The Green New Deal has attracted much popular and academic attention but little of it has been concerned with the technical feasibility of proposals and claims made under this heading. There are two fundamental underlying assumptions, usually implicit but often put in the form of confident claims. One is that the resource and ecological impacts of the economic system can be “decoupled” from GDP, meaning that GDP can remain high or be increased while these impacts are reduced to sustainable levels. The second assumption is that transition to renewable energy can cut emissions to zero by 2050, and do so at a low cost in GDP terms, e.g., around 2-3% per annum (p.a.)
Within the enthusiastic GND literature there has been little consideration of the technical feasibility of the means whereby these crucial assumptions can be realized. Reference is at times made to studies claiming to have demonstrated the achievability of the required levels and costs (e.g., by Pollin, 2018.) However as will be explained below claims in this realm are contested in literatures not previously related to the GND, and are far from settled. Reasons supporting the negative case will be outlined below.
GND proposals mostly if not always take the possibility and desirability of continued economic growth for granted. Sometimes this is enthusiastically stated but usually it is implicit. For instance the original statement introduced into the US Congress by Ocasio-Cortez (Undated) does not mention implications for economic growth and proceeds as if there need be no impediment to it. A major strand within the movement advocates “Green Growth” explicitly claiming that the kinds of goals the GND is for can be achieved while economic growth continues. Pollin for instance rejects Degrowth. The following argument is that all versions of GND are inadequate; even those distancing themselves from the growth commitment are unsatisfactory due to failure to grasp the nature and magnitude of the global predicament and its implications for required change. Thus it is concluded that a sustainable and just world cannot be achieved unless there is very large scale Degrowth and unless extremely radical alternative social forms going far beyond GND are embraced.
The major goals usually outlined in GND proposals include achieving net-zero carbon emissions, creating millions of high-paying jobs, investing in sustainable infrastructure and industry, guarantee clean air and water, climate resiliency, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment, and promoting justice and equity for historically marginalized people. Above all is “… meeting 100% of the U.S.’s power demands with renewable energy within 10 years.” (Dunn, 2019.)
The supporting argument given for feasibility.
The literature on the GND mostly only states goals and gives little attention to the technical means that are assumed to enable their achievement. Most discussions and advocacy take the form of claims for which no rationale or derivation is given. Pollin is unusual in referring to technical sources he takes as establishing his position on renewables. In response to a personal inquiry asking for his reasons for believing GND goals can be achieved he provided links to 5 studies on the key climate/carbon/energy issue. These purport to show that transition by 2050 to around 100% renewable energy supply at an easily affordable cost, around 2% of GDP, is feasible. At first site these studies and reports are impressive, being lengthy, detailed, containing many elaborate tables and graphs and being heavily documented, but following is an indication of the reasons for not regarding them as providing satisfactory analyses.
Despite decades of claims and debate the issue of the potential and limits of renewable energy supply is far from settled. The majority of academic and popular comment asserts that renewables can easily meet total energy demand at low cost by 2050, but many studies find that this is unlikely or not possible. About 85 are listed at TSW (2021) including 38 mostly academic papers and a book by me. Almost all of the positive studies and reports I have analysed and published on are more or less irrelevant as they are merely “scenarios” setting out fractions of demand expected/assumed to be met by various technologies, with no information on how these conclusions were arrived at or how the goals are going to be achieved. Often no derivations and few or no crucial assumptions are given, making it impossible to examine and assess how sound the case supporting the conclusions is. This criticism applies to many of the reports by heavy energy “authorities;” a recent IEA example is discussed below. Most of these “scenarios” must therefore be regarded as little more than imagined outcomes providing no reasons to believe that they can be achieved. Some or many might turn out to be correct, but given the fact that when examined many can be seen not to not provide verifiable derivations from plausible assumptions they should be regarded as little more than unverifiable claims.
