The following article is adapted from “The Simpler Way: Working For Transition From Consumer Society To A Simpler, More Cooperative, Just And Ecologically Sustainable Society.” by Ted Trainer, P. O. Box 184 Panania, Australia 2213, And Social Work, University Of NSW, Kensington 2052. Although, as a rationalist I do not see it as a soluion, it covers some aspects and perspectives of present day society that many will find useful. “The Simpler Way” referred to in the article is covered at http://socialwork.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/
With the grossly unsustainable and unjust nature of our society, radical changes are required. There must be extreme changes in lifestyles, the economy, the political system and the geography of settlements. However the biggest problem we face is the culture of consumer society. It is built on some strong and largely unrecognised values and ideas that are mistaken – that are driving us into rapidly increasing global problems and will soon lead to our destruction if they are not abandoned.
The changes we must make in the economy, the political system, the geography of our settlements and our technologies, are huge and radical but could be made quickly and easily –- if people in general understood that they are necessary for our survival, and that they would enable a better quality of life than we have now. At present there is almost no understanding of any of this among governments or people in general, and therefore it is difficult to be anything but very pessimistic about our chances. There is almost universal obsession with affluence and economic growth among economists, politicians, media and ordinary people. These goals are seen as the way to solve problems when in fact they are the basic cause of our problems. For fifty years a few have been trying to draw attention to this fundamental cause of our problems, with almost no success because no one is prepared to even think about any challenge to the limitless pursuit of wealth.
The basic factors driving our society into increasing difficulties have been deep within Western culture for several hundred years. This makes clear how huge and difficult the transition has to be – we will not get through the coming century in reasonable shape unless we scrap and remake much of Western culture. (There are of course many elements in it that culture that are admirable and need not be changed.)
The following passages indicate some of the main values and ideas we must rethink.
With respect to values, there are three crucial clusters.
1. AFFLUENCE, WEALTH, MATERIAL CONSUMPTION
Above all else, the urgent global problems facing us are due to the fact that we in rich countries have rates of per capita resource consumption that are far beyond those that all people could have, or that can be kept up for us for long. The limits to growth analysis of our global situation shows that we should be trying to reduce these rates to something like 10% or less of their present rates, and that we should completely abandon any idea of increasing “living standards” over time, or economic growth. (See The Limits to Gowth.)
However raising “living standards” and the GDP is the supreme commitment in virtually all countries. People are fiercely obsessed with wealth. They want more money to buy more things, they want bigger houses, more expensive cars and clothes, and travel. They define identity and status by reference to the expensiveness of their possessions. They want new and luxurious things. All this has become much worse in recent decades as increasing affluence have become accessible to more people.
We now have a large middle class and under them a larger “aspirational” class who want to move up (and those below them with little chance are no less eager for more wealth). Obviously the top priority for the capital-owning class is that sales must constantly increase. All this ensures that governments must take as the supreme national goal the limitless increase of economic output.
It is no exaggeration to say that the quest for affluence is by far the most important cause of the world’s many alarming problems. Because people are trying to live with much higher resource demands than are possible for all, there is resource depletion (see The Limits to Growth Analysis), ecological damage (see The Environment Problem), the deprivation of the Third World via the “development” that allocates its wealth to the rich countries (see Third World Development), and the need for rich countries to maintain the global empire (see Your Empire). It is also the main factor generating armed conflict and war in the world. As all scramble for the dwindling resources it will inevitably become a more dangerous world in coming decades. (See Peace and Conflict.)
So no factor is more important in our predicament than the value put on material wealth, yet there is in effect an adamant refusal to think about whether this is a problem.
The required alternative.
It must be emphasised that what is required to defuse global problems is not acceptance of “living standards” that are so low that there must be deprivation and hardship. The Simpler Way is about frugal, non-affluent lifestyles, but these can be perfectly sufficient for material comfort, hygiene, etc., while enabling a higher quality of life than most people have now. The Simpler Way solves the problem of affluence by offering values and satisfactions that are “rich” but do not require many non-renewable resources. (See The Rewards in The Simpler Way.) Consider having to work for money only two days a week, living in a beautiful landscape crammed with artists, craftsmen and gardeners, with fabulous musicians and actors, with many festivals and celebrations, and with a strong and supportive community. Consider especially the fact that all would be secure from unemployment, poverty and loneliness, and would have a valued contribution to make.
