Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What is the ‘logic of sufficiency’ in economics?

Imagine a world in which people, wisely, remind themselves that there is a tomorrow – if not for themselves, indefinitely, then for their children – and that the manner in which they enter into a relationship with their physical environment WILL unavoidably make a difference to the kind of tomorrow their children, and their children’s children, will experience. Such people are likely to approach the use of their environment with an attitude that displays caring, not only for their descendants’ future, but for the natural environment itself, because in their wisdom they will know that unless they do this, they would not be able to depend on the environment, which is finite, to provide in their (very human) needs. Consequently, they will practice what might be called a “logic of sufficiency”, where they are careful not to use more of the natural resources around them than is necessary – that is, not to use more than they can, and have to, leave there, or put back into it for the future. This is a path of limiting growth for the sake of the future.

Now switch the scene to a different world, where people are not wise, although they are very clever, and use the natural resources around them without keeping an eye to the future. Furthermore, in their cleverness they invent many devices and machines to make life more “comfortable”, and they use materials from their environment – like oil, gas, wood, minerals, water, and so on – to operate these machines, not considering adequately the consequences of the use of the apparatus in question. On the one hand it produces the useful things that they want, such as metal objects or rubber tyres, or motor vehicles, but it also produces by-products such as carbon emissions, or various types of metal waste in fine, powdery, or less fine, granular form, including mercury and lead, which invariably end up in their natural surroundings like forests and lakes, or the sea, with incalculable consequences for resident life-forms. Sometimes they realise that this poses a problem, and set out to devise ways of lessening the impact on their environment, but all the time their real aim is to produce more, to get people to use more, and to embark, and stay, on the path of “progress”, or what might be called the economic “logic of excess”. This is the path of endless growth, regardless of the future.

In his marvellously thought-provoking book, The Logic of Sufficiency (MIT Press, 2005), Thomas Princen shows persuasively what the difference is between such an economic “logic of sufficiency”, on the one hand, and a “logic of excess”, on the other, as briefly sketched above, as I understand it from his book. And he draws attention to the long-term consequences of these two distinct economic “logics”. He also (believe it or not) discusses actually existing instances of communities and companies that adhere to the logic of sufficiency, in the midst of a surrounding world where people pursue the logic of excess as if we live in a world where endless, limitless economic growth is no problem, as if natural resources are infinite, and are, moreover, impervious to the kind of ecological abuse inflicted on them by homo economicus.

Here is a telling paragraph from Princen’s book (p. 5). Against the backdrop of his discussion of communities and companies that defy the odds by resolutely following a logic of sufficiency, he observes:

“An urban neighbourhood eschews the car, a timber company holds back on its harvests, two industrial countries find that treated sewage is enough, persistent toxics too much, and [an] international society bans ozone-depleting substances. Unusual cases, perhaps, but rather sensible, one might think. A similar story can be told about lobster fishing in Maine and, no doubt, about countless other practices in countless other places, in North America, Europe, and other “advanced industrial countries.” Each instance may represent a trivial portion of that country’s overall economy. But the “advances” of these economies – the technologies, the stock markets, the transportation and communication systems, the conveniences and time-saving devices – represent something else, namely, ever-increasing throughput of material and energy. That throughput – the extraction of resources, the manufacture and use of products, and the disposal of wastes – supports, and now threatens to undermine, those very economies. Such throughput cannot be sustained. So these instances of sufficiency [referred to earlier; B.O.] may be trivial by conventional measures – municipal budgets, industry outputs, gross domestic product, trade flows, stock market indices. But they are harbingers of a different economy, I contend, one that puts ecological and social constraint with a long-term view at the centre of economic and political life.”

Princen’s argument is solid and convincing in the face of all the evidence that the large majority of countries in the world today are hitched to an economic system driven by the logic of excess, which has recently been accompanied by the signs he alludes to, namely that the continued practice of this logic is unsustainable. What does it mean to say that one should live according to the principle of economic sufficiency, then? Princen elaborates as follows (p. 6):

“Sufficiency is … a commonsense idea at the collective level when risks are readily perceived and serious. A farmer knows that everyone on the homestead wants increased yields. But the uncertainties of weather and markets mean that one cannot push the land and the workers too hard without risking soil quality and worker reliability. A lumber executive knows that a big cut this year will please shareholders and mill hands alike. But with new timberland unavailable, the executive holds back the harvest to ensure a cut next year and the next decade, maybe even cuts through the next century. A college president knows the funds and the space for expansion can be obtained but decides the college’s mission would be compromised with more bureaucratization and more encumbered funding resources.”

However, he also reminds us that the idea of sufficiency should be transformed into a principle to be able to tackle the problems facing the world today. In other words, one has to move from common sense to more enduring structures and “social organizing principles” to be effective in the long run. In practical terms, that may mean sacrificing short-term profits for longer-term, sustainable achievements and security. As he puts it (p. 7):

“Sufficiency as a principle aimed at ecological overshoot compels decision makers to ask when too much resource use or too little regeneration jeopardizes important values such as ecological integrity and social cohesion; when material gains now preclude material gains in the future; when consumer gratification or investor reward threatens economic security; when benefits internalized depend on costs externalized.”

As in his other work, Princen is at pains to remind those resistant to the idea of sufficiency in the place of excess that it does not mean that people have to give up the hope of “thriving”. In fact, he argues – with many telling examples to support his claims – unless we switch from the present logic of excess to the logic of sufficiency, our descendants are almost certain not to thrive in the future, because of depletion of resources and irreversible damage done to the natural environment. If one follows the example of the companies he discusses as paradigms of the logic of sufficiency, people can, indeed, thrive in the future on this planet.

For earlier posts on the work of Thomas Princen, see Beyond protecting the environment: Ensuring life support and The ‘economistic worldview’ and the destruction of life.

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