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How Cheaply We Could Live


by Ted Trainer

(This account is quite similar to "The Alternative, Sustainable Society", but the focus here is on reducing resource and dollar costs.)

First: The problem.

There is now a large and convincing literature on the fact that industrial-affluent-consumer society is grossly unsustainable. Rich world "living standards" and levels of production and consumption are far higher than can be kept up for long, or can be extended to all the world’s people. We can have them only because we are taking far more than our fair share of the World’s resources and thereby depriving billions of people of necessities, and because we are burning up much of the planet’s ecological and resource wealth.

A few key figures make the magnitude of the overshoot clear. (For the detail see Trainer, 1995, 1998, 1999) Rich world per capita energy use is 15 times that of the poorest half of the world’s people. The amount of productive land we use is more than 5 ha per person but the amount available in the world is only about 1.3 ha. If we were to cut fossil fuel use to the level which the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change says would stop the greenhouse problem getting any worse, and share that much energy among the 9 billion people we are likely to have soon, then we would have to get by on only 1/15 of the amount that people in rich countries consume per capita now.

Petroleum is especially limited. World supply is likely to peak and begin falling within 5-15 years. (Campbell and Laherrere, 1997.) The optimistic USGS estimates only delay the peak by about 10 years. By 2025 we will probably have to be only 1/15 of the amount that would be necessary to give present rich world per capita petroleum consumption to all people living then. Unconventional oil sources like shale are not likely to fill the gap. If these predictions are at all valid industrial-consumer society will soon experience enormous difficulties.

Renewable energy sources such as solar energy are not likely to be produced in sufficient quantities to enable present levels of energy consumption. (See "Can Solar sources meet Australia’s electricity and liquid fuel needs."?)

These sorts of figures make clear that we are far beyond sustainable levels of production and consumption, but what is our supreme goal? It is economic growth, i.e., to increase levels of production and consumption as much as possible and without end. If we had only 3% growth for 70 years total world output would then be 8 times as great as it is now. If all 9 billion people expected were to rise to the living standards we would have then, total world output would be more than 100 times as great as it is now.

This gives us inescapable implications for the form that a sustainable society must take The world energy supply, presently equivalent to 6 billion tonnes of oil will probably fall to much less than one-third of this amount in 50 years. If the expected 9 billion people were to share this equally each person would get the equivalent of .22 tonnes of oil, which is only 1/23 of rich world per capita energy consumption now!

The answer

This "limits to growth" analysis indicates the very great magnitude of the reductions we must face up to. A sustainable world must be based on rates of per capita resource use and ecological impact that are far lower than they are in rich counties today. The present total volume of world resource use must be drastically reduced. The options might seem to be either for us all to return to living like impoverished peasants, or for a few to live fairly well while most are condemned to squalor and conflict. These would be understandable responses. But they are wrong.

It would be quite possible for us to live well on extremely low rates of resource consumption and monetary income… if we were prepared to cooperate, use alternative technologies, develop small and highly self-sufficient local economies -- and if we were prepared to live very non-affluently. Abandoning affluence would be the greatest of these challenges for most people. Most are addicted to expensive, luxurious, frivolous and slick commodities! In general their "standards" are far too high, i.e., expensive. Consider what they mean by a "nice" house. Yet things that are very humble, cheap, old, repaired or home-made can be perfectly functional, and indeed aesthetically pleasing. We could have a very high quality of life in very civilised societies, with much leisure time, good services and public institutions such as hospitals, and a rich cultural life -- if we were content to have very simple and cheap things (and prepared to develop and maintain the necessary cooperative social structures.)

Following is an indication of how we could do this. Let me stress again, the limits to growth analysis of our global predicament leaves no doubt that we will have to cut per capita consumption of non-renewable resources to a small fraction of our present levels. In my view we will have no choice about this; we will just have to adopt the sorts of ways outlined below. But far from contemplating this prospect with dread, I and many within the Global Ecovillage Movement are delighted to live in the ways described. The Simpler Way provides many sources of satisfaction, and a richer quality of life, than consumer society. In conventional terms we would be extremely poor, but in terms of worthwhile activity, community, variety, skills, leisure, culture, personal development, environment, spiritual growth, i.e., the things that matter, we would be extremely rich.

The ways outlined below are a combination of those I currently live by, and those I would live by if I could, i.e., if my isolated alternative homestead were part of a sustainable community. Note that the most important changes enabling reduction in resource use are not to do with personal consumption but with the development of new systems and settlements (e.g., moving food production and work places close to where we live.)