The sources Pollin lists involve this fault and it is important here that some illustrative detail from my longer Ecological Economics analysis should be gone into. The two most substantial items, the 311 page report by IRENA (2021) and the 224 page IEA (2021) document (listing 8 lead authors, 28 main authors and about 50 other contributors) contain numerous impressive graphs etc. and make detailed pronouncements about quantities of renewables, phase-out paths, costs etc. However neither provides any information on how the claimed 2050 figures were arrived at. They do not show the capacities or composition of the technologies that are being claimed to achieve the goal, or their quantitative contributions, or how the intermittency problem is to be solved. Above all, there is no plot showing how supply is to be maintained through the worst weather periods. Like many similar reports these two documents merely outline “scenarios,” statements of possible, imagined, 2050 energy supply composition with no reason given to believe that it could be achieved or afforded. This is often the case; several of the references in TSW (2021) refer to analyses making this criticism of studies claiming that reliable 100% renewable supply is possible and affordable. There is negligible if any value in publishing analyses which give no scope for critical examination of their fundamental assumptions or derivations. (The longer paper deals with additional serious criticisms of the IEA report.)
These and the other sources Pollin refers to cannot be taken as providing clear and persuasive support for his basic claims regarding the potential of renewables to enable GND goals. But are there others providing a better case?
Is 100% renewable energy supply possible and affordable?
There is a substantial case that it is not going to be affordable. As noted above, many academic technical studies come to this conclusion. There is no dispute that transition to a totally renewable system must be made but the aim of this section is to indicate the strength of the case that renewables cannot sustain current rich world energy-intensive societies. If this is so then GND proposals are unachievable.
Much of the literature enthusing about the feasibility of renewable supply is based on the fact that the cost of generating 1 kWh by renewable technologies has fallen rapidly to around or below that of generating 1 kWh by fossil fuels. This is indeed impressive but it is also misleading because the generating capacity required for a renewable energy system that can provide 1 kWh reliably, that is, at any time regardless of weather conditions, is several times the cost of producing 1 kWh when the wind is blowing or the sun is out. Various estimates put the multiple at 3 (Elliston, Diesendorf and McGill, 2012), 5 (Bardi, 2011), and 7 (Lenzen et al., 2016). This is due to the large amount of redundant plant and/or storage capacity estimated to be needed to meet demand when wind and solar etc. sources are very low.
Very few of the studies of renewable generating potential take a form that can provide persuasive evidence on the amount of plant and therefore total system cost that would be required. The studies needed to arrive at estimates of these quantities and costs must be complex simulations based on the detailed weather pattern for a large number of locations in the region under examination over a long period of time such as a year, in order to work out what combination of renewable technologies is needed to meet demand at all times during that period at minimum total generating, storage and distribution system cost. Results must make clear the amount and combination of renewable technology capacities found to be necessary, must show how and why this combined capacity can meet demand, and especially must show plots for how the various technologies can combine to maintain supply through the worst weather periods. Surprisingly few such studies seem to have been carried out. A recent review (Bardi et al., in press) lists only about seven (…but does not claim there are no more.) For Australia there have only been about eight “simulation” studies and the following notes on a few of the main ones point to the kind of difficulties, confusions, questionable assumptions, lack of agreement etc. which determine that in my strong opinion none can be regarded as having put forward a anything like a convincing case.
Simulation studies are complex and costly, and the main problem in interpreting them is that findings are markedly dependent on assumptions made. In all the Australian studies there are grounds for considerable uncertainty about assumptions.
The pioneering study by Elliston, Diesendorf and MacGill, (2012, 2013) concluded that renewables could meet total power demand throughout 2010 for a production cost of around 9 cents/kWh. The intermittency problem was dealt with by assuming use of gas turbines powered by biomass. However, the assumptions underlying this technology were highly optimistic and have been criticised on a number of grounds (Trainer, 2014; see the longer paper for reference to relevant studies.)
An extensive simulation study carried out by Lenzen et al.(2016) arrived at a production cost of electricity of around 20c/kWh and possibly up to 30c/kWh. The coal-fired production cost at that time would have been about 4 c/kWh. The total amount of generating capacity found to be needed was 160 GW, around 7 times the amount that would have meet demand if it could have run constantly at full capacity.
However the mix of generating technologies arrived at in the Lenzen et al. simulation relied heavily on Concentrated Solar Power, especially for its storage contribution. It was realized later that the efficiency assumption for this component was around double the established value. This problem was pointed out by Trainer (2017) and recognised in the subsequent study by Yousefzadeh and Lenzen (2019.) Surprisingly when the revised assumption was taken into their reworking of the Lenzen et al. (2016) simulation dependence on CSP was largely eliminated and given almost no storage role. CSP was replaced by a greatly increased role for wind, now meeting around 93% of demand. It is remarkable that wind was found to be capable of meeting almost all demand at all times largely eliminating need for storage.
