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The Trainer papers… 4

The Trainer papers… 4

The Trainer Papers— segment 4… by Russ Grayson

A continuing conversation — a friendly critique of Ted Trainers’ response.


This is a continuing conversation that started with Dr Ted Trainer’s allegation (The Trainer Papers… 1) that the Transition and permaculture movements are not addressing the critical need to change the economic system and to restructure society to take it towards a socially fairer, zero-economic growth economy.

I have no argument with Ted’s ideas about a zero-grwoth economy, however I differ with him on a number of points:

  1. The Transition and permaculture movements are not structured and never were structured to address what he sees as the main challenges.
  2. The movements take a less-direct approach to changing society by seeking to make changes from within and that these changes, taken cumulatively, could bring about significant change over time.
  3. There is no valid reason for the movements to change their focus to comply with Ted’s priorities.
  4. Ted offers little by way of a practical program to create the massive change he discusses. By criticising the Transition and permaculture movements — and recognising that constructive criticism is beneficial — Ted criticises what may be the most effective grassroots initiatives to hands-on change-making.

In commenting on Ted’s paper, I do so as someone with great respect for Ted and his ideas. My comments are offered in the spirit of constructive, critical dialog as a means of exploring questions that are quite relevant to the social movements of our time, particularly the Transition and permaculture movements.

Sometimes in the text I refer to ‘environmentalists’ in a general and somewhat critical way. This I do to emphasise that some who so describe themselves continue to operate in the ways I describe. Being a generalisation, however, there are numerous exceptions and I recognise that many who call themselves environmentalists today take more of a sustainability point of view.

Readers should understand that my response is very much stream of consciousness, with all the omissions and clumsiness that implies.

Readers wishing to comment constructively on the conversation are welcome to respond via the ‘comments’ box at the end of the pieces.

First, a general response…

Social change

Ted suggests that society must change to a zero-growth economy so as to achieve sustainability and social justice.

I don’t dispute this as a proposition. What I find is that Ted offers no route from where we are to where he wants us to be. He  describes a future in very general terms. As it does not exist, this is acceptable, however if people are to be attracted to his model of a desirable society then it will be necessary to paint an attractive vision of what life in it might be like. Ted’s paper is strong on general, broad vision but short on ideas for the route we would take to attain it.

In contrast, the Transition movement has a methodology to take us to a largely undefined future through its Skill-up for Powerdown and Energy Descent Action Plan processes. These might not be the whole story, however they are clear and distinct steps into an unknown future. That it remains poorly described in Transition literature is ok because the future is essentially unknowable and many of us are quite at home living in a present that is heading for an uncertain future.


Ted seems to lapse almost into cliche in the terminology he sometimes uses, such as portraying those interested in sustainability in terms of ‘saving the whales’ or ‘saving the planet’.

Saving the whales is now an institutional initiative led by very determined action and lobbying groups and involving government at the international level. It is the focus of those with a specific interest in it. Generalising as if it were one of the main and immediate foci of the sustainability movement might have been true… in 1985.

I venture to say that for those interested in the transition to a sustainable society, saving the whales would be a proposition that they support but that does not occupy a dominant part of their time.

Also, ‘saving the planet’ is now a tired, worn-out cliche because a realisation has emerged that resilient nature will adapt to climate change in its usual creative way but human cultures might not. Now, people are about saving those cultures, including ours.

Behavioural change

Sustainability education today focuses on changing the behaviour of people, organisations and institutions. It does not lecture, hector, make people feel guilty or suggest that they follow the ideas of some environmental elitist group.

Doing that is a dated concept — it was part of the way the environment movement operated a few years ago (and, unfortunately, how some of it still operates) but has been shown to be outdated by the research of sustainability educators such as Bob Doppelt (2008; The Power of Sustainability Thinking; Earthscan).

Unlike the Transition movement Ted criticises and finds substantial fault with — even suggesting those in it are wasting their time in regard to social change though what they do might by itself be worthwhile in itself — in formulating his ideas Ted has not engaged in a participatory ideas-creation process. They remain his ideas alone, untested in their acceptance, practicality and desirability. Those of the Transition and permaculture movements, in contrast, are collective works.

My comments are identified in the following text as ‘RG:’.

The dialogue…


Some thoughts on Russ Grayson’s comments on my friendly critique of the Transition Towns movement.

Russ discusses what I think is the crucial issue of what changes we are or ought to be working for in society, and how to try to achieve them.  Russ thinks my approach to these issues is different from the Permaculture way.

Like some of the people in the UK Transition movement who are uncomfortable with my readiness to make statements about what the movement should be for, Russ says, “…you really can’t tell people all over the world what structures and systems …they need…they have to work that out for themselves.”

Brian Davey recently expressed his unease at me “…prescriptively trying to design a simple society in advance. Rob Hopkins feels the same way, and I would think most Transitioners would share that view.


I find trying to design societies to be something of a fun activity, certainly an interesting one, but ultimately a futile one. Why? Because there are far too many variables that are operating now and that would substantially influence the zero-growth economy society that Ted postulates.

Societies are complex adaptive systems, and it is inherent within the dynamics of systems that they give rise to properties that are not perceptible at the present time — ie. societies change in unanticipated ways and new things and characteristics continually emerge. It is a property of complex adaptive system that they are inherently unpredictable. If we fail to acknowledge this and fail to expect the unexpected, then we risk getting stuck in our favourite ideological models which bear the same relationship to our 4D reality as does the world of Avatar.

For those wishing to change society to comply with their own pet ideas, I believe there are interesting video games such as Civilisation and interactive online worlds such as Second Life. Apologies, games mavens, if I have this wrong.

As for the imagined world of the Transition movement, we simply don’t know that the model of a low-energy, peak oil world will be. Why? Because we don’t know the future or what it will bring. The Transition model is predicated upon present trends extrapolated and makes use of scenario planning and other techniques, yet doing this in the past has come unstuck and I believe that most of those in the Transition movement are aware that their prognostications might be quite wrong. Sure, there are those that parrot the ideas of others dogmatically, mistaking what are ideas for the future reality.

