29 Sep 2009
Further Musings from Ted Trainer
As a response to the recent discussions about Ted Trainer’s critique of Transition, Ted recently sent me the following.
“Unfortunately Rob’s reply to my article A Friendly Criticism of the Transition Towns Movement, didn’t reach me. Here is a response to his comments of 8th Sept. My discussion began by stressing the enormous importance of the Transition Towns Movement, and how inspiring it is. I’m among those who have been arguing for decades that the salvation of the planet can only come via the development of local economies. But for a long time nothing like this emerged, apart from the heroic pioneering of the eco-villagers. But suddenly the Transition Towns Movement has exploded onto the scene, obviously tapping into a widespread recognition that mainstream society is unsustainable.
However, the core of my friendly critique is a serious worry that the movement could end up having not contributed to the solution of urgent global problems. Everything depends on the vision and goals the movement comes to be about, and my concern is to argue strongly for a particular position on this issue.
This is why Rob (rightly) sees a problem with the “language” I used. It is assertive and might appear to be unduely confident/dogmatic/doctrinaire. But what I was doing in the paper was stating a view of the global situation (below) which I have formed over many years, which I now hold very strongly because I think the supporting case is overwhelming, which many others hold, and which I believe it is very important to persuade transition people to hold. So yes I am pretty convinced I am right about the core elements (and uncertain and confused about many others), but of course I could be wrong and l am always eager to hear and think about contrary views.
There are two basic positions one can take on the global situation. The first, which most people hold, is that some version of consumer-capitalist society can be made viable, i.e., that this society can be reformed so that it does not cause problems like greenhouse and poverty but it still provides affluence and runs on market forces, competition, production for profit, and economic growth, etc. etc. The second position is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed; that you cannot have a sustainable and just world unless you scrap many of the fundamental structures of this society and build radically different systems. In my very firm view the second position is right, and I make no apology for asserting this strongly, but that doesn’t mean I go around telling people they are stupid if they don’t agree.
It follows that I am very keen to see the Transition Towns movement not be merely for reforming, taming, humanizing consumer-capitalist society. I worry that there is a high probability the movement will only be about reforms within the system. Thus I wrote the critique in the hope that it would influence people in the movement to think carefully about their goals and vision, and in the hope that they would be persuaded to agree with me about what the goals should be. My concern derives from the fact that almost all initiatives for “environmentally sustainable development” have not challenged the fundamental premises of growth and affluence society. (For instance Australia’s peak environmental agency doesn’t see any sustainability problem with economic growth; its CEO has scolded me for thinking it does.)
Rob, please remember that my paper was addressed to people centrally involved in the movement with the intention of stimulating discussion of goals and visions. It was not addressed to townspeople, with whom one would obviously avoid the use of words like “anarchism” and “capitalism”, and one would try to introduce these themes in mild and inoffensive ways as perspectives to be considered. Let me restate some elements from the paper indicating the reasons for my “extreme” view of the situation. (For more detail on the case for this perspective see here.
The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable and unjust. There is no possibility of the “living standards” of all people on earth ever rising to rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous etc. These rates of consumption are generating the numerous alarming global problems now threatening our survival. Yet most people have no idea of the magnitude of the overshoot. We in rich countries are probably ten times over sustainable per capita levels of resource use and environmental impact. The rates are far too high for technical advance to make anything like this society sustainable. And yet the supreme goal in this society is economic growth; i.e., to keep the rates of production and consumption increasing all the time, without limit!
ln addition our way of life would not be possible if rich countries were not taking far more than their fair share of world resources, via an extremely unjust global economy, and thereby condemning most of the world’s people to deprivation. These are among the reasons for concluding that the many alarming global problems now crowding in and threatening to destroy us are so big and serious that they cannot be solved within or by consumer-capitalist society.
Given this understanding of our situation, the solution must be transition to a very different kind of society, which I refer to as The Simpler Way. Its core principles must be far simpler material living standards, high levels of self-sufficiency at household, national and especially neighbourhood and town levels, mostly small, local economies, basically cooperative and participatory systems, a quite different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit or growth, mostly collective and participatory systems, and a radically different culture, in which competitive and acquisitive individualism is replaced by frugal, self-sufficient collectivism. Above all it cannot be an affluent society.
However almost everyone in the mainstream, from politicians, economists and bureaucrats down to ordinary people, totally fails to recognise any of this and proceeds on the comforting delusion that with more effort and technical advance we can solve problems like greenhouse without jeopardising our high “living standards” or the market economy or the obsession with growth.
Now if this is how you see the situation you are very keen to try to influence the Transition Towns movement to be for the vast and radical transformation which I believe has to be achieved if we are to avoid catastrophic global ecological and social breakdown. The importance of the issue could not be exaggerated. We cannot get to a sustainable and just world except via local communities taking control of their local affairs, and the Transition Towns initiative is the kind of development needed. So to me it is of the utmost importance to try to get it to be about achieving fundamental system change…and it is by no means inevitable that it will automatically do that.
