Down is the new up.

Part Four of The Sufficiency Economy

I am delighted to find that this essay by Dr. Alexander has been extremely well-received by you.  On Monday, there were 1,458 viewings, Tuesday there were 1,546 viewings and today (Wednesday – the day I am writing this) already over 700 viewings at 9.20am local time (PST).

The wealth of evidence that is surfacing just now as to the seriousness of our present global predicament is mind-blowing.  Indeed, a couple of the more important articles that have ‘crossed my screen’ this week will be published next week on Learning from Dogs.

In the third part of Dr. Alexander’s essay that was published yesterday, Doing nothing is not an option, the primary theme was predicated as follows:

The growth paradigm has reached, more or less, the ‘limits to growth,’ and this means that we must move away from growth-based economies if we are to avoid exacerbating existing ecological crises to the point of catastrophe. Billions of lives are at stake, as are the biodiversity and climatic balance of our planet.

Today’s essay offers a strong, positive framework for how humanity has to change – let me repeat that for emphasis – how humanity HAS to change! 


Samuel Alexander
Simplicity Institute Report 12s, 2012

Dr Samuel Alexander is co-director of the Simplicity Institute and a lecturer with the Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne.

4. Envisioning a Prosperous Way Down

The following exposition of the sufficiency economy is a challenging mixture of utopian and dystopian speculation. It is utopian (or at least optimistic) in the sense that I present a picture of the sufficiency economy that depends upon human beings working relatively well together to meet the challenges ahead, rather than degenerating into a war of all against all at the first signs of trouble. I also assume that a culture of consumption has arisen in which sufficiency rather than affluence is widely considered the path to human flourishing. I believe these are necessary elements to any ‘prosperous way down’ (Odum and Odum, 2001). What follows is dystopian in the limited sense that the analysis accepts that there will be no smooth transition beyond the growth economy, and that consumer lifestyles will be taken from many people against their will – although perhaps ‘realistic’ is a better word than ‘dystopian’ here. Focused broadly on urban contexts in the developed world, the following analysis is structured by considering various aspects of the sufficiency economy, for the purpose of presenting a vision of the alternative way of life it implies.

However the future plays out – and let’s face it, no one really knows – what is certain is that the same events will be much less difficult and cause much less suffering if they are anticipated to some extent and prepared for (Alexander, 2012e; Burch, 2012b). I hope the following analysis might assist in both these regards.

4.1. Water

I will begin with the issue of water security, this being one of the most essential biophysical needs. The first point to note is that in most urban (including suburban) contexts, the amount of roof space available to collect water would be insufficient to secure the necessary water supplies for such dense populations.(2) What this means is that urban contexts require the water mains to exist, for if they failed for more than a day or so, most people would quickly perish. Given that most people now live in urban contexts, it is fair to say that the first thing a sufficiency economy must do is ensure that the water mains continues to function. This may sound like a trite observation, and it is, but since our present exploration is considering the economic foundations of a very different way of life, the foundations are where we must start. Accordingly, a sufficiency economy must at least have the energy supply and stability to maintain the water mains at a sufficiently high level of regularity and safety, something resembling the existing model, but hopefully more efficient.(3) The alternative is mass population die-off and probably significant re-ruralisation (where there would be more room for large water tanks).

Despite the mains system in a sufficiency economy remaining something close to what we have today, attitudes to water consumption and collection would undergo a revolution. To provide some hard numbers, average household water consumption in the United States is around 370 litres(4); in Australia it is around 230 litres per day(5); and in Britain it is about 150 litres(6). At the other end of the spectrum, institutions like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation hold that 20 litres per person, per day, is close to the minimum needed for bare subsistence(7), and that figure is sometimes used as a baseline in refugee camps. In a sufficiency economy, I propose that domestic water consumption per person would need to fall to somewhere between 50-70 litres per person, per day, which is enough to live a dignified existence without leaving much room for waste.

Reduced water consumption should occur partly out of the desire for ecological preservation – for example, a desire to preserve river systems – but I should expect economic incentives to play a large part too. Assuming fresh water becomes increasing scarce as populations increase and the climate warms (Brown, 2011), the price of water must inevitably rise, and rise significantly(8). Currently, water is grossly underpriced(9). In itself, expensive water will provide a strong incentive for people to reduce their wasteful consumption, and much of this can occur with very little hardship at all. Government or community regulation of some sort may have to provide further incentives, in certain contexts, at least, as well as some baseline supply guarantees, irrespective of ability to pay.

In order to reduce water consumption (for either ecological or economic reasons, or both), various steps would be taken. First of all, every household would maximise its roof water collection via water tanks. Those households that prepare first will easily be able to purchase water tanks and pipes from hardware stores, but as times get tougher (e.g. plastics and concrete become harder to produce, source, or afford), more people will have to creatively use whatever containers and pipes they can salvage or make themselves. We will all become proficient in creating and connecting systems of water collection and reuse. Greywater systems, for example, will become the household norm, including the use of tank water to flush the toilet or simply collecting water when showering to flush the toilet. Eventually, composting toilets will be widely used (at least in suburbia), with huge implications on water consumption.