The best we can say at present is that the consensus energing in the Transition movement, that we face a world in transition under the influences of climate change, peak oil and fresh water shortfall, to be a possible future based on what we know now. But, again, expect the unexpected. Maybe that should be promoted to a law like that of physics, or perhaps as a new permaculture principle.


Brian said that we should let the movement go where it wants to go and it will eventually achieve what I want anyway.

I think this is quite mistaken and it is very important for us to think very carefully about the issue.  It is my very firm view that the general Transition/Permaculture/Eco-village or indeed wider Green movement is currently not about the crucial goals and practices necessary to get us to a sustainable and just society.


First, I don’t think you can all-that-closely control the trajectory of social movements over time. Take one that you know, Ted — the permaculture movement. I’m sure you will recall that, in the movements earlier days there was a broader interest in social issues but that this has devolved into a focus on gardening in the popular interpretation of permaculture. This was not Bill Mollison’s dream, but the design system changed due to new people coming in and due to the influence of media coverage, something that played a big role, I conjecture, in shaping the popular conception of permaculture.

When Ted says that he finds Brian’s statement to be “quite mistaken”, I’m not sure if he is suggesting that, somehow and by persons unknown, the movement be deliberately forced to take some course preferred by him. How do you do this? How do you tell all those people out there who populate the Transitions milieu that they should suddenly bow to the direction that Ted suggests and set out to follow it? The Transition movement is like permaculture in that it consists of an amorphous conglomeration of ideas, priorities, politics and beliefs. The chance of succeeding in redirecting it to the direction Ted wants? Zero.

Ted — I wonder about including ecovillages in your conceptualisation of a “Transition/permaculture/Eco-village” movement. Looking back on permaculture’s history I see ecovillages as a rural expression of permaculture with the initial one, the prototype, being the creation of Max Lindegger and his crew at Crystal Waters in SE Queensland. It’s still there, more than 20 years later.

Ecovillages constitute something of a movement themselves, however they are not a major component of the broad sustainability movement because of limitations that come with moving into a rural ecovillage development — livelihood, finding employment, access to services for an aging population and so on. Cohousing is perhaps a better urban model that incorporates some of the features of ecovillages, however I don’t think that either of these are worthy of listing as the equivalent of permaculture and Transition initiatives rather than as subset initiatives initially of permaculture but now of others including property developers.

Also, I am a bit uneasy with the lumping of Transitions and permaculture as some seemingly unitary movement. While Transitions has attracted many from within the permaculture milieu, there are others with little or no connection to permaculture who are active in Transitions. To claim Transition for permaculture could be to risk alienating these people as their outlook can be at times quite different than that which prevails in permaculture.


My view on the first question is that consumer-capitalist society is so intrinsically, grossly unsustainable and unjust that its fundamental structures and systems cannot be made sustainable and just.

You can’t reform it so that the big global problems are not created yet we still have the same basic systems.  The most obvious example is that sustainability requires a steady state economy, so you cannot reform a growth economy to meet this requirement while you retain a growth economy — you have to scrap and replace a growth economy.


Question: what economic structure would a steady-state society adopt? Would it include capitalism in some form, perhaps that of what I call the ‘natural market system’ consisting of small scale enterprises and sole traders buying and selling needed goods and services? We see this in microcosm at markets. I have seen it operating in a non-monetary way at Takwa village market on Malaita island in the Solomons when I was doing some work there.

Presumably, and I leave this for those with the depth of knowledge to answer, the natural market would be what we would anticipate in a society organised along anarchist lines, especially that of libertarian anarchism. Or, what we would find in a localised village economy.

What other economic forms would be possible? Fascism gave us, during its trial period in the 1930s, nothing more than state influenced corporatism. Communism, despite its rhetoric, gave us state control of the economy such that any innovative entrepreneurial spirit amongst the people was thwarted. Some called it ‘state capitalism’.

The model of the late 1990s promised an economy based upon innovation, imagination and business daring, originally in opposition to the old big corporations. It was a form of techno-libertarianism.

So, what model for a no-growth economy do we have?


…because by definition a market attends only to the demand of those with most money to pay and totally ignores need etc. and totally ignores need, justice, rights etc.


Well, I was watching an ABC video podcast featuring Cherryl Kurnow who now goes around promoting social enterprise.

She was saying, as do other social entrepreneurs, that not-for-profit and for-profit businesses with social goals can primarily serve society. That’s within a capitalist society and by using a business model.

What she was talking about some of us would be familiar with — our food co-ops operate this way, as social enterprises… they are essentially small businesses in which profits are reframed as ‘operating surplus’ and are fed back into the business rather than to shareholders or owners. On a larger scale, there are the cooperatives of Mondragon in the Basque country of Spain and the co-ops of Maleny.


On the second issue, Russ and Brian expressed the very common assumption that we needn’t fret about all this because if we just help the movement go where it is going then it will in time end up where I want it to be.  This view is in effect that if we just facilitate ventures which are in line with the Permaculture ethic of care of earth and people and distribution of surplus, then the movement “…should evolve in the direction you want anyway.”  Again I think this is profoundly mistaken.


Ted, with all respect I don’t see why society should change towards your model only, no matter that I have substantial areas of agreement with it. What about public participation in deciding our collective future? We all have to live there, after all. It’s one thing to theorise about these things in a university but it’s somewhat more complicated when you get out into the world and deal with the opportunities and barriers that people face for real.

What you are saying, as I understand it, is that only a complete social, cultural and economic transformation will bring about a sustainable and socially just society. I grant that this is theoretically possible but to do it I think you might have to join the revolutionary socialist party or somesuch. To expect a community-based formation such as Transition Towns or permaculture to  achieve this is unrealistic.

