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Ted Trainer’s new book – a rough road map

I haven’t seen a copy of Ted’s new book yet, so the comments that follow are made in ignorance of the context set by it. My comments refer only to the chapters that Ted has circulated to publicise the publication. You will find this at the end of this review.

Reading through the chapters supplied, especially Chapter 13 which is about implementing Ted’s ideas, I find that this book builds on his earlier works and offers a rough road map to his preferred future.. Chapter 13 suggests that this is a visionary production in the tradition of utopian literature. I don’t mean utopian as in impractical dreamwork, for some of which Ted proposed ideas already exists. My use of the term has more to do with Ted’s proposing a means to get to an ideal state of zero economic growth and decentralised decision making.

Ted has long championed these things, especially the steady state economy and reduced consumption of goods, which he sees as integral to achieving his ideas. I remember, back when I worked for him at UNSW, his championing of the limits to growth scanario. I recall that many of the ideas I find in his supplied chapter from his book ideas that he was trysting with then, some in more or less developed form, others embrionic. Ted’s courage in raising those ideas at a time of neoliberal economic dominance in the closing years of the Twentieth Century should not be underestimated.

Now, with the recent global economic crisis, the recent food crisis and the oil prices rises of the past decade, his ideas have greater currency, validation even, than they did back then.

Minor annoyances

First, some minor annoyances.

Can I step into my old editing role? I think a book like this should have had the services of a professional editor. Editing is not about making things look pretty. It is about readability… readability is how you get information and ideas across to readers. The chapter I was provided with suffers from massive overuse of the explanation mark. These should only be used for exclamations, and exclamations should be few. Otherwise, readers won’t notice them and that’s not what you want with an exclamation.

Ted is clearly a product of the typewriter era because he uses his work processor like a typewriter where he underlines both subheads. He also underlines text where he wants to make a point, however this is now done by more subtle means such as bolding and italics, if at all. Wording is another way that emphasis can be made. In his chapter which appears at the end of the review I have removed underlining from subheads but left it in the text.

I don’t say these things to be narky but to make constructive suggestions on how the production could be improved. Some passages could well do with a rewrite and it is this that an editor would have had Ted do.

Realisations come

As I started to read through the supplied chapter, a number of realisations came into my head:

  • much of what Ted writes about already exists in some form
  • some of those things that exist have done so for long enough to be proven to be viable ideas
  • some were good ideas that have faded but that might retain a lower level of participation than they originally attracted
  • Ted glosses over the detail, the opportunities and barriers, to setting up some of the ideas he proposes
  • the greatest opportunity to implement some of Ted’s ideas would come with a partial collapse of the economy and social institutions, however the forces pushed into motion in that evantuality might work against his ideas.

Those involved in Transition initiatives and permaculture will find much to like in Ted’s proposals. Those with experience in the developing the things he describes will find a lot of effort and time would be required to make it happen.

Starting points

What Ted plots in Chapter 13 is a broad roadmap to the localisation of food, economy and governance. As noted, many of the initiatives he proposes already exist here and there. Ted’s ideas would bring them together in a coordinated synthesis to achieve his localisation goals. In doing so, his ideas impinge on a form of anarchism—he admits this—- whose theorists include Murray Bookchin, a US anarchist whose writings were popular in the 1980s and 1990s. Those ideas have some remarkable crossovers with the agenda of the Transition Initiatives movement today.

Ted starts by focusing on communities as the locus of reinventing our civilisation. He proposes the formation of a community development co-operative (CDC) as the umbrella organisation that would hold community gardens, local economy and local political initiatives. Setting up a community garden and a community workshop, Ted says, are first steps toward self-management of communities.

Why Ted separates community gardens from the community food systems they are a part of (food co-ops, community supported agriculture, organic buyers groups etc) remains a bit of a mystery. Community gardens are a good idea but they are not for everyone and in some cases other community food initiatives are more relevant. My assumption is that, for Ted, a community garden is a physical location that could accommodate a community workshop of the type he describes, where goods could be repaired and made. This would be necessary for some of his other ideas.

I don’t know where Ted’s ideas for community self-management come from. Perhaps it’s the form of anarchism he alludes to. There was quite an active movement towards self-management in the 1970s. It came from a leftist push in the UK towards worker self-management of industry which culminated in the proposals for the repurposing of  Lucas Aerospace. Whether this has fed Ted’s ideas on community self-management is unknown.

Community gardens we have had in Australia since 1977 and Ted’s ideas for community workshops are reminiscent of the men’s sheds that already exist, some in association with community gardens. The sheds are activity centres where people do repair of goods and similar activities. A successful men’s shed has existed for some years in Wollongong and there may be one built adjacent to the planned community garden in the Bourke Street open space redevelopment by the City of Sydney. These initiatives are precedents for Ted’s ideas that we now know work. The difference is that Ted foresees the community workshops evolving such that they provide livelihoods for participants. Again, there is a precedent. It’s called Reverse Garbage and it has operated for quite some years as a recycling/materials reuse centre where the public can obtain recyclable and reusable materials provided by industry. At the Addison Road Community Centre in inner urban Marrickville, Reverse Garbage is only metres from The Bower, another recycling centre, which is only mettres from a community garden known as The Food Forest. A coincidence of enterprises of the type Ted advocates.

Combining community gardens with recycling centres is something that needs to be done thoughtfully. In the 1990s, a Sydney community gardendid this in a small way but more or less by accident, however the quantity of recyclable materials stored on site led to complaints about rodents and visual aesthetics and the landowner had the gardeners remove the materials.

Local currency

Reading Ted’s chapter, I realised that what he was forecasting was the evolution of the community garden into a market garden. Production of a tradeable surplus of vegetables and herbs would open economic opportunities with town restaurants, the transactions being conducted in local currency.

