vol.8, no.1, (March 2002)


Debating the significance of the Global Eco-village Movement; A reply to Takis Fotopoulos

Ted Trainer


In Vol. 6 No. 2 of Democracy and Nature I argued that a) industrial-affluent-consumer society is grossly unsustainable and that when "the limits to growth" analysis of our situation is understood it is clear that a sustainable and just world order must  be based on materially very simple lifestyles, a high level of local economic self-sufficiency, cooperative and participatory ways and an almost completely new economic system, one that is not driven by profit or market forces and that does  not involve growth.
[1]  My main concern was to go on from these premises to argue that at this point in time the most effective way is to contribute to the transition is to work within the Global Alternative Society Movement to establish instances of The Simpler Way.  Although Takis and I seem to have more or less complete agreement about the state of the planet, the need for fundamental change, and about goals, he argued against the strategy for which I am attempting to recruit.   This reply briefly seeks to show that there are few significant differences between us on strategy and that the Alternative Society focus aligns well with his vision.

Within the Global Alternative Society Movement one can include a variety of initiatives such as intentional communities or Eco-villages, Voluntary Simplicity, Community Supported Agriculture, farmers markets, land trusts, LETS, local economic development and alternative technologies.  Many strands within these are not fundamentally opposed to consumer/capitalist society, but all involve ideas and practices that must be focal in a sustainable alternative society.  My arguments regarding a transition strategy are about building on these initiatives.


Structural vs. cultural

Takis began his comments by distinguishing between power structures and culture and argues that the key to desirable change is structural change, thereby dismissing my focus on the Global Eco-village Movement and simpler lifestyles etc., as merely to do with cultural change.  He criticised me for focusing on "ideal values as opposed to structures"[2] and for claiming that only value change is needed, not structural change.[3] However this misrepresents my position.

Obviously eventual change in structures is needed, but the important question for us is what is the best strategy here and now in our very difficult present situation, in order to arrive someday at a position from which structural change might be made.  I argued that the answer is not to work with traditional Left groups in traditional Left campaigns, sympathetic though I am with those groups and goals.  I see the development of alternative settlements and systems as the arena which offers more potential then any other currently available for starting to build the consciousness that is crucial if at some distant point in time structural change is to be achieved.

I stressed that I am by no means endorsing the Alternative Movement as a whole, nor the whole of the Eco-village movement within it.  Much elements within these are politically apathetic, insufficiently socially responsible, sloppy, irrational, and far too affluent, and not interested in structural change.  Much of it is quite self-indulgent, only concerned with establishing havens within capitalist society, in which people can go on consuming goods imported from Third World sweatshops.   My point is that there is within the movement a strand that is actually building impressive instances of the sorts of lifestyles, values, settlements and economies that the limits to growth analysis shows must be the essential elements in a sustainable and just world order.

The basic task before us at this point in time is to get the mainstream to grasp a) that capitalist society is grossly and unavoidably unjust and unsustainable, and that it is delivering a falling quality of life, and b) that only The Simpler Way, centred on more materially simple, co-operative and self-sufficient ways within a zero-growth economy can solve the major global problems.  Unless these points become widely understood there will be no possibility of change in the required direction.  Continuing to write books and articles about these themes as many of us have been doing for decades will not be sufficient to get them to become widely understood and accepted.  My argument is that what is likely to contribute most to this end is the development of many impressive radically alternative settlements, systems and local economies. These need to be seen and experienced as delivering very satisfactory living standards despite very low ecological footprints.  This is not all that has to be done but my belief is that is constitutes the best beginning point and direction for action, and the best base from which to do the other things that need to be done, notably the educational work.

It is conceivable to me that this general strategic beginning point could achieve a more or less peaceful replacement of the capitalist system.  Remember that it is very likely that within 20 years capitalist-consumer society will have run into huge problems, especially to do with environmental deterioration, Third World squalor, armed conflict, deteriorating social cohesion, and above all a sudden, major and insoluble petroleum crisis.  It is in other words quite possible that we will soon enter conditions that will both jolt people in general towards recognising the need for change to The Simpler Way, and dramatically undercut the system's capacity to persuade or force people to adhere to the capitalist way.  Traditional Left theoreticians must realise that if this happens all will be lost if we have not by then sufficiently developed the new ways and built the examples that could be rapidly taken up.  The window of opportunity will soon close.

