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The Trainer Papers… 2

The Trainer Papers… 2

Here’s my response to Ted Trainer’s original article.

Thanks to the organised Greg Olsen from Transition Sydney for having the foresight to file the thing.

Ted’s paragraphs quote straight from his work and are followed by my responses denoted by RG:.


The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable and unjust. There is no possibility of all people…


The world is changing and what constitutes a rich country is changing rapidly, too. When Ted started to use the term a few decades ago, things were more clear cut — the rich world was the industrialised world, predominately but not completely the West (Japan and Korea were not the West but were industrialised).

Now, China is rising to affluence and India is next and could even outdo China in this regard.

Ted writes that “Our way of life would not be possible if rich countries were not taking far more than their fair share of world resources… “. China, of course, is sourcing much of its industrial raw materials, including energy, from all over the world, providing further evidence that we should include the newly-industrialising states as part of the “rich world”.


“… it is not possible to solve the problems without transition to a very different kind of society, one not based on globalisation… “.


Ted apparently means economic globalisation, something that has been with us, off and on, since the days of mercantile capitalism and the China tea trade. If we go further back, economic globalisation of the known world can be seen in the form of its primary trade root — the Silk Road — that carried goods back and forth from Asia to Europe via the Islamic world.

I don’t think we should discard all globalisation. The Internet has allowed the emergence of a globalised civil society, much to its collective benefit.


“… A quite different economic system, one not driven by market forces and profit, and in which there is far less work, production and consumption than at present, and a large cashless sector, including many free goods from local commons.”


Ted mentions this in his explanation of his concept of The Simpler Way and it is clear that his “different economic system” is not the corporate growth economy.

Local economies, especially when it comes to the exchange of basic goods and services, might be based on an understanding of the ‘natural market’. This is not the trade in eucalyptus leaves and koala skins, rather the local exchange in kind or for cash that emerges from human needs and their satisfaction by local growers, processors, manufacturers and service providers. It is the basic economy that can be seen in village markets and, perhaps, an upscale version of it could be developed for modern societies in transition into new forms.


“… a radically different culture, in which competitive and acquisitive individualism is replaced by frugal, self-sufficient collectivism.”


Cultural change is slow and a big job. Culture cannot be imposed as it grows organically as the combination of tradition, geography and social structure.

A word about terms. Words carry implied meaning. Thus, “frugal” while having some appeal to those cogniscent of global trends, is easily interpreted as ‘poverty’ and ‘doing without essentials’ by others. Likewise, “collectivism”, while Ted uses it to describe shared culture, also brings to mind the disaster of forced collectivisation of farms in the Soviet Union of the 1930s.

It’s ok to use them for Ted’s preferred audience, but we should choose words carefully when addressing the general public.

Another example comes further into Ted’s critique of transitions: “An economy that focuses on need, rights, justice, especially with respect to the Third World”.

The term in question here is “Third World” because it has been disappearing now for some time. Why? Third World was an economistic term formulated to describe the so-called ‘developing’ countries so as to distinguish them from the First World — the affluent, industrialised states — and the Second World: the states that made up the Soviet bloc of the 1960s to the 1990s.

That international structure started to change with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the opening of borders in Europe between the then-collapsing Soviet satellite states and the West. The world that has evolved is so different that that old description has lost its relevance. Additionally, many of the problems of what was the Third World are now found throughout the First World. Like economies, social dysfunction has been globalised, rendering these now-old terms of little practical value.


” …living among many artists and crafts people … “.


I’ve known Ted for some time and I know that Ted is a man of the manual world. He’s an artisan at heart (and in practice at his home at Pigface Point), however we do not live in an artisan world anymore. I’m not saying we discard artisanship; it remains a valuable and valid approach to production; however we should not forget that contemporary people, especially younger demographics, are technical in lifestyle. That is, technologies are an everyday part of their being. The technophobes among us might not like this, however I think we should recognise and make use of it. Technologies have been an integral part of human evolution and today’s tech is just a continuity of that historic association.