Actually, if you look at permaculture’s ethics, then they are pretty revolutionary and they certainly throw out a challenge to societal models capitalist and socialist. Of course, permaculture has no means of carrying off something on the scale you envisionage.

Permaculture, we know, includes people with a diversity of political attitudes ranging from capitalist to socialist, even some with anarchist tendencies. Bit like a microcosm of society in this regard. We see this in the championing of the Cuban experience of recent years in the form of that country’s commendable self-rescue from its own peak oil future through the application of organic and quasi-organic food production approaches to agriculture both urban and rural, and to its accomplishments in the medical services field. Yet we hear little from permaculturists about human rights in Cuba and about state oversight of life. In this regard it is like some of the more authoritarian capitalist states and this can be a disappointment for people seeking a real alternative.

Permaculture’s approach is not revolutionary, it is evolutionary… it proposes developing a model of the preferred new within the body of the old. Permaculture’s approach — and I think few within that milieu have much of an inkling of this — is akin to Buckminster Fuller’s notion that if you want to change something then you develop a new model that is so compellingly attractive that it makes the old obsolete. Change by choice based on the evidence that the change being proposed is highly desirable.

Transition initatives do not have a revolutionary or society-changing agenda, rather, they seek social adaptations to the potential challenges of peak oil and climate change. Whatever type of economy you prefer, these are likely to be factors it will have to deal with. The present thrust of Transition initiatives is production of an Energy Descent Adaption Plan and handing that on to local government. Doing that is only the start of the process as after planning comes implementation, and that is a much more difficult proposition. There is also a community education component of skills development called Skill-up for Powerdown, however this is certainly no agenda for social change as it lacks any political content to bind its disperate components together. But doing that is not its mission.

Transitions is still a new phenomenon, only being unleashed in 2006 or thereabouts. That it has gone global in the short period since is remarkable and is testament both the stickiness of the idea itself and to the  power of online communications. It remains uncertain how effective it will be in Australia or how durable it will be. At present, there is a trend to express it as an outgrowth of permaculture. This will attract some but not others, and it may have been more effective and potentially more inclusive to position it as an independent initiative with links to permaculture. It is primarily a community-based movement and, unless it attracts the right people with the right background, it might have difficulty bridging the civil society-government gap.


In my view almost the entire green movement is:

  1. Full of good concerned people working hard for good causes
  2. Making little or no contribution to saving the planet…because it is predominantly only about bandaiding particular problems and it is not about getting rid of the structures and systems that are causing the problems. Bandaids are very important. The green movement is patching up lots of damage, but it is not about moving to the kind of society that would not destroy the environment. For instance, the Australian Conservation Foundation does heroic work trying to save forests and whales etc but not only has no interest in challenging the growth economy but actually argues that it is a good thing.


I have a little difficulty with this concept of ‘saving the planet’ for two reasons:

  1. The planet doesn’t need saving but human civilisations might. Nature is resilient, tough… not fragile. It copes well and has done so with ice ages, global warming and all of the changes through the aeons. The planet will probably adapt to higher temperatures or whatever with new suites of plants and animals.
  2. The term is now hackneyed and has lost whatever impact it might once have had. It’s one of those now-largely-meaningless terms emanating from the environment movement that I suspect just flow straight past people.

Don’t know about ACF being so strong on the whales issue, that would be Greenpeace, itself now at risk of being eclipsed by the Sea Shepherd Society.

So, how do you “get rid of the structures and systems that are causing the problems”? What is the ideology, the agenda, the methodology? If the goal is the type of society you describe Ted, what are the steps from here to there? Simply describing such a society has value as envisioning a desirable future, but doing only that does little to move towards that society.

You also offer a situation analysis of sorts with your critique of present day society. That’s good too — any movement for change needs both an understanding of the present and a vision of its preferred future.

But having both of these does nothing to move us towards that future. That requires stages of achievement and a program of action. We go nowhere without this.

Edward de Bono has written that criticism is a good thing, but criticism that simply aims to demolish some idea (and I think much of academic criticism is of this type) is unhelpful. What is needed is the constructive criticism that makes suggestions for improvement.

As for people making no contribution to saving the planet, what is it that they are expected to do? Should they stop doing the small actions that are within their capacity in their homes, workplaces and community organisations? And do what instead? Those small actions sure do not change the trajectory of the planet but they do engage people in action. It is up to sustainability educators to build on this. You have to start where people are at.

The big changes that you propose, Ted, are simply too big for people to comprehend or take action on. They need breaking down into achievable steps over time.


These good green efforts and campaigns are not going to get us to a society that doesn’t cause the problems, because these efforts have nothing to do with the changes that requires;  saving the whale is a good thing, but it can make no difference whatsoever to the commitment to a growth economy.


Those whales again! So who goes around saving whales and why do you give it so much prominence in the conversation Ted? The mention of these marine mega-mammals seems to come around so often in this discussion that they have become cliche. It’s not 1985 anymore, it is 2010… a new century with new priorities, new trends, new challenges and new ways of being. Most of us have long ago passed the Great Age of Whale-Saving and moved on to contemporary reality.

Forget whales and think climate change, oil shortfall, fresh water shortfall, how to double food production on the same area of land within the next 40 years… for these are the things that are going to be the real limits. Thee are the crucial things we face. Time to reboot your thinking, Ted.


Similarly developing more community gardens in Totnes is a good thing, but you tell me how that is contributing to the day when the people of Totness have taken control over the local economy and run it without economic growth.


There’s a simple answer to that, Ted, and it is this: community gardens are not set up to change entire economic systems. That’s not their role, not their focus, not their mission. To expect that they could achieve this is to live in profound misunderstanding of the purpose of community food production. To place such an expectation on them is to completely miscomprehend their reason for existence.

But again… how would what you suggest come about? Do people in Totnes actually want to take over their local economy? Who says they should? Maybe, with the Totnes Pound, they are having a little experiment in local economics and this is the first step to that end. At least they have an idea to move from vision to actuality and they might just be doing it.

