Published in revised form as
Batterbury, S.P.J. 1997. Review article. The conserver society: alternatives for sustainability. Democracy & Nature: A Journal of Political Ecology 9: 212-222.
This version – www.simonbatterbury.net
Conserver Values, Simple Living, and Radical Environmentalism
Extended commentary on Ted Trainer, The Conserver Society: Alternatives for Sustainability. (London: Zed Press, 1995). $19.95/Ł14.95 (paper)
This article offers an extended review of the ideas and practicalities of the ‘Conserver Society’. The term is used by Ted Trainer in his latest book and in his well–known statements about affluence, development, and environmentalism. It describes a set of values and ecological goals which show some sympathy with those of social ecologists, but differs in its view of how a desirable, ecologically responsible and fulfilling society might develop. In his latest text, Trainerhas taken the opportunity to summarize the important practicalities and problems involved in living out and maintaining conserver values.
As Anthony Giddens has recently suggested, the alternative ecological movement is unlikely to be taken seriously as a real alternative to mainstream politics unless it can appeal to the majority of western consumers by moving beyond glib statements of nightmare futures and ecological destruction. Too often, doom–laden economics and Malthusian predictions deaden public appreciation of real environmental problems and risks, relegating these to problematic outcomes of economic development and consumerism. The majority ignore these sorts of messages. This important book charts a different course, by proposing appealing and workable solutions to the predicament of global crisis under advanced forms of capitalist development. For Trainer a liveable and environmentally sensitive future is entirely possible, if based on a radical alternative society consisting of low–impact and sensitive conserver lifestyles. Most of the book, bar the opening summary section, concerns itself with the practicalities of how this conserver society may be brought about, particularly in small towns and suburbs where large numbers of people live and work.
Trainer, an Australian environmentalist and philosopher at the University of New South Wales, is uncompromising in his assertion that The present consumer way of life we take for granted in rich countries is totally unsustainable” (p2). Echoing the central message of his Abandon Affluence he embraces ecocentric views, which necessarily involve a commitment to a simpler (but still diverse) lifestyle. Trainer does take time to explore the key dimensions of the environmental crisis. He wishes to expose what DeWalt calls the “tilt towards gratification” in Western lifestyles: rampant consumerism, as well as unsustainable economic growth, and unworkable geographies. Growth, and social values which crave it (the profit motive, materialism and the enterprise culture), lie at the very heart of global inequality and environmental problems. The rich nations are existing on per capita levels of resource consumption which cannot continue, and are exporting an ideology of economic growth to developing nations. This merely exacerbates poverty, spatial inequalities and resource depletion.
As proponents of zero–growth economics have argued, the South will never be able to attain western levels of industrialization and living standards, since environmental resources are finite and insufficient to allow affluence for all. The motto of a more just and humane society must be “the rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live” Faced with this situation, what should the response be? For those in developed countries, a key point of debate must be the design and operation of our towns and cities. Trainer suggests major changes towards greener and sustainable forms of urban living. Some of these will already be familiar. For example, we need to install community allotments. Ponds and food gardens could replace much unproductive parkland, lawns and derelict sites in our urban spaces. Trainer is a fan of zero input, high yield permaculture systems where climates permit (p29), tailored by local populations to their particular soil and water regimes and requiring low labor inputs. Cheap and durable housing, which recycles all wastes for energy and fertilizer (p38), may be built cheaply using mud brick, recycled materials, and renewable energy sources wherever possible. Yet there are intractable problems in the development of sustainable communities of this type where existing urban areas suffer decaying infrastructure, poor design, low levels of homeownership and insecure tenure, and where transport and pollution problems are advanced. Ecological planning is unlikely to start with a clean slate. It is not clear from the book how blocks of inner city apartments could be made self–sufficient in water, electricity and sewerage in the ways Trainer suggests for totally new self–built housing projects and eco–villages. Dense existing settlements may have to retain ‘interim’ non–sustainable systems such as local small power stations, and rely heavily on small allotments and roof–spaces for limited food supply.
Nonetheless, these are important issues that must concern urban planners and ecologists. In chapters 6–9, Trainer sets out his agenda for the reorganization of economic activities under conserver principles. Here are a set of ideas, dogmatic at times, which bring us to the notion of de–centered and endogenous economic development. Through more sharing and more care, simpler but adequate living standard may be maintained by all citizens. Re–directing our affluent tastes to more modest ones would do away with “useless luxury items such as sports cars, speedboats and electric door chimes” (p52), and divert our desires for expensive imported goods and holiday travel to escape from our bleak surroundings by creating “leisure–rich environments “ on our own doorsteps (p53).