It’s not only younger people who adopt digital and other modern techs, of course. This I learned when attending a workshop to learn about my new mobile phone, the one I had to buy after my Palm crashed completely (and sorry, Microsoft, your Windows Mobile 6.5 was a dog’s dinner of a mobile phone operating system). Who attended? They were all people my age. That says something about the adoption of technology by people outside the younger demographic.

What I suggest is that we transitioners learn to use and be at home with modern digital communications and production technologies because it enables us to reach a wider audience and, anyway, we can’t leave all the fun to young people.

Technophobia is today a barrier to the penetration of new ideas and it finds a home all too often among the environmentally minded. I believe that digital culture can happily coexist and collaborate with the artisan approach as a productive, enjoyable and workable hybrid culture.


“Modern/high technologies and mass production can be used extensively where appropriate, including IT.  The Simpler Way will free many more resources for purposes such as medical research than are devoted to these at present, because most of the present vast quantity of unnecessary production will be phased out.”.

It would be difficult to envision a world free of IT now, if that is part of Ted’s “unnecessary production”. As for freeing resources for Ted’s example of medical research and the like, I have a question that maybe others out there can answer for me. It is this:

  1. In the sort of zero economic growth society that Ted advocates, with its lower GDP, would there be sufficient governmental and corporate revenue to devote to medical research and associated hi-tech pursuits?
  2. While lifestyle disorders might be reduced in incidence in Ted’s society, would we see the return of the old devastating diseases that plagued past centuries?


“What we will have done is build a new economy, Economy B, under the old one.  Economy B will give us the power to produce the basic goods and services we need not just to survive as the old economy increasingly fails to provide, but to give all a high quality of life. The old economy could collapse and we would still be able to provide for ourselves.”


Ted seems to be advocating the approach taken by permaculture and the ‘alternative’ social culture of the 1970s of creating the new within the body of an increasingly dysfunctional old society. This is a social evolutionary approach and it is how much social change occurs (as different to social revolutionary and other abrupt disjunctions that flip societies into a new state as the old suddenly falls apart).

To play a role in this, however, transition organisations will have to become somewhat more sophisticated in their approach and move beyond the permaculture model as it is presently and popularly practiced.

Transition could be described as ‘permaculture plus’ and it will have to become this because, through its 35 years of evolution, permaculture has become a better-known grassroots technology for sustainable living but has achieved little by way of influencing social decision makers and institutions. Permaculture, in rightly focusing on acting at the local level, has not been an achiever in acting at the state or national level to any appreciable degree.

Here’s an aspect of permaculture for transitioners to avoid: Sometimes in permaculture organisations you see a kind of self-induced euphoria, something like the groupthink and self-generated enthusiasm of an Amway convention, in which people imagine that their permaculture association or permaculture in its entirety is so well known and so influential and commonsensical that it is about to create imminent change in society. Take a step outside the permaculture milieu, however, and you find that the design system is known (most popularly as a type of organic gardening that doesn’t dig the soil but spreads dry grasses on top of it) but is less influential than imagined. The analogy is the anti-war movement of the late 1960s; it was both populous and prominent but it mistook form for substance and thought (as did some of its opponents) that the revolution was imminent.

This is to mistake quantity for quality. You can have a horde of members in a permaculture organisation but if most are not active in any significant way, then the mass of quantity is countered by the mass of inertia. Better to go for a small number of key, innovative people who will act in some way to jointly create an impact larger than their numbers should suggest (ref: the well known Margaret Mead quotation and truism about small groups of people leading change).


“The Simpler Way contradicts the core systems of the present society and cannot be built unless we replace them.  Consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed;… “.


This is where Ted could be seen to depart from the permaculture approach.

Permaculture contains a Mollisonian principle that proposes the greatest change for the smallest investment in making that change happen. The implication here is the reform of existing social institutions rather than their complete destruction and replacement. Permaculture would seek to change “consumer-capitalist” society by changing its direction from within. This is different to Ted’s approach which seems to have more in common to that of social revolutionaries.


