“To hell with the market” …. visit to my hero F.E. Trainer’s sustainable world

In 1990, at M.I.T’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, students were directed to two wings: domestic and international where we had separate literatures and planning paradigms. In the domestic curriculum we found few solutions to racism and poverty that did not involve new forms of exploitation and disenfranchisement. I became curious what they were reading on the other side of the wall. 

I don’t recall my exact route, but I remember finding a set of solutions in use by third and fourth world communities which I thought were relevant. These included “self-housing” and urban agriculture. The latter was one of the many topics discussed in F.E. Trainer’s article, “Reconstructing Radical Development Theory” published in Alternatives 14.4 in 1989. He envisioned urban life based on liveable villages, which grew food, made daily goods, and enjoyed a sense of community with minimal ecosystem impact. He was proposing sustainable development as a solution to the problems of urban poverty. Recall that the first Brundtland Report on Sustainable Development was published in 1987. Sustainable development was far from popular, and also far from being already coopted. Its technologies were already developed and practiced by followers of Permaculture, Schumacher, and Buckminster Fuller. Economists were certainly talking about the limits to growth. But these conversations did not have the urgency of climate change, nor did poverty itself yet face the crises of globalization.

In Ted’s words “at that time we felt we were lobbing these ideas out into this void and nothing was coming back.”

Moreover, the discourses about race and class in the USA had to be about the oppressed getting what the rich folks had. There was no space available to propose any limitations on consumption as part of liberation theories, nor was to be no talk of agriculture or manual labor. During the 1990s, Maria Mies bravely took on this same question with regard to feminist liberation, eventually publishing the results of her debates with feminists in The Subsistence Perspective (1999).

Thus my interests were not PC, indeed they were downright disrespectful, and I was shuffled off to the place good-hearted people go, “the academy”, out of the planning profession, which was in no way willing to think about the problems of capitalism or globalization.

Trainer’s work was a turning point for my understanding of what development could be. Sustainability, autonomy, and participatory democracy all went hand-in-hand with local production. This was to be an enduring interest. One which led the Marxists to call me naïve and anarchist.

Happily these ideas have now gained currency.

After living in Australia for a few years, it occurred to me that two of the academics I most admired were Australian. The other Katherine Graham is an economist who studies the non- or post-capitalist economic forms already in use, encouraging us to iterate them into a different economy (you can read my summary A Post-Capitalist Politics). I never imagined that both of them would be living near Sydney. When I finally met an Australian permaculturalist, Russ Grayson I asked if he had every heard of someone called “F.E. Trainer” and if this person was still alive. Russ said “Oh Ted’s farm is just outside of Sydney. I’ll arrange a visit.”

The farm was grasslands during Trainer’s youth able only to grow Pigface (hence the farm’s name, Pigface Point). He planted most of the trees which now provide a forest. It’s also part swamp, which invites the building of footbridges. He has organized the site to model village (or what he likes to call “suburb”) scale productivity.

Another layer of geography is educational. The “tour” follows an established route along educational paths, some showcasing technology, but most traveling through logics important to him. The first path has to do with the implications of rich-country consumption for the planet and the rest of the people. Others playfully scale the solar system and evolution. The sections that most delighted me were devoted to what Trainer calls “leisure”. One path travels through a series of pagodas while Trainer talks about the luxuries and pleasures of local culture in which people freed from wage labour can build beautiful things for one other. The tour ends in the two-level workshop, the ground floor full of tools and materials and the top floor full of Trainer’s paintings and sculptures.  The doorway is marked with two daily schedules, one calculating the use of time and production of a city worker commuting from the suburbs, the other calculating that of a resident of Trainer’s transformed suburb, who spends only a few hours of the day in nearby wage labor and the rest in self-production.

I appreciated Trainer’s logic. He started with the point that current suburban life is unsustainable, insecure, and at the cost of the planet and most people. Then he demonstrated that alternative technologies exist. And he ended by showing that both work and leisure with these systems would be “more interesting”. I believe that our politics must take pleasure into account, and Trainer’s own sense of aesthetics, commitment to art, and manifest creativity proves what so many theorists propose as the payoff of a simpler life.

I took soooo many pictures. (Quotes below.)

Trainer’s website.


Quotes from the tour

“You don’t need any suits to make eggs.”

“That house was built with no work at all, it was built for fun.”

“If 3000 people spent 10 hours a week, they could transform their neighborhood into beautiful, sustainable place in a matter of months.”

“Local leisure is more interesting”

“Simple living is not anti-high tech, just do things in the simplest possible way, to avoid massive waste.”

“Composting and growing carrots is a nice start, but we need to get rid of the growth economy, make the global economic system work to meet needs, and replace capitalism with a different economic system that works for people. Most Green people are stuck at the level of compost heaps, which don’t have a chance of saving us. We don’t want to be a society full of compost heaps heading for disaster. Growing carrots locally is just the first step to changing the economy.”

“Gadgets like water wheels and forges are interesting to look at and muck around with. They all enrich the neighborhood.”

“Transformation of suburbs is easy. We can save the planet with a few months work. The problem is not technical.”

“If you need less money you only need to work for money one day a week. Spend the time painting pictures and writing poetry.”

“Animals are a source of community pleasure.”

“Sheep are firemen: they take care of the firebreaks.”

“Australia needs to reestablish a country town economy. There are city people who would love to move to the country. Rebuild the rural, but not with export industries, but self-sufficient.”

“How much crockery do you break in a year? Not that much. Easy to supply with local craft.”

“We need savage discontent among people to change the economic system.”

“Build up the local economy, get towns organized to focus on and solve its own problems.”

“Convert firms to cooperatives.”

“Increase capacity to meet local needs with local resources, cooperatively, not with market forces.”

“Hopefully, as more crises come, people are going to realize that the system isn’t going to provide for them.”