Is 'overconsumption' behind the environmental crisis?

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Book Review. ‘Treading Softly’ is important book , but it fails to understand the structural problems of capitalism that have brought us to economic and ecological crisis

Thomas Princen. Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010.

Reviewed by Elaine Graham-Leigh
from Counterfire

Thomas Princen is a major proponent of the ‘sufficiency strategy’ strand of green thinking – the idea that dealing with climate change requires us all to reduce our consumption of food, consumer goods, travel, and so on, to a minimal level – and is the author of several other books arguing that our environmental problems are at base problems of overconsumption.

Princen’s argument, in line with the sufficiency strategy, is that we are not ‘living within our means’, and that the economic crisis is further evidence of this fact. He says that ecology, economy, energy and ethics are all now pointing to the conclusion that we are exceeding our resources. Thus the economic crisis reflects and is part of the wider environmental crisis: both are caused by unchecked consumption, and both underline how the system has to be changed.

Although the focus here is on consumption, Princen manages to avoid attributing it to individual greed and irresponsibility. There is a worthwhile discussion here of how claims that consumer choice drives production are used to justify the worst excesses of capitalism. It is indeed often argued against green campaigns that people must want more and more consumer goods, as if capitalism did not have to devote enormous energy to persuade consumers to buy what it had already decided to produce. However, that we need fundamental changes to the system is something of a given. The real questions are what we might replace the system with, and how we might get there, and on these, Princen is much less sympathetic.

I’ll be up front here: stylistically, this is not an easy book to read. Writing on climate change can tend towards the whimsical, and there are sections of this work which I found difficult to get through without wincing. My advice for anyone planning to read through the debate between ‘Utilitarius’ and ‘Sufficiencius’ (pp.136-153): just… don’t. However, for all its folksiness, it does represent an important strand of green thinking taking on the economic crisis.

Princen’s model of ‘ecological order’ turns out to be what he calls the ‘home’ or ‘producer’ economy: a model where households are largely self-sufficient and live within what they can produce, or what can be produced in the small communities of which they would be a part. The watchwords of this society would be ‘prudence’ and ‘thrift’, along with an acceptance of natural limits to individual lifestyles.

His example is an anecdote about how his family eschew a tumble dryer, but wait until the weather is good enough to hang their clothes on the line outside. Similarly, he argues, the problem of intermittency of renewable electricity generation could be dealt with by simply accepting that sometimes we won’t have power, up to and including going to bed when it gets dark. The model for this economy is the small town and rural societies of nineteenth-century America, and it isn’t clearly explained how it could be applied to the twenty-first century. The only modern example of these sorts of principles in action is a story about Princen’s local time bank.

The lack of a clear explanation of how this ‘producer economy’ could work is probably deliberate. Princen explains that he isn’t trying to set out anything as straightforward as a call to action or a theory of how to create his new society. Rather, the idea is to give the reader a ‘positive, realistic, grounded sense of the possible’, and concepts and tools to apply to ‘full range of citizen action’ from work to organising (p.18).

Accordingly, the discussion ranges from how to argue with proponents of economic growth, to appropriate metaphors for the environment, to a lengthy discussion of different worldviews, and how aspects of the financial worldview could be applied to the environment. What this latter means in practice is again unexplored, beyond the point that maxims like ‘spend within one’s means’ and ‘diversify the portfolio’ (p.170) could be applied to thinking about keeping consumption within the limits of what is necessary for sufficiency.

It’s also difficult to avoid the thought that, given the economic crisis which provides a frame for this book, this view of the financial worldview as essentially prudent and thrifty seems unjustifiably charitable. The behaviour of bankers in the US and the UK could be seen to be demonstrating very different maxims from those which Princen thinks are typical.

There is a lot of discussion of various green principles here, but the attempt to create a realistic sense of the possible largely fails. Princen here appears as the Arne Naess, deep ecology model of the environmental writer, who maintains the connection with nature. Naess climbed mountains and spent much of his time living in a remote cabin; Princen relates how he does woodworking and made his own desk out of an elm tree which his university cut down to make way for a new footpath.

While Princen avoids making direct prescriptions, we are clearly meant to take this as example of how to live well. The obvious response is that this celebration of the beneficial effects of physical space and time is all very well, but relies on time and resources which most people’s lives simply do not allow. Princen is clearly writing from a position of comparative financial and time privilege of which he appears unaware.

The sections on work are the most worrying from the perspective of a socialist view of climate change, as a result of this inability to consider class. Like Naess, Princen clearly sees work connected to primary production (fishing, farming, woodcutting) as key to well-being, as, he says, are other types of ‘purposeful’, ‘self-directed’ work (p.131). This insight seems to betray an assumption that people only do unsatisfying, unconnected jobs because they have chosen to, rather than that some of us have to take the work we can get.

