Part 1: The global situation, and the alternative society required.
The core Eco-socialist claim is that major problems, especially those involving the environment, cannot be solved unless capitalism is replaced by some kind of Socialism. This is a very strong claim. But the argument in this first of two articles to be published by The Solutions Journal is that with respect to the nature of the required alternative society, and with respect to all of the elements within its strategic theory, the general Eco-socialist position is seriously mistaken. By explaining the grounds for these claims a case for a quite different theoretical position will be argued, viz., Eco-Anarchism.
In this installation attention will be given firstly to the nature of the global predicament which sets the task to be grappled with, and then to its implications for the form a sustainable and just society must take. It will be argued that in general Eco-Socialist thinking does not begin with a satisfactory analysis of the situation and therefore does not focus on the basic implications for alternative social forms. In Part 2 implications for transition strategy will be considered, and major differences between the two perspectives will be shown.
“Socialism” and ”Anarchism” are highly ambiguous terms and each includes several significantly different varieties. However it is sufficient for the following discussion to focus on the general disposition Socialists have to take control of at least “the commanding heights” from the private owners of capital and to locate it within the state. Perhaps the defining element in Anarchism is rejection of domination of some over others, and thus rejection of centralized control in favour of highly participatory forms of organization, decision making and implementation. The former perspective accepts that it is appropriate for initiative and control to lie with agencies which govern us, the latter insists that we can and should govern ourselves, that is, it assumes that citizens can cooperatively work out mutually beneficial arrangements with little if any top-down control.
The fundamental beginning point for contemporary debate between these two perspectives is the fact that we have entered a historically novel situation, one dramatically different to that prevailing in the long era during which Socialist analyses and ideals were derived. Given the conditions prevailing from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the latter decades of the Twentieth Century Socialist goals and strategies made sense. Essentially the revolutionary task was conceived in terms of taking control of the industrial system from the capitalist class, releasing its productive power from the contradictions of capitalism, and distributing the product more justly and abundantly to raise the living standards of the working class. The following section shows that this can no longer be the goal. It is important to detail the case at some length as it sets logically inescapable implications for the new revolutionary objectives and strategies that are required now.
The situation: 1. We have grossly exceeded the limits to growth.
Global rates of resource consumption and ecological impact are now far beyond levels that are sustainable or that technical advance could make sustainable, or that could be spread to all people. What needs to be stressed here is the magnitude of the overshoot. (For the detailed numerical case see TSW: The Limits to Growth2.) This determines that solutions must be radical in the extreme. The World Wildlife Fund’s “Ecological Footprint” index1 shows that providing the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy takes about 7- 8 ha of productive land. If by 2050 the expected 9+ billion people were to have risen to the present Australian “living standard”, and the planet’s amount of productive land remains the same as it is today the amount available per capita would be 0.8 ha. In other words Australian’s today are using around 10 times the amount per capita that would be possible for all to use. Various other measures yield worse numbers.3,4
However this has only been an indication of the present grossly unsustainable situation. To this must be added the universal fundamental commitment to ceaseless growth in production, consumption, trade, investment, “living standards”, wealth and GDP. The impossible implications are easily demonstrated. If 9 billion people were to rise to the GDP per capita Australians would have in 2050 given 3% economic growth, then total world economic output would be approaching 18 times the present amount. Yet the World Wildlife Fund estimates that even now 1.7 planet Earths would be necessary to meet demand sustainably. That means that raising all expected people to the “living standards” we aspire to by 2050 would require around 30 planet Earths.
It must be stressed that the limits predicament will soon become far more serious than has been indicated by the above numbers, because it does not take into account the fact that many crucial scarcities, problems and costs will become worse at an accelerating rate.
Rejection of the limits case is usually based on the belief that technical advance will deal with the associated problems, enabling continued increase in production and consumption while bringing environmental impacts down to sustainable levels. Virtually all of the many studies of “decoupling” find that growth in output is rarely accompanied by reduction in resource use or impacts. The most thorough review5 emphasizes that there are not good reasons to expect absolute decoupling to be achieved in future, and that in fact the trends are getting worse.
To summarise, the extremely important conclusion to be drawn from the limits to growth case is that the overshoot, the degree of unsustainability, is so great that a sustainable society cannot be defined other than in terms of huge degrowth to levels of per capita resource use, production, consumption and GDP that are a small fraction of present rich world or global levels.
The Situation: 2 – The limits to capitalism.
The foregoing account of limits means that the present economic system is a major element in the causal chain, and that a sustainable economy must not just be a steady state economy but one which has undergone degrowth down to a small fraction of present levels of production for sale. The present economy cannot do this. Growth is one of its indispensable, defining characteristics.
