Millions of people are simply abandoning the conventional capitalist model of development, turning away to build their own collective, self-sufficient, non-market, frugal forms of development in accordance with cultural traditions.
By Ted Trainer*
For over two hundred years it has been taken for granted that progress, the good life, a high standard of living and development imply increased income, material wealth and economic output, as well as greater technical sophistication and more intensive use of resources. For poorer countries this has meant striving to be like richer countries. The possibility that rich countries have made a terrible, even suicidal, mistake has not occurred to anyone until recently, when we have begun to realise that the pursuit of wealth and growth is killing the planet.
It is imperative to adopt a very different conception of development as soon as possible. It is not difficult to imagine a healthy, sustainable, just and satisfactory alternative.
What should be the goal of development? What conditions, experiences, structures and forms could we find in a society that offers high quality living conditions for all and is just, sustainable and admirable? Here is a list on which I think we would more or less agree.
- Good health.
- Sufficient and good quality food.
- Having sufficient housing and basic clothing, etc.
- Having friendships.
- Having meaning and purpose, interesting things to do.
- Belonging to and participating in a caring and concerning community.
- A basic sense of collectivity, not individualistic, winner-take-all competition.
- Being a valued, appreciated and respected person, especially for contributing to the community.
- To feel safe from avoidable adversities such as unemployment, poverty, violence and social disintegration.
- Freedom from stress, anxiety and preoccupation, particularly about insufficient income, pace of life, overwork, isolation and loneliness, depression, unpleasant living conditions, traffic, social disintegration.
- Freedom/autonomy over one’s life and work.
- Not having to work hard or struggle; a relaxed pace, time for thought, conversation, recreation, spiritual growth.
- Having opportunities for creative activities, crafts, art, gardening, writing.
- Being close to nature. Living in beautiful surroundings.
- Having sources of recuperation in which to charge one’s batteries, such as gardening, hobbies, companionship, scenery.
- Having a sense of place, a home.
- Familiarity and stability; absence of threats of disruption, especially caused by development and economic recession.
- Having traditions, a culture, celebrations, meaningful rituals.
- Pride in family, city, society, institutions, nation; recognition that our customs are basically admirable… we are preoccupied, we try to minimise selfishness, disadvantage, inequality, domination and winner-take-all ways. Our way of thinking and debating is rational, respectful and mature.
- Calmness. A certain degree of ability to feel good about things, about oneself, about one’s society, about the planet. Reasons to be optimistic.
None of these conditions requires high income, wealth, property or GDP. Some, such as adequate sanitation, actually require having a low level of national material wealth, but it is possible to have nice things, such as a small adobe house, at negligible expense. Most of the items on the list do not depend on monetary income at all. All of them are easily guaranteed for all people if there are sensible social arrangements.
So why is it that, even in the richest countries, so few people do not enjoy these conditions that our greatest health problems are now depression, stress, anxiety and loneliness, and we face the likelihood of catastrophic social collapse as well as ecological collapse? The obvious response is that an absurdly wrong conception of development has been adopted, which insists that progress, development and the good life must be defined primarily in terms of increasing material wealth. Thus, everyone knows that to increase production, sales and GDP is to increase living standards.
The result: how conventionally defined development works.
Sustainable Development Goal 8, according to the UN Agenda 2030.
When development is defined in the usual conventional terms of kick-starting the economy and increasing GDP, capital needs to be invested in creating factories and export industries. To do this you have to request huge loans and attract foreign investors to set up industries. They will not come unless you build the ports, power stations and dams that they will want to use, as opposed to building the things that could improve people’s conditions. (Perkins, 2004 documents the role he himself had in luring countries into taking on impossible levels of debt). When their debts cannot be repaid, the problem is solved… by lending them more, on condition that they further orient their economies to the interests of the rich world’s banks and corporations. These Structural Adjustment Packages force them to compete with each other for export revenues to pay off debt, reducing regulation and offering favourable terms to foreign investors, devaluing their currencies (making their exports cheaper for us and their imports more expensive), keeping wages and welfare spending low, and competing with other poor countries to sell us cheap resources. The promise is that the resulting increase in wealth will trickle downwards to raise living standards for all, but very little trickles down, large numbers of people lose their land and livelihoods, local elites prosper and inequality soars… and huge wealth flows to rich-world corporations and supermarket shoppers.
Gas flares produced at a gas infrastructure in the Niger Delta, 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Gas flares produced at a gas infrastructure in the Niger Delta, 2013. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Hickel et al. (2022) estimate that there is an annual net flow of about $15 trillion per year from poor to rich countries, largely due to cheap imports produced at low wages. In addition to the dollar costs, there are the social and ecological costs of production in the form of toxic mining waste, felled forests, soil loss, air pollution, CO2 emissions, poor living conditions and the health effects of damaged ecosystems.
