Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Treading Softly

Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order

Thomas Princen
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 224
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Treading Softly
    Book Description:

    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? InTreading 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-26607-9
    Subjects: Environmental Science, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 Within Our Means
    (pp. 1-18)

    Biologically and physically, we on this planet are living beyond our means. Economically, too, we are well beyond our means: consider current levels of personal, corporate, and public debt, as well as deferred infrastructure investments on water supply, sanitation, bridges, and roads. In terms of energy, the story is the same: over some 150 years we have grown accustomed to cheap, abundant oil, but now only the hard-to-get, energy-intensive, costly sources are left. If we turn to other fossil fuels, we are likely to bake the planet: so far we have burned the equivalent of roughly a trillion barrels of...

  6. I The Disordered Order

    • 2 From House to Home: A Parable
      (pp. 21-28)

      Industrialists have built a grand edifice generally called The Economy. It is a structure so massive, so formidable, so strong and imposing that no observer, in or out of the industrial world, can help but notice. Indeed, one can’t help but stand in awe of such an imposing construction. To behold such a work is to glimpse the vision of industrial grandeur: one hails the greatness and admires the ingenuity. What industrialists have built is propelled by science and technology, fueled by fossil fuels, geared by the workings of markets, and driven by consumer demand. It’s a system, and it...

    • 3 To the Heart of the Beast
      (pp. 29-48)

      It is so easy to follow the same path, anticipating the next rise, seeking that elusive peak, listening to familiar voices. The tried-and-true path becomes a false path, though, when higher is not better, when the peak is a mirage, and when the voices mislead.

      The only way we are going to get innovations … in energy-saving appliances, lights and building materials and in non-CO2-emitting power plants and fuels … is by mobilizing free-market capitalism. The only thing as powerful as Mother Nature is Father Greed….

      The only way to stimulate the scale of sustained investment in research and development...

    • 4 Only When …
      (pp. 49-58)

      Let’s imagine that the general populace has come to accept that the beast called The Economy (which, from other vantage points might be seen as the Great Industrial Edifice or a House of Cards) must be tamed. In fact, it must be shunted aside, put in a special, well-guarded enclosure, while a new material system, say a Home Economy, is built. Chances are, even after people fully accept the impossibility of infinite consumption on a finite planet, of trying to solve problems with the same thinking and same principles that created the problems, of eroding the foundations and calling it...

  7. II A Home Economy

    • 5 Principles
      (pp. 61-78)

      Fishermen are an intensely competitive lot. One person’s catch is the other’s loss. Knowledge of deep pools, rocky ledges, and migration routes is acquired only through long hours on the water and is jealously guarded. And on intensively used fishing grounds, where locations are always difficult to pinpoint and boundaries are notoriously uncertain, gear gets tangled.

      Lobster catchers on Monhegan Island, fifteen miles off Maine’s midcoast, are no different. But unlike most high-seas fishermen, Monheganers all know each other, and they all live within a few miles of each other. And they depend on each other, on and off the...

    • 6 The Elm Stand
      (pp. 79-90)

      At my office I have a keyboard stand made of American elm. I made it myself, from one-and-a-half-inch planks I dried, planed, edged, ripsawed, crosscut, routed, scraped, and sanded. Its four pieces fit together without nails or screws, only with dovetail joints and glue. Once the stand was assembled, I finished the wood with tung oil, hand-rubbing it and allowing each coat to dry for several days before sanding. Repeating the process a half dozen times brought out the full richness of the grain and at the same time added a patina to the wood’s surface. Finally, I applied three...

    • 7 Beyond the Consumer Economy
      (pp. 91-102)

      TheAmerican Heritage Dictionarydefines economical as “prudent and thrifty in management; not wasteful or extravagant.”¹ So what might aneconomical economybe? What might an economy be that is prudent in its use of renewable resources such as forests, grasslands, and water, and thrifty in its use of nonrenewable resources such as oil, coal, and minerals? What might an economy be that avoids creating wastes society does not want and cannot handle?

      In the current freewheeling economy, the one deliberately designed to create new markets and pry open old ones, to relax regulations and abolish traditional practices, to subsidize...

  8. III Tools for an Ecological Order

    • 8 It Isn’t Easy
      (pp. 105-118)

      According to one of the great authorities on global affairs, it isn’t easy saving the environment. Kermit the Frog is having an adventure in the great, green outdoors, singing, “It’s not that easy being green.” He comes to a clearing in the forest. There stands a big, shiny, brand-new Ford Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicle. He looks it over carefully. On the back side he sees a decal: “Hybrid,” it reads.

      “Huh! I guess itiseasy being green!”¹

      There is a part of me that wants to believe Kermit the Frog. I would guess nearly everyone else who is...

    • 9 Work, Workers, and Working: Toward an Economy That Works
      (pp. 119-134)

      Remember that shoe store owner in chapter 8, Beppo Roadsweeper in chapter 7, the chainsaw operator, landscaper, and master woodworker (okay, wannabe master woodworker) in chapter 6, and the lobster catcher in chapter 5? These people (or characters), you probably noticed, have something in common. Their personalities and ideologies and socioeconomic position may vary greatly. But they all perform particular kinds of work, ones quite at odds with the conventional notion of “work” in the current industrial, consumerist, and expansionist order. Here I wish to construct an image of work that builds in limits at the same time that it...

    • 10 Speaking of the Environment: Two Worlds, Two Languages
      (pp. 135-156)

      In a land not so far away, Sufficiencius grew up in a small but thriving town. From a young age, he would ride his bicycle up the hill to Utilitarius’s house, a spacious but unpretentious home with a magnificent view. Utilitarius, a pillar of the community, a successful man on many dimensions, would provide cookies and milk, and the two would talk.

      Now a young man, Sufficiencius preferred cappuccino and “everything” bagels, which Utilitarius tried to provide. Often as not, though, he just put out cookies and milk. And the conversations were more broad-ranging, even philosophical. Sometimes they were strained....

    • 11 To Sustainabilize: The Adaptive Strategy of Worldviews
      (pp. 157-178)

      Some 150 years ago, the United States of America set about to industrialize. The challenge was not just to build factories, hire workers, and produce goods. Rather, it was to get an entire nation tothinklike industrialists. Not everyone had tobeindustrialists. There would still be farmers and teachers and preachers. But everyone had to adopt the worldview of the industrialists, including the farmers and the teachers and the preachers.

      The challenge was enormous. Some 85 percent of the U.S. population was still rural; people worked a small plot of land or managed a dry goods store or...

    • 12 The New Normal
      (pp. 179-196)

      Environmental scholars endure an occupational hazard. The more we learn, whether in the library or lab, at the field site or from the satellite feeds to our computers, the more we come face to face with an inexorable logic of gloom and doom:

      The more we know about environmental trends, the worse things look.

      The worse things look, the greater our responsibility to inform the public.

      To inform the public, we have to tell it like it is, which, to ourselves and others, sounds like gloom and doom.

      The more we talk gloom and doom, the more we chart the...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 197-206)
  10. Index
    (pp. 207-210)