A major reason why there is such obsession with consuming at present is because there is not much else to do. In The Simpler Way all people have as many interesting and worthwhile things to do all day as they can fit in, including the working bees and concerts, participating in art and craft activities, committees, being involved in governing, and “working” in their own household economies. There are far more important and satisfying things to do than go shopping.
There can be much satisfaction in living frugally and self-sufficiently, in repairing and keeping things going, in saving and recycling and using up wastes, in making things. When one understands the scarcity of resources it can be a source of satisfaction to know that you have been able to keep a jumper or rake handle going for years. Old and worn, patched and cheap things become valued, attractive, and new and expensive things can become seen as problematic, distinctly unattractive and to be avoided if possible. Above all there is the satisfaction from creativity, making things; growing perfect food, cooking, making furniture and clothes, works of art…and houses!
Of course this is far from the way most people see things. They idolise and desire the most lavish and expensive and luxurious things, and status comes from having them, so it will probably be very difficult to reverse these powerful tendencies. The coming era of increasing scarcity will help us to make these changes, but it is important that we portray them not as undesirable steps that must be reluctantly taken to save the planet. They should be seen as part of the move to a much more active, productive, cooperative, worthwhile and enjoyable way of life. (More detail on this theme is given in The Way I Live.)
Finally, affluence is not good for you! It undermines sensitivity and appreciation, and the ability to enjoy simple everyday things., Consider Kerry Packer, Australian media mogul, who bet $4 million in one sitting once. Anyone who must go to such an extreme for a thrill is not psychologically, spiritually well. Compare with the little old lady I knew who got great delight from roadside flowers or birdsong (see The Spiritual Significance of the Simpler Way.) Being increasingly able to purchase increasingly expensive, luxurious, spectacular things and experiences debauches; it desensitises.
Our society is intensely, indeed pathologically, competitive! The economy is organised in terms of firms competing for sales and people competing for jobs. Government is largely about groups struggling against each other to get into power, and groups struggling against each other to get favours from government. We go about disputes via an adversarial legal system (e.g., with little emphasis on conflict resolution or mediation.) “Education” is competitive; it is about striving for the best credentials to get into the best jobs. People compete for status. And sport is intensely competitive.
The problem with competition is that someone wins! This is a winner-take-all society, and with the triumph of the neo-liberal ideology the winners are racing away from the rest of us at an accelerating rate (See Inequality.) We accept arrangements which pit the strong and the weak in ruthless competition “..on a level playing field” (especially when all have to bid in the market place), then we docilely accept the few who are richest and strongest taking most of the available wealth. This is not the way a civilized society functions! In a satisfactory society, such as a normal family, the overriding principles determining what is done are cooperation and a concern for the needs of all. You make sure that those who are weakest or in most need get first priority, and you make sure we cooperate to do what is necessary. If you don’t have this attitude then the urgent needs of those least able to compete, and of the environment, will be ignored. This is obviously the situation in our present society.
The conventional view is that “…competition brings out the best in us. People work hard to improve the goods and services they are selling, and workers strive to improve their skills to get the available jobs.” This is quite misleading. Firstly any benefits of competition, such as effort and efficiency, might be achieved by other means. We don’t run households on competitive principles. Secondly the benefits are often outweighed by the costs, losses and damage that competition brings. In general it is much better, far more “efficient”, far more socially desirable and far more pleasant to organise things cooperatively! There is abundant and clear evidence on this. (See especially the book by A. Kohn, No Contest!, .) This evidence shows that if you want an inefficient way to organise personnel within a firm, make them compete against each other, and if you want an inefficient way to organise learning, make students compete against each other.
Kohn points out that when people compete much of their energy goes into worrying about and disadvantaging the others, as distinct from into performing the task at hand. When people cooperate in learning each benefits from the insights of others. It is much better if all people in a firm are thinking about each other’s task and feeding in ideas and assistance and support. In an economy there are huge costs from competition, including the wastage in all the business failures, the legal conflicts, and the zero-sum “marketing” warfare aimed at taking sales from each other. In this economy almost all compete against each other to try to sell something – when in a sane economy we could all live well on a small fraction of all that effort and resource use.
