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12.14.2012
Review> Ecology of Means
Jeffrey Hogrefe reviews Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order by Thomas Princen.
Courtesy MIT Press

Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order
Thomas Princen
MIT Press, $24.00

The premise of Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order by Thomas Princen is that we can write our way into a new future. “It is through language that we see and construct the world…new ideas, new principles, new language for a sustainable world,” Princen writes. He presents an approach to writing as a form of language making for a future that can lead to “The New Normal,” in which sustainable thinking becomes standard thinking in the same way that writing led to an end to slavery in the nineteenth century.

A professor of social and ecological sustainability at the University of Michigan, Princen is the author of The Logic of Sufficiency, an award-winning, 2005 environmental treatise that seems to have contributed at least in part to the heart of his new text.

Here is a “third view” portrayed in stories—vignettes, anecdotes, histories, case studies, a parable, and fanciful dialogue—all of which appear to have been imagined, at least to this reader, in the spirit of Gregory Bateson’s multiple modes of inquiry and rhetorical inventions that were presented in Steps to an Ecology of Mind—the 1972 classic in the field of ecology and cybernetics theory.

At a time when Glenn Murcutt and many other architects are proposing that a building should touch the earth lightly, the title Treading Softy by itself seems worthy of any reader seeking another approach to the discourse of consumption and expansion that has informed the political literature of the 2012 presidential campaign. Princen asserts: “The story of the twenty first century is a fundamental shift—away from incessant filling of waste sinks and depleting of natural capital and toward fertile soil; clean, free-flowing water; genetic diversity in crops and wildlife; and cultural diversity in peoples and communities. The story of the twenty first century is living within our means, biophysical and social. It is treading softly on land that can’t take much more.”

Divided into three sections that lay out the problem, introduce the solution, and offer practical applications for arriving at the new normal, Treading Softly brings together teaching stories and an approach to work, love, and play that is grounded in 19th-century idealism and the emergent practices of 20th-century systems and networks analysis. Those old enough to remember Jimmy Carter’s cardigan-sweater appeal to turn down the thermostat may be bemused by this “new” proposition. Nevertheless, Princen advocates reductionism as a solution to most of the environmental problems and presents those solutions in an appealing breakdown of categories such as sufficiency, capping, and sourcing. These categories illustrate the ways in which networks and systems can operate alongside the ideal scenarios Princen presents, such as one about the sufficiency of the lobster fishermen of Monhegen Island.

In the most convincing section of the book, the author divides ecological thinking into “worldviews” of the environment that can shift with the changing fortunes of present conditions. The “Naturist” worldview says that the environment is all about matter and energy and living things, all of which would exist whether humans existed or not. The “Mechanist” view sees the environment as interlocking pieces of atoms and molecules. The “Agrarian” view is interventionist and managerial, involving direct interaction with the land, such as practiced by the lobster fishermen studied in the book. In the “Economistic” worldview, everything of concern is reducible to money or hypothetical utilities, and all is substitutable.

These worldviews could have created a lens through which to view a variety of scenarios and to establish a convincing proposition, had the writing in the book been fleshed out to a meet the ambition of the manifesto.

While Bateson offered “steps” to an ecology of mind, Princen’s “paths” to treading softly prompted this reader to return to Bateson’s steps to see what is possible in language formations of new types of ideas aggregating into minds that are capable of imagining another way of thinking. Writing that can project an idea forward is an advanced form of prose, as anyone who has struggled to write a competition proposal knows. Surely, then, writing can change the ways in which rhetoric is constructed and metaphors deployed—and in this way undo “slavery.” For language forms in bits and pieces in the mind before the territory becomes the map, and revised assumptions about speech are formative and epistemological.

Princen’s metaphors, which he hopes will excite a reader to share in his passion for the future, are sometimes strained. However, he successfully encourages readers to challenge core assumptions about the construction of words such as “the economy and environment,” and to see the ways in which systems and networks might be reimagined and reinvigorated when motivated by a desire to move to an environmental future that offers plausible scenarios for the way we might live with less. “The aim of this book is to make such living seem possible, even desirable. It is to create images of the possible—images that are realistic when the debts and deferred costs and dependencies are taken into account. It is to imagine a material system, an ‘economy,’ that is actually economical regarding the very resources it rests upon. It is to lay the groundwork for an ecological order.”

Jeffrey Hogrefe

Jeffrey Hogrefe is an associate professor of Architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.