vol.6, no.2, (July 2000)


Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?

Ted Trainer


AbstractThe first section of this article briefly summarises the core causal elements in the global predicament, focusing on the market system and the relatively neglected limits to growth”; i.e., overconsumption.  The second section ‘draws implications for the form a sustainable society must take. The Simpler Way must involve far less affluent lifestyles in small scale, highly self-sufficient and localised economies, within a zero-growth post-capitalist society. The third section discusses strategic implications. It is argued that the most promising arena in which to work for transition at this point in time is the Global Ecovillage Movement. Differences with orthodox left thinking about strategy are discussed, including the notion of attempting to build the new society before  the old has been abandoned, the potential significance of setting examples, and whether or not it makes sense to confront capitalism.


Where are we?

It is no exaggeration to say that the global economy is basically a system of massive but legitimate expropriation. The world's core economic, political and cultural systems function to siphon off most of the world's wealth to the benefit of a few. The basic realities are glaringly undeniable. About 86% of world income goes to the richest 20%, while the poorest 20% receive only 1.3% of it. As a result billions of people experience serious deprivation, with at least 800 million chronically malnourished. The inequalities and sufferings are now getting worse. The overall situation in the mid-1990s has been effectively summarised in the Human Development Report  published by the UNDP[1] which stressed  that the poorest one-third of the world's people were actually experiencing a marked long term deterioration in their real living conditions. Over 1.6 billion people were found to be getting poorer each year.  Meanwhile about 1% of the world’s people own most of the corporate wealth.

Rich world living standards could not be as high as they are if these enormous inequalities, transfers of wealth and deprivations were not occurring. It is a zero-sum game. If we get the resources necessary to produce throw-away affluent lifestyles, they are not available to provide basic necessities for most of the world’s people. The main beneficiaries are the very few who own or manage the transnational corporations and banks. They are rapidly increasing their ownership and control through their stunning success in promoting the free market ideology. The few biggest and most powerful and predatory actors on the level playing field win, and take almost everything that is worth taking. Capitalism has never been so triumphantly dominant and secure from threat. It's legitimacy and permanence is more or less undoubted at official, political and popular levels.

The Basic Flaws

The two fundamentally mistaken commitments built into the current economic system are to the market and to growth. Considerable attention is being given within critical circles to the former but unfortunately social critics, especially those operating from a Left perspective, tend to give far too little attention to the problem of growth, and therefore fail to come to the conclusions regarding change that are arrived at below.

Little space needs to be given here to detailing the case that a major source of the overall global problem is simply the freedom given to market forces. It is appropriate however, to highlight the way that the basic market mechanism inevitably generates deprivation and inappropriate development. 

Markets allocate scarce resources and products to the rich and to deprive the poor of resources they once had. In a market considerations of need and justice are irrelevant; goods go to those who can bid most for them. For example while possibly 800 million people in the world are hungry, about one-third of world grain production is fed to animals in rich countries.

Thus market forces determine that the Third World's resources are mostly taken by Third World elites, Transnational Corporations and shoppers in rich world supermarkets. Consequently market forces are the major and direct causes of the massive global injustice and deprivation that results in the avoidable death of some 30,000 to 40,000 Third World children every day. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that market forces are responsible for more deprivation, human suffering and ecological destruction than any other single factor. 

In a market economy there is also a powerful tendency for development to be inappropriate to the needs of most people and of the environment. Investment will flow into those ventures likely to yield the highest returns.  These are never the ventures that are most likely to produce what most people need. Thus while most Third World regions urgently need more production of cheap and simple food, tools, appliances, housing and clothing, the development that occurs is of export plantations, mines, Hilton hotels, international airports, etc. Such development draws away from poorer people the productive resources which they once had and were able to use to produce for themselves many of the things they need. Possibly the most disturbing examples of this process are to do with the application of Third World land to export crops while many people are malnourished.

The conventional economist focuses on the “efficiency” of the market system, claiming that it alone can maximise the value produced by available inputs. This is quite true, but only if an objectionable definition of "efficient" is employed. To the conventional economist, "efficient" and "productive" investments are simply those which make most profit. They therefore regard it as far more "efficient" to put Third World land into producing luxury crops for export than into feeding local hungry people. Obviously market forces are appallingly inefficient as mechanisms for applying available productive capacity to meeting the most urgent needs of people and their ecosystems.

Development as Plunder

There is increasing recognition that because of the way the market system enables resources and markets to be taken by the rich, conventional Third World development can be regarded as a form of legitimised plunder. 

The normal functioning of the market system ensures that potentially productive resources, such as land under tribal "ownership”, becomes available for sale and therefore can be acquired by richer people and put into the production of those items which will maximise sales income, with minimal  benefit to those who originally possessed them. Thus many Third World resources come to be possessed by rich world people and much Third World productive capacity comes to be devoted to production for the benefit of others.

Whereas in the colonial era physical force was used to bring about such a situation, in the post-colonial era it is brought about mainly by the normal and legitimate operation of the market system.  Because such a system gives players the freedom to trade and invest in order to maximise their own advantage it ensures that those with most wealth will secure most of the resources and markets and that the development that results will be development which suits them. Thus Goldsmith discusses “development as colonialism".[2] Rist says, “...development has resulted in material and cultural expropriation.”[3] Schwarz and Schwarz say “Development now seems little more than a window dressing for economic colonialism.”[4] Chossudowsky's The Globalisation of Poverty[5] details the mechanisms, especially in relation to finance.[6]

Clearly there is no possibility of satisfactory development for most people in the Third World within the present global economy. Satisfactory development for the Third World is impossible unless the rich countries move down to consuming something like their fair share of world resources. Gandhi summed up the situation long ago when he stated that the rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live.

