The path to a just and sustainable society

Ted Trainer

The first part of this article discussed how the consumer capitalist society is so far beyond sustainable levels of production and consumption that the resulting global problems cannot be solved unless there is huge reduction in those levels, probably by 90%. Few, however, understand the magnitude of the problem. It cannot be solved unless there is transition to a very different kind of society, which must be a form of Anarchism. This article outlines the core characteristics of that society.

Local self-sufficiency

The basic settlement form must be the small highly self-sufficient local community, producing much of what is needed from local resources. Households can again become significant producers of vegetables, fruit, poultry, preserves, fish, repairs, furniture, entertainment and leisure services, and community support. Within and close by the town, there would be many small firms and farms, and neighborhoods themselves would contain a number of businesses. Because most of the basic goods and services will come from within a few kilometers of where we live, there would be far less need for transport to get to work or to bring goods in. Most of us could get to work by bicycle or on foot.Leisure will also be mostly localized further reducing car use. Therefore, we could dig up a number of roads, greatly increasing land area available for community gardens, workshops, ponds and little forests. Similarly, such cooperative projects would also be taken up besides railway lines and on abandoned factory sites. They would be maintained by voluntary working bees and committees.

Production would largely take place via crafts and hobbies. This is much more satisfying than in industrial factories. However, we would retain some larger mass production factories and sources of materials, such as mines, steel works and railways. There would be no need to give up socially valuable high-tech ways or R and D, and universities etc. They would be supported by resources saved by cutting back dramatically to much simpler lifestyles and systems.

Eco-anarchism advocates for a simpler lifestyle, and extricating food production from the contemporary market economy.

Food production would involve little or no fuel use, ploughing, packaging, storage, refrigeration, pesticides, marketing or transport. Having food produced close to where people live would enable all nutrients to be recycled back to the soil through compost heaps, animals, composting toilets and garbage gas units. Therefore, there would be no need for sewers, pumping stations or treatment works. This is crucial – a sustainable society must have complete nutrient recycling, and therefore it must have a local agriculture.We should convert one house on each block to become a neighborhood workshop, including community tools, a recycling store, craft center, meeting place, surplus exchange, theatre, museum, art gallery and library.

There is much scope for community self-sufficiency in many areas other than food, notably entertainment, infrastructure maintenance, services, aged care, education, building and repairs. Energy supply could be almost entirely localized and supplied by renewable sources, especially because demand would be very low. This would make it much easier to deal with the intermittency and storage problems, probably by use of small-scale hydrogen systems, pumped hydro and local fast growing woodlots. However, towns and suburbs will also need to import a variety of goods and materials that they cannot produce for themselves. Some of these will come from regional factories near towns, within bicycling distance for workers.The railway system would take care of materials like steel, which would have to come from a long distance away.

Tackling resource-intensive processes

The fundamental reasons why onlyself-sufficient community settlements can enable the huge reductions in resource use required are to do with the integration and proximity of activities, which the smallness of scale makes possible. This enables the elimination of many processes needed in globalized consumer society.

Consider the supply of eggs, examined in the study by Trainer, Malik and Lenzen, (2019). Industrial/commercial/globalized egg production involves a great deal of steel, fuels, international transport, machinery, trucks, tractors, ships, chemicals, bank loans, insurance, outrageous CEO salaries, agribusiness feed production, warehouses, packaging, advertising, cool rooms, supermarket lighting, offices and computers, experts with PhDs, and chickens crammed into bad conditions in big sheds. Agribusiness feed production mines the soil of nutrients, which can’t be returned. Manures become a waste problem because they are contaminated with chemicals and anyway are far from the distant soils the nutrients came from. Artificial fertilizers must be trucked to the fields producing the chicken feed, damaging soils and waterways, and chemicals are needed to control disease in the crammed sheds etc.

In contrast, backyard, co-op and local small farm egg production eliminates almost all those costs. Kitchen and garden scraps can be fed to chickens and manure can go into the gardens and aquaponic ponds. Chickens clean up and cultivate garden beds, eat slugs, reducing the need for pesticides, they reproduce themselves, find some of their own feed by free-ranging, provide meat, and are a source of diversity and entertainment in settlements. Backyard chickens are happy. Because people and other functions are close by, ‘wastes’ can be immediately taken to compost heaps. There is no need for vast armies of expensive professionals in suits operating computers, nor for bored workers, or wage costs. These multiple and overlapping functions, recycling and synergies are possible because of the very small scale in localism and the closeness of activities to each other. This study found that the dollar and energy cost of eggs from the supermarket path were less than 1% of those from backyards and community coops. Many other products and services can be produced in similar ways.

More communal, participatory and cooperative ways

The alternative way must be highly communal, participatory and cooperative. This will be essential if communities are going to cope in the coming times of severe scarcity. They will not get their localities into good shape unless they work together to find and develop the right cooperative strategies.