At the global level competition fuels the predatory domination of Third World countries by the rich world – the struggle for markets, resources and wealth that the rich win, thereby condemning billions to poverty and inappropriate development. And what are the chances for global peace when all poor countries want to join India and China in competing their way to rich world living standards?
Even if cooperation was less “efficient” than competing, it would be much nicer if we could all work cooperatively. The right focus and climate for human societies is working together, mutual aid, helping and nurturing. Competing is infantile, not morally acceptable, and indeed pathological.
It is important to recognise that cooperating implies giving way from time to time, being willing to let someone else have what you could have taken. It means that those who could have won in competition are willing not to take more than their fair share. This is quite foreign to the mentality of winner-take-all society. The strong do not want to have to accept only their fair share; they want the freedom to take as much as they can get. People in general think this way, even though most of them are far from rich or able to be winners. They think that those who are rich deserve their privileges, because they got to the top in competition, those who win deserve the prizes, and the losers would also eagerly be winners and takers if they could.
Another way of talking about this theme is in terms of the distinction between individualism or Liberalism on the one hand, and collectivism on the other. The philosophy of Liberalism advocates that we compete as individuals seeking to maximise our own advantage or self-interest. It claims that the individual should have much freedom to do what he wants and that this will benefit society because individuals have a strong incentive to set up firms which will produce things people want, etc.
While it is in principle desirable that individuals have much freedom to do what they wish, it is not possible to have a society without many restraints on freedom, e.g., it is not satisfactory if all have the freedom to drive on whatever side of the road they prefer. A major cause of global problems is the fact that at present the rich and powerful have far too much freedom, especially to take the markets and livelihoods of others. Again just glance at the Inequality documents to see what this freedom is leading to.
In other words it is not possible to have a satisfactory society unless people have a strong collectivist outlook, i.e., unless they put much value on things like the common good, the welfare of others, the public interest, standards, the welfare of the least fortunate, public assets, institutions and traditions. These values are weak in consumer society, and they are being undermined by the triumph of Liberalism. It is not possible to have any society made up of individuals motivated only by desire to maximise their own advantage. Society is something in addition to individual self interest; if there is no value put on public goals, assets, standards, practices, or the welfare of others, then there is no society. There is little doubt that in recent decades people have become more greedy, self-interested, callous and indifferent to civic affairs. (See Human Nature.)
“But isn’t human nature selfish and competitive?” Humans have a nature that enables them to develop values, habits and ideas that are intensely selfish or intensely cooperative. It all depends on the culture they grow up in. The Amish are extremely peaceful and cooperative, the tribal Mundugamor and Maori were extremely aggressive.
One element in the competitive syndrome is the obsession with success, achievement and status in Western culture. Success in life is defined in terms of beating others in the competition for wealth and position. People slave to “achieve” in school and in the company to “get ahead”. People admire the achiever, even when the achievement is some trivial thing like a sporting prize or record.
There are powerful forces in consumer-capitalist society driving us to individualism. We have no choice but to struggle as individuals to survive if not win. In The Simpler Way this will be reversed. The conditions, especially our intense dependence on each other, on our local social systems and on our local ecological systems will make us think and behave much more collectively. There is no reason why this needs to interfere with important individual freedoms. To call for a much more collectivist outlook is not to advocate big-state or authoritarian centralised control. It would result in taking more social control of economic affairs, because that’s the only way good but profitable objectives can be achieved. However this can be done via participatory means at the local level.
The coming era of scarcity will help us to overcome this problem syndrome, because people will be forced to see that their chances will be much better if they cooperate in developing more self-sufficient local economies. They will realise that they must have local gardens and bakeries and that they will not develop a satisfactory economy unless they discuss and plan and work together.
The second thing that will help us is the fact that people will (re-) discover the satisfaction that comes from cooperating. The Simpler Way involves strong community. People are thrown together in committees and working bees and they will find that this is much nicer than competing as isolated individuals.