“But hasn’t this development removed millions of people from poverty? Yes… in some places like China, where cheap wages have enticed companies to relocate from the now impoverished rust belt states of the US… but not in Haiti.
It is a grave mistake to call this development; it is just capitalist development. It is what happens when you let development be determined by what the few with capital invest in and devote their resources to what they believe will maximise their wealth. It is obviously a form of legitimised plunder, trapping billions in debt slavery.
It is also utterly impossible
The levels of production, consumption, living standards and GDP of the rich world are far beyond what could be achieved by everyone on the planet. According to some estimates (Trainer 2021), they could be ten times higher, and if growth continues at the current rate, by 2050 the multiple will be around 20… while resources diminish and ecological problems, global debt levels and incentives for resource wars accelerate.
The pursuit of growth and wealth is not only absurd, it is suicidal. Many realise this, as the rise of the degrowth movement shows, but politicians, economists, the media and the general public do not realise it.
A review of hundreds of studies (e.g., Haberl et al., 2020) shows that technical progress will not solve these problems. GDP growth is not decoupling from growth in resource use, and is not remotely likely to do so; in fact, trends are deteriorating.
These considerations make it clear that most of the world’s major problems are due to overproduction and overconsumption. Therefore, the solution must be sought in lifestyles and life systems that allow a high quality of life for all with very low per capita and national levels of resource consumption. This would be easy to do… if we wanted to do it. But it cannot be done unless we discard a number of things, including capitalism and, even more difficult, the obsession with material wealth.
Ecovillage in Adunam, Senegal. Source: Ecovillages.org.
The Simpler Way’s claim is that the kind of society we need to transition to in rich and poor countries should have the following characteristics. (For more details, see Trainer 2017.)
Most people would live in small, highly self-reliant and self-governing communities, controlling zero-growth local economies in which market forces play only a very minor role, there are strong cooperative and collectivist values and arrangements (e.g., commons, committees, voluntary work groups), governance is through fully participatory processes (such as town meetings and referendums), and economies are driven by needs rather than profit. Above all, there would have to be a culture of voluntary self-reliance, collectivism, frugality and life satisfactions derived from non-material pursuits. There would still be (small) cities, (some) mass production factories, universities, national railway systems, etc., high-tech research and modern health care, etc.
Integration and proximity within these settlements allow for intensive recycling, interlinking of functions, reduced overheads and synergy. For example, a study on egg supply (Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, 2019) found that production through backyards and local poultry cooperatives could reduce costs in resources and dollars by around 2% of those of the conventional supermarket model. There is negligible reliance on the infrastructure and inputs involved in the conventional route, such as agribusiness, factory farming, industrial infrastructure, feed mills, energy, transport by ship and truck, fertiliser production, waste disposal and treatment, packaging, marketing, supermarket operations, IT systems and costly staff. Management is done through informal interactions between participants, without the need for offices, skilled staff or overheads. No machinery, chemicals, accountants or advertising executives are needed. The products are fresh and without additives. In addition, local production has benefits, especially in the recycling of manure for nearby gardens and methane digesters, reducing, if not eliminating altogether, the need for fertilisers, poultry feed mills and sewage systems.
Let us reconsider the list of goals with which I began this article. All would be easy and almost automatically achievable in societies like this one.
A government operating from this perspective would keep the country out of the world economy as much as possible, strive to be as self-sufficient as possible, export only the small amount needed to pay for crucial imports, accept little or no foreign investment, accept very few loans, focus on developing the necessary and not the profitable, avoid letting the market make important decisions and forget about GDP, preserve traditions and evaluate policies in terms of quality-of-life indices.
This perspective is unlikely to be taken into account by today’s ruling elites and governments. Politicians are generally wealthy, own businesses, have investments or offer professional services to the wealthy. They do not want the market to be interfered with, let alone the volume of business to be reduced. We should try to get help from them, but our main preoccupation should be to move away from them and, like the Zapatistas, build our own alternative systems separate from the mainstream.
So that has to be the goal of development; a sustainable and just world in a context of very limited resources cannot be conceived in terms other than materially simple lifestyles and systems. It is the only way to defuse problems such as global resource scarcity, ecological destruction, deprivation of people in poor countries, inequality, conflicts over resources and deteriorating social cohesion.
And many are doing so.
High school in a Zapatista caracol, 2018. Photo credit: ProtoplasmaKid. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
This conception of development flatly contradicts the undoubtedly conventional view. What is not widely understood is that a revolution that establishes it, involving millions of people, is underway. In rich countries many are working on Degrowth, Ecovillages, Transition Towns, Voluntary Simplicity, Downshifting and other movements to establish elements within the above vision. But the largest and most radical movements are mainly found among tribal and peasant regions within poor countries, for example, among the Andean peasant and Zapatista movements, the Via Campesina, Ubuntu and Swaraj movements, the Catalan Integral Cooperative (Trainer, 2018) and Kurdish communities in Rojava (Trainer, 2018.) The Senegalese government intends to establish 1400 ecovillages. (St Ong, 2015.) Leahy’s (2009, 2018) account of the African Chikukwa initiative compares the futility of encouraging farmers to compete in international food export markets with the development of highly self-sufficient permaculture villages. (See also Appfel-Marglin, 1998, p. 39; Post Carbon Institute, 2009; Mies and Shiva, 1993; Benholdt-Thompson and Mies, 1999; Korten, 1999, p. 262; Rude, 1998, p. 53; Quinn, 1999, pp. 95, 137; Gelderloos, 2022; Montichelli, 2022).