We would be on various voluntary rosters, committees and councils. In these capacities and with the support of working bees we would carry out most of the windmill maintenance, construction of public works, child minding, nursing, basic educating and care of aged and disadvantaged people in our area, as well as maintain our own parks, streets and other commons. We would therefore need far fewer bureaucrats and professionals, reducing the amount of income we would have to earn to pay taxes to fund big government. Our life experience will mainly be enriched not by personal wealth or talents, but by having access to public assets such as a beautiful, complex and rich landscape.

Voluntary work would be the basis of maintaining community controlled energy systems.

Government and politics

In an Eco-anarchist system, the political situation would be quite different compared with today. The ‘governing’ of most of the activities that were important for everyday living would (have to) take place at the town and neighborhood level, where there would (have to) be thoroughly participatory democracy. This would be made possible by the smallness of scale. Big centralized governments cannot run all our small communities. That can only be done by the people who live in them because they are the only ones who know what will and won’t work in their specific situations. There would still be some functions for state and national governments, but relatively few.

Our harmonious existence with our ecosystems and social systems will radically transform politics,and move us towards collectivism, responsible citizenship and local autonomy. Politics will not be primarily about individuals and groups in zero-sum competition to get what they want from a central state. The situation will provide strong incentives towards a much more collectivist, participatory and consensual outlook, concerned with what policies will work best for the town and region

Local administration

Our fate would depend on how well the town functions, not on our personal wealth and capacity to buy. We would therefore be keen to work out and do whatever will contribute to town solidarity and cohesion. The town would work best if there is a minimum of discontent, conflict, inequality or perceived injustice, so all will recognise the need to make sure all are provided for and no one is dumped into unemployment or poverty, that sensible and just decisions are made and that everyone has a valued livelihood.

The core governing institutions would be voluntary committees, town meetings, direct votes on issues, and especially informal public discussion in everyday situations. In a sound self-governing community, the fundamental political processes take place informally through discussions in cafes, kitchens and town squares, because this is where the issues can be considered and thought about until the best solutions come to be generally recognized.

This political situation is in fact classical Anarchism. In general people at the local level will govern themselves via informal discussion, referenda and town meetings among equals. We would not be governed by centralized authoritarian states and bureaucracies, or by representatives. At present representatives are elected and then they govern us, generally sidestepping the need to consult with the people.

National administration

Most issues would be local, not national, but there would be some tasks left for state and national governments involving professional experts and administrators. For instance, coordinating national steel and railway industries would be the responsibility of the national administration. They would also determine the distribution of industries to enable all towns to earn reliable income by exporting a few items to other towns. These decisions, however, would not be made by centralized ‘authorities’, which have power over us. The classical Anarchist procedure involves delegates from all the local communities coming together to work out what seems to be the best decision for all concerned, and then taking these recommendations back to the communities where everyone has a vote on what is to be done. Note again that there would be far fewer issues that concern large regions or whole nations, there would be far less ‘development’ to be pushed through despite resistance, and so politics would have little to do with struggles for wealth and power.

Local communities would be the most important political decision making bodies.

An important element in our governing processes would be the effort put into monitoring and measuring various important aspects of our community, from the ecosystems, technical machinery, to social arrangements and cohesion. Special attention would be given to indices of quality of life. Research findings and the information on issues, which need to be discussed would be accessible to all, and could at times start with discussions at town assemblies.

The new economy

The changes that Eco-anarchism aspires to cannot be realized if we retain the present market and the profit driven consumer-capitalist economic system. The fundamental principle in a satisfactory economy would be totally different – it would be to apply the available effective capacity to produce that stable amount (no growth) of the things everybody needs for a good life. This would be done with as little resource consumption, work and waste as is reasonably possible, and in ecologically sustainable ways. Our present economy operates on totally different principles. It lets profit maximization for the few who own most of the capital determine what is done.Consequently, it does not meet the needs of the people, or those of the environment, and it seeks to increase consumption and GDP constantly. Far less work and production would take place in an Eco-anarchist system. The GDP would be a small fraction of its present value, and there would be no economic growth.

Much of the economy might remain as a (carefully monitored) form of private enterprise carried on by small firms, households and cooperatives. These would operate according to strict guidelines set by the community to ensure that they served the community. Market forces might operate in some regulated sectors. However, the market must not be allowed to determine important issues, especially whether people have jobs or what developments take place in the town. In other words, market forces might be allowed to make most of the economic decisions – but none of the important ones!

It would become possible for most of us to live well on a very low cash income earned by only one or two days paid work per week. We could spend the other five or six days working/playing around the neighborhood. The leisure committee would be one of the most important in the town. The town itself would be a rich leisure resource. You would have several days a week to devote yourself to hobbies, arts and crafts. Much leisure activity would be productive.And the leisure committee would organize concerts, festivals and celebrations.

