Sometimes all roads seem to point in one direction. This summer I've been having that experience with the concept of sustainability: assessing where we are now, what will be possible in 30 years, and how do we get from here to there.
The basic premise I'm working with is that humans are rapidly exhausting our supply of accessible resources, such that something has to give. That is, it is not even remotely possible that we can continue for another generation the materialistic lifestyle we're become accustomed to in the US—unless we're willing to forcibly deny the equitable distribution of what's left and to tolerate massive suffering elsewhere in service to the status quo. Rather than continuing the charade that underlies the bumper sticker "How did our oil get under their sand?", I've started looking at two questions: a) How to create a vibrant, satisfying lifestyle that uses only 10% of the resources that the average American is currently consuming; and b) How to peacefully navigate the social challenges that such a massive shift will require.
These questions affect me both on the personal level (how will I live, and what am I called to do to help society to a softer landing in the decades ahead) and on the professional level (what role should FIC play in education and preparation; what is my role as a process consultant to better prepare groups to handle what's coming).
When thinking about sustainability, I like the metaphor of a three-legged stool: there's a ecological leg, a social leg, and an economic leg—and you won't have a very stable piece of furniture unless you have three stout legs. I am interested in what it takes to develop strong legs, and also the integration of the whole, so that the stool will be a tool.
As this is a big, all-encompassing topic, I'm going to tackle it in a six-part series, roughly in the order in which I've been bumping into this conversation over the past two months. Here's the outline:
I. Proposal to build a working model of sustainability
II. The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World by Ted Trainer
III. Sustainability and Cohousing
IV. EDE Course at Dancing Rabbit in 2012
V. Increasing sustainability offerings on campus
VI. Transition Towns
• • •
The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World by Ted Trainer
Trainer is an Australian and futurist who works at the University of South Wales and has been writing for a quarter century about sustainability and the need for drastic change in contemporary lifestyles. His most recent book was published in 2010 and I was given a copy to review for consideration of inclusion in the offerings of Community Bookshelf.
It is a big book (in imagination, not pagination—it's only 330 pages, counting the index) and I took a couple weeks to digest it, making notes as I went along. First of all, I struggled with it because it's poorly written and poorly edited. As a writer and editor myself, I'm a snob and it irritates me when authors are sloppy like this.
The argument is highly repetitive, the metaphors are wooden, overused, and often confusing—and it's not apparent that the text was ever copy edited. I had the sense that this work was just carelessly rushed to press, which is a shame because the message is important.
Moving on to the content, which I liked much better than the delivery, the essential argument of this book is that humanity is out of control and headed for a very rude awakening in the next 30 years unless we start doing something about it now. The something that Trainer advocates is embracing what he styles The Simpler Way, the essential elements of which I'll explain below.
Trainer comes across as a scientist who has done careful work in analyzing what resources it will take to sustain the current Western lifestyle (which developed countries have already achieved and which developing countries—notably China and India—still aspire to) into the decades ahead, based on projected population levels. This is not just a question of Peak Oil; it's also a question of Peak Water, Peak Timber, Peak Arable Land, Peak Greenhouse Gases, and taking a peek behind the curtain to glimpse the upcoming natural limits on many basic resources.
The challenge is of such magnitude that it will not be solved through minor adjustments, techno-fixes, or the miracle (mirage?) of supply side economics. Trainer makes a persuasive case for our needing to reinvent our culture, where we value conservation over consumption and are able to build vibrant, fulfilling lives based on consumption that is only 10% of current levels. This is huge, folks.
He postulates that federal governments will largely be irrelevant and that day-to-day decisions will need to be made overwhelmingly at the local level, where needs and conditions are best understood. He goes on to say that we'll need to move toward a much more cooperative culture (read less competitive) and that community and relationships will be the fundamental building blocks of a sustainable society. With less resources, we'll need to share to a much greater degree and hence the need for a more cooperative attitude.
Trainer does not believe that capitalism and the free market can lead us to anywhere but ruin (as the pursuit of profit is inimical with the objective of creating a sustainable or just future). In particular, Trainer points out that there are three key stakeholders who invariably possess little or no market power today: the poor, future generations, and non-human species. How can we manifest a decent future relying on an economic system that consistently short changes these segments?
I buy his analysis of the problem and the need for drastic change, and I agree with his prediction that we'll need to focus much more locally. That said, I am less sanguine about his prescription for how it will all work. Cooperation isn't for wimps.
Trainer blithely posits that anyone can be a good decision-maker and that well-intentioned locals should have no problem sorting things out sensibly (just look at what the Anarchists were able to achieve in Spain in the late '30s, or the bootstrapping accomplished by the Mondragon system in Basque for a more contemporary exemplar). I know better. I've been a process consultant to cooperative groups for the past 24 years and good intentions and correct analysis (assuming for the moment that a consensus on that is attainable) are not nearly enough to guarantee good results.
As I sat with Trainer's decentralized vision, it occurred to me that some local groups will be far more successful in making the transition to cooperative culture and high-functioning local operations than others. When I coupled that realization with the analysis that competitive cultures tend to squeeze out cooperative ones (reference Diamond in his seminal anthropological work, Guns, Germs, and Steel)—especially when the cooperative culture possesses something the other culture wants—it gave me pause. The journey to sustainability is going to be fraught with road hazards.
Trainer bravely suggests that we need to move from a market economy where monetary capital is accumulated, to a local economy where social capital is accumulated. While I like this picture, it's not at all clear to me how we'll get there. The market will not simply go away. Look how hard it is to get people to stop buying from Walmart, even after it's been well documented that that conglomerate is driving locally-owned businesses into bankruptcy, and quality of life is degraded when profits are siphoned away from where shoppers live, to reward faceless stockholders living elsewhere.
The power held by the rich will not evaporate overnight (it may, perhaps, be handed out for doing favors for the Party; but it is not handed out like party favors); political control will not pass seamlessly from US Senators to county commissioners.
What's more, the issues of mendacity and power abuse will not suddenly go away just because the scale shifts from national to local. While the stakes may be different, I don't believe that local politicians are inherently more trustworthy or less likely to be self-serving than national figures. For my money, we have still not done a decent job of creating positive models of cooperative leadership, and this will be a crucial step.
For the social part of his analysis, I think Trainer is whistling in the dark. On the positive side, he looks to both intentional communities and Transition Town initiatives (I'll have more to say about them in part VI of this series) as hopeful signs for a constructive social response, and I do, too—though there's plenty of road building ahead.
In short, while I think Trainer's writing is in transition (at least I hope he can do better), I think he's offered a powerful and useful framework for understanding the transition needed by our culture in order to achieve sustainability. Further, I think he's pointing us in the right direction by emphasizing cooperation, community, and relationships. While I expect a bumpier road on the social side than he, I think he's at least pointing out the right path.