Thomas Princen - Principles for Sustainability: From Cooperation and Efficiency to Sufficiency - Global Environmental Politics 3:1 Global Environmental Politics 3.1 (2003) 33-50

Principles for Sustainability:
From Cooperation and Efficiency to Sufficiency

Thomas Princen*

Global timber harvesters are squeezing more and more fiber out of a hectare of forest and yet deforestation proceeds unabated. The automobile and petrochemical industries are creating more wealth for a unit of pollution, yet emissions continue to grow. And the world's water managers seem to agree on most things, including the need for treaties and more water, yet freshwater availability is diminishing. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is actually quite a lot of cooperation and efficiency in today's political and ecological economy. Where there are problems—e.g., deforestation, greenhouse gas build-up, water scarcity—practitioners and scholars alike call for more cooperation and more efficiency. It might just be that the principles themselves—cooperation and efficiency—are part of the problem, a problem well suited, it would seem, for scholarly analysis.

Yet for all the scholarly attention to norms and principles in environmental and economic institutions, there is precious little normative work. There is little that scrutinizes prevailing principles let alone proposes new ones, especially principles aimed at reversing the trends in environmental decline and at promoting sustainable practice.

To be sure, there is much that analyzes diplomatic and organizational successes and failures. Cooperation is a prevalent focus: negotiating, reaching agreement, implementing, monitoring, resolving disputes, building confidence. But environmental outcomes are taken as given, that is, given by the actors by what is politically possible, or expedient, at the time. More often than not, the outcomes, the goals of the institutions, are to "improve" the environment, to use the resource more efficiently, to alleviate impacts, to "green up" consumption, not necessarily to live within regenerative capacities.

In this article, I assume that the seriousness of many environmental threats are of a wholly different order from that presumed in many environmental [End Page 33] and economic institutions. Critical environmental threats entail irreversibilities and non-substitutabilities; they threaten vital life-support systems. Overconsumption—resource use beyond regenerative capacities that threatens entire species, including humans—is a real possibility. 1 Saving a species or reducing CO2 emissions (or even simply slowing the rate of growth in CO2 emissions) only postpones tough choices. To make such choices, to construct institutions from the local to the global, from the tiny inshore fishery to the global atmospheric commons, requires principles attuned to such threats. If analysts take seriously the trends and accept social responsibility for contributing to the reversal of such trends, then they must go beyond marginal improvement, beyond, I will argue, cooperation and efficiency, and beyond the descriptive and predictive to the prescriptive. Analysts committed to social change must engage the normative. 2

So the following is one such normative exercise. Its premise is that prevailing principles of social organization—cooperation, efficiency, equity, sovereignty—are not up to the task. They may have worked in times of resource abundance, in an ecologically "empty world," a world where human impact is minor, where there is always another frontier, but they do not work now. They do not guide decision makers—not elite global managers, not farmers and fishers, not corporate leaders, not consumers—in reversing the biophysical trends and getting on a sustainable path.

I begin by contrasting two policy goals—environmental improvement and sustainability. I then use examples from global water management to argue that prevailing principles contribute at best to marginal improvement. After critiquing modern society's two dominant classes of institutional principles for resource use—cooperation and, at more length, efficiency—I devote the remainder of the article to proposing and sketching out a different class of principles, what I lump under the term sufficiency. Restraint, precautionary, polluter pays, zero, and reverse onus are emerging, even novel, principles that lend themselves to the sustainability goal by dealing directly with issues of criticality, risk export, and responsibility evasion. [End Page 34]

Environmental Improvement vs Sustainability

Analytic and policy approaches to environmental problems can be roughly grouped into two categories. Adherents to environmental improvement take current resource use practices as given and look for marginal improvements. The time frame is immediate or short term and the scale of activity follows political boundaries. "The environment" is seen as being "out there," as separate from humans; it is benign and resilient, indeed bountiful, something to be managed for optimal human use. Environmental improvement is the goal, doing better than present conditions, even if "better" is only slowing the rate of degradation. Because crises are rare and localized, incremental social change is needed, if at all.

By contrast, there are those who presume current practices are unsustainable, even catastrophic if pursued to their logical conclusions. The starting point for these advocates of sustainability is not the status quo environment but ecological integrity. Their orientation is long term, even very long term, that is, over many generations of key species, including humans. The scale is determined in the first instance by biophysical processes. From this view, human and natural systems may be separate, but the focus is on the intersection of the two systems. Perceived crises demand alternative forms of social organization, ones that make transformational, not marginal, change.

Research within the economic strands of social science disciplines such as political science, sociology, and anthropology has been preponderantly in the "environmental improvement" category. Pollution control, environmental movements, and environmental organizations are common topics. At the same time that social science has focused on environmental improvement, those who chart biophysical trends say incremental change is not enough. Every time a "state of the environment" report comes out, authors call for a fundamental shift in how humans relate to nature. Some call for global citizenship, others for spiritual awakening. But nearly all call for a drastic overhaul of the current economic system, a system that is inherently and uncontrollably expansionist, that depends on ever-increasing throughput of material and energy, that risks life-support systems for humans and other species. They call, in short, for transformational change, what I have put in the category of sustainability. And, then, the best prescriptions these analysts, who largely are not students of human behavior, come up with are better information, greater efficiencies, more public participation and, for specific measures, new taxes and subsidies—all classic marginal tinkering.

