Ted Trainer’s new article on ‘The Conversation’

A couple of days ago Ted Trainer published an article on ‘The Conversation,’ which I’ve republished below. It’s called ‘Living off-the-grid is possible, but it’s not enough to fix climate change’ and it’s one hell of a read, despite being very short.


by Ted Trainer, Visiting Fellow at University of NSW

My old house has never been connected to the electricity supply. It runs on a couple of photo voltaic (solar) panels and is warmed by firewood. All water used is rainwater.

I have a vegie garden, fruit trees and chickens. My pumps and machinery run on 12 volt solar electricity. I travel 25km to paid work once a week, by bicycle and train, and drive about 10km a week. I never go away on holidays. The average Australian household uses about one kilowatt of electricity; I use eight watts.

So isn’t downshifting to less consuming lifestyles the way to solve the greenhouse problem?

Emphatically, no it isn’t. It’s part of the solution but not the main part. If you want to fix the climate, developing nations’ poverty, resource depletion and other environmental problems you will also have to totally scrap economic growth, and therefore capitalism, and largely scrap globalisation, centralisation, the market system, representative democracy, the financial system, big cities, modern agriculture and urbanism.

A little extreme? Here’s the core argument.

Everyone knows the basic facts and figures, but few face up to what they mean. To provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy now requires about eight hectares of productive land. If by 2050, nine billion people were to have risen to the present Australian “living standard”, and the planet’s amount of productive land is still the same as it is today, the amount available per capita will be about .8ha. In other words Australian’s today are using ten times the amount that will be possible for all.

It’s much the same for all other resources. There are already scarcities regarding food in general, fish, water, most industrial minerals and petroleum, with estimates of peak coal occurring within a few decades. Only about one fifth of the world’s people have rich world consumption rates, and six times as many will soon be aspiring to them.

And yet, everyone is manically obsessed with constantly increasing “living standards”, production, consumption and GDP. At the standard 3% per annum growth rate, according to WWF figures we will need more than 20 planet earths to meet 2050 resource demands.

Living off-the-grid is not completely without a source of energy … solar panels are an integral part of the lifestyle. sridgway/Flickr

The glaringly obvious yet ignored point is that rich world per capita levels of resource consumption and ecological impact are far beyond levels that that are sustainable, or that could be made sustainable by any remotely plausible technical fixes. People, including most of the green ones, do not grasp the magnitude of the overshoot, nor the significance of the change required to solve the big problems.

The problems are being caused primarily by our systems, not our lifestyles although these are far too affluent. It’s not possible to get resource consumption down to one-fifth or one-tenth of present levels, unless we not only shift to a zero growth economic system, but to one with a far lower level of GDP. That means an economy in which there can be no interest paid.

That means we have to scrap the present financial system, and the forces driving innovation, incentive, work and investment, and the quest for greater wealth. It means much more than scrapping capitalism; it means completely abandoning some of the fundamental ideas (like the definition of progress,) and values (such as getting rich) that have driven Western culture for 300 years.

We could do it, easily, if you wanted to. My system, The Simpler Way (detailed in my book), is one whereby we transform our present suburbs and towns into highly self-sufficient and self-governing local and zero-growth economies, in which the quality of life would be higher than it is now in the consumer rat race.

Yes, an important part must be the willing acceptance of frugal, self-sufficient, cooperative ways at the level of the household and community. But it would not be necessary to go as far as I choose to on my bush homestead. We could still have electricity grids, (small) cities, (some) trade and heavy industry, railway networks, a (small) central state (under the control of town assemblies), universities and professional skills, and more socially useful high tech research and development than we have now. You might need to work for money only one day a week.

An ecovillage at Currumbin in Queensland. Flickr

Many people in eco-villages more or less live in the required ways now. Many are attempting to transform their towns and suburbs into being more self-sufficient and self-governing local communities.

But these very encouraging beginnings are not yet focused on the crucial goals. If you really want to help save the planet don’t fret much about downshifting but join your local community garden, with a view to getting people there thinking more about the need to focus on us eventually achieving the big structural and cultural changes.

For more articles by Ted Trainer, see the Simplicity Institute’s publications listing here.

4 Responses to “Ted Trainer’s new article on ‘The Conversation’”

  1. Jonathan Rutherford says:

    Thanks for alerting me to this Sam. Looks like it generated a lot of conversation! The only part of Ted”s spiel I find quentionable is the footprint figures. I think he might underestimate the amount of global bio-productive land. He assumes 8 billion wheras the WWF site has it 13 billion from memory. I know we have to include space for other species and at least 2 billion of that 13 billion is desert. But still, the 8 billion figure is questionable. Wouldn’t change the picture much though. We still have to make huge cuts and I agree with Ted that changes to systems/structures are as important as individual changes.

  2. Hi Sam,

    It’s an interesting article and I totally agree that far more than living off the grid needs to be done before we can solve the climate change problem.

    As pointed out, “Many people in eco-villages more or less live in the required ways now” and there are plenty of people keen to transition to a simpler and more resilient lifestyle. The main barrier I see is land and home affordability under the current economic system.

    It’s interesting that you use a photo of the Currumbin Ecovilage as an example as you would probably need at least half a million dollars or so to buy some land and build a home at Currumbin. Living a simple lifestyle doesn’t usually provide you with the means to buy in to such a community. Despite the land prices, the project still struggled financially and financiers took control of the development last year with 20 lots still unsold:

    It was a similar story here in Western Australia where the bank took control of the SomerVille Ecovillage project along with many families and individuals deposits, hopes and dreams. We are no longer in a position to purchase a house or land at SomerVille even if the project proceeds with a new investor as we are wiped out financially in the meantime.

    We have decided to move to Tasmania to get involved with the Tasman Ecovillage project where land prices are affordable enough that we may be able to start again.

    Thanks for sharing Ted’s article.

    Latest post from Neil Robertson…Only one apartment remaining!

  3. Jonthan Rutherford says:

    Hi Neil,

    Thanks for drawing our attetion to the very real problems re affordability of land with eco-villages. But,I just wanted to note, the main point of Trainer’s article was that living off the grid was NOT the most important contribution we can make to saving the planet (although, of course, nothing wrong with it either!). The most important contribution we can make, he argues, is educational/ideological. We should join a community garden (or eco-village) IN ORDER ‘to get people there thinking more about the need to focus on us eventually achieving the big structural and cultural changes.’ Good luck with your venture in Tassie 🙂

  4. Jonthan Rutherford says:


    FYI my (brief) blog defending Trainer.

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