In order to reduce charges from the increasingly expensive mains supply, tank water will be used whenever possible, especially for watering productive gardens (more on food below). In those times when people are required to draw from the mains, there is much room for conservation. Being conscientious of water consumption when preparing food and cleaning dishes is one space for conservation, and never watering (or even having) lawns is another. But perhaps the largest savings in the domestic sphere can come from how we wash ourselves and our clothes. Showers could easily be reduced to a minute or two without interfering with their primary goal of keeping us clean and hygienic. In fact, if required we could remain sufficiently hygienic by cleaning ourselves with a bucket of water and some soap. It may be a requirement of a dignified life to be able to wash oneself regularly – achievable with a bucket of water and some soap – but we could live with dignity without showering or bathing in the accustomed fashion. Clothes would probably be washed less regularly, which might bring some balance to a culture that is arguably excessively concerned with cleanliness.

Innumerable other water-saving strategies could easily demonstrate that high water consumption is really a product of wastefulness, such that great reductions would not take away from us anything that is actually necessary for a good life. The critical point to note, which applies to all aspects of life discussed below, is that the same reductions in consumption (whether voluntary or enforced) would be experienced in totally different ways, depending on the mindset that was brought to experience. Fortunately, that mindset is within our control, even if the circumstances may not always be.

4.2. Food

A foundational issue for any economy is how it sources and produces its food, and this issue sits next to water on the list of essential needs. The globalised, industrial food production system currently in existence is highly unsustainable for various reasons. Not only are industrial farming techniques causing the severe and widespread erosion of nutrient-rich topsoil (which takes many hundreds of years to rejuvenate), but also the industrialised system is extremely fossil fuel dependent. Natural gas is needed to produce commercial fertilisers, and oil is needed to produce commercial pesticides, to fuel farm machinery, and to create the plastics used in packaging. Most importantly, however, are the extremely long supply chains that reach all around the world and which are dependent therefore on oil for transport. In Australia, for example, a basket of food from the supermarket typically travels 70,000 kilometres from producer to consumer (if the distance each item travels is aggregated)(10). With respect to the UK, one study has the figure at 241,000 kilometres(11). This fossil fuel dependency is highly problematic not only due to its link to climate change, but also because it will not be economically sustainable as oil continues to get more expensive.

In a sufficiency economy, food production would be highly localised and organic, and based on permaculture or ‘biointensive’ principles (Holmgren, 2002; Jeavons, 2012). Ideally this transition would be voluntarily embraced at once, but more likely is that it will be ushered in by the pressures of declining oil supplies and increasing prices. Cuba, during its ‘special period,’ provides a real world example of some such transition (Percy et al, 2010; Friedrichs, 2010). When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba almost over night found itself with drastically reduced oil supplies, and this necessitated an immediate shift away from energy-intensive, industrialised food production, toward a system of local and organic production. Notably, the government played a large role in facilitating this transition, but the driving force for change came from the grassroots level, as people realised they had to produce their own food or starve. The Cuban experience has some parallels with the ‘relief gardens’ that arose during the Great Depression and the ‘victory gardens’ during World War II. Necessity has always been a great motivator to grow food.

One of the most significant implications of the transition away from industrial food production is the increased labour needed for organic production. Environmentalists too often overlook this issue. While it widely accepted that organic production can be more productive per acre than industrial food production (Jeavons, 2012), organic production is also vastly more labour intensive. The increased labour requirements arise primarily from the absence of mechanised farm machinery, but organic fertiliser production and pest control are also typically more time intensive than industrialised techniques (although permaculture practices can reduce or negate this disparity through things like companion planting). What this means is that organic food production is entirely capable of feeding the world, but do so it will require a huge increase in the provision of agricultural labour. This must be accepted as an implication of the transition to a sufficiency economy, however it is one that has a large silver lining. Not only will it reconnect communities with the local land base upon which they depend for subsistence, but many health benefits will flow from moving away from sedentary office or factory work toward the more active and outdoor work of farming. Governments must do everything they can to support localised, organic agriculture, starting by putting a price on carbon.

As well as a proliferation of organic farms on the urban periphery, a sufficiency economy would also aim to maximise organic food production within the urban boundary. This would involve digging up lawns and turning them into productive vegetable gardens, and planting fruit trees in all available spaces. Nature strips would be cultivated; parks would be turned into small farms or community gardens; suitable roofs would become productive, herbs would grow on balconies and windowsills, and generally all food producing potential would be realised. Most suburban backyards would keep chickens for eggs, and perhaps even small livestock, such as goats for milk and cheese. Animals are also a great source of manure for compost, and many permaculturalists build animals into their organic systems. While it will probably be far too energy intensive to dig up tar-sealed roads, there is still great potential for building raised beds on driveways, some footpaths or roads, and car parks. Mushrooms could be cultivated on the shady side of the house, and household or neighbourhood aquaculture systems could provide urban centres with some of their fish supply.

Even in a sufficiency economy, however, we can expect our households to ‘import’ various foods in various forms, if not from around the world, then certainly from rural contexts. This, in fact, would be an absolute necessity in urban contexts, because growing space simply does not permit anywhere near strict self-sufficiency. A recent study of Toronto, Canada, for example, concluded that the city could possibly produce 10% of its own fruit and vegetables, if available growing space within the city’s boundaries were converted to agriculture (MacRae et al, 2010). This implies that even if urban agriculture were enthusiastically embraced, the city would still need to import 90% of its fruit and vegetables, to say nothing of its meat, minerals, and other goods. While some cities may be able to do somewhat better (e.g. Havana), the Toronto study clearly shows that urbanites around the world are extremely dependent on functioning food production and distribution systems.