If the social sciences are going to make a contribution that is commensurate with the severity of biophysical trends, it must do better than analyze environmental improvement measures. Social scientists must develop analytic tools for the analyst (biophysical and social alike) and an effective vocabulary for the policy maker and activist that allow, indeed encourage, an escape from well-worn prescriptions that result in marginal change at best. Among those tools are norms and principles consonant with critical environmental threats. [End Page 35]

To promote alternative normative goals—e.g., human security through an economy that respects natural limits, an economy that is sensitive to overconsumption—the focus must change from producing goods (goods are good so more goods must be better) to consumption, not just purchasing, so-called "demand," but to consuming, using up, diminishing regenerative capacity, engendering irreversibilities and non-substitutabilities. 3 Global water management illustrates the need for such a focus.

Global Water

In the past decade or so, a vast amount of research on trends in freshwater availability seems to have come to a resounding, and disturbing, consensus conclusion: societies around the globe are facing or are soon to face dire water scarcities. 4 By the year 2015, some estimate, 3 billion people, 40% of the world's population, will "find it difficult or impossible to mobilize enough water to satisfy [their] food, industrial, and domestic needs." 5 The spillover effects via poverty and migration on international and human security and on human and ecological health could be horrendous.

At the same time that water scarcity is becoming a prominent global environmental and security issue, a variety of water regimes from the local to the global have attempted to grapple with shortage. Curiously, very few confront the fact that water, a potentially renewable resource, can be consumed, irreversibly drawn down, permanently diverted or contaminated. Overconsumption, in principle and in practice, appears to be an alien concept.

In a survey of international water regimes, global water authority Peter Gleick identifies six central principles:

  1. Equitable utilization
  2. Prevention of significant harm
  3. Obligation to notify and inform other parties
  4. Obligation to share data among parties
  5. Cooperative management of international rivers
  6. Obligation to resolve disputes peacefully. 6

One would have to stretch number 2, no significant harm, to get anything close to a notion of water capacity. Otherwise, these agreements, as written, are simply [End Page 36] institutions for cooperation. The parties should equitably share data, inform each other of new development projects, and try very hard to resolve differences peacefully. And, following these principles, they can do all this cooperating as they permanently draw down aquifers, salinize soils, destroy fisheries, spread disease and eliminate species.

Of course, these agreements, as practiced, are replete with competition, including competition to get every last drop out of a water system. The western states in the US develop their economies and populate their deserts by extracting Colorado River water in ever greater volumes, leaving a trickle at best for Mexicans. The Mexicans complain and the Americans listen. And they all sit down together periodically to work on the problem (generally, the problem of getting more water, that is)—all in a spirit of cooperation. The Israelis and Palestinians pump water from the West Bank sending drill rigs ever deeper. The equity principle is violated when the Israelis control access to that water allocating first to themselves. But even here in this conflict-ridden part of the world, the two parties can claim a degree of cooperation under the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee. 7

Cooperation is not only possible, it may be the norm in water institutions. "Between the years 805 and 1984, countries signed more than 3,600 water- related treaties, many showing great creativity in dealing with this critical resource," write two other water experts, Sandra Postel and Aaron Wolf. "An analysis of 1,831 international water-related events over the last 50 years reveals that two thirds of these encounters were of a cooperative nature." 8 Cooperation is ubiquitous. Living within the capacities of the respective water systems is quite another matter.

Postel and Wolf propose three principles for water security:

  1. Improve water productivity: increase output per unit of water.
  2. Regulate ground water: develop strong policies to encourage thrifty use and avoid waste, increase participation and resist privatization.
  3. Act early: pre-empt conflicts by avoiding ad hoc fixes and establishing a process of cooperation. 9

In short, these two authors call for efficiency and cooperation along with effective government and far-sightedness. They advance the standard liberal internationalist agenda, applied to water but not grounded in water, not grounded in the very biophysical conditions they document. Instead the authors name efficiency as the highest priority, the "key to defusing tensions as water stress worsens." 10

Israel appears to be the model. A 1000 cubic meters are needed to grow a ton of grain. "By importing wheat and other staples," Postel and Wolf contend, [End Page 37] "water-stressed countries can allocate more of their scarce fresh water to cities and industries, which generate far more economic value per liter than agriculture does." Israel, they conclude, "has done very nicely with this approach." 11

In fact, such policies are classic instances of problem displacement. 12 Israel effectively increases its water budget while exporting countries, as the authors acknowledge, stress theirs. Such "efficient" trades—international exchanges of commodities with "embodied water" and reallocation of domestic resources to maximize "economic value per liter" of water—have something in common with trade balances, GDP, and other measures of economic vitality: they exist entirely outside a concept of ecological constraint. They measure gains as if there is always an ecological frontier—always another resource, another technological substitute, another waste sink. These trades may work for true commodities—shoes and automobiles, say. But water is, at best, a special commodity, as precious a liquid to human existence as serum in blood banks is to surgery patients. Given a fixed global volume, domestic water budgets cannot be indefinitely expanded any more than domestic water sources can be indefinitely mined. Not everyone can extend their ecological footprint.