Personal communications with the authors determined that a 40% capacity factor for wind had been assumed. This is problematic, firstly because the AEMO data published by ANEROID (2021) indicates an average value around 25% for total Australian wind farm output, often a value below 10% and at times almost zero. (The longer paper details this point.) These figures indicate that to get through difficult periods the Fig. 7 achievement in the Yousefzakeh and Lenzen paper would have required more than 400 GW of wind capacity. The total renewable capacity found to be necessary in the 2016 Lenzen et al. simulation was 161 GW. Note that national demand was only around 23 GW. Thus these two simulations would appear to leave the field quite unsettled.
A simulation by Li et al. (2020) apparently involved a similar problem of over-estimated CSP performance in poor weather conditions. At least it left uncertainties regarding the resort to a large amount of CSP capacity after Yusefzadeh and Lenzen (from the same research unit) had replaced CSP with wind. De Castro and Capellan-Perez (2018) published a devastating critique of CSP performance based on actual output data as distinct from theoretical modelling, indicating that its capacity to contribute to renewable systems is likely to be far below expectations. This would mean that the crucial large scale storage capacity such systems must have would have to be via batteries, hydrogen or pumped hydro, all of which are problematic.
Blakers, Stokes and Lu, (2017) make a strong claim that pumped hydro storage can solve the intermittency problem. However Trainer (2019a) points out that the studies by ROAM Consulting (2012) (Fig. 8.3, p. 41) and Entura (2018) (Fig 2.11, p. 19) agree that of the very large number of potential Australian sites Blakers identifies those practically feasible would only enable a quite limited storage capacity, in the region of 350 GWh. Australian electricity demand is around 600 GWh per day. In winter almost the whole of Europe can experience weeks of almost continual cloud, calm and intense cold. That sites are limited is also indicated by Wood and Ha.(2021, p.32.)
Some detail has been gone into regarding these major explorations in order to illustrate the difficulties and unsettled issues typically found in the few simulation studies that have been carried out. There are similar problems associated with the other simulations for Australia that have been published. These are elaborated in Trainer (in press). Conclusions differ significantly; the field does not enjoy consensus.
Recently attention has also turned to the implications for materials demand that would be set by large scale renewable energy generation. Various studies, such as that by Mischeaux (2021), estimate that there would be insufficient supplies of a number of crucial minerals.
Considerable enthusiasm is being expressed for renewable hydrogen to be the solution to energy problems. However, there are significant difficulties due to the light and diffuse nature of hydrogen. Storage and transport require energy-intensive compression or liquefaction, and large strong tanks. Delivery and use involve significant energy losses. Electric energy from a wind turbine might be converted to hydrogen at 70% efficiency, compression might take 7% of the energy in the gas compressed, delivery by tanker would involve a 7% loss, and conversion back to electricity via fuel cell after storage might be at 40% efficiency. The result is an overall efficiency of under 25%. Thus 4+ kwh would have to be produced to deliver 1kW of energy to a vehicle’s wheels, not including any of the significant embodied energy costs of the plant required at all steps.
Bossel (2006) reviews the formidable energy losses and costs associated with hydrogen. For instance a 40 ton truck typically capable of carrying 26 tons of petrol could deliver only 288 kg of hydrogen compressed to 200 bar (normal atmospheric pressure). Delivery of a unit of energy in the form of hydrogen would require about 32 times more diesel fuel than would be required to deliver it in the form of petrol. The heavy tanks would make up possibly 40% of the truck plus load weight.
Mackay(2008) says “…hydrogen powered vehicles are a disaster…” because they use more than three times as much energy as a petrol driven car.” The AEMO (2013) study of renewable potential assumed that hydrogen was too costly to consider for Australia. Bossel (2006) says the question, “Does a hydrogen economy make sense?... must be answered with a definite Never.” More recent analyses align with Bossel’s findings. (Notably, those of Friedmann, 2021.)