In addition, the required economy could not be driven by market forces. This mechanism inevitably generates inequality, injustice, and wealth maximisation. It allocates scarce resources and goods to richer people and nations, simply because they can pay more for them. Similarly it determines that “development” is driven by what will maximize the profits of investors in the global economy, not by the needs of individuals, societies and ecosystems.
However a satisfactory society that operated within biophysical limits would have to carefully plan and regulate the use of scarce resources. Its economy would have to be at least predominantly “socialized”, in some form. When the need for large scale degrowth is combined to the need for a socially controlled economy, it is evident that the required economic system cannot be capitalist.
The required alternative — The Simpler Way.
The foregoing discussion constitutes a strong case that the necessary reductions are so big that they cannot be achieved by reductions within the existing system. There must be a transition to some kind of Simpler Way. (For the detail see TSW: The Alternative Society6.) The case against Eco-Socialism and for Eco-Anarchism derives from an understanding of the characteristics this alternative social form must have. These include:
1. A profound cultural shift, to simpler lifestyles, involving far less production and consumption per capita, or concern with luxury, affluence, possessions and wealth, and instead to a focus on non-material sources of life satisfaction. In addition the predominant outlook would have to be cooperative not competitive, much more collectivist and less individualistic.
2. Mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies, largely independent of (far smaller) national or global economies, devoting local resources to meeting local needs, with little intra-state let alone international trade. This means transition from globalized to predominantly localized systems.
3. A new form of government, primarily involvingpeople in small communities taking cooperative and participatory control over their own local functioning and development, via voluntary committees, working bees and town assemblies.
4. A new economy, one that is a small fraction of the size of the present economy, is not driven by profit or market forces, does not grow, and ensures that needs, rights, justice, welfare and ecological sustainability determine the purposes to which limited resources are devoted.
Following is a brief elaboration on some of the elements indicated by the above statement of principles.
Production of most basic goods by many small firms and farms, some cooperatives, some privately owned, within and close to settlements — much use of intermediate and low technologies especially craft and hand-tool production, mainly for their quality of life benefits — extensive development of commons providing many free goods especially via “edible landscapes” — building using earth, enabling all people to have very low-cost modest housing — voluntary working bees developing and maintaining community facilities — conversion of existing towns and suburbs into highly self-sufficient communities — many voluntary committees, e.g., for agriculture, care of aged, care of youth, entertainment and leisure, cultural activities — few paid officials — large cashless, free goods and gifting sectors — little need for transport, enabling bicycle access to nearby work and conversion of most suburban roads to commons — the need to work for a monetary income only one or two days a week, at a relaxed pace — thus enabling much involvement in arts and crafts and community activities — town-owned banks and local currencies that do not involve interest — relatively little dependence on corporations, professionals, bureaucracies and high-tech ways – no unemployment; communities organize to use all productive labour and to ensure everyone has a livelihood.
The document TSW: Remaking Settlements7 derives detailed tentative estimates supporting the claim that these procedures could cut the energy, dollar and footprint costs typical of a Sydney suburb by more than 90%, while improving all dimensions of the quality of life. Reductions of this magnitude are achieved by the Dancing Rabbit Eco-village in Missouri8.
Only in small, and highly integrated communities can per capita resource and ecological costs be dramatically reduced. For instance a study of inputs to village-level egg production9 found that dollar and energy costs are typically around 2% of eggs supplied by the commercial/industrial path, while eliminating its ecological costs and providing other benefits such as pest control, fertilizer, methane and leisure resources. Small scale highly integrated and cooperative arrangements maximize overlaps between functions, e.g., all wastes can be recycled to local methane digesters, fish ponds and gardens, free ranging of poultry in gardens and orchards can fertilise soils and reduce pests. Rosters and spontaneous citizen action can eliminate all need for bureaucracy, logistics, PR departments, OH&S, marketing etc.
There would still be an important though much reduced role for some more distant and centralised institutions, such as teaching hospitals, universities, steel works, mass production factories, wind farms, and railway and telecommunication systems. The elimination of most of the present vast quantity of unnecessary productive effort would enable considerable increases in resources available for arts, education and socially desirable R&D.
Although this vision involves very low per capita consumption rates it does not imply hardship or deprivation. It involves shifting to lifestyles and systems which enable all to pursue mostly non-material sources of purpose and satisfaction. The reported quality of life in Eco-villages is superior to those of typical rich world societies.8,10
Over the past thirty years a concern to move in this general direction has gathered momentum, most evidently in the Permaculture, Voluntary Simplicity, Downshifting, Localization, Municipalism, Eco-village and Transition Towns movements.
The supreme importance of cultural factors.