Needless to say there is no possibility of doing these things in the present economy. There would have to be transition to small scale and highly self-sufficient local economies that were not driven by market forces and in which there was no growth. (See Our Economic System; Why It Must Be Scrapped.)


Almost no food needs to be imported into one’s neighbourhood, let alone city. It can all be produced there, firstly in intensive home gardens, secondly in market gardens within the area, and thirdly within edible landscapes and commons densely planted on public land throughout the locality. The space around your home should be packed with gardens, pens for small animals, fish ponds and tanks, greenhouses, orchards, herb patches, bamboo clumps, woodlots and bee hives. Many of these should be on land that was once roads and parking lots. All food, animal and human wastes should be recycled to the soils via compost heaps, garbage gas units and the animals. This would eliminate the need for artificial fertilizer production. Even flour can be produced in small intensive areas growing wheat, corn (or chestnuts etc) on small farms close to where we live. Several crops can be produced from the same ground each year. According to Blazey (1999, p. 18) a family can derive all its food needs from less than 50 square metres, using the best heirloom varieties and intensive organic gardening. (Modern US agriculture requires 100 times as much land per person (.5 ha)… plus lots of energy, pesticides and fertilizer.)

We would eat far less meat and this would greatly reduce the volume of produce necessary. (About 2/3 of the food produced in the US is not eaten by humans; it is fed to animals.) Meat would mostly come from small animals such as rabbits, fish and poultry, living within or settlements and recycling food scraps to the soil. Poultry would live in free range conditions, not battery pens. One of their jobs would be to clear, cultivate and fertilise garden beds.

Little machinery would be needed, because the Permaculture approach avoids ploughing. Horses could do most of the small amount of heavy work needed, although it would make some sense to have a small number of motorised vehicles, running on ethanol produced from plants. Plants would also provide many craft and industrial materials, notably timber and inputs to many chemical processes, replacing petroleum sources of plastics etc. Many oils, for industry, paints and cooking could come from the locality, including peanuts, olives, flax, bees wax, recycled cooking oil and fish oil.. Herb cultivation would also provide many sources of medicines. These many products would come from many small locally owned firms and cooperatives which gave worthwhile work to people. Small farmers and home gardeners are far more energy efficient than agribusiness.

There would be a little production of pesticides, from natural inputs such a pyrethrum and tobacco, grown locally… primarily because there would be fewer pests in the complex Permaculture landscapes. (Monocultures encourage pest build up.) Some bulk items such as flour and milk would come from small farms very close to our settlements.

Only small quantities of some items might need to be imported over long distances into one’s suburb, for example salt. The world contains huge numbers of plants, vegetables, and fruits that will grow in your neighbourhood but that we have never even heard about. We should be trying them out to see which varieties will thrive in our conditions.

Thus with respect to food we would also almost completely eliminate the need for packaging, freezing, preservatives and especially transport. We would buy from the local farm gate, thereby eliminating most marketing and advertising costs. The average item of food would travel about 100 metres, whereas at present in the US the figure is around 2000 km. Almost no trucks, tractors, harvesters, silos, cropdusters, ships, supermarkets, coldstores, plastic bags, home freezers and waste disposal would be needed by the food supply industry. Because the food was produced close to where it was eaten all wastes could go back to the soils, serving as animal feed on the way and eliminating the need to produce fertilisers. In addition we could save vast amounts on food preservation, packaging, tins, bottles, labels, and refrigeration, because food could go straight from gardens and animal pens to the kitchen as it is needed.

Thus we could easily eliminate just about all of the at least 17% of US energy use now going into food supply. In addition our food would be superior in quality because it would contain no pesticides or preservatives and it would be fresh. Many people would get satisfying work as small farmers. Large reductions would follow in the need to produce many of the inputs to agriculture, such as fertilisers, pesticides, packaging and trucks. The total amount of time and labour needed for food production would probably be much less than at present, given that many now work in the tricking, processing, packaging and marketing areas of food supply that will be unnecessary.


All furniture would be simple, cheap, robust and durable, made from local materials, mostly wood. It would be repairable, and most would be home-made by ordinary people. Some would come from local craft businesses, in which people could enjoy making good furniture. These pieces would be relatively expensive, but they would last for generations , and cost would not matter since we could in general cover our monetary needs with two days work a week for money. (See below.)

Various other items, notably toys, baskets, garden sheds, animal houses, storage sheds would also be almost entirely home-made using hand tools and locally produced materials.

