The case for scarcity and a critique of the Transition Towns movement

“In my view few green people or transitioners recognise the huge distinction here between trying to reform consumer-capitalist society and trying to replace its major structures and systems. The Simpler Way contradicts the core systems of the present society and cannot be built unless we replace them. Consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed; it cannot be reformed to not create the alarming global problems we face while still being about the pursuit of affluence and growth etc.”

Interesting challenge by Ted Trainer (via Nicholas Roberts):

(excerpts only, the source article is much longer, both on the alternative ‘Simpler Way” and in its detailed critique)

Ted Trainer:

“The only way the global sustainability and justice predicament can be solved is via something like the inspiring Transition Towns movement. However unless the movement radically alters its vision and goals I do not think it will make a significant contribution to solving our problems.

The Transition Towns movement began only about 2006 and is growing rapidly. It emerged in the UK mainly in response to the realisation that the coming of “peak oil” is likely to leave towns in a desperate situation, and therefore that it is very important that they strive to develop local economic self sufficiency.

What many within the movement probably don’t know is that for decades some of us in the “deep green” camp have been arguing that the key element in a sustainable and just world has to be small, highly self sufficient, localised economies under local cooperative control. (See my Abandon Affluence, published in1985, and The Conserver Society, 1995.) It is therefore immensely encouraging to find that this kind of initiative is not only underway but booming. I have not the slightest hesitation in saying that if this planet makes it through the next 50 years to sustainable and just ways it will be via some kind of Transition Towns process. However I also want to argue that if the movement is to have this outcome there are some very important issues it must think carefully about or it could actually come to little or nothing of any social significance. Indeed in my view if it remains on its present path it will not make a significant contribution to the achievement of a sustainable and just world. This will probably strike transitioners as a surprising and offensive comment, but please consider the following case.

Everything depends on how one sees the state of the planet, and the solution. In my view most people do not understand the nature and magnitude of the situation, including most green people. Consequently they are working for goals which cannot solve the problems. It is of the utmost importance that good green people and transitioners think carefully about the perspective summarised below.
Where we are, and the way out

For decades some of us have been arguing 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. The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable and unjust. There is no possibility 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. They are already 5-10 times the rates which would be necessary to provide present rich-world living standards to the 9 billion people expected by 2050. Most people have no idea of the magnitude of the overshoot, of how far we are beyond a sustainable levels of resource use and environmental impact.

Although present rich world rates of resource use are grossly unsustainable, the supreme goal in consumer-capitalist society is to raise them as fast as possible and without limit. If all expected 9 billion rose to the “living standards” we in Australia would have by 2080 at present growth rates, then total world economic output would be 60 times as great as it is now! These sorts of multiples totally rule out any hope that technical advance could sustain growth and affluence society.

ln addition there is the huge problem of global economic injustice. 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.

Given this analysis of our situation it is not possible to solve the problems without transition to a very different kind of society, one not based on globalisation, market forces, the profit motive, centralisation, representative democracy, or competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness. Above all it must be a zero-growth economy, with a far lower GDP than at present, and most difficult of all, it cannot be an affluent society.”

So, what needs to be done?

“What do we have to do in order to eventually achieve such huge and radical changes? The answer goes far beyond the things that green/transition people are doing now, such as setting up community gardens, food co-ops, recycling centres, Permaculture groups, skill banks, home-craft courses, commons, volunteering, downshifting, etc. Yes all these are the kinds of institutions and practices we will have in the new sustainable and just world so it is understandable that many people within the Eco-village, Transition Towns and green movements assume that if we just work at establishing more and more of these things then in time this will have created the new society. I think this is a serious mistake.

Firstly these things are easily accommodated within consumer-capitalist society without threatening it, as the lifestyle choices and hobby interests of a relatively few people. They will appeal to only that minority potentially interested in composting or organic food or Permaculture etc. Larger numbers will not come to them unless they understand why they should, that is unless they accept the world view summarised above, and therefore see that it is necessary to do these things if we are to save the planet. Just establishing more community gardens and recycling centres does little or nothing to increase that understanding.