As for community gardens, they are a means for people to reclaim public land and to put it to productive use. Not a bad idea, really… just the sort of thing that might happen in a zero-growth economy to supply people with food from the region. Bit revolutionary in its own way, too, sort of a social revolution of the radish, the lettuce leaf and the seed (non-hybrid variety, preferably). Maybe we can eat our way to social change… hmmm… that idea has some appeal, come to think of it… done in the good company of friends, aquaintenances and colleagues, it seems a little more convivial than the glumness of environmental guilt-merchants and political revolutionaries.


Those are goals that we do not move closer to by planting more nut trees, and there is no reason to think that if we just go on planting more nut trees etc. we will eventually end up with a zero-growth economy we control.  These are two utterly separate sets of goals and we cannot expect to achieve the second set unless at some stage we start explicitly asserting and endorsing them and working out how we are going to achieve them. At present these crucial higher-order goals are rarely if ever evident in green movements, especially in the Permaculture and Transition Towns literature.


Yes… the nut-led path to a zero-growth economy… so we don’t need economics professors anymore, just horticulturists. I like that. But, again, nut tree cultivators probably don’t practice their craft to create economic revolution… you’re pushing your ideas on what you think they should be onto others, Ted, which suggests, well… just a little disregard for personal autonomy and freedom of choice.

But your last sentence above, Ted, is so true. Yet, I wonder if we should force these movements along a path they have not freely chosen? One of the good things about even imperfect democracies is that we give people and their organisations some degree of freedom to set a course of their own and to put up what it is that they try to do for consideration in the public marketplace for ideas.


The goals presently stated within these movements, planting of the commons, setting up the farmers markets etc., can all be achieved without any significant effect at all on consumer-capitalist society.  They are all quite compatible with a growth economy, affluent lifestyles and market forces.   Consumer society can accommodate them comfortably, and they are no threat to such a society.  If you want us to get rid of a growth economy etc. then you have to make that an explicit aim,


True Ted. All of these initiatives can exist within more or less any type of society (though possibly not the old Soviet model). Why? Because farmers’ markets, community plantings and the like are all part of what I referred to before as the ‘natural economy’, that in which an exchange of goods and services is made so that people can obtain what it is that they need to live and improve their lives.

Do you suggest the Transiton and permaculture movements are delelict in not being a threat to society even though that has never been their goal?


I don’t think any of the projects I am presently aware of within the TT (Transition Towns) movement are going to make any contribution whatsoever to getting rid of a growth economy, (even though all of them seem to me to be valuable.)


Again, this is not their objective Ted.

Maybe you need to set up your own movement to do this as none of those existing meet your demands on them.


So my concern is to badger people within the movement to think…


Ok. So you’re going to lose any support you have here Ted. Badgering people is a tired old strategy from way back then in the 1980s that went obsolete in the late 1990s, just like making people feel guilty and continually blaming them for not doing whatever it is that environmentalists thought they should be doing. Badgering… yes, it’s a great technique… for driving people away and innoculating them against your message.

This is the research of sustainability educators. Things are a little more sophisticated today… it’s about behavioural change… a more scientific approach, more psychologically savvy… less arrogance and more intelligence.


Few would reject the general Permaculture ethic of care for people and environment and sharing the surplus, but these principles are so vague and motherhood that they aren’t much use in helping us work out what sub-goals to adopt.


Sure, these are motherhood statements in today’s understanding, however we must remember that they are the product of  late-1970s thinking, the time when permaculture emerged. They remain, however, good ethics and I have to disagree with you about their not being of much use for developing sub-gaols. I think there are numerous projects, programs and initiatives you could hang from them.

I guess it’s true you couldn’t rally a social movement around them today. I guess they’re motherhood statements in much the same way as ‘save the whales’ and ‘save the planet’… hard to disagree with but of less value in bringing people together given the sophistication of today’s society and in light of the challenges we face. That’s why permaculture and Transition types develop more tangible goals that still fall within the ambit of these permaculture ethics.

As you say, they have no sub-goals, if they really need that, but what they do have are principles of implementation that are for the most part achievable within the opportunities and constraints of our daily lives. These are a set of principles designed to guide actions. Bill Mollison has a set of these. David Holmgren has a revised set he published in 2002, I think it was. You select those permaculture principles relevant to the task in hand, design your approach then assess that approach in terms of the principles and in light of the overall context of the ethics.

The thing with Bill Mollison is that he was a visionary whose visions are based on a varied life history and experience. This fed his ideas and, when he and David got together in those fateful closing years of the 1970s in that house on the hill in distant Hobart, they realised that at some stage visions have to be made reality or they would have to go. Making them reality is what they tried to do and are still trying to do. There is no single route to this.

Nobody, neither Bill or David, has all the answers. Moving towards a resilient future is a collective work, an amalgam of ideas, of trial and error, your ideas and mine, the ideas of all of those others out there in the permaculture and Transition worlds and all of their allies and fellow travelers marching that same road. Together, we create a future none of us yet see the distant outline of… but it is a future that we collectively create and that our children and grandchildren inherit. Let us go forward in the knowing that whatever it is that we do, however small the contribution we can make, that we walk a common direction of diverse tracks toward a future that unfolds as we move. The future is not a distant destination. It is what unfolds minute to minute as we create it.


My plea to you is to ask yourself can the ultimate sustainability and justice goals be achieved if we do not endorse sub-goals such as getting rid of a growth economy, and if you agree with me on that, is it not appropriate that you and I should try to persuade people in the movement to adopt such sub-goals?


I feel a little uneasy trying to persuade people of anything these days. Also, I sort of like the idea of being part of an open-ended social movement like permaculture or Transitions… one without a fixed, unchanging destination that refuses to evolve in the face of changing reality. Better, I think, to accept that within these movements we operate in a context of uncertainty about the future or about what these movements might evolve into. There is, I think, something liberating in this, something that offers a sense of possibility… exhilaration and adventure even… now I think I know what bill meant when he used to speak of “… adventures in good design”.