Private industry appears to be equally enamored with efficiency and cooperation. "At the heart of the question of whether a water crisis can be averted is whether water can be made more productive," says the World Water Council, a multi-stakeholder organization with heavy industry influence. More crop per drop and more storage per river are the key. "Because we have a finite amount of water resources and a growing number of people and growing demand, the sustainable use of water ultimately depends on our ability to increase its productivity at least as far as demand grows." 13

Invoking the mantra of consumer sovereignty, these proponents of private sector solutions take demand as given: consumers want more so it is up to the innovators, those with the know-how and capital, to supply it, all with reasonable compensation, of course. 14 And if, in the process, getting more crops per drop and storing more water in one locality results in less drops and less storage in another locality—an extremely likely outcome when truly effective institutions do not exist—cooperation, they say, comes into play: "shared water resources can be made into a source of cooperation rather than conflict.... Change in the household or neighborhood leads to ripples of cooperation [and] new alliance[s] of local people, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and water agencies." 15 It is curious that the authors see water scarcity as a source of cooperation. The desired causal chain seems to be this: increasing demand is accommodated [End Page 38] by increasing efficiencies and, where water resources are shared, cooperation will arise to distribute the ever-increasing bounty. It is a rational, cornucopian view of the world, driven, it seems, by an abiding faith in people's ability to organize themselves around efficiency and cooperation.

Its only failing is a certain detachment from reality. Private solutions favor private actors, especially those with the financial, technological and political resources. No amount of rhetoric about the poor, communities, NGOs and women, let alone about partnership and vision (terms that are replete in the World Water Council's report) will change that fundamental fact. Moreover, efficient strategies, I argue below, not only ignore the throughput problem, they may actually disguise and exacerbate it.

From this admittedly highly limited survey, it appears that existing international water regimes and proposals for new regimes put great faith in the ability of leaders to steer efficiency gains and cooperative relations in a novel direction; that is, away from conventional development goals (economic growth, increased population, more foreign currency) and the ever-increasing water consumption that tends to accompany such goals; and toward restrained water consumption, consumption that falls safely within hydrologic capacities. It is a leap that would be credible, that would give reason for optimism, if the principles for collective action, extant or proposed, were grounded in the biophysical conditions that define water scarcity: water is finite and locally depletable.

Those principles would have to incorporate biophysical constraint and social restraint. Such principles would complement, if not entirely supplant, the otherwise all-popular principles of efficiency and cooperation. This would be a first-order condition for institutions of sustainable practice. The following combines critique and propositional development to establish such a condition.

Normative Framework

As the preceding suggests, two classes of organizing principles prevail in institutions of political economy, natural resources and the environment. One is cooperation which includes principles such as equal representation, public participation, full disclosure, information sharing, and consensus. The other is efficiency which includes division of labor, economies of scale, specialization, streamlining (e.g., making government more businesslike), intensification (e.g., extracting more pulp for a hectare of forest; getting more GDP for a liter of water) and conservation (e.g., using fewer kilowatts of energy to emit a given amount of light).

As intuitive and popular as cooperation and efficiency are, both suffer from "normative neutrality." One can cooperate to protect a forest just as well as one can cooperate to clear cut it. One can find efficiencies in harvesting so as to save trees just as well as one can find efficiencies to get every last bit of fiber off an acre of forest land. When incentives line up on the side of return on investment and growth, cooperation and efficiency lean toward clearcutting and fiber [End Page 39] extraction, toward ever more economic activity, toward spurring material and energy throughput in the economy. 16

Cooperation and efficiency are thus no more suited to reversing the trends and promoting sustainable practice than they are at stimulating those trends and thwarting sustainable practice. Cooperation and efficiency do not distinguish between environmental improvement and sustainability. They do not address two defining characteristics of contemporary environmental trends:

  1. the increasing "criticality" of environmental threats, problems characterized by irreversibility and non-substitutability, threshold and synergistic effects ("surprise"), long time lags between cause and effect and, consequently, limited predictability and manageability. Climate change, biodiversity loss, topsoil erosion, persistent toxics, and declining fresh- water availability are examples of such threats.
  2. the increasing ease of exporting the risks of critical threats and escaping responsibility for their creation. Globalization, privatization, and diminishing state capacity conspire with technological innovation and market manipulation to skew the benefits and costs of economic activity, to create the illusions of environmental progress (e.g., local pockets of pristine and healthy environments, especially among those who can buy their way out of degraded environments) while vast areas around the world are degraded and huge waste sinks such as the oceans and atmosphere are filled.

To move beyond cooperation and efficiency, beyond conventional, norm- neutral principles, normative critique is a useful first step. Elsewhere I have dealt with the inadequacies of cooperation. 17 Here I address efficiency arguing that efficiency is not only inadequate as an institutional principle under ecological constraint, but that, as suggested, it actually impedes attempts to reverse biophysical trends in degradation and attempts to get on a sustainable path. I conclude by going beyond the critique to normative development, to proposing a different class of principles—sufficiency principles—which, I claim, address the defining characteristics of current trends, namely criticality, risk export, and evasion of responsibility.


The idea of getting more benefit for a given effort or of investing less to get the same outcome is age-old. It has arguably informed a good deal of biological and cultural evolution. Individuals who can acquire resources with the least expenditure are more likely to survive and to reproduce, passing along their genes and cultural traits. A selection bias for a propensity to seek efficiencies is thus reasonable to infer. [End Page 40]

This natural propensity towards efficiency-seeking made a huge cultural leap with industrialization. The rewards for an efficiency gain were no longer a boost in immediate satisfaction—more meat from a hunting expedition, say—or even a boost in annual yield—more corn from a hectare of land. Rather, the rewards were substantial surpluses, enough to ensure sustenance, even economic prosperity and, most significantly, enough surplus to allow further investment leading to yet more surplus. For the cleverest at capturing such efficiencies, it was as if a perpetual motion machine had been discovered. Prior to industrialization, there were always brakes on continuous expansion: population pressures; technical limits on extracting resources and transporting them; physical barriers like oceans, deserts, and mountains. What is more, ecological constraint was ever present; declining yields signaled overharvesting and the need to forego surplus and shift investments. Now, with advanced metals, steam power and fossil fuels, all those constraints could be set aside—or so it has seemed for the past few centuries. Efficiencies are everywhere for the taking, like clumps of ripe fruit dangling from heretofore unnoticed branches.