Further doubts arise from estimates of the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) for a wholly renewable system. Trainer (2018) and Capellan-Perez et al. (2018) independently arrived at a value around 6, which according to Hall, Ballough and Murphy, (2009.) is probably too low to sustain present society. This would mean that total system embodied energy costs (at the “farm gate”, not at point of use) would therefore be around 17% of energy generated.
Finally consider the magnitude of the task of providing sufficient energy for a world of 10 billion people living at present rich world “living standards.” The foregoing discussion has focused only on meeting electricity demand, which is only around 20% of total demand. Meeting total energy demand via renewable resources would require (a) conversion of as many functions as possible to electrical drives, and (b) conversions of electricity to required forms such as hydrogen for the remaining functions, such as aircraft fuel provision. Following is a much simplified but transparent derivation of a total cost estimate, indicating the magnitude of the task.
Let us assume that electricity demand is X GW, and therefore the amount of energy needed in non-electrical form is 4X. If we assume that 25% of present non-electrical demand, i.e., 1X GW, can be shifted to electrical drives then 2X GW of electricity for direct electrical use would be needed for electricity supply plus those functions. If the remaining 3 X GW of energy in non-electrical form is to be delivered as hydrogen produced from electricity at an efficiency of 25% then electricity produced for this purpose must be 12 GW. The total rate of generating needed would therefore be 14 X GW. If this is produced from renewable sources and the system has an overall capacity factor of 25%, then the total generating capacity needed would be 56X GW, that is, 56 times the present electricity generating capacity. (In the Lenzen et al. simulation the total system capacity factor was under 15%, despite significant underestimation of the amount of CSP required.)
But if in the worst week of the year system capacity factor fell to 10% (and there would be times when it is closer to 5%) then capacity needed would be around 140 X GW %). For Australia at present X is around 25 GW, so generating capacity would be in the region of 3,500 GW, or over 70 times that of the present electricity generating capacity. If the average capital cost of generating equipment was around the present approximately $2000/kw and a 25 year system lifetime is assumed, the annual capital cost would be around 21% of Australian GDP. Note that the capital cost is only around half the production cost, and the retail cost is around three times higher than that.
Trainer (2017a) provided a transparent derivation of the cost of a 100% renewable system based on hydrogen for storage and transport. Even though embodied energy costs and the cost of the hydrogen sub-system were not included the estimated annual energy cost arrived at was some 50% higher than 21%. A similar analysis for a global 100% renewable supply by Prieto (2021) also arrived at an unaffordable figure.
The present rich country total expenditure on energy is usually well under 10% of GDP but this includes significant taxes, meaning that the supply cost would probably be in the region of 4-5% of GDP. Hall, Ballough and Murphy (2009) and others estimate that when energy expenditure remains above about 5.5% of US GDP for some time recession occurs.
Brief reference to two other non-fossil fuelled energy options should be added here. Limited uranium resources determine that a world run on nuclear energy would need at last 50,000 thousand 1 GW Fourth Generation fast breeder reactors, involving the processing of plutonium. None are being put into operation at present. Secondly, despite extensive experimentation the weight of evidence and expert opinion is against the viability of very large scale Carbon Capture and Storage. In any case carbon-based fuels are limited and insufficient to sustain energy-intensive societies for very long.
To summarise, the foregoing notes indicate that the capacity of renewable energy technologies to achieve GND goals is far from settled, and doubtful. At least in the case of Australia, unusually blessed with renewable resources, the studies are inconclusive, inconsistent and challengeable. Science requires high levels of consensus across many studies before confident conclusions can be drawn. These simulations arrive at quite different estimates of quantities of renewable technologies, their composition, and resulting electricity production costs. Required capacities vary from 160 GW to 45 GW.
The decoupling assumption.
Pollin’s case also focuses on his claim that GDP growth can be decoupled from resource use. This is the dominant assumption encountered within the general discussion of sustainability. As Bokat-Lindell, (2021) says, “According to green growth orthodoxy, whose adherents populate European governments, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the World Bank and the White House, the global economy can both continue growing and defuse the threat of a warming planet through rapid, market-led environmental action and technological innovation.”