Food consumption, not just production, would change drastically in a sufficiency economy. As already implied, the consumption of food would be organic and highly localised, and this also means that people would eat ‘in season’ in order to avoid having to import non-seasonal foods from the other side of the world. Preserving foods in season would be the most appropriate way to access those foods out of season. Generally, food would be unprocessed and require no disposable packaging, and people would eat much less meat (especially red meat) or become vegetarian, due to the intolerable environmental impacts of excessive meat and fish consumption. This reduction in meat consumption could also open up huge tracts of land for human food production that are currently used to produce grain for animals. People would also eat less meat and fish because the sufficiency economy would internalise all externalities, therefore greatly increasing their relative price and thus their relative demand.

Finally, as well as composting human waste for ‘humanure’ via composting toilets (Jenkins, 2005), a sufficiency economy would vigilantly compost all its organic food wastes in order to supply the growing need for organic fertilisers, and this would also vastly reduce the amount of so-called ‘waste’ that is currently ‘wasted’ by being sent to landfill. One might even say that in a sufficiency economy a good bag of compost will typically be more valuable than a bag of gold, and if readers cannot understand that, perhaps they will not understand much about the sufficiency economy.

4.3. Clothing

With a ‘sufficient’ supply of water and food secured, the next item on the list of basic material needs is clothing. The primary function of clothing is to keep us warm, and its secondary function, at least in our state of society, is to cover nakedness. However, those functions are all but forgotten in consumer societies today, where clothing’s purpose has evolved to become primarily about expressing one’s identity or social status. In a sufficiency economy, the fashion industry would be considered a superfluous luxury, one costing more than it was worth, and accordingly it would be amongst the first industries to disappear. At the same time, it must be acknowledged that human beings always have, and probably always will, want to express themselves through what they wear, so ‘style’ would not disappear so much as evolve in a sufficiency economy. A new aesthetic of sufficiency would develop, and soon enough the social expectation to look fashionably ‘brand new’ would become a quirk of history that would seem incomprehensible to the new generation.

In the short-to-medium term – say, over the next couple of decades – a sufficiency economy of clothing could arise in the developed world simply by people refusing to buy any new clothing. There are mountain ranges of discarded or unused, second-hand clothing already in existence, and these resources can easily provide for basic clothing needs for many years to come. Indeed, most adults could probably survive a decade or even a lifetime without adding to their existing wardrobes, for it is arguably the case that most people in the developed world have superfluous clothing. In a sufficiency economy, we would salvage, swap, and reuse clothing diligently, as well as get very good at sewing and mending. In terms of keeping us warm and covering nakedness, our clothing requirements would be easily and sufficiently met. The attitude to clothing I envisage in a sufficiency economy is nicely summed up in a passage from Thoreau (1982: 278): ‘A [person] who has at length found something to do will not need a new suit to do it in,’ adding that ‘if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do; will they not?’ Thoreau’s point here (which is not a religious one) is that a full, dignified and passionate life does not depend on having ‘nice’ clothes.

Over the longer term, of course, it would not be enough simply to reuse and mend existing clothing. New clothing would need to be produced, and in a sufficiency economy the primary aims of production would be functionality and sustainability, not profit-maximisation or the pernicious desire for ever-changing styles. Fabrics like nylon and polyester would be minimised as they are made from petrochemicals and are non-biodegradable; and cotton requires extensive use of pesticides. Functional, low-impact fabrics would be used instead, such as agricultural hemp and organic wool. Although this form of sustainable clothing production would certainly end up looking quite different from today’s styles, it must be remembered that the consumption of clothing, like all consumption, is a culturally relative social practice, so as more people came to wear second-hand or sustainably designed clothing, new social standards would be quickly established. A time will come, no doubt, when those who continue wearing ‘high fashion’ will be the ones perceived as lacking style and taste, at which time we will realise that a new era has dawned.

4.4. Housing

The issue of housing is particularly difficult and complex. Sometimes well-meaning ‘green’ people like to imagine that the eco-cities of the future are going to look either like some techno-utopia, where everyone is living in million-dollar eco-houses such as those glorified in glossy environmental architecture magazines, or else like some agrarian village, where everyone is living in cob houses or ‘Earthships’ they built themselves. The fact is, however, that over the next few critical decades, most people are going to find themselves living in an urban environment that already exists – suburbia. In other words, the houses and apartment blocks that already exist are, in most cases, going to be the very dwellings that will still exist in twenty, thirty, or forty years, or more. So while it is important to explore what role technologies and environmental architecture could play in building new houses in more resource and energy efficient ways, and while there is certainly a place for cob houses and Earthships, for those who have such alternatives as an option, the existing urban and suburban housing stock is still going to be here for the foreseeable future. We are hardly going to knock down the suburbs and start again, just to try to be greener the second time around. It is important to recognise this reality, and not get too carried away with dreaming of a fundamentally new urban infrastructure. The foreseeable future is going to look much less romantic, and the sufficiency perspective outlined here accepts and embraces this.

Rather than dreaming of eco-fairy tales, a more important and urgent task is to figure out how to make the best of existing infrastructure – a task David Holmgren (2012) refers to as ‘retrofitting the suburbs for the energy descent future.’ This might involve things like taking in boarders or putting a caravan in the driveway to help resist further urban sprawl, or putting up curtains and sealing gaps in windows and doors to increase energy efficiency. It might involve changing all the light bulbs or going to the expense of getting an energy efficient fridge or another water tank. It would certainly involve refusing to spend large amounts of money renovating for purely aesthetic reasons or extending the house to create a games room. There is much that can be done (or not done) to improve the existing situation and trajectory.