Clothing and footwear

Almost all the clothes we wear should be simple, tough, cheap and durable, and much repaired. One of my best jumpers lasted 35 years. One of my hobbies is darning and repairing old clothes I wear. We might have a few "nice" things for special occasions. (I don’t.) But these need not be expensive. I have one pair of "good" shoes, never wear a tie, and haven’t worn a suit for about three decades. We should totally reject any notion of fashion. (This does not stop anyone from making or buying their own unique clothing if they want to.)

Old and outgrown items should be recycled, sold via second hand shops or given away. Clothes making and repairing should be much enjoyed hobbies. A few small local firms might mass produce some basic clothing items, mostly from locally grown fibres, and some basic footwear. Much footwear can be made at home via hobby production, especially slippers and sandals.

Hardware, tools, etc.

Small regional factories would mass produce many basic items for use in households and home workshops, such as nails, bolts, buckles, hacksaw blades, needles. Hand tools are sufficient for most purposes, but a small amount of powered tools would be produced. Neighbourhood workshops would have drill presses and lathes for anyone to use.

Steel would probably best be produced by centralised mills supplying via railways to many small local outlets. Most steel would be in the form of small strip, tube and angle, and roofing iron, rather than large girders or plate etc, because most production would be at the home workshop and small local firm level, not the gigantic level of ships and skyscrapers.

Remember that we are talking about a stable situation, in which there is only maintenance and replacement, not any increase in the housing, office or factory stock. In other words most of the present construction industry would not exist and most of the building that was needed could be carried out by hand tools (…because this is more enjoyable.)

Craft industries

Most items would be produced in households, neighbourhood workshops and small local firms, and most would be produced in craft ways, not via industrial factories. Crockery is a good example. It should all be produced by hand in your suburb or town, from local clay, fired by wood grown there, and made by people who love making pottery. How many new plates do you need each year,

to replace those broken? Again when we recognise that we are talking about a stable population and economy we realise that much of our present production is aimed at increasing stocks and consumption (e.g., the construction industry), so in a stable society relatively small volumes of replacement production would suffice. Many things will be made at home, including much furniture, clothing and food. Note that on average people will not need to go out to work for money more than two days a week, so there will be much time for interesting and productive home and neighbourhood activity.


Small regional factories would produce bicycles, glass, roof tiles (clay, wood fired kilns), radio sets, some containers (although baskets would by made at the neighbourhood level from rushes, willows and vines), tools, brushes, paint (from vegetable and fish oils, milk, lime, earthern colours), beverages (fruit wines, beers and ciders), string and rope from yuccas and sisal, etc. and basic appliances such as stoves and fridges. These would be made to last and to be repaired. Relatively little use would be made of plastic or metals. There would be intensive recycling, and items would be made to last, and to be repaired. Very little would be imported into the region, let alone the nation.

Much attention would go into developing excellent designs for all things, especially designs that would last, be repairable and save resources. Much research would go into studying the effectiveness of designs in use and improvements would be cumulative. (At present new products often fail to benefit from experience with older models.)

It would still make sense to have a few large scale factories mass producing some items, such as steel, footwear, hardware, machine tools, cutlery and vehicles.


All water would be harvested locally or nearby, from rooftops and well-cared for catchments and creeks. There would be maximum recycling and reuse. There would therefore be little need for dams, mains, large pumping stations… or bureaucrats. Composting toilets would cut water use and enable nutrients to be returned to local soils. Garbage gas units would also return nutrients to gardens while producing gas for use. Settlements would be landscaped to retain rainfall via earthern bunds and swales, eliminating all need for concrete sewer and stormwater drains and sewage pipes.


In the first place we would need much less energy because we would be living more simply, in solar passive mud brick houses, recycling, getting to work on a bike, and with close access to local sport, cultural and leisure facilities, and we would buy little that was imported. The total volume of production and consumption would be far less than it is now.

Almost all energy could be produced locally, from windmills, watermills, garbage gas digesters, solar panels, and biomass sources of fuel and ethanol for vehicles. (Few vehicles would be needed; se below.) Horses, mainly used for ploughing and hauling, would also provide some recreational and routine transport functions, in a society where the pace was much more relaxed.

High quality solar passive design for earth-made buildings would eliminate most of the energy presently needed for heating and cooling. Stirling heat engines would be the main power sources, driven by solar reflectors or wood fuel.

Photovoltaic cells, and small regional power stations burning wood or using small scale hydropower, would supply some mains power. Extensive forests would surround our settlements, providing some energy, including liquid fuels for transport. Candles and lanterns using bees wax and vegetable oils would meet many lighting needs. (Candles are remarkably good light sources when backed by parabolic reflectors made from broken mirror.)


