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Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







Natural Capitalism Challenged


Australian Radio Interview

July 22, 2000


Ted Trainer


Alexandra de Blas

Australian Broadcasting Corporation



While the idea of "Natural Capitalism", is gaining popularity. It does have its critics. Dr. Ted Trainer believes that the levels of production and consumption in developed countries is unsustainable. He thinks that the only way to help the environment is to do away with capitalism as we know it and "to almost completely scrap this economy".



Alexandra de Blas:

In the last fortnight, Earthbeat has spoken with the key proponents of Natural Capitalism: Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountains Institute, and his co-author, Paul Hawken.

Itís a popular approach to sustainability and national leaders like President Clinton have actively promoted it. But it has its critics. Dr. Ted Trainer, a lecturer in social work at the University of New South Wales believes there are fundamental flaws in their analysis of sustainability.

Ted Trainer:

There are two separate problems here. One is the market is a mechanism that has some virtues, but it is the major source of deprivation and waste in the world at the moment, because the market makes sure that scarce resources go to the rich. Well why is more than 100-million hectares of Third World land growing export crops, and not food for hungry people? Precisely because market forces are allowed to determine whatís grown on that land and who benefits from it.

Now thatís one thing: the market system we have is a major cause of the problems around us. The more important problem is simply that our commitments to affluence and levels of production and consumption that are grossly unsustainable. Now Amory encourages the view that thereís not a problem there, that by better technical devices, we can not only keep up those levels of production and consumption, but he actually says, multiply them by a factor of eight, something like that; in the process we can save the environment, in the process we can make a lot of money, and we donít even need to regulate, we can leave it all to the market to solve these problems.

Now the team that Iím in, the Limits to Growth Team, thinks that thereís now an overwhelming case that those assumptions are just grossly mistaken.

Alexandra de Blas:

But isnít there a lot of value in the technical fixes that have been put forward by Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken?

Ted Trainer:

There certainly is. His Natural Capitalism book is full of good ideas, one wouldnít oppose any of those ways of approaching production and reducing energy costs and so on. But thatís a minor issue compared with the major effect that his argument is having, and that heís had for 30 years, and that is to encourage and reinforce the assumption that we donít need to question consumer society. We can drive as much, we can go on as many Jetaway holidays, we can have this elaborate wardrobe, we can go to the supermarket and purchase just as much because weíre going to do it in these more efficient ways.

Alexandra de Blas:

What do you think about their claims that weíre going to see an end of oil, not because it will run out but because weíll find renewable alternatives, like fuel cells and the hyper-car?

Ted Trainer:

Yes, look Amory is an energy man and some of the things he says about energy are just astounding; Iíve got no idea why he would say that gas is abundant and we can derive our hydrogen for our fuel cells from it and derive a lot of the products to make our plastics and hyper-cars.

Now everyone will tell you that gas is about as limited as petroleum and weíre looking at the very strong probability of an enormously serious petroleum shortage hitting us within 10 or 20 years, and of course if we try to run from the petroleum source to gas in our cars, which is what weíll do, the use of gas will go up faster and faster, so Iíve got no idea why he would claim that gas is an abundant source for us. The other major source for his hyper-cars and for his solution to many of our electricity supply needs, is the fuel cell which would run on hydrogen. And that is going to supposedly come from biomass, from things like ethanol.

Now this is something youíd need the time to get into the nuts and bolts and the numbers, but thereís just nothing like sufficient biomass on the planet to sustain the present level of car use fuel, let alone supplying electricity from that source either. The estimates Iíve worked through indicate that if America was going to replace its petroleum use by ethanol, theyíd need about 720-million hectares of good crop land. Now theyíve only got 190-million hectares; 720-hectares is twice their forest areas, twice their pasture area. So these numbers are of a magnitude you run into again and again in this game, and the limits to growth argument is that when you start looking at the numbers, the multiples are just far beyond anything that can be made sustainable.

Alexandra de Blas:

Well you argue that we need radical, structural change if weíre to address our global environmental problems. So what changes exactly do we need, Ted?

Ted Trainer:

OK, there now has accumulated over 30 years or so, a considerable literature answering that question from many angles, and I think it boils down to a consensus about three or four basic principles. You canít design a just and sustainable world order unless you accept firstly living much more materially simply. Now that doesnít mean deprivation of any kind, it just means living with what is sufficient.

Secondly, we have to design settlements that are highly economically self-sufficient, highly local economies where most of the things we need come from within a few kilometres of where we live, because if Iím right about the energy issue, weíre just not going to be able to transport stuff all the way round the world.

Thirdly, we have to do things in much more co-operative and participatory ways.

At the moment weíve got lots of energy so we can live individualistically and privately and we can compete. But when things are scarce, it makes sense to co-operate, and that means doing things round our neighbourhoods, through things like working bees and committees and communal property-in-commons and workshops and things

Fourthly, we could add in alternative technologies; we have to use things like building out of mud brick and so on that donít use so much energy.

And finally, the hard one: we have to almost completely scrap this economy. You cannot talk about a sustainable society in which you have an economy that not only produces vast quantities of throwaway stuff, but has to increase them at 3% to 4% per annum. Thatís the sort of assumption that is built into our economy. Unless you increase output by 3% or 4% per annum, then problems accelerate.

Alexandra de Blas:

Well youíre certainly talking about radical change. How do you make that happen in the face of the juggernaut of globalisation?

Ted Trainer:

Yes well, globalisation I think is -

Alexandra de Blas:

I mean how realistic is this?

Ted Trainer:

Itís clearly rapidly worsening all these problems because itís freeing the market, itís freeing the corporations to go thundering down this track at an ever faster path. I for a long time, like many others, have worked at this in an educational way, tried to raise awareness. Iím now very pessimistic about that. I think for decades now weíve seen very little response. My hope is that our best hopes lie in encouraging the global eco-village movement to come on and show that there are alternatives and that they are very attractive and workable. In the last 20 years or so weíve had the emergence of an eco-village movement all round the world.

There are hundreds of little settlements now being built by groups who can see the stupidity of the consumer way and who are determined to just carve out another track, and to me the fate of the planet depends on whether those people succeed in the next 20 years or so in building examples that show that thereís not just another way that defuses the big problems, but which is intrinsically worthwhile and a much more pleasant way to go.

Alexandra de Blas:

Well, the appealing thing about the Natural Capitalism approach is that it is achievable and it is inviting, whereas the enormous change required for your so-called simpler way, is deeply threatening to a lot of people, and is possibly far more complex to achieve.

Ted Trainer:

Of course itís more complicated and difficult and less likely to be achieved, but it shouldnít be threatening. I think itís threatening only if people donít understand whatís going on here. Whatís really threatening is the path weíre on now, because how secure do you feel in a world where one-billion are getting all the wealth, and the rest are increasingly impoverished? A third of the worldís people are getting poorer, year by year now. How satisfactory is that, how safe and secure will you feel as that path accelerates? I think one of our biggest problems in the eco-village movement is to get people to understand that the alternative of the simpler way has enormous benefits in terms of quality of life.

Alexandra de Blas:

Guests on this program:
Ted Trainer

Dr. Ted Trainer from the University of New South Wales. Lecturer in Social Work.


"Saving the Environment", Publisher: UNSW Press, 1998
The Conserver Society," Publisher: Zed, 1995.

Alexandra de Blas
Used with permission of Ted Trainer.

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