It is also worth acknowledging that there are limits to what can be done. The existing housing stock is, more or less, what it is. That is, a poorly designed house will never evolve into an Earthship, no matter how well it is ‘retrofitted.’ Perhaps the deeper problem, however, one that cannot be solved here, is the fact that the price of housing in many urban and suburban centres is so high that in order to own a house, or even rent in desirable areas (e.g. close to work), people are often locked into working long hours in jobs they do not like, simply to have a roof over their heads. This is capitalism at its most insidious – ensuring that people who want to escape the system and live differently cannot afford to do so. This structural ‘lock in’ is a very real problem (Alexander, 2012f), and the price of housing has much to do with it. The best way to escape it, in the absence of significant changes to the laws of property, is to avoid living in cities or towns with expensive real estate. I recognise that this will be very difficult for some people, whose jobs or families are already established in expensive or relatively expensive areas. For these people, the best option, arguably, is to live more densely, in order to share the price amongst more people. On the way to a sufficiency economy, however, more and more people will avoid places with expensive housing, and this is likely to result in a revitalisation of small towns and some significant re-ruralisation. Both of those phenomena will be a welcome relief to the overly dense metropolitan areas whose concrete boundaries continually expand further into the wild.

Over time the existing housing stock will need to be replaced, and a sufficiency economy would have certain expectations about how to do this. Materials should be sourced as locally as possible, and designed for long-term durability and to the highest standards of energy efficiency. Straw-bale or mud-brick houses may become common – but remember that the replacement of existing stock will take many, many decades. More people and communities would take part in the construction of their own homes to reduce costs. To limit the resources required, as well as limit the spaces needed to heat and cool, houses would be much smaller than are typically the case in developed nations today, and they would be more densely inhabited. They would be very modest – not much like the ‘eco-houses’ in glossy magazines – but they would be sufficient.

A sufficiency economy would also encourage creative, less conventional approaches to housing. ‘Retired’ shipping containers can be easily converted into humble abodes, and students could easily spend their student years or beyond living simply in a shed or a tent in someone’s backyard (Alexander, 2010). To again draw on the words of Thoreau (1982: 283): ‘Consider first how slight a shelter is absolutely necessary.’ Thoreau reminds us that while ‘civilised’ people often spend twenty, thirty, or forty years toiling to pay for their homes, the American Indians of his day lived contently in tepees or wigwams that in the first instance were constructed in a day or two at most, and taken down and put up in a few hours; and every family owned one, or had a place in one. Thoreau (1982: 284) even quotes from a man called Gookin, being the superintendent of the Indians subject to the Massachusetts colony, who wrote in 1674 that ‘I have often lodged in their wigwams, and found them to be as warm as the best English houses.’ Would the Indians have been wise to give up those wigwams in exchange for the forty years labour required to pay for a more ‘civilised’ dwelling? In a sufficiency economy, where the full costs and benefits of housing would be taken into account, people would tend to choose something far closer to the wigwam than the McMansion, and the only problem this would present for those dwelling in simpler housing is figuring out how to spend their extra decades of freedom. The possibilities for creative renewal of the existing housing stock are limited only by our imaginations.

4.5 Energy

It is an inescapable law of nature that economic activity requires energy, from which it can be inferred correctly that the amount of energy required to sustain an economy depends on the nature and extent of its economic processes. Energy therefore lies at the heart of all economies, and a sufficiency economy would be no different. But in terms of energy, the contrast between a growth economy and a sufficiency economy could hardly be starker. Whereas growth economies seek as much energy as possible at the lowest market price, a sufficiency economy requires only enough energy to provide a modest but sufficient material standard of living for all. This means much lower energy requirements, primarily through renewable sources, although the exact levels cannot be known with any precision. As a very rough guideline, energy consumption per capita in a sufficiency economy may be in the vicinity of half that of Western European economies today, or even less (Trainer, 2012c).

Growth-based economies, especially the most highly developed ones, are perilously dependent on a cheap and abundant supply of oil – a finite, non-renewable fuel source, the production of which must inevitably peak and decline. Furthermore, the overwhelming consensus amongst the scientific community is that the carbon emissions from all fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) are a major contributor to climate change. These issues mean that economies should urgently work towards: (1) becoming resilient in the face of declining oil supplies and much higher oil prices; and (2), decarbonising their economies as far as possible in response to climate change. That is obviously what is required, and it is very easy to pontificate about the general solution! But since fossil fuels, especially oil, are such potent sources of energy and thus such potent fuels for economic activity, giving them up essentially means giving up the growth economy. That, of course, is precisely what no nation on the planet seems prepared to do – at least, not yet. Mother Nature may soon prove to be a powerful persuader, however, and her case is in the process of being made (Gilding, 2011).

The sufficiency economy, on the other hand, if it were ever embraced, would seek to be a post-carbon or very low-carbon economy, and in transitioning thereto we would have to accept that this would imply significantly reduced production and consumption. This would not necessarily be a problem, however, because as has already been made clear, consumption levels in a sufficiency economy would be considerably lower than in consumer societies today, thus requiring much less energy to support them. As well as economic contraction, efficiency improvements and conservation efforts would also lessen the energy requirements of a sufficiency economy (Alexander, 2012b).

The major obstacle in the way of completely decarbonising the economy is the fact that, currently, fossil fuels are required to make renewable energy systems, such as the solar panels and wind turbines. I do not know of any such systems that have been produced purely from renewable energy. This is because solar panels and wind turbines, etc., depend on materials that are not all accessible, at least not yet, through machines powered by electricity / batteries. Until that time arrives, if it ever arrives, producing renewable energy systems will require the use of fossil fuels, and in the sufficiency economy I envision, this will have to be a necessary evil, so to speak. This, however, is among one of the only justifiable uses of fossil fuels. Aside from producing renewable energy systems, the broad goal must be to electrify the rest of the economy as far as possible. In time, perhaps, even renewable energy systems could themselves be produced from renewable energy, although presently that is far from certain.

