For more than two hundred years it has been taken for granted that progress, the good life, high living standards and development involve rising to higher incomes, greater material wealth and economic output, and more technically sophisticated and resource-intensive ways. For the poorer countries this has meant striving to be like the rich countries. The possibility that the rich countries have made a dreadful, indeed suicidal mistake never occurred to anyone… until recently when it has begun to dawn on us that the pursuit of affluence and growth is killing the planet.
It is imperative that a very different conception of development should be adopted as quickly as possible. It is not difficult to imagine a sane, sustainable, just and fulfilling alternative.
Let’s start with goals. What ought to be the point of development? What conditions, experiences, structures and ways might we find in a society that provides high quality living conditions to all and is just, sustainable and admirable? Here’s a list I think we’d more or less agree on.
- Good health.
- Having sufficient good quality food.
- Having a sufficient dwelling and basic clothing etc.
- Having friends, soul mates.
- Having meaning and purpose, interesting things to do.
- Belonging to and being involved in a supportive caring community concerned for the welfare of all.
- A basically sense of collectivism, not winner-take-all individualistic competition.
- Being valued, appreciated, respected, especially for making a contribution to one’s community.
- Feeling secure, from avoidable adversity such as unemployment, poverty, violence, and social breakdown.
- Freedom from stress, anxiety and worry, including over insufficient income, pace, over-work, isolation/loneliness, depression, unpleasant living space, traffic, social breakdown.
- Freedom/autonomy over one’s life and work.
- Not having to work hard or struggle; a relaxed pace, time to think, converse, recreate, grow spiritually.
- Having opportunities for creative activities, craft, art, gardening, writing.
- Closeness to nature. Living in a beautiful environment.
- Having sources of regeneration and battery charging, such as gardening, hobbies, convivial company, landscape.
- Having a sense of place, a home.
- Familiarity and stability; freedom from threat of disruption, especially caused by development and economic recession.
- Having traditions, a culture, celebrations, meaningful rituals.
- Pride in one’s family, town, society, institutions, nation; recognition that our ways are basically admirable… we care, we try to minimize selfishness, disadvantage, inequality, domination and winner-take-all ways. The way we think and discuss is rational, respectful and mature.
- Peace of mind. Some degree of capacity to feel alright about things, oneself, one’s society, the planet. Reasons to be optimistic.
None of these conditions requires high income, wealth, property or a large GDP. Some such as adequate health services do require a low level of national material wealth, but it is possible to have nice things such as a small mud brick house at negligible expenditure. Most of the items in the list do not depend on monetary income at all. They are all easily ensured for all people if there are sensible social arrangements.
So why is it that even in the richest countries so few people do not enjoy these conditions that our greatest health problems are now depression, stress, anxiety and loneliness, and we are facing the probability of catastrophic social breakdown as well as ecological breakdown. The obvious answer is because an absurdly wrong conception of development has been embraced, one which insists that progress, development and the good life must be defined primarily in terms of increasing material wealth. Thus everyone knows that to raise output, sales and the GDP is to raise living standards.
The result: How development conventionally defined works
When development is defined in the taken-for-granted conventional terms of getting the economy going and growing the GDP, it is necessary for capital to be invested in setting up factories and export industries. This means borrowing huge sums and enticing foreign investors in to set up industries. They won’t come unless you build the ports and power stations and dams they will want to use, as distinct from building the things that might improve the conditions of the people. Large debts soon accumulate. (Perkins, 2004 documents the role he had in enticing countries to take on impossible debt levels.) When their debts cannot be repaid, the problem is solved … by lending them more, on condition that they further gear their economies to the interests of rich-world banks and corporations. These Structural Adjustment Packages firmly lock them into competing against each other to earn export income to pay debt, reducing regulation and providing favourable terms for foreign investors, devaluing their currencies (which makes their exports cheaper for us and their imports from us dearer), keeping wages and welfare expenditure low, and competing against other poor countries to sell cheap resources to us. The promise is that the resulting increase in wealth will trickle down to raise the living standards of all, but very little ever trickles down, large numbers lose their land and livelihoods, local elites prosper and inequality skyrockets… and vast wealth flows out to rich world corporations and supermarket shoppers.
Hickel et al. (2022) estimate that there is an annual net flow of around $15 trillion p.a. from poor to rich countries, largely due to cheap imports produced by low wages. In addition to the dollar costs there are the social and ecological costs of production in the form of toxic mine wastes, cleared forests, soil loss, air pollution, CO2 emissions, bad living conditions and the health effects of damaged ecosystems.