The Limits to Growth Analysis [7]

As was stated above there are two major faults built into the foundations of our society. One is the commitment to the market principle and associated notions such as competition, individualism, and maximising freedom for corporations. Unfortunately what is generally not recognised, even among people on the Left, is that an even bigger mistake is to do with the taken for granted commitment to affluence and growth. Most of those who would happily get rid of capitalism, markets, competition and domination fail to acknowledge that global problems would remain just about as serious as they are now if we did not also relinquish the determination to have high "living standards" and to increase them over time, constantly and without limit.  We could only do this if we continued to take far more than our fair share of world resources and therefore to deprive most people and to gear Third World economies to rich world demand etc. 

Over the past 30 years a formidable case has accumulated in support of the claim that the living standards and levels of production and consumption characteristic of rich countries are grossly unsustainable for resource and environmental reasons. This conclusion can be arrived at via any one of a number of lines or argument.[8] For example estimated potentially recoverable resources for fossil fuels and minerals indicate that if we were to try to increase production to the point where all people expected on the planet by 2070, perhaps 10 billion, were each to have the present rich world per capita consumption, then all fuels and one-third of the mineral items would be totally exhausted by about 2040.  Renewable energy sources are very unlikely to be able to fill the gap.[9] This means that there is no possibility of all people rising to the per capita resource consumption typical of the rich countries today.

The greenhouse problem provides a similar argument. If the carbon content of the atmosphere were to be prevented from increasing any further, world energy use for 10 billion people would have to be reduced to a per capita average that is just 6% of the present rich world average. Most people have little understanding of the magnitude of the reductions required for sustainability.

“Footprint” analysis” indicates that to provide for one person living in a rich world city requires at least 4.5 ha of productive land.  If 10 billion people were to live that way the amount of productive land required would be around 8 times all the productive land on the planet.[10]

Figures of these kinds indicate that present rich world levels of production and consumption are far beyond sustainability. Yet the supreme commitment in rich and poor countries is to economic growth; i.e., to constantly increasing levels of production and consumption without limit. The absurdly impossible implications are made clear by asking what increase there would be in Gross World Product if by 2070 the expected 10 billion people were to have risen to the living standards people in rich countries would have, given 3% growth until then. The answer is an approximately 100 fold increase in present Gross World Product. (If a 4% average growth rate is assumed the multiple is 200.)

These sorts of figures should leave no doubt that there is no possibility of all people rising to anything like the living standards we in rich countries have, let alone those we aspire to. A sustainable society must therefore be defined in terms that extend well beyond taking social control over the market. It must focus on notions of simplicity, co-operation and self sufficiency and a long period of negative economic growth culminating in a steady-state economy, notions which many on the Left find distasteful.


The limits to growth analysis seems to reveal the insufficiency of Bookchin’s diagnosis of our ills. Bookchin identifies “domination” as the core problem. He believes that where humans have gone wrong is in moving from the equalitarian values that characterised tribal societies to obsession with gaining power and advantage over others. Clearly the cultural foundations of Western civilisation now take for granted hierarchical and authoritarian relations, competition, the importance of winning, privileges for superiors and the legitimacy of inequality. Bookchin claims that this syndrome explains the environment problem. That is, because we humans so readily dominate each other we also dominate the environment.

The limits to growth analysis makes clear that the fundamental source of the environmental problem is overconsumption, and this is not well described as a matter of domination. When a person buys pet food or decides to drive out to a restaurant, environmental damage is done but this is not as the result of any notion of dominating in the usual sense of a cognitive, wilful disposition or intention to exercise power or take advantage or gain superiority over another. The destruction of the environment that is taking place is mostly due to the unintended and unwitting effects of mindless affluent consumption, not to any intention to dominate. Conceptually it has little if anything to do with hierarchy, patriarchy or authoritarian relations.

Many people in rich societies who find the domination syndrome in its usual sense repugnant are willing participants in consumer society and are therefore contributors to the global ecological predicament. If we give up all intention of dominating but remain committed to affluent living standards then the ecological problem will remain as serious as it is now.

Where do we want to be?

The forgoing analysis of where we are yields very coercive implications for the form that a sane, just and sustainable society must take. There is considerable awareness that a satisfactory world order cannot be built until control of the economy is taken out of the hands of the very few who own capital.  However, there is relatively little understanding that the most important implications for change derive from the other fault, the greed syndrome, i.e., the unquestioned obsession with high level living standards and economic growth. Most Marxists for example typically see no fundamental problem in industrialisation, high “living standards”, urbanisation, internationalism, or growth. Indeed they tend to assume that when the waste and inefficiency of the capitalist system has been eliminated, the throttles in the factories can be turned up and then "we can all have a Mercedes". However the limits to growth analysis makes it clear that a satisfactory and sustainable society cannot be an affluent, industrialised, consumer society.

A Sustainable Society: The Inescapable Essentials [11]

There is rapidly growing recognition of the basic form that a sustainable and just society must take. If the limits to growth analysis is valid, then a sustainable society must be characterised by,

  • Much simpler, non-affluent living standards.

  • Small, highly self-sufficient local economies, mostly using local resources to produce to meet local needs with little trade between regions, let alone between nations.

  • Highly participatory and co-operative systems.

  • Alternative technologies which minimise resource and environmental impacts.

  • A totally different economy, one which is not driven by profit or market forces in which there is no growth, and in which much economic activity does not involve money. 

