Off-grid living possible, but it’s not enough to fix climate change

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Fixing the planet’s big problems means more than a change in lifestyle. It means scrapping economic growth, and most of the values driving Western culture.

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The Conversation

My old house has never been connected to the electricity supply. It runs on a couple of photo voltaic (solar) panels and is warmed by firewood. All water used is rainwater.

I have a vegie garden, fruit trees and chickens. My pumps and machinery run on 12 volt solar electricity. I travel 25km to paid work once a week, by bicycle and train, and drive about 10km a week. I never go away on holidays. The average Australian household uses about one kilowatt of electricity; I use eight watts.

So isn’t downshifting to less consuming lifestyles the way to solve the greenhouse problem?

Emphatically, no it isn’t. It’s part of the solution but not the main part. If you want to fix the climate, developing nations’ poverty, resource depletion and other environmental problems you will also have to totally scrap economic growth, and therefore capitalism, and largely scrap globalisation, centralisation, the market system, representative democracy, the financial system, big cities, modern agriculture and urbanism.

A little extreme? Here’s the core argument.

Everyone knows the basic facts and figures, but few face up to what they mean. To provide the average Australian with food, settlement area, water and energy now requires about eight hectares of productive land. If by 2050, nine billion people were to have risen to the present Australian “living standard”, and the planet’s amount of productive land is still the same as it is today, the amount available per capita will be about .8ha. In other words Australian’s today are using ten times the amount that will be possible for all.

It’s much the same for all other resources. There are already scarcities regarding food in general, fish, water, most industrial minerals and petroleum, with estimates of peak coal occurring within a few decades. Only about one fifth of the world’s people have rich world consumption rates, and six times as many will soon be aspiring to them.

And yet, everyone is manically obsessed with constantly increasing “living standards”, production, consumption and GDP. At the standard 3% per annum growth rate, according to WWF figures we will need more than 20 planet earths to meet 2050 resource demands.

The glaringly obvious yet ignored point is that rich world per capita levels of resource consumption and ecological impact are far beyond levels that that are sustainable, or that could be made sustainable by any remotely plausible technical fixes. People, including most of the green ones, do not grasp the magnitude of the overshoot, nor the significance of the change required to solve the big problems.

The problems are being caused primarily by our systems, not our lifestyles although these are far too affluent. It’s not possible to get resource consumption down to one-fifth or one-tenth of present levels, unless we not only shift to a zero growth economic system, but to one with a far lower level of GDP. That means an economy in which there can be no interest paid.

That means we have to scrap the present financial system, and the forces driving innovation, incentive, work and investment, and the quest for greater wealth. It means much more than scrapping capitalism; it means completely abandoning some of the fundamental ideas (like the definition of progress,) and values (such as getting rich) that have driven Western culture for 300 years.

We could do it, easily, if you wanted to. My system, The Simpler Way (detailed in my book), is one whereby we transform our present suburbs and towns into highly self-sufficient and self-governing local and zero-growth economies, in which the quality of life would be higher than it is now in the consumer rat race.

Yes, an important part must be the willing acceptance of frugal, self-sufficient, cooperative ways at the level of the household and community. But it would not be necessary to go as far as I choose to on my bush homestead. We could still have electricity grids, (small) cities, (some) trade and heavy industry, railway networks, a (small) central state (under the control of town assemblies), universities and professional skills, and more socially useful high tech research and development than we have now. You might need to work for money only one day a week.

Many people in eco-villages more or less live in the required ways now. Many are attempting to transform their towns and suburbs into being more self-sufficient and self-governing local communities.

But these very encouraging beginnings are not yet focused on the crucial goals. If you really want to help save the planet don’t fret much about downshifting but join your local community garden, with a view to getting people there thinking more about the need to focus on us eventually achieving the big structural and cultural changes.