When asked in an interview (Pollin, 2021) for his reasons for believing that absolute (as distinct from relative) decoupling can be achieved Pollin did little more than repeat his view that renewable energy can substitute for fossil fuels, referring again to the IRENA and EIA reports. He did refer to recent absolute falls in emissions achieved by various European countries but did not comment on the extent to which external factors contributed to the falls. These include the global economic slow down caused by the GFC, the export of manufacturing from OECD countries, the stimulatory effects on GDP of trillion dollar quantitative easing inputs, especially in inflating asset demand, and the financialisation of the economy whereby GDP is increased by economic activity which mostly moves electrons around on screens rather than produces anything material. The two reports referred to are not about decoupling, they are only about the feasibility of 100% renewable energy supply. That would indeed achieve a large but one-off decoupling of energy sector emissions from GDP growth. But the total energy sector accounts for less than 10% of the whole economy and Pollin throws no light on whether or how the remaining 90% with its vast demand for resources and its many damaging environmental effects can be decoupled. Wiedmann, Schandel and Moran (2014) find that if GDP grows 1% resource demand grows 0.6%.
It is commonly assumed that technical advance will enable decoupling, that is allow economic growth to continue indefinitely without growth in resource use or ecological impact. However this “tech-fix faith” has now been contradicted by a large amount of studies and evidence. Although there are instances of decoupling in specific sectors, many studies show that despite constant effort to improve productivity and efficiency, productivity growth is low and/or falling and growth of GDP is accompanied by growth in resource use. Powerful refutations of the decoupling thesis have been published recently by Hickel and Kallis, (2019), Parrique et al., (2019), reporting on over 300 papers, and Haberle et al. (2020) reporting on over 850 studies.
These reviews conclude emphatically that in general absolute de-coupling of resource use and environmental impact from GDP growth (that is, reductions from present cost and impact levels) is not occurring, and that greater recycling effort and transition to “service and information economies” are extremely unlikely to achieve it. They emphasise that there are not good reasons to expect absolute decoupling in future; in fact the trends are getting worse. This would seem to constitute a very substantial case against the “tech-fix” and “Green Growth” believers and the “Ecomodernists”. (For a discussion of additional reasons why tech-fix faith is mistaken see Alexander and Rutherford, 2020, pp. 187-214.)
How much Degrowth is needed?
Unfortunately, few within the Degrowth movement, let alone outside it, realize the magnitude of the reductions that are needed in resource use and economic activity before sustainability can be achieved. Most proceed as if a moderate belt-tightening and elimination of frivolous consumption would be sufficient, and many assume that this could be done within the existing socio-economic system. However, when global resource consumption patterns are considered in relation to resource stocks and ecological processes it is evident that the reductions in rich world per capita consumption must be in the region of 90%.
This figure would strike most people as highly implausible. The case for it is detailed in (Trainer, 2021.) An indication of the reasoning is given by the derivation by the World Wildlife Fund of the Footprint index. This shows that to provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy takes about 7 ha of productive land (World Wildlife Fund, 2019). If by 2050 the expected 9.8 billion people were to have risen to Australia’s present "living standard" about 70 billion ha would be needed. But the amount of productive land on the planet is only about 12 billion ha, so if only a quarter of it is left for nature we Australians are using an average of almost 10 times the amount it would be possible for all to use.
And the difficulty in securing resources is increasing all the time. Mineral ore grades are falling and water, soil and food sources are becoming more problematic.
However this has only been an indication of the present grossly unsustainable situation. We must add the universal commitment to ceaseless economic growth. If 9.8 billion people were to rise to the GDP per capita Australians would have in 2050 given 3% p.a. economic growth, then total world economic output would be approaching 18 times the present amount.
Yet the present amount is grossly unsustainable: the WWF estimates that we would need 1.7 planet Earths to meet current resource demand sustainably. That means that by 2050 total world use of productive land would have to be around 30 times the amount which the Word Wildlife Fund estimates is available on a sustainable basis.
This extreme overshoot of the bio-physical limits of the planet is the main cause of most if not all of the major global problems now threatening our existence. Because the rate of resource consumption is so high mineral and biological resources are being depleted fast, poor countries are deprived of a fair share of the scarce resources because rich countries are taking most of them, much violent conflict is due to struggles to get control of resources and markets, resource demand and waste generation etc. are causing enormous environmental destruction, and the prioritizing of GDP growth is generating inequality and damaging social cohesion.
