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It's amazing how much of and how well Ted Trainer 
can state the bottom line in 14 minutes: that 
dealing adequately with the climate crisis and 
overshoot means an abandonment of consumer 
capitalism and the end of acquisitiveness. If you 
memorize one essay, this might be it.


You can listen to this on mp3 or as a podcast by 
going here for a few more weeks:


And you can find transcripts of several of his 
other interviews (and those with contrary views) 


Such as

Natural Capitalism Challenged:

Let's Scrap the Economy:

His web site is "The Simpler Way: Working for 
Transition From Consumer Society to a Simpler, 
More Cooperative, Just and Ecologically 
Sustainable Society":


I am subscribed to the weekly podcast of this 
program, "Ockham's Razor". You can subscribe to 
it here at their web site, but I did it at the 
iTunes Music store with iTunes.


Oh, and today's news? Greenhouse Gas levels 
highest in 650,000 years (380 ppm). "Today's 
still rising level of carbon dioxide already is 
27 percent higher than its peak during all those 
millennia," according to Thomas Stocker of the 
University of Bern, Switzerland. Moreover the 
rise is occurring at a speed that "is over a 
factor of a hundred faster than anything we are 
seeing in the natural cycles." This is reported 
in next week's issue of Science.

Climate Action NOW!
Andy Caffrey


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  Sunday at 8.45am, repeated Wednesdays at 9.45pm
Presented by 
Robyn Williams


What is our biggest problem?
Sunday 27 November  2005


Ted Trainer from the School of Social Work at the 
University of New South wales tells us that the 
fundamental cause of the big global problems 
facing us is over-consumption.

Program Transcript

Robyn Williams: Well last week on this program we 
had Jennifer Marohasy taking on what she called 
the celebrity scientists, and their gloomy 
forecasts. She said that most indicators of 
natural wellbeing show improvement, not decline. 
By the way, she also accused Jared Diamond of 
asking Australia to give up agriculture, 
something Professor Diamond tells me he did not 
say, although his book ‘Collapse’ certainly gives 
that impression.

So this week, a contrasting point of view. Ted 
Trainer from the University of New South Wales, 
with his assessment of our prospects, as we come 
to the end of the year 2005.

Ted Trainer.

Ted Trainer: The fundamental cause of the big 
global problems threatening us now is simply 
over-consumption. The rate at which we in rich 
countries are using up resources is grossly 
unsustainable. It’s far beyond levels that can be 
kept up for long or that could be spread to all 
people. What is not clearly understood is the 
magnitude of the over-shoot. The reductions 
required are so big that they cannot be achieved 
within a consumer-capitalist society. Huge and 
extremely radical change in systems and culture 
are necessary.

Several lines of argument lead to this conclusion, but I’ll note only three.

Some resources are already alarmingly scarce, 
including water, land, fish and especially 
petroleum. Some geologists think oil supply will 
peak within a decade. If all the world’s people 
today were to consume resources at the per capita 
rate we in rich countries do, annual supply would 
have to be more than six times as great as at 
present, and if the 9 billion we will have on 
earth soon were to do so, it would have to be 
about ten times as great.

Secondly, the per capita area of productive land 
needed to supply one Australian with food, water, 
settlements and energy is about seven to eight 
hectares. The US figure is close to 12 hectares. 
But the average per capita area of productive 
land available on the planet is only about 1.3 
hectares. When the world’s population reaches 9 
billion the per capita area of productive land 
available will be only .9 hectares. In other 
words, in a world where resources were shared 
equally we would have to get by on about 13% of 
the average Australian footprint.

Third, the greenhouse problem is the most 
powerful and alarming illustration of the 
overshoot. The atmospheric scientists are telling 
us that if we are to stop the carbon dioxide 
content of the atmosphere from reaching twice the 
pre-industrial level, we have to cut global 
carbon emissions and thus fossil fuel use by 60% 
in the short term, and more later. If we did that 
and shared the remaining energy among 9 billion 
people, each Australian would have to get by on 
about 5% of the fossil fuel now used. And that 
target, a doubling of atmospheric CO2, is much 
too high. We’re now 30% above pre-industrial 
levels and already seeing disturbing climatic 

These lines of argument show we must face up to 
enormous reductions in rich world resource use if 
we’re to solve the big global problems. This is 
not possible in a society that’s committed to the 
affluent lifestyles that require high energy and 
resource use. We in countries like Australia 
should reduce per capita resource use and 
environmental impact, to something like one-tenth 
of their present levels.

