5: Thoughts on the NSW CASSE Project

For Transition to a Steady-State Economy.

Ted Trainer, 24.3.2013

NSW CASSE (Centre for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy) is to work on the question of how we might transition to a zero growth economy. This project is of the greatest importance, especially as in my view much/most thinking on the issue is confused and/or mistaken.

There is now much critical literature on the growth economy. However most of it, especially from the best known contributors such as Tim Jackson, Herman Daly, Paul Gilding, David Korten and Hazel Henderson, does not argue that it is necessary to scrap and replace capitalism; they proceed as if changes within a capitalist society can head off the problems it is presently generating. I will briefly indicate below reasons why this view is quite mistaken, but my main concern here is with the problem of transition to a steady state economy, on which the above authors do not provide much assistance. In my view, when one grasps the situation we are in, and the basic nature of capitalism, one sees that the required transition will be extremely difficult, it will involve a vast remaking of society, and will probably not be achieved. I will then indicate what these considerations point to as the best strategy for us to put scarce energy into.

The generally unrecognised (wicked) nature of the problem.

A major mistake many make is in seeing growth as an isolated or specific fault within this society, like a dead car battery that can be taken out and replaced, leaving the rest of the car intact and able to go on much the same as before. This is not a society that has growth, it is a growth society. Growth is built into the foundations and integrated through its basic processes and systems. The economy functions on growth and cannot exist without it. For instance if there is no growth then no interest can be paid, and therefore finance sectors can not function and the entire savings- investment-infrastructure complex could not exist. Who would lend money? Where would investment capital come from? Superannuation could not be paid from earnings on investments. Unemployment would inevitably constantly increase.

Governments are in trouble if the growth rate slows. There is recession, bankruptcy, unemployment, cut backs in vital services, and before long determination to get rid of the government. Above all the few who own most of the capital and who have most power to determine what happens want to invest their capital to get back more than they had. They will not tolerate any threat to the system which enables this, and that system has to involve growth. They want ever more outlets for the investment of the ever-increasing quantities of capital they own.

In this system no government can possibly do anything but constantly prioritise and gear all its efforts and agencies to maintaining growth in production, consumption and GDP. There is no possibility of government considering zero-growth as a goal. It follows that if we are going to move in the sane direction it will have to be via processes that are independent of government, and that will be opposed by government. Any serious move to cease growth would rightly be seen by government, and just about everyone else, as ruining the economy.

What should the supreme goal be for anyone concerned about the fate of the planet? The answer is not, getting rid of growth. At best this is only one sub-goal. There are several major faults in consumer-capitalist society, and the growth commitment is not even the most important among them. It is even misleading to state a zero-growth economy as the goal.

Several measures show that resource use and ecological impact are far beyond levels that could be sustained or spread to all people. There must be dramatic reduction in present levels of production, consumption, GDP, trade, investment, business turnover etc. The “limits to growth” case has made this clear for decades. For instance the “Footprint” figures show that we must eventually get per capita resource consumption down to perhaps 10% of their present levels in Australia. It is obvious that there are nowhere near enough resources for all the world’s people to have anything like the levels of resource use etc. that people in Australia have now. Australia’s per capita use of productive land is ten times the amount that will be available to all in 2050, even if no more land is lost.

So it is not just a matter of ceasing to increase our levels of resource use, production, consumption and GDP, i.e., of having a zero-growth economy. In addition we have to cut these to small fractions of their present levels.
The next major point is, that cannot be done in an economy that is driven by market forces and profit maximisation. There might be a place for markets in a satisfactory society, but obviously if what is produced and who gets it and what is developed are decided by who can bid most and make most profit then in a non-growing economy there will quickly be chaos as the rich take more and more of he fixed volume of production. Market systems are about maximising advantage, income, wealth, business turnover and market share. Those who mistakenly think that market forces can have an important role in a satisfactory society, such as Korten and Henderson, are assuming heavily controlled and regulated “markets”, that is, “markets” in which market forces are largely or totally prevented from operating.