This means that the multifactored global predicament cannot be resolved just by degrowth, that is just by a shrinking of the present economy; it must also involve transition to a radically different social system, not a reformed version of the present system. It must be one that has abandoned growth and affluence, centralization, heavy industrialization, globalization, production driven by market forces and profit, and it must be one which enables all the word’s people to live well on very low per capita levels of material consumption. The extreme magnitude and difficulty of such a transition would be hard to exaggerate. It is hardly recognized even within the Degrowth movement. The purpose of The Simpler Way project (below) is to put forward a vision of the required alternative.
Conclusions on the GND.
The foregoing discussion indicates that the general GND perspective is built on major assumptions that are seriously mistaken. Most advocates fail to recognize the need for large scale Degrowth. Most proposals assume renewable energy sources can replace fossil fuels without significant and possibly unaffordable cost increases when there is a substantial case that this is not achievable. The assumption that resource and ecological impacts can be sufficiently decoupled from GDP growth is contradicted by a vast literature, especially when the consumption levels causing the impacts might have to be cut by 90%. And the assumption that a reduced and reformed version of the present socio-economic system would suffice is mistaken.
Most if not all GND proposals are about policies to be implemented within and by the present consumer-capitalist economy. These are typically admirable but if the above magnitude argument is sound these proposals cannot define the goal; there must be Degrowth to a radically different socio-economic system.
Most obviously, significant Degrowth means very large scale reduction in GDP and associated factors including investment, trade, and the finance industry. But capitalism is about constant pursuit of increased production, sales, markets and profits and thus investment opportunities. It is about lending to receive interest payments, and this is not possible in a zero growth economy. This is because if an amount of money is lent and more than that sum is to be repaid at the end of the year then the economy must have grown during that year. Significant Degrowth means scrapping large volumes of productive capacity, and therefore capital. If there is an urgent need to dramatically reduce resource consumption then resource allocation cannot be left to market forces and the profit motive to determine; there must be deliberate, rational social decisions about what purposes scarce resources are to be put to, what things will not be produced and how goods are to be distributed. It therefore cannot be a free market economy, (although most firms and farms would be very small and could be privately owned; see below). In the present economy any significant move in these directions would not be technically or politically possible; what, for instance, is to be done with the large numbers whose productive work is no longer needed? The Simpler Way perspective offers answers to these questions (below).
The Degrowth conundrum.
Even the Degrowth literature reveals little or no realization of how massive the Degrowth conundrum is. In an economic system that must have growth, how are you going to reduce the amount of producing, consuming, investment, trade, factories, lending etc. going on, let alone down to a small fraction of present levels? There are 300,000 Australians dependent on mining coal. What is to be done with them and their towns? You can’t shift them to other industries and jobs because the point is to reduce the production of things? Present economists, governments and people in general would not have a clue what to say about this.
The basic premise within The Simper Way perspective is that because the rates of resource consumption and ecological damage are so grossly unsustainable a satisfactory society must involve transition to far simpler lifestyle and systems. The detailed discussion (Alexander and Rutherford 2020, TSW 2019) shows that the basic social form must be mostly small scale, highly self-sufficient, self-governing, and collectivist communities in control of their local economies, focused on frugal well-being not material affluence.
Resource and ecological impacts can only be dramatically reduced if these kinds of communities are adopted. This is illustrated by a study of egg supply which found that the industrial-agribusiness-supermarket path involves resource and dollar costs around fifty times those of backyard and community cooperative production. (Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, 2019.) The difference is due to the smallness of scale, the proximity and integration of functions within communities, and the spontaneous and informal social interactions enabling quick and efficient management. The supermarket egg has a vast and complex global input supply chain involving fishing fleets, feed mills, agribusiness, shipping and trucking transport, warehousing, chemicals, infrastructures, supermarkets, storage, packaging, marketing, finance and advertising and insurance industries, waste removal and dumping, computers, a commuting workforce, OH&S provisions, and highly trained technicians. It also involves damage to ecosystems, especially via carbon emissions and agribusiness effects including the non-return of nutrients to soils.