The classic site of such gains was the factory. Ever more finely tuned machines followed by ever more specialized labor made for ever more efficiencies, that is, ever more output for that factory, that labor, or that capital investment. Each wave of technological and managerial innovation has been an extension of the same theme: from Adam Smith's pin factory and Armor Swift's meat disassembly plants to Henry Ford's automobile assembly line; from the company town to transnational production platforms; from a division of labor within the factory to a division of labor across the globe; from Fredrick Winslow Taylor's scientific management to flexible specialization; from vertical integration to outsourcing; from real goods to virtual goods. All as if there were no end in sight, no equivalent to insurmountable mountains and uncrossable deserts.

But the process never stopped with technical efficiency gains on the factory floor. Giddy with the cornucopia opened by manufacturing, modern societies now push the efficiency principle to other realms, including to some of the most unlikely institutions. Governments must be "streamlined," waste cut and budgets tightened to perform in a business-like manner, all as if technical changes will "produce" wiser legislation, better administration, and more justice. The news media must find "synergies" with other knowledge-based industries, including entertainment, as if journalistic ideals in a free society will never be compromised by marketeering and centralized ownership. Schools and universities must find "economies of scale" by getting larger, consolidating neighborhood schools into school districts, expanding colleges into major research universities; all as if the fundamentals of a good education, not to mention the search for truth, can be so managed. Communities must relieve traffic congestion so drivers can make better use of their time. Planners expand roadways, erect flow management devices, and move more vehicles through intersections at greater speeds; all done as if enhanced automobile travel has insignificant effects on other modes of transportation (such as walking), on personal safety, and on residential quality of life. Families need time management at home, [End Page 41] master schedules to account for every minute of the day, every day of the week. What is more, family members must minimize the daily drudgery of cleaning, cooking, and maintaining so as to maximize work, education, and recreation. All this scheduling and convenience-seeking occurs as if free time is "wasted time" and self-provisioning is the lowly activity of the poor and backwards.

What was once a useful guide to factory organization has now become a pervasive principle of social organization. Efficiency claims abound, often unquestioned and unexamined. Perhaps most pernicious is the power of the efficiency principle to justify public policies, especially those that skew benefits toward the powerful and away from the weak, and those that displace true costs, especially ecological costs, in time and place. If, for example, a legislator wants to promote factory hog farming, the most "productive" way of getting pounds of pork from an acre of land, he need only argue that this advanced method is more efficient than free-range hog rearing. Public funds are then justified via tax abatements and zoning variances. The actual efficiencies are rarely spelled out, let alone questioned. If they were, they would have to include threats to ground water, spread of livestock disease, public health effects of antibiotics, displacement of family farms, and dissolution of communities. Net gains would be highly questionable. Similarly, if a university administrator wants to spur energy research, she need only show that the expected "return" in grants and patents will exceed the outlay of public and private funds. Such an efficient use of funds would likely ignore the attendant increases in student tuition, decreases in teaching commitments for selected faculty, and elimination of inefficient (read financially uncompetitive) programs.

In the contemporary era, then, efficiency criteria have insinuated themselves into nearly every facet of everyday and professional life. As a principle, efficiency has become hegemonic in the sense that it is so universal, so internalized by nearly everyone in nearly all realms of life, that one hardly thinks about it, let alone questions it. Having moved from its most obvious and possibly most useful application, the factory, to nearly all aspects of human activity, even child rearing and leisure, it has overspilled its boundaries. It is used to skew market benefits, appropriate public funds, and mine resources, including such a vital substance as water, all in the name of "growth" or "development" or "progress." Efficiency has become nearly synonymous with "good" and "better." It has a scientific and technological ring to it and is thus invoked to promote and legitimize nearly any agenda, immune from questioning. It is, moreover, a principle that impinges on other principles, including those critical to sustainable resource use such as restraint, what I lump under the term, sufficiency.

To observe that efficiency is hegemonic, even destructive, in practice, is not to say that other principles do not exist. Even in expansive societies one can find principles consonant with ecological constraint. I turn next to a class of principles that challenge those of efficiency and cooperation. I first develop the broad idea of sufficiency, building it from a simple idea to a broad social organizing principle. Restraint is one of its most directly derived principles. I then touch [End Page 42] upon the precautionary and polluter pays principles which are well developed in the literature and discuss at more length the zero and reverse onus principles.