All this points to an even more daunting problem, the need to achieve the most enormous cultural change. People and their institutions must come to be content with stability in income, possessions and wealth. That is, they must abandon all and any interest in gain, in getting richer. In the coming era of intense scarcity satisfactory communities will have to be focussed on providing themselves with stable, self-sufficient and very frugal material lifestyles. If there remains any interest in getting richer, some will outpace others and soon take more than their fair share and social cohesion will disintegrate. This means there must be astronomical change in thinking about progress, entrepreneurship and incentive, and indeed the purpose of life. People would have to be satisfied to receive low, stable, more or less equal incomes, with no prospect of or interest in any increase in their lifetimes,(… apart from those which technical or organisational advance enabled, but it is now increasingly being recognised that technical advance and GDP growth have been predominantly due to increasing inputs of resources, especially energy, so in the coming era of severe scarcity don’t expect miracles in this department.) So there will have to be a jettisoning of some of the fundamental values and assumptions that have driven two hundred years of Western society, especially to do with unlimited movement towards bigger, better and more.

Many within the CASSE and the De-Growth movement seem not to understand the enormity of the tiger they have by the tail. Getting rid of growth means an almost total remake of Western society. And getting rid of growth is far from all that has to be done. A just and peaceful world order cannot be achieved unless the rich few stop taking far more than their fair share of world resources. This cannot happen while markets, and imperial thuggery, deliver most of the wealth to the rich countries. The advent of the limits to growth has confronted us with the fact that we are not going to solve the big problems or avoid catastrophic breakdown unless we largely remake Western “civilization”.

Up to this point in history the revolutionary task was comparatively simple and easy compared with what we have to try to do. Over the past two hundred years the task was to take control from the ruling class and then run the same old centralised, top-down, industrial , wealth-creating and affluence-seeking system, but to do it in the interests of the oppressed class. But the resource and environment crisis is a historical game-changer. We have run into limits which mean that we cannot get to a sustainable and just world unless we scrap growth and affluence and the many institutions and practices that go with it and move way down to simple and stable ways that just about all people are unfamiliar with, have little or no competence at…and regard as unacceptable, repulsive and ridiculous.

What does this mean for transition strategy?

Governments have to run things primarily in the interests of the ruling class. (For instance, nothing is more important to the owners of capital than growth. It has been known for years that growth of GDP in rich countries either does not improve the quality of life, or reduces it, yet governments ignore this.) Governments believe that what’s best for business is best for all; if business prospers there are more jobs and goods for all. But in addition governments serve business mainly because if they don’t they will be punished and/or dumped. So don’t expect governments to lead a transition to a steady state economy.

But it’s more than a problem of vision and will. Try to imagine what would happen even if a government wanted to transition to a steady state economy. It would have to prevent any increase in investment. It would have to limit and/or phase out many firms and whole industries, especially those which increase things, such as much of the construction industry. There would have to be government decisions about what to produce and where, and how to relocate and/or provide for vast numbers of displaced workers. They could not be relocated in other industries, because the point of the exercise would be to reduce the amount of work and employment. How could a government possibly deal with such an astronomically big and multi-dimensional problem. Even if a government wanted to tackle the problem it couldn’t begin without embracing the most massive commitment to an authoritarian and repressive form of “socialism”, i.e., to an attempt by government to reorganise and run the economy and to force enormous and painful changes through despite huge resentment and resistance. Many firms would have to be made to close down, many investors would be told there will not be more industries for them to invest in, many workers would be told there will not be more jobs, most people in the finance industry would be told there is no future role for them. What would the government do for all those in the construction etc. industries who presently work at increasing the number of factories, shops, trucks etc?

Getting through the black hole.

It is not just that no government-led move to a steady state economy could take place without massive and oppressive bureaucracy, central planning and enforcement, even if people in general supported the move. Clearly movement towards a steady state economy starts us on a rapid, accelerating spiral down to a black hole. The many well-meaning people in movements such as Downshifting, Voluntary Simplicity, Permaculture and the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements do not seem to realise that the more people they persuade to their ideas, values and ways, the more they dig their own and everybody else’s graves. They are damaging the economy. They are leading people to consume less, and if more and more people shift to these ways obviously the economy will descend into recession and worse...and the Downshifters et al. will find it increasingly difficult to buy the many goods they need. (Evidence on the footprint of people in even the most effective eco-villages indicates that they only cut dependence on the wider economy by half. They still need vital imports and if the wider economy falters they will not get them.)

So if large numbers of people start opting to Downshift, live simply, share, grow, make things and buy less we will all accelerate to the breakdown of the rest of the economy we are all still heavily dependent on...the reduced sales would create increasing recession, bankruptcy, inability of the economy to produce basic necessities or to provide incomes to the increasing numbers willingly or involuntarily displaced. How could this black hole be got through?