I do not wish to understate the challenges that would be faced as economies attempt the transition toward low-energy, primarily post-carbon economies. I certainly do not have all the answers about how such a transition would or could successfully transpire. For example, the evidence is uncertain about what role nuclear should or could play in this transition (although I am very sceptical about it being the silver bullet). All I know is that if we are to avoid the dire economic and ecological consequences that are expected to flow from runaway climate change and / or unmitigated peak oil, reducing energy consumption, especially oil, and decarbonising the economy more generally, must be our primary energy aims. Meeting these aims, I contend, depend on the emergence of a sufficiency economy.

4.6. Transport

One of the largest demands for energy today comes from transporting people and materials from place to place. The energy demands are especially high in our globalised economy, where commodities are often consumed thousands of kilometres away from where they were produced. The fact that there are now over one billion cars and light vehicles on the roads makes the energy demand for transport much greater still. It is important to note, however, that the globalised economy and car-dependent cultures only emerged over the last century because oil was so cheap and abundant. It made economic sense, for instance, to grow apples in Australia and ship them to Alaska for consumption, or to drive to the corner store to pick up some milk, because the transport costs were so cheap. But as the price of oil continues to rise, people will be forced to rethink their driving habits, and much global trade will become uneconomic, priced out of the market through the embedded costs of expensive oil. These processes are already underway, and in a sufficiency economy they would be embraced, even actively encouraged.

The first issue here is the relocalisation of economies (Rubin, 2009). As many parts of the global economy get suffocated from expensive oil, local producers will regain the competitive advantage. Many things once imported from all around the world will now be able to be produced more economically at the local level. This especially applies to food production, for as we have already noted, industrial food systems are highly dependent on oil not only for transport, but also for things like pesticides and plastic packaging. When the costs of oil increase, these methods will no longer be affordable. The consequence will be more localised, organic food production, and therefore vastly reduced energy requirements for transport and production.

These same economic forces will eventually apply to all oil-dependent commodities in the globalised economy. As soon as the extra costs of shipping the commodity outweigh the savings that flow from cheap labour overseas, the commodity will once again be produced locally(12). Relocalisation, therefore, may well come about, not because of any top down initiative, nor from a critical mass of people convincing the mainstream of the environmental or social benefits of local production. Rather, relocalisation will arise because the costs of globalised trade simply become unaffordable. If the costs of climate change were internalised to the price of oil, as they would be in a sufficiency economy, this process of relocalisation would occur even faster. The critical point, however – irrespective of the economics – is simply that the sufficiency economy seeks to minimise its energy requirements, and reducing the energy demands of the transport sector will require relocalising the vast majority of production. To the minimal extent that global trade continues, it will probably be conducted in the main by sail, as it was prior to the petroleum age. Food for cities would be imported from rural contexts mainly by electric trains.

The second issue anticipated above relates to driving cars. In order to decarbonise the economy, it is required that people drive much less, or not at all. Electric cars will not be able to escape this imperative, because producing them depends on fossil fuels, and also for most people electric cars remain unaffordable. Just as importantly, it would take many decades or even a century to replace the one billion petroleum-powered vehicles on the roads today with electric vehicles, and we do not have that much time (or money) to mitigate the effects of peak oil and climate change. The only solution is driving less. In many cases, driving less would cause no hardship at all, for various studies have estimated that around half of all car trips are less than 5 kilometres(13), and around one third are less than 3km(14). In many cases those could be replaced with walking, cycling, or public transport.

There are, however, deep structural complications underlying the requirement to stop driving as much, which should not be ignored. For many people today driving is the only way of getting to work, so the injunction to ‘get out of your car’ may frustrate those people who would love to drive less but cannot, due to a lack of viable alternatives. Suburbia was built on the basis of cheap oil, which meant that ‘sprawl’ was not seen as much of a problem. But now that oil is getting more expensive, the long commutes are becoming increasingly problematic, not only from a cost perspective, but also from an environmental perspective. There is no silver bullet solution to this problem, but the first thing that must happen is to invest as heavily as possible in a good system of electricity-powered public transport, such as light trains or trams, as well as a good system of bike lanes. Putting a price on carbon will also provide economic incentives to drive only when absolutely necessary.

But there is a more fundamental change that must occur, which is linked to the issue of relocalisation discussed above. The focus above was on how the sufficiency economy would move away from global trade and toward local production on the grounds that the energy required for transport is both increasingly expensive and environmentally destructive. With respect to driving, however, the issue is not so much about moving production within regional boundaries but about moving more production within the household or the immediate local community. This is in fact a necessary feature of the sufficiency economy (discussed further below). If this transformation were to occur, driving would be unnecessary for many people, as their place of work would be either at home or a short walk down the road. Longer distances would be covered on bicycle or public transport, and perhaps the occasional horse and cart might even return to our streets. As a general rule, however, people and materials in a sufficiency economy would have to travel far less than is common in developed nations today (Moriarty and Honnery, 2008). In short, a sufficiency economy is by and large a local economy.