Local currencies are not something new in Australia and at least one, in northern NSW, issued banknotes in the 1990s. We have had LETS (Local Exchange and Trading Systems, aka Local Energy Transfer Systems) but TED is skeptical of these, seeing them as merely an exchange of IOUs that offer a limited range of goods and services to be exchanged and not producing much by way of new livelihoods.

This is true although in the early days of LETS there was the idea going around that it would contribute to participants’ livelihoods and would let unemployed people continue to practice their skills. LETS have come and gone, often appearing with a great flourish of activity only to shrink away. Participants confirm Ted’s claim as to the limited range of goods and services offered as a reason for their fading into disuse. You can only have so many beijing massages, it has been said.

Yet, the Blue Mountains LETS was the world’s largest in the 1990s, even negotiating with the Department of Social Security and the Australian Taxation Office about how LETS transactions should be treated. But even big organisations fade with time and that’s what happened with Blue Mountains LETS. Perhaps LETS is one of those good ideas that founder at their first iteration but that flourish when the time is right. And for Ted, that time is coming, though it might not be LETS that delivers it.

Time-based currency

Ted proposes something that, again, has been tried—Time Dollars. This, like LETS, is a non-cash transaction (LETS could be partial cash especially where the goods or services were part of a person’s livelihood and had to be accounted for in tax). The idea is to use the hour as the accountable basis of transactions and to put a value on that time interval. The implication, as Ted says, is that the more hours you put into the community garden (here it would have to be a market garden), the community workshop or other community enterprise, the greater your credit. This would be redeemed via local currency for goods and services hat are produced locally by others who deal in local currency.

I don’t know enough about economics to say more than this sounds like a good idea. A temporal quantity (the hour) is probably as good if not a better basis for a currency than floating it on the global market. An hour is something the reality of which can be measured and, thus, can be commoditised as Ted proposes. As an accounting unit, the hour as represented in local currency becomes symbolically exchanable for the hours of others in the form of goods and services. It becomes a unit of currency underwriting transactions within the local economy.

What Ted proposes is that this ‘alternative’ economy develops in parallel with the mainstream economy that continues to trade in federal dollars, and that exchange takes place between the two systems.

A few difficulties

Ted’s ideas may sound utopian but, as I have said, there are precedents, some of which have been sucessful, some which haven’t.

The book paints a big picture image of the possible, however while reading the couple chapters provided it kept occurring to me that a lot of work would have to be done to make those things happen. It would not be as simple as you might think on reading the book.

What I am getting at is this. Starting a community garden is a process that takes time, even when local government is supportive. This is not necessarily to do with council bureaucracy. It may have to do with democratic process. Councils often require a community consultation for changing landuse to community gardening and for the proposal to be voted on at a council meeting. Community gardeners can get impatient at this, however it is due process in a democratic society because we are dealing with public land. Likewise, some of Ted’s ideas require the establishment of small businesses, co-operatives or social entrprise and these also take time and a lot of effort.

I think this is where the difference between the practitioner and Ted, the academic, would become noticeable. It’s one thing to postulate what are good ideas in a book. It’s another to go out and create them. Those that have created initiatives such as Ted proposes will know that it is not something that can be done quickly and that it is fraught with risk. This I know from my work in local government with people setting up community gardens. They often imagine that doing so is straightforward, however they soon learn that council is answerable to a broader range of people in communities and that council has consultation processes that are there for good, democratic reasons. Some community gardens have taken two years (most don’t) to get started and persisting has been a test of the determination of those starting them. So it would be with much of what Ted proposes.

Another thought that occurred to me is how do unemployed people (one of Ted’s identified target groups) pay rent or mortgage and meet living expenses while setting up the CDC. People often come out with well meaning ideas about what unemployed people could do with their time, but this assumes that they have the time available. It’s one of those details that might seem to be insignificant but, when it comes to implementing Ted’s ideas could be a major determinant of success.

Targeting the unemployed is not an uncommon idea among peoples setting up community gardens. It’s a bit like the idea of targeting Aborigines that you come across— well intentioned, but with a low likelihood of success. Unemployed people are no more or less likely to participate in community gardening than any other segment of the population. It might seem common sense that they would be attracted to the idea of reducing household income by growing some of their own food, and no doubt some do this, but it seldom eventuates.

CDC as parallel government

Ted sees the CDC evolving into a sort of parallel local government much as the revolutionaries of the 60s set up parallel governments in liberated areas. I found Ted’s postulating that the CDC would start to provide livelihoods and fulfil social welfare roles reminescent of Hamas, in Palestine, which provides social services while it carries on its program of opposition.

Some of Ted’s terms require explanation, such as his idea that the CDC would exert “control over our town”. Here’s hoping he means a popular, democratically-derived control. Likewise Ted’s statement that “This is our town and it’s our business what’s going on here…”. All well in theory, however this statement can easily lapse into NIMBYism and exclusivity. This I have seen.

Getting there from here

Over the years, Ted’s ideas have been criticised as simplistic and lacking the insight that come with actually creating some of the things he discusses. I take what his critics say, however I think this new book should be read as the product of an academic who deals in ideas rather than the implementation of them.

I can’t comment on the value of Ted’s book to sustainability advocates, not having read it and having read only one chapter. The impression I get is that it would be of value more as an ideas book than as a practical manual of how to get from where we are to where Ted would like us to be. If true, this makes it a further development of his earlier writings.

Unlike those earlier writings, the sustainability agenda now has a lot more practical experience and this has brought into reality some of Ted’s ideas. Finally, the sustainability movement is starting to shake off its old distrust of business and is creating the small businesses and social enterprise initiatives that would be needed to take Ted’s ideas from theory to reality.

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Read The Trainer Papers

Chapter 13 of Ted Trainer’s new book, A Practical Strategy

Chapter 13.  A Practical Strategy.