People are free to choose to adopt the sub-goals you suggest as are their organisations. I have no problem with that.

You mention persuading people to adopt the goals you have chosen… as for me and my role in persuading people, I’m just a humble conjurer of words and images, a mere dealer in ideas and information, a speaker of sentences that people might listen to or dismiss, a dabbler in projects and technologies. I don’t know of I can instigate change of any sort… heavens, I can’t even cook a chook.


For decades my writings have attempted to show in detail that sustainability and justice cannot possibly be achieved without very radical change in our economic, social, geographical, agricultural, political, and most difficult of all, cultural systems.


Ted, I love your books and your ideas, your patience and foresight, your persistence in continuing with the Limits to Growth idea over the decades. I have been fortunate to visit your Pigface Point property many times… I even worked for you and your classes at UNSW way back in the 90s
But that’s beside the point. The thing is this:  there is no single route, no single objective we can adopt to take us to a future that we can only imagine. Our existence is mired in a world of complex adaptive systems that are essentially unpredicatable, whether they are those of our body and mind, our economy or cultures, our planet or its home in the solar system and universe (or, perhaps, multiverse?). The only future we experience is the one we continually move into, minute by minute, and in doing that there lay opportunities or doing whatever it is that we do just a little bit better, a little more cooperatively, a little more effectively and little more sustainably.

People have only so much time and energy to devote to pursuing the goal of sustainability, so it is the responsibility of people like you and me, people who have chosen to make more time available to explore this sustainability stuff, to accept whatever it is that people in their busy lives can offer.

To expect people to give their time completely to doing this is the road to activist burnout, a phenomenon that has plagued social change movements since the 60s. People have their livelihoods, their home life, social life and families to attend to. All of these things are important elements of a sustainable society and to neglect them is to step off the track to sustainability. Let’s help people to attend to those things a little more sustainably and let’s congratulate them even is all they do is establish a nut plantation, cultivate a community garden or one in a pot on their windowsill, reduce their energy use or participate in developing an Energy Descent Action Plan.

That track to sustainability is no narrow, single route through the wilderness of ideas and chaos. It is a route made up of many twisting, twining paths. Permaculture, one of those paths, is a many-worlds phenomena — it is many different things to many different people. All of those paths must be trod according to people’s interests and skills. But — and this is the important part — those paths move in the same general direction no matter how different they look, and somewhere where those paths go over the curve of the horizon, in our lifetimes or beyond, they at some point have the potential to converge in the future we seek. Make it so.

The ongoing conversation: (this page)

Comments (11)

  • Joan
    February 9, 2010 at 12:46 am

    Actually, community gardens, like other components of the local food movement, really are a threat to Big Food. Most of us don’t realize how fragile the corporate food system is. It operates with very thin profit margins. If even 5% of our food was local and fresh, obtained outside the corporate system, Big Food would be brought to its knees.

  • Terry Leahy
    February 12, 2010 at 12:03 am

    Thanks for putting up this interesting discussion Russ and also to Ted for his initial contribution and continuing inspirational work on these topics.

    It is hard to know where to begin with this and I suppose from my perspective I would urge people to have a look at my site and especially the paper “Anarchist and Hybrid Strategies” for an alternative way of looking at the issues of transition that are being addressed here. So just a few points.

    Ted does actually have a fairly definite idea about how to implement this vision. He thinks an organization like Transition Towns should start setting up an alternative economy not dominated by market principles (but more by permaculture ethics). For example, rather than have people unemployed, you would see that the local community provided everyone with a job that could pay them enough to live. You would permit or allow businesses to operate depending on whether they would help the community to achieve self sufficiency.

    I suppose what I am not clear about is how in the present political situation we could actually do that by mobilizing the 5 per cent of the population we have now. For example, it would be illegal to ban a business and could 5 per cent mobilize to stop it? A serious problem for us in Newcastle as you must all be aware!!!

    But anyway, it is just not true that he does not have any plan for transition. Equally he is in fact very definite about what such a future society would look like. He has both a technological vision of it and a social and economic description of how it would work. Go to the simpler way website to find this.

    Russ does not like this because it is a “blueprint”, but actually I think some vision of what we propose as an alternative is actually necessary – in other words, what are we transitioning towards?

    I just don’t think you can avoid talking about this and Russ does it continuously – “natural markets” and so on. And yes, one of our key problems is that we do not agree about this!

    Of course, the other thing that Ted talks about all the time is necessity to agree that capitalism cannot work and that we need an alternative. I must say that Russ’s comments are not very reassuring here – he implies that we cannot be sure that capitalism cannot be successfully reformed and that markets are a problem.

    Within the framework I would put forward (which is quite different to either of these) you have to make a distinction between the end point which you are working towards and what can work now. The way I conceive it is hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism. So something like “right livelihood” as applied now is both something that has to work within the market economy that we now have but is also something that works to redirect the economy towards the gift economy and has elements of the gift economy embodied in it – for example you do not always decide to do what is the most profitable thing but also make decisions about what is the more ethical way to proceed – these are non-market giftings to other people and the planet.

    On the other hand in order to keep getting paid within the capitalist economy at least some of what you do has to make good market sense. My view is that the proliferation and intensification of these alternatives can actually bring about a change in which capitalism is totally replaced – money and the market wither away (to use a discredited phrase!) – as more and more decisions are being made on a non-market basis and these initiatives start to support each other.

    I am totally in agreement with Ted that the capitalist mode of production cannot be compatible with environmental goals. Whatever we are doing has to end up by replacing it, even if what we do now is to attempt reforms of one kind or another rather than attempting to live now like we would in the environmentalist (anarchist gift economy) situation of the future.

    Unlike Ted I do not put such a lot of emphasis on people having a clear sighted vision of what they need to do although like him I would like to see a bit more of this from those leading the environmentalist movement or even this part of it.

