Limits to techno-fix

Long established critic of overconsumption and advocate of simpler living, Australian academic Ted Trainer, speaks to SGR’s Andrew Simms about limits to technological responses to the climate and ecological emergency.

Article from Responsible Science Journal No. 6. Online publication: 13 May 2024.


Responsible Science Journal (RSJ): Technological responses tend to dominate the mainstream conversation on the climate and nature crises. Can technology reverse the impacts of large scale over-consumption by a relatively wealthy minority of humanity?

Ted Trainer: No, the case against tech-fix optimism is overwhelming.


RSJ: Why aren’t techno-fixes enough?

Trainer: The basic tech-fix claim is that resource and environmental impacts can be “decoupled” from GDP (Gross Domestic Product, a financial sum value of exchanges occurring within an economy), meaning that GDP will be able to go on increasing while impacts are reduced. There are now very detailed reviews finding that this is not happening and is extremely unlikely to ever be achieved. One study, by Parrique et al. (2019) reviewed 300 analyses, and another by Haberl et al. (2020) referred to 800 studies. In some limited areas growth in output can be achieved without increasing impacts, but overall if you produce more - even information - you increase resource use and environmental impacts.

Few people understand the extent to which we have gone past the limits to growth. One of my papers derives the conclusion that rich world per capita resource use is probably around ten times the sustainable rate that all people in the world could average. The World Wildlife Fund has been telling us for a long time that the consumption of natural resources is far beyond sustainable rates; in fact we are close to using twice as much as could be sustainably provided by world ecosystems.  At this rate by 2050 World GDP will be around 3 times as big as it is now, given the commitment to growth. That indicates that by 2050 demand will be over 6 times a sustainable rate. We have to face up to the fact that consumption must be dramatically reduced if we are to get to sustainable levels, and kept there in a zero-growth economy.  Many scientific studies and agencies are saying this now, and fortunately at last we have a global degrowth movement working for a shift in that direction.


RSJ: What would work instead?

Trainer: The only thing that will “work” is astronomically radical social transition to very different, economic, political, settlement and above all cultural systems. The Simpler Way vision I argue for details the kind of systems that would enable us to live on very low per capita resource use rates, while enjoying a higher quality of life than we have now, in a more cohesive society. The core principles must be most of us living in small, highly self-sufficient and self-governing communities, using local resources to meet most needs, with an economic system that is needs-driven, not profit-and-market-driven, and happy to live frugally. These communities would be in control of their own fate, via committees, town meetings and working bees. There would still be things the state looked after, and high tech research and development, universities, modern medicine etc. For the detail see:

Our study of egg supply explains how this is the way to cut resource use enormously. An industrial-supermarket egg involves a huge network of energy and resource-costly shipping, feed production, transport, marketing, warehouses, chemical inputs, and soil-damaging agribusiness, and a waste disposal problem requiring trucks and sewerage systems. But eggs from backyard or village co-ops involve almost none of these. We found that the energy and dollar costs of the supermarket egg were around 100 times those of eggs from local poultry sources. And small settlements can recycle all nutrients back to gardens, meaning they need almost no sewer system and no fertilizer industry. Some of my studies (e.g. How Resource-Cheaply could we Live Well?) detail the very low possible numbers for settlements and households. My electricity consumption is one percent of the Australian average. Obviously such a transition could not take place without the greatest cultural change in hundreds of years. That is what we have to work on.

Also obvious is the fact that none of this can be cone in a capitalist economy. That is by nature about constant growth, and because it frees the energetic and rich to gear society’s productive capacity to their limitless enrichment, it condemns the rest to increasing deprivation and struggle. The resulting anger is damaging social cohesion and driving us towards fascism.


RSJ: What impact would your proposals have on the simultaneous crisis of inequality?

