Skip navigation

Thomas Princen

Thomas Princen explores ecological and economic sustainability at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order and The Logic of Sufficiency (both published by the MIT Press).

Titles by This Author

Paths to Ecological Order

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.

What if modern society put a priority on the material security of its citizens and the ecological integrity of its resource base? What if it took ecological constraint as a given, not a hindrance but a source of long-term economic security? How would it organize itself, structure its industry, shape its consumption?

Across time and across cultures, people actually have adapted to ecological constraint. They have changed behavior; they have built institutions. And they have developed norms and principles for their time. Today's environmental challenges—at once global, technological, and commercial—require new behaviors, new institutions, and new principles.

In this highly original work, Thomas Princen builds one such principle: sufficiency. Sufficiency is not about denial, not about sacrifice or doing without. Rather, when resource depletion and overconsumption are real, sufficiency is about doing well. It is about good work and good governance; it is about goods that are good only to a point.

With examples ranging from timbering and fishing to automobility and meat production, Princen shows that sufficiency is perfectly sensible and yet absolutely contrary to modern society's dominant principle, efficiency. He argues that seeking enough when more is possible is both intuitive and rational—personally, organizationally and ecologically rational. And under global ecological constraint, it is ethical. Over the long term, an economy—indeed a society—cannot operate as if there's never enough and never too much.

Titles by This Editor

Not so long ago, people North and South had little reason to believe that wealth from oil, gas, and coal brought anything but great prosperity. But the presumption of net benefits from fossil fuels is eroding as widening circles of people rich and poor experience the downside.

A positive transition to a post-fossil fuel era cannot wait for global agreement, a swap-in of renewables, a miracle technology, a carbon market, or lifestyle change. This book shows that it is now possible to take the first step toward the post-fossil fuel era, by resisting the slow violence of extreme extraction and combustion, exiting the industry, and imagining a good life after fossil fuels. It shows how an environmental politics of transition might occur, arguing for going to the source rather than managing byproducts, for delegitimizing fossil fuels rather than accommodating them, for engaging a politics of deliberately choosing a post-fossil fuel world.

Six case studies reveal how individuals, groups, communities, and an entire country have taken first steps out of the fossil fuel era, with experiments that range from leaving oil under the Amazon to ending mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Adapting to the Coming Downshift

Energy supplies are tightening. Persistent pollutants are accumulating. Food security is declining. There is no going back to the days of reckless consumption, but there is a possibility--already being realized in communities across North America and around the world--of localizing, of living well as we learn to live well within immutable constraints. This book maps the transition to a more localized world.

Society is shifting from the centrifugal forces of globalization (cheap and abundant raw materials and energy, intensive commercialization, concentrated economic and political power) to the centripetal forces of localization: distributed authority and leadership, sustainable use of nearby natural resources, community self-reliance and cohesion (with crucial regional, national, and international dimensions).

This collection, offering classic texts by such writers as Wendell Berry, M. King Hubbert, and Ernst F. Schumacher, as well as new work by authors including Karen Litfin and David Hess, shows how localization--a process of affirmative social change--can enable psychologically meaningful and fulfilling lives while promoting ecological and social sustainability. Topics range from energy dynamics to philosophies of limits, from the governance of place-based communities to the discovery of positive personal engagement. Together they point the way to a transition that can be peaceful, democratic, just, and environmentally resilient.

Comforting terms such as "sustainable development" and "green production" frame environmental debate by stressing technology (not green enough), economic growth (not enough in the right places), and population (too large). Concern about consumption emerges, if at all, in benign ways ;as calls for green purchasing or more recycling, or for small changes in production processes. Many academics, policymakers, and journalists, in fact, accept the economists' view of consumption as nothing less than the purpose of the economy. Yet many people have a troubled, intuitive understanding that tinkering at the margins of production and purchasing will not put society on an ecologically and socially sustainable path.Confronting Consumption places consumption at the center of debate by conceptualizing "the consumption problem" and documenting diverse efforts to confront it. In Part 1, the book frames consumption as a problem of political and ecological economy, emphasizing core concepts of individualization and commoditization. Part 2 develops the idea of distancing and examines transnational chains of consumption in the context of economic globalization. Part 3 describes citizen action through local currencies, home power, voluntary simplicity, "ad-busting," and product certification. Together, the chapters propose "cautious consuming" and "better producing" as an activist and policy response to environmental problems. The book concludes that confronting consumption must become a driving focus of contemporary environmental scholarship and activism.