The sustainable alternative path is appropriately referred to as The Simpler Way. Living more simply does not mean deprivation or going without anything necessary for a high quality of life. It means being content with what is sufficient for hygiene, comfort, convenience, etc. Adequate material living standards are easily achieved at negligible cost in non-renewable resources, and on very low cash incomes, if acceptance of simpler lifestyles is combined with intensive use of alternative technologies such as earth building and Permaculture design. Needless to say thriving household economies involving gardens, poultry, preserving, repairs and home-made furniture, entertainment etc., can greatly reduce dependence on supermarkets and the associated resource, energy and ecological costs.

The most important theme in The Simpler Way is not to do with the household economy or individual lifestyle choices. It is the development of small scale, highly self-sufficient local economies, enabling most of the everyday things we need to be produced within our suburbs or close by. There will not be enough energy or other resources for many goods to be produced far away, packaged and transported to us via floodlit supermarkets. Towns and suburbs must therefore contain many small firms and farms producing for local use. Only in small localised economies can nutrients be recycled to soils, capital and resource-intensive methods of production be avoided and the vital non-cash sectors of the real economy be fully developed. These include giving, mutual aid, sharing of surpluses, community working bees, and community commons. In small relatively self-sufficient economies, employment can be guaranteed to all, and most of the huge costs of social breakdown can be avoided. Many presently resource-expensive services, such as care of disabled and aged people, can be performed spontaneously with few professional inputs or specially built facilities, if communities are cohesive and self-sufficient.

Local and decentralised production means there would be far less transport of products and inputs, and far less travelling to work, enabling most people to get to work by bicycle or on foot. Consequently there would be far less need for cars and many roads could be dug up, increasing gardening areas within cities. Market gardens and “edible landscapes” of free food trees could be established throughout suburbs. There will be much home, craft and hobby production and much less factory production. Small local markets will enable people to earn small incomes from garden and craft production. There will be commons; i.e., neighbourhood woodlots, ponds, orchards, clay sources and facilities for all to use. Neighbourhood workshops will enable sharing of tools, recycling, repairing, and giving away of surpluses. Voluntary committees, working bees and rosters will carry out many tasks presently performed by expensive experts and councils. Leisure-rich neighbourhoods reduce the need to travel, spend money or consume resources. All food nutrients will be recycled back to local soils. Town banks will make our savings available for investment in ventures which will enrich our locality. Most tax revenue will be collected and allocated locally. Taxes will be partly payable in non-cash forms, e.g., contributing to working bees.

Towns, suburbs and regions must develop ways whereby the people collectively take responsibility for the welfare of all. For example the town Community Development Cooperative must monitor the local economy to determine which imports a can be replaced by local production, how small firms can be assisted, the best way to organise local markets, how well the aged people of the region are being provided for, whether there are there enough activities for young people, etc.

In other words there must be participatory self-government whereby all citizens can be actively involved from time to time in the discussions, the committees, the working bees, town meetings and referenda that will determine what is done locally. Some functions might remain for state and national governments but many of the things they now do will be performed far more satisfactorily through the voluntary contributions of local people.

There might still be a considerable role for small private businesses and for market forces, but if so there would have to be firm social control over these and over the whole economy. Obviously what is produced and developed must be determined by what is best for people and the environment, not by what is most profitable to corporations. The most suitable mechanisms for doing these things are yet to be worked out and might be quite problematic, but they must mostly be at the level of small, local, participatory systems, not big, centralised bureaucratic states.

Because we would have much simpler material lifestyles and because many things now produced would not be necessary (such as many of the trucks bringing food to the cities) the total volume of producing and work required could be slashed.  Most of us might on average need to work for money only one or two days a week, leaving much time for working at home in gardens and craft centres, for community activity and personal development. Technologies would in general be simple, but some sophisticated and mass production technologies could still be used where they make sense. Much of the frenetic activity that now goes into legal, communications, financial, transport, insurance, information technology, media, advertising and many other industries would not be needed and vast amounts of work and resource use would be eliminated. (Some advocates of The Simpler Way insist that we now work at least twice as hard as is necessary.[12])

The Simpler Way need not involve any reduction in those industrial or high tech systems that are socially beneficial. In fact resources available for research, medical and dental care, higher education etc would be greater than they are now, given the massive reductions that will occur in the present production of non-necessities.

Obviously The Simpler Way cannot come into existence without vast change in world views and values. It is not possible if the present obsessions with competition, individualism and greed remain. However these values would probably lose their attraction if sources of activity and satisfaction other than those provided in consumer society become available.

It should be made clear that there is a variety of forms of The Simpler Way in addition to the rural intentional commune, is most common form. By far the most important areas for development of alternative economies are city suburbs and country towns. Existing neighbourhoods could retain the present pattern of private housing etc., while developing the intensive local self-sufficiency indicated.

The detail suggested above is open to debate. Obviously in many domains the best alternative procedures can’t be foreseen and will have to be worked out through experience. Especially uncertain at this stage are ways of organising those economic functions that involve regions larger than suburbs (for example, what might be the best way to organise refrigerator production to meet regional needs), what is the appropriate role (if any) for private firms, the profit motive and  market forces, do we need a state and if so what should be its (residual) functions and what is the best way to organise participatory-democratic control over it.

However there can be no uncertainty regarding the core principles of this general alternative vision. These are not options that we can take or leave. Given the limits to growth analysis of our situation we have no choice but to build settlements of this general kind, in rich and poor countries, if we are to achieve a sustainable world order. If the limits to growth analysis is valid we have no choice but to dramatically reduce resource use and environmental impact, and this means we must shift to The Simpler Way. 