Principles for Sustainability

Critiques of economic and environmental trends, like mine above, often end by insisting that economic expansion and growth-at-any-cost can not continue, that society must recognize its self-generated predicament and accept that enough is enough. Society must return to the old virtues, frugality and moderation, say, as if such notions are self-evident by themselves, let alone meaningful in the modern, industrial and post-industrial context. Ecological economist Herman Daly has probably done more than anyone to promote the idea of "enough" or optimal scale. Even so, he finds the concept of sufficiency, let alone its application in economic life, to be daunting. In Valuing the Earth, arguably the best collection of work on the social side of sustainability, he argues for a modified utilitarian principle: "sufficient per capita product for the greatest number over time." In so doing, individuals and society have to face questions of purpose—"sufficiency for what? Needed for what?" But Daly also recognizes that asking such questions requires the development and application of an alien concept. "It will be very difficult to define sufficiency and build the concept [of sufficiency] into economic theory and practice. But I think it will prove far more difficult to continue to operate [as if] there is no such thing as enough." 18

Modern society has, of course, found it all too easy to act as if there is never enough and never too much. Consumerism, distancing, absentee ownership, open access and the myriad financial and legal ways of displacing costs in time and space contribute. The need for alternative principles may, in light of current trends, be obvious. Sufficiency principles have the primary virtue, I argue, of dealing directly with issues of environmental criticality, risk export, and responsibility evasion. Sufficiency begins as a simple idea and, under certain conditions, especially ecological constraint, can lead to major social organizing principles, ones that rival, indeed, compete with cooperation and efficiency.

Sufficiency as an idea is straightforward, indeed simple and intuitive, arguably "rational." It is the sense that, as one does more and more of an activity, there can be enough and there can be too much. I eat because I'm hungry but at some point I'm satiated. If I keep eating I become bloated. I go for a walk because it feels good, because I enjoy the movement, the fresh air, and the scenery, but if my physical exertion begins to override my pleasure, I've had enough. If I keep walking to the point where all my attention is on my aching feet and tired legs, I've had too much. I can sense the excess.

Sufficiency is also a commonsensical idea at the collective level when risks are readily perceived and serious. A farmer knows that although everyone in the farm household desires increased yields, the risks associated with uncertain [End Page 43] weather and markets means one can not push the land and the hired hands too hard. A lumber executive knows that a big cut this year will please shareholders and workers alike but, sensing that additional timberland won't be available,the executive must hold back to ensure the cut the next year and the next decade, maybe even the next century. A college president knows the funds and the space for expansion can be raised but decides the college's mission would be compromised with more bureaucratization and more encumbered funding sources.

The idea of sufficiency begins to shift to the principle of sufficiency when structure is needed for enactment, when more than sensory perception of "enoughness" or "too muchness" is needed to recognize excess and to act. If I crave chocolate, I know I must stop eating it well before the craving ends if I am to avoid a severe headache. If I feel especially strong willed that day, I just stop myself after one chocolate bar and a couple of chocolate chip cookies. Otherwise, I have to arrange things in my house so only one chocolate bar and two cookies are available; to get more I'd have to make a trip to town, a considerable inconvenience. What is more, I'd have to so arrange my chocolate supply in advance of my craving. I'd have to plan ahead.

All this arranging is management or, better, self-management. I anticipate my craving and I plan to indulge it because, in fact, I know chocolate not only tastes good but stimulates creative thinking. But I also know there are risks. I can have too much. A few chocolate bars too many and a debilitating headache puts me in bed for an entire day.

In situations like this, I'm just being human; I want more of a good thing. I know I'd enjoy every additional chocolate bar. But with chocolate, as with so many good things, I can not rely on immediate perception and rational response. I cannot wait until I'm satiated to stop eating. Rather, the management of such desires requires guidelines, rules-of-thumb, criteria, norms, principles, especially in situations where individuals or collectivities confront risks to long-term well being. Sufficiency as an idea, as a personally and intuitively sensible goal, thus becomes a principle of management.

A principle is socially useful because it routinely generates particular questions. And it does so not as experiments or occasional challenges to the status quo, but as a continual means of raising and espousing critical values. A management principle broadens to a social organizing principle when rules and procedures regularize collective behavior allowing such questions to arise normally and, hence, protecting and enhancing those critical values. In the process, other values are submerged.

Sufficiency as a class of principles aimed at self-management engages overconsumption. It compels decisionmakers to ask when too much resource use or too little regeneration risks 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. [End Page 44]

Historically, societies have developed related notions—moderation, thrift, frugality, prudence, temperance, reverence—all to restrict the otherwise human tendency to want more of a good thing. The risks were to social cohesion, self-defense, and survival. Among those directly dependent on the land or the seas, the farmers and fishers, for instance, the risks were to future harvests. But other principles of social organization have ascended and eventually dominated—power, caste, and divine right, for example. With industrialization, the ascendant and now dominant principle, I have argued, is efficiency. Eclipsing all others, societies the world over increasingly orient themselves to its precepts, including the values of mobility and specialization. Notions like frugality and prudence have been rendered subordinate, acceptable as a guide for individual behavior perhaps but irrelevant to the designs of society's major institutions: the factory, the laboratory, the market. But these three institutions more than any are responsible for the ever-increasing thermodynamic throughput of modern society. 19 They have been fabulously successful in generating material wealth, extracting raw materials from all corners of the globe, and creating products people will buy. They have made it appear that water is like other valuable liquids such as oil: with effort and new technologies, prospectors can always find more and, with market pricing, it can always be moved to its most productive use. 20

In their heyday, the risks of such endeavors were only foregone opportunities, investments and discoveries that someone else would get to first. In an ecologically "empty world," a world in which human impact is miniscule relative to the extent and regenerative capacity of resources and waste sinks, there were, after all, always more forests to cut, more swamps to drain, more grasslands to plow. For the entrepreneurs and pioneers, being resourceful meant getting the most from nature's bounty, using resources efficiently to be sure, but for immediate gains, for the power or for the sheer pleasure of playing high-stakes games, but not for long-term sustenance. Mistakes might bring financial ruin but resources abounded elsewhere. One just had to pack up and move on. There was always another frontier.

