The Logic of Sufficiency

princenThomas Princen’s The Logic of Sufficiency builds on the sustainable economics theory of Herman Daly, which I’ve written about before on these pages. In this book, sufficiency is suggested as the underlying organizing and decision-making principle for economic activities, replacing efficiency. After laying out the theory in Part One of the book he illustrates its application (and how it came to him) through a series of real-life case studies taken from very different economic situations around the world.

The principle of efficiency, which is currently driving our global economy over a cliff, is compelling because it is simple: even people as unimaginative, lacking in foresight, and stupid as corporate executives, politicians, lawyers and speculators can ‘get it’ and see how to make it work for them. No matter that it is unsustainable — that is not their problem. The principle of efficiency (my paraphrasing) is:

Produce as much as you can of everything as cheaply as possible. Ignore or refuse all costs that can be ‘externalized’ (dumped off on others, like foreigners, breathers of fouled air, and future generations). Let the ‘market’ (i.e. those who’ve inherited the money, or who have had the guile to get it one way or another) decide who gets what’s produced, and at what price.

Can’t get much dumber than that, in either sense of the word.

By contrast, the principle of sufficiency (again my paraphrasing) is:

Through collective, networked community-based self-management, allow an understanding of what would optimize the well-being of all life in the ecosystem, balancing all interests and appreciating natural constraints, to decide what is needed.Agree to produce only, but generously, what is needed, accepting and addressing all costs of production. Collectively, distribute what is needed to those who need it.

Much more complex, and vastly more difficult to scale. As Princen shows, this works fine, in the absence of efficiency-cult competitive pressure, for family farms, locally owned hardware stores, owner-operated fishing boats, and timber companies with no place to expand. But sufficiency, unlike efficiency, requires broad, decentralized, consensual, networked decision-making to assess what is needed, who needs it, and how best to produce and distribute it. Messy, time consuming and, of course, inefficient. It works fine at the small, local level where the ecosystem is already sustainable and where self-management is intuitive. But what happens when you have a city of 20 million people, with no raw materials of their own for production, in a climate that is fiercely hostile unless mitigated by ubiquitous and horrifically expensive artificial environments, and surrounded by a rural area that is desertified or soil- and water-impoverished to the point that almost all production materials need to be brought in from the opposite side of the world?

Princen uses three main examples (the Pacific Lumber Company, Monhegan Lobstering, and Toronto Island’s refusal to accept a fixed link or automobiles), and a host of smaller examples (Swiss dairy commons, cod fishing in Northern Norway, beef grazing on Marajo Island in the Amazon) to show that the principle of sufficiency can work and is working, and that it is consistent with human nature and collective human interest to strive for it. Alas, the Pacific Lumber example, after decades of success, has succumbed to the cult of efficiency, and, thanks to massive right-wing lobbying by huge moneyed interests, Toronto Island is being forced to accept it against its will. “Non-ecological rationalists will never be convinced. We’re talking about two fundamentally opposed worldviews. One sees human potential everywhere, irreversible decline nowhere. The other sees trends that portend permanent diminution of livability, even of life on Earth…Even the most committed environmentalists have trouble imagining approaches that do not emphasize taxes and subsidies, lawsuits and boycotts, and most prevalent perhaps, ‘environmental education’.”

The most important part of this book is left unfinished: The Logic of Sufficiency lays out the beginnings of a set of principles, assumptions and connecting theory for rationally and collectively self-managing complex adaptive systems (which almost all natural and social systems substantially are). It is to be hoped that Princen will work with Snowden and other thought leaders working in the practical applications of complex adaptive systems theory to move these principles, assumptions and theory forward into something truly workable.

A significant part of the book is devoted to deconstructing the well-worn arguments in favour of sticking with the cult of efficiency as the driver and decision-maker of our economy, and the related principles used to prop it up when it falters: cooperation (which is as likely to thwart sustainability as promote it), equity, sovereignty and ‘private’ property, maximization of output, productivity*, the ‘sovereign consumer’, specialization, mobility. I’ll avoid trying to summarize this section of the book, since I suspect I would be preaching to the choir.

I confess the elements of the theory of sufficiency come across as a bit incoherent to me, and Princen says specifically that the book offers only some ‘possible directions’ towards such a theory. But here is a catalogue of some of these elements, that presumably have a place in such a theory:

  • the principle of restraint (changing one’s own behaviours to adapt to changes in constraints — ‘absorbing the problem’ rather than trying to ‘solve’ it)
  • the resiliency principle (creating buffers, cushions and reserves to reduce vulnerability and fragility)
  • the principle of resource primacy (valuing a resource as a part of a functioning, self-managing system, not as a consumable for liquidation)