By Ted Trainer

The Transition Towns movement, and related initiatives such as Eco-village, Permaculture and Voluntary Simplicity movements, are taking the first steps that must be taken if we are to solve global sustainability and justice problems. But I want to argue that unless they (eventually) undertake significant change in their focus and goals they will fail to make a significant contribution. Transitioners seem to assume that if they continue to establish more community gardens etc. in time, this will fairly automatically result in the emergence of a satisfactory society, and so they need not concern themselves with the distasteful realm of radical politics, confronting capitalism, fundamental structural change and “revolution”. I think this is quite mistaken.

The path the Transition Towns and related movements are presently on will lead only to a grossly and increasingly unsustainable and unjust consumer society, containing a lot of community gardens etc.

Global problems cannot be solved unless there is extreme, rapid and unprecedented structural change, away from some of the most fundamental ideas, practices and values in Western culture, especially away from the commitment to economic growth, freedom for market forces, corporate control, competitive individualism and, most problematic of all, affluent lifestyles. It is a far bigger task than just getting rid of capitalism.

I do not know how or when the Transition Towns movement should move to a central concern with this diabolically wicked set of problems no one enjoys thinking about. But I do think that at some time in the near future it must start to attend to it, and that unless it arrives at a sound theoretical analysis of radical transition and viable practical strategies for dealing with these problems, it will not end up having made much difference to our fate.

The insufficiency of resilience

In my firm view even most green and left people fail to grasp the seriousness and the implications of the global situation. They are familiar with the basic figures, but they fail to join the dots. They fail to recognise a) that rich countries have resource and ecological impact rates that are utterly unsustainable and cannot possibly be spread to all people, b) if a sustainable and just world is to be achieved these rates must be cut by something like 90%, c) that cannot be done unless we scrap a growth economy, reduce GDP to a small fraction of present levels, stop market forces from determining our fate, radically restructure the geography of settlements, largely scrap the economy, switch almost entirely from representative democracy to participatory democracy, and, above all, abandon affluence. The biggest change is not scrapping capitalism, astronomically difficult as that will be, it is the cultural revolution whereby the competitive, acquisitive, individualism that has driven Western culture for 250 years has to be contradicted

The ultimate goal has to be living in ways that are sustainable and just, i.e., that all the world’s people could share, and building the systems that make them possible. These systems will be resilient, but that will not be their essential or defining characteristic.

The failure to focus on simplicity

By far the most important implication of this failure to grasp what the limits analysis means is that a sustainable and just way of life that all the world’s people could have would involve lifestyles and levels of (non-renewable) resource consumption that are a minute fraction of present rich world levels. There is almost no sign in current Transition Town literature that this implication has been attended to. There are references to the desirability of avoiding the wastefulness of consumer society but the projects being undertaken and the web discussion makes almost no reference to the profoundly disruptive implications of simplicity. People are proceeding as if something like their present lifestyles were compatible with sustainability and none of the initiatives seems to be grappling with any need to cut resource consumption by a factor of something like ten.

The key to cutting present rates is not primarily the effort to reduce personal consumption. It lies in designing local settlements to provide for us without needing much non-renewable resource consumption.

The movement is not devoting much if any attention to this question of lifestyle and settlement design for very low resource consumption. It is proceeding as if something like modest rich world ways were acceptable, so long as they involve local production.

“Just doing stuff” is far from enough

Let me approach the point in this somewhat roundabout way. Do you realise that the more successful movements such as Eco-village, Transition Towns, Permaculture and Voluntary Simplicity are, the more quickly they will move the world towards catastrophic collapse that will kill them off? These movements are basically concerned with reducing consumption, resource use, dependence on the global economy, capital investment and trade, etc. These goals are pursued both in terms of developing local and more cooperative economies, and in terms of reducing personal consumption and living more simply.

Do you realise that all this means chaotic death to the present economy? The present economy must have as much producing and consuming going on as is possible, and it must grow at about 3% p.a. in order to keep fatal problems at bay. If growth falls to 1% or zero, there is enormous trouble; firms go bankrupt, unemployment rises, people can’t keep up home payments, angry voters tip out governments. What would the situation be if the amount of producing and consuming going on didn’t just fall to zero increase every year, but fell to one-tenth of today’s levels and stayed there?

Scrapping the economy is astronomically difficult

Your response might be, “Good; the economy has to be scrapped anyway?” Of course it has to be scrapped eventually, but the point is getting rid of it and replacing it is an astronomically difficult theoretical and practical problem, which could and probably will go very badly, and which will require a huge amount of effort consciously and deliberately devoted to the task.