This chapter sets out the kind of action strategy I think will be the most effective for those who wish to help save the planet.  It is built on the argument elaborated through the previous 12 Chapters.  I believe they constitute a weighty case against most previous thinking about how to bring about social change and against most of the planet-saving effort presently being made.  The argument has been that these ground-clearing considerations point to one and only one general approach. Its theoretical form has been offered in Chapter 13.  This Chapter translates those conclusions into practical steps.

So there you are, living in a typical suburb within consumer society, and surrounded by people who only know the consumer way and are unaware of the need to shift the world to very different ways, quickly.  What on earth should you do?

The following sequence of practical steps is set out as if a small group is starting from scratch, the only ones in the town who have the vision, and as if they are without any assistance from official bodies.  Often conditions will be much more favourable than this.  Sometimes local councils will be eager to help with many of our proposals and many local people will be interested in or already doing some of the things suggested.

I have argued this general strategy for a long time (e.g., see Trainer, 1985, 1995.)  It is most encouraging that in recent years the Transition Towns movement has taken off more or less in this general direction (although I doubt that’s due to any influence I have had.)  There are some significant differences between what is happening in the movement and the ideas in this Chapter, and my hope is that in time the movement will take up the ideas offered here.

1. Form a  Community Development Cooperative.

A small group of people simply begins meeting as an embryonic Community Development Cooperative (hereafter CDC).  This will eventually develop into the institution which organises and “runs” the town’s new economic, political, ecological and social systems, but at first it would be tiny with very humble goals.

The CDC will think about the town’s many unmet needs and its many unused productive resources.  Any neighbourhood has unemployed people, all that time spent watching TV, unused backyards and nature strips and school yards, retired people, skills and the immense untapped good will and energy that people could give to the cause.  The town also has vast unmet needs, including the need for more basic food, furniture, entertainment, etc., the need for livelihoods and for the sense of making a valued contribution, for community, solidarity, friendship, comradeship, worthwhile activities for young people and a sense of having some power over the control of local affairs.  So our task is to harness and connect and organise, to begin applying some of that unused productive capacity to producing to meet some of those unsatisfied needs.

2. Set up a community garden and workshop.

The ideal project to begin with is the establishment of a cooperative garden and workshop.  Even if only on a very small scale this quickly gives the capacity to grow and make many important things participants need.  While it might be decided to also enable individuals to garden their own private plots, the central function must be to organise a cooperative “firm”” whereby people can work together to produce things they all need.  This enables working bees to get the site into shape and to share the thinking, the expertise and research, and to share the produce.  It also means that if only one person knows how to grow good vegies, we can all have good vegies.

Now we have the means to begin providing for those many people dumped by the conventional economy.  We make it possible for local people who are unemployed, homeless, convalescent or retired. to join us in productive activity, working to start producing vegetable, repairs, toys, for ourselves and each other.

We will record time inputs to the cooperative firm with a view to sharing output in proportion to these contributions.  Thus someone who can only come along occasionally can be part of the team.  (What we have done here is create a new currency, i.e., “print” our own money.  The significance of this will be elaborated below.)

Every carrot we produce represents a saving of scarce money participants do not have to spend at the supermarket.  More importantly we have begun to create livelihoods, purposes, community and cooperative skills, leisure resources and a cooperative climate… and a new economy.

3. What else can we do?

The CDC would then look for other activities to take up.  What else could we produce for ourselves, cooperatively and without much capital?  Bread is an obvious possibility.  We could research and build an earth oven, buy a bag of flour, and organise a weekly bake-up to churn out stacks of irresistible hot bread, pizzas, biscuits and cakes.  Baking day would then become the beginning of the weekly community working bee, business meeting, banquet and concert.

Of course all the way we will be publicising and recruiting, knocking on doors to explain what’s going on and to invite people to join us.  Remember our primary objective is not to build things, it is to develop in people the consciousness that will lead them to build eagerly.

Our working bees will build the benches, seats and shade houses, and landscape the garden the workshop site.  We will find out who can play musical instruments, tell jokes, act and sing, and we will then organises the first concert.  We will celebrate our productivity and power and take pride in the way we are providing for each other.  We are not just providing vegies and bread but solidarity and the satisfaction that comes from knowing we have started the revolution!

What about food processing, such as buying bulk fruit and bottling or drying, making juices, fruit wines and cider?  What then to do with the peelings?  Of course, feed them to the newly acquired rabbits and poultry, which we will locate in pens the working bees will build and which will become vegie patches when the animals have cleared them up and fertilized them.  The duck ponds will produce large volumes of rich sludge for the gardens.  We will plant the communal herb patches, fruit trees, and in time make the fish ponds and the sheds for the beekeeping equipment.  Meanwhile sub-groups will research all this and set up committees to look after the fish, rabbits and bees.

We will organise to buy things in bulk, setting up sub-committees to find the best places to get flour, jars, nuts and bolts.  We will scrounge the treasure thrown out on council clean up days, to accumulate the wood and iron we can use in the workshop, and the bikes and appliances we can fix to use or sell.

It is difficult to understand why so few charitable agencies, especially churches, have not set up ventures like this.  (An inspiring example is The Homeless Garden Project based in California.) The standard charitable organization confines itself to merely giving things to “disadvantaged” people, especially money so they can buy more from supermarkets.  Consider the typical old person’s “home” where expensive buildings and staff tend to people who have almost nothing to do all day, when they could have a thriving mixed garden with animals and workers right in their midst.  Some could join in and others could just watch and chat…while the institution’s food bill was reduced.  In Holland such gardens have been found to have beneficial effects on dementia sufferers.

After we get our operations at the garden and workshop site under way and in the backyards of participants, we can explore harnessing other resources in the neighbourhood and taking on other activities there.   Are there sheds and trucks, tools, machinery and waste products we can get access to, especially bits of land on which we might plant commons? Can we put in small dams and ponds for water plants and fish, develop pits for clay and earth for building?  Can we stack some areas with edible herbs, such as New Zealand spinach that will thrive almost anywhere?  Can we arrange with councils how to get access to the vast amount of treasure that goes into waste tips, especially the building and craft materials, the appliances and bikes we can repair. (Eventually we will operate these salvage and recycling depots.)

