At the beginning of his latest book, Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order, American ecological scholar Thomas Princen quotes from the Living Planet Report of 2008:

“Our global [ecological] footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30%. If our demands on the planet continue at the same rate, by the mid-2030s we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles … more than three quarters of the world’s people live in nations that are ecological debtors — their national consumption has outstripped their country’s biocapacity.”

He also quotes from World Water Vision:

“As much as 10% of global annual water consumption may come from depleting water resources … [By 2025], given the uneven distribution of these resources, some 3 billion women and men will live in countries — wholly or partly arid and semi-arid — that have less than 1700 cubic metres per capita, the quantity below which people start to suffer from water stress.”

Princen’s own opening statement (p1), bathed in the cold light of the above excerpts, goes as follows: “Biologically and physically, we on this planet are living beyond our means.” To anyone not already familiar with the reasons for his statement, his elaboration on it would come as an eye-opener, and even for someone who knows most of it, it is chilling. What makes this book special, however — even more so than his previous one, The Logic of Sufficiency — is the simplicity and directness of the way he addresses his readers, without pulling his punches, and without lapsing into doom and gloom either.

His argument is simple, in that he sets out the reasons why the current generation is living beyond its means and what alternatives are open to us. Perhaps his claim, that there are alternatives to the present, dominant mode of living, is itself one of the most encouraging things about the book.

I cannot do justice to Princen’s argument in all its ramifications. All I can really do here is to give an indication of his approach to what is probably the single most important issue facing us on this planet today. And no one can accuse Princen of being alarmist — the number of authoritative sources that he cites are just too overwhelming. And he is not merely talking about anthropogenic climate change:

“Ethically, an order that bequeaths to future generations materials that present generations do not want and cannot handle — for example, nuclear waste and hormone-mimicking toxic substances — is also living beyond its means. The four Es — ecology, economy, energy, and ethics — point to an order that cannot last. The next era will be one of living within our means, one way or another. The only question is what kind of order it will be.” (p2)

His book is aimed at making a living within our means “seem possible, even desirable” and to “imagine a material system, an ‘economy’, that is actually economical regarding the very resources it rests upon”. (p2) This, in contrast to the present economic system, which is, paradoxical as it may seem, not “economical” at all. After all, as Princen argues, an economic system is only “economical” if it uses resources in such a way that those that can be replenished, are given a chance to do so. The present economic system, he points out, does not do this, and even the “greening” of the current system will not do the trick in the long run.

Princen insists that it is imperative to construct an “economical economy, one that does not waste precious resources” (what he calls a “home economy”) whatever the risk. “The biggest risk”, he continues, “is not to start the new construction. It is to continue with business as usual, believing that greener and cleaner will do it. It is to pursue economic growth hoping against hope that sometime, somehow, such growth will only be abstract (in income, information, ideas, entertainment), not material. It is to extend the footprint yet further, as if we really do have a couple more planets to consume. It is to deplete freshwater as if there is a substitute for water. It is to erode soil as if this civilisation, unlike all others, can do without fertile soil.” (p3)

Needless to say, most people living in the present economy, which is the only one they know, would find Princen’s suggestion somewhat strange, if not absurd. What, replace the present economy? How, and with what? When one reads his argument, however, it does become clear that, whatever may follow after the present system, this will happen, for the simple reason that it is unsustainable. Princen uses the metaphor of a building to represent the current economic system, and admits that:

“It would be nice if the current predicament were a problem of the building. That is, if we knew that the ecological, economic, energetic, and ethical problems of this grand industrial edifice, this capital-intensive, labour-saving, high-consuming, debt-laden, cost-displacing, fossil-fuel dependent economy, were located in the floors and walls, the windows and doors, even the rafters and roof, then all we would have to do is make the repairs and get on with things … as if what is down below, on the ground, doesn’t matter. Unfortunately [he continues], in this particular predicament — what might be termed a ‘global material crisis’, a crisis at once ecological and economic — all warning signs point downward … to the very grounding of this grand edifice.” (p3)

Princen reminds us that this “grounding” includes some things built by humans, and others (air, soil and water) that are natural. The difference between them is that the natural “grounding” can exist without the human grounding, but not vice versa: “The human grounding cannot carry on without the natural, without resilient ecosystems and renewing flows of water and nutrients … this is a biological fact that no amount of growth upstairs can invalidate.” (pp 3-4)

And there is plenty of incontrovertible evidence that the natural grounding has been, and still is being, severely compromised. His book, he points out, is not for those who deny that this is the case, nor for those who believe that some tinkering and greening of the economy will fix things. It is for those who know, at least intuitively, that the time for fundamental change in the realm of the four Es has arrived. Those who fall into this category should read this book — it is invaluable as a sober guide to what is to be done to assure that our descendants will inherit a viable planet.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


Bert Olivier

As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it...

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