Again it is appropriate to emphasise that we will be helped by our acute awareness of our dependence, on each other, on our local social systems, and on our local ecosystems. The Simpler Way requires but also reinforces mutual assistance and concern to see the other flourish, because all will be acutely aware that their own welfare depends entirely, not on their own talents or wealth, but on whether the local community, economy, political system and ecological system are working well. Whether all live well will depend on whether their locality looks after its bakers and musicians, etc. All will therefore have a strong incentive to think about the welfare of others, and to contribute to it.
Easily overlooked are the synergistic effects here. If I beat you to a parking space you feel bad and are more likely to treat the next person badly. Competition results in worse than zero-sum outcomes. But when one person helps another that person is more likely to be nice to the next person, and the goodness multiplies.
The main concern in The Simpler Way will be to nurture, to do things that help others to flourish. We will understand that this reinforces conditions we benefit from. The “prosperity” and happiness of others is not only not achieved at my expense, it will lead them to do nice things for me, and it will make me feel good to have made them feel good.
Why will we think this way? Do we all have to become saints before this is possible? Again, we will be like this because a) we will be in a situation where helping each other is obviously the best way to survive , b) we will realise that cooperating is nice!
The competition theme is closely related to individualism. Whereas tribal cultures are very collective, western culture emphasises the freedom for individuals to pursue their own interests. This has its origins in the long and painful struggles against rule by autocratic kings, the French and English revolutions and the emergence of Parliamentary rule. Obviously there are valuable elements here but the neo-liberal triumph is making individualism into a socially destructive force now. It in effect endorses the quest to maximise self interest and it neglects and de-emphasises collectivism, i.e., concern for the public good, and especially for the welfare of those least able to win in the competitive struggle. It accepts that the individual’s welfare depends on the individual’s capacity to provide for himself. It denies the importance of public wealth in enabling a high quality of life for all, and of the importance of all taking collective responsibility for the welfare of all.
What we want here is not any imposition of greater state control over individuals, reducing their freedom. We simply want to see greater concern for the welfare of others and for the public good; i.e., a more “collectivist” outlook.
3. PASSIVITY, APATHY —LACK OF CITIZENSHIP
In consumer society there is widespread and increasing political apathy. People tend not to be very concerned about social issues, and there is little interest in critical thought about society. There is acquiescence with the way society works and little or no significant dissent, let alone call for radical system change. People do grumble, e.g., about politicians, but they accept things like the existence of unemployment and the distribution of wealth and power. Above all they accept being governed; they have no concept of governing themselves.
Ivan Illich discussed this in terms of the passivity that come with consumer society. The individual’s role in such a society is as a “passive consumer of pre-packaged goods and services”. It is crucial for capitalism that the individual produces little for himself but purchases as much as possible. Therefore things are done for you by corporations, governments and professionals. Subsistence and self-sufficiency are seen as backward, characteristic of tribal and primitive societies. People even leave their own health to doctors, knowing little about diet, fitness or first aid, and just go to the doctor to be fixed up when something is wrong.
At the global level there are many extremely serious problems that would be solved very quickly if people cared enough to demand action, such as banning the use of landmines or depleted uranium weapons. The grotesque injustice in the global economy would be eliminated quickly if even a few were as annoyed about it as all should be. All this can be put in terms of a lack of social responsibility. (For a detailed discussion, see Social Responsibility; The Biggest Problem of All?)
In a good society and a world which had solved its big problems citizens would be highly socially responsible. They would understand, be interested in, care about and seek to fix their social systems. We are a very long way from such a situation.
There are powerful forces at work in consumer society generating this situation. Many are busy and stressed and have little time or energy left for civic afairs. Neighbourhoods are dormitories, designed without community in mind. Corporations want you to do nothing but self-indulge and consume. Governments do nothing to stimulate community or local self-reliance. Councils and professionals do everything for the individual so there is no need to get together to fix or run things in the neighbourhood. People watch 3 to 4 hours of TV each day. The “hidden curriculum” of school teaches people to do what they are told, take no initiative and take no responsibility for what they are learning (teachers make all the important decisions). Media give superficial accounts so it is impossible to form a confident understanding of issues. Academics self-indulge in their specialisms and contribute little to the clear and simple overviews that would enable people to follow public issues. The media and commerce work hard at confining minds to consuming. They spend $550 billion p.a. on their marketing” effort.