Councils are likely to give us permission to plant and maintain small herb patches, bush tucker, bee hives, bamboos, fruit and nut groves and timber trees on public land. Much can be done without their approval or knowledge though.  In some cities “green guerrillas” just plant on vacant land.

Our working bees and committees will organise and run these activities.  These projects out in the community will be very powerful educational devices, enabling us to explain our project to people. We will publicise the up-coming working bees and identify them not as owned by the CDC but as town events in which all are invited to contribute.  We will be seen to be working for the good of the town, we will be showing how the town can get together to do important things for itself, and we will be explaining our vision.

We will set up a market day so that people can exchange their garden and craft produce with each other, and sell surpluses to the townspeople.  This helps to connect our new economy with the old one, earn us more normal money, and spread awareness of our project to more people.   Our market will only sell important items, not trinkets, and only items made locally, not imports.  If possible our Saturday morning stalls will be set up in a prominent position. Market day has very important social, political and educational functions.  It gives us the opportunity to discuss issues and work towards consensus decisions about what is best for the town.

Remember, the most important work we are doing is not feeding ourselves or providing livelihoods or community.  It is educating the town, increasing the numbers who understand our perspective and who will join us, if not now then when the crunches begin.  Nothing will be more effective in this campaign than real life visible activities whereby we can be seen to be practising the new ways. Behind one of our stalls will be a big map of the town as we think it could be restructured, with many streets converted to gardens and commons.

Everything will be discussed at the community meetings.  The group as a whole will thereby be developing the skills needed to make good decisions about priorities and what’s feasible and how best to organise.  We will be learning the art of self government.

Leisure, entertainment, celebrations, festivals and culture.

A committee will focus on the possibilities for providing local and free entertainment, eventually including regular concerts, dances, visiting speakers, local artists, craft and produce shows, art galleries, discussion groups,  book clubs, picnic days and festivals.  Can we form a drama club, a comedy group, a choir, a gym display troupe?   After the Saturday morning market we might establish an afternoon working bee followed by a town meeting, games, evening meal, party and performances of some sort?  What regular celebrations, rituals and festivals can be organised?  Can we get a group to work on the local history, museum, culture and folklore?  Eventually we will think about ways in which the town centre could be made into a more convivial space that will facilitate informal meeting, discussion and leisure activities?  Of course it is not that these are novel ideas.  Many country towns are well aware of the importance of these sorts of activities and projects and most councils engage in some of them   But at the neighbourhood and suburban level cars are not necessary for access.

Setting up small family firms and co-ops.

If the CDC’s bee keeping operation goes well, and Fred’s family really enjoys running it, we might set it up as a fairly independent firm “leased” to Fred.    Thus the CDC is in a position to create firms and livelihoods. It can give people the satisfaction of running their own little enterprise, enjoying making a valued contribution to the community.   Our power to do these things derives from the fact that we have working bees, community expertise, our own bank (below) and buying power.  Our working bees can quickly build the sheds and we would buy from Fred rather than the supermarket

But what if Fred tried to become the regional honey tycoon, trying to drive other honey producers out of business and take over their operations?  If he tried to do that we would simply refuse to buy from him.  But he would not be likely to do it because he would realise that the goal now has to be building town solidarity and security and enjoying a livelihood, a modest but sufficient income, and working for the common good, or we will all go down.  The CDC will not be in the business of setting up little entrepreneurs with an opportunity to get rich.  It will be in the business of establishing the town’s capacity to produce the many basic things it needs and give worthwhile activity to unemployed people, and Fred knows he’s there to help fulfil the need for honey, and that if does this he will get milk and eggs from others making their contributions.

It should be apparent to all involved that the whole approach must be basically collectivist.  Although small private firms might make up the biggest sector of the new economy, especially family businesses and farms, it cannot be got going or kept in good shape unless it is guided by concern to work out and set up what is in the best interests of the town.  Many crucial functions must be organised, planned, coordinated, monitored, regulated, revised etc.  This could not happen in an economy made up of many competing private firms.  In conditions of serious scarcity that would quickly lead to a few most “efficient” winning and driving the rest out of business, and out of town, resulting before long in the collapse of the town.

One problem here is that councils and other agencies have unnecessarily expensive standards, especially regarding house construction.  For instance their room sizes, ceiling heights, and materials rules help to make a house cost perhaps  ten times as much as it should.  Councils also often have silly rules inhibiting the keeping of poultry and animals in suburban areas, food processing and cooperative projects.  However, when the time of troubles impacts most of these rules will be quickly swept away as everyone realises that it is essential to facilitate the maximum amount of local productive activity.

The significance of beginning our tiny CDC and the garden and the little productive enterprises and the working bees and commons cannot be exaggerated.  To start doing this even in the most humble way is to have begun to develop totally different economic, political, social, geographical and cultural systems.  These activities, no matter how small in scale at first, constitute systems that contradict and spurn the acquisitiveness, competition, individualism, power, greed, affluence and growth that drive the normal economy.  Just to have got the CDC going is to have put in place astoundingly revolutionary new social forms.  All that remains to be done is extend it to include the town, then the region, then….

Go out into the locality and start doing something!


I think it is symbolically important at some early stage for us to find some need in the locality that does not affect the CDC’s welfare but which we can take action on.  Maybe it’s assisting a youth group, or a struggling family, or some homeless people.  This is to take our first step towards taking responsibility for and control over our town.  We are not going to leave that problem to the officials, who aren’t dealing with it anyway.  We will go over there and see what we can do about it.  This is the stroppy attitude that will drive the new economy —  this is our town and its our business what’s going on here and we want to know what problems there are around here and we will take action on them.

