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Michael Green

May 27, 2012

Illustration: Robin Cowcher.Illustration: Robin Cowcher.

Reducing our impact requires more than efficiency alone.

In 1940, Dr Ted Trainer’s father bought a bush block 20 kilometres south-east of central Sydney, and called it Pigface Point. Dr Trainer and his family still live there and, by choice, their way of life has changed little.

The skills popularly associated with wartime austerity – darning, patching, fixing and vegie growing – remain prized at Pigface Point. Just four solar panels provide enough power for six residents living in the main house and a caretaker’s cottage.

Dr Trainer has built his own windmill and rigged up motors and pumps attached to the 12-volt electricity supply. ”I like to talk about my lifestyle being that of a scruffy peasant. I almost never buy anything new. But there’s no sense of deprivation or hardship whatsoever,” he says .

”In consumer society we work three times too hard, for the sheer idiocy of producing all the junk we don’t need.”

Instead, he spends his time on his research and hobbies – among them, sculpture, model-making and painting.

Dr Trainer, a conjoint lecturer at University of New South Wales, is a sociologist and long-time environmental campaigner. His way of life is more than a matter of personal freedom. He argues that renewable energy alone won’t be sufficient to mitigate climate change and overcome resource scarcities.

”There’s overwhelming case now that our level of production and consumption is far beyond anything that’s remotely sustainable and it has to be dramatically reduced,” he says. ”Lifestyle changes of a kind that are to do with changing your showerhead fittings or buying a Prius are totally inadequate.”

In an essay on The Simpler Way website, ‘How cheaply could we live and still flourish?’, he outlines his rough calculations about the footprint of a society based on his kind of radically simple living.

Although he concedes that most people would prefer a life less austere, he believes the inhabitants of a thoughtfully designed town could enjoy their lot on less than one-tenth of today’s largesse.

”We have to move to systems that are mainly localised,” Dr Trainer says. ”I’m talking about big changes that will take a long time. Don’t worry, just start doing the things you can in your household – and more importantly, join in community initiatives – the common gardens, swap networks and skill banks.”

New Yorker writer David Owen shares some of Dr Trainer’s preoccupations. In his new book, The Conundrum, Owen challenges the notion that we can overcome environmental problems by way of more efficient technology.

For example, although modern artificial lighting is vastly more economical than candles, that doesn’t mean we use less energy on lighting. Rather, we’ve chosen to illuminate every corner of the night.

Likewise, he suggests, a truly green car might be one with no air conditioning or radio, uncushioned seats, a low top speed and terrible fuel efficiency. ”You’d be able to get your child to the emergency room,” he writes, ”but you’d … take public transportation to work.”

In other words, an eco-friendly vehicle is one that you don’t drive. For householders and policymakers, Owen’s argument is that frugality must come before efficiency.

”If we impose limits on our consumption of fossil fuels, advances in efficiency will enable us to live well with less damage; if we pursue efficiency alone, we will only make our problems worse,” he writes.



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