The term “Postmodern society” has been applied to the situation many believe we are in; a condition of stupefied preoccupation with trivia, especially created by the electronic media. People are focused on TV, sport, fashion, celebrities, popular music, spectacles such as football grand finals, Olympic games, fantasy etc. The attention span is very short, trained to the fleeting thrill or image momentarily attended to then dropped for the next one. Experiences are ephemeral and fractured, unconnected. One meaningless but attention-catching image or experience is followed by another, so there are moment to moment preoccupations, but no enduring meanings. It’s throw away experience, a parade of transient, trivial, mildly attention-getting trashy experiences. Products are used up and dumped and one moves on to the next. Self-indulge; consume now, have fun. Sensitivity is blunted. Identity comes from symbols, brand loyalty, designer labels. One does not attach to lasting causes, values, commitments.
There is little sense of what is important and what is trivial. There is no anger or radicalism. There is discontent, but it is with personal situations and experience and not with the social conditions or forces causing individual hardship or anxiety. There is no concern with global injustice. There is no concept of oppression, no dissent, no thought of challenging the system. Hence authorities have no need to expend effort to put down resistance…there isn’t any. Indeed what do discontented postmodern people do…that’s right, go shopping!
The situation seems to be getting worse. Evidence (e.g., from Hugh McKay) indicates people are increasingly disenchanted with politics and are retreating into their private concerns.
All this is to be expected from capitalism late in the day. It generates the mindless consumption of trivia, firstly by taking away purpose. People have no need to take responsibility, think about their community or public issues, because they live as individuals not members of any community, and everything is done for them by some corporation or bureaucracy. Their role is to work and then consume. They do not have to think about getting together to manage the village commons or run the local co-op or aged care facility. Capitalism has taken most functions from people, and will happily provide them for a fee. It has cast large numbers into struggling to cope, into boring jobs, and no jobs.
The Simpler Way cannot work without a great deal of social responsibility. It requires active, conscientious citizens. This is because the local community must run many things, so they must make the decisions, organise the committees and working bees, run the water and energy systems. These things will mostly not be done by councils or distant governments. In the coming era of intense scarcity we will not be able to afford much government. Therefore the necessary steps will not be taken unless people discuss issues, think carefully and critically and come to meetings and take responsibility for their own community.
The history of human emancipation can be seen in terms of the development of social responsibility. For over the last 12,000 years, since beginning to leave tribal ways, humans have suffered countless tyrannical kings and regimes, which they could have thrown off at any time had enough people decided to do it. Today it is unbelievable how tiny elite classes can dominate, taking most of the wealth and privileges, while exploited and deprived masses just accept their miserable fate. In many situations brutal action keeps elites in power while people acquiesce in arrangements which they could easily get rid of if they chose to. Ghandi said of the British colonial domination of India, “If Indians just spat the British would drown.” In present society the domination is much more obscure and subtle, but it is extreme. (About 1% of Americans have 33% of wealth, 80% share 14% of it.)
Humans will not have achieved political maturity until ordinary people cease to accept being governed and take responsibility for governing themselves. This is the basic principle in Anarchist political philosophy. People should never be governed — they should govern their own communities through participatory processes. No person or institution should have any power to rule over anyone else, including elected officials or political “representatives”. When some have the power to rule over others, even as elected representatives, they are very likely to start ruling in the interests of the rich and powerful. We will have achieved political maturity only when we have thrown off all elements of “being ruled”, of some having power over others, and have learned to rule ourselves cooperatively via a participatory democracy of equals.
2. IDEAS AND WORLD VIEW.
Following are some of the ideas in Western Culture which are contributing to our problems. (These merge with values.)
Progress”, “development”, expansion and growth.
The idea that progress is possible and that it is desirable is only about two hundred years old. Before that people didn‘t expect to see any change in their society over a lifetime. They would have hoped for emancipation in the afterlife but it was not expected on earth. However we are now used to “progress” and we think it is important and inevitable.
Progress is mostly defined in terms of scientific and technical advance, and increase in material living standards and GDP, as distinct from improvement in quality of life of “social capital”, citizenship or moral standards.
Expansion; growth is good. Set up branch plants, spread, take over, conquer, build a bigger corporation, build an empire, get richer… there is no concept of sufficiency or stability. Limitless economic growth. The Simpler Way is about stability, zero growth.