All housing would be made from earth, stone and timber, locally produced. Cooking would mostly be via wood and biogas. Floors would be from earth, hardened by linseed oil and wax, or timber. Some roofing would be earth (sod) over timber supports, or domes and vaults from mud bricks, surfaced by thin layer of cement etc. Most roofing would be ceramic tiles made from local clay and wood fuelled kilns. People would have much more time for home-making, and therefore for cooking with wood, and a more vegetarian diet would reduce cooking somewhat. Research would go into the production of durable sealers and paints from plant sources.


Most work would be local, varied, interesting, worthwhile, and obviously beneficial to one’s community. The present vast amount of production of useless, wasteful, trivial, non-durable, luxurious etc items would have been eliminated, meaning that far less production would be needed. (At present we work at least two times too hard.!) Much of the necessary reduction could be transferred to households and craft industries, making work much more interesting and worthwhile.

Thus we would only need to work one or two days a week for money, because we would not need to buy many things. One could be a valuable contributor to one’s community without much "education" and there would be much that less able people could do. Mentally disadvantaged people can do many valuable jobs such as feeding animals. However many skills would be important and educational institutions would continue to develop these. One’s life prospects would depend greatly on whether one could contribute to life in a well organised local economy, not on one’s educational credentials. Thus the present scramble for educational credentials would be eliminated. (See Education: Outline of a Radically Critical View.)

Transport and travel

There would be little need for transport to get people to work, because most work places would be localised and accessible by bicycle or on foot. Large factories would be close to railway stations.

Neighbourhoods would be extremely leisure-rich, containing many little farms, forests, ponds, factories, windmills, craft producers, drama clubs libraries, neighbourhood workshops and centres… as well as leisure facilities. Therefore we would want to travel for holidays and vacations much less than we do now (because we live in suburbs that are leisure-deserts.)

A few cars, trucks and bulldozers would be needed. The vehicles in mass use would be bicycles, and trains. Most roads and freeways would be dug up, the space used for gardens, and the concrete recycled as building stone. Railway vehicle production would be one of the few activities to take place in large centralised factories.

Very few large trucks or aircraft would be produced but there would be little need for the transport of goods or people over long distances. There would be little international travel, partly because the fuel for that would be extremely scarce, and secondly because there would be relatively little need for it. We might

ration international travel primarily for educational and cultural exchange purposes, so that you might get one overseas trip in a lifetime. However we could bring back wind ships; you could study for your degree while on a trip around the world! Note that in your new enriched nieghbourhoods and regions there will be many interesting things to do or observe, so there will at least be much less desire to travel. Electronic sources of information andentertainment could be even more elaborate than they are now, enabling much leisure experience without travel.


A present large amounts of food and energy are devoured by pets, most of which are not only rather useless but are ecologically damaging, (e.g., cats kill wildlife), and devour large quantities of food that humans could have eaten. In our new neighbourhoods there will be many useful animals that can be pets, but there will be few cats and dogs.

Health and medicine

Health and medical services could also be highly localised, with a few centralised teaching hospitals. However the entire focus would change to the promotion of health from the cure of illness. To begin with, most people would be much healthier than they are now due to the healthier, more labour-intensive lifestyles, the high quality food, the security, the elimination of much stress, the experience of community and the sense purpose and worthwhile contribution.

Obviously essential health provision must be conducted primarily as a public service, paid for generously by taxation. It should not be a profit making operation (although many elements within the overall health system might be left to private enterprise.)

Media and communications

These too should be largely localised, i.e., providing important local information, facilitating discussion of local issues, while relaying national and international news and information from more centralised sources. Use of paper would be cut dramatically, replaced by electronic sources. Many people could work providing entertainment, arts, documentaries, reports, etc., whereas at present global corporations send a relatively few programs worldwide, employing fewer people.

A place for high tech and centralised things

It will always be necessary to import some few items from far away. The goal is not complete local self sufficiency. For example some high-tech medical equipment might have to be imported from overseas. Stoves and fridges would be made in regional factories, and then imported into neighbourhoods.

The Simpler Way is not opposed to sophisticated technology but technical advance is relatively unimportant. It makes sense to develop more effective ways of producing more durable etc goods etc., but it is a serious mistake to assume that technical advance is important in solving our problems and enabling a better society. We do not need better technology for this; we need to change to sensible values and ways! We could easily build an ideal society on little more than the technologies we had 50 years ago.

The problems?