The Global Eco-Village Movement

Over the last two decades there has emerged a Global Eco-Village Movement in which many small groups have begun to build settlements more or less according to the principles outlined above. The movement can be seen as having developed from the intentional communities and alternative lifestyle movements of the 1960s, but has now broadened to include a variety of elements such as ethical finance, community supported agriculture, rural economic renewal, town banks, land trusts, LETS and permaculture. There is an international agency, the Gaia Trust, which has recently published A Directory of Eco-Villages in Europe, describing 57 settlements.[13]

In the Third World there is also now emerging a considerable alternative or appropriate development movement, whereby literally thousands of villages have in effect rejected conventional development ideology, in response to its patent failure to solve their problems. They have begun to take collective control over their own fate, devoting their local resources to creating relatively simple solutions to their own problems, independent of national and international economies. Brown indicates the magnitude of these initiatives, presenting a table referring to literally thousands of village level development organisations in South Asia.[14]  

However, in view of its great potential importance, at present the Eco-village Movement falls well short of satisfactory performance. It  includes a wide diversity of initiatives, many of which are not consciously intending to pioneer a new world order. Many eco-villages simply involve people in trying to build better circumstances for themselves, often within the rich world in quite self-indulgent ways. It is a remarkably theory-less and a-political movement. Unfortunately many Eco-villages seem to be far from satisfactory in their degree of adherence to some of the core principles listed above. Those within the Movement for whom contributing to a new society is a high priority need to become more clear and assertive about its mission, and more theoretically and politically sophisticated. (These criticisms are elaborated in Trainer, 1998, and Chapter 4 of What Is To Be Done Now?)

It should be stressed that I am not endorsing the Global Ecovillage Movement as a whole. My argument is that within it there is to be found a strand which is of immense potential significance for the transition to a sustainable post-capitalist society and that it is important for radical theoreticians and activists to think carefully about how best to help that strand to sharpen its focus and to flourish.[15]

Thus the fact that the movement contains irrational and reactionary strands (including in my experience considerable sloppiness, self-indulgence, irresponsibility and acceptance of affluence) is not crucial; what matters is that it also contains a groups that are working for the right way.

How do we get there?

The basic argument in my What Is To Be Done - Now? is that our top priority should be to contribute to the building of impressive examples of alternative communities. Before elaborating, it is necessary to discuss some general themes to do with strategy and to argue that some common and strongly held ideas are mistaken.

There is little need here to argue against strategies which attempt to work within the existing political system of parties and parliaments.

The Marxist Strategy

Marxist analysis is of indispensable value for our understanding of the global predicament. The main problems are essentially explicable in terms of the situation to which capitalist dynamics have brought us. The ceaseless drive to accumulate has inevitably led to extreme polarisation, deprivation, environmental destruction, social breakdown and globalisation.  However, when it comes to guidance regarding the nature of the alternative and  sustainable society required, and how to get to it, I want to argue that Marxist theory is seriously misleading.

Firstly as has been explained, the good society cannot be affluent, highly industrialised, or centralised. Thus the limits to growth analysis shows that we must do far more than merely get rid of capitalism. A socialist world order which remained committed to affluence and growth would inevitably generate much the same range of resource and ecological problems as we have now because it is not possible for a society of any kind to maintain anything like the present rate of resource use.  If a few in a socialist rich world tried to do so, they would have to go on depriving the Third world of a fair share of world resources and generating intolerable ecological impacts.

Marxists insist on the centrality of the mode of production in the analysis of society. However the limits to growth indicate that there is now a much more important consideration, viz., the mode of consumption. Yes overconsumption is crucial for and promoted by the capitalist system. Nevertheless our society’s biggest problems come not from the mode of production capitalism involves but from its commitment to ways of life and systems, especially affluent lifestyles and a growth economy, which involve high and ever increasing rates of consumption. To repeat, if we changed to a socialist mode of production without changing our consumption patterns little difference could be made to major global problems such as Third World deprivation and ecological destruction. In Marx’s terms, The Simpler Way represents transition not to a more advanced mode of production, but to a more advanced mode of consumption. (This is not to deny the need for fundamental change in the mode of production.)

To the Marxist capitalism can only be overcome through a violent revolutionary process in which the working class, led by a strong party, seizes state power and then over time develops the consciousness whereby a co-operative society becomes possible and a coercive state apparatus is no longer needed.  I want to argue that in view of the foregoing discussion of limits to growth and the form a sustainable society must take, the core elements in this standard Marxist view are quite mistaken.

There is a world of difference between the Marxist vision of a post-capitalist society that is still centralised and industrialised and in which people do specialised work and officials manage, and on the other hand the alternative or Simpler Way in which there is radical decentralisation of production and control into very small self-governing regions, which will require a great deal of conscientious participation and goodwill on the part of most if not all citizens. Such communities cannot function satisfactorily unless almost all people work enthusiastically at keeping their local ecological, agricultural, industrial, commercial, social and cultural systems in good shape. These systems will not be run by external or centralised governments. They will only function if local people take responsibility, research, plan, organise, manage, evaluate and govern well. These functions will require of the average citizen far more skills, social responsibility and public spirit than most of us have today in consumer society.

Now the required habits, values and skills can only be built through the long experience of living in self sufficient, self governing communities. States, external authorities, experts and dictators cannot develop the necessary skills and dispositions in people. Power and force are irrelevant to the task. The skills and habits must be learned from living in societies which are responsible for their own government and maintenance.

Thus the transition process implicit in the Eco-village movement has no place for power, authoritarian relations, centralisation or for seizing state power. These are not means that could help us. We cannot expect to develop the sorts of communities that are required, with their great dependence on autonomous, skilled, conscientious, responsible and active citizens, via means that involve top down control or authoritarian relations of any kind.

To Marxists it is essential to eventually seize and use state power. But state power cannot make ecovillages work!  It does not matter how much control lies in the hands of the state or its secret police. Ecovillages will only function effectively if most ordinary people want them to.

