activism simple living sustainability

Five pathways to a sustainable future

Last night on the train I was reading the latest paper from the Simplicity Institute. It’s called The Deep Green Alternative (pdf), and it’s by Samuel Alexander and Johnathan Rutherford. The introduction contains the following:

“The global development agenda seems to be aiming to provide an expanding global population with the high-impact material affluence enjoyed by the richest parts of the world. This is despite evidence crying out that the universalization of affluence is environmentally unsupportable and not even a reliable path to happiness.”

Indeed, and the general idea behind this blog is to find ways out down from the limb we’ve climbed out onto. That’s not easy. It’s not hard to live a simpler, greener way of life, and plenty of people voluntarily choose it. What’s harder to imagine is how that choice scales up to change across society. How does ecological living ever gain the critical mass to get beyond personal lifestyle? Can it ever be institutionalised, adopted as policy, and planned on a big scale? A national programme of simplification seems antithetical to the idea, however necessary it might be.

Helpfully then, this latest paper describes five possible pathways to transition to a simpler way of life.

1. Radical reformism – this is the default position of most environmental campaigners and thinkers, where change is pursued through existing structures. It can still be radical, through ideas such as the steady state economy, but it does not seek to replace capitalism and doesn’t typically challenge class structures. It isn’t revolutionary, but attempts to work with government and business to affect change.

2. Eco-socialism – Proponents of eco-socialism “argue that market capitalism is fundamentally irreconcilable with ecological sustainability”. The growth imperative is inherent to capitalism and therefore it must be replaced – a systemic change towards more common ownership and democratic control. Eco-socialism is distinct from regular common garden socialism, in that most socialists are not motivated by environmental concerns.

3. Eco-anarchism – Sharing the belief that we need to abandon capitalism to achieve sustainability, eco-anarchism parts company with the socialists over the role of the state. The state has failed, and socialist states have often failed more spectacularly. The answer lies in participative, local democracy, with no political hierarchy. People will govern themselves. Rather than angling for a share of the power or demanding change through existing structures, eco-anarchists prefer to just get on with building alternatives within and underneath the current system.

4. Deep green resistance – the most controversial strategy, the resistance movement actively seeks to bring down global capitalism and unsustainable business practice. In this view, the situation is too urgent to wait for more people to be persuaded or for government policy to change. A more militant response is required. That, it should be swiftly asserted, is almost always peaceful – blockades, occupations, and protests. The vast majority believe in Gandhian resistance, and those prepared to carry out acts of violence or sabotage are a tiny minority.

5. Crisis and response – finally, there is a view that sees little promise in any of the above, but recognises that change “could arise not so much by design so much as by disaster.” When collapse inevitably occurs – whether through climate breakdown or financial crisis or something else entirely – radical change may be possible in new ways. It would unfortunately be accompanied by major disruption and potentially a great deal of suffering. This could be seen as a cop-out philosophy, but it doesn’t need to be passive doom-mongering or selfish survivalism. It can be pro-active too, building resilience and articulating alternative ideas for when the crisis comes.

I think that’s a useful summary of the various approaches being pursued at the moment. One thing that strikes me is how things are characterised. Almost all mainstream campaigning is within the first approach, but opponents often seem to pigeon-hole them as socialists or protestors. It’s also interesting that these approaches are often indistinguishable at the practical level. Adherents of 1,2,3 and 5 could all find themselves productively engaged in their local Transition Town, for example.

Where do I fall in that myself? Despite the regular insinuations, I’m not a socialist and I see no future for that word. Almost everything I write about falls within the first approach, but philosophically, I have a lot of sympathy with the third. That’s because I believe getting on with building people-centred alternatives is more productive than demanding that the government build them for us. I believe the status quo can be undermined with something better, but that’s something I’ve come to through my Christian faith rather than through anarchism, so I wouldn’t use the term myself. I actually think the future is a hybrid that we don’t have a name for yet, and that at this stage there is no one right answer.


  1. Another hugely helpful and concise blog that forces the reader to examine her/his own assumptions. As always, you arrive at an open-minded conclusion free of dogmatic assertion. Your Christian stance clearly is tolerant of other worldviews and not of the ‘true believer’ exclusivist variety. Thanks once more for getting to the heart of today’s pressing issues in a most accessible way.