The suggestion is that it would be good for us to take on a job of this kind, early on, to start getting the hang of such action and building our confidence about it.

Connecting with the normal/old town economy.

So far the discussion has been about starting to create a new economy operating beside the old one, mostly involving people excluded from the old one.  Right from the beginning the new economy can achieve miracles but there will be many things we can’t produce and which can only be obtained from the old/normal economy. It has many things such as radios and computers that we will want to use.  How then can we who have little or no normal money begin to trade with the normal economy?

The core and obvious point here is that we cannot get things from the old economy unless we can sell things to it. The CDC therefore has to begin researching and consulting in order to find items that it can begin selling to firms in the old/normal economy.  A likely beginning point might be to trade vegetables, fish, fruit and poultry with the town restaurant in exchange for meals we can buy from it, using our currency.

The restaurant would be very keen to trade with us, because we represent a large amount of potential demand for meals which previously the restaurant was not able to tap (because most of us were unemployed we could not afford to eat there.)  We open up for him the possibility of selling a lot of dinners, but only if our new currency is used, because we can’t pay for meals in the old currency, because we haven’t got much/any of it. He can only sell meals to us if he accepts payment in the money we will create for the purpose (see below), and he can’t do that unless he can spend that money buying something he needs from us.  It is our capacity to produce and sell something that is crucial, not the existence of the currency.

Thus we will begin to trade with the town.  The extent of this trade will be limited by how many things it needs that we can produce and the CDC must work hard on this.  The problem will be greatly reduced as petroleum becomes scarcer, because that will devastate the capacity of the town’s old firms to import goods to sell.  They will have to get those things from local suppliers, or do without them, and thus we will have opportunities to take up some of this productive activity.

We will have to make sure everyone understands that our new economic sector with its new firms and money are no threat to the old one.  Old firms are not going to see us as taking business from them, because those firms are only going to sell (for our new money) to people who do not have much old money and therefore wouldn’t have been buying from old/normal firms anyway.  The CDC will not start producing things that are already being produced in the town.  For instance if we were to set up a bakery and take sales from the existing bakery that would only be to put it out of business with no net gain in town jobs in beijing , bread supply or welfare.  However we would not hesitate to compete with and take business from firms that are selling imported goods (and help the locals who worked there to move into our new firms.)

Focusing on frugality, sufficiency, what is good-enough.


Right from the start we will make it clear that we reject the affluent consumer way.  This will be evident in our attitude to “standards”.  We will insist on providing what is sufficient in the resource, dollar and ecologically cheapest ways.  We will in principle reject luxurious and new things and this will be visible in our early projects.  We will make do, patch up, be content with what is good enough, and spurn the best, and we will explain why we will assert the moral superiority of out standards, and point to their effect on our footprint and dollar cost of living.


The role of money.


Very important in the development of the new economy is the creation of our own money, which the Community Development Cooperative will use to enable economic activity among those who the conventional economy forces into idleness, unemployment and poverty.

There is much confusion about the nature and function of local currencies and often proposed schemes would not have desirable effects.  All money has to be created, somewhere, somehow, and got into circulation.  Chapter 4 discussed the absurd and unacceptable way this is done in the normal economy.  There is a tendency in alternative circles to proceed as if just creating an alternative or local currency of any old kind would do wonders, without any thinking through of how it is supposed to work.  lt will not have desirable effects unless it is carefully designed to do so.

What would happen if new money was introduced by giving it to poor people to spend in participating shops?  When the poor recipients had spent the money they would still be without a productive role or the capacity to go on earning an income. And on what would the participating shops spend the new money they had accepted?  This situation could be avoided only if those low-income people had been able to get into lasting productive roles, so that they could continually produce and sell things to those shops, enabling the shops to use the money they took in.

Similarly, what if the council created new money, spent it into circulation by paying previously unemployed people to build a swimming pool, and accepting part of their rate payments in new money?  After the pool had been completed those workers would again be without income and the council would have nothing on which to spend the rate income.

The same general problems arise with LETSystems.  These give people the capacity to pay for goods just by writing “IOUs”. This can be quite helpful, enabling some people without normal money to trade some things.  However the problem is that most people do not have much they can sell, i.e., they do not have many productive skills or the capital to set up a firm.  It is therefore not surprising that LETSystems typically do not grow to account for more than a very small proportion of a town’s economic activity. (Douthwaite, 1996.)  What is needed and what LETSystems do not create well is productive capacity, enterprises.  It will not set up a cooperative bakery in which many people with little or no skill can be organised to produce their own bread.

So the crucial element becomes clear.  Nothing significant can be achieved unless people acquire the capacity to produce and sell things that others want.  Obviously, unless one produces and sells to others one can’t earn the money with which to purchase things one needs from others.  So the question we have to focus on is how can the introduction of a new currency facilitate this setting up of “firms” that will enable those who had no economic role to start producing, selling, earning, buying. The crucial task is to create productive roles, not to create a currency.  The new currency should be seen as little more than an accounting device, a necessary but not the most important factor.  And the crucial question should be, how can we use a new currency to help get production going by people who are idle.

The way we might best introduce a new currency has been noted above.  The CDC has set up the cooperative garden “firm” and invited people to come along and work in it, recording time contributions, with the intention of sharing produce later in proportion to contributions. The slips of paper issued when one has worked an hour function like an IOU or “promissory note”.  These slips are new money. They can be used to get, buy, garden produce.  The key element here is the organising of the productive opportunities, the setting up of the “firm” which enables people to have “jobs” and this is not done just by creating a currency.

Note that the bits of paper are not actually promissory notes.  We would all understand that all participants share the risk that the crop will fail.  (In a satisfactory society all would share the risks associated with major investment decisions, which are made by all of us to achieve goals we all endorse.)  The slips of paper would be understood as records of what proportion of the product each contributor was entitled to when it became available.