The risks are different now, profoundly serious from the individual to the societal to the global levels, from daily survival for some to successful reproduction for others. Not only are there few true frontiers left but the biophysical underpinnings of human life are in jeopardy. The litany of issues—global warming, extinctions, bioaccumulative toxics, water shortage—is long, well known, and well documented. More of the same, however cooperative, however fine tuned to be efficient, even "eco-efficient," will not reverse the trends. In fact, in [End Page 45] an ecologically "full world" every incremental increase jeopardizes life-support systems. Squeezing out yet another production efficiency, even in the spirit of cooperation, is of little benefit if throughput still increases. 21

Different social organizing principles are desperately needed, ones that are inherently attentive to risks, especially those risks that are displaced in time and place. Sufficiency principles such as restraint, precautionary, polluter pays, zero, and reverse onus, have the virtue of partially resurrecting well-established notions like moderation and thrift, ideas that have never completely disappeared but have only become subordinate to efficiency. They also have the virtue of being highly congruent with global ecological constraint, a congruence not shared by efficiency, and its operational sub-principles, specialization and mobility. By asking how much is enough and how much is too much, one necessarily asks what are the risks, not just in the short term and for the immediate beneficiaries, but what are the risks to those unlikely to realize the benefits, both for the immediate and the long-term.

Restraint, Precautionary, Polluter Pays, Zero, and Reverse Onus

One sufficiency principle is restraint, the behavioral tendency of using less than what is physically or technically or legally or financially possible. Restraint is invoked when ever-increasing use has immediate and tangible benefits yet causes long-term, often intangible and invisible, negative impacts. It is a principle of self-management, of structuring resource use with built-in limits. It may be easiest to see at the individual level (containing a chocolate habit, for example) but it is equally applicable at the organizational level and the level of entire economies.

The precautionary principle states that corrective action is warranted in the face of critical environmental threats even if the science is not conclusive. The polluter pays principle says that those actors primarily responsible for degradation pay for clean-up and amelioration. Although these two principles are regularly challenged by anti-regulatory forces, they have gained considerable currency among environmental policy-makers, domestic and international. The reason is simple: like household fire protection and municipal flood control, it does not take expert knowledge to recognize that when critical environmental support systems are at risk, society does not wait for scientific certainty before taking protective action. And those who benefit most from the economic activity [End Page 46] that creates the risk—industry—should pay. Visions of tainted water and soil or images of personal health threats to self and children are enough to convince most everyone of the inherent wisdom in these principles.

The precautionary and polluter-pays principles evoke sufficiency in the sense that they identify when there has been too much risk and too much displacement of risk. They point toward overconsumption of products and processes. But they do so only after the fact, after the environmental risk is detected (precautionary) or after the environmental insult is made (polluter pays). They are reactive, they do not prescribe current action. They do not compel ex ante examination of humans' tampering with the regenerative and absorptive capacity of ecosystems. They place the burden of proof on scientists or victims while those who experiment with delicate ecological balance proceed apace. The Montreal Protocol on Substances which Deplete the Ozone Layer is a case in point. It only bans known ozone depleting substances. The production of other compounds, including those closely related to the banned substances, are fair game for the innovators and producers until someone can prove the destructive effects. By contrast, the zero and reverse onus principles, along with restraint, are more proactive; they point toward the problem of excess throughput—i.e., sustainability—and away from marginal changes on continuously increasing throughput—i.e., environmental improvement.

The zero principle extends the precautionary principle by stating that compromise solutions—a "balance" between jobs and the environment, for instance—are unacceptable when such compromises serve only to postpone a real solution. Put differently, with critical threats, in the long-term the only solution is to halt the environmental insult. The Montreal Protocol process on ozone depletion exemplifies this aspect of sufficiency. Negotiators could have settled for a compromise, "improving" the environment, by reducing the rate of ozone depletion. If the annual depletion rate was 6%, 3% might have been a reasonable compromise given the impact on industry, jobs, and the economies of exporting and importing nations. Instead, they said that there is no acceptable positive rate of depletion; there is no compromise on the ozone layer. When the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora places a species on its Appendix I, it is saying that any trade jeopardizes the species. Whether or not the biology supports minimal "sustained yields" is immaterial. The realities of cross-border commerce with all the potential for smuggling and counterfeiting make zero the only workable level of use. 22 When the Great Lakes water quality regime took on persistent toxics, substances that "remain in the environment for long periods of time and become widely dispersed, and... bioaccumulate in plants and animals—including humans—that make up the food web," it concluded that these substances "are too dangerous to the biosphere and humans to permit their release in any quantity." 23 [End Page 47]

The zero principle, in short, goes beyond the precautionary principle. It does not just say that action is warranted. It identifies ex ante human interventions that are incompatible with ecosystem functioning. It is preemptive. Much like bans on piracy and slavery, the zero principle recognizes that if a little of a dangerous activity is allowed, more is likely, and catastrophe is possible, even likely. 24

The principle of reverse onus states that the burden of proof is on those who would intervene into critical life support systems. Today, one can harvest a forest or invent a chemical and it is the responsibility of others—downstream residents, regulators, atmospheric or oceanic scientists, environmentalists, waste managers, labor representatives—to demonstrate harm. The Montreal Protocol, as noted, only bans known ozone depleting substances. Anyone with a lab and stock chemicals can concoct a substance that resembles CFCs or HCFCs, produce it by the ton (especially if it has commercial application), and dump it or its by-products in the atmosphere. Reverse onus would reverse such license. It would say that experiments in tightly controlled labs are generally acceptable but experiments on the atmosphere and water systems and the like are not. The would-be intervenor in such systems must demonstrate that harm is extremely unlikely, and do so before the environmental experiment is carried out. 25 Like the zero principle, reverse onus is pre-emptive.