4.7. Work and Production

A sufficiency economy can also be understood with respect to the fundamental changes that would take place in terms of work and production. The most significant of these changes, noted immediately above, is that the household would once again become a place of production, not merely consumption. This transition would be driven partly by choice, but in tough economic times (e.g. with high unemployment) many households might find that home production would become more of an economic necessity. Rather than hiring other people to grow our food, cook our meals, make our clothes, build our furniture, look after our children, maintain our houses, etc., in a sufficiency economy we would generally take care of such things ourselves, so far as it were possible. Furthermore, households would sometimes produce goods for trade or barter, such as furniture, crockery, clothes, or food, and thereby contribute to the broader local economy. Artisans might also produce speciality goods at the household level, such as musical instruments, paintings, or various tools.

It was not so long ago, we should not forget, when these forms of home production were the norm, and the necessary skills must be passed down to the younger generations, or else the transition back to home production will prove much more difficult as we find ourselves having to reinvent the wheel. Unfortunately, home production has rarely received the respect it deserves, and that is why it is not as highly valued as it should be. It was an unfortunate consequence of the Feminist Movement that home production was often denigrated. Certainly, when women were forced through cultural expectations to be the home-maker while men went out and ran the formal economy and governed the nation, it is perfectly understandable why liberating women seemed to imply leaving the home, joining the formal workforce, and outsourcing home production. But the importance of being given equal freedoms should not have implied, as it too often did, that staying at home was somehow a sign of oppression or failure. There is honour in home production, provided it is not imposed upon one gender. In a sufficiency economy, home-based production (whether undertaken by women or men, or both) would be recognised for what it is – the heart of any economy (Astyk, 2012).

Nevertheless, the sufficiency economy should not be understood to mean strict self-sufficiency at the household level. In most cases, that would be neither desirable nor possible. Much production would still take place beyond the household, but the nature of what would be produced and the values motivating production would be very different. The provision of basic needs – such as food, clothing, shelter, tools, and medicine – would be the primary focus of production, and the motivation would be to produce what was necessary and sufficient for a good life, rather than to produce luxuries or superfluous abundance. While some large factories would probably remain in order to provide certain materials or hi-tech equipment, small private businesses and worker cooperatives would in most cases replace the mega-corporation, with the local grocer and hardware store returning to Mainstreet, and community owned-and-operated farms providing much of the community’s sustenance.

Since the levels of consumption in a sufficiency economy would be so much lower than is common in consumer societies today, it is worth emphasising that the levels of production would be considerably lower too. This would imply reduced working hours for most people, in the formal economy, at least, creating far more time for leisure and the necessary home production. One consequence of this would be a blurring of the distinction between work and leisure, as people would spend far more time working on their own livelihoods at home, at their own pace and in their own way. It is also worth acknowledging, however, that in some respects – such as food production – much more labour would be required, due to the minor role fossil fuel energy would play in production. In a sufficiency economy, it would be certain that many more people would work as farmers, but far from being a regressive step, there are many reasons to think that this would be a positive advance away from office or factory work. People would be working outdoors with their hands in the soil, once again connected with the natural systems upon which their most basic needs depend.

4.8. Money, Markets, and Exchange

The question of what role money, markets, and exchange would play in a sufficiency economy is complex, and cannot be fully addressed here. It is also likely that such issues would play out differently in different contexts, as is the case with all aspects of the sufficiency economy. Nevertheless, some broad comments can be made on these subjects.

First of all, it is worth noting that throughout history, human beings have exchanged goods and services with each other, either by way of barter, gift, or through the use of money. These practices are going to continue in a sufficiency economy, although the nature of money, markets, and exchange will have to evolve greatly, as will our attitudes toward them. As noted above, a sufficiency economy does not mean that everyone would be strictly self-sufficient. Households will be as self-sufficient as possible, but there will remain ‘markets’ for various goods that cannot be produced within the household. Money is likely to remain the most convenient tool for ‘keeping accounts,’ so to speak, but in a sufficiency economy non-monetary forms of exchange, such as gift and barter, are likely to become much more prominent modes of economic activity. Since profit-maximisation would not be the aim of market activity in a sufficiency economy, less attention would be given to producing things that fetch the highest price, and more attention would be given to producing what the community most needs.

The fact that markets of some variety would probably still remain in a sufficiency economy implies that some forms of private property are likely to endure, although it is just as likely, and desirable, that more of the economy comes under social control. The balance between private and social control of the economy could unfold in an infinite variety of ways (so the tripartite distinction between private property / socialism / the ‘third way’ is remarkably unhelpful). This unfolding will depend partly on the extent to which communities come together to decide for themselves how their local economies should run – which I would like to insist is every community’s right – but it is also likely to depend, at least at first, on how we deal with the emergence of systemic shocks, such as financial crises, or the impacts from climate change and peak oil. In the event of long-term crises or even a collapse scenario, central governments may lose much of their ability to enforce national law effectively, and some more localised property frameworks would likely arise in very disruptive and unpredictable ways. Even in a less disruptive future, local governments or new forms of community authority could well come to prominence in a sufficiency economy (Trainer, 2010). Whatever the case, a sufficiency economy must be designed so that everyone has enough, and this means that communities would have to take responsibility for ensuring that basic needs were universally met. This will require a significant degree of social control of the economy, in the sense at least that the provision of basic needs for all would be considered a social responsibility and could not be left to market forces. The most important issue would be that everyone had access to land, and communities might have to experiment with how best to ensure this occurred (see, e.g., Alexander, 2011b: Chpts 2 and 5).