Just and sustainable settlements cannot be established quickly, primarily because they require a long period of experiential learning of ways that are quite unfamiliar in consumer society.  The state cannot establish or run a sustainable society.  It might have been able to do so if a sustainable society could take the form of a big-state, industrial socialism.   But the limits to growth analysis rules this out.  A sustainable society must be about self-government by conscientious, ecologically aware, small scale, co-operative and largely self-sufficient communities in which people are willing to live simply.  How can these conditions possibly be established on a wide scale if not as the result of a long process in which small groups work to build new local economies from humble beginning points such as community gardens?

I should again make clear that I do not think the chances of this happening are at all good.  However the question before us is, what is our best hope, our best strategy for beginning to inch down the path that might eventually lead to the goal, given our present very difficult situation?

What we are involved in here is the classic debate between Marxists and anarchists over what comes first, changes in values or changes in structures. Of course both value and structural change are necessary, but the classic Marxist position is that only after state power has been taken and there has been a long period of dictatorship of the proletariat can values be changed sufficiently to enable a good society.  On the contrary I have argued that in view of the limits to growth analysis and its radical implications for the form a sustainable society must take, the value change must come first, or at least it must come as we remake local geographies and economies.  We are not going to get to a world of co-operative settlements and simpler lifestyles through seizing the state that rules over consumer society and then some time later transforming industrial-affluent-consumer to alternative values.  We will either do it before (or along with) the change in settlements and economies, or (more likely) we will not do it at all.

Takis is therefore wrong in claiming that my argument is merely for value change and ignores structural change.  Yes structures must be changed but my point is that these can not be changed without change in values and ideology, and working with the appropriate strands within the Global Alternative Society Movement is the best way to do this now that the limits to growth analysis has shown that a sustainable society must follow The Simpler Way, and that it is not compatible with centralised or authoritarian strategies..

The Significance of the Market

Takis says that my emphasis on the fact that the over-consumption of the rich countries impoverishes the Third World I give the impressions that " is not the market system itself which is the cause of the plundering of the weak...but rather it is the abuse of the system by corporations etc which is to blame.", and that "...the problem is the greediness of the rich...and it could be solved by more efficient controls on market forces.[4]  Yet central in virtually all of my works has been emphasis on the fact that the market system inevitably impoverishes the poor because it allocates scarce goods to the rich and draws the Third World's productive capacity into producing for others, that it inevitably results in inappropriate development in the Third World, and in the plunder of Third World resources by the rich, and that the market causes ecological destruction and in the destruction of the social bond.   But the greed and over-consumption of the rich nations (including "ordinary" people who shop in rich world supermarkets and who would have luxurious houses if they could) is no less of a problem, and it would condemn the planet to terminal difficulties even if there was no market system.  Obviously sustainability and justice cannot be achieved until both causal factors are overcome.

Where Takis and I do differ regarding the market is over whether a satisfactory society would give any role to it at all.  I can not see that his complete rejection of it is called for.  Clearly if the market was to have any role it would have to be as a quite minor determinant of what is produced and how production it is distributed.  The overriding determinants must be what is good for society, individuals and the environment.  If it is to exist at all the market must, as Polanyi says, be "embedded" in society, meaning that considerations of monetary cost and benefit must be minor and that considerations like morality, justice and welfare must always be the primary determinants of  economic decisions.   However it is not obvious to me that it would not be possible and sensible to leave a large number of relatively trivial decisions to market forces, such as the colour of bicycles.  The alternative of somehow planning all economic decisions would seem to be highly undesirable.