    Unlike Ted I think that social movements do in fact often achieve something different from what the people in them want. The fact is that the people who want to reform capitalism for the sake of the environment may end up by doing things that destroy capitalism and save the environment. And of course they will never successfully reform capitalism and save the environment but Ted and I agree about that.

    A last comment. I worry about some of the way that Russ has responded to Ted’s writings. You tend to imply that he is a bit of an out of touch “grumpy old leftist”. This is a little bit ad hominem. I find this personally something of a worry in so far as I think people who have an account that talks about social structures from a left perspective get replied to like this while those who criticize them constantly invoke social structures to explain what is going on in their own writing.

    To me the basic insight that sparks off a response such as Russ’s is that capitalist forms and institutions are often subverted and used to ends which do not really support capitalism as a system. This insight, which is common if unconscious in the environment movement, gets blown into the false idea that there are no such things as social structures and the capitalist economy. The fact is that if these institutions really are plastic to a certain extent that is not because capitalism itself is plastic but because these changes work against capitalism as a system. The analogy I use is the end of Feudalism in Britain. Lords and Ladies kept their titles and land, there was still a feudal monarch and a hereditary aristocracy but the real substance of feudalism as a social system had vanished.

    We could (hopefully) be starting to see some developments like this in capitalism. At least that is part of what is going on at the moment. To save this insight people tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The fact is that if we reformed all of capitalist society in this way we would not have reformed capitalism but a completely different economy.

    I am sorry, one last point. A good new social theorist that is worth reading on this kind of transitional politics is the authorial duo Gibson-Grahame and their book Post Capitalist Politics,

    That’s all folks.


  • Terry Leahy
    February 22, 2010 at 11:24 am

    Sorry, It is actually Gibson-Graham.

  • Antonia Vorner
    March 6, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    Thank you Russ Grayson for this discussion paper, it is imperatively important to get people excited, involved and moving to action.

    I especially relished reading your closing paragraph. It outlines very well why the Permaculture and TT movements are such successful ways of getting people moving. While it is important to vision possible future economic and social systems, change does not come overnight.

    I was a bit surprised by the lack of answer by Dr. Ted Trainer on the question of how to achieve the goals he aspires to. Argumenting people out of their hopes and excitement for possible change will not get us anywhere at all. It is a recipy for collective depression and/or burnout. All big things start with a small step, as Confucius wisely pointed out.

    Greetings from Belgium,
    Antonia Vorner

  • admin
    March 7, 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Response to Terry Leahy…

    Thanks for your comments Terry.

    You say that Ted “does actually have a fairly definite idea about how to implement this vision. He thinks an organization like Transition Towns should start setting up an alternative economy not dominated by market principles (but more by permaculture ethics)”.

    This gets to the disconnect I see with Ted’s ideas. The notion of a Transition team actually setting up an “alternative economy”is quite unrealistic, given that Transition teams are unfunded, community-based organisations. Clearly, something like this is of mega-project scale and well beyond the capacity of a community organisation.

    If you mean that Transition teams can set up local economic structures, they already have, including issuing their own currency. It must be pointed out, however, that was done in northern NSW in the late 1990s through the regional LETS system. Often, such schemes have a limited life because they find difficulty in establishing exchange in basic and daily life needs.

    Secondly, an economy is necessarily something based on markets. Even a reciprocal economy is still a market economy. The term ‘market’ is not one confined to a narrow economistic, monetary definition. Rather, a market develops when people exchange goods in any way, whether through the representative medium of cash or credit, or through direct exchange such as barter.

    The statement that “You would permit or allow businesses to operate depending on whether they would help the community to achieve self sufficiency”implies a high level of community sovereignty.

    Who would be the “you” and on what legal basis would such a decision be made? It implies the existence of statelike functions, with judiciary, courts and agencies of enforcement to enact such a ruling. This seems to stand in opposition to libertarian anarchism where the role so the state is diminished and where community enterprise is valued.

    Terry says that I dislike Ted’s “blueprint” and that “some vision of what we propose as an alternative is actually necessary – in other words, what are we transitioning towards?”. Let me agree and disagree.

    It’s not that I have a personal dislike of blueprints of future societies, it’s just that I think they are most unlikley to become likely. Societies are complex adaptive systems that give rise to their own evolution. This makes trying to forecast or guess the structure of future society a doomed exercise. It’s fun and it stimulated thinking to do so, but we should only take our findings as rough ideas of what could happen but probably won’t. I do agree, however, that we benefit from identifying the values we want in a future society and it is this that provides a vision for Transitions.

    Perhaps it’s true that the capitalist mode of production is incompatible with environmental goals. There are currently a number of ideas running to reform capitalism to these ends and I suggest we observe these over time and see what evolves. Then we will know whether the two are compatible.

    I don’t see Ted as “an out of touch ‘grumpy old leftist'”. I see Ted’s approach as transcending both the Left and the Right. Both of these political ideologies have landed us in the trouble we are surrounded with today and I think it’s reasonable to view both directions as wrong directions.

    I think the world has moved on substantially from how it was when Ted wrote his earlier books. Ted’s ideas have a basis in the Limits to Growth theories that appeared in the 1970s. They were ahead of their time and it’s only now that we start to see the validity of much of what they say. My comments about Ted’s dialogue were about some of the cliches he uses to describe what he still sees and an ‘environment’ movement.

    My observations that come through participation in social movements suggests that the term ‘environment movement’ is itself somewhat dated and is unrepresentative of current thinking. That’s why I sometimes make a distinction between the environment movement, some of which originated decades ago in reaction to pressures on the natural environment, and the broader and more contemporary ‘sustainability’ movement that incorporates urbanism, resource use, economy, localisation and other current foci. This is so much more than a mere focus on natural systems and, in fact, subsumes that focus.

    Rather than the older, professionalised environment movement, it is movements like Transition Towns and Permaculture that are today’s grassroots initiatives. Both of these remain community formations with all of the resource and capacity limitations that comes with organising in civil society. Of the two, it is Transition Towns that shows signs of greater political savvy as its program calls for eventual collaboration with local government. Doing this requires an approach largely absent from Permaculture.