Modernisation for the Third World. “Development” means scrapping tribal and traditional ways, especially “subsistence” production for self-sufficiency, and entering the market to produce only for sale. Let the market determine all…attract foreign investment…that will maximise growth and GDP, which equals “development”. Modernisation means adopting consumer lifestyles.
Bigness is good. Big houses. Big corporations. Big cars. Big complex systems. The Simpler Way alternative accepts that “Small is beautiful”.
Cleverness, intelligence is admired; We “can do.” There are no limits to knowledge or human technical capacity…someday we will colonise the planets. Hubris…we humans can master and control nature. Rationality, technique…we can make battleships …(but we do not have the wisdom to avoid using them.)
Control of nature. Science in seen as conquering nature, forcing her to reveal her secrets and to do things she would not choose to do. Humans are seen as separate from and in control of nature. We do not focus on accommodating to nature’s ways and seeking to live humbly and appreciatively in harmony with them. Permaculture tries to work with nature, whereas modern agriculture is a battle against nature, seeking to force her to do things she is not inclined to do (e.g., keeping “weeds” out of our fields.) Science dissects nature, takes it apart to see how it works, in an effort to master and control it. Western culture has little sense of “earth bonding”, a concept central to tribal and peasant societies. Nature exists for us to exploit; it is OK to rip up and use up forests and mountains. Yes we think about conservation…but mainly so that there will be resources left to exploit later. There is little acceptance of the “Deep Ecology” idea that nature has rights.
Hierarchy, Domination, Power, Privilege, Status, Inequality
One of the strongest tendencies in the Western mind is the readiness to accept hierarchical systems. We organise society in terms of ranks of people who have power over those below them. Those on top take it for granted that they have the right to boss those under them, and those underneath willingly accept orders. This makes bureaucracies and armies work but the same dispositions are also through just about all of society’s institutions. We do not see people as equals in status and power. We think of some as of higher status and rightly having more power than others. This is the form taken by schools, governments, and firms. Most people find it impossible to imagine any other way…”How could you have equality of power in a school?”
Significant differences in wealth and privilege are accepted. It is alright that some are very rich and can own mansions and newspapers while others have too little for comfort. We do not have rules which prevent some from becoming very rich. People like power, like to be on top, like to dominate. They see power differences as normal. There are leaders. We must have a President. Some are born leaders.” Even thoroughly detestable tyrants and kings are tolerated. Most people accept royalty and see nothing repulsive about the idea that some people claim this kind of superiority, power and privilege. Status is a matter of rank, level of power or wealth, as distinct for example from being a matter of one’s quality as a person or citizen. Much effort goes into pretending, trying to give the impression that one is of high status via clothes, property, style and manners.
Inequality is therefore accepted.
People accept the fact that a few are obscenely rich, many are very rich…and many are quite poor. They do not say “This is outrageous! Let’s get rid of such a disgusting situation.” Even people who are very poor do not seem to object. All seem to think the rich deserve to be rich and the poor had their chance. All want the opportunity to rise to be among the rich few. How many would say, “I do not want to be part of a society in which there are rich and poor people – it is disturbing that some can be very rich while some go without necessities.” lf many thought like this something would be done. It is a winner-take-all society. It is OK that some can take far more than they need, and most people want to be one of the winners.
Tribal people are wise enough not to want or tolerate inequality. Mostly their “leaders” are only like chairmen, unable to get their way unless everyone agrees with their proposals. They are not interested in becoming rich and status comes from reputation, for instance as a hunter or musician or herbalist. Many tribes have rules and customs which prevent a few from becoming rich.
The Anarchist philosophy emphasises that no one should ever have any power over anyone else, and that we should organise social institutions on this principle. They want groups to practice participatory democracy whereby all discuss and make the decisions. They do not accept that leaders, heroes and saviours are necessary. We ordinary people can and should get together to solve our problems and run things well. Yes some people will come up with more good ideas than others, but no one should have more power to say what we will do. We will make sure everyone shares chairing the meetings, partly because that’s good for personal development, it increases our community’s stock of skills, and most importantly, it asserts the principle of as much equality in power and status as is possible. In the new communities of The Simpler Way everyone will have an important contribution; even bringing in the firewood is helpful.