Takis says that to me whether we will have a state-less, money-less and market-less society is "...just a matter of detail".[6]  This is again misleading.  We agree on the extreme importance of these issues and we agree that states, money and markets must not be allowed anything like their present power.  However  I cannot see that none of these can serve any useful role at all, in some form, and in this sense I see the scope, if any, for the market as an extremely important  "detail" to be worked out via experience later.  Obviously power must be in the hands of people via radically participatory democracy, but my guess is that it will make sense to have many day to day affairs managed by bureaucracies in which specialised expertise resides, and we might as well call these a residual state.  I also expect that a relatively small sector of a satisfactory economy would involve cash, but experience will determine whether this is desirable.  It does not seem necessary or wise to me for Takis to establish an Inclusive Democracy project on the dogmatic rejection of any role for these factors when the necessity for that is far from clear.  I think we are unable at this point in time to state as Takis does that "...the equal distribution of political and economic completely incompatible with the existence of market economies, money and states.[7]

Irrationality and spirituality.

Takis rejects the Alternative Movement because he sees it as involving irrationality.  Again I have to stress that I am not endorsing or recommending the whole movement and I agree that a large part of the movement involves beliefs that seem quite irrational to me.  I cannot however see that this matters in the least except in those instances where these beliefs lead to practices that are contrary to sustainability or democracy.  I know communities where people have what seem to me to be some quite weird spiritual ideas and beliefs yet those communities still constitute admirable examples of desirable settlements.

Takis points to the fact that the Global Ecovillage Network's website emphasises community, ecology and spirituality as core concerns, as if the inclusion of spirituality automatically disqualifies it from serious attention.  Takis seems to be making the mistake of identifying spirituality with irrationality.   However surely some of the most serious deficiencies in capitalist society are to do with the lack of other than economic values, the lack of purpose, enthusiasm, reverence for nature, sense of oneness with other people and with the earth, peace of mind, appreciation, inspiratiom. social responsibility and compassion.  I see the Global Ecovillage Network's concern with lack of spiritual values as one of its greatest virtue.


The main issue; The strategic significance of building eco-villages

Takis dismisses the Eco-village Movement mainly on the grounds that the unsatisfactory framework of existing society cannot be overcome without "a mass political movement", and he claims the Eco-village Movement is not such a movement. 

Of course it isn't, but the question is whether it could be the source of one. My argument is that, given the current almost complete lack of any other potential sources of such a movement, working with the Global Alternative Movement might be the best way available to us now to begin to build the mass movement Takis wants to see.  Even if other and more promising sources emerge why would one not seek to enhance the Movement's contribution to it?  Again it must be kept in mind that the new element that the limits to growth analysis introduces to the general strategic discussion is the fact that unlike all other green, social justice and Left movements (strands within) the Global Alternative Society Movement are for the only viable conception of a sustainable world order, again one that is about simplicity, small scale, localism, self-sufficiency and zero growth.  The mainstream Left for example still fails to recognise that a sustainable and just society must be based firmly on such principles.

It is important here to keep in mind the notion of sequence or development over time.  We are at present far from having in existence a mass political movement.  The question is what first steps can we take now down the most promising very long path that might lead to the existence of such a movement.  Takis is wrong to say I "postpone" the development of mass movement.  I advocate working within the Alternative Movement precisely in order to develop one as quickly as possible, on the belief that there is no more fertile field in which to begin that process.

I think our problem is that Takis has interpreted my recommended strategy as one of setting examples in the hope that they will be followed.  This is true but misleading because setting examples is not the core of the strategy.  The strategy is about starting to build the required new socio-economic systems right now.  Thus I see the Movement  as the beginning of a "mass political movement" of the kind I believe Takis wants to see.  Pages 278-282 of my article (and Chapter 6 of my unpublished What Should We Do?) are about the first steps in the actual construction of new economies within old towns and suburbs.  As has been stressed this is the anarchist notion of "prefiguring", of starting to construct the new within the old, long before the old society  has been swept away, whereas in the classic Marxist vision nothing new can be built  until after  the existing system  has been destroyed.  I see our humble community gardens and workshops as the first steps in actually replacing capitalist society.  The goal is to work out from these beginning points into the surrounding neighbourhood or town until, maybe three decades later, we have totally converted it to the new ways. In my article I said "The Eco-village Movement strategy is simply to start building the new post-capitalist society here and now, and gradually increasing the numbers who come across from consumer society to live in the new settlements..."   and " Thus the strategic vision is for a very humble grass roots beginning centred on a community garden and workshop as the first step in a long process towards an increasingly self-sufficient neighbourhood economy largely under the control of the local community."[8]

It is not being claimed that nothing else would have to be done, nor that people are expected to take up our ways just through being exposed to examples of their merits.  We will be working hard at, among other things, finding and establishing trade connections between our enterprises (e.g., vegetable production) and local firms and consumers, creating commons, organising community working bees, establishing community banks, planting Permaculture "edible landscapes".  Above all we will be focusing on educating and organising as hard as we can, and on drawing others in and explaining how these pursuits are essential if we are to solve their mounting problems and those of the planet.