Now all that only makes clear that the present 
situation is grossly unsustainable. But that’s 
not the most important problem. This society is 
fundamentally and fiercely obsessed with raising 
levels of production and consumption all the 
time, as fast as possible, and without any limit. 
In other words, our supreme, sacred, 
never-questioned goal is economic growth. We’re 
already at impossible levels of production and 
consumption but our top priority is to go on 
increasing them all the time.

If we in Australia average 3% growth to 2070 and 
by then the 9 billion people expected on earth 
have all risen to the living standards we would 
have then, total world economic output each year 
would be 60 times as great as it is now. Yet the 
present level is grossly unsustainable.

Many respond here by saying that Yes, the 
problems are very serious but No, we don’t have 
to think about moving from consumer-capitalist 
society because more effort and better technology 
could solve the problems. It only takes a few 
seconds to show that this tech-fix position is 
wrong. The overshoot is far too big.

Technical-fix optimists like Amory Lovins claim 
we could cut the resource and ecological costs 
per unit of economic output to half or one 
quarter. But if global output rose to 60 times 
what it is now, even a Factor Four reduction by 
2070 would leave global resource and 
environmental costs 15 times as great as they are 
now, and they are unsustainable now.

The foregoing comment has only been about 
sustainability and our society is built on a 
second deeply flawed foundation. We have an 
extremely unjust global economy. It’s a market 
economy and that means scarce things go to those 
who can pay most for them, that is, to the rich 
and not to the poor. So the rich countries gobble 
up most of the world’s resource production.

Even more important, in a market economy what’s 
developed is what’s most profitable not what’s 
most needed. So the development that takes place 
in the Third World is development of what will 
maximise the profits of corporations. Look at any 
Third World country and you see a lot of 
development but most of it puts their resources 
into producing to stock our rich world 
supermarkets and very little goes into the 
industries that produce the basic necessities the 
majority of poor people need. Conventional 
development is therefore well described as a 
process of plunder.

Our living standards in countries like Australia 
could not be anywhere near as high as they are if 
these unjust processes did not occur and we had 
to get by on our fair share of the world’s 

If one is to understand the nature of the 
problems facing us, one must focus on these 
concepts of gross unsustainability and injustice. 
For instance, they show that the conventional 
concept of ‘development’ for the Third World is 
totally impossible; there are nowhere near enough 
resources for all of them to rise to anything 
like our rich world ways and standards. Yet 
that’s the taken-for-granted goal of development.

Similarly few green people seem to recognise that 
the environment problem cannot be solved without 
dramatic reduction in the level of producing and 
consuming going on, and therefore without radical 
social change to frugal living standards and a 
zero-growth economy. Yet our peak environmental 
agencies do not focus on the absurdity of the 
quest for economic growth.

And how many within the Peace movement realise 
that if we refuse to dramatically cut rich world 
demand for resources, and everyone strives to 
rise to our living standards, then there will 
inevitably be increasingly fierce competition for 
the dwindling resources. If we insist on 
remaining affluent, then we had better remain 
heavily armed. We can’t expect to go on getting 
far more than our fair share of the world’s 
resources unless we’re prepared to use force to 
invade oil fields and prop up compliant dictators.

What then is the answer? If the question is how 
can we run a sustainable and just 
consumer-capitalist society, the point is that 
there isn’t any answer. We cannot achieve a 
sustainable and just society unless we face up to 
huge and radical transition to what some identify 
as The Simpler Way, that is to a society based on 
non-affluent but adequate living standards, high 
levels of self-sufficiency, in small scale 
localised economies with little trade and no 
growth, to basically co-operative and 
participatory communities, to an economy that’s 
not driven by market forces and profit, and most 
difficult of all, a society that’s not motivated 
by competition, individualism, and 
acquisitiveness. Many have argued that this 
general vision is the only way out of the mess 
we’re in.

So which of these problems is our biggest one? 
None of them. The most disturbing problem of all 
is our failure, our refusal to even recognise 
that the pursuit of affluence and growth is a 
terrible mistake.