“What do we have to do in order to eventually achieve such huge and radical changes?

“The answer goes far beyond the things that green/transition people are doing now, such as setting up community gardens, food co-ops, recycling centres, Permaculture groups, skill banks, home-craft courses, commons, volunteering, downshifting, etc.  Yes, all these are the kinds of institutions and practices we will have in the new sustainable and just world so it is understandable that many people within the Eco-village, Transition Towns and green movements assume that if we just work at establishing more and more of these things then in time this will have created the new society. I think this is a serious mistake.”


All of these things that Ted mentions are components of a sustainable society, as he says. Now, a few points:

There is no plan to establish more of the same as some kind of goal, as Ted seems to imply. These things have caught the popular imagination and are replicating because they are good ideas whose time has come or because they meet some social/personal needs. This happens in an organic way, not through some central plan. Together, perhaps these initiatives will generate some emergent properties within conventional society so, as suggested earlier, a new model of society emerges from the body of the old.

The things Ted lists are a great deal more than what he describes as “…the lifestyle choices and hobby interests of a relatively few people”. Numbers participating are growing and I have already broached the idea that numbers do not count, quality does. In idea-diffusion terms, many of these things are the property of the innovative fringe, the early adopters. As we can see with ecovillages, community gardens and permaculture, ideas flow from early adopters to early mass adopters. This is how ideas become part of the social mainstream, exactly where we want them.

Moreover, for Ted to categories them as “hobby interests” is to denigrate the social innovators adopting them. For many, things like community gardening have become a part of everyday life… they have been integrated into life… normalised… and are a part of lived experience. This implies that they are far from “hobbies”.


“If the global vision sketched above is valid then we ordinary people in our towns and suburbs eventually have to establish our own local Economy B, take control of it and relegate the market to a very minor role, identify local needs and work out how to meet them, get rid of unemployment, work out how to cut town imports, etc. Šandgrope towards the practices which enable us to collectively self-govern the town.”


A few comments on this statement which, surprisingly for Ted, fails to consider the history of the permaculture and allied movements:

  • Economy B: people like Robert Rosen and Damien Lynch (August Investments) were early developers of what became the ethical or social investment movement, and they came from the early permaculture milieu.
  • The market: see my notes earlier on the ‘natural market’; Ted’s comment about “relegating the market to a very minor role” will not build the vital and viable local economies that we need to sustain a sustainable culture. Sure, it’s a different market that Ted is talking about, however markets at the local and regional scale are important to sustainable civilisations and there would probably be the need for a national market in some goods and services.
  • I wonder if Ted still labours under the old notion that markets are somehow evil? It was a notion that permeated the environment movement, as some of the alternative economic innovators found out when environmentalists preferred not to support them and kept their money with conventional banking and investment institutions.
  • Ted’s …”get rid of unemployment, work out how to cut town imports, etc” all depend on the development of viable local and regional economies.


“However if your goal was to build the kind of society that I’ve argued we must have if we are to solve global problems of sustainability and justice you would very definitely not think it was sufficient or appropriate just to encourage a thousand flowers to bloom. You would think very carefully about what projects were most important to achieve that goal, you would realise that this must involve taking collective control over the local economy, and you would recognise that developing this vision among people in the region is the supremely important task to work on.”


Ted’s “community gardens, food co-ops, recycling centres, Permaculture groups, skill banks, home-craft courses, commons, volunteering… ” and so on mentioned earlier seem to me to be the means of, to quote what he writes, “… taking collective control over the local economy and… developing this vision among people in the region”.

They are practical, on-the-ground initiatives of ordinary people and are just the opposite to what you find to be the products of universities, where people spend a great deal of time and effort in criticising and analysing but seem to have some kind of paralysis when it comes to creating something tangible (there are exceptions, I know).