As cautionary as sufficiency principles are, a word of caution is in order. Sufficiency, like other classes of principles, is not perfect. It can be abused. Leaders could adopt sufficiency as a means of quelling the aspirations of the impoverished or powerless, to justify inequality and undemocratic practices in the name of ecological integrity. A robust usage—ecological and social sustainability—might mitigate such abuses. A comprehensive normative framework would have to include other principles, though, those oriented to democratic values such as human rights and justice.


Among the three classes of organizing principles, cooperation principles are sensitive to conflict, especially to the need to defuse tension and prevent violence, and to democratic ideals—fairness, non-discrimination, human rights. Efficiency principles are sensitive to technical and economic aims—avoiding [End Page 48] waste and matching technological possibility and achievement to human wants and needs.

Pursued to their logical ends, the goals of cooperation and efficiency are, in principle, unassailable "goods." But in practice they are good only when "all else is equal," when, among other things, biophysical underpinnings remain intact and ecological systems regenerate. When they do not—as an overwhelming body of biophysical research indicates—different principles are needed. To arrest declines in ecosystem functioning, cooperation and efficiency are not enough. As seemingly all-purpose principles, they have the character of "motherhood and apple pie," but their pursuit may actually thwart ecological restoration and sustainable use by helping key actors disguise, displace, and postpone true costs. Squeezing out yet another production efficiency, even in the spirit of cooperation, is of little benefit if throughput still increases.

Analysts concerned about such decline and witness to such cost displacement and responsibility evasion would do well to shift their attention from cooperation and efficiency, from description and explanation, to norm building and empirical grounding. Efficiency and cooperation have served humans well. But they have done so under conditions unique to the resource conditions of the last 300 years. Under other conditions, namely, environmental criticality, a different set of principles is needed, a set that embodies social restraint as the logical analog to ecological constraint, a set that guides human activities when those activities pose grave risks to human survival. Sufficiency—restraint, precautionary, polluter pays, zero, reverse onus, and principles like them—is a class of principles sensitive to critical environmental risks, risk export, and the evasion of responsibility for generating such risks. Scholars will serve policy-makers and citizens to the extent they can effectively articulate and empirically ground such principles, sensitive to the limits of such principles, and to their potential for abuse.


Thomas Princen is Associate Professor of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan (USA), where he also co-directs the Workshop on Consumption and Environment. He is co-editor, with Michael Maniates and Ken Conca, of Confronting Consumption (2002), coauthor with Matthias Finger, of Environmental NGOs in World Politics: Linking the Local and the Global (1994) and author of Intermediaries in International Conflict (1995). He is completing a book entitled The Logic of Sufficiency: Management and Self- Management in an Ecologically Constrained World.


Barlow, Maude. 1999. Blue Gold: The Global Water Crisis and the Commodification of theWorld's Water Supply. Sausalito, Calif: International Forum on Globalization, June.

Boulding, Kenneth E. 1993. The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth. In Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics, edited by Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend, 297-309. Cambridge, MA,: MIT Press.

Cosgrove, William J., and Frank R. Rijsberman, for World Water Council. 2000. World Water Vision. London: Earthscan and World Water Council.

Costanza, Robert, Bobbi S. Low, Elinor Ostrom, and James Wilson, eds. 2001. Institutions, Ecosystems, and Sustainability. Boca Raton, FL: Lewis Publishers.

Daly, Herman E. 1993. The Steady-State Economy. In Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics, edited by Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend, 325-363. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [End Page 49]

Dryzek, John S. 1987. Rational Ecology: Environment and Political Economy. New York: Basil Blackwell.

Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1993. Selections from "Energy and Economic Myths." In Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics, edited by Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend, 89-112. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gleick, Peter H. 1993. Water and Conflict: Fresh Water Resources and International Security. International Security 18: 79-112.

_______. 1998 and 2000. The World's Water: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Herring, Horace. 2002. Is Energy Efficiency Environmentally Friendly? Energy & Environment 11: 313-325.

International Joint Commission. 1992. Sixth biennial report on Great Lakes Water Quality. Windsor, Ontario.

Jevons, Stanley W. 1865. The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines. London: Macmillan

Postel, Sandra. 1999. Pillar of Sand: Can the Irrigation Miracle Last? New York: Norton.

_______. 2001. Growing More Food with Less Water. Scientific American 284: 46-51.

Postel, Sandra L., and Aaron T. Wolf. 2001. Dehydrating Conflict. Foreign Policy September.

Princen, Thomas. 1994. Toward a Theory of the International Political Economy of Sustainability. International Studies Notes 19: 40-43.

_______. 1996. The Zero Option and Ecological Rationality in International Environmental Politics. International Environmental Affairs 8: 147-176.

