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Fall 2010 | Volume 6 | Issue 2

Book Review Perspectives

Treading Softly: Paths to an Ecological Order
by Thomas Princen
MIT Press, 2010, 224pp, ISBN: 0262014173

Published online October 5, 2010

Anders Hayden
Political Science Department, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4H6 Canada (email:

Sparking the imagination. Creating images of a new world in which we “live well and well within our means.” Convincing us that a new normal is coming. Laying the groundwork for a new ecological order. These are among the ambitions of Thomas Princen’s Treading Softly.

This wide-ranging and engaging book is, in Princen’s words, a work of “normative theorizing”—an exercise in “what can be” and “what should be.” It is hopeful, but not sugar coated. Princen rejects gloom-and-doom scenarios as well as the seductive view that, with a little greening and better technologies, economic growth can continue indefinitely in dematerialized form. The latter idea is a “fantasy,” writes Princen, who adds that the book is not for those who think adequate solutions can be found through green buildings, fuel-efficient cars, new fuels, geo-engineering, or carbon capture and storage. The required changes will not be easy or convenient, he argues, and will even require some “positive sacrifice,” yet could still be rewarding.

One of Princen’s goals is to expose the “traffic control measures” that keep people on the current growth-based path—ideas such as we must “move forward,” “consumers rule,” and “technologies save.” Heightening awareness of the role such ideas play in blocking thought about alternatives is an important contribution of the book.

Economic growth is said to hinge on confidence. Princen encourages readers to see the growth economy as a confidence game or, alternatively, a house of cards. The system’s defenders point upward to each new level of cards, while Princen rightly directs attention to the bottom, where cards are being taken away to be added to the top. All signs point to the ecological foundations being unable to support ever-rising consumption levels.

But if people cut back their consumption, won’t they damage the economy? This question prevents many from imagining any alternative to a growth-based system. Princen turns the question on its head and asks how can we consume in a way that does not undermine the economy’s ecological foundations? To reframe the question is to put the burden of proof on the defenders of growth. It is to ask, “How much is enough?” Princen suggests that we can “consume, but only what renews, not the basis of renewal.” He notes that we can find similar ideas of sustainable practice in time-tested maxims such as “don’t eat the seed corn” and “spend the interest—not the principle.”

Principles matter greatly for Princen, who highlights the principles that underlie the existing economic order—efficiency, growth, consumers-rule, “out-of-sight-out-of-mind,” “bigger-faster-cheaper”—and finds them lacking. A new economy, he emphasizes, requires new foundational principles that embrace a notion of limits. These include: intermittency (“ecological services need not be continuous, let alone ever-abundant and cheap”), sufficiency (“a sense of enoughness and too-muchness”), capping (limiting human activities that are inherently constrained by biophysical conditions), and the source principle (“it is prudent to preserve the source”).

An economy based on such principles would not be a “mining economy” that assumes we should use up resources, and even species, at an “optimal” rate. Nor would it be a consumer economy that emphasizes “getting good deals, employing others, and substituting technology for disciplined work and care.” Rather, it would be a “home economy” that is “grounded in place.” It would also be a “producer economy” in which people are “defined not by their shopping, but by their producing, by their ability to buy as little as possible.” The norm would no longer be selling one’s labor, but self-production, i.e., self-employed individuals or self-organized communities deciding what is produced. Rather than maximum output, the goal would be to provide opportunities for high levels of satisfaction through meaningful work. Princen’s historical referent for this vision is late 19th century America when much of the economy was led by artisans, skilled craftspeople, small shop owners, and independent yeoman farmers. A return to such independent working would create built-in limits on excess consumption, he argues, as humans tend to do only enough work to meet their needs when they enjoy real autonomy.

Above all, Princen sees the need for worldviews and a new language that enable living with nature. He emphasizes the role of metaphors in establishing social norms and principles, which form the basis for procedures, laws, and regulations. A new ecological order thus needs to replace metaphors of the environment as a “store, machine, colony, laboratory, or enemy” with alternatives such as “a life-support system, the thin skin of life, a homestead, a banking system, or even a gift.” A valuable contribution is the idea that a wholesale conversion to an entirely new worldview is not necessary—one can start by highlighting ecologically sound elements of existing economistic and mechanistic worldviews (e.g., spend within one’s means).

Princen does a great service in going beyond the oft-heard critique of economic growth and reflecting seriously on alternatives. His outlines of a new economic practice and language raise several questions for further debate. Does his proposed shift in emphasis from a consumer to a producer economy go far enough? Are production and consumption not two sides of the same coin? Advocates of work-time reduction have argued for expansion of the realm of free time beyond both production and consumption—a central aspect of many visions of a post-growth economy that is marginal to Princen’s image of the future.

In privileging production over consumption, Princen discards any role for alternative models of consumption. He rejects the distinction between “good consuming” and “bad consuming,” and argues that “all consuming is using up.” Good reasons exist to be critical of much of what passes for green consumption; however, ecologically motivated citizen consumers still deserve acknowledgement as players in the transition to sustainability. For example, politically conscious demands for local products have been important to efforts to create new models of sustainable food provision (see, e.g., Seyfang, 2009).

Princen’s work is valuable in highlighting the need for a new language, although he perhaps puts too much emphasis on the realm of ideas as the source of social change, neglecting the constraints and opportunities resulting from changes in contemporary capitalism while sidestepping an analysis of power. (“To question the assumptions, to challenge prerogatives, is to crack the belief system. And then it all falls down,” he writes optimistically.) As for his proposed alternative language, a wide range of deeply personal reactions is possible. No doubt many readers will be inspired by Princen’s “home economy” vision, but it can come across as austere and stern, with its focus on “disciplined work,” “sacrifice,” and being “grounded in place.” (The last time I felt “grounded in place” was when my parents punished me for some youthful transgression.) One could argue that many of us in the high-consuming parts of the world deserve a good grounding, but other, more positive framings of low-consumption living are also possible, such as Juliet Schor’s (2010) vision of “plenitude.” More debate on the most appropriate and effective language would be welcome.

Talk of a home economy also calls out for gender analysis. Who will be responsible for the “making, creating, caring” that characterize a home economy? Women have struggled to escape the confines of an earlier version of a home economy in which they were the homemakers.  How can a home economy be different this time and represent an egalitarian alternative?

As the epoch of seemingly limitless expansion comes to an end, Treading Softly represents an important springboard for debate about what comes next. It finds an appropriate balance of “realistic hope,” going beyond the easy answers so often put forward in environmental debates. Above all, it succeeds in encouraging readers to imagine a possible new world, and in emboldening us to get to work in creating it.



Schor, J. 2010. Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth. New York: The Penguin Press.

Seyfang, G. 2009. The New Economics of Sustainable Consumption: Seeds of Change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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Published by ProQuest