In The Simpler Way the strength of our community will depend on the extent to which we can all come together to take responsibility and work out what to do and get the job done. It will not be strong if all are not included and if all do not feel they have a valued contribution to make. Only this climate can bring out the productive power of all, which will be needed. So the most able will always try to help others to develop their capacities and foster a cooperative effort, rather than take control of the situation.
This will feed into our attitude to heroes and winners…we will not have any! We will not be interested in them and we will not need them. We will seek to avoid competitive situations where someone will be the winner. We will not be interested in records or grades or who won… that’s infantile. Nor will we value saviours or great leaders. We do not need superior individuals to solve our problems because we know that ordinary people can work together to solve problems. It is not good for us to idolise the expert, elite, winner, guru, great leader, record holder, or those who stands out as superior. That contradicts collective strength and de-values the worth of the ordinary person. Expertise and skill are important in The Simpler Way, but being “the best” isn’t. Status is a matter of reputation and respect, built up from long acquaintance within the community. It is not a matter of rank. There is no point pretending, because people know you well, they know how well you can fix a windmill, how often you turn up to working bees, are helpful, can persevere, be cheerful when there’s a problem, and what skills and qualities you have. Even the smartest engineer in town will know he can‘t bake a dinner as well as granny. We all have our different but crucial contributions to make to a happy community.
In hierarchical society there is a readiness to accept domination and exploitation, The concern is to take advantage of others if possible and to force them to do things they do not want to do. If someone has to sell cheaply it is alright to pounce on a bargain. The incentives are for one to get ahead at the expense of the other. These are not nice, friendly ways of thinking or acting. Again the conditions of our new small self-governing communities will push us to be cooperative and equal. People will see that if they try to retain elitism then the cooperative ethos that is essential for our town’s survival will be damaged.
One of the most disturbing strands in Western culture is the readiness to take what others had. Stealing and thuggery are supposed to be wrong, but consider our record. Westerners throughout history have found it very easy to push others off their land and simply take it. Consider the expansion into the Third World starting with the brutal conquest of the Americas 500 years ago. In a short time native American populations were almost entirely killed off. The British fought 72 colonial wars to take more than half the world as their empire. They didn’t think twice about taking Australia from its native people. The Americans pushed the Indians off their land. The Western mind seems to have had no difficulty doing such things.
Consider the history of international relations. This has basically been little more than the history of attempts by one nation to dominate others, to conquer, to take the wealth of others, to plunder. Western international relations and foreign policy today are not far from the morality of the thug. Relations are often polite and without physical aggression, but they are usually about using weight to get as many of the available resources, markets, territory etc. as possible. Consider the chaos, warfare, and likely future of the Middle East and Central Asia, the arena in which the West is now locked in struggle against Russia and China to control the world’s dwindling oil supplies.
This connects with the readiness to brutality, vindictiveness and aggression that is easily triggered in the Western mind, especially if righteous indignation can be summoned. People eagerly consume brutally violent movies. Computer games are saturated with slaughter. “Make my day”. People can quickly take the opportunity to attack, injure, destroy, vanquish. The Christian ethic is supposed to be to turn the other cheek, not to hit back, to love one’s enemies. But to do business in a market is to risk predation. People are likely to take advantage of you, cheat you. It is OK to “make a killing”, and to try to drive competitors into ruin by taking their business. Law is about contests where one party wins in absolute triumph, not about sitting down to look for a sensible win-win outcome, or compromise. (In The Simpler Way there are village elders who mediate between people with a problem.)
The limitless acquisitiveness in Western culture also connects with these brutally predatory elements. Take as much as you can get. There is no concept of sufficient. Winner take all is OK, don’t worry about the “losers”. There is in rich countries close to no concern at all with the way their affluence and comfort help to cause the deprivation and misery of billions of other people.
Eisler’s book The Challice and the Blade argues that for 1500 years an “Old European Civilization” thrived in the Eastern Mediterranean, with a very peaceful, equal and participatory culture, and a strong environmental sensitivity evident in the worship of Gaia the Earth Goddess Mother. This culture was eventually overrun by a dominator culture, which Eisler says we still suffer in the West.
The conditions of The Simpler Way will sweep all this away. We will realise that we must be cooperative, helpful, nurturing, or our societies will not survive, and we will find these ways rewarding.
