books simple living

Book review: The Simpler Way, by Ted Trainer

Ted Trainer is an activist academic of the eco-anarchist persuasion. For decades he worked as a professor at the University of New South Wales, while developing a demonstration settlement in a swamp outside Sydney. His work is not widely known, partly because he practices what he preaches and doesn’t travel. It gets a boost here from the Simplicity Institute. Samuel Alexander and Jonathan Rutherford have edited this collection of Trainer’s writing, drawn from articles, book excerpts and journals, with an interview with the author at the end.

The book begins by setting out the global predicament of consumer capitalism. “The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable” he writes. “There is no possibility of all people on Earth ever rising to rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timer, water, food, phosphorus, etc.” This is the thought that prompted me to start this blog twelve years ago and call it ‘make wealth history’. Western style consumption patterns cannot be universalised. Far from recognising this inequality and unsustainability, the primary political ambition is to increase GDP growth and make it worse.

Trainer argues that the system cannot be reformed. Inequality, environmental breakdown, debt and resource depletion are not problems that can be fixed. They are fundamental flaws in the design of the system. “A just and sustainable world cannot be acheived unless consumer-capitalist society is basically scrapped.” Instead, a ‘simpler way’ could replace it – one that revolved around local production, participative decision-making, cooperative communities of active citizens living with a much lower ecological footprint. Trainer estimates consumption levels would be at about 10% of the current average.

The transition to such a world is, by Trainer’s own admissions, “unlikely”. It would mean “contradicting and turning back some of the main values and ideas that have driven Western society for over 200 years.” That’s not something a government could do, and Trainer’s revolution is a cultural one rather that a political or economic one. It would not be focused on appealing to the state for change, but on local communities taking the initiative and working things out for themselves. The most likely scenario for prompting that cultural change would unfortunately be an economic collapse. A ‘Goldilocks depression’, as Trainer calls it, would be just bad enough to inspire people to change, but not bad enough to be catastrophic. We may be on the cusp of just such a thing.

There’s a lot in Ted Trainer’s writing that chimes with my own thinking on the futility of what we call development and how we define progress. There’s some overlap with the ideas of sufficiency that I call Arrival, and the phenomenon of failure demand that Katherine and I write about in our book. I also have a lot of further questions.

For a start, Trainer’s model is the eco-village, where people grow their own food and garden their landscape and aim to be as self-sufficient as possible. How feasible is that as a global model, when 55% of the world lives in towns and cities? A village can feed itself. My own town of Luton, at 214,000 people, might possibly be able to stretch to it. But London? Or New Delhi and its 29 million citizens? I found myself wondering how Trainer’s vision would be different if he had practiced his simple living experiments in Sydney itself rather than outside it.

I also think Trainer overplays his hand when he describes how easy and enjoyable his simpler life could be. He talks about building your own house as “easy and good fun”, which I’m not sold on – not in Britain’s climate anyway. He talks about the joys of chopping your own wood, and how “another treat is taking a bucket to collect horse manure.” Trainer says “my sense is that many people would be very keen to live as peasants, rather than stressed and depressed urban rat runners.” I don’t think that sense is right, and I’d like to suggest that ‘peasant’ and ‘stressed and depressed urban rat runner’ isn’t a binary choice.

Still, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to wholeheartedly agree with everything in this book. It pokes as many holes in conventional environmentalism or socialism as it does in consumer capitalism. It’s a challenge and a provocation, and on that basis it is well worth reading.

6 comments

  1. Thanks Jeremy. The main point I’d want to add to your comments is that even though a transition to some kind of simpler way is far from certain to be achieved, it is the only way out of the global predicament, so our only option is to work hard for it. It is not a matter of whether or not people would like it; you cannot design a sustainable and just society unless it involves huge degrowth to very low per capita consumption levels, and the only way this can be done while ensuring a good quality of life is if most of use live in small scale, cooperative and highly self sufficient communities…as the book explains at length. The main goal of people in the simplicity team is to convince as many as possible that a simpler way would enable a higher quality of life than they have now in rat-race consumer society.