  2. This so reminds me of the left wing political ecosystem. Social Democrats, State Socialists, Social Anarchists, crisis of capitalism revolutionaries. Hardly surprising since much of the “Green” movement grew out of the Left and its still mostly of the left in outlook.

      1. Hmm, having just assigned a group of ideas into 5 arbitrary boxes you now say assigning things into boxes is futile.

        Given that 3 of your 5 categories you state seek to overthrow capitalism it is hardly outlandish to ascribe those to the ‘Left’.

        Perhaps you don’t want to be categorised but others can objectively look at what you say and make those categorisations for you.

        1. I don’t have a problem with categories, just those categories. Seeing everything in terms of left and right is doing black and white politics in a technicolour world. They’re been irrelevant categories for twenty years.

          1. So you assert but I don’t think that it really has gone away. A great many political scientists still find the terms very useful (You will find Wikipedia for example puts those strands of thought in the Left). It seems to me that the people who say “left and right are irrelevant” are people who are of the Left but don’t want to be associated with it. I think that comes from the idea that they have invented some new way of thinking. The idea what they are thinking is something new and unheard of is very appealing to those whose politics vear towards the collective. I guess it is because they associate the past with nasty failure and want a New Jerusalem where everything old is swept away while conservatives value continuity with the past.

            Anyway, whether you call those strands of Greenry Left, Right or Unami the point is that in a way similar to those of the old left the Greenies have the same fissiparous nature.

  3. Jeremy,

    Thanks for your review of Sam and my report. Glad you found it useful.

    I want to respond to your comment ‘I am not a socialist, I have no use for that term’. I want to encourage you to read either of two books both of which we referenced heavily in the report. Saral Sarkar’s ‘eco-socialism or eco-capitalism’ OR ‘The transition to a just and sustainable world’ by Ted Trainer. Both those authors, to my mind, put a very convincing case that we cannot achieve a sustainable world, let alone ‘make wealth history’ within or by an economic system based on profit maximisation and competitive market forces (i.e ‘capitalism’). Of course the bureaucratic, centralised, industrialised ‘socialism’ (i.e the USSR) failed horribly. Nobody wants that. Saral, in his book, explains some of the deep roots of that failure. But both these authors put the case, convincingly to my mind, for a re-imagined, simpler, convivial, local ‘socialism’. Maybe you are right and we should ditch the ‘S’ word. Many have used other names; a ‘communitarian society’ an ‘ecological commonwealth’ an ‘inclusive democracy’ an ‘egalitarian society’. Call it what you will. But it won’t be capitalist! Capitalism, based on competition and capital accumulation without end, is driven by a growth compulsion! It is this 300 year old system (which, btw, was born uniquely in England and then spread), and its attenuate acquisitive, individualistic culture, which must bear primary responsibility for landing us in this mess. It went global precisely because of that growth compulsion (utilising, of course, the rich bounty of nature’s fossil fuels!! To raise these issues, I know, makes me probably seem ‘old had’ ‘doctrinaire’, ‘ideological’ etc. But we will never get anywhere if we don’t come to the clear realisation that our task, as daunting and as difficult as it now seems, is to build an entirely new economic (as well as political, cultural, geographical etc) system built on very different principles and procedures (and no doubt richly varied from bio-region to bio-region across the world). I am with Ted, unlike Saral, that this must emerge and be built by us at the grassroots.

    Keep up the good work.



    1. Hi Jonathan, thanks for dropping by. I say I see no future for the term, rather than the ideas. The word itself is too divisive. It’s a red flag. It’s also assumed that socialism means top-down, big government control. I’ve read Trainer’s piece on transition, and he rightly points out that there are smaller scale, bottom up forms of socialism. I just wonder why anyone would want to use the word and be immediately written off or misunderstood.

      I think the future is hybrid, because there are elements of socialism that will be more commonplace. The best ideas from an ideology can cross over – I think cooperatives are a good example. Even the Conservatives want to talk about cooperatives. Likewise, the most useful elements of what we currently describe as capitalism will endure – such as the use of markets.

      That’s because, ultimately, those ideas don’t belong to the ideology. People have traded things since the beginning of time, and worked together to pool their resources too. The socialists don’t own cooperatives and the capitalists don’t own free markets.

      As for whether capitalism is compatible with sustainability, I don’t think we have the luxury of choosing. There’s no appetite for changing, no political will to overturn capitalism and no well articulated alternative. It’s all we’ve got right now.