Frederick Trainer is a visiting fellow at the University of New South Wales

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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6 Comments
  1. Jack Wolf 6 years ago

    About 10 years ago, I began to notice that most climate change reports and scientific papers use less than realistic emission scenarios in their calculations. Since these emissions are long lived, this has led to a deepening concern about the climate situation and its impacts, in my lifetime, and in your lifetime.
    This important talk by Dr. Anderson, link below, at the 2012 Cabot Lecture clearly points the finger at scientists for not accurately reporting how bad the climate situation is. He also explains why we cannot meet the 2 degree C (3.8 F) target set by the world’s government and its impacts on us today. His talk is timely in light of the recent report from the World Bank that found:
    “Even with the current mitigation pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20% likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s.”
    Globally, we are nowhere close to meeting our mitigation pledges and long lived CO2 emissions continue to accumulate in the atmosphere at an accelerating rate. It’s like civilization has collectively said: Screw it. Dr. Anderson is very animated and I think you will find it enlightening.

  2. John D 6 years ago

    Fredrick: The world certainly cannot afford to have everyone using wood as their source of heating. On the other hand, the world could afford to match Australia’s per capita energy usage as long as the enrrgy comes from clean power.
    If you Google “electrofuels” you will see the possibility of using nothing more than this clean power, water and air to produce a whole raft of clean transport fuels, fertilizers, petrochemicals and metals such as steel.
    If you Google “edible insects” (4 million hits) might start thinking about how much potential food is wasted on your patch of land and start thinking about one of the ways of helping to feed the world properly. (Wikapedia says that there are over one thousand species of insects used for food worldwide. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entomophagy))
    If you Google “wasted food statistics you will get over 8 million hits and another potential way of lifting the quality of life for the poorer parts of the world.
    You are right to say that there is plenty of mindless GDP growth that is wasting resources.
    However, what the world needs right now is a war on starvation and a war on climate change. Conduction this war will actually provide a massive stimulus to the world economy, diversion of resources from mindless growth and a jump in world energy use and GDP.
    The desirability of growing GDP depends on what growth you are talking about.

  3. Peter 6 years ago

    As Frederick rightly points out economic growth and capitalism itself is at the heart of the problems we face and will not go away no matter how much and hard we try to get around physical limits of the planet. And as for GDP, this has been discredited a long time ago as a useless measure for anything. People are not happier then they were in the 1950s and happiness and satisfaction with life does not really increase with a family income above say $80k (even though you may tell youself otherwise but that is just brainwashing by the elite). Of course all this stands completely against how our world works today and has worked for quite a while, the world of elites, of domination of empire. It will be a tough task to turn that around, but empires fall very fast if the population withdraws their support, no matter how mighty and powerful they are. A counterculture is developing, but it is to be seen if it develops fast enough to prevail over the empire before the planet is fried (at least makes it hard for humans to survive).

  4. Dave Johnson 6 years ago

    As someone with a both a very small personal budget and a very small carbon footprint, and as someone who once worked on Wall Street designing securities trading software, I am intrigued to finally see someone else who thinks that interest bearing securities are at the heart of all our problems.

    This is not the place for a detailed explanation, but the “fractional reserve banking system”, which is the normal system in all the industrialized countries, and most others, pretty much requires that economies expand perpetually if everything is to work out smoothly.

    In any event, Mr. Trainer is correct about one thing, without doubt: if you want control of your life, stop borrowing money from banks.

    Lots of other bits of frugality will help, but getting yourself out of the clutches of the banks is the big thing. Stop paying interest, and you too might learn to survive quite well on the income from working one day a week.

    I’ve been living that way for years now, and everyone thinks I’m crazy, but they are all sweating bullets over their mortgages, car payments, and student loans, while I sit around reading books, taking nice naps after lunch, and anything else I care to do.

    I call it the “six-day weekend”.

  5. Jimmy 6 years ago

    The average Australian household uses about one kilowatt of electricity; I use eight watts. Well if that was right it would fix climate change on the spot, you figure are wrong its more like 25-33kw a day the average household uses.

    • Diego Matter 6 years ago

      The article should state “The average Australian household uses about one kilowatt of Energy” (not electricity).

      1kW x 24 hours = 24kWh per day

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