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Paperback | $14.95 Trade | £10.95 | ISBN: 9780262525305 | 224 pp. | 5.375 x 8 in | 1 table| September 2013

Of Related Interest

Treading Softly

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 connection to fresh, free-flowing water, fertile soil, and healthy food.

That economies must grow is a fundamental belief among economists, politicians, and journalists. But it is rampant material growth that has brought us to this precipice. Princen argues that it is time to build an economy that is grounded in the way natural systems work; that operates as if we have just the right amount of resources rather than endless frontiers. The goal would be to live well by living well within the capacities of those resources. Society's material foundations would be grounded in the biophysical, its practices based on satisfying work, self-reliance, and restraint rather than the purchasing of goods. 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.

About the Author

Thomas Princen is a Professor at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. Princen is the author of The Logic of Sufficiency (2005) and Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order (2010) and coeditor of Confronting Consumption (2002), all published by the MIT Press

Table of Contents

  • Treading Softly

  • Treading Softly
  • Paths to Ecological Order
  • Thomas Princen
  • The MIT Press
  • Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • London, England
  • © 2010
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher.
  • For information about special quantity discounts, please email
  • This book was set in Sabon by MIT Press. Printed and bound in the United States of America.
  • Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
  • Princen, Thomas, 1951–
  • Treading softly : paths to ecological order / Thomas Princen.
  •  p. cm.
  • Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • ISBN 978-0-262-01417-5 (hardcover : alk. paper) 1. Human ecology—Economic aspects. 2. Nature—Effect of human beings on.
  • 3. Consumption (Economics)—Environmental aspects. 4. Sustainable development. 5. Environmental policy. I. Title.
  • GF41.P73 2010
  • 304.2—dc22
  • 2009034032
  • 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
  • Contents
  • Preface
  •   vii

  • Acknowledgments
  •   xiii

  • 1 Within Our Means
  •   1

  • I The Disordered Order
  •   19

  • 2 From House to Home
  • :
  • A Parable
  •   21

  • 3 To the Heart of the Beast
  •   29

  • 4 Only When . . .
  •   49

  • II A Home Economy
  •   59

  • 5 Principles
  •   61

  • 6 The Elm Stand
  •   79

  • 7 Beyond the Consumer Economy
  •   91

  • III Tools for an Ecological Order
  •   103

  • 8 It Isn’t Easy
  •   105

  • 9 Work, Workers, and Working
  • :
  • Toward an Economy That 
  •   119

  • 10 Speaking of the Environment
  • :
  • Two Worlds, Two 
  •   135

  • 11 To Sustainabilize
  • :
  • The Adaptive Strategy of World-
  •   157

  • 12 The New Normal
  •   179

  • Notes
  •   197

  • Index
  •   207


"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." , Anders Hayden, Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy


“Thomas Princen has given us a wise and eloquent book about the human spirit and the wellsprings of change that can save both us and the planet—with hardly a number or equation in sight. Princen’s latest book deploys new language, metaphor, and narrative to move us beyond dead-end habits of thought and thus beyond our worst modern disease, overconsumption—both personal and planetary. I recommend this insightful, indeed profound, book to all who fret about environmental decline and want to move from challenge to change.”
James Gustave Speth, author of The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability

"Tom Princen has provided the book we all need to read at this critical moment. Princen explains not only the severity of the environmental crisis, but also obstacles to real solutions, in a level-headed accessible way that is inspiring rather than overwhelming. He encourages readers to challenge core assumptions about the way our economy works--assumptions that are undermining the planet, our communities, and the very economy itself and are limiting our thinking about real solutions. By replacing these long held myths with a clearer understanding of what is needed, he argues for a 'new normal'--a new way of organizing and understanding our economy that sustains rather than erodes the planet on which we all depend. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to chart a different path and is tired of the parade of gloom-and-doom environmental booksit is full of hope and vision for how we can, indeed must, do things differently."
Annie Leonard, writer and host of The Story of Stuff

"This is an eloquent and impassioned book. It is clearly written, lacks confounding academic artifice, and conveys a message that is simultaneously simple and profound."
Maurie J. Cohen, New Jersey Institute of Technology