In his influential 1985 book Abandon Affluence, radical Australian sociologist Ted Trainer made the argument that the capitalist economies of the rich world, and the wasteful consumer culture they spawned, were unsustainable and the ecological limits of capitalist growth were fast approaching.
Trainer will speak at the November 5-7 Climate Change Social Change conference in Melbourne. Visit ccsc2010.wordpress.com for details. Trainer's new book, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, will be published by Envirobooks late this year.
Green Left Weekly’s Simon Butler asked Trainer how relevant the ideas in his book were now, 25 years after it was published.
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How do the “limits to growth” arguments you put forward in Abandon Affluence stand up today?
Today the case is much stronger on all accounts. We’ve got clear evidence now about the coming of peak oil. In 1985, we had no idea of the peak oil thesis. Now, it’s pretty widely agreed that peak oil is upon us and that we may have gone through the peak.
My main concern about this is that people don’t grasp the significance of the figures that they know. Take the peak oil thing: almost everyone knows of it, but the enormous significance of it doesn’t seem to sink in. What the hell are we going to do if oil gets very scarce? You just cannot run our sort of society [without oil].
So that’s one thing that strengthens the “limits to growth” claim. Another, similar issue is the greenhouse effect. It is only very recently the case that people have grasped that we have an astronomical problem here.
In 1985, I could foresee this possibility [of dangerous climate change], but with nothing like the clarity and confidence we’ve now got.
It seems pretty clear that this is a problem we cannot solve in a capitalist, consumerist society [but] people just don’t seem to grasp that.
Another problem is that there is a feeling that we can run everything on renewables. But there is a very strong case that we can’t.
A final thing [that is new] is the whole footprint analysis. We’ve got this pretty clear analysis that the productive land we use in Australia is about eight hectares per person. If you look at the productive land of the planet, which is about 8 billion hectares, then Australians are using productive land at a rate of about 10 times of what will ever be possible for most of the world’s people.
So, we’re not just a little bit unsustainable. Those figures indicate we’re miles past any sort of level [of consumption that] could be extended to everybody.
A big reason why these things are not so transparent is, of course, because the rich countries are hogging all the resources. We don’t feel the scarcity, but that’s because we are getting far more than our fair share of resources.
Our critique now has to have two main aspects. One is sustainability and the other is global justice. On one count we’ve got a society that is just outrageously unequal and unacceptable.
On the second count, we’ve got a way of life that is plundering the planet to supply the corporations and the supermarket shoppers in rich countries with comfort and goods.
This comes at the direct cost of most of the world’s people who work in the sweatshops and the mines and the plantations. But it astounds me that the average person in rich countries either doesn’t know about this or couldn’t care less.
But what about the climate justice movement worldwide? The biggest ever climate justice protest in Europe occurred in Copenhagen in December. And the big climate conference in Cochabamba in April was a success. These are still early days, but it does seem that, in comparison to what has happened up until now, these are encouraging signs. More people than before are thinking about these issues of climate justice and are taking action. What do you think about that trend in the climate movement?
Yes, it’s terrific. But it’s still too small. I agree it’s growing. And that’s terrifically encouraging. At the moment, there may be increasing numbers of people who do care. But it’s just so small.
Another major thing that worries me [in the social movements] is the people who believe technical fixes are possible.
Take the World Social Forum, which is terrific in its criticisms of neoliberalism and globalisation. But nevertheless it seems to me that it’s assuming you can solve the present problems more or less within the same old framework of a re-regulated economy, an economy that is still anarchic and still profit-motivated.
Even more people assume that we can solve the problems without jeopardising affluence and growth. This includes most people on the left, I’m afraid, who believe that if we just get rid of capitalism and re-regulate and so on we can all live affluently.
It seems to me that that’s the crunch point. That’s the real important issue that the left in particular has to think about. Because, in my view, the most fundamental issue on the global scene is the impossibility of growth and affluence.
I think too many people on the left haven’t come to terms with that. They have a very good understanding of global justice but they think if we get rid of the domination of the capitalist class then we can liberate the capacity of new technologies so we can all live affluently.
But if you go by the available global resources you realise that is not possible and we have to go for a simple way kind of solution.
Could you explain more about your concept of the “simpler way”?
It can be summarised in a few principles.
First, lifestyles cannot be affluent. This doesn’t mean deprivation at all. It means having perfectly adequate food, clothing and shelter — a better lifestyle than most of us around the world have now — but without the wasteful gadgets and jet-away holidays.
We’d have to provide ways of life that provide us with alternative satisfactions.
The second principle is localism — mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t still have big economies, but they’d be much less important. So most of what you’d need would come from the neighbourhood and the region.
The third principle is participation and cooperation. We need a totally new economy. It can’t be driven by profit. It can’t be driven by growth. I believe it could be largely private. By that I mean it could have mostly small enterprises and co-ops and so on.
So I don’t see a problem with the economy including small private enterprise, as long as they weren’t trying to become tycoons and as long as they were driven by an enjoyment in contributing to the wider neighbourhood.
Not trying to get rich, but making a contribution to a community that is enjoyable to live in.
Unless we get rid of acquisitiveness, competition and individualism we won’t achieve anything.
I’m more optimistic about what the simple way could be like. Our hopes depend on whether we can inspire enough people to make a contribution. The simpler way is not only a much more rewarding way, but it’s going to be dead easy if we’ve got enough sense to just get together and dump the old greed and competition — the capitalist way.
To what extent does the idea of moving to a simpler economy incorporate a class struggle — a struggle against the ruling elites that stand in the way of sustainable change?
It’s obviously a class struggle in the sense that this is about getting rid of capitalism. But my own views about the process differ largely from the standard Marxist view. I would be best described as an anarchist in terms of the process of the transition [away from capitalism].
The whole fight is to try to build up the vision at the grassroots level so that people will, when the crunch has come, take up the business of running their own communities in a self-governing and collective way.