Trainer is keen to stress
that a conserver lifestyle does not mean shortages, or going without basic
necessities. Yet his real project is the development of many small, highly
self–sufficient settlements, and villageized suburbs drawing most of the goods
and services they need from close by, thus cutting processing and distribution
costs. Settlements would, wherever possible, organise their own hospitals,
schooling, health care and other services (p189). Derelict land and a
percentage of road networks and parking space should be converted in to an “edible
landscape” of gardens, woodlots and ponds. Ideally suburban neighbourhoods,
comprising perhaps fifteen to twenty–five dwellings at most, would be clustered
around a larger suburban centre with good public transport facilities. In rural
areas the small town would provide the community focus. The land between
settlements would be devoted to agriculture, and the transport system itself
restructured to reflect lower vehicle use and better bicycle provision. City
centres would remain the preserve of major cultural venues, universities,
courts and essential higher–level services.
A “completely cooperative and rational economy” (p92) must accompany
such sweeping changes to regional geographies, and these are covered briefly in
chapter 8. He makes the argument that "capitalist modes necessarily
produce spatial inequalities”. Economic growth is a “deeply entrenched myth”
(p77), and reliance on the market sidelines issues of human need and
Of course a move to the alternative: a low or zero–growth economy, freed from the “trap of producing and consuming”, would initially be painful, and we lack real–world examples of how such a transition may realistically be carried out. Ingenious economic buffers would be needed to protect the participants of the alternative, sustainable economy against the predations of capitalist market forces. Prices, for example, would probably rise for goods produced locally and in smaller quantities. However local production, in smaller factories and enterprises, would accompany “simple but sufficient living standards, far less production, local self–sufficiency, cooperation...and a ...restricted cash sector” (p80), offering an alternative set of transactional" "relationships and incentives to producers and consumers. Trainer talks of local control of the means of production as essential to protect neighbourhoods and shaky, new conserver values from the shock of plant closures, the nefarious actions of multinational corporations, and the damaging effects of global restructuring such as the mobility of key employers and capital and" "the withdrawal of profits to distant sites. De–linking from world markets, as John Friedmann suggested, can lead to healthy local alternative economic systems arising through necessity and through choice. Local Economic Trading Systems (LETS), local currencies and banking, and the exchange of basic foodstuffs for labor are all strategies to which neighbourhoods may turn.
The removal of the need to earn a sufficient and rising cash income in localities where these alternatives exist would, Trainer feels, improve the quality of life for citizens by reducing the hours spent in earning money. Indeed many alternative communities already perform essential tasks like house–building through entirely cooperative effort, not through payments to craftsmen and laborers (p152). Technological change and innovation would not disappear where "commercial interests are de–emphasised, but would emerge from a real need for innovations, as well as from simple curiosity and experimentation – not through the entrepreneurial drive towards attaining higher profits. Of course, it is recognized that larger firms would be needed to produce essential items such as pharmaceuticals, complex machinery and heavy engineering; these would be centrally located although much more closely tied to the forces of demand than to profit motivation. The implications of these extensive changes are dealt with in a third section (chapters 11–16). A short chapter is devoted to the values underlying the conserver ideal. Trainer is hopeful of the growing interest in communal and conserver ideals, driven by dissatisfaction and, perhaps, by economic necessity (p153). Yet I worry that his hope may be unrealistic for social classes or individuals presently denied the luxury of reflecting deeply on environmental concerns, or trapped financially by the rat–race.
Trainer admits the changes will be gradual. Sharing, "cooperation, friendliness and giving would be rewarded and encouraged while individual advancement and competition would be channelled into more productive pursuits (p134).Concurring with ecofeminist thinkers, he sees a need for these conserver ideals to arise out of caring, nurture and friendship; traits now poorly emphasised in schools, the media, and advertising. Furthermore, full participation in the daily running of alternative settlements would require an active, fulfilling lifestyle and a variety of practical and organizational skills. These are ideas which have also been developed by Giddens and Pahl, who have exposed the anxieties and disillusionment which accompany the drive for success and advancement so pervasive in modern life. Still, one is forced to wonder what will become of individuality, perversity, the desire tostruggle, and stubbornness which can also serve us well when faced with adversity and hardship. How would these characteristics be channeled, if faced with an advancing wave of well–behaved conserver citizens? Pepper cautions us against the dangers of incipient authoritarianism in the green movement more generally, and it is important that his concerns are heeded. Could a local community contain everybody, and would we be in danger of supressing the non–conformists – particularly those of opposing views?
Teachers and educators,
especially those with environmental credentials, are directed to chapter16
where Trainer blows out of the water the drudgery and performance–driven
systems operating in most schools and colleges. Trainer argues that much
education could be drawn back into local neighbourhoods and settlements,
reserving higher level institutes for specialised instruction as required.
Learning would be undertaken in order to make socially useful contributions to
the community, not to obtain educational credentials needed for material
success and which require years of boring and largely irrelevant coursework.
The community itself, and its people, would be a major educational resource.
The point could have been made that we already have "many examples on
which to draw of sound educational strategies; not least in the South. 