In addition the Marxist order of events must be reversed. The Marxist expects to see change in structures first, via a revolutionary takeover of power, followed by a period of dictatorship of the proletariat in which ideas and values are reformed. However, the Eco-village Movement assumes that there must be widespread change in ideas and values before general change in structures, institutions and systems can occur.

The foregoing discussion also make clear that in the Eco-village movement strategy means must be consistent with ends.  In Marxist theory it can make sense to adopt centralised, repressive, authoritarian and violent means in order to eventually arrive at a society which is peaceful and equalitarian. However because the goal of the Eco-village movement, a non-authoritarian, cooperative and communal society, is to be achieved by means which involve developing and experiencing such a society now, it is not possible for means to be inconsistent with ends. We can only learn the cooperative and non-authoritarian dispositions needed for The Simpler Way through a process that involves cooperation and non-authoritarian relations.

The Eco-village Movement’s (implicit) strategy

The Eco-Village Movement is not based on a clear transition philosophy that is consciously and deliberately held by all or even most of its participants. It is made up mostly of people who are building and living in settlements and increasing the number which more or less follow The Simpler Way. Thus it is appropriate to talk about the Movement’s implicit strategy for radical change.

The implicit Ecovillage Movement strategy is simply to start building the new post-capitalist society here and now, and gradually increasing the numbers who come across from consumer society to live in the new settlements, (and increasing the number who practise various elements of The Simpler Way but in isolation, e.g., the numbers in LETSystems or practising Permaculture.)

This is essentially an anarchist strategy. It involves firstly a grass roots approach whereby ordinary people will be the builders of the new ways, not authorities, officials, experts or the state. Secondly it centrally involves the anarchist principle of “prefiguring”, i.e., building the new within the old. It also involves the crucial assumptions that it is not necessary or desirable, at least at this point in time, to confront the old system and get rid of it before we can start building the new.

These assumptions are challengeable and problematic but nevertheless my argument is that the implicit Eco-Village Movement strategy is by far the best one available to us at this point in time. (At some future point in time it might become necessary change strategy markedly; see below.) Following is an attempt to counter some of the most obvious criticisms.

Perhaps the most important point in support of the strategy is the fact that in view of the limits to growth analysis and its implications for the sustainable path the Ecovillage Movement seems to represent the only current movement that has the right vision and goals and which is growing and is likely to go on doing so. In general few if any of these things can be said of any other movement, especially including Left movements.

A second line of argument derives from the extremely depressing history of achievement of Left causes in general. It could be argued that since the 1970s direct struggle against capitalism has brought little more than catastrophic rout on all fronts, even taking into account the (temporary) blocking of the MAI and the WTO Seattle conference. Capitalism has never been so triumphant, and its drive for ever greater scope and power via the globalisation agenda is far from having reached is zenith. It is therefore distressing to contemplate the continuing devotion of minuscule critical energies to the manifestly futile quest to defeat capitalism. Admittedly there are some defensive battles that must be fought and one would not want to see all resistance cease, but in my view it now makes much more sense to hold the establishment of the new way as one's top priority rather than the struggle against the old.[16]

It should also be recognised that sometimes radical change seems to occur without any overt conflict. Sometimes it is more like the fading out of a once-dominant thesis, to be replaced by a newly popular one. This is in fact the norm at the level of paradigm change in science[17], and in many cultural realms such as art, pop music and fashion. A particular view or theory or form is dominant for a time, but then people more or less lose interest in it, cease attending to it and supporting it, and move to another one.

Some of the most revolutionary changes of the twentieth century seem to have occurred predominantly in this way, such as the collapses of the Soviet Union and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. All seem to have been characterised mostly by people “voting with their feet”, after a long period of growing disenchantment and increasing awareness of the desirability of other ways. These revolutionary changes seem to be much better described as instances of collapse or abandonment due to increasing internal failure to perform, and loss of legitimacy and support, rather than as defeats in head-on combat with superior opposing powers. In the end the vast military, bureaucratic and economic power of the ruling establishments counted for nothing in the face of a withdrawal of support. They did not have to be engaged in direct and open battle and conquered.

It is not obvious that the passing of capitalism and the emergence of The Simpler Way cannot possibly proceed in this way. Certainly if the Ecovillage Movement were to become a significant threat capitalism would seek to oppose it strenuously, but the question is whether it will be able to do this effectively. At present the Eco-village Movement is minuscule but it is rapidly growing. There are also impressive reasons for thinking that despite capitalism’s present triumph, in perhaps as little as twenty years time it will have plunged into an era of great troubles and be incapable of dealing with us effectively. (See below.) But before that it is quite likely that capitalism will enjoy another period of boom.

We are probably going into the A phase of a new Kondratiev cycle. The globalisation currently taking place represents by far the most  thorough restructuring the capitalist system has ever undergone, involving enormous destruction and elimination of “inefficient” firms, and  freeing of many markets and resources for greater access by corporations and  banks. The opportunities for profitable business are being rapidly increased. Above all the last two decades have seen an enormous strengthening of the power of the World Trade Order and the World Bank to make the rearrangements that will facilitate more business turnover. It is likely that all this activity will result in a surge of economic growth, trade, investment and world GDP.  (Wallerstein is one who expects this to happen.[18])  Of course such a boom will probably intensify the suffering of most people on the planet, but this is of no consequence for the “health” of the global economy.

