Ted Trainer and The Simpler Way (Review Essay)

I’m very pleased to announce that Ted Trainer has joined the Simplicity Institute, and in recognition of this important event I’ve spent the last week writing a review essay of his work, which I’ve posted below. Ted has been writing about The Simpler Way for many years,  and in coming weeks and months he will be publishing a series of essays on the Simplicity Institute website (which I will also repost here). But for those who haven’t read any of Ted’s work, I wanted to provide a comprehensive introduction to his original and inspiring vision. I’ve posted a short introduction to my review below and the full paper can be downloaded here.


For several decades Ted Trainer has been developing and refining an important theory of societal change, which he calls The Simpler Way. His essential premise is that overconsumption in the most developed regions of the world is the root cause of our global predicament, and upon this premise he argues that a necessary part of any transition to a sustainable and just world involves those who are overconsuming accepting far more materially ‘simple’ lifestyles. That is the radical implication of our global predicament which most people, including most environmentalists, seem unwilling to acknowledge or accept, but which Trainer does not shy away from and, indeed, which he follows through to its logical conclusion. The Simpler Way is not about deprivation or sacrifice, however. It is about embracing what is sufficient to live well – and recognising that far less is needed than is commonly thought.

This essay presents an overview of Trainer’s position, drawing mainly on the most complete expression of it in his latest book, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, an analysis which is supplemented by some of his more recent essays. My review is designed in part to bring more attention to a theorist whose work has been greatly underappreciated, so the review is more expository than critical. But in places my analysis seeks to raise questions about Trainer’s position, and develop it where possible, in the hope of advancing the debate and deepening our understanding of the important issues under consideration. I begin by outlining the various elements of The Simpler Way and proceed to unpack them in more detail.

The full paper can be downloaded here: Ted Trainer and The Simpler Way.


4 Responses to “Ted Trainer and The Simpler Way (Review Essay)”

  1. Mujahid says:

    An excellent review thank you for taking the time to write it. I did not know who Ted Trainer was until I read this post. He makes excellent points, however it seems that most of his points are based on “if” everyone consumed at western levels. I can’t see how western powers would even allow that to happen, that aside certainly our current levels of consumption is enough to make the point.

  2. Johnny Rutherford says:

    Hi Samuel,

    Thanks for this clear and accurate exposition of Ted Trainer’s important work. The issues you raised are vital for the TT movement to discuss and think about more; I hope this essay is read widely. I want to make a few friendly comments as food for thought.

    Re Markets; agree that Trainer makes a linguistic error by talking about ‘scrapping’ markets. Even though he does advocate, in the distance future, a society without markets, clearly the TSW vision includes – and I think rightly – a small ‘market sector with private property.’ I like to think of it in terms of Karl Polayni’s notion of‘re-embedding’ markets within society, or bringing them back under democratic social control. Your point about the legal structures governing markets and private property was interesting and I will have to read up on this more. However at this stage I am reasonably convinced that, despite differing legal structures, there is a fundamental relationship between competitive markets (as opposed to simple trade/exchange) and growth. Unless a great deal is done to prevent it, a capitalist economy expands continuously by virtue of competition between private producers and the expectations of consumers for increased consumption. This could only change if society as a whole – preferably at a local level – agreed to restrict/regulate market activity so that expansion did not occur. Of course, this happens to some extent today but we need to go much further. In that sense I think Trainer is correct to argue that we need to eventually scrap a society ‘driven by market forces and the profit motive.’

    Re the potential for our radical vision to discourage and alienate people. It’s an entirely valid and legitimate concern. No easy answers. There are obviously times when we will need to be diplomatic (applying for council grants etc) but I think we do have to be clear about our goals…and they are not ‘reforms’! We need a new socio-economic system, and people have to understand that, otherwise we will fail. In doing this, of course, it is vital that we don’t just focus on the negative (getting rid of capitalism etc); we need to inspire people with our simpler way vision. As you noted, we are talking about a society in which all people’s needs are met, we do things co-operatively and democratically and people have access to supportive communities – how wonderful! The TT movement needs to paint this picture for people i.e what would our community look and feel like if it was transformed into a thriving co-operative local economy?

    I agree that presently the TT movement lacks the resources and energy to do anything massive at this point in time…but we don’t need to. We just need to plug away in small and humble ways communicating and promoting our vision and why it’s necessary. For me, that means working in rather isolated circumstances and just focussing on raising these issues in conversation when appropriate. That’s all some of us can do at this stage. Of course things would be far easier if I had a few people around me who shared the basic vision…until then just gotta plug away. As Trainer says, we will probably be largely ignored until the resource/energy crunches kick in.

    Re Anarchism and strategy; agree Trainer should probably scrap the word, and instead talk about direct democracy. I liked your notion of a ‘pragmatic anarchist.’ I feel that’s an apt description of my own attitude. Yes, a supportive Gov would be enormously helpful (look at Cuba), but they won’t be supportive until we have brought about ‘enormous change in the outlook and values of ordinary people.’ That is 98% of the revolution…and the hardest part!

    Trainer does have one fundamental argument against relying on Gov’s. He argues that ‘TSW can only be made to work in communities where conscientious, energetic and socially responsible citizens are keen to come together to cooperatively run those communities…not only is it impossible for Gov’s to run our new communities for us, they couldn’t develop the required ideas, skills, desires.’ I am not entirely convinced on this point. Saral Sakar – another brilliant thinker – argues that we need to ultimately get a Gov elected on a radical ‘de-growth’ platform! When I have pushed Ted on this he seems to agree that a supportive Gov would be useful, even essential, so I think this could be another area where he needs to clarify things. At this stage, however, to my mind the best way forward is to build those local economies, and Trainer provides a compelling strategy to that end.

    Thanks again for this essay. Very helpful and thought provoking.

  3. SJ says:

    Jonny gets close here when he says we need a new socio economic system. I think what Ted advocates will always be a for a few like me on the fringes. Most people don’t know or care that anything is even wrong. History tells us that people in general will act in there own self interest and altruism is not the norm. I would ask you kindly to read James Robertsons new book on Future Money because I think he gets much closer to the root of our problems. He says that out financial system encourages our destructive life styles but our financial system is within our power to control as it is a totaly human made entity. He basically advocates that our political and financial system could be modified such that it supports the good things and discourages the bad. So the masses get out of bed each day and act in there own self interest as humans always will but self interest is aligned with planetary interests. The occupy movement showed us how governments and the press will behave when percieved threats to the status quo appear to be gaining ground so the real question is how to win that war. I think that if Ocuppy had a core vision like what James Robertson advocates, it would have been stronger and may have stood a chance at growing.
    I hope you guys will read this and then carry on the discussion.

  4. SJ says:

    Correction- I was wrongly dismissive of Ted Trainers work in my last post. To correct that, I must say that it would form an important part of the overall reforms proposed by James Robertson relating to ensuring people at a local level can manage there own lives. Ted’s vision would provide a great deal of what James calls “own work” and help to make communities resilient and enjoyable. It just wouldn’t be for every one. But that is fine, it would still be an important part of the tapestry.

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