“But hasn’t this development lifted millions out of poverty?” Yes… in some places like China where cheap wages have attracted corporations to relocate from the now impoverished US rust-bucket states… but not in Haiti.
It is a serious mistake to call this development; it is only capitalist development. It is what happens when you let development be determined by what the few with capital invest in and devote your resources to whatever they think will maximise their wealth. It is obviously a form of legitimized plunder, trapping billions in debt slavery.
It is also totally impossible
Rich world levels of production, consumption, living standards and GDP are far beyond those that all the world’s people could ever rise to. By some estimates (Trainer 2021) they might be ten times too high, and if growth continues at present rates by 2050 the multiple will be around 20… while resources dwindle and there is acceleration in ecological problems, global debt levels and incentives for resource wars. The pursuit of growth and affluence is now not just absurd, it is suicidal. Many now realise all this, evident in the rise of the Degrowth movement, but mainstream politicians, economists, media and publics do not.
Reviews of hundreds of studies (e.g., Haberl et al., 2020) show that technical advance is not going to solve these problems. Growth of GDP is not being decoupled from growth in resource use, and is not remotely likely to be; in fact the trends are deteriorating.
These considerations make it clear that most of the big global problems are due to grossly excessive over-production and over-consumption. The solution therefore has to be sought in terms of lifestyles and systems that enable a high quality of life for all on very low per capita and national levels of resource consumption. This would be easily done… if we want to do it. But it can’t be done unless we scrap several things, including capitalism, and even more difficult, obsession with material wealth.
The Simpler Way claim is that the kind of society we must transition to, in rich and poor countries too, must have the following characteristics. (For the detail see Trainer 2017.)
Most people would live in small and highly self-sufficient and self-governing communities in control of zero growth local economies in which market forces played only a very minor role, there are strongly cooperative and collectivist values and arrangements (e.g., commons, committees, working bees), government is via thoroughly participatory processes (such as town meetings and referenda), and economies were needs-driven and not profit-driven. Above all there would have to be a culture of willing self-sufficiency, collectivism, frugality and life satisfactions derived from non-material pursuits. There would still be (small) cities, (some) mass production factories, universities, national rail etc. systems, high tech research and modern health care etc.
The integration and proximity within such settlements enables intensive recycling, overlapping functions, reductions in overheads, and synergism. For instance a study of egg supply (Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, 2019) found that production via backyards and local poultry co-operatives could reduce resource and dollar costs to around 2% of those within the conventional supermarket path. There is negligible dependence on the infrastructures and inputs that path involves, such as agribusiness, factory farming, industrial infrastructures, feed mills, energy, ship and truck transport, fertilizer production, waste removal and treatment, packaging, marketing, supermarket operations, IT systems and expensive personnel. Management is via informal interactions between participants, requiring no offices or trained personnel or overhead expenses. No machinery, chemicals, accountants or advertising executives are needed. Produce is fresh and free of additives. In addition local production has benefits, especially in recycling manures to nearby gardens and methane digesters, reducing if not entirely eliminating the need for fertilisers, poultry feed production mills and sewer systems.
Reconsider the list of goals with which this article began. All would become easily and mostly automatically achievable in societies like this.
A government operrating from this perspective would keep the country out of the global economy as much as possible, strive to make it as self-sufficient as possible, export only that small amount that would pay for crucial imports, accept little or no foreign investment, take on very few loans, focus on development of what is needed not what is profitable, prevent the market from making important decisions, and forget about the GDP, preserve traditions and assess policies in terms of quality of life indices.
Ruling elites and existing governments are very unlikely take any notice of this perspective. Politicians are in general rich, own businesses, have investments or offer professionals services to the rich. They don’t want to see the market interfered with, let alone to see the volume of business reduced. We should try to get assistance from them but our main concern should be to turn away from them and, like the Zapatistas, build our own alternative systems separate from the mainstream.
So that has to be the development goal; a sustainable and just world in a context of very limited resources cannot be conceived in terms other than lifestyles and systems that are materially simple. This is the only way to defuse problems like global resource scarcity, ecological destruction, the deprivation of people in poor countries, inequality, resource conflicts, and deteriorating social cohesion.