When we then set up the baking venture the time inputs will again be tallied and now those who do the baking can use their time credits to buy vegetables produced by the gardeners, and vici versa.  We will have begun to diversify our new economy, and that it will function on our new currency

It would be best to use an hour’s work as the unit of currency, regardless of what activity it goes into or what differences the normal economy would put on the various things people produce in their hour.  In other words we would be working for “time dollars.”  This is done in a number of communities.  Because most or all of us will be using relatively simple skills there is not likely to be a problem of some thinking their hour is more productive or worth more than that someone else puts in.  All that matters is that everyone contributes conscientiously, although some will do a bit more in the hour than others.

Consider recessions.
Now let us take a moment to reflect on the appalling fact that recessions, depressions and unemployment are allowed to occur.  Hundreds of millions of people are condemned to go without livelihoods, enough money, purpose, or self respect, for years – when all this would be totally and easily prevented, just by doing what the above CDC has done?  If the economy begins to slow, causing unemployment, a government could simply set up cooperatives in which unemployed people could – you guessed it – organise themselves to work to produce many of the simple things they need.  The start-up and administration expenditure would be far less than the savings in unemployment benefits and social breakdown, let alone in quality of life.  These people would be producing, running the organization, largely or wholly off the “welfare” budget, enjoying life, and paying tax.

So why isn’t this done?  Why did more than 15% of Australian workers have to endure unemployment and degradation for years after 1929?  Why isn’t it done now, to eliminate the deprivation and depression of the unemployed millions today?  The answer of course is that the kind of solution outlined is totally unacceptable in capitalist society.  It would be (gasp) “socialism”, and everyone knows that is stupid, evil and does not work.

So in parts of East Timor and PNG they tolerate unemployment rates of 70%, because everybody accepts that there can be no development unless someone with capital decides to set up an enterprise that will make more money for himself than investing in anything else anywhere else in the world.  Then they are surprised and dismayed to find that the bored, hungry and angry young men join rebel gangs and armies, which are of course immediately identified as “insurgents” (used to be “communists”) and therefore must be crushed to restore (capitalist) order.

Capital; Form a town bank


In general little very capital will be needed to get the new local economy going because the main enterprises are mostly humble and labour-intensive and do not need elaborate premises or expensive machinery or purchased stock. The CDC can organise campaigns to accumulate voluntary donations of capital for particularly important development projects. Some  communities have low or zero interest town development accounts into which those who are willing and able deposit some of their savings because they wish to support desirable local development.  The CDC can also operate voluntary taxation schemes.  (In a sensible world most of the normal tax revenue would be collected locally and spent locally.) Note how those developments can proceed even if only a small number of people support them; it is usually not the case that nothing worthwhile can be done unless everyone agrees.  On some communes only those who want to see a particular project undertaken contribute capital to it.


The town or region should at some stage establish its own bank or credit union.   Normal banks take our savings and lend them to corporations far away.  Our town bank should have as one of its rules that the savings of local people will only be lent for projects within the region and that top priority will go to borrowers who intend to develop the town in desirable ways. This means depositors will probably be subsidising town development.  The bank which gives low or zero interest loans to worthwhile ventures and does not make the highest returns on all loans will probably not be able to offer to its depositors interest rates as high as they could get from banks that are only concerned with making as much money as possible.  Again this is a price we will be willing to pay in order to make sure that (some of) our savings go into developments that will improve our town.  (Eventually, in a zero-growth economy, there can be no interest payments.)  However our bank will not be drained by outrageous executive salaries and bonuses or shareholder dividends, and you will have a say in its lending and investment decisions.  All its officers might be voluntary.

Along with the bank we will form a business incubator, to give new little firms assistance with accounting and tax advice, access to computers, perhaps premises, and especially expertise from our panel of the town’s most experienced business people.  Along with our bank this will put us in a powerful position to take more control over our own economic development.  We can set up the firms we want, even if they might not be profitable, create jobs and livelihoods, cut town imports, and reduce dependence on the global economy and on oil.

The remarkable success over many decades of the Spanish Mondragon Cooperative movement testifies to the power of these institutions and this approach.  Largely because the town formed its own cooperative bank and advisory institutions it has been able to build many modern and powerful businesses capable of succeeding in international trade (not that we will want to do that.) Similarly the achievements of the Spanish Anarchist collectives of the 1930s showed how socially beneficial development can take place rapidly when people have control over factories land banks.

Another important task right from the earliest days is to make links with groups that can be enlisted and assisted — and helped to see what we are on about…the charities, churches, welfare agencies, aged people’s homes, Lions and Rotary service clubs, farmers markets, youth-off-the-street initiatives, indigenous, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, parole support, slow food, Men’s Shed movement…

Building a new local economy which we run.


Now look what we have done.  We have built a radically new economy, one which all of us participate in making rational decisions about what we need and therefore are going to produce cooperatively.  Even though it might be tiny for a long time, it is an economy which we run to do what we want done.  We can therefore begin to eliminate unemployment and poverty and homelessness in our town and provide livelihoods and security to all.  We have not waited for government or the economy to provide for us, we got out there and did it for ourselves.  Do we have lonely old people or bored youth around here – well let’s just see what we can organise to get rid of these problems.

The significance of this attitude could not be exaggerated.  Although for a long time we might not have the capacity to exercise much control over anything important, that’s  where we must be clearly determined to go from the start. So our orientation will not be centred on encouraging little entrepreneurs to set up, or households to take up gardening, or the town to plant an orchard…within the old framework of individuals and groups functioning in a town that’s part of consumer capitalist society and whose fate is mostly left to global market forces and officials from the council and the state.  What we are about is gradually taking cooperative responsibility and control over our town and talking it out of consumer-capitalist society and running it to meet our needs.

The two level economy.


