Green Left Weekly’s Jonathon Rutherford spoke to Australian environmentalist and author Ted Trainer about capitalism, affluence, the limits to growth and how we can move to a better society.
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Today most environmentalists, including most on the left, think that the main barrier preventing a smooth transition to renewables is political, not technical. Against this powerful belief you have argued that consumer-capitalist society cannot be sustained by renewables alone. Can you briefly explain why?
One has to distinguish between what is technically possible and economically feasible. Of course the technical potential of renewable is enormous, but we have to ask what will this cost, and what other problems might arise?
In my book I set out a numerical case that to supply 2050 world energy demand via renewables would require investment totals that are perhaps 10 to 15 times the present
proportion of gross domestic product that goes into energy.
Relying on renewables alone also creates major problems associated with intermittency and energy redundancy. These problems would not exist if electricity could be stored in very large quantities but I have argued this can’t be done and is not foreseen.
There have been a number of official reports (i.e Stern, IPCC, Greenpeace) attempting to show renewable energy can provide for 2050 energy demand at minimal cost.
But I have found them to be very deficient; their conclusions do not follow from their premises via a logic that can be examined and evaluated. In my view they do not clearly establish that the claimed 2050 pattern of energy supply can be achieved.
None of this is an argument against renewable energy sources; we must move to full dependence on them as soon as possible. But it is an argument that we cannot run an energy-intensive affluent society on them, let alone one that insists on limitless growth.
Many people would say this is too pessimistic. Even if your analysis about renewables is right, the technological problems will eventually be solved, particularly if governments dramatically increase investment in research and development.
This is just a tech-fix faith. Because technology has achieved many wonders it is assumed that it will come up with the required solutions, somehow. The evidence actually suggests that in most fields’ efficiency and technical progress show long term tapering towards ceilings. Computers for example have surprisingly made little difference to productivity of the economy.
The tech-fix optimist should be challenged to show in detail what the grounds are for us accepting that solutions will be found, to each and every one of the big problems we face.
What precisely might solve the renewable problem, biodiversity loss, the water shortage, the scarcity of phosphorus, the collapse of fish stocks, etc., and how likely are these possible breakthroughs?
Does it not make better sense to change from the lifestyles and systems that are causing these problems; at least until we can see that we can solve the resulting problems?
What are some of the other indicators & evidence of the “limits to growth”?
I detail several alarming indictors of the limits in my book The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World. Probably one of the clearest and most coercive is the ecological footprint measure. This tells us that it takes about eight hectares of productive land to provide water, energy settlement area and food for one person living in an Australian world city.
So if 9 billion people were to live as we do in rich world cities we would need about 72 billion hectares of productive land. But that is 10 times all the productive land on the planet. Another way of putting it is, even though only one-fifth of the world’s people are resource-affluent, we are using resources at rate that would take 1.4 planet earths to provide sustainably.
You have written a lot about development. What in your view is the main problem with mainstream development?
The global economy is massively unjust. It delivers most of the world’s resources to the few in rich countries, and gears Third World productive capacity to rich world super-markets, not to meeting the needs of the world’s poor billions. Rich countries must move down to living on their fair share of global wealth.
You have often talked about the concept of “appropriate development” can you describe what you mean by that?
Most people, including most on the left, make the mistake of seeing “development” in unidimensional terms; i.e., as moving up the slope to rich world ways. It is crucial to break out of that trap, to see the possibility of “appropriate” development enabling a high quality of life on very low levels of consumption, industrialisation, GDP, trade, foreign investment etc.
I live under the poverty line but my quality of life is high. All could live in such sways with negligible investment of capital.
In your book you argue that we cannot “fix” the problems of consumer-capitalist society, via reforms within the system. Why do you think that?
These faults cannot be fixed within or by a society driven by growth, market forces, production for profit, or affluence. These are the causes of the global sustainability and justice problems. The implications of the limits to growth are radical.
We need to find ways of living that involve far lower levels of production and consumption than rich countries have now; I think under 1/5. But this largely rules out an affluent, globalised, heavily industrialised, or growth economies. Especially challenging for the left is that we cannot have a centralised society; the coming scarcity of resources and energy rules this out.
All this means consumer society cannot be reformed to make it sustainable or just; it must be largely replaced by a society with fundamentally different structures.
Can you briefly outline your vision of the Simpler Way?
The Simpler Way is a vision of a society based on non-affluent lifestyles within mostly small and highly self-sufficient local economies under local participatory control and not driven by market forces or the profit motive, and with no economic growth. There must be an enormous cultural change, away from competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness.
A key aim of the book is to detail the reasons why this Simpler Way vision is workable and attractive, promising a higher quality of life than most people in rich countries have at present.
Many on the left would share your concern for sustainability but would question your focus on “consumerism” and “affluence”. Most working class people have little choice about housing, transport, car usages or buying product that have been produced in harmful ways. Your response?
Yes it’s true that most people are locked into consumer society due to faulty systems and structures that, for example, force people to drive to work. But I do insist that the demand for affluence is a key driver of today’s major global problems.
As such, the main target, the main problem group is not the corporations or the capitalist class. They have their power because people in general grant it to them. The problem group, the key to transition, is people in general.
If they came to see how extremely unacceptable consumer-capitalist society is, and to see that The Simpler Way is the path to liberation then the present system would be quickly abandoned. The battle is therefore one of ideology or awareness. We have to help people to see that radical change is necessary and attractive, so that they enthusiastically set about building new local economies on mostly collective principles.
What then is the most effective transition strategy for those radicals who see the need to replace capitalism with some kind of simpler way?
Chapter 13 of my book argues that most strategies, including green and red-left as well as conventional strategies, are mistaken. The essential aim is not to fight against consumer-capitalist society, but to build the alternative to it.
This revolution cannot be achieved from the top, either by governments, green parties or proletarian revolutions. This can only be a grass-roots transition led by ordinary people working out how they can cooperatively make their local communities viable as the global economy increasingly fails to provide.
The eco-village and Transition Towns movements have begun the general shift, but Local
self-sufficiency initiatives such as community gardens and Permaculture must be informed by the awareness that reforms to consumer-capitalist society cannot achieve a sustainable and just society.
Many leftist would argue that such a strategy has been tried in the past, for example with the hippies, and failed. These kinds of movements, they argue, pose no fundamental threat to capitalism. Worse, they distract people from confronting the system, particularly the big fossil fuel companies driving global warming. Your response?
I totally agree that this is a problem. Nothing of lasting significance will be achieved unless it is clearly understood that our efforts in these local initiatives are the first steps to the eventual replacement of the present society by one which is not driven by market forces, profit, competition, growth or affluence. This awareness is far from sufficiently evident in present green initiatives.
So lefties, do you want to get rid of capitalism? Then the most subversive thing you can do is join trans towns movements … and work to widen their presently very narrow and thoroughly reformist vision to include getting rid of capitalism … and growth and the market and all/any interest in affluence or gain.
[For more details on Trainer's work visit http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/ or email Trainer at F.Trainer@unsw.edu.au.]