This is a distinctly non-Marxist revolution. It does not involve fighting against the system to seize state power and push for new forms despite resistance.
It is a remarkable and under-recognised revolution. Millions of people are simply abandoning the conventional capitalist model of development, turning away to build their own collective, self-sufficient, non-market, frugal forms in accordance with cultural traditions. (See Barkin 2022 for more detail.) It is a distinctly non-Marxist revolution. It does not involve fighting the system to seize state power and push for new forms despite resistance.
The crucial factor in these movements is cultural; it has to do with the ideas and values that are held. There is a powerful cohesion around the intention not to follow the capitalist path, built on long tragic histories of experience of what it has done to these people. But, unfortunately, in most poor countries there is little understanding that there is an alternative to conventional capitalist development. This is not surprising, as it is constantly reinforced by governments, pundits, many NGOs, aid, most of the academic literature, the Western media and agencies such as the UN.
What poor countries need most now is not more aid, not better terms of trade, not tighter regulation of transnationals, not getting rid of SAPs, not more information technology, not more experts. It is about debunking and discarding the conventional conception of what constitutes development. It is about coming to see that the dominant form simply imposes mechanisms of plunder and that there is an alternative, an alternative set of goals and means centred on simplicity.
Appfel-Marglin, F.A., (1998), The Spirit of Regeneration; Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development. London, Zed Books.
Barkin, D., (2022), “Building sustainable communities: The communitarian revolutionary subject” In: Karagiannis, N. King, J.E. (Eds.), Visions and Strategies for a Sustainable Economy. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-06493-7_11 Pp. 213-253.
Benholdt-Thomsen, V., and M. Mies,(1999), The Subsistence Perspective. London, Zed.
Gelderloos, P., (2022) The Solutions Are Already Here. London, Pluto.
Haberl, H., et al., (2020), “A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights”, Environmental Research Letters, 15, Volume 73, March 10246Global Environmental Change.
Hickle J., C. Dorninger, H. Wieland, and I. Suwadi, (2022), “Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: Drain from the global South through unequal exchange, 1990-2015”, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2022.102467
Korten, D.C., (1999), The Post-Corporate World. West Hartford, Kumarian Press.
Leahy, T., (2009), Permaculture Strategy for the South African Villages, Palmwoods, Qld., PI Productions Photography.
Leahy, T., (2018), Food Security for Rural Africa: Feeding the Farmers First, Routledge.
Mies, M. and V. Shiva, (1993), Ecofeminism. Melbourne, Spinifex.
Monticelli, L., Ed., (2022.), The Future is Now: An Introduction to Prefigurative Politics, Bristol, Bristol University Press,. Ch. 15.
Perkins, J., (2004), Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Ebury Press.
Quinn, D., (1999), Beyond Civilization, New York, Three Rivers Press.
Post Carbon Institute, (2009), “Relocalize”, PostCarbon.org.
Rude, C., (1998), “Postmodern Marxism; A critique.” Monthly Review, November, 52-57.
St-Onge, E., (2015), “Senegal transforming 14,000 villages into eco-villages!”, Valhalla Movement.
Trainer, T., (2017), “The Alternative Society”, TheSimplerWay.info.
Trainer, T., (2020a), “Kurdist Rojava; A social model for our future”, Resilience, 3 January.
Trainer, T., (2020b), “Transition”, TheSimplerWay.info.
Trainer, T., (2021), “Degrowth: How Much is Needed?”, Biophys Econ. Sust., 6, 5. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41247-021-00087-6
Trainer, T., A. Malik and M. Lenzen, (2019), “A Comparison Between the Monetary, Resource and Energy Costs of the Conventional Industrial Supply Path and the “Simpler Way” Path for the Supply of Eggs”, BioPhysical Economics and Resource Quality, September.
The article can be read at the following link: https://www.servindi.org/actualidad-opinion/15/02/2023/desmontando-el-desarrollo
Ted Trainer is an Australian permaculturist, activist and writer. Author of The Way of Simplicity. The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World and Capitalism: Why We Should Scrap It. Translated by Carmen Duce and revised by Manuel Casal Lodeiro.
Source: Published by the magazine 18.104.22.168, and reproduced in Servindi respecting its conditions: https://www.15-15-15.org/webzine/2023/02/02/desmontando-el-desarrollo/