However there are reasons for thinking that it is likely to be an historically very short period in the sun followed by a fairly sudden shift to a long era of chaotic and terminal breakdown. The main cause of the time of troubles is likely to be the chronic and insoluble oil crisis that will probably set in not long after the peaking in world supply in the period 2005-2010.[19] Also contributing will be increasing costs of production due to accelerating ecological problems especially affecting food supply, water shortages and associated conflicts, deterioration within the Third World which will raise the costs of resource extraction, and greater general global insecurity and conflict which will impose increased military and other costs of maintaining “order” and access. Meanwhile the inequality and poverty caused by globalisation will be removing more people from the ranks of potential consumers. We must add the effect of ever-accumulating debt worldwide, recently increasing at three times the rate of increase of GDP.[20]

If there is a boom we in the Eco-village Movement should welcome it, through gritted teeth, because it will give us the time we desperately need. The last thing we want is a collapse of the system in the immediate future. We are far from ready. Hardly any of the hundreds of millions of people who live in rich world cities have any idea of an alternative to the consumer way and their settlements have no provision for anything but maximising the throughput of resources. By all means let’s have a collapse a little later, but the prospects for The Simpler Way depend greatly on how extensively the concept can be established before the mainstream runs into serious trouble. We need at least two more decades to build the understanding, and the most effective way to do that is by developing examples.

I should make it clear that my argument is about what we should focus on doing here and now. It is not being argued that confrontation with capitalism can or should always be avoided, nor that the new ways could be increasingly adopted to the point where they have smoothly and peacefully replaced the old. Nor is it being assumed that a transition from capitalist society can take place without at some point becoming a matter of mass political involvement and intense conflict in which power is taken from those who now have it. In the distant future we may well find ourselves in a situation in which fighting against the system becomes the most appropriate thing to do. My basic argument is that building eco-villages, rather than fighting against capitalism, is the most sensible thing to do here and now in order to maximise our long term contribution to the transition from consumer society to a sustainable society.

That is, trying to  build the new social forms seems to me to be by far the most effective first step open to us at this point in time, towards the day when we have built the mass political movement that will replace the present order, with or without conflict. If we are lucky people will in time adopt the new ways in such large numbers that the old system will be more or less abandoned. If we are not so lucky and great conflict occurs, so be it.

“But if you become a threat they will crush you”

The obvious retort from the Marxist perspective to the Eco-Village Movement’s implicit strategy is that if it were to become more than an insignificant minority movement, if it were to begin to look as if it might attract sufficient numbers to become a threat to capitalism, the monster would turn on it and crush it out of existence.

Let us assume that the Eco-Village Movement does not become a significance force, and that capitalism does not become a helpless giant due to the onset of oil and other crises.  In my view this would make no difference to the choice we should make today. Our top priority should still be to work to build impressive examples of Eco-Villages. Why? The answer is, in order to establish The Simpler Way more firmly in the historical record and in the cultural memory. The more successful we are in getting thriving examples going, the more firmly will the desirability of The Simpler Way be established in human consciousness. If in the far distant future, humans get another chance to build a sustainable society, the chances of taking the sane and sustainable path will be better if they have access to memories and records from a practice that once demonstrated the sensible way.

So what should we do right now?

The most important area for the development of Eco-villages is not the intentional rural "commune", where most action is currently taking place.  We must focus most attention on the dying country towns and especially the suburbs and neighbourhoods of the cities.  The latter are where most people live and the biggest problem we face is how to transfer these existing settlements into highly self-sufficient urban eco-villages.  I discussed a possible approach in Chapter 19 of The Conserver Society, and in more detail in Chapter 6 of What Is To Done - Now?  Following is only a brief indication of the main theme.

The recommended process begins with the establishment of a community cooperative "general firm" which will enable local people, especially those on low incomes, to begin cooperatively producing for themselves some of the things they need. This Community Development Cooperative would focus first on the development of the garden and workshop and then begin to explore other possible productive enterprises that might be set up, such as bread baking and furniture recycling.  It will be necessary to introduce a new local currency (e.g., LETS) to enable economic interaction between people who have no normal money. Especially important is working out how to enable trade between this new economic sector and the old firms of the town or suburb.  In time the Community Development Collective must also work on ways of cutting town imports, organising working bees, town banks, and local voluntary tax and insurance systems. The long term goal is for the Community Development Cooperative to become the arena in which participatory town self-government emerges. 

Above all the Community Development Cooperative has the educational task of building awareness of the need for the town or suburb to do these things in order a) to save itself from the fate globalisation will otherwise deliver, and b) to help pioneer global transition to a sustainable and satisfactory society. 

Thus this strategic vision is for a very humble grass-roots beginning centred on a community garden and workshop as the first step in a long process towards an increasingly self-sufficient neighbourhood economy largely under the control of the local community. Governments will not and cannot do these things. They can only be initiated by small groups of enlightened local people prepared to persevere with little or no official assistance.


This has been an argument about the best action strategy open to us, and an attempt to recruit to it.  I am not claiming that its prospects are very good.  In fact my outlook is quite pessimistic. From decades of experience within educational and activist campaigns I do not think it is likely that a society thoroughly stupefied by two generations of the passive consumer way is going to be able to make the necessary response. Toynbee analysed the rise and fall of civilisations in terms of their capacity to respond to challenges. One must judge our prospects to be poor given our failure to respond to the most glaring threats, such as the greenhouse problem, let alone the more subtle but possibly more dangerous dissolution of social cohesion. Yet, regardless of the chances of success, I see no acceptable moral position but to work hard for what seems to be the best option available.

There is a fairly narrow window of opportunity here. The coming petroleum crisis could mean that we have less than 20 years of relative calm in which to get the job done. After that it is probable that the compounding difficulties will generate too much chaos and confusion for the Simpler Way to be taken up.

