Ecoanarchism must be the alternative to capitalism

Climate justice march in Sydney in February. Photo: Peter Boyle

For a long time Hans Baer has been a great warrior for socialism. I don’t think there is any element in his statement on ecosocialism that I would disagree with.

But I want to add considerations which determine the kind of social form that must be our goal now. Socialists are likely to be uneasy with this. It means that the goal must be Ecoanarchism, not Ecosocialism. And the difference is not trivial.

In previous eras, the revolutionary goal was to take control from the capitalist class, free the means of production from the contradictions of capitalism, and release productive capacity to raise the living standards of the people.

That vision did not question the pursuit of high material living standards, industrialisation, high-tech solutions, centralisation, globalisation and an ever-rising gross domestic product (GDP).

It took for granted that the state would be the basic determinant in society.

But this perspective on our situation is now seriously mistaken. There is a vast array of scientific literature documenting the fact that levels of production, consumption, resource use, environmental impact and GDP are far beyond those that could ever be sustainable or spread to all people. What is crucial here, and not at all well understood, is the magnitude of the overshoot.

Economic overshoot

The World Wildlife Fund’s “Footprint” index indicates that it takes about 8 hectares of productive land to provide water, energy, settlement area and food for one person living in Australia. So, if 9 billion people were to live, as we do in Sydney now, we would need about 72 billion hectares of productive land.  That is about 9 times all the available productive land on the planet.

These statistics only describe the present grossly unsustainable rich world levels of production and consumption. Yet the supreme goal of capitalism is economic growth. Few recognise the utterly impossible implications.

If the expected 9 billion people were to rise to the “living standards” Australians would have in 2050, assuming 3% per annum economic growth, the total global amount of producing and consuming going on would then be about twenty times as great as it is now.

When the magnitude of the overshoot is understood, we must face up to having to reduce per capita consumption enormously, probably to less than 10% of present levels in Australia.

Degrowth

Most good green and red people do not realise this, but a global degrowth movement is now underway.

The common response to this kind of analysis is that technical advance will solve the resource and environmental problems, allowing continued GDP to be “decoupled” from resource and environmental impact. But there is now a huge body of literature showing that this is not happening, and is not likely to be achieved. If GDP rises impacts rise.

What does this mean for revolutionary thinking? First, it means that the good post-capitalist society cannot be an affluent society, cannot have a growth economy and must have undergone degrowth to far lower levels of resource use. It cannot be heavily centralised, globalised, urbanised, energy and capital intensive, trade and transport dependent.

I want to sketch a brief indication of the kind of social form we need to develop.

The basic unit has to be the small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing local community, meeting most of its needs via its own labour, land and other local resources, with little dependence on imports from the national economy.

Cities must be small and relatively few. Economies must be needs-driven and without growth and not profit-driven. Market forces might have a minor role but must not be able to determine what happens; control must be mostly in the hands of local communities via committees, working bees and town assemblies.

Commons

Most firms and farms would be small, family-operated or cooperative. There must be a high level of cooperation and collectivism, evident in maintenance and operation of commons via working bees and committees. The commons would provide many free goods especially via “edible landscapes”. Voluntary committees would oversee agriculture, care of aged, care of youth, cultural activities, especially the provision of abundant entertainment and leisure opportunities.

There would be large cashless, free goods and gifting sectors. The localisation would eliminate most transport, including for importation of goods and travel to work, enabling conversion of most suburban roads to commons.

Most people might need to work for a monetary income only one or two days a week, at a relaxed pace, thus enabling much involvement in arts and crafts and community activities. There would be little dependence on corporations, professionals, IT, bureaucrats and high-tech ways. There would be no unemployment; communities would organise to use all productive labour and to ensure that everyone has a livelihood.

Above all, there would have to be willing acceptance of very simple material lifestyles and systems. This means there would have to be transition to very different values to those prevalent today. Perhaps the greatest failure of left transition theory (including on the part of Karl Marx) has been not realising that revolution to a good society cannot succeed unless there is a profound cultural change away from the present individualistic, competitive and acquisitive obsessions.

Too difficult? Too much to expect? Then you will not achieve a sustainable and just world.

Satisfactory society

To repeat, the limits to growth and the associated unsustainability overshoot leave us no choice: a satisfactory society all could share must involve extremely low per capita resource consumption and this cannot be achieved unless the foregoing very frugal kinds of social arrangements, lifestyles, systems and values are adopted.

Only in these small-scale, highly self-sufficient and integrated settlements can the resource consumption rates be brought down to sustainable levels.

For example, our study of egg supply found that a local poultry co-op could cut dollar and energy costs to around 2% of the normal supermarket supply path costs. Free ranging in orchards along with kitchen and garden “wastes” can eliminate the need for feed imports. Manures go to gardens and methane digesters eliminate the need for fertilizer imports. There would be no transport, marketing or packaging costs.

Another of our studies, Remaking Settlements, found that dollar and energy costs of food supply in an outer Sydney suburb could be cut by 90%. Reductions of this order in resource use are achieved in the Dancing Rabbit ecovillage in Missouri, while it reports a higher quality of life than the United States’ average.

This Simpler Way does not mean that there need be any reduction in socially useful high tech, universities, training of professionals and hospitals. It assumes maintaining (a small number of) steel and cement works.

Although this vision involves quite low per capita consumption rates, it does not imply hardship or deprivation. It is about liberation from the consumer rat race, through shifting to lifestyles and systems which enable all to live very cheaply enjoying non-material sources of purpose and satisfaction.

Over the past 30 years a concern to move in this general direction has gathered momentum, most evident in the Permaculture, Voluntary Simplicity, Eco-village, Degrowth and Transition Towns’ movements.

It will accelerate as capitalism increasingly fails to provide for us.

The state

This vision contradicts the typical socialist enthusiasm for central control. The communities cannot work well unless they are largely autonomous, able to govern themselves through thoroughly participatory mechanisms sensitive to local conditions, histories, needs and personalities.

State governments cannot run them. The main role of the remnant state must be to support thriving towns. Conscientious citizens must make and implement the decisions about how their town is to function. Above all there must be strong senses of empowerment, town morale, mutuality, collectivism and pride in the town.

States cannot give or enforce these factors. The state therefore cannot be centre stage in the new post-capitalist society. The goal is best described as a form of anarchism.

[Ted Trainer is a retired lecturer from the University of New South Wales. He has written numerous books and articles on sustainability and is developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site. This piece was written as the first part of a series debating ecosocialist Han Baer.] 

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