How to imagine and then realize an ecological order based on living within our biophysical means.
We are living beyond our means, running up debts both economic and ecological, consuming the planet's resources at rates not remotely sustainable. But it's hard to imagine a different way. How can we live without cheap goods and easy credit? How can we consume without consuming the systems that support life? How can we live well and live within our means? In Treading Softly, Thomas Princen helps us imagine an alternative. We need, he says, a new normal, an ecological order that is actually economical with resources, that embraces limits, that sees sustainable living not as a “lifestyle” but as a long-term connection to fresh, free-flowing water, fertile soil, and healthy food.
The goal would be to live well by living well within the capacities of our resources. Princen doesn't offer a quick fix—there's no list of easy ways to save the planet to hang on the refrigerator. He gives us instead a positive, realistic sense of the possible, with an abundance of examples, concepts, and tools for imagining, then realizing, how to live within our biophysical means.
Rejecting the "tried-and-true path" as well as the promise of high-tech innovation, University of Michigan professor Princen (Confronting Consumption) makes an impassioned and illustrative plea for radical societal transformation, from consumerism to sustainability. Taking issue with a stripe of environmentalist and progressive thinker, like Thomas L. Friedman, anticipating a quick fix (high-tech or otherwise) to retrofit the existing, growth-based consumer economy, Princen rejects the idea of endless growth, which defies all laws of logic and physics: "A system that grows endlessly crashes... unendingly increasing consumption cannot continue on a finite planet." Looking to historical economic reversals, like the upheaval that occurred after slavery was abolished or the plummeting popularity of cigarettes, Princen argues that society must dethrone the "sovereign consumer" and adopt the ethos of sacrifice if it is to survive. Practically, many more people need to overcome widespread alienation from the natural world by prioritizing community over profit, becoming direct producers of goods, and adapting better to the rhythms (and limits) of nature; ideas include an intermittent electricity supply, season-appropriate availability of many foods, and communities that are largely self-sufficient. Genuinely provocative, this book challenges practices and theories sacred to both sides of the ecology debate.