Rob’s comments indicate that he and his colleagues don’t share my perspective. That’s OK. Of course there are many different views on the global situation, and most people certainly don’t agree with me. But my whole purpose is to prod people to consider the analysis I put forward in the hope that I will persuade them to it.
Some will be saying that it’s no one’s business to try to influence the movement and we should just help it flourish. Obviously I disagree, because I think it is likely to turn out to have been a merely reformist phenomenon that has not helped solve global problems, unless we work hard to get it to be much more than that. It’s a matter of whether or not you think we should try to ensure that the movement becomes the means to global system change.
So I hope this clarifies my claim that the movement might come to nothing of fundamental significance. Rob says it can do important things without making explicit that it is about transcending consumer/capitalist culture. Of course it can. But my point is that good works, reforms, charity, inspiration, bandaids, philanthropy, re-skilling, and planting nut trees etc. etc., will not necessarily and will probably not lead to the transcendence of consumer/capitalist society. Bandaids, charity work and nut trees are valuable. Most doctors do nothing but bandaid, and that’s crucial…but such actions typically fit comfortably within consumer/capitalist society and make no contribution to replacing it. My worry is that in a decade’s time we will look back and see that the Transition Towns Movement thrived, brought great satisfaction to many, made many towns more resilient…but made no contribution to replacing consumer/capitalist society. This society has immense capacity to accommodate fringe or deviant initiatives, such as the Hippies, and the Amish. Indeed the system benefits from the creation of safety valves which enable discontented minorities to do their alternative thing.
I hope this makes clearer why I worry that the outcome might essentially only be the creation of safe havens, towns more insulated against the effects of the coming scarcity, but still very much part of and dependent on the same old wider society. Rob says people involved don’t think that this is what they are doing…but that doesn’t settle the issue. In my view most people in peace, development and environmental movements think they are helping to solve these problems but they are not, because these movements are not focused on moving us out of consumer societies which inevitably create these problems. Most people believe consumer-capitalist society can be reformed so it is very likely that as they come into the Transition Towns movement they will not be focused on building an alternative to such a society.
It is quite possible for instance to develop a highly localized food supply without making much if any difference to an overall economy that allows market forces and profit to determine what is done, ignores the most urgent needs, has unemployment and homelessness, imports hardware and clothes from the Third World, requires support of dictatorships in poor countries, and grows all the time.
There is in other words a big difference between just making your town more resilient and doing that as a step in a process which you can show is designed to eventually fix the world.
Rob thinks there’s room for debate about whether Anarchism is the form of government we have to endorse. I have argued in some detail that the situation we are heading into, essentially involving intense global resource scarcity, will determine that viable communities will have to be small, self governing and highly participatory. Big centralized states cannot run a satisfactory society that must be localized and must have very low resource use. Such communities will not work well, or at all, unless they are driven by aware, conscientious, responsible, skilled, empowered and happy citizens. So this is not a matter of preference; whether we like it or not the form of “government” will have to be Anarchist. I think this is delightful, but that’s not important. What Rob has to work out is whether I’m right in thinking that there will be no choice about this.
Of course as Rob says one has to be careful in using terms like “Anarchist” because that would put most people off, but technically it is the right one for the form of government I am referring to here. It’s important to keep goals distinct from processes. My concern is to get people who are central in the movement to think about questions like goals, anarchism and reformism, but that does not mean I am saying we have to go around town shouting that we are for Anarchism.
And of course one does not go around telling the town business community that we are about getting rid of capitalism. But Rob, you have a huge underlying problem here because do you realize that in a sustainable world there cannot be anything like the amount of business turnover there is now? The core sustainability problem is that there is far too much producing and consuming going on. I believe that in this society about three times too much work is done and that in a sustainable society the GDP would (have to) be maybe one-tenth of what it is now. Sorry, but at some stage we will have to phase out most of the firms, capital investment, trade, sales etc. we have now. In your town there are many businesses selling things that are wasteful, unnecessary, luxurious, too elaborate, not made to last. Many will have to change from importing goods to selling locally produced necessities. Do you think your town can be made genuinely sustainable without facing up to the problem of phasing out and/or radically transforming most of its businesses…not necessarily now but at some stage?
Your comments indicate that you have taken me to be saying that I am expecting too much to be attempted by the town. Please see the functions I suggested for the Community Development Cooperative as ultimate goals to be gradually taken on, certainly not a set that has to be tackled from the start. To me the Transition process is best thought of as slowly moving towards the situation we want to have eventually established. Again the core issue is to do with goals; I am arguing for the establishment of some kind of Community Development Co-op which integrates, oversees, guides, advises and facilitates, and I suggested the kinds of functions it might perform some day. Eventually I think we should be trying to develop the CDC into the system of assemblies, committees and working bees through which we run the town to meet town needs, via intensely participatory decision making. (In my view most of the town’s activities would not need to be controlled by the CDC, and should take the form of small private enterprises.)
