Utopia revisited?

Issue 

Towards a Sustainable Economy: The need for fundamental change
By Ted Trainer
Environbook, 1996. 182 pp., $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Pip Hinman

"Our most worrying global problems are directly due to an economy driven by market forces, the freedom of enterprise, the profit motive and the quest for endless economic growth", argues Ted Trainer in his latest book.

Building on themes developed in his other books (Abandon Affluence, Developed to Death and The Conserver Society) Trainer, a lecturer in education at the University of New South Wales, has produced an easy-to-digest book for use in educational institutions.

Trainer's main thesis, which he supports with an impressive array of facts and figures, is that capitalism is wreaking havoc on the majority of the world's peoples and the environment, and that we need to move towards a "zero-growth economy".

While Trainer's previous books have tended to describe symptoms and not fundamental mechanisms, this is not the case with Towards a Sustainable Economy. Most of the book is spent exposing the main contradictions of capitalism, a system which, contrary to the claims of conventional economists, is not designed to meet the majority of people's needs.

Trainer demolishes many of the arguments put up by conventional economists, including the idea that without market forces, free enterprise and the profit motive, society would not develop. "This basic conventional principle assumes a short-run situation in which there is no serious inequality. If all people had equal 'effective demand' the market might distribute things equally among them satisfactorily, but in the real world there is very great inequality and most people cannot bid against those who are more wealthy", writes Trainer.

While Trainer accepts that, since feudalism, market forces have freed society's productive capacity, and that they can still do some things well, "the problems generated by profit and the market, such as inequality, waste, environmental destruction and unemployment have become so serious that we are threatened with major social and ecological breakdown within coming decades".

Waste, including unnecessary work and use of valuable resources, the fallacy of the "trickle down" model advocated by developmental theorists, inappropriate development and the limits to growth as well as capitalism's need to de-develop the Third World are also covered in some detail.

"The one fifth of the world's people who live in the rich countries use up at least 75 per cent of available resources at a per capita average rate which is about 17 times that at which the poorest half of the world's people consume them ... at least 1000 million people live in extreme poverty, without adequate nutrition."

He also includes useful chapters on the economy's impact on society; profit, interest and unearned income; the present capitalist crisis; the limitations of the newly industrialising countries (Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea) as models for development in the Third World; and basic mistakes in conventional economic theory.

Trainer's damning expose of the barbarity of a system based on satisfying the greed of a few at the expense of the majority may well convince a few more people of the necessity for change. However, he devotes only one chapter to outlining what an alternative conserver society would look like, and fails to indicate convincingly how we could get there.

Trainer's model of a new society — "not capitalism, not socialism, but a 'Third Way'" — seems to be largely modelled on a highly romanticised version of an Israeli kibbutz: small-scale, decentralised communal developments in which people would live, produce most of their material needs and find great personal satisfaction in doing so.

In his sketch of a normal workday in such a society, you would garden, feed the hens, fix a chair, do your spot on the library roster, paint the windmill, thatch the goat house roof, meet with the energy committee and play table tennis. This type of lifestyle, he argues, would ensure the greatest sense of creativity, autonomy, cooperation, control and interest in your work.

Trainer argues that any highly centralised economy — capitalist or socialist — would promote indiscriminate economic growth. While it's true that capitalism's insatiable pursuit of profit is enormously wasteful and destructive, and that the economic and environmental legacy of the Stalinised states was horrendous, it does not follow that "appropriate development" is possible only in a highly decentralised society.

Trainer sees minimal advantages from peoples across the globe enriching their material and intellectual lives through trade and travel, and argues for a high degree of local self-sufficiency.

While Trainer agrees with much of Karl Marx's criticism of capitalist economic relations, he takes issue with Marx's view that the working class will be the driving force for radical change and that there would need to be a transition period during which people would learn how to construct a highly cooperative society.

"... it would seem that we must reverse the sequence Marx assumed; the change to radical conserver insights and values, to a dark green perspective, must take place before we are likely to scrap capitalism", he argues.

Trainer says it is possible and necessary to start the process in the interstices of capitalism now, and cites as examples of where his "radical conserver society" is flourishing, community land trusts in the USA and Europe, the Briarpatch Network in California, the Maleny "town bank" in southern Queensland, the Local Employment and Trading System (LETS) scheme operated by small cooperatives around the world and the Israeli kibbutzim.

Trainer hopes that these projects will set an example that others will follow.

"Widespread value change is not essential before we can start moving our suburbs and towns in the required direction to a conserver society. We could start moving our suburbs and towns in the required direction by establishing small firms without any immediate change in the motivation that drives enterprises today", writes Trainer.

But only those with the material means and political power are in a position to do this. Sadly, the majority of people haven't a choice about their work, housing and transportation, a fact which Trainer, at times, seems to skip over. Most of the examples of what Trainer considers to be on the way to becoming "radical conserver societies" pose no challenge to capitalism even if they achieve a high level of self-sufficiency. Indeed, the Israeli kibbutz movement is an integral part of a capitalist expansionist project.