Culture, ideas and values

A sustainable and just society cannot possibly work unless there is radical change in culture. The biggest and most difficult changes will have to be in values and outlooks. You cannot design a sustainable and just society full of competitive, acquisitive individualists! The present desire for affluent-consumer living standards must be largely replaced by a willingness to live very simply, cooperatively and self-sufficiently, and derive life satisfaction from non-material pursuits. Most people must be conscientious, caring responsible citizens, eager to come to working bees, to think about social issues, and to participate in self-government. They must be sociologically sophisticated, aware of the crucial importance of cohesion, cooperation, conflict resolution, etc. They must have a strong collectivist outlookand understand and care about the global situation, recognizing for instance that the “developing world” cannot have a fair share of global resources unless we in rich countries live much more simply. Above all they must willingly choose and find satisfaction in materially simpler lifestyles.

Eco-anarchism explores an alternative to the contemporary culture of mechanized efficiency.

Achieving this cultural change will be very difficult at best. But the important point here is that there are alternative values, purposes and sources of satisfaction we can turn to other than consuming and getting wealthier. The goal is to help people to eagerly embrace Simpler Way values because these enable a far more enjoyable quality of life. We must get to the situation in which people focus on things like enjoying community activities, stability and security, personal development, a relaxed pace, practicing arts and crafts, beautiful landscapes and towns, valued contributions to make, time to learn and create and grow. They will also enjoy the climate of mutual aid, solidarity and cohesion, pride in their town, and a sense of empowerment from running it. Life will be free of the constant struggle to get by which it is for billions now; we will be free to pursue fulfillment and meaning while contributing to the liberation of others around the world. The religious and other rivalries that plague present society are far less likely to exist in these conditions, where it is enjoyable and in your interests to see others flourish. Good citizenship will come easily. The Simpler Way requires good values and behavior and it also rewards them.

It is important to work for integration of the many diverse groups now trying to establish alternatives to consumer capitalism. The best way to do this is to try to get them to see that they can all link under the umbrella of willing acceptance of the need for simper lifestyles and systems. All can retain their particular concerns, such as saving threatened species or disarmament or reducing inequality, while making it clear that these specific goals are contributing to the overarching great transition from consumer-capitalism.

Can’t be done? Many are doing it!

Many of the things discussed above are being done by thousands of people living in Eco-villages and Transition Towns all around the world. Just glance through the Global Eco-village Network site. In Senegal, the government’s goal is to transform 14,000 villages into Eco-villages.  In Spain, the very impressive Catalan Integral Cooperative movement now involves thousands of people in highly-self-sufficient cooperatives and networks run by ordinary people, with their own currency, extensive food distribution systems, all emphatically opposed to control by the state or by the capitalist system. The Dancing rabbit Eco-village in Missouri aims to become an example town of 500. Lockyer’s study of its resource consumption found that its per capita figures for energy use, cars, transport, waste etc. were a mere 10% or less of the American average. The most important goal and achievement of Eco-villages is community; all experience a high level of inclusion and care, and indices of quality of life are high. So, there should be no doubt that these ways are both workable and desirable.

These components of a sustainable and just society constitute a variety of Anarchism. This variety is not to be confused with those, which involve violence and disruption.  It is about small communities practicing thoroughly participatory democracy, as distinct from the typical Socialist assumption that control must be in the hands of a centralized state, and about elimination of hierarchy and domination as much as possible, spontaneous action by conscientious citizens, handling bigger regional and national issues via delegates sent to conferences to bring back proposals for town assemblies to vote on.  And the transition strategy is the classic Anarchist one of “Prefiguring” the new social forms in existing society. The most effective way to get people to see the sense and the merits of the new ways is to establish as many examples of them as possible here and now. This approach minimizes the chances of violent conflict; if we persuade large numbers to the alternative then radical change in structures might be brought about peacefully.


Ted Trainer is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales. He has taught and written about sustainability and justice issues for many years. He is also developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney, and a website for use by critical global educators, which can be viewed at:


The RED website is a platform for sharing information and ideas pertaining to experiments and explorations taking place on the larger subject of “alternatives” all over the world.  The views shared in this article are those of the author.

The full version of this discussion was published in two parts in Solutions, Part 1, Vol. 11.3, Dec. 2020, Part 2, Vol. 12.1, Feb. 26, 2021.)

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1 thought on “The path to a just and sustainable society”

  1. I would be concerned, living in such a world, if I needed life-saving medical services from vaccines to heart surgery. Similarly, I would be concerned without universities, research and technology which has given us solar panels, broadband internet and similar which is imbedded in much of what we use on a daily basis. The Buddhist Gross Happiness Index ponders these issues.

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