A very important element which I think is seriously lacking in the Transition Towns literature is any notion of the people of the town increasingly taking control of its economy, community, geography, quality of life and fate. For instance, towns should determine to get rid of unemployment. It is not something that is tolerated in civilized societies, so get rid of it. This can be done to a significant degree just by us setting up co-ops for dumped people to work together in, producing things they need. You won’t get rid of it unless you do this. The state and the normal economy will never get rid of it. Similarly the town should think out what it needs (a beekeeper, shoe repairer?), whether its young and old people are OK, what kinds of commons it wants, what committees, what facilities and institutions…and how to organise the working bees to build them. Again this is a goal and vision statement, not necessarily a list of things towns could do immediately.
I think it is admirable the way the Transition Towns literature tries to avoid prescribing. Rob’s politeness is a great asset for the movement. But that does not mean there is no place for “leadership”, in the sense of putting forward and arguing for ideas about what to do. The main problem I have with the Transition Town literature is that it gives almost no guidance as to what to do to make the town “resilient”. It gives a great deal of advice about how to proceed, how to organise a local movement, but people inspired to join the movement will find almost no information or suggestions as to what to try to build or set up, what to do first, what to avoid…and why these steps will have what effects on town self-sufficiency or resilience. The strategy just seems to be to encourage anyone to do anything they like and we’ll see where that takes us. What I am pleading for here is planning, for the formation of priorities, and monitoring so we can get clearer about what works, what is more difficult than we thought, and what not to do. People from new towns eager to get into the movement need to be given as much guidance as much as possible about goals and sub-goals, what to start trying to do.
It could be that none of us knows the right answers to these questions at this stage, but we should be thinking hard about what are probably the best initial goals and priorities, and forming and making available more confident experience-based strategies as soon as experience accumulates. For instance, my guess is that trying to produce local energy should not be a top priority in the early stages (it’s too difficult to make a significant difference), but that forming co-operative gardens and workshops and little firms (bakeries, fish tanks, poultry…) enabling unemployed people to immediately become productive, is a very desirable early step, especially as it gets us started on building a new economy under our control…but let’s debate this, and grope towards a (loose, indicative, non-prescriptive) plan of action that will help the many towns now flocking to the Transition idea to get off to an effective start.
At present it is disturbing that the many towns racing to join the movement will find little or no information on what to actually develop or build in the town to make it more resilient. Unless we can give this guidance I think it is likely that there will be a lot of confused thrashing around that does not achieve much, followed by disenchantment the waste of an extremely important opportunity.
The currency issue.
Finally, it is very important that careful critical thought be given to the role of local currencies. (My attempt to nut this out is here) Unfortunately most of the schemes I know about are in my view next to worthless, because there is no rationale showing how they are supposed to have desirable social effects. It is extremely important to introduce a money system that will give the town the power to build or organise desirable effects.
It is easy to see how LETS or Time Dollars results in good effects. Both enable people with no jobs or money to engage in work, trade, meeting needs and mutually beneficial economic activity. But in systems where for instance the new notes are bought using old notes, as seems to be the case with Berkshares, that’s just substituting one kind of money for another with no apparent significant benefits in terms of better community economic structures.
So, ask those proposing a new currency how will using it increase the production of needed things aground here, how will it get dumped people into jobs and livelihoods, how will it make this town more self-sufficient, how will it give us more power to determine the development of this town? If clear and convincing answers can’t be given to questions like this then what’s the point? Yes printing and selling a novel note might be an effective publicity device, and might raise money from tourists, but those are not important outcomes compared with for instance eliminating unemployment in the town, which is what the scheme I outline at the above site is centrally aimed at doing. Its core is as follows.
We set up cooperative productive ventures such as gardens and bakeries and record “work” time contributions. These entitle people to a proportion of the produce corresponding to their input. Whether the payments are in the form of a note or just a record they are a new form of money. If I earn this money in the garden I can spend it on bread from that co-op. Thus we have created a new economy. The money has been a device helping to connect idle people (and others) to available but unused productive capacity. You can see how the system has very desirable social effects, but the creation of the money is not the important part – setting up the cooperative firms is. It is then important to develop economic interactions between our new economy and the old one, e.g., by using the new money to pay for meals from its restaurants, which can spend the money paying for vegetables and labour from us in the new cooperative economic sector. (Again for the detail see the Money etc article above.)
My main point is that it is important for us to discuss desirable goals. I don’t think our attitude should be to just facilitate the Transition Towns phenomenon. I am arguing that we should try to move it in directions that will maximize the chance of transition from consumer-capitalist society. It will not inevitably do that. In fact I think it is more likely to become an alternative path enabling some to live somewhat more sustainably within consumer-capitalist society. I am not assuming I or we can influence it, maybe we can’t have any effect at all, but I am arguing that it is important to try.
Whether or not you agree will depend on your view of the global situation, and you might not share mine. But I believe we are very likely to see catastrophic global breakdown before long so it is of the utmost importance to try to push/lead/persuade the Transition movement in the direction one believes has to be taken if disaster is to be avoided. If we ever make it to a sustainable and just world it will have been via a Transition Towns process of some kind. It is extremely encouraging that a potentially miraculous movement has emerged and therefore it is very important to try to ensure that it is a means to achieving the big global structural changes required.