In “participator” society the basic concern will have to be to cooperate with, help and nurture the other. It will not be a zero-sum situation where what I get you can’t have. If we are so silly as to compete for individual advantage out town will die. But if I help you then you will help me and others and then others will help me. Synergism works its miracles. Goodwill multiplies. And above all, helping and working cooperatively with others not only builds community solidarity – it is enjoyable!
Some of the silliest unexamined assumptions and habits in Western culture are do with work. Firstly far too much of it takes place! In a sane economy we would live well on about one third as much as is done now. Yet work time is increasing and work conditions are deteriorating. (In 2006 40% of Americans work for the below-poverty line income of $5.15 an hour.) Work has been largely destroyed in capitalist society. For many it is not a source of enjoyment or personal growth. In the new economy it will be both. In consumer society people firmly believe in the moral worth of working hard. They despise laziness, even though we need a lot more of it. In consumer society work is mostly seen as an unpleasant means to a valued end, e.g., earning the money to spend on something nice. Thus most people are probably wasting about half their waking lives in the effort to enjoy the other half.
In the Simpler Way there will be far less produced and consumed, and producing will be enjoyable. Working hours will be short. Work will be at a relaxed pace, under the control of the producers. Work will be highly varied for the many who desire that, and making many different contributions throughout the day. There will be no drudgery. Much work will be cooperative, e.g., on working bees. Most work will be in homes, in gardens, in kitchens and community cooperatives. Much will be in craft mode of production. The distinction between work and leisure will collapse; people will enjoy producing and will do a lot of producing during their “leisure time, e.g., in gardens and crafts.
The importance of enthusiasm.
Perhaps the worst aspect of consumer-capitalist society is the gulf between the zest for life and enjoyment all could experience, and the stunted, stressed, spiritually impoverished lives most people are forced to endure, in even the richest countries. Again depression, stress and mental illness are at epidemic levels. Americans average 4 hours TV watching per day. These phenomena are due to lack of purpose, lack of enthusiasm, lack of worthwhile things to do.
About the worst thing that can happen to a person is to lose purpose. What matters above just about all else is having things you want to do, are interested in, hope for. To a large extent consumer-capitalist society has taken significant, worthwhile purpose from people. Consider Aborigines, homeless, tribal people, impoverished, unemployed, disabled and aged people. Most of them have nothing to do, no role, no contribution, no status or respect from their contribution. There is no interest in designing a society that would give these people important things to do (that would detract from the amount corporations could supply). Indeed this economy prides itself on the way the smart powerful few, the Wal-Marts, can take business and livelihoods from many others and dump them into boredom and purposelessness. No surprise that we have ever-increasing problems of depression, drugs, crime and self-destruction.
Thus the main reason why people devote themselves to Postmodern mindless trivia, TV, sport, celebrities, hedonism fantasy…and shopping, is because there isn’t much else to do.
The Simpler Way solves all this, automatically. All have important things to do, in a supportive community, full of artists and gardens, all know that their welfare depends on keeping the locality in good shape, and all are respected and valued for their contribution to this end. All will be acutely conscious of their beautiful surroundings, the landscape, the community, well run systems, their powerful political system, their institutions, the fact that they have built and that they run an admirable society, a society to be proud of.
It would be difficult to estimate the power, energy and creativity that will be released by this change in the situation individual’s experience. At present huge amounts of potential energy, time, skill, responsibility and are locked up in those people sitting watching TV, when they could be thrashing around their town doing things, helping, discussing, building, creating, caring for others and thinking about what would improve their town. What miracles could be perform in our neighbourhoods and to the quality of life there if we released 28 hours enthusiastic effort per person per week!
THE VALUES AND WORLD VIEW OF CONSUMER SOCIETY; THE BIGGEST PROBLEM. http://socialwork.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/
THE SIMPLER WAY: WORKING FOR TRANSITION FROM CONSUMER SOCIETY TO A SIMPLER, MORE COOPERATIVE, JUST AND ECOLOGICALLY SUSTAINABLE SOCIETY. Ted (F.E.)Trainer, P. O. Box 184 Panania, Australia 2213, and Social Work, University of NSW, Kensington 2052.