The only hope of lessening the impact of this inevitable crisis point is to try to set up in advance as much capacity as possible to enable people no longer needed by the consumer-capitalist economy to somehow move over to satisfactory livelihoods in a totally new and different kind of economy. It is not credible that this could be done smoothly; there will inevitably be a more or less chaotic, and possibly fatal, situation, but the more that local self-sufficient etc. ways are in place, or at least known to be needed, the better the chances. At this stage the Transition Towns and related movements have given no thought whatsoever to this astronomically big and difficult issue. They are focussed on their community gardens, skill banks and clothing swaps and (in my experience) they distinctly do not like being badgered to think about how the massive and radical system change is to be achieved or what their strategy is for getting us through the black hole they are helping to create. I have argued with participants in these movements that unless they eventually (not necessarily now or even soon) shift their focus to these huge and difficult and very radical alternative system goals, to how we are going to scrap capitalism and implement some kind of “socialism”, how we are going to close most of the factories and relocate people … then their movements will come to nothing. We will only end up with a moribund consumer-capitalism which contains a lot of community gardens.

Again there is no possibility of avoiding the coming period of great troubles. As the growth machine decelerates, either rationally or as a result of resource limits and/or financial meltdown, there will be disruption to put it mildly. The more rapidly and effectively the foot is taken off the growth throttle the more rapidly will we slam into problems of recession, confusion, intense dissent and resistance, … and the need for repression ... and these will be challenges our system of government is utterly incapable of dealing with.

So, CASSE strategists, your focal question is, in view of this situation we are in, up against the fundamental catastrophic internal contradictions of consumer-capitalism and the need for unprecedented change, with no possibility that governments will or can save us, what on earth can/should we try to do in order to have some chance of getting through the black hole to a satisfactory society eventually?

The Simpler Way answer.

My answer is detailed in The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World, (Envirobook,2010) and at I do not think the strategy I argue for is very reassuring or likely to succeed; I think we do not have the wit or the will to do what’s required. But I have no doubt that if we do get through the coming decades satisfactorily it will be via a process of the kind I argue for. Some core themes are:-

Embrace core elements in TSW perspective … especially the significance of the limits analysis of the global situation and thus the magnitude of the change required, i.e., a historically unprecedented, rapid, large-scale remaking of society and culture, the irrelevance of official government for this, the black hole problem … This perspective includes,

Recognising that the ultimate goal has to be the building of small, highly self-sufficient local communities, in which people take collective control of their situation, via thoroughly participatory and mostly cooperative processes. (There will still be a need for wider systems, including a remnant ”state”, under our control.)

Building and taking control of our own local Economy B, those co-ops, businesses, commons, committees and working bees which will enable us to collectively meet as many of our basic needs as possible, from our own resources and effort, outside and despite the market economy. Small communities must plan, organise and run their community-owned productive system, to try to meet as many of the basic needs of all as they can. Economy B can be developed underneath the existing Economy A. As the latter increasingly fails to provide, people can come across to our new arrangements.

This vision cannot be achieved unless Simpler Way ideas and values come to be widely held. Our over-riding goal must therefore be working to develop that awareness in people in our localities.

The best way to do this is to

a) take every opportunity to spread this perspective, including campaigns, writing, and everyday conversation etc., and

b) participate in those movements which have begun to go in the general direction required: the Transition Towns, Downshifting, Voluntary Simplicity, Slow Food, Men’s Shed, Permaculture etc. movements … in order to help their participants see the need for the radical system change goals discussed above. The point of joining is not to create another compost heap or community garden. Just building more community gardens will not lead to the jettisoning of the growth economy. The point of joining is to be able to talk to those you are working with, about the fact that our activities (eventually) have to be geared to goals such as getting rid of growth, about the need to build and take control of our local Economy B, about how we are going to get through the black hole, about the fact that we can get nowhere in the long run unless we solve problems like affluence and collectivism.

c) Develop the arrangements which will support this awareness raising work, the web sites, issue summaries to refer people to, speakers panels, advisory services, outreach functions, campaign groups…and the links whereby we can chat, seek advice and ideas, and maintain morale.

A feeble and disappointing strategy? Not likely to succeed? I agree. But if our situation is as I have argued, can you suggest a better one?

Ted Trainer