With respect to existing monetary systems in developed nations, one of the greatest problems is that money is loaned into existence as debt that accrues interest, and for such systems to function they require economic growth in order for the debts plus the interest to be paid back (Sorrell, 2010). Interest payments imply an expansion of the money supply. A sufficiency economy, being a degrowth-cum-zero-growth economy, could not by definition have a monetary system that required growth, so it follows that interest-bearing loans could not be the primary means of money creation in a sufficiency economy (Trainer, 2011). But what should replace this debt-based system – and how the transition beyond such a system would play out – are open questions that have not received the attention they deserve. It may be that as economies are suffocated by expensive oil in coming years, and find themselves at the ‘end of growth,’ debt-based systems which require growth will collapse under the weight of their own debts and the alternative system will arise in a very unplanned, ad hoc, and possibility decentralised way. It is important that more attention is given to this eventuality, for the public debate over what should replace debt-based, fractional reserve systems should be occurring now, prior to the existing crises deepening. I will leave the details to be worked out by those more competent, but the alternative may have to look something like Ted Trainer’s proposal for community owned banks to be the source of money, banks which provide zero-interest credit for ventures that have been selected on the basis that they serve community interests (Trainer, 2010).

4.9. Miscellaneous

I will close this sketch of the sufficiency economy with some even briefer comments on a range of miscellaneous issues that, like all the issues outlined above, deserve far more attention that space presently allows. The purpose of this essay, however, has not been to provide comprehensive details on every aspect of the sufficiency economy – I am the first to admit that most issues discussed above deserve a book-length treatment. Rather, my purpose has been to link to the dots that have already been formed in order to provide some glimpse of the ‘big picture.’ I ask that this be taken into consideration should the reader be frustrated (justifiably) that I have raised more questions than I have answered.

To begin with, we should remember that the sufficiency economy, should it ever emerge, would arrive in the wake of industrial civilisation’s deterioration. This will mean that vast quantities of industrially produced goods, tools, and materials will already be in existence, and for many decades, perhaps centuries, this would mean we would be living in what some have called the ‘salvage economy’ (Greer, 2009). In other words, the wastes of industrial civilisation will very quickly become the new materials for life at the end of Empire, and human beings will doubtless prove to be exceedingly creative in the use and reuse of existing materials. Furthermore, recycling in the sufficiency economy will not involve melting down existing glass bottles and making new glass bottles, but simply reusing glass bottles in the form in which they already exist (Holmgren, 2002). The old ethics of the depression era will return, as people learn to ‘use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.’

With respect to technology, the first point to note is that we do not need new technological advances to create a better world. We have everything we need already, so the fundamental problem is not a lack of technological know-how; the fundamental problem is the value-system that consumer capitalism currently has adopted to direct the technology we already have. When those values change and are put to the task of providing ‘enough, for everyone, forever,’ then we will realise all at once that we already have the tools that we need to achieve this ambitious task. Technology is only a means, not an end.

The second point to note on technology is that in a sufficiency economy, life will be such that a great many technological conveniences we know today will largely disappear. Microwaves, vacuum cleaners, electronic kitchen gadgets, mobile phones, etc., may all become relics of history, but without causing much hardship at all. The clothesline will replace the clothes dryer; the bike will largely replace the car; and the television will essentially disappear. I suspect that washing machines and fridges will be the last things we give up, but life would go on even if they became unavailable or unaffordable. Hopefully computers will remain to do some important tasks (primarily information sharing), although private computers might become much less common. It is also worth remembering that people survived well enough in the 1950s and 60s without computers, and we will survive well enough if we were without them again. At the same time, in the short term computers may be a necessary tool for advancing the sufficiency economy through critical education and the organisation of mass social movements. Education itself would need to undergo a radical transformation, moving away from the goal of training people to maintain the existing growth economy, toward an education that prepares people practically for life in a sufficiency economy (see, e.g., Trainer, 2012d; Burch, 2012c; Burch; 2012d).

There are countless other avenues that this analysis could explore: what would become of existing health systems, or pension schemes, in the sufficiency economy? How would people spend their leisure and what art forms might flourish? How would the sufficiency economy differ in urban centres as opposed to rural settings? And how would sufficiency in the global North affect the global South? These are all issues that deserve further attention, but I must defer those discussions for another occasion. I will, however, finish the current discussion with a comment on politics and power (at risk of opening up a can of worms I cannot close). Some readers might have found themselves sympathising with at least some aspects of the preceding discussion but found themselves asking about how the transition could ever transpire, given existing power structures. This is a daunting issue to consider, because certainly there are many powerful people and institutions around the world that have an interest in maintaining the status quo, and who will use all their power and resources to inhibit the emergence of a sufficiency economy.

Part of the problem here is that our personal lifestyle choices take place within political and economic structures of constraint, and those structures inevitably make some lifestyle decisions easy or necessary and other lifestyles decisions difficult or impossible (Alexander, 2012f). The existing structures of consumer capitalism are functioning to ‘lock’ people into high consumption, consumer lifestyles, even if they desire a different way of life. What this means is that personal action alone is never going to be enough to bring about a sufficiency economy; structural change will be necessary. But this draws us into the vexed question: how do we change the fundamental structures of consumer capitalism?

From the mainstream liberal-democratic perspective, the solution to this problem depends on a culture shift. That is to say, a sufficiency economy will not arise in liberal democracies until there is a culture that wants it, at which time those cultural values will be embraced by representative politicians and used to shape public policy in order to keep or win office. This understanding of representative democracy might be nice in theory, but it assumes that democracies are functioning well, and a strong case can be made that many so-called democracies are under the undue influence of corporate interests (e.g. Tham, 2010). If that is so, even a culture shift in favour of sufficiency would not necessarily bring about structural change, because we can be sure that corporate interests influencing public policies are not interested in a sufficiency economy. They want infinite growth.