However, eggs supplied via integrated village cooperatives can avoid almost all of these costs, while reaping collateral benefits, especially enabling immediate use of all “wastes.” Recycling of kitchen and garden scraps along with free ranging can meet total poultry nutrient needs. Poultry and other animal manures, including human, can be directly fed into compost heaps, methane digesters, algae and fish ponds, thereby eliminating the need for inputs to village food production from the fertilizer industry. No transport needs to be involved. Care and maintenance of systems can be largely informal, via co-ops, rosters and spontaneous discussion and action. In addition, cooperative care of animals adds to amenity and leisure resources and facilitates community bonding.
These principles can have similar effects in many other domains, including other food items, dwelling construction, light manufacturing, clothing supply, welfare, aged care, health, educational and other services, and especially in provision for leisure.
These kinds of arrangements are evident in many Ecovillages. The Dancing Rabbit ecovillage in Missouri has per capita resource consumption rates around 5 - 10% of US averages, while enjoying above average quality of life indices. (Lockyer 2017.) Trainer (2019b) shows how a Sydney outer suburb could be restructured to enable almost all food to be produced from within its boundaries. Edmondson’s study of Sheffield (2020) found that “… there is more than enough urban land available within the city to meet the fruit and vegetable requirements of its population.”
These communities are run via thoroughly participatory arrangements among equal citizens, involving town assemblies, committees and working bees, which make and implement the decisions estimated to maximise the welfare of the town. There can still be a (minor) role for market forces, and most productive property might be privately owned in the form of small firms and farms, operating within strict guidelines which prevent anti-social behaviour. There would still be a (much reduced) role for “state” bureaucracies coordinating railways and communications etc., and maintaining a national economy enabling all towns to produce a few of the things they cannot produce for themselves so that all have access to such items and can contribute to their supply.
The overall savings would ensure that there could be more resources for universities, the training of professionals, high-tech medicine and R and D on socially important issues than there are at present. However, most technologies would be simple and not dependent on heavy industry, complex machinery and systems, IT, highly trained personnel or resource inputs.
None of this is possible unless there is profound cultural change, away from competitive individualistic obsession with acquisitiveness, and to prioritizing cooperative community welfare and non-material sources of life satisfaction. There would be much time to pursue these, given that only two days a week might need to be spent working for money.
Easily overlooked are the quality of life and “spiritual” rewards of The Simper Way, (TSW, 2020.) and how the situation would generate conditions, incentives and rewards encouraging community interaction and support and conscientious and enjoyable citizenship.
Thus, the alternative way is far from a reduced version of current consumer-capitalist society; it must involve extensive Degrowth to a quite different kind of society and culture. The argument has been that this is non-negotiable; there is no alternative capable of solving the problems being generated by growth and affluence society.
It is obvious that the probability that such a vast transition will be achieved is currently very low, but that is not central here. The issue is, is there any other way out of the present descent to a probably terminal time of troubles? If not, then the task is to work for the transition regardless of its prospects.
Thus the answer to the Degrowth conundrum can only be, transition to some kind of Simpler Way. Large numbers of people currently living in ways that involve huge amounts of producing and consuming must (eventually and happily) shift to ways that do not. This can only be done in the kind of communities outlined. How these could cut resource and ecological impacts dramatically is shown in the article “How cheaply we could live well.” (Trainer, 2022.)
But this society cannot solve the big problems.
Central in Simper Way transition theory (Trainer, 2020) is the firm conviction that our present social institutions are incapable of solving the big global problems. There are several reasons, but the main one is that the basic cause, exceeding the limits to growth, is not even recognised. Many analysts see that consumer capitalist society is accelerating to self-destruction and a time of great troubles. The hope has to be for a Goldilocks descent that is not so chaotic that any hope of salvage is lost but serious enough to galvanise transition to frugal, self-sufficient local ways. Our urgent task is to work at the grass roots level to build local communities of the kind outlined above. The focus must be on building cooperative needs-driven economies underneath the failing profit-driven systems, and cultures focused on “frugal abundance,” that is, on non-material sources of life satisfaction. There is now much energy going into this, especially in the Third World and in the Ecovillage and Transition Towns movements. We are in a race between the forces of decay and the emergence of the sane alternative. It is to be hoped that the good people in GND campaigns can broaden their perspective to see it as being for this (potentially quite peaceful) revolution.
Ted Trainer is a retired lecturer from the University of NSW, Australia.
A version of this critique is in the May 2022, issue of Ecological Economics. (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0921800922000404)
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