcant.html>

Trainer, T., (2009), “The greenhouse and energy problems – Cannot be solved in consumer society”, Fereidoon 2009

Nature, Cities, Justice, Conference Paper, Dec., 2008, UTS Sydney.

Trainer, T., (2008) “Transitioning to the Simpler Way”, in Newton, P. W. (2008), Ed., Transitions; Pathways Towards Sustainable Urban Development in Australia, Dordrecht, Springer.

Trainer, F. E. (T),(In press), “Natural capitalism cannot overcome resource limits”, Environment, Development, Sustainability. http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/D50NatCapCannotOvercome.html

Trainer, T., (2010), “A critical discussion of the Stern and IPCC analyses of carbon emission mitigation possibilities and costs, “ Energy & Environment, Vol. 21, No. 2, 49 – 73.

Trainer, T., (2010), “Can the greenhouse problem be solved – The negative case.

http://ssis2.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/CANg.html

Trainer, T., (2009), “A friendly critique of he Transition Towns movement”

Trainer, T., (2010), Transition: Getting To A Sustainable and Just World. Sydney, Envirobook.

Trainer, T., (2010), “Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case”, Energy Policy, 38, 8, August, 4107 – 4114. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.037

Trainer, T., (2010), “Renewable energy – Cannot sustain an energy-intensive society”, (50 page updated summary case).  http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/RE.html

Trainer, T., (2010), “De-growth is not enough”, International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, 6.4. Fall.

Ted Trainer, (2011) “The implications of the global ecological predicament for economic theory and practice”, Humanomics, Vol. 27, Issue, 1, pp.7 – 2

Ted Trainer, (2011), “The Global Significance of the Eco-Village Movement”, Ecological Key: Designing Ecological Habitats-Creating a Sense of Place, Gaia Education – Ecovillage Design Education,

 

8 Responses to “Ted Trainer and the Simpler Way”

  1. Holly says:

    I read through several of the articles from Trainer’s website. Part of me finds The Simpler Way very enticing — I’m a back-to-nature advocate from way back. My common sense tells me, however, that people, at least 21st century “First World” people, are not going to give up cars, plastic, and the internet in favor of horse-powered agriculture and communal living. Personally, I’m not very excited about the possibility of cooking with a wood stove — picturesque but a LOT of hard work. I think it would truly take an apocalypse to make people even try a lifestyle like this. It makes for pleasant daydreaming, though.

  2. Samuel Alexander says:

    Hi Holly, thanks for your comment. I guess there are two separate issues which are raised here. There first is to do with what a person thinks is needed to avert ecological and social crises. The second is to do with to what extent a person thinks the necessary steps will be taken. Personally, I sympathise deeply with Trainer’s diagnosis of contemporary global problems, and given how great the combined problems of ecological overshoot, population growth, and consumerism are, it seems clear to me that radical change is needed, both personally and politically. Perhaps you agree? The next question, as I say, is about the likelihood of achieving what needs to be done. I agree entirely that the prospects of a culture shift toward the Simpler Way occurring are not promising. But that is different from saying that it isn’t necessary.

    It may well be, as you suggest, that only an apocalypse will induce a culture shift toward the Simpler Way. I’m inclined to agree. But we also have to accept that the suffering caused by some ecological or economic collapse would probably be of an unprecedented scale, so it makes sense to do everything we can to voluntarily choose simplicity.

  3. Lee Bones says:

    My reply is directed towards Holly. I’m a “first world” citizen and I’m very interested in living car-free, hoe gardening, and using much less plastic. The toughest thing for me would be to not have personal Internet access. Yes, I’d still be willing to try. I know that there are other like me.

  4. Jonathan Rutherford says:

    Hi there,

    Thanks Samuel for this review. Ted has been an inspiration to me for a while now – nice to see there are others out there who agree/are sympathetic. Also great to discover your website. The issue you raise about the state is very valid. I will have to think more…!

    Cheers

  5. [...] Ted Trainer, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World (2010), which I reviewed here. [...]

  6. Jim Walts says:

    I read Mr. Trainer’s book, The Conserver Society back in the 90s and it changed my life. His views opened my eyes and from that point on I have moved my life towards a simpler way. I have encouraged others to do so also. I am evolved with the local food movement and along with that a move to a more local economy.

  7. Merrick says:

    Have just read Ted Trainers book and as a long term practitioner of permaculture feel it is possibly the best solution to world problems to come out yet.
    Personally, I am not looking forward to the time when wars break out as everyone fights over the last drops of fresh water and food and the people with guns come up my track to take over our self sufficient property.
    Bill Mollison and Dave Holmgren presented a step by step manual of how to live better for less and Ted Has added the political solution.
    The only other plausible solution I have seen is by Frank Wallace and others presented as Neo-tech. Basically they believe that forming a collective conciousness to remove all dishonesty, governments and religion. They can then fast-track technology to solve problems.
    Good, but not enough.
    Possibly the best thing I can do is to buy ten copies of Teds book and spread it around and not just to the converted. I would encourage other like minded people to do the same.

  8. [...] from The Simplicity Collective, where you can find links to websites and academic articles on Trainer’s [...]

  9. James R. Martin says:

    After nearly a lifetime of inquiry and study on the theme, I’ve arrived at the same basic set of premises Mr. Trainer arrives at. And I want to say that the key to making a simpler way more desirable in the so-called “developed” world is to emphasize the many ways quality of life (QOL) can be improved while lowering destructive consumption and “standard of living,” the measure of which over-emphasizes money and economism.

    This, I believe, is best pursued on the level of communities organized on “the human scale” — e.g., neighborhoods, villages (such as ecovillages)…. It is crucial in this regard that we learn to acknowledge the extent to which many of our human needs are not being met by the dominant way of life in “the developed world”. Only by recognizing and acknowledging those unmet needs which no amount of money or material possessions could satisfy will we learn together how to increase QOL in a shrinking economy. And our economy simply cannot go on growing (See Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth”).

  10. Robert Charles Cleary says:

    This is a website that takes courage and wisdom to put together these days with the weight of the world leaning towards consumerism. I am personally full of joy to come across this website as I prepare to embark on my post-graduate studies, for I have been seeking a kind of intellectual ‘air breathing tool’ that will get me through the masses of literature re: the neo-liberal consumerist/economic way of structuring society. This is not the only way. There are others. This website testifies to these very real alternatives. Well done to its creators!

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