The Marxist perspective essentially accepts this critical view of liberal democracy, arguing that the capitalist state is merely a tool for maintaining the status quo and for furthering the narrow interests of the economic elites. From this perspective, the revolution that is needed depends not so much on a cultural shift but on the working classes taking control of the state in order to socialise the means of production. Since the economic elites will never voluntarily give up their hold on power, it follows that the Marxist revolution must be a violent revolution. The problem with this understanding of social change, however, is that Marxism, and socialism more generally, have almost without exception remained embedded within the growth model of progress that the sufficiency economy rejects. In other words, socialists have tended to seek state power, not to use that power to move away from the growth economy, but to facilitate continued growth only in more socially just ways and with a broader distribution. While it is conceivable to imagine a ‘state socialism of sufficiency’ – certainly it is easier than imagining a ‘state capitalism of sufficiency’! – there arguably remains the concern that states of any type – whether capitalist, socialist, or some other variety – are in and of themselves structurally inclined to be pro-growth. The basic critique here is that all states are dependent for their existence on a taxable economy, and the larger the tax-base, the more funds the state can draw from to carry out its policies.

This leads to a third, broad vision of social change, arising out of the anarchist tradition – the environmental anarchists, in particular, such as Peter Kropotkin, Murray Bookchin, and Ted Trainer. Although these theorists have their important differences, they essentially agree with the Marxists that state capitalism is unjustifiable on the grounds that it is being used unjustly as a tool to maintain the existing order. But unlike the Marxists, they do not think the solution is taking control of the state. They think the solution is building the new society at the local, grassroots level, where communities create self-governing, localised, participatory democracies. Part of the disagreement with the Marxists here is because these ‘deep green’ anarchists think that the state is inextricably intertwined with economic violence against nature, and so from this perspective, no state, not even state socialism, is going to lead to sustainability. But even if there were hope of a green state, these theorists would not advocate that people direct their energies toward top-down change, because they think that state governance is an unjustifiable form of hierarchy and rule, no matter how green it might be. Accordingly, they believe that if a just and sustainable society is to emerge, it has to be built without help from the state (and probably with a lot of resistance).

While this brief review does a disservice to the richness of the ideas and thinkers discussed, it does serve the purpose of raising questions about how any transition to a sufficiency economy could unfold. Would it (or could it) be somehow voted in through the mechanisms of parliamentary democracy? Would it require a political revolution and the introduction of some form of eco-socialism? Or would it require grassroots movements to essentially do it mostly themselves, building the new economy underneath the existing economy, without state assistance? While I have most sympathy with the latter approach, I think it would be unwise to commit ourselves unconditionally to any one strategy. While this open-mindedness is not theoretically tidy or distinct, it may be the best strategy. The future is highly uncertain, and the conditions for change are always shifting beneath our feet. Who knows what might be possible tomorrow? Who knows what events or crises or leaders might one day shift the balance of power between strategies? My view is that the Transition Movement, while not homogenous in its approach, currently has something of the right strategic balance here. Adopting what I would call ‘direct democracy,’ the movement basically accepts that change must be driven at the grassroots, community level, while at the same time being prepared to press on governments (mainly local governments) to assist in the transition whenever that seems to be a good use of limited energies. Furthermore, if the Transition Movement were ever to succeed in achieving its ambitious and diverse goals, I believe something resembling the sufficiency economy may well be the result. My primary aim in writing this paper was to provide some more detail on what that alternative economy might look like.

(The full set of references will be included in the concluding Part Five, The Ambiguous Charge of Utopiansim, being published on Learning from Dogs tomorrow.)

9 thoughts on “Down is the new up.

  1. Excellent (albeit alarming). My proposed comments grew and grew until it simply did not make sense to do anything other than post them on my blog (which I will do just after midnight tonight [GMT/UTC]).


      1. You should get a pingback automatically (because I have included a link to this page)! 🙂


  2. Reminds me of reading Ecotopia [30 years or more ago eek!] and whilst I agree with the points of housing especially how it not only disables the individual but also society I feel many of the other points are pessimistic.

    Human growth is not just the darker/selfish aspects but include pursuit of knowledge, arts and invention. A sustainable society can have growth and can always make room for technology. Better solar cells, better batteries and better methods to clean up our mess. Humanity at its best pushes boundaries- it is our nature and that has to be part of the mix.


  3. I have three comments:
    1. This is my third visit to this page and I’m still unable to commit to reading it. It’s too long (for me). I’m distracted from the outset by being conscious of its lenght. YMMV. What I have scanned suggests that it’s important. Must find time to read it…
    2. This is part four. I clearly need to begin at part one. (Martin will accuse me of being ‘late to the party’ ;)) Links to the previous parts would assist, but if these exist they are not obvious to me. (Yes, I do know how to navigate a website: I’m thinking of others who may be less familiar with such nuances).
    3. … my comment’s too long. I forget what my third point is 😀


    1. 4. (I’m pretty sure #3 was something different)

      “… 1,458 viewings, Tuesday there were 1,546 viewings… “

      You’ll have just had a number of other ‘viewings'[1] on all five parts, from me, as I blundered about your website trying to locate:
      part one,
      part two,
      part three,
      part four,
      part five.

      I think I got those links right. Apologies if not.

      [1] Ah, the joy that is lies, damn lies, and (web) statistics… 😉


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