  • Alfredo Zotti
    August 14, 2010 at 12:03 am

    This year, sometimes in September, I will hopefully start my studies in a Masters Degree with the University of Western Sydney. My thesis is titled: The Ubuntu Gift Economy as an alternative to Capitalism and the Implications for the Future of the Human Environment.

    This is a development of my Honours Thesis which I completed with Dr Terry Leahy back in 1999. In the past 10 years I have been fortunate to continue my studies in the areas of social anthropology and after having studied many perspectives about possible alternatives to Capitalism I agree that the concept of a permaculture is a very powerful one which could lead to some strategic changes.

    On the other hand, I think that many problems would still remain even if we were to gradually introduce permacultures throughout the world. The problem is the concept of ego. Societies in which a person cannot conceive of existing apart from the group, in which private property is readily shared, have a consensus decision making style, do not look on themselves as owning the land but as belonging to it, and live in dynamic sustainable balance with their environment.

    The problem of developed technology means that we face much bigger problems than those of sustainable indigenous gift economies. We need an alternative that can embrace our complex technology. I believe that this requires a very developed humanity in terms of wisdom, compassion, understanding and forgiveness.

    I tend to agree with Bookchin who proposed a model of Social Ecology according to which social problems are connected to environmental problems and the two cannot be separated.

    I am afraid that my view is not as optimistic: only if we gain the required wisdom and compassion to become much more developed human beings will we be able to work towards sustainability; and that is if we make it in time before the world’s environment is damage beyond repair.

    I know that many would like to enter into the debate of modes of productions vs human nature. Many would argue that the mode of production of Capitalism has shaped a certain human nature as I did in my Honours Thesis. But looking at Anarchism, Communism and other hybrid systems we quickly find than none leads to sustainability in the long terms. Even a permaculture system would not be enough by itself. Looking at sustainable indigenous culture we find a marked social inequality, we find pay back murders and all other problems.

    I do believe that social ecology, following Murray Bookchin, is the way to go. We do need a system and we do need policies and ideological structures to achieve a sustainable social order.

    If I was to be honest and answer this question: If this world was sustainable and the world had achieved social and environmental sustainability would I make a good citizen as I am now at this point having lived in a corrupted system and was to be suddenly introduced in this system? The answer is NO! I would be a problem in such a world.

    So if I was to start somewhere I would start from the following concepts found at:

  • Alfredo Zotti
    August 14, 2010 at 12:45 am

    Dear Admin,

    I find myself in total agreement with what you say.

  • Alfredo Zotti
    August 14, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I really like this discussion. I am an Italian migrant and English is a second language to me so I am sure that you will forgive some awkward expression of some grammatical errors. I do study and write but it usually takes me much editing before I can accomplish a polished paper. Here I do not have the time to edit this.

    What I find strange is Dr Ted Trainar’s call for a “zero growth economy”. I understand the good intentions of Dr Trainar but I take his statement as counter productive in real terms. At present, and for the next few decades, this is an impossibility. Ultimately, even if it was to be possible in a distant future, how would we get there? And at what costs?

    I am a carer for my disabled wife and because of being on a carer pension I have had the fortune to live in government houses. There, I have seen children of alcoholic and drug addicted parents grow up to become exactly like their parents: hopeless and destructive people. In fact. to be honest, many children in Australia don’t have the chance to grow up in a secure and healthy environment. What are we doing about this? Not much. If it was up to me, I would start from here to ensure that children grow up healthy so that they would be able to help us change our trouble world.

    If it was up to me, I would make sure that couples about to have a child attend a course where at the end of it they receive a license which proves that, theoretically at least, they know what to do to bring up a healthy child. And it is also the responsibility of the State and/or Government to ensure that children grow up healthy.

    This could be a start because I am sure, deep in my heart, that healthy and happy children, when they grow up, often seek sustainability and have a desire to achieve a better world. Unfortunately we are corrupting our children and making many atrocities possible. Our schools do not teach our children to develop a critical consciousness so that when they grow up they are aware of the powers of dominant ideologies and can do something about the problems that we face today.

    I have many friends who today live in alternative communities. Dr Robert Rich is a practicing psychologist who lives in Moora Moora one of the few alternative cooperatives that were formed back in the 70s. I also know Peter who is a social ecologist and who wrote the book “Alternative Australia. He also founded Moora Moora cooperative

    They would all agree that in order to be able to get to a more sustainable world we need to start looking at social justice and improve the lives of children, of poor people, of disabled people and of many disadvantaged groups. This is not always a question of money. For example, it is possible to empower people especially via the internet where the alternative world (the cyber gift economy) exists in symbiosis with capitalism (see To be honest, while Capitalism is a destructive system it is also, in many ways, a very constructive system which works in symbiosis with a kind of gift economy of which Dr Terry Leahy has written extensively about (voluntary work, blood donations, charities, free software and so on)

    The problem of sustainability is a very complex one. Dr Trainar’s childish call for a “zero growth economy” does more damage than good. It works against the effort of people who try to write about a better world from a much needed holistic perspective.

    We are dealing here with a huge complexity. To conclude, I would like to say that sustainability begins with social justice. Let’s work on social justice particularly the welfare of the children. Healthy children make a better world. We have abandoned our needy children to abuse, alcohol and drugs.

    When I was living in a troubled government complex I tried to help many people there and wanted to write a thesis on the problems that I found there. There was a clear generation cycle of unemployment, alcohol consumption and drugs. This means that children of unemployed and drug or alcohol addicted parents would grow up to be just like their parents. I called this the culture of the broken hearts. Children that grow up in negative environments are often unable to stand up on their feet and often become destructive citizens because the carry great resentment towards the world.