We should be keenly aware that what we are doing can be put in terms of building and running Economy B, the one which ensures that all our basic needs are provided for.  Many will live well almost entirely within Economy B because they opt to live very simply, produce much in their home gardens, contribute to community working bees and networks, and meet many needs via commons and the giving/gift sectors.  However for a long time most of us will probably also be involved in Economy A which will be the (possibly large) remnant of the present economy.  In this economy mostly non-essential but desirable goods and services will be produced for sale, we will work for money, and we will be able to purchase imports to the town.  However economy A could collapse without harming us because Economy B is the one that will provide and guarantee our quality of life.  No matter what happens to the global economy we know we can always produce all the carrots, repairs, beijing jobs and concerts we need, totally secure because we are in complete control of these processes.

The transition will be a gradual stepping from Economy A to Economy B.  At first we will not be able to provide much for ourselves but as we get more activities going our dependence on the normal economy will decline.  In the very long term it will probably make sense to completely shift Economy A’s remaining components into Economy B, so that everything is rationally planned and cooperatively organised.

Learning to govern ourselves.

As our scope increases we will be making more and bigger decisions and this will involve us in working out by trial and error and a lot of careful thinking what are the best ways for us to do this.  The first tiny CDC discussions around the pot belly stove in the workshop will grow towards eventually becoming town meetings and along the way we will be focussed  by our circumstances on what is best for the collective, what are the best ways to find agreement, how best to handle disagreements, to make sure all feelings have been expressed, how to monitor, review and revise our decisions.  We will be learning a very different political process, one that cannot be about engineering 51% majorities that force the rest to comply.  We will be in situations where it is glaringly obvious that we must find ways that all can see are the best, and therefore ways all will willingly support.

Reducing town importing and exporting; making the town more self-sufficient


In time we must work on enabling the town and its nearby region to produce as many of the things it needs as possible from local resources.  At present most people live in suburbs which must depend almost entirely on imported goods and services.  This means huge costs in terms of energy, resources, footprints, and dollars, and it means dependence on the fickle, treacherous and predatory global economy.  People must export a lot to earn the money with which to import a lot via the supermarkets.  So when a poor country has sold off all its forests it will have to find something else to sell.  It must worry that at any moment the global economy could trash it.  The main export from rich world suburbs is labour and this cannot be sold without travelling a long way to work.  The coming petroleum crunch will wreak havoc on that arrangement.  You and your neighbours will wish desperately that you could provide for yourself without this dependence on exporting and importing.

There are five areas in which the CDS must work in order to help increase local economic self-sufficiency.

a)  Setting up import-replacing firms.


The CDC must look for items which can be imported into the town but might be produced locally.  Can we encourage and assist existing firms to take on such ventures.  What firms do we need? Do we need and can we organise a bike repairer, shoe repairer, bee keeper, butcher, jam maker, fish farm, poultry farm, baker, house insulator, mini-dairy? Can we develop some local energy sources, windmills, water wheels, woodlots, ethanol plants?   What firms are producing non-necessities and might be persuaded that their fate is precarious and that they should try to deal in local wares.  How can we help them to do this?  How can we make sure no one crashes into bankruptcy and has to leave town? We are in a powerful position to lever the transition of firms, because we can bring into play our working bees, town banks and business incubators, new money and our power to purchase or boycott.  We can for instance build the dirt-cheap mud brick premises for the baker or bee keeper.

As petroleum becomes scarce the town will be rapidly increasing its understanding that we must assist these developments by at times subsidising, paying more and helping, or the town will not have affordable honey or bread.

b) Set up co-operatives.

Given that at first the town or suburb will be highly dependent on imports when these begin to become problematic many people will be threatened with unemployment.  Many who were travelling long distances to work will also run into serious difficulties.  For the CDC these firms and people represent abundant resources to be redeployed into local co-ops. We must be thinking ahead, preparing to help threatened firms and people to foresee the restructuring they will have to deal with and how they could start producing some of the things the town needs.  Does the town need a poultry farm, or acquaculture – then just form a co-op and set these ventures up.

c) Increase household production.

Of course town self-sufficiency also depends greatly on increasing household self-sufficiency.  The more goods that are produced in home kitchens and workshops, craft rooms and gardens the less that will have to come through supermarkets.  The CDC can greatly assist here, for example by developing recipe books for great dinners from the abundant plants that thrive locally, including the garden and roadside “weeds”.  It will develop formulae for cleaners, solvents, oils, dyes, glues, paint, etc. that can be made from local ingredients, within households or small firms.  lt will put out designs and recipes for soap making, tanning leather, bread baking, weaving, leatherwork, pottery, blacksmithing, preserving, and making sandals, hats, baskets and basic clothing.

The CDC will develop craft groups to increase home production of many items for use within the home. It will organise classes, skill sharing, display days (no prizes!), local sources of materials and the listing of skilled people willing to give advice or run classes.  The CDC will develop and make available information on gardening, repairing, and how to cut household costs.

Many highly enjoyable leisure activities can be central in our skill development, such as field days, craft demonstrations and displays, talks by experienced practitioners from other towns, visits to gardens and systems.

d. Building up the commons.

Commons are very important in increasing local self-sufficiency because they provide lots of “free food”, materials and services for all.  The CDC’s early experience with this powerful device at the garden site will put it in a position to lead the town in thinking out what to locate where, and how best to organise the working bees that will do the building and maintenance.

e) Living simply!


The literature on local economic development usually fails to recognise that its prospects depend greatly on the readiness to reduce consumption in the first place.  Our chances of providing most or all we need locally will be much better if we can cut back on the demand for stuff, especially high tech items that have to be imported via transnational corporations.  We must keep in mind that the planet would not benefit much even if we produced all we use locally but went on consuming as much as before.  Localisation gets rid of the transport and packaging costs but much more important is all the unnecessary consuming presently going on.

The supremely important “educational” function of the CDC.