A hint that the world of work in Princen’s home economy might not save us from dead-end, low paid jobs is contained in his sinister little aside that ‘Some are meant to be poets, others road sweepers’ (p.122). Who ‘means’ us for a lifetime of menial work is unstated, although Princen in a later section does betray an unfortunate enthusiasm for evolutionary psychology, a discipline of which the effective message is that we are ‘meant’ to be in our place.

Despite these hints of a distinctly unegalitarian argument trying to get out, it would be unfair to brand this as a solely right-wing text. The main thrust of the book is towards a fairer society which would provide everyone with a better life (within a given definition of ‘better’). When he extols the virtues of nineteenth-century US small towns, it seems genuinely not to have occurred to Princen that his paradise of the petty bourgeoisie was not attainable for everyone.

The most serious difficulties arise from the way in which the argument remains stuck within the overconsumption school of thought about climate change. This imposes limits on Princen’s thinking of which he may not have been aware, but which but which prevent him from seeing the real connections between climate change and the economic crisis.

There clearly can be a tension between the overconsumption arguments and campaigns against cuts or for jobs. If you argue against the cuts from an environmental perspective, you get used to hearing the counter-argument that because we have been ‘living beyond our means’, cut backs are the only sustainable way forward. Princen is obviously not happy with the position that we all just have to sacrifice, but is unable to find a way out of it except to explain how ‘positive sacrifices’ feel so much better than negative ones, and if we would just embrace them, we wouldn’t realise we were sacrificing at all.

What is lacking here is the understanding of how the structural problems of capitalism have brought us to this economic and ecological pass, and how these are now the reason why we are facing massive cuts to public spending as a result of the bailout of the banks. Campaigning against the cuts from a green perspective is not campaigning for more damaging growth, but recognising that resistance to the cuts is resistance to the causes of climate change as well.

Princen has taken the first step towards this understanding with his demolition of the notion that consumption drives production. It is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this important but annoying book that his inability to see class means that he could not tread (softly or otherwise) further along this path.


  • While William Rees’ name is on the Carrying Capacity Network’s Advisory Board, he tells me he hasn’t had any contact or relationship with them for years. Given this, and what he has published publicly, it might not be accurate to say that he “engages in right-wing extremist public advocacy”.

    • Bob — It’s good to hear that William Rees isn’t actively involved with Carrying Capacity Network. If you are speaking to him, please encourage him to publicly disassociate himself from CCN and have his name removed from the group’s website and materials. As it stands he is lending credibility to a group that really is engaged in “right-wing extremist public advocacy.”

      However, I am more concerned about the fact that his published views are not unlike CCN’s. I refer you, for example, to “Globalization, trade and migration: Undermining sustainability,” published in the journal Ecological Economics in April 2006. In it, he argues for restricting immigration, on the grounds that immigrants will harm the environment in rich countries, and because the money immigrants send home will “contribute to net resource depletion and pollution, both local and global,” and “short-circuit negative feedback from the local environment that might otherwise lead to domestic policies that would moderate population growth and ecological decay.” In other words, keep them out and keep them poor.

      He also argues that immigration increases the danger of “tribal strife,” citing the rebellions of Muslim immigrants in France and Australia in 2005 as examples. This he attributes to the “near universal human tendency to identify more with like than with dissimilar individuals” — a phrase I can only interpret as a euphemistic way of saying that human beings are inherently racist. He says that multi-racial or multi-cultural countries will be less able to ensure ecological sustainability than racially or culturally homogenous ones.

      Rees may not be actively supporting right-wing causes, but I find it hard see much difference between the policies he favors and those espoused by Garrett Hardin as “lifeboat ethics” or Virginia Abernathy as “ethnic separatism.”

  • (Just to be clear: I’m referring to William Rees, referred to by the previous commenter.)

  • There are lots of scientists out there, but I prefer not to get my information on ecological matters from a scientist who also engages in right-wing extremist public advocacy, notably in his role with the Carrying Capacity Network, a racist organization committed to what it calls “National Revitalization attained through fostering education, family, community self-reliance, tradition, and national unity.”

  • UBC Biology/Ecology Professor William Rees offers a provocative alternative to the “structural problems of capitalism” as an explanation of what has brought us to this “economic and ecological crisis”.

    In his April 15, 2010 address to a World Federalists’ Meeting in Vancouver, Rees builds a compelling, evidence-based case to support his startling conclusion that “humanity is inherently unsustainable.”

    I urge anyone interested in this issue to watch Rees’ presentation on You Tube, which, unfortunately, has broken it into twelve 9- to 10- minute segments. Part 1 is available here: From this starting point you can easily find links to the other parts.

    Alternatively, you can read my 13-part transcript of selected excerpts of his address on my blog, Citizen Action Monitor. Part 1, which is a summary overview of his address, is accessible here The other 12 parts follow in sequence.