For several decades Ted Trainer has been developing and refining an important theory of societal change, which he calls The Simpler Way (Trainer, 1985; Trainer, 1995; Trainer, 2010a). His essential premise is that overconsumption in the most developed regions of the world is the root cause of our global predicament, and upon this premise he argues that a necessary part of any transition to a sustainable and just world involves those who are overconsuming accepting far more materially ‘simple’ lifestyles. That is the radical implication of our global predicament which most people, including most environmentalists, seem unwilling to acknowledge or accept, but which Trainer does not shy away from and, indeed, which he follows through to its logical conclusion.
The Simpler Way is not about deprivation or sacrifice, however; it is about embracing what is sufficient to live well and creating social and economic systems on that basis. This essay presents an overview of Trainer’s position, drawing mainly on the most complete expression of it in his latest book, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World (Trainer, 2010a), an analysis which is supplemented by some of his more recent essays (Trainer, 2010b; Trainer, 2011).
My review is designed in part to bring more attention to a theorist whose work has been greatly underappreciated, so the review is more expository than critical. But in places my analysis seeks to raise questions about Trainer’s position, and develop it where possible, in the hope of advancing the debate and deepening our understanding of the important issues under consideration. I begin by outlining the various elements of The Simpler Way and proceed to unpack them in more detail.
2. Outline of The Simpler Way
The premise of Trainer’s position, as noted, is that a necessary part of any transition to a sustainable and just world involves those who are overconsuming accepting far more materially ‘simple’ lifestyles. Given the extent of ecological overshoot (Global Footprint Network, 2012), Trainer argues that there is no way to sufficiently decouple current economic activity from ecological impact in the time available, which necessitates moving away from high impact, Western-style consumer lifestyles without delay.
While Trainer is unreservedly in favour of renewable energy, he presents an evidential case that renewable energy and other ‘tech-fixes’ will never be able to sustain energy and resource intensive consumer societies. This goes against the grain of mainstream environmental thinking which seems to assume that ecological sustainability can be achieved without giving up high consumption, energy-intensive lifestyles.
Trainer also insists that mere ‘lifestyle’ changes are insufficient to achieve sustainability; fundamental structural change is also required. On that basis Trainer proposes that growth-based, consumer capitalism must be replaced with a zero-growth or ‘steady state’ economy. In recent decades many other theorists have also been arguing for a steady state economy (Daly, 1991; Victor, 2008; Jackson, 2009), but Trainer maintains that even most advocates of a steady state economy do not appreciate the radical implications of such an economic framework; most importantly, they do not seem to appreciate that a zero-growth economy implies giving up interest bearing loans, since that mode of financing economic activity requires capital growth in order to pay back the debt plus the interest. Even the Transition and Permaculture Movements (Hopkins, 2008; Holmgren, 2002), which Trainer believes are the most promising eco-social movements at present, are subjected to his sympathetic criticism for seemingly trying to build more resilient and sustainable communities within consumer capitalism, rather than focusing on the more radical project of replacing consumer capitalism.
After presenting his critical analysis of the global situation, Trainer describes his vision of The Simper Way, which is a vision of communities creating highly localised, zero-growth economies, based on far lower resource and energy consumption than what is common in developed nations today, and in which the profit motive has been largely or entirely removed. Since Trainer believes that governments are inextricably intertwined with the economic imperative to grow, his theory of change is fundamentally ‘anarchistic,’ in the sense that he believes that ‘top down’ parliamentary processes cannot be relied on to play any significant role in restructuring society for The Simpler Way.
The change that is needed, he argues, if it is ever to arrive, must be driven by grassroots, community-based action. It is a peaceful revolution that Trainer envisions, but a revolution all the same, and it is one that he believes can be completed in a matter of months (Trainer, 2010a: 14), provided a critical mass of people are prepared to act for its realisation. The problem is not what needs to be done. ‘That’s easy,’ he asserts (Trainer, 2010a: 15). ‘The problem is developing the understandings and values whereby ordinary people will want to design and build the new systems, and will delight in doing so’ (Trainer, 2010a: 15).
3. The Global Predicament
Trainer’s vision of The Simpler Way can only be understood in relation to his diagnosis of the global situation, which arises out of the ‘limits to growth’ analysis (Meadows et al, 2004). He argues that the most serious fault in the existing economy is the commitment to industrialised production, global trade, consumer lifestyles, and limitless economic growth. While the figures and statistics on resource depletion and environmental degradation are well known (MEA, 2005), their significance are not generally acknowledged or fully understood.
Trainer contends that very few people recognise the real extent of ecological overshoot. The global economy, he argues, is far beyond the levels of resource and energy use that can be maintained for much longer, let alone spread to all people. Add to this situation the fact that global population will increase to 9 billion in the next few decades and the magnitude of our problems becomes clear. ‘Our way of life,’ he concludes, ‘is grossly unsustainable’ (Trainer, 2010a: 19).1