    No one wanted to supervise my thesis for a variety of reasons but essentially because the system has shut its doors to these troubled and needy people. I was there to try to pick up the peaces because I was the only one with a University degree in social anthropology. I was living with many Aboriginal people and even criminals out of jail who were just placed, without supervision or help, in these government houses. By necessity I had to help them and this has been a positive experience for me because these were just people who had lost their way.

    Could we honestly start building permaculture gardens when many children cannot receive the help that they need? It would be pointless for me but I am not sure if this link between social and environmental problems is clear to the readers. I don’t have the space to enter into a deep discussion of this. But ultimately even in a permaculture world we can still have drugs and alcohol perhaps more freely available than they are in capitalism. This is itself, when people are irresponsible and destructive, would be a problem.

    A permaculture is a fantastic ideas but it goes with a more developed humanity to really work.

    Thank you for reading this


  • Cheryl Zotti
    August 15, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    My name is Cheryl Zotti and I am Alfredo Zotti’s wife. I find this online discussion extremely interesting and useful. Both Alfredo and I lived in a government complex of 28 houses in Niagara Park near Gosford on the Central Coast of New South Wales.

    We moved there back in 2001 in our first government house (we have rented all of our life) and were relocated in December 2008 in a more peaceful and suitable complex of 6 houses.

    The complex of Niagara Park had many social problems including drug addiction, alcoholism and there were many troubled children. There were some very disadvantaged Aboriginal people there and many had a history of mental disorders. Because my husband has a good heart and some University studies he decided to help these people.
    He applied for permission to build a permaculture garden near the complex and when this was rejected he found alternatives and soon most people were growing plants in their gardens. There were some banana trees which produced good quantities of wonderful fruit and my husband showed the people there how to grow vegetables in pots given that an alternative was not possible. Because of this effort the children there could always pick a piece of fruit from trees or plants if not in their house they could get it from neighbors because my husband had explained to the community there the importance of good food for the children. Alfredo was also an expert at fixing computers and, with the help of some charity organizations like Father Riley’s Op Shop (for whom he worked as a volunteer) he got some second hand computers and fixed them up loading Ubunty Linux on them which is a free software provided by Canonical. He was able to donate about 10 computers to many children and families there. Very soon nearly everyone was on the net and this was used by my husband as a teaching tool. The children had full access to the net for the first time since their computer was often not working for a variety of reason. Alfredo kept all of the computers working in good order something that took quite some effort.

    Alfredo really tried to help the people there even putting himself in some dangerous situations. He informed DOCS and various other agencies of some of the problems and often wrote to Julia Gilliard who did not reply directly but through her office helped my husband and always direct his emails to various government departments who were often able to help but always in limited ways.

    The Aboriginal people come to really love my husband and he was their best friend. He was taken by some Aboriginal friends to some of the Elders who initiated Alfredo in a ceremony. Alfredo was honest with these people and never afraid of them. He knows how to talk honestly to these people and treats them with respect and friendship.

    Alfredo devoted 7 years of his life to help these people and I believe that many children and families have learned a lot and some have even been able to turn their life around just because someone cared and loved them. The Aboriginal people gave my husband a nick name and protected him from some criminals in the area who did not like him very much.

    It was not till about January 2007 that a troublesome family moved in the complex and there was a very unkind individual who gave my husband a hard time. There were drugs there and the police was monitoring the situation towards the end. We took some individuals to court and gained a restraining order for having been threatened. Thanks to our Aboriginal friends we were well protected.

    It is impossible to write here all that my husband did in that complex but he certainly used principles of the Gift Economy to help these people. If he had received adequate help from bureaucracies he would have been able to achieve great things. But even as things are now many families remember his efforts which have improved the lives of many people there.

    While he was working as a volunteer for these people he had the desire to study in a Masters degree. This would have been a good study because it was all about real life not theories. Yet all of the major Australian Universities were unable to offer him a candidature in a Masters degree essentially because of fear perhaps fear of not really having much real knowledge about people on drugs or out of jails.

    I think that this story tells us that academics are often able to write down on paper how we could change the world to make it sustainable. Yet, when it comes to helping people directly, especially troubled people who need help the most, it is often the case that many academics will run the other way. I am a disable woman and I have a number of doctors. I have told the story to my doctors by necessity because we have been in dangerous situations and our health has suffered tremendously. The doctors cannot understand how and why Universities are unable to really help disadvantaged people directly. The only academic who helped my husband was Practicing Psychologist Dr Bob Rich who lives in an alternative community. Bob knows the whole story and he wrote the following article about Alfredo:

    I think that Universities and academics need to try harder to help people directly. By helping people directly they will gain a better idea of what it would really take to make the world more sustainable. We have to many books and to many theories. I think it is time to work hands on the problems if we are to achieve a more sustainable world. I have seen children go without food and being afraid of their parents. Thankfully my husband, after thousands of letters to many department and having devoted a lot of his time and money, has been able to help the children who are finally safe today at least in that complex . But he was alone all the way (except for Bob Rich and Julia Gillard’s office) and it would have been wonderful if a University had taken him on and helped him. Perhaps too much to ask. But one wonders just how much can academics of the humanities really help in real terms apart from writing great theories and formulating great hypothesis.


  • alfredo zotti
    August 29, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    I would like to add a correction here. My wife mistakenly stated that I was initiated by some aboriginal elders. This is not correct. I was part of a ceremony in which I was given an aboriginal nickname.

  • alfredo zotti
    August 30, 2010 at 2:23 am

    Dr Bob Rich has given some valuable feedback on my comments here which I would like to include. Practicing Psychologist Dr Bob Rich writes and I quote:

    “Alfredo, I like what both you and Cheryl wrote, except for one thing. I agree with Ted Trainer that we need a zero growth economy. The reason is that we have reached, and even passed, some of the limits that make life on this planet possible. No matter how well you bring up children, they can’t survive when the life support system is destroyed.”

    I guess that I agree with Bob and that, in reality, Dr Trainer is right. My only concern was that to call for a zero growth economy may push people away from the debate.

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