It is notable that in two tiny passages in the book and in his critical article Takis in effect advocates the strategy I am putting forward.  He refers to small groups starting to set up instances of Inclusive Democracy and says, "It is through action in building such institutions that a massive political movement with a high levels of consciousness can be built."[9]  He says that this strategy, like mine, "...also involves local economic renewal activities which could involve peoples, especially disadvantaged people, to start meeting some of their owns urgent needs and, likewise provides an incentive for involvement and experience of participation and co-operation, while actually constructing the first elements in the new democracy..."[10]

This is precisely what I am arguing for!  Any differences between us here are fairly trivial.  On p. 303 he claims that I am saying "...building the most sensible thing to do here and now in order to maximise our long term contribution to the transition...", but then he says, "In contrast, the approach suggested by the IDS project is to start building a massive programmatic political movement, like the old socialist movement, here and now."   But this is not "in contrast" to what I am arguing; it is precisely what I am suggesting that we do...although I am adding that the best way to start doing it is to start building alternatives.

Takis says the difference is that in his strategy these developments are "...part of a programatic political movement for systemic change."  He does not provide any detail on the nature and content of this movement, but I have no problem with the notion of these initiatives being the first steps in a wider movement that could involve some very different elements, such as  focus on taking power and indeed violent confrontation.

However I am not convinced the transition must inevitably involve overt conflict, let alone violence.  It probably will, but it is conceivable that as conditions deteriorate and as the existence of a more sensible way becomes more evident, and as access to it increases as a result of Eco-village building, there will be a more or less peaceful shift to The Simpler Way.  Again I do not think this is very likely, but it is  possibility to  be worked for. Nothing is foregone in heading down that path, on the understanding that in time it might become clear that overt confrontation might have to be accepted.  The longer we can grow while avoiding confrontation the less likely that we will be crushed if it does occur.

However the issue is of no practical importance at this point in time.  Whatever conclusion one comes to on it our best strategy here and now is to plunge into establishing and spreading the new ways.  It will be a long time before it will be evident whether or not we must contest those who have power now, or whether they will lose their power in a collapse of the present resource-expensive infrastructures and of legitimacy.

It seems to me therefore that Takis and I are both saying to people more or less on the Left, please join us in the task of starting to establish the new ways, lifestyles and structures right now, as part of a strategy that also involves public education and other forms of political action, and that is intended to become a mass political movement.  This does not mean we should stop fighting to defend against the damage the system is causing, or contributing to anti-globalisation campaigns.  But it being argued that there is something far more important to do than simply oppose (or reform) the system, which is all that most people on the Left (or in the anti-globalisation movement) are doing.



[1] T. Trainer, "Where Are We, Where Do We Want to Be, How Do We. Get There?"

 Democracy and Nature, vol. 6, no. 2, July, 200,  pp. 267-287.

[2] T. Fotopoulos, "The limitations of lifestyle strategies; the Ecovillage 'Movement is NOT the Way Towards a New Democratic Society', Democracy and Nature, vol. 6, no. 2, July, 2000, p. 289.

[3] Foptopoulos, 2000, pp. 291, 301

[4] Fotopoulos, 2000, pp. 290, 291.

[5] See especially The Conserver Society; Alternatives For Sustainability, London, Zed Books, 1995, Saving The Environment; What It Will Take, Sydney, University of NSW Press, 1998.

[6] Fotopoulos, 2000, p.  293.

[7] Fotopoulos, 2000, p. 293.

[8] Fotopoulos, 2000, p. 282.

[9] Fotopoulos, 2000, p. 306.

[10] Fotopoulos, 2000, p. 306.

















































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