As I have said a number of times, by far the most important task is to do with developing the ideas and values that will lead people to work for the transition.  At the start few if any people in the town or suburb will have thought from the perspective argued in this book.

There are two goals here. One is increasing the realisation that the alternative ways are enjoyable and effective means for achieving extremely important economic and social goals lin the era of increasing scarcity, such as providing good food and building community solidarity, escaping oil depletion, and raising the quality of life.  The second element is increasing the realisation that consumer-capitalist society is unacceptable, that it is the cause of serious global problems — and that it can’t be fixed and can never solve our problems let alone those of the poor majority in the world, that it is likely to plunge us all into chaos soon, that it is not compatible with ecological sustainability or justice and therefore that we must move on from it soon.  There is no better base from which to develop these critical global understandings than through the activities under discussion.

Ask yourself how else could we go about trying to develop general public understanding that this social system is deeply flawed and has to be replaced?  We can’t force people to attend lectures or read books.  We can’t walk into people’s homes and start telling them about the global situation.  We can’t explain these things via the media, because we have almost no influence on what they present.  But we can make these connections clear throughout all the CDC’s activities.  When we are glaringly visible doing things in the neighbourhood we will explain that the ultimate point of what we are doing is to eliminate the global problems consumer society is causing and to illustrate and pioneer much better ways, and persuade more people to join us.

This public education function can also be carried out via the CDC’s many research activities.  Various surveys and audits will need to be made, such as into what goods are being imported and might be replaced by local products, what items existing firms would be willing to buy locally if they were available, what problems and needs people are experiencing, and what attitudes people have towards our project.  While door knocking to collect this evidence we can explain the global significance of what we are doing and invite people to meetings and events.

Among the devices a small group can use are, organising public meetings to discuss the town’s situation in view of the coming oil problem, drawing up a possible new town geography showing what roads could be dug up for commons, surveying what people think are the most neglected needs in the area, listing the most urgently needed new co-operative businesses the town might consider setting up, listing possible working bee projects, and reporting the results of door knock surveys of town opinion on these kinds of issues.  We could put our findings into reports and newsletters.  These activities will always involve reference to succinct analyses of the global situation, so people can see the rationale for our projects and proposals.

The community garden site can be crammed with information boards, displays, dioramas and examples.  Wonders can be done with a few bits and pieces.  For instance earth  building can be illustrated by a mould, a heap of mud, a few mud bricks, and lots of stunning pictures.  A waist-high sand tray can enable people to move model houses to design an ideal settlement, and redesign the one they are living in.  A few such items enables a very-informative school visit.  A similar venture involves examples located in various households in the neigh bourhood, a chicken pen here, a mud brick dog kennel there, a mini orchard, ac part we have planes to cram with useful plants, the place where a mud brick quarry and pond might go.   We then take people on explanatory tours.

One of the many concerns of the CDC will be to develop (or find) good indices of per capita ecological footprint, and of the quality of life.  It will also develop measures of cohesion and social wealth; e.g., how well the working bees and town meetings are attended, how many feel excluded or stressed, how the old and the young are faring.  The CDC will liase closely with other localities on these issues, refining measures and sharing information and ideas.   Right from the earliest days some of these measures will be valuable educational devices, for example having a town footprint figure prominently displayed on the big noticeboard outside the garden.

The CDC will make sure people realise from the start that the overall goal is not “prosperity” as is conventionally understood.  It is not raising the town’s “living standards” defined in terms of GNP per capita.  It is not bringing more income into the region.  The immediate goal is to enable the town, suburb or region to provide itself with many of the basic goods and services needed for well-being and security, and to enable all those excluded by the old economy to have access to productive activity and incomes.  The ultimate goal is to develop the consciousness that will lead people to eagerly work hard to build settlements, economies and lifestyles that make a sustainable and just world possible.


My argument has been that there is a powerful logic leading to the strategy outlined in this Chapter.  After hundreds of years in which progress was indubitably identified with getting richer we have suddenly run into an era of scarcity that will oblige us to scrap many of the ideas and values that have driven Western culture.  An examination of this situation gives us no choice but to accept that a sane, sustainable and just, and satisfying society now has to be defined in terms such as frugality, self-sufficiency, stability, participation, localism and cooperation.

The implications for the transition process are just as coercive, inescapable and radical, contradicting many classic theories and strategies.  The new society cannot be imposed or even given.  Unless it is willingly developed it will not work, and it must be learned.  Communities must bumble their way to the geographies and practices that suit them in their conditions.  This then means there is little choice about how to proceed.  The only way to get there from here is to start now, where we live, building the new ways.

If we ever do make it to a sustainable and just world order then we could not have got there unless tiny groups of people had begun to take on this task of working out how they can start the transition in their town or suburb.  The Eco-village and Transition Towns movements have got us started on this path.   Before long we want to be able to derive from their accumulating experience the recipe book that will enable many more groups to quickly and easily apply the strategies the pioneers have found to be most effective.

But what matters most is not that we start building new ways but that we use these activities as the educational devices that will enable us to increase the understanding that huge and radical restructuring is needed.  If we can succeed at that task then the remaking of our settlements will romp along.

None of this will happen anywhere unless people just like you and me take up the challenge.  No one is an expert on how to do it and governments aren’t going to do it for us.  Don’t think there are lots of people out there much better qualified than you are.  It can only be done in your locality by the ordinary people who live there.  Even if we had experts in the process they could not come in and start telling your neighbours what to do; that would not work. The people who live there are the only ones who know that scene, and they are the only ones who can work out how best to go about achieving the goal within their conditions.

You could not be offered a nicer revolution!  No need for sacrifices or suffering, or to contend with secret police or tanks.  Many good people feel very disturbed at their rich world comfort and security and worry about what they should do.   This book derives a clear and emphatic answer.  If you are concerned about the fate of the planet and want to  know what is by far the most important thing you can do about, then form a CDC!


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