Secondly, the most crucial institutions for transition are not in the list above, are not being set up, and will not be set up by the thinking motivating the many good green people now establishing the gardens and recycling centres. If the global vision sketched above is valid then we ordinary people in our towns and suburbs eventually have to establish our own local Economy B, take control of it and relegate the market to a very minor role, identify local needs and work out how to meet them, get rid of unemployment, work out how to cut town imports, etc. …and grope towards the practices which enable us to collectively self-govern the town. In other words we have to deliberately come together to replace core consumer-capitalist ways in our town. This requires thinking about goals that are at an utterly different level to just initiating some good green practices within present society. It requires coming together to organise collective economic systems and political action. The town must ask itself what are we going to get together to do to solve our problems; what arrangements and institutions do we need to set up to make sure everyone around here is provided for? Such big picture thinking is rarely encountered in current green or transition movements.”

Therefore, Ted Trainer concludes:

Not surprisingly, at present the Transition Towns movement is reformist. It is not in general motivated by the clear and explicit goal of replacing the core institutions of consumer-capitalist society. Its implicit rationale is that it is sufficient to create more community gardens, recycling centres, skill banks, cycle paths, seed sharing, poultry coops, etc. It is not in general motivated by the clear and explicit goal of replacing the core institutions of consumer-capitalist society. (Some people within the movement say or think they are working for change from consumer-capitalist society but my point is that in fact the things they are doing will not have that effect, and will only bring about changes within it.)

1 Comment The case for scarcity and a critique of the Transition Towns movement

  1. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    This contribution from Jeff Vail, sent by email, is not directly related to the above, but is related to the debate about scarcity vs. abundance, in particular the prediction of inevitable abundance as proposed by Paul Fernhout on the Open Manufacturing list:

    I agree with the EInstein quote that few people undrstand exponential growth, but I think Paul’s respones is only proof that he’s not appreciating the full implications of exponential growth! For example, if, as he suggests, exponential growth in wind power continues, it won’t be long before the weight of wind turbines exceeds the mass of the Earth! More fundamentally, his critique does nothing to address the issue that exponential growth in wind-turbines is inextricably linked to exponential growth in general (economic, population, resource consumption, etc.)–he does not address how wind can continue to grow exponentially without the associated externalities of growth in general. Additionally, I fundamentally disagree with his artificial separation of “growth” and the “externalities” that result from growth–I think these are structurally linked, and you cannot manage the externalities (symptom) over the long-term without addressing the root cause (growth itself). He proposes that we solve this issue by moving toward a “100% recyclability” paradigm. That’s nice science fiction, but it is fundamentally contradicted by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is precisely why organizations are only “moving toward” this ideal, but none have actually gotten there. As we will always fall short of 100% recyclability in the industrial economy, all growth will continue to generate additional externalities (these can be reduced, but not eliminated). In reality, we haven’t even succeeded in minimizing these externalities, but only in offshoring them in the form of population growth, poverty, geopolitical unrest, and oppression in the developing world (that’s “how countries like Denmark are doing it”).

    Finally, on the EROEI issue, all Paul offers is that “it’s one guy’s opinion against what are now well-established numbers in the field.” I can just reverse the wording and come up with an equally unconvincing “appeal to authority”! Paul provides only appeal to authority and no actual sources or studies to rebut my critique (or that of the published studies I cite to)–if he does so, I will be happy to point out how each of these studies (if they even reveal their methodology) fail to account for anything even approaching all energy inputs. Finally, he fundamentally fails to understand the problem when he says that we can still transition even if the EROEI is only 2:1. With an EROEI of 2, the “Renewables Gap” cannot be bridged without a true collapse of the global economy (which will probably destroy the manufacturing and economic base required to produce those renewables with an EROEI of 2:1).

    I don’t mean to attack Paul personally, and I certainly don’t question his intent to do the right thing for humanity, but I think his argument that we can “just transition to renewables”–a widespread belief–is very dangerous because it will prevent the marshalling of the political will to do anything meaningful until we realize after-the-fact the flaws in that approach…


    As he concedes, “Of course, what we usually see in nature is exponential growth to a point, and then a plateau. And then, depending on how things go, sometimes another phase of exponential growth. And of course, things do collapse sometimes.” That’s exactly what I’m arguing will happen, as the net-energy prospects of wind (and the need for wind to compete on an equal playing field once it becomes more than a boutique industry) decline.

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