Connections with Takis Fotopoulos’ thoughts on Strategy

In Towards an Inclusive Democracy Takis Fotopoulos[21] has offered a detailed and convincing critical analysis of the global situation, which  I think aligns on all major points with the above argument. His discussion of a desirable alternative society is also at least very similar to that put forward above. His focus is on the need for democracy, which is not in dispute, but his discussion of solutions does not give overconsumption and the need for simpler ways the emphasis I have argued that they deserve. He argues for a society that is completely stateless, moneyless and marketless.[22] In my view these are among the matters of detail which cannot be decided at this point in time and  will have to be worked out in the light of experience.[23] My uncertain expectation is that we will opt to give them all a minor role, in forms which put them firmly under the control of participatory local institutions, and new values.

The later parts of Towards an Inclusive Democracy take up the question of strategy, and this is where there is room for profitable debate.  It seems to me that Takis actually gives us very little to go on regarding strategy, and that what he does say is not very plausible.  He says his “...strategy of confederated municipalism ...  aims to transform and democratise city governments, to root them in popular assemblies … To appropriate a regional economy along confederal and municipal lines.  In other words the goal is to develop a public sphere that grows in tension and ultimately in a decisive conflict with the state.”[24] Remarkably this statement is almost all we are told about strategy. The full discussion occupies only about 5 pages in a 400 page book. Other space that might seem to detail strategy is really about goals. Even the foregoing statement is hardly about strategy. It is more to do with a situation to be achieved in the far distant future.  It gives us no clue about what to do now and for at least the next 15 years or more, in order to then be in the position Takis’ statement describes. The crucial strategic question for us is what should we start doing right now in an effort to have eventually built the confederated assemblies that will then, if necessary, be able to confront the capitalist State and prevail.  Takis gives us almost no assistance on this problem.

The implicit assumption in Takis’ discussion of strategy is that large numbers of people will want to form popular assemblies and work within them for the many years that would have to pass before they became strong enough to challenge the state. However when we look at the current political landscape it is most implausible that people would want to do that.  Why would people who presently despise politics and have little or no interest in anything  other than passive consumption opt to go to meetings year after year in increasing numbers? People do not, as he seems to assume[25] hunger for real democracy. Why would anyone vote for us? Because we are proposing confederated assemblies implementing The Simpler Way? Obviously hardly anyone would vote for that now, so the important question is what do we have to do now to start moving towards the stage where large numbers would vote for it.  Again Takis does not begin to answer the question we must answer before we can start to move.  He says “….. the only realistic approach in creating a new society….. is a political strategy that comprises the gradual involvement of increasing numbers of people in a new kind of politics, that parallel shifting of economic resources….away from the market economy”.[26]  Again this is a statement about a (sub)goal and it gives us no idea how we might start moving towards its achievement.

The closest Takis comes to suggestions regarding practical actions is in recommending that we contest local elections to  win power “in order to dismantle it immediately”.[27] “Contesting local elections gives the chance to start changing society from below….”  But again the questions who would vote for us, and what would we have to do for many years in order to get them to vote us in, are not answered.

By contrast, Chapter 6 of What Is To Be Done Now? proposes beginning those  local economic renewal activities which could enable people, especially disadvantaged people to start meeting some of their own  urgent needs. This would provide an incentive for involvement and experience of participation and co-operation, while actually constructing the first elements in the new local economies.  In other words this proposal at least offers people meaningful  things to do here and now, things which have some chance (but obviously no guarantee) of attracting and retaining participation and accelerating the existing Eco-village movement.

Surprisingly Takis is strongly opposed to the idea of attempting to set examples.[28] In another source he is even more emphatic. “Setting an example of a sound and preferable lifestyles at the individual and social level (is)...utterly ineffective in bringing about a systemic social change. (This)...does not have any chance of building the democratic majority needed or for systematic social change...systematic social change can never be achieved outside the main political and social arena.  The elimination of the present power structures and relations can neither be achieved ‘by setting an example’ nor through education and persuasion.  A power base is needed to destroy power.”[29] Chomsky is then criticised on these grounds. Similarly Takis ridicules the idea that we could “bypass” the system by building alternatives.[30]  He anticipates open confrontation of some kind, regarding it as inevitable in the transition.  “...the goal is to develop a public sphere...that grows in tension and ultimately in a decisive conflict with the state.”[31] Clearly the Eco-village strategy does not set out to confront and it does focus on building an alternative to the system and attracting people to The Simpler Way. 

I think that the apparent differences here derive from a simple confusion to do with the timing or sequence of steps envisaged in the overall change process.  It may well be that fundamental change cannot be achieved without confrontation and power struggles at the centre of the main political arena some day.  But we are far from that day and the question for us is what should we do here and now in order to either a) replace capitalism without a struggle because we have become too strong by the time it finds itself in terminal difficulties, or b) build sufficient numbers with the required alternative world view to have some chance of defeating capitalism via head-on conflict if and when it comes to that.  I am arguing that by far the best thing to do now in order to start moving towards the day when we can achieve either a. or b. is to build examples of The Simpler Way. If someday we do find ourselves in mortal conflict with capitalism then so be it, but the strategic situation will then be quite different to what it is now.

The second part of another quote from Takis seems to indicate that he would agree with this point about sequence. “...the various activities to set up communes, cooperatives, alternative media institutions etc. are just irrelevant to a process of systematic change -- unless they are an explicitly integral part of such a comprehensive political programme.”[32]  (A footnote says Bookchin also holds this position.)  I see the development of eco-villages as the most promising immediate step available in “a comprehensive political programme” which must involve more than developing examples and which is very likely at some later stage to involve vast transformation in power structures, and may well involve vicious conflict.