“From the perspective I’ve outlined, making your town more resilient is far from a sufficient goal. That could be little more than building a haven of safety in a world of oil scarcity; a haven within a wider society that remains obsessed with growth, markets, exploiting the Third World, and using mobile phones made with tantalum from the Congo.”


Well, what’s the big deal with “… using mobile phones made with Tantalum from the Congo” that makes it so worthy of being singled out? Can’t corporations pay the Congolese fairly for the mineral and ensure good working conditions?

Does what Ted says indicate some hidden tendency towards technophobia and dislike of mobile communications, when the reason that people use such technologies is usually because they enable them to do new things that are of value to them or to do existing things better?

And Ted shouldn’t be too hard on the mobile phone industry or its customers; mobile phones are now used for poverty eradication in some developing countries and prepaid, transferrable mobile phone credits are now an informal currency within the non-monetary exchange systems that Ted supports.

The point of making resilient towns, cities and suburbs is not to form some kind of enclave amid chaos. Their real value at present is as proof-of-concept examples and as prototypes that, like any good idea, can be replicated and adapted. So, they are a worthy goal and, having been debugged, should be replicated across the nation.


“A major deficiency in the current Transition Towns movement literature is the lack of information on what to do. The website, the Handbook and especially the 12 Steps document are valuable, but they are predominantly about the procedure for organising the movement and it is remarkably difficult to find clear guidance as to what the sub-goals of the movement are, the actual structures and systems and projects that we should be trying to undertake if our town is to achieve transition or resilience. What we desperately need to know is what things should we start trying to set up, what should we avoid, what should come first.”


Lack of information on what to do? I thought that was fairly explicit. Sure, the 12 Steps is about organising a movement but they are also about what that movement can do and why. Does anyone find this information missing?

You really can’t tell people all over the world what structures and systems and “things” they need… they have to work that out for themselves. There are no formulas you can universally apply. Most people have the capacity for intelligent observation, conversation and thinking and can sooner or later work these things out for themselves.

I do, however, have concerns that transitions could apply ‘template thinking’, rather than design thinking, through the use of techniques and ideas adopted from other transition initiatives, much as has happened in permaculture with the template thinking that comes with garden design. You have to adapt as well as adopt and not uncritically take on structures that someone else finds has worked for them.

Ted’s goals are fine, however I see transitioners trying to implement them, such as in the form of: “… Identify the unmet needs of the town, and the unused productive capacities of the town, and bring them together” and the others.

Ted’s is a worthwhile analysis of the transition movement and is the sort of constructive criticism that can make the movement self-reflective and help it grow. I find much of what he says should be done to be being done in some form or another.

The ongoing conversation: (this page)

Comments (2)

  • Joan
    February 9, 2010 at 1:02 am

    I flinched when I saw “artists” in there, but for a different reason than Russ. In the United States, the working class and a good portion of the middle class rank artists right down there with hippies as sexually and religiously deviant, drug-addled economic parasites who disrespect their families of origin and think themselves superior to honest working people. If you want to reach the U.S. mainstream, replace “artists” with “churches”. Active community churches already form a kind of embryonic Economy B in this country. All that’s needed is to translate the ideas into their language.

  • Holly
    September 5, 2014 at 2:24 am

    Interesting read Ted and Russ, I like your point about permaculture not acheiving at a state/ national political level, and it is a fair comment as there is plenty of room for common sense in politics, and certainly room for organising for genuinely radical political activism in area of food production in Australia (many other countries maintain solid traditions of agricultural activism).
    However we also should not underestimate the fluidity of the permaculture movement. We are everywhere, we are mobile and we are engaged in activity at all levels. Many of us are politically active under various umbrellas.
    Lastly, the world does need (I believe!) a resurection of practical doers, innovators, networkers, cooperators, builders and conduits of age-old skills that are in danger of disappearing from human culture. This is what permaculture does best. Yes, we need political engagement, yes, we need individuals and groups talented and focused on the political realm, but our power is little without a groundswell of connected, organised, skilled communities, and that is something our movement brings to the big picture in spades.

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