We are heading for the black hole regardless of what Transitioners et al. do. The global system is going to break down via a spluttering or a sudden mega-depression. It will probably be the latter; given its dependence on the farcical financial house of cards. It is beyond me to work out how it is likely to go. Even if we had sensible governments committed to the kind of transition we want, how could they organise to shift millions of people out of working furiously to increase production and sales when we have an economic system in which the slightest move in that direction would tip us into recession? It could not be done without massive state planning and control, a level of “socialism” that at present would be totally unacceptable. Even if there was widespread public support in principle for these changes it could not be done without forcing people to accept many options they would violently oppose (e.g., totally terminating the advertising, sports car, fashion, tourism etc.,etc. industries).

Transition Towns and related movements should start thinking about all this. The fundamental question is, what is your strategic vision for the way the things you are doing now might/could lead eventually to the replacement of the present economy driven by growth, market forces, corporations and banks, greed and competition? How is your present activity expected to contribute to the emergence ofa very different global economy? How can community gardening and similar local green activities eventually result in the achievement of a zero-growth economy and a post-capitalist world?

Where is the strategic vision to replace the present economy?

In my view this is not just a matter of oversight. In my experience, people who are attracted to these movements tend to be very nice, polite, sensitive, respectable citizens who find words like “radical”, “capitalism” and “socialism” let alone “revolution” quite off-putting and distasteful.

But how exactly do you see your movements leading to the replacement of an economy driven by growth and market forces? How do you see what you are doing now enabling us to get through the coming economic black hole as negative economic growth accelerates to mega-depression?

Most people in these movements seem to be assuming that they do not need to answer these questions, beyond implying that if more and more people join in gradually building up alternative systems, then eventually it will all somehow have added up to revolution and the existence of the new society we want to see. This is “automatic revolution” theory, and it is utterly mistaken.

If we just go on establishing more and more community gardens, skill banks, local currencies, etc. all we will end up with is a capitalist consumer society racing ever faster to self destruction - but containing many community gardens, skill banks and local currencies, etc. Just establishing more things like this does nothing whatsoever to get rid of a growth economy, or put market forces under social control or replace capitalism.

Revolutions 101

How and when these movements should begin thinking about, discussing, embracing goals to do with radical system change and how they might be achieved I do not know. Sudden or noisy calls for more radical goals would harm these movements .As I see it they are booming because they are so ”nice”, involving pleasant activities, convivial and caring values, havens, and friendly, polite concerned people and the absence of conflict and rancour. (The tone Rob Hopkins sets has I think been of great value here.) So it might be a long time before it would be wise to try to get the issues central on the agenda. Obviously any attempt should be made in ways which do not offend or scare people off.

Nor is the implication that we should then stop making compost heaps and start doing things most people don’t want to do. What I want to see (eventually) are keen community gardeners who integrate their gardening into their efforts to establish radically new social, economic, geographical, political and cultural systems. What I want to see in the nearer future is these issues slowly coming onto the agenda for discussion by people who continue to develop community gardens.

What then is to be done?

The only way out of the alarming global predicament we are in has to be via a Transition Towns movement of some kind. To our great good fortune one has burst on the scene. The emergence of the Transition Towns movement seems to reflect a long pent up disenchantment with consumer-capitalist society and a desire for something better.

But I worry that this movement is increasingly likely to fail to make a significant difference. If it keeps going as it has to date I believe it will only turn out to have been a reformist project posing no threat to consumer-capitalist society. Reforms to or within such a society cannot solve the problems. The movement’s dominant though implicit “automatic” transition theory assumes the reforms will add up to revolution, so there’s no need to agonise or analyse.

Yet the activities being undertaken could easily become elements in a revolutionary process, if they were consciously undertaken as part of a process whereby communities seek to take control of their own affairs and build an alternative Economy B under and within the conventional economy, with a view to eventually largely if not entirely replacing it.

So the main themes I am hoping to persuade the movement to give much more attention to are:

  • Providing guidance regarding the appropriate sub-goals, the projects to tackle, and why these might lead in the direction of sustainable and just town societies
  • Coming to terms with simplicity and frugality as crucial goals
  • Thinking about transition theory, about how we can connect present activities to the ultimate goal of replacing consumer-capitalism
  • Focusing on moving towards taking collective control of our town
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Hopkins, R., (2013), The Power of Just Doing Stuff
Hopkins, R., (20110), The Transition Companion
Smith, R., (2011), “Green capitalism; – The god that failed”, Real World Economics Review, 56, 11th March, p. 122 – 145
Trainer, T., The case against the market
Trainer, T., Saving the environment; What it will take