Trainer: Inequality would cease to be an issue that mattered. In the Simpler Way communities, all people would see that their quality of life, security, etc. depended entirely on how well the village community was working, and that monetary wealth was irrelevant. We would make sure there was no such thing as unemployment and that all were provided for and all had a livelihood. The solution to inequality is not redistribution (although that’s OK), it is establishing an economic system that does not generate inequality. We would make sure that the opportunities to produce would be distributed across all who wanted to contribute, not taken by a few tycoons.


RSJ: You paint a picture of how we could live differently, but currently we are locked in both by the infrastructure of the built environment, a consumer culture and the work-and-spend treadmill - what practical steps realistically could be taken now, in the short term, to begin the process of transition?

Trainer: This can’t be answered without a somewhat complex account of Simpler Way transition theory. The required alternatives will not and cannot be implemented in this society. It is totally incapable of even recognising that growth and affluence have to be abandoned, let alone capable of implementing the necessary changes, which involve scrapping most production, industry investment, trade etc. Governments would have no idea how to do this while providing well for people. The path to the alternative way will be via the coming mega global breakdown whereby capitalism self-destructs, although this might eliminate all possibilities. So it is a waste of time trying to get governments to make the necessary changes here and now. Our task is to attract sufficient numbers to the alternative perspective so that there are enough people with the right vision to build sensible ways when the dust clears.


RSJ: How would you make the prospect of change sufficiently attractive that people would want to make the shift?

Trainer: Yes this is the task. Nothing can be achieved unless enough people have come to accept some kind of Simpler Way vision. So we must work on cultural change, simply by saying wherever possible that there must be radical system change, and pointing to examples showing the benefits, e.g., in various eco-villages and especially in movements like the Zapatistas, Catalan Integral Cooperative, and Rojavan Kurds. In addition the coming collapse will force people to see that they must go cooperative, local, self-sufficient and frugal.  This is happening, especially within poor countries, but also in the rich countries, evident in Ecovillage, Transition Towns and Degrowth movements.


RSJ: What do you consider the biggest obstacles?

Trainer: Capitalist ideology. This is deeply entrenched in almost all, especially in ordinary people who are obsessed with individualism, competition and the pursuit of affluence. And it is built into social structures; we are all trapped in an economic system that must have growth or it will crash. The capitalist class will of course resist strenuously, as this revolution means death for them. But their capacity to stop us will be greatly reduced by the coming energy shortage, and the magnitude of the breakdown in social cohesion they will be unable to deal with. Unfortunately however it is likely that the outcome will be some kind of feudalism or fascism.


RSJ: What provides the biggest chance of success to overcome the obstacles?

Trainer: The increasing commitment to local/alternative ideas and activities, evident in Ecovillage, Transition Towns, Degrowth etc. movements. Many now realise that the consumer-capitalist way is not acceptable and is leading to trouble and has to be scrapped, and are for paths that prioritise welfare and environment over markets and profit. For decades after the publication of The Limits to Growth in the 1970s little change occurred, but in the last two there has been a remarkable surge. Note that the initiative is and has to be at the grassroots level; the state will try to prop up capitalism to the bitter end, and in any case it can’t implement the kinds of settlements and systems we want. 


RSJ: What precedents, if any, give you hope that change on this potential scale and at the speed necessary can happen?

Trainer: There are now many ventures illustrating the kind of world view and practices and structures we want.  The task for activists is to publicise these, to spread awareness of why we need the transition and of the benefits. We must try to get as many as possible to see that the simpler way is the only way to head off the big global problems now threatening our survival, and to see that it would be a liberation. Unfortunately too little energy is going into this easy and safe strategy; too much is going into trying to get governments to listen or to adopt currently impossible policies. And many good alternative projects are not geared primarily to raising awareness of the big picture; for instance most community gardens are only about enjoying gardening when they should be making clear that community gardens are illustrative of the kind of projects that we must build in the process of taking control of what will be our highly self-sufficient, self-governing and cooperative new settlements.


Ted Trainer is a conjoint lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Known as an activist academic and for writing extensively about overconsumption, simple living, degrowth and issues of social justice, he is author of The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World and many other works.

Image by Bradley Hook via Pexels.