Part three of the book
provides current examples of some existing conserver settlements and
communities, in an effort to illustrate that alternative ways of living are not
simply utopian pipedreams or the faded memories of sixties lifestyle
experiments. Critics of ecological anarchism take note; it already exists! The
places discussed include a communal farm near
€"to provide practical examples
If anything, more space in the book could have been devoted to the
problems faced by these
communities; the hardships of the kibbutz movement, and its critics, are
glossed over to some extent. Trainer’s own property in the
In concluding, Trainer
issues a rallying cry to educators and campaigners to rethink their work and
the ways in which messages are put across. Not a fan of violent campaigns or
direct confrontation, he urges that the benefits of conserver ways are raised
in the classroom, in everyday conversation, through the media, and in sympathetic
initiatives at all scales from the" "neighborhood
to national policy. These could include creating living displays, (such as
those of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, at New Alchemy in
Massachusetts, or on Trainer’s own property in Sydney), and promoting
alternative events, courses and tours which illustrate the workability of a
modal shift in values and social organization. Enthusiastic and committed
individuals can begin planning now€ for the future implementation of conserver
ideals in their communities.
Pepper (1996, op.cit.) calls this a form of liberal anarchism, which ‘prefigures’ the desired society by thinking and enacting it in the here and nowÓ (p305), rather than awaiting for the right conditions for ecological society to emerge at some point in the future. In the current economic climate, there are severe risks of these initiatives being stifled (p319). Despite the obvious problems with this approach, readers should heed Trainer’s message that our basic task is to sow the seeds, the ideas and understandings and values, from which a sustainable society can grow “whenever the opportunity for that arises”(p220). Nonetheless, the championing of ecological, feminist and justice movements –particularly in the South – receive scant mention. While they lie outside Trainer’s remit here, the struggle for democracy and reform must surely goes on, and this is where Trainer parts company with the confederal municipalism championed by Boochkin and Fotopoulos.
Environmental thought has emerged in part as a reaction to modern life
but Trainer follows Lipietz and many other writers in offering a strong challenge against€ the market ethos and consumerism. But acceptance of his argument hinges on whether the tools and methods of the conserver society will be powerful enough to overcome its opponents. At the present time, it is too early to say, since his case is still unproven given the youth of the movement he hopes to build. There are niggling doubts about the workability of some of his ideas, and many greens would suggest that to ‘prefigure’ the lifestyle changes he proposes will take more than gentle persuasion. Yet, importantly, he shows that real examples of ecological living are already up and running for anybody who takes the time to see, and this is something that a small but growing green movement can easily overlook. Another important message to emerge is that many of the issues being raised in Agenda 21 and other international environmental initiatives are simply palliative measures which bow to the inevitability of regional development, skewed economic growth, and mobile, profit–seeking multinational firms. These initiatives minimize the environmental and social impacts of economic activity, despite their fine rhetoric
But if there really are limits to the lifestyles most of us enjoy in the West (and I think there are), Trainer is correct, I think, to stress the dissemination of clear messages as one€ starting–point to initiate a shift in values. Education is only a beginning, but a vital one. Visible actions such as major and long lasting lifestyle changes, are equally vital. Without them, even the socially committed amongst us will continue to preach, without engaging personally. For as Trainer points out “It is not that we grab in a consciously greedy way, but that by insisting on a normal nice house and car we are subscribing to standards that we can achieve only if we take far more resources than all could have.” (p137). Fortunately, more and more people are now rejecting those standards and beginning to live more simply. Some Greens are still unable to take on this degree of personal commitment, and may define struggle and campaigning as their prime motivation. But there is no reason that the practicalities of Trainer’s vision should be sidelined while we wait for change, and fight our battles. We know that economic forces are frustrating change, and that democracy is slow incoming. But let us all agree that consumer values, and ignorance of their effects, hold back the sorts of radical (and perhaps inevitable) changes proposed in this book.
A. 1994. Beyond Left and Right: Self & Society in the Modern Age€.
 DeWalt, B. R. 1988. The Cultural Ecology of Development: Ten Precepts for Survival. Agriculture & Human Values, 5(1+2):112–123. (p114),
 Daly, H.
1992. Steady–State Economics. Second Edition.
Trainer, T. 1995.Towards a Sustainable Economy.
Friedmann, J. 1992. Empowerment: The Politics of Alternative Development€.
 Pepper, D. 1996. Modern Environmentalism: an
 Pahl, R.
1995. After Success: Fin–de–SiŹ/cle Anxiety and Identity.
 Norberg–Hodge, H. 1991. Ancient Futures: Learning from
 See the Dialogue on Socialism and Ecology between James O’Connor and Takis Fotopoulos (Society & Nature 1993,6, 176–214).
 See Trainer, 1995. Towards a Sustainable Economy, and Trainer, 1995. What is Development?. Society & Nature 7 pp26–56.
 Boochkin, M. 1992. The Meaning of Confederalism. Society & Nature 3, 41–54. Foutopoulos T. 1992. The Ecological Foundations of an Economic Society. Society & Nature 3,1–40.
 Giddens 1994, op cit.,
 Lipietz, A. 1995. Green Hopes: The Future of Political