29 January 2013, 6.38am AEST
Frederick Trainer does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations. The Conversation provides independent analysis and commentary from academics and researchers. We are funded by CSIRO, Melbourne, Monash, RMIT, UTS, UWA, Canberra, CDU, Deakin, Flinders, Griffith, La Trobe, Murdoch, Newcastle. QUT, Swinburne, UniSA, USQ, UTAS, UWS and VU.
It is technically possible to supply your own food, energy and shelter, without reliance on the grid.Moosicom/Flickr
My old house has never been connected to the electricity supply. It runs on a couple of photo voltaic (solar) panels and is warmed by firewood. All water used is rainwater.
I have a vegie garden, fruit trees and chickens. My pumps and machinery run on 12 volt solar electricity. I travel 25km to paid work once a week, by bicycle and train, and drive about 10km a week. I never go away on holidays. The average Australian household uses about one kilowatt of electricity; I use eight watts.
So isn’t downshifting to less consuming lifestyles the way to solve the greenhouse problem?
Emphatically, no it isn’t. It’s part of the solution but not the main part.
If you want to fix the climate, developing nations’ poverty, resource depletion and other environmental problems you will also have to totally scrap economic growth, and therefore capitalism, and largely scrap globalisation, centralisation, the market system, representative democracy, the financial system, big cities, modern agriculture and urbanism.
A little extreme? Here’s the core argument.
Everyone knows the basic facts and figures, but few face up to what they mean. To provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy now requires about eight hectares of productive land.
If by 2050, nine billion people were to have risen to the present Australian “living standard”, and the planet’s amount of productive land is still the same as it is today, the amount available per capita will be about .8ha. In other words Australian’s today are using ten times the amount that will be possible for all.
It’s much the same for all other resources. There are already scarcities regarding food in general, fish, water, most industrial minerals and petroleum, with estimates of peak coal occurring within a few decades. Only about one fifth of the world’s people have rich world consumption rates, and six times as many will soon be aspiring to them.
And yet, everyone is manically obsessed with constantly increasing “living standards”, production, consumption and GDP. At the standard 3% per annum growth rate, according to WWF figures we will need more than 20 planet earths to meet 2050 resource demands.
Living off-the-grid is not completely without a source of energy … solar panels are an integral part of the lifestyle. sridgway/Flickr
The glaringly obvious yet ignored point is that rich world per capita levels of resource consumption and ecological impact are far beyond levels that that are sustainable, or that could be made sustainable by any remotely plausible technical fixes.
People, including most of the green ones, do not grasp the magnitude of the overshoot, nor the significance of the change required to solve the big problems.
The problems are being caused primarily by our systems, not our lifestyles although these are far too affluent. It’s not possible to get resource consumption down to one-fifth or one-tenth of present levels, unless we not only shift to a zero growth economic system, but to one with a far lower level of GDP. That means an economy in which there can be no interest paid.
That means we have to scrap the present financial system, and the forces driving innovation, incentive, work and investment, and the quest for greater wealth. It means much more than scrapping capitalism; it means completely abandoning some of the fundamental ideas (like the definition of progress,) and values (such as getting rich) that have driven Western culture for 300 years.
We could do it, easily, if you wanted to.
My system, The Simpler Way (detailed in my book), is one whereby we transform our present suburbs and towns into highly self-sufficient and self-governing local and zero-growth economies, in which the quality of life would be higher than it is now in the consumer rat race.
Yes, an important part must be the willing acceptance of frugal, self-sufficient, cooperative ways at the level of the household and community. But it would not be necessary to go as far as I choose to on my bush homestead. We could still have electricity grids, (small) cities, (some) trade and heavy industry, railway networks, a (small) central state (under the control of town assemblies), universities and professional skills, and more socially useful high tech research and development than we have now. You might need to work for money only one day a week.
An ecovillage at Currumbin in Queensland. Flickr
But these very encouraging beginnings are not yet focused on the crucial goals.
If you really want to help save the planet don’t fret much about downshifting but join your local community garden, with a view to getting people there thinking more about the need to focus on us eventually achieving the big structural and cultural changes.