And many are doing it
This conception of development flatly contradicts the indubitable conventional view. What is not generally understood that a revolution establishing it involving millions of people is well underway. In rich countries many are working in Degrowth, Ecovillage, Transition towns, Voluntary Simplicity, Down-shifting and other movements to establish elements within the above vision. But the biggest and most radical movements are mostly to be found among tribal and peasant regions within poor countries, for instance among the Andean peasant movements, and the Zapatistas, Campesinos, Ubuntu and Swaraj movements, the Catalans (Trainer, 2018) and the Rojavan Kurds (Trainer, 2018.) The Senegalese government intends to establish 1400 Eco-villages. (St Ong, 2015.) Leahy’s (2009, 2018) account of the African Chikukwa initiative compares the futility of goading peasants to compete in international food export markets with the development of highly self-sufficient permaculture villages. (See also Appfel-Marglin, 1998, p. 39; Post Carbon Institute, 2009; Mies and Shiva, 1993; Benholdt-Thompson and Mies, 1999; Korten, 1999, p. 262; Rude, 1998, p. 53; Quinn, 1999, pp. 95, 137; Gelderloos, 2022; Montichelli, 2022.)
This is a remarkable and little-recognised revolution. Millions are simply dumping the conventional capitalist model of development, turning away to build their own collective, self-sufficient, non-market and frugal ways according to cultural traditions. (See Barkin 2022 for detail.) This is a distinctly non-Marxist revolution. It does not involve fighting the system in order to take state power and push new ways though despite resistance.
The crucial factor in these movements is cultural; it is to do with the ideas and values that are held. There is powerful cohesion around the intention to not go down the capitalist road, built on long tragic histories of experience of what it has done to these people. But sadly in most poor countries the is little or no understanding that there is any alternative to conventional capitalist development. This is not surprising as it is constantly reinforced by governments, experts, many NGOs, aid, most academic literature, Western media and agencies such as the UN.
What poor countries need most of all right now is not more aid, or better trade terms, or stronger regulation of transnationals, or getting rid of SAPs, or more IT, or more experts. It is the debunking and dumping of the conventional conception of what constitutes development. It is coming to see that the dominant form simply imposes mechanisms of plunder and that an alternative set of goals and means centred on simplicity exists and are being pursued.
- Appfel-Marglin, F.A., (1998), The Spirit of Regeneration; Andean Culture Confronting Western Notions of Development. London, Zed Books.
- Barkin, D., (2022), “Building sustainable communities: The communitarian revolutionary subject” In: Karagiannis, N. King, J.E. (Eds.), Visions and Strategies for a Sustainable Economy. Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-06493-7_11 Pp. 213-253
- Benholdt-Thomsen, V., and M. Mies, (1999), The Subsistence Perspective. London, Zed.
- Gelderloos, P., (2022) The Solutions Are Already Here. London, Pluto.
- Haberl, H., et al., (2020), “A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights”, Environmental Research Letters, 15.
- Hickel J., C. Dorninger, H. Wieland, and I. Suwadi, (2022), “Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: Drain from the global South through unequal exchange, 1990–2015”, Global Environmental Change, Volume 73, March 10246
- Korten, D.C., (1999), The Post-Corporate World. West Hartford, Kumarian Press.
- Leahy, T., (2009), Permaculture Strategy for the South African Villages, Palmwoods, Qld., PI Productions Photography.
- Leahy, T., (2018), Food Security for Rural Africa: Feeding the Farmers First, Routledge.
- Mies, M. and V. Shiva, (1993), Ecofeminism. Melbourne, Spinifex.
- Monticelli, L., Ed., (2022.), The Future is Now: An Introduction to Prefigurative Politics, Bristol, Bristol University Press, Ch. 15.
- Perkins,J., (2004), Perkins, J., (2004), Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Ebury Press.
- Quinn, D., (1999), Beyond Civilization, New York, Three Rivers Press.
- Post Carbon Institute, (2009). “Relocalize“, PostCarbon.org.
- Rude, C., (1998), “Postmodern Marxism; A critique.” Monthly Review, November, 52-57.
- St-Onge, E., (2015), “Senegal transforming 14,000 villages into eco-villages!”, Valhalla Movement.
- Trainer, T., (2021), “Degrowth: How Much is Needed?”, Biophys Econ. Sust., 6, 5. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41247-021-00087-6
- Trainer, T., (2020a), “Kurdist Rojava; A social model for our future”, Resilience, 3 Jan.
- Trainer, T., (2020b), “Transition“, TheSimplerWay.info.
- Trainer, T., A. Malik and M. Lenzen, (2019), “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, September.
- Trainer, T., (2017), “The Alternative Society“, TheSimplerWay.info.