      At the same time, elements of capitalism as a philosophy are failing all around us. Alternatives that are actually pretty anarchist are emerging in the midst of it – peer to peer, collaborative consumption, open source, etc. Ironically, it looks like modern consumer capitalism will be outcompeted in an open market of ideas. That’s why I say it can’t be overturned (it’s hard to know what you’d be overturning anyway), but it can be subverted and rendered obsolete by something better.

  4. I couldn’t agree more, Jeremy, only I suppose that capitalism as we know it now is another word without future. As you said: there will be something we have no name for yet. What I find very interesting is that many contemporary introductory economics and business textbooks include many critical views of the very subjects they treat. This was not so 25 years ago! I suppose overshoot also happens in relation of insight and practical action: simple inertia carries the old ways forward although the insight already progressed beyond them. Change is possible, and I think my own country is a good example – a country that within less than a human lifetime changed from a deeply intolerant, racist, homophobic mass murdering dictatorship to a peaceful liberal tolerant multi cultural open society. I tend to be on the pessimistic side when it comes to the future/environment/economy/peace complex, but then I look around and see where I am, what happened here, how the environment changed from a state with closed schools due to yellow winter smog to a state with clean air and rivers you can swim in again – all within 30 years. Of course things can all go wrong again and no change for the better necessarily is permanent, but such examples – and there are others around th world – are encouraging. Change is possible – even BIG change.

    Like you I am often considered a socialist but do not see myself as such, also because I do think that Socialism is founded upon the same flawed materialistic concepts of “progress” as capitalism. But I also think that not everything about socialism is bad – bad implementation does not automatically prove the concept itself wrong. One could argue, for example, a system not designed for competition is destined to fail when forced into perpetual competition. Somehow Huxley’s “Island” just popped up in my mind. I also think that when I compare Cuba and the Philippines, the majority of the people in Cube are better off than in the Philippines, despite a very similar history up until the moment when the one embarked on a capitalist dictatorship and the other on a socialist one. In many humanitarian respects (i.e. food supply, education, medical care) Cuba’s population faired far better than that of the Philippines, despite the embargo against the first and the full integration into the globalized economy of the second. But the Philippines have a large number of billionaires and multi millionaires.

    There is a simple and not at all philosophical reason why any change will have to be bottom up: the resistance of established institutions and economic powers will be too strong to change their direction top down. That would mean to entirely overhaul the system of incentives within the economy which, I’m afraid, will not happen. Ultimately those who benefit also write the rules of the game they profit from, so the only way is to not play the game – or to play it differently at the lowest level. I wonder, however, if such hierarchical structures might not be a result of human nature. Asa Arthur C. Clarke once said “Power should never be granted those who want it”. But who volunteers for the position of class-speaker in high-school? Usually even there you often only get one or two candidates. Humans do follow and elect charismatic characters and many people are quite content when somebody tells them what is right and wrong and what they have to do. So maybe what have here is another cycle – change (through war, revolution, reform, cultural evolution) followed by consolidation, formation of new structures and organizations and hierarchies lead by, ultimately, the same types of characters again. It was A.C. Clarke again who suggested to appoint members of parliament randomly from the general population in order to avoid this dilemma…

    1. Many more prisoners of conscience in Cuba than the Philippines. How many Cubans got a say in the handing of power from one Castro to another?

  5. Devonchap, you are unwittingly providing a case study in why the categories of left and right are so damaging. You see ‘old left’ and dismiss every one of these five approaches, when by your own definition only one of them actually is old left and two of them could actually be pursued by the traditional right.

    The main problem is that because your blinkers only allow you to see things in two colours, and each of them has history and past failures, you can’t spot a new or alternative idea when it is presented to you. They are all, in your view, ‘fissiparous’, even though some of the approaches above specifically seek to avoid social divisions.

    And no, of course it hasn’t gone away. Not while people like you insist of seeing everything that way. Frankly, it’s your loss, you’re the one missing out. Just don’t insist that I respect your 1950s pigeonholing.

    1. I pointed out three looked to overthrow capitalism which is a pretty good approximation to ‘left-wing’ in any definition.

      My comment about the fissiparous nature of green groups stands whether or not they are of the left. Just like many fringe communities (the extreme left being ones but certain types of protestant christians being another). That is they tend to split themselves into small groups arguing over doctrine. This is a fairly standard observation that I’m surprised you don’t know, which suggests your knowledge of politics is lacking.