Thus by focusing on the issue of sequence I think we can clarify the problem Takis and others see with any strategy which suggests that we should seek to set examples or advocate lifestyle changes, or to avoid confrontation with the capitalist system.  As has been stated above, my main point is that this are the things it makes sense to do now, given that neither mainstream officialdom nor citizenry will at present take any notice of our arguments and analyses, although this does not mean that confrontation will not or should not ever become our focal purpose, and it does not mean that setting examples will be sufficient.  The task is to build the examples as a first step in a process that aims to become a mass movement that is capable of political action on centre stage if and when it comes to that.  (Of course much work also has to be done to help the Eco-village Movement develop a more determined and radical political consciousness.)

Similar confusion to do with sequence seems to be generated by Takis’ statement that change has never been achieved outside the mainstream.[33] My point is perhaps so, but it often begins outside the mainstream.

I should state again that I am far from confident that the Eco-village Movement strategy will succeed. My argument has simply been that in our very difficult circumstances it is the best option open and my concern has been to persuade people to join it, especially people on the Left. The Movement urgently needs to benefit from an infusion of Left critical thinking. Among the important benefits for those who join the Movement is the possibility of working within a positive and constructive climate, as distinct from being fully preoccupied with opposition, struggle and the destruction of capitalism. At least people within the Global Eco-village movement can enjoy some experience of community, worthwhile work, a more relaxed pace, and a more ecologically acceptable way of life. Orthodox Marxists cannot expect to do this for many decades, if at all within their own lifetimes.

Hence we can see the huge opportunity and responsibility before the Global Ecovillage Movement. The stakes are enormous. If The Simpler Way is not taken the prospects for a new dark age are high.  In my view, whether or not the sane and sustainable alternative has become sufficiently visible and convincing by the time the turning point is reached will depend primarily on the Global Eco-village Movement.


[1] United Nations Developmnent Program, (1996), The Human Development Report, New York.

[2] Goldsmith, E., (1997), “Development  as colonialism”,  in J. Mander and E. Goldsmith, The Case Against the Global Economy, San Francisco, Sierra.

[3] Rist, G., (1997), The History of Development, London, Zed Books, p. 243.

[4] Schwarz, W., and Schwarz, D., (1998), Living Lightly, London, Jon Carpenter, p. 3.

[5] Chussudowsky, M., (1997), The Globalisation of Poverty, London, Zed Books.

[6] On development as plunder see also T. (F. E.) Trainer, (1989), Developed to Death, London, Greenprint, and Trainer, T. (F. E.), (1995a), The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability, London, Zed Books.

[7] The following discussion is similar to that presented in various    other sources, including Trainer, F. E. (T.), (In press, a), What Is To Be Done -- Now?, and Trainer, F. E.(T.), (In press, b), “The global predicament”, Natur and Kultur.

[8] F. E. (T.) Trainer, 1985, Abandon Affluence, London, Zed Books, 1995a, The conserver Society, Trainer, F. E. (T.), (1998a), Saving the Environment; What It Will Take, Sydney, University of NSW Press.

[9] Trainer, F. E., (T.), (1995c), “Can renewable energy sources sustain affluent society?, Energy Policy, 23, 12, 1009-1026.

[10] Wachernagel, N. and W. Rees, (1996), Our Ecological Footprint, Philadelphia, New Society.

[11] The following outline is similar to that given in Trainer, in press, a. and b.)

[12] Trainer, The Conserver Society

[13] Grindheim, B., and D. Kennedy, (1999), Directory of Ecovillages in Europe, Ginsterweig, Germany, Global Ecovillage Network. See also Schwarz and Schwarz, Living Lightly, London, Jon Carpenter, 1998, R. Douthwaite, Short Circuit,  a, 1996, the U.S. Communities Directory, A Guide to Cooperative Living, Langley, Fellowship for Intentional Communities, 1995.

[14] Brown, L., (1989), The State of the World, 1989, Washington, Worldwatch Institute. 

[15] See therefore Trainer, F. E. (T.), (1998b), “Towards a checklist for eco-village development”, Local Environment, 3, 1, 79-84.

[16] This position derives from two basic sources, firstly many years spent attempting to raise awareness via a variety of educational means, which I regard as having achieved very little, and my personal experience of living within The Simpler Way and contributing to the Global Ecovillage movement. (See Trainer, 1995a.)

[17] T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.1970.

[18] Wallerstein, E., (1995), After Liberalism, New York, New Press.

[19] Campbell, C. J., (1994), “The immanent end of cheap oil-based energy”, Sun World, 1814, 17-18.  Campbell, C. J.,  (1995), The World’s Endowment of Conventional Oil and Its Depletion, Geneva, Petroconsultants.  Campbell, J., (1997), The Coming Oil Crisis, Brentwood, England, Multiscience and Petroconsultants.

[20] Clairmont, F. E., (1996), The Rise and Fall of Economic Liberalism, Penang,  Southbound, p. 29.

[21] Fotopolous, T., (1997), Towards an Inclusive Democracy, London, Cassell.

[22] Fotopoulos, p. 282.

[23] Takis does not agree on this.

[24] Fotopoulos, Towards an Inclusive Democracy, p. 278.

[25] Ibid, p. 204.

[26] Ibid, p. 282.

[27] Ibid, p. 283.

[28] Ibid, p. 278.

[29] Fotopoulos, T., (1999), “Mass media, culture and democracy,“ Democracy and Nature, 5, 1, pp. 33-64, p. 59.

[30] Fotopoulos, Towards an Inclusive Democracy, p. 280.

[31] Ibid, p. 278, 280.

[32] Fotopoulos, 1999, p. 63.

[33] Ibid, p. 238.