    1. I doubt really very few people would choose to be peasants. It might seem fine when you are fit and healthy but older and sick without much modern medicine (which is very expensive and energy and technology intensive)?

      Actual peasants taken huge dangerous journeys to foreign lands to stop being peasants.

      If few people would choose it what do you do if you feel it’s the only way for society to survive. Do democracy and human rights get thrown out, since few actual peasant societies achieve those?

  2. The hidden potential of urban horticulture
    https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-020-0045-6
    A new piece of research from Sheffield University asks the question :Is there space to grow fruit and veg in our cities? This is a summary :
    In the United Kingdom, approximately 16,000 km2 of land is designated as urban, of which green infrastructure constitutes approximately 50% (an area 5.3 times larger than that used nationally for the commercial production of fruits and vegetables Green infrastructure, including all
    green space within the city, covers 10,600 ha, similar to other UK cities. Urban allotments . To understand the extent to which urban horticulture( UH )can make use of this apparent land resource, we used high-spatial-resolution datasets (specifically Ordnance Survey Master Map and Google Earth Imagery) in a GIS to analyse the current and potential productive space for UH for the UK city of Sheffield. With 582,500 inhabitants, Sheffield has the sixth largest population in England and Wales. As is typical of larger urban areas, it is among the most deprived 25% of local authorities in the country, indicating that considerable levels of food insecurity are likely. Sheffield (as defined by the local authority boundary) covers an area of 36,800 ha, of which 22,700 ha are urban or peri-urban, comprising green and grey infrastructure — the focus of this study.
    Results indicate that there is more than enough urban land available within the city to meet the fruit and vegetable requirements of its population. Building on this case study, we also propose a generic conceptual framework that identifies key scientific, engineering and socio-economic challenges to, and opportunities for, the realization of untapped urban horticultural potential.
    Steve Martin

  3. I believe it was Don Warrington (the black lodger in ‘Rising Damp’ who once personally said of the country life that it was ‘dirty, smelly’ and a third thing distasteful that I can’t recall. He was certainly not one for living with soil and animals by all accounts! I wonder what the ratio of choice would really be. ‘You can take the girl out of the town but you can’t take the town out of the girl’ – not true in my case but it is a difficult way to live once you get regular/constant aches and pains. I suppose it could only ever be a kind of compromise with machinery etc?

  4. Steve, the Sheffield study is very important, and its findings are surprisingly optimistic. Congrates on carrying it out. My detailed attempt to do a similar inquiry into the potential within an outer Sydney suburb found that radical structural change, including digging up some little used roads, indicated that all fruit and vegetables, plus poultry meat and eggs, and fish, might be sufficient to meet food requirements.(thesimplerway.info/RemakingSettlementsShort.htm) I didn’t include use of rooftops, and I used commercial yield figures which home and community gardening could improve on.

    But a core argument in the book is that sustainable future has to be mainly about not cities but small, local, highly self sufficient, self-governing and basically cooperative economies drawing on local resources such as nearby small farms.

    To DevonChap and Dichasian, firstly yes understandably at present few people in rampant consumer society would find The Simpler Way attractive, but the book’s central theme is that a sustainable and just society in the coming era of intense resource scarcity can only be some kind of simpler way. It details the argument that present rich world per capita resource consumption levels have to be more or less cut by 90%. You cannot do this without adopting the kind of lifestyles and systems the book details. So our task is to try to get people to understand this, and to realise that these ways have great benefits. It is easy to parody the alternative way by picking out bits that seem unattractive, but as the book explains, thousands living more simply and cooperatively in ecovillages report higher quality of life than national averages. In Dancing Rabbit ecoillage this is the case although their per capita resource use rates are indeed down around 5-10% of US averages.

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