      I do look for new ideas. Its just you don’t have any. Putting the word eco or radical in front of something doesn’t make it new. Your description of ” Radical reformism” sums up Social Democracy, but with environmental added. Eco-socialism is obvious, Eco-anarchism similarly. Pretty much everything you put forward in this blog has roots of at least 50 to 100 years old if not more. You don’t seem to have the historical perspective to see the similarities. That goes back to my point about people of Radical bent always wanting to see their ideas as new and history as something to be decried.

      You really want to think your part of something new and different, fine. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

      1. Wait, your definition of ‘left-wing’ is that it wants to overthrow capitalism? Seriously, your case study in why these categories are stupid is gathering pace with every comment.

        There are very few ideas in the world that are genuinely new, that’s for sure. I certainly don’t claim to have any (and what I write about here are not my ideas). But there are new convergences, new iterations of old ideas, new technologies creating new possibilities everywhere you look. If you don’t find such things interesting, that’s fine. You carry on with your black and white categories. Just don’t foist them on me.

        1. If you were to draw a Venn diagram of those ideologies that wish to overthrow capitalism and those that are ‘left wing’ you would find almost all of the first in the second. So while you can be left wing and not seek to overthrow capitalism, it is hard to seek to overthrow capitalism and not be left wing. Unless you are a Fascist.

          That the ‘Left’ and the ‘Right’ are broad churches is undeniable, but that do have definite philosophical outlooks and pre-occupations. I have read the Deep Green Alternative and don’t see very much that could be considered Conservative or Neo-Classical Liberal. Perhaps you can point out that parts that transcend tired left-right categories since you such an expert on political science that you can declare left-right categories as irrelevant.

          1. Anarchism does not fit the left/right categories. The first approach here, reform, can be approached from left or right. So could the last.

            Having mentioned fascism, do you not see the limits of a dichotomy that requires you to lump the current coalition, Thatcherism, Libertarianism and the Nazis into one category, and Ed Miliband, the Nordic Model, modern day China and Stalin in the other and talk about them with a single term? That’s farcical.

            And what about history? If all politics can be divided into one of two categories, where did Alexander the Great sit? Was King Alfred on the right or the left? And what about non-Western politics? Which box do traditional tribal councils go into? What about theocratic states?

          2. Left and right are broad churches that have evolved over time and only really make sense in the conditions of nations as they industrialised. They are both very much children of the French Revolution.

            Of course ultimately Left and Right is a model. As are all other categories – including the 5 you point to here. A wise person once said ‘All models are wrong, some are useful’. Left-right is a useful model. They do each seem to sum up the approach of about 30% of the population over a long period of time. They both have coherent philosophies. That Stalin and Ed Miliband have roughly the same start point in their philosophies means we can group them together. Of course their end points are very different.

            Categorisation is to aid analysis. You say anarchism does not fit left/right categories. Yet apart from their belief in no government Libertarian anarchist have more in common with Neo-classical Liberals than Anarcho-syndicalists who in turn have more in common with socialist trade unionism.

            Now you assert that left-right doesn’t fit your new politics. Yet as I said I have looked at your 5 categories and every one fits well into the Left if viewed through the Left-right analysis. Other than asserting it isn’t helpful you have not offered any evidence why it isn’t a sensible way to analyse politics anymore. So perhaps you can point out where the Deep Green Alternative appeals to someone who is a Conservative or Neo–Classical Liberal in outlook.

  6. Jeremy,

    Thanks for your response. I have no time to add any further thoughts and won’t try to do so quickly because it gets into complex issues. Can I encourage you to check out the following essay by eco-socialist Richard Smith, just published on Truthout. I think you will find it thought provoking, even if you disagree.

    Can I also encourage you to read a) the Saral Sarkar book I mentioned above – its really important and well argued – perhaps you could do a review of it on the blog? b) check out Ellen Meiskins Wood on ‘the Origins of Capitalism’…helps you understand how capitalism is not inevitable or natural but a product of recent history. Link to Smith below.



    1. Thanks. I have made a note of those books to read at some point and I will review them when I do. I need to do some more work around capitalism anyway. It’s a slippery term, and I’m not sure everyone knows what they’re arguing about half the time, myself included.

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