Leather is an item that might be needed in rather large quantities, to replace much plastic. Sources of some materials and chemical such as rubber for bicycle tyres might be a problem, although intensive research would go into finding local plant sources for synthetic materials.

We could not eat so many foods out of their harvest season. For example strawberries would only be available in spring. (Many fruits and vegetables would be bottled or dried.) Some familiar foods would not be available at all, e.g., bananas would not be transported to cold regions. However there are many presently unfamiliar but excellent fruits that will grow in your region and these should be researched and developed.

However the main problems are to do with the huge change in world view, in "standards" and expectations that the above ways would require. At present most people simply would not want to do things in The Simpler Way, and would see it as a highly unattractive retreat to peasant and primitive tribal life. They want vinyl and duco, and $400,000 houses, and holidays in Hawaii, and new, fashionable clothes, and food in packages and slick, glitzy entertainment, and big prestigious and expensive cars. This obsession with affluence will defeat us unless we can get them to see that The Simpler Way can yield a far higher quality of life than the superficial consumer way.


As many people living in intentional communities and ecovillages know, it is possible to have an idyllic life on very low levels of monetary income, non-renewable resource use, and dependence on the normal and international economy. My personal expenses are well under the poverty line, yet if I had around me the sort of local economy indicated above they could be cut much further. What would I need to buy, and what things would need to be transported to me via supermarkets. Certainly little or no food, clothing, leisure, energy, water…)

I know The Simpler Way is possible and preferable, because it’s the way I live. The clothes I’m wearing are scruffy, old and repaired, but they are perfectly adequate. My garden rake has a handle made from a sapling, and it is perfectly functional. It is more interesting, durable…and virtuous than a bought handle. I made the rocking chair out of firewood, and it is just great. I made the slippers I have on. I do crafts rather than watch TV, because they are more enjoyable. My house is made from scrap World War II army materials, would probably be valued at 1/10 a normal Sydney house, and seems just about perfect to me. We have to get homo consumerensis to grasp that having expensive things simply isn’t important, and that one can have a very comfortable and enjoyable lifestyle based on frugality, self-sufficiency, community and non-material purposes.

If we lived in the ways indicated we might cut the present rich world consumption of non-renewable resources and ecological impact to around 2% of their present rates. There would be little transport and travel, packaging, advertising, construction or fashion change. Whole industries would have been phased out, including fertilizer production, pesticides and tourism. The need for many others would be dramatically reduced, including leisure and entertainment, vehicle production, cold storage, shipping and air transport, insurance, legal services. Consider the vast amount of "productive" effort going into competition between firms for the same limited market, and the associated bankruptcies and waste, for example when a new supermarket puts many little firms out of business. There would be far less need for the many industries which presently work at fixing the damage caused by this society, including prisons, mental institutions, counselling, drug and alcohol abuse services, and welfare in general. There would be far less need for professional and institutional aged care, youth services, health and education.

What is difficult to get across here is the fact that The Simpler Way is much more satisfying than the consumer way. It is not a deprived and difficult way we must adopt in order to save the planet. It is about much more enjoyable life experience than comes from buying expensive things and having to work hard in insecure circumstances chasing a high income. People within The Simpler Way know that there can be great satisfaction from living "frugally". This word is to do with being fruitful and productive by making maximum use of relatively few resources. It is illustrated well for me by the satisfaction that comes from collecting bits of firewood that I will enjoy using later on a winter night. This is not something I do with a sense of deprivation, or reluctant work. It is something I do because it brings a number of desirable effects, especially a sense of self-sufficiency, of being able to provide from one’s own resources, running a good household, "husbanding" scarce things, not wasting, being in control of one’s own situation, getting the most out of your resources, and avoiding consuming commercial energy.

One major reason why the average quality of life would be far higher than it is now, is because we would only need to work about a third as much as we do now for money. Although much of the rest of our time would be spent in productive activity this would be enjoyable because it would include gardening, craft production and communal contributions in the large non-monetary sector of the local economy. We would be very secure, from unemployment, isolation, violence, and indeed from war because at present a major cause of international conflict is simply the need to take more than one’s fair share of the existing resources. We would have satisfying work, a sense of inclusion within a supportive community, a sense of making a worthwhile contribution no matter how humble our abilities were. There would surely be far fewer people who found their lives to be meaningless and purposeless. We would have time to devote to personal growth and community enrichment. Above all we would have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that we are no longer living in ways that generate global problems, and the satisfaction that comes from living in a just and admirable society, not one that is viciously unjust, highly irrational and ecologically self-destructive.