_______. 1998. From Property Regime to International Regime: An Ecosystem Perspective. Global Governance 4: 395-413.

_______. 2002a. Consumption and Its Externalities: Where Economy Meets Ecology. In Confronting Consumption, edited by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates and Ken Conca, 23-42. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

_______. 2002b. Distancing: Consumption and the Severing of Feedback. In Confronting Consumption, edited by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates and Ken Conca, 103-132. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Princen, Thomas, Michael Maniates, and Ken Conca. 2002a. Conclusion: To Confront Consumption. In Confronting Consumption, edited by Thomas Princen, Michael Maniates and Ken Conca, 317-328. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

_______, eds. 2002b. Confronting Consumption. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Rudin, Andrew. 2002. DSM: Ten Years Later. Engineered Systems May: 80-82.


* The author wishes to thank Peter Dauvergne, Paul Grover, David Katz, Willet Kempton, Michael Maniates, Matthew Paterson, Ian Robinson, Andrew Rudin, Marc Williams, and three anonymous reviewers for useful comments on earlier drafts.

1. For development of the concept of overconsumption as distinguished from misconsumption and natural consumption, see Princen, Maniates, and Conca 2002b, especially chapter 2, "Consumption and its Externalities: Where Economy Meets Ecology" (Princen 2002a).

2. This is not to say that socially concerned analysts must become activists, abandon their methods and take up banners. It is to say that we analysts must acknowledge the fact that few of us enter this business (scholarship—research and teaching) without social concerns. Moreover, those concerns unavoidably inform our choices of research topics. The two—concern and scholarship—go hand in hand. But all too many analysts balk at carrying the logic forward: from concern to analysis to prescription. The reason for such reluctance, I imagine, has a lot to do with notions of scientific objectivity, the separation of research and "politics," and just a personal aversion to doing anything outside the lab or archive.

A premise of this essay is that carrying the concern and analysis forward to prescription is not only logical, it is imperative. From a social change perspective, the critical step—normative analysis and applied prescription—can not be left to others. In the policy arena, those who try to maintain the purity of their science by eschewing the "politics" inevitably and unavoidably leave it to those who understand very little of that science; they in turn end up making the translation into action.

3. One reason for this emphasis on environmental improvement is the reluctance or inability of social scientists to ground their theorizing in the biophysical. Economics, curiously enough, is the only discipline that has made serious efforts—albeit well out of the mainstream discipline. See for example Georgescu-Roegen 1993; Boulding 1993; and Daly 1993. For attempts within an institutionalist tradition, see Costanza, Low, Ostrom, and Wilson 2001; and Princen 1998. Another reason is the fact that the economic strands of the various disciplines focus on production. See Princen, Maniates, and Conca 2002.

4. Gleick 1998 and 2000; Cosgrove and Rijsberman 2000; Postel 1999; and Postel 2001.

5. Postel and Wolf 2001, 61.

6. Gleick 1993, 79-112.

7. Personal communication, David Katz, 2002.

8. Postel and Wolf 2001,60.

9. Postel and Wolf 2001, 65-66.

10. Postel and Wolf 2001, 65.

11. Postel and Wolf 2001, 62.

12. Dryzek 1987.

13. Cosgrove and Rijsberman 2000, 32.

14. For a critique of consumer sovereignty and its appropriation to promote economic growth, see the concluding chapter, "Conclusion: To Confront Consumption," in Princen, Maniates, and Conca 2002b.

15. Cosgrove and Rijsberman 2000, 32-45. Italics in original.

16. I use "normative neutrality" only with respect to trends in natural resource and waste sink use. Cooperation and efficiency as classes of principles are normative with respect to other goals—democracy, justice, and economic growth, for instance.

17. Princen 1994.

18. Daly and Townsend 1993, 360-361.

19. Certainly population growth and imperialism rank with expansionist industrialism as big drivers in ever-increasing throughput. Because these only have a distant relation to my central topic, however, I restrict the discussion to the efficiency-driven component.

20. For a critique of privatization as a solution to the world water crisis, see Barlow 1999. For arguments in support of privatization, see Cosgrove and Rijsberman 2000.

21. That throughput increases with efficiency gains is a debatable point, one that rests in part on one's definition, or rhetorical use, of efficiency. But automobile fuel economies may be the clearest case, at least in North America. Since the oil shocks of the 1970s, auto engines have become more efficient, that is, they can get more miles per gallon or, probably more accurately, they can get more miles per gallon per horsepower per ton of vehicle weight. When miles, horsepower, and weight all increase, consumption, and emissions, all increase. Similar stories can be told about coal, street and building lighting, agricultural production (and topsoil loss, water consumption, and chemical pollution), and, indeed, water use (which has increased faster than population). See, for example, Rudin 2002; Herring 2002; and Jevons 1865.

22. For discussion of the logic of cross border "shading and distancing," see Princen 2002b.

23. International Joint Commission 1992, 15. Emphasis in original.

24. This cautious quality of the zero principle can also be found in the current international trade regime's prohibition against discriminatory trade barriers. The risk, in this case, is a replay of depression and world war. For elaboration of the logic of the zero principle and prohibition regimes, see Princen 1996.

25. There are industries that, in effect, have to abide by a principle of reverse onus. The pharmaceutical industry is probably the best case, but certain weapons industries may be subject as well. It would be a useful exercise to catalog such industries and show how the threats they pose to society are at least analogous to that imposed by industries and consumers that risk essential ecosystem services.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.