Despite our vast educational systems, information 
technologies and media networks, despite having 
hordes of academics and experts, there is almost 
no official or public recognition that the quest 
for affluence and growth is the basic cause of 
our alarming global predicament. There is no 
recognition of any need to move to The Simpler 
Way. These themes are almost never mentioned in 
the media, educational curricula, or government 

We are dealing here with a fascinating and 
powerful ideological phenomenon, a failure, 
indeed a refusal, to even think about the 
possibility that we are sitting on the railway 
tracks and there is a train fast approaching. It 
would be difficult to imagine a more profound 
case of denial and delusion. Some of the forces 
at work are understandable, such as the fact that 
profit driven media are not going to raise such 
issues but will work hard to seduce people into 
preoccupation with trivia, sport, celebrities and 
mindless consuming. But how do you explain why so 
very few academics and intellectuals concern 
themselves with these themes while many of them 
work at providing the economy with the 
technocrats, the managers, and the mentality that 
it needs.

Obviously the corporate class is most culpable. 
Their very existence depends on maintaining the 
conviction that we need not even think about 
reducing consumption. The economists are high on 
the list too, teaching and practising an 
ideology, which casts the consumer capitalist way 
as the only conceivable way. But why do the 
educators so diligently teach that worldview. Why 
do the curriculum makers, and the ABC program 
makers, and journalists and the intellectual 
ranks so studiously avoid any reference to limits 
or the possibility that affluence and growth are 
suicidal goals or the possibility that survival 
requires urgent transition to some kind of 
Simpler Way? How can it be that almost all of our 
most intelligent and educated people devote 
themselves to pursuits which never challenge 
over-consumption and have nothing to do with the 
sustainability crisis now threatening the 
survival of all of us.

Toynbee analysed the fate of civilisations in 
terms of their capacity to respond to challenges. 
What then are our prospects, given that we cannot 
even recognise that we are committed to fatally 
mistaken goals.

If the thing threatening our survival was a comet 
headed for earth, or a global flu epidemic, or 
another Hitler, there would instantly be focused 
attention and energetic and massive effort to 
deal with it. But what’s threatening us is the 
very thing that is cherished in consumer society 
above all else, greater material wealth. We 
suffer from the blinding curse of affluence. The 
situation was summed up elegantly by that 
insightful analyst, George W. Bush, when he said 
recently ‘The American way of life is not 

The greatest tragedy is that we could quickly and 
easily move to sustainable and just ways, if we 
wanted to. Essentially that would involve people 
in suburbs and towns getting together to organise 
local economies with small farms and firms using 
local resources and labour, to produce to meet 
local needs. There would be many voluntary 
working bees and committees and town meetings. 
Some things would be free, such as fruit from 
trees planted on the commons. For the detail see 
The Simpler Way website.

This could be a far more satisfying way of life. 
Consider being able to live well on two days work 
for money a week, without any threat of 
unemployment, or insecurity in old age, in a 
supportive community. These are the kinds of 
conditions that thousands of people enjoy in 
eco-villages around the world. Many of these 
communities are trying to demonstrate the 
alternative ways to which the mainstream can move.

I believe we are now entering a time of rapidly 
intensifying problems which will impact heavily 
on the complacency within the rich countries. The 
coming peak of petroleum supply might concentrate 
minds wonderfully, but I think the probability of 
us achieving the transition is very low.

Your chances in the next few decades will depend 
very much on whether your region manages to build 
local economies, and whether the people living 
there are willing to shift to frugal, 
co-operative and self-sufficient ways.

Robyn Williams: And those self-sufficient ways 
are on that Simpler Way website, which you can 
look up by going to and following 
the prompts to Ockham’s Razor.

Ted Trainer is from the school of Social Work at 
the University of New South Wales and by 
contrast, Bob Carr, former Premier of New South 
Wales, on his return from China a couple of weeks 
ago, insisted that the only way that that great 
nation can handle its environmental future is via 
the creation of wealth through the market economy.

We shall see.

Next week on this program, Joanna Penglase talks 
about Orphans of the Living – growing up in care 
in 20th century Australia.

I’m Robyn Williams.

Guests on this program:

Ted Trainer
School of Social Work
University of New South Wales
Sydney <>

Further information:

The Simpler Way

		 Presenter: Robyn Williams
Producer: Brigitte Seega
For updates and info, contact scott at planttrees dot org.