What must be stressed here is that communities will not and cannot function in these ways satisfactorily unless their members share a powerful culture based on a distinctive world view involving specific institutions, values, commitments and dispositions. Citizens must be fully aware of the global reasons why their frugal self-governing local economies are crucial, they must willingly and happily take on the responsibility and rewards of running their communities well, they must be keen to cooperate, participate, help and share, and to prioritise the public good.
There is reason to expect that it will not be so difficult to maintain these new ways. This is because they are intrinsically rewarding and self-reinforcing. It is nice to share, assist others, contribute to working bees, contemplate a beautiful landscape one has helped to create, etc. The experience of living in the new conditions described will tend to automatically elicit and reinforce the required dispositions.
The goal therefore must be Eco-Anarchism.
Thus a society of the above alternative form must be Anarchist, not Socialist, and the distinction is far from trivial. The basic world view of the Socialist is now outdated and mistaken. For more than two hundred years the emancipatory task was rightly seen to be taking control from the capitalist class in order to enable more just access to the products the industrial system could provide if freed from the contradictions of capitalism. Today it seems that most Socialists still fail to recognise that there are limits to growth, that we have gone so far through many of them and that this rules out pursuit of the traditional goal of accelerating the industrial system to provide high material living standards to all. A sustainable and just society now must have materially simpler lifestyles and systems.
Most if not all of the prominent Eco-socialist advocates including Kovel11, Albert on “Parecon”12, Lowey13,14, , Bellamy-Foster15, Sarkar16, and Smith17, do not deal with the significance of scarcity and simplicity, or the crucial, game-changing fact that the good society cannot be an affluent society. Nor does the account of “Inclusive Democracy” put forward by Fotopoulos18. Few if any refer to any need for very large scale reductions in GDP and per capita “living standards” or to radically simple lifestyles and systems. The dominant assumption in these accounts is that the defining task is to take power from the capitalist class. It is not realized that a thorough going Socialism which maintained commitment to economic growth and high “living standards” would still accelerate towards ecological collapse.
Nor do these theorists deal with the implications for the form a society must take if it is to be satisfactory despite very low resource use and material “living standards”. Major concerns of The Simpler Way project are to show that given the limits to growth the core elements in the required society are beyond dispute, not optional, and to put forward a plausible vision of a possible structure and functioning. Above all the task is to show that the quality of life could be much higher than in consumer-capitalist society, and to show how easily this vision could be realized, if that was a widely accepted goal.
Thus the global scene that has emerged in the last half century means that many essential pillars of the old Socialist world view have to be scrapped. The following passages show that given this context sustainable and just communities must operate according to Anarchist principles.
The need for self-governing, thoroughly participatory communities of equals.
These small scale, complex, integrated and self-governing local communities must be largely autonomous; they cannot be implemented or run by higher authorities or a central state. They would have to largely govern themselves via thoroughly participatory processes. External authorities such as state governments cannot create or impose such communities. They can only be built and run by the citizens who live in them.
To begin with, in the coming era of intense scarcity states will not have the resources to run every town economy. Only the people who live in a locality understand the conditions, history, geography, social dynamics and needs. They will have to do the thinking, planning, decision making, and implementing via committees, town meetings and working bees. These communities will not function satisfactorily unless people realise that their situation and fate are in their own hands, feel empowered and eager to run their town well, want to identify and solve their own problems, and are proud of the communities they have built. Most importantly, there must be very high senses of community, empowerment, and morale. Citizens must not feel driven to do these things but attracted and eager to do them.
These factors rule out centralized or top-down control, even in the form of representative democracy. This exemplifies the core Anarchist principle of avoiding domination, even in relatively benign forms. (This does not rule out the need for nationally agreed guidelines, laws and limits on what towns can do.)
No Local is the title of Scharzer’s book19 and it represents the typical lack of concern Eco-Socialist’s commonly show regarding the viability of big cities, globalization, industrialism, growth and affluence, and centralization. Small scale communities functioning within local economies are also rejected by Phillips20 as non-viable and of no revolutionary significance. Further, this vision is seen as condemning Third World people to developmental stagnation and increasing deprivation. However as has been shown above, when the limits are attended to these common Eco-Socialist positions are contradicted. The resource economics and the need for community self-government and “spontaneous” citizen action determine that localization is imperative. Leahy’s study of African cooperative villages21 shows the economic and social superiority of this form of development compared with the standard neo-liberal instruction to poor peasants to compete in the global market place.
Ownership of the means of production.
A defining goal of Socialism is abolition of private ownership of the means of production. From the perspective of The Simpler Way this is not necessary and not desirable with respect to most of the economy’s productive units, which could remain in the form of small private farms and firms. As noted above, what matters is that the means of production are geared to socially beneficial outcomes, as distinct from being driven by the quest for profit on the part of their owners, and this can be ensured by guidelines within which the private farms and firms must operate, and oversight by committees and town assemblies.
This preserves the opportunity for people to enjoy the freedom to organize their productive contributions how they wish. The Socialist typically fails to give any attention to the importance of the sense of autonomy and empowerment in the productive arena, enabling the freedom to arrange and innovate and to vary work conditions etc. Indeed the producer is often cast into the very role the revolution is supposed to liberate him from; that is, as a wage earner, alienated from the product, and taking orders from a boss.
Socialists are strongly inclined to see equality solely as a problem of how the product is distributed. However from The Simpler Way perspective the problem more or less disappears, and is not solved via wages or redistribution of wealth. In a thriving Eco-village the quality of life depends not on one’s personal material wealth but almost entirely on the “spiritual” wealth of the community.
Another important equality factor is capacity to produce, as distinct from to consume. This is the old concept of “Distributivism” whereby it is ensured that all have a livelihood, the capacity to earn by making a valued contribution. Thus the community will make sure there is no involuntary unemployment.
Subsidiarity and spontaneity.
These Anarchist principles are evident in the alternative way where much of the physical, biological and social functioning and maintenance is carried out informally and spontaneously. Citizens take action when they see the need and without referring problems to officials or bureaucracies. Hence the common “Nanny State” criticism of Socialism is avoided. These ways are greatly facilitated by the smallness of scale, the collectivist ethos, and the simplicity of technologies and systems. Most people know how to fix most problems, and if not local citizens expert on the issues are nearby.
Conclusions regarding goals.
The argument has been that in an era of severe resource limits the viable social form cannot be the centralized, industrialised, urbanized, bureaucratized, resource-intensive, globalised and authoritarian form Socialists usually do not question. It has to be the largely autonomous small community (although there can also be small cities), and these must operate primarily according to Anarchist principles of avoidance of domination, and stress on participation, responsible and conscientious citizenship, spontaneity, subsidiarity, federations, and a value system focused on cooperation, equity, mutuality, caring, and the public good.
Part 2 of this discussion will deal with conflicting perspectives on the transition process. It will be argued that the traditional Socialist approach focused on taking state power is seriously mistaken and that in this new and unique revolutionary situation the appropriate strategy centres on the Anarchist notion of “Prefiguring.”
- World Wildlife Fund. The Living Planet Report, World Wildlife Fund and London Zoological Society. (2018),
- TSW: The Limits to Growth. https://thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm
- Hickel J., The inconvenient truth about global inequality, State of the World’s Resources, P2P Foundation. April. 22 (2016). https://blog.p2pfoundation.net/inconvenient-truth-global-inequality/2016/05/02
- Wiedmann, TO, H Schandl, & D Moran, The footprint of using metals: New metrics of consumption and productivity. Environ, Econ. Policy Stud. Published Online, 26 June. (2014) DOI 10.1007/s10018-14-0085-y
- Parrique, T., et al. Decoupling Debunked. European Environmental Bureau. July. eeb.org/library/decoupling-debunked ., (2019).
- TSW: The Alternative Society. https://thesimplerway.info/THEALTSOCLong.htm
- Trainer, T. Remaking settlement for sustainability. Journal of Political Ecology, 26.1. (2019).
- 8 Lockyer, J. Community, commons, and De-growth at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. Political Ecology, 24, 519-542. (2017).
- Trainer, T, A Malik & M Lenzen, 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, 4(3), 1-7, September. (2019).
- Grinde, B., et al. The quality of life in intentional communities. Social Indictors Research, March. (2017).
- Kovel, J. The Enemy of Nature. London, Zed Books. (2007).
- Albert, M. Parecon: Life After Capitalism. London Verso. (2003).
- Lowy, M. Eco-socialism; A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe. London, Haymarket Books. (2015).
- Lowy, M. Why Ecosocialism? A discussion of the case for a red-green future. Climate and Capitalism, December 19. (2019). https://climateandcapitalism.com/2018/12/19/why-ecosocialism-a-discussion-of-the-case-for-a-red-green-future/
- Bellamy-Foster, J. Marx and the Earth. New York, Monthly Review Press. (2016).
- Sarkar, S. Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London, Zed Books.(1999).
- Smith, R. Green Capitalism; The God that Failed. Institute for Policy Research and Development, London. (2016).
- Fotopoulos, T. Towards an Inclusive Democracy. London, Cassell. (1997).
- Sharzer, G. No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World. Zero Books. (2012).
- Phillips, L. Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts; A Defence of Growth. Progress, Industry and Stuff. Winchester UK, Zero Books. (2014).