Book of the week: Treading Softly

Laurence Coupe lauds the call for a language that will save the planet

April 22, 2010

In legend, when Sir Perceval comes upon the castle of the wounded Fisher King, he is given the chance to restore fertility to the Waste Land. All he has to do is speak. Upon being granted a vision of the Holy Grail, he should pose the ritual question: "Whom does it serve?" That would release the healing power of Christ's blood, and the kingdom would be restored to health. On his first visit, he fails to do so.

As we ponder our chances of restoring our own Waste Land, we would do well to ask the same question of any publication with "ecological" in the title. Does it serve the gloom and doom brigade, who relish the catastrophe to come? Or does it serve the advocates of business as usual, who say that all we have to do is to "green" our production and consumption?

Happily, Thomas Princen's salutary and beautifully simple book does neither. What we need, he tells us, are "images of the possible" that may help us envisage what is involved in "living well by living well within our means".

His aim, he says, is to lay the groundwork for an ecological order: one based on a "home economy" that would be "grounded in place", would be guided by respect for resources and so would involve minimum consumption.

Whom, then, does this book serve? Speaking frankly, one would have to say that, in the first instance, it serves the impractical green theorists among us who need to bring our ideas, as it were, down to earth; more generally, it serves people of goodwill who realise we are at a turning point, but don't know which way to turn.

This emphasis on groundwork and economy is a reminder that Karl Marx used the metaphor of a building to explain the workings of a given society. He proposed that its real foundations were the means and relations of production. Now, of course, we must wake up to the fact that the foundations that are even more important are those of nature itself. Notoriously dismissed by Marx as humanity's tool house, it is now in a perilous condition.

Marxism does not get a mention in Treading Softly. So what philosophy does Princen espouse? "Principles", he declares, are successful if "they fit the needs of the times". Yesterday "the issue was prohibiting competitive trade practices and preventing economic collapse all via international cooperation and economic growth". Today? "Now the issue is saving the planet's life-support system." This reads very much like pragmatism, and is none the worse for that, given the urgency of his task.

Of course, labelling his approach is useful only if it helps us to grasp what he is saying, and to think and act accordingly. Thus: "We do not so much need a revolution as we need well-defined problems, networks of diverse peoples, and good old hard work. It is possible and it will happen." The ideal proposed will lead us back to reality.

Existing "realism", says Princen, tells us that the existing economy, "the Great Industrial Edifice", is "the one and only path". Its premises are twofold: "consumers rule" and "technologies save". The bizarre assumption is that "the planet, aided by clever technologies and well-functioning markets, can withstand yet more abuses, more mining, more consuming, more disposing; we just have to do it better". In other words, realism turns out to be fantasy, and the industrial edifice turns out to be a house of cards.

The need now, Princen suggests, is to articulate a "new normal" beyond the "old normal". The latter assumes that "endless material expansion on a finite planet is possible" and is dedicated to cheap energy and consumer demand; it assumes also that risks can be managed, indeed that "economic, technological and demographic growth will solve all problems, including the problems of economic, technological and demographic growth". Against this muddled thinking, the premise of the new normal stands out crystal clear: "the era of 'protecting the environment' is over, and the era of ensuring life support has begun".

How to proceed? We need to find the right words before we can enact the right deeds. We need to define the problems that confront us in a new kind of language: a language that "has ecological content and a long-term ethic". Hence Princen is more anxious that we get our "metaphors of the environment" right than he is that we understand statistics, scientific reports or specific forecasts. His list of potential images includes "network (complex and with emergent properties)", "homestead (crops, shelters, neighbours)" and "gift (precious, non-proprietary)".

Because Treading Softly is about words, it is also about world views - those frames, constructed in language, through which we see reality. According to Princen, today we have four dominant world views of what we call the environment. First, there is the "naturist": environment as non-human nature, which needs to be understood in its own right. Second, there is the "mechanistic": environment as nature as machine, which can be manipulated and even redesigned for human use. Third, there is the "agrarian": environment as nature as a source of produce for humanity, which must be managed but which takes time to understand. Fourth, there is the "economistic": environment as a world of human exchange, production and consumption.

The important thing is not to opt for one world view exclusively, but to think in terms of creative clusters, and to allow the different world views to play off one another. For example, the naturist has a helpful notion of limits (how much an ecosystem can withstand without collapsing), which can readily be combined with the agrarian, which has a helpful notion of husbandry (caring for natural elements so as to supply human necessities).

The economistic may yet bear some fruit, if adapted to a genuinely ecological economy. Princen lists various financial maxims that may prove useful: "Spend within one's means. Diversify the portfolio. Draw on the interest, not the principal. Balance the budget."

As for the mechanistic, that is even now being tested and queried - for instance, by extreme weather that exposes the ineffectiveness of flood defences - and so will have to be radically redefined in relation to the other world views.

Such an inclusive, adaptive approach may lead some readers to dismiss Princen's proposal as all too modest. Yet there are many interesting trails leading off from his paths to ecological order. To cite just one: suggesting that because natural sources have no substitutes, they must be regarded as "ultimate", he adds: "Spiritually speaking, ultimate sources are sacred. To sacrifice an ultimate resource is a sacrilege. In contrast, to sacrifice the benefits otherwise derived from using up an ultimate source - to refrain from stripping topsoil, from draining an aquifer, from driving an organism to extinction, from opening the ozone layer, all for commercial gain - to sacrifice these benefits is to elevate human action."

Princen says no more, but it suggests that there may be a fifth world view of the environment available to us, namely the spiritual. Part of the ecological task must surely be to challenge those who would demean nature by honouring the sacred as a remote, transcendent state, quite distinct from the profane, and to promote what Michel Serres calls a religion of the world. Like Sir Perceval, we have to find the right words with which to do it justice. Only now, the crucial question is not "Whom does it serve?" but "How may I serve?" Let us hope that, like him, we succeed in due course.


Thomas Princen is associate professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. He says that his research centres on "issues of social and ecological sustainability, with a primary focus on the drivers of overconsumption and the conditions for restrained resource use".

Following an undergraduate degree in biology at Pomona College, he studied for a master's and a PhD at Harvard University. In 1988-89 he was a MacArthur Foundation visiting postdoctoral research fellow in international peace and security at Princeton University.

He has twice won the International Studies Association's Harold and Margaret Sprout Award for "best book in the study of international environmental problems" - first in 2003 for Confronting Consumption, which he co-edited, and again in 2007 for his own book The Logic of Sufficiency.

Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order

By Thomas Princen

The MIT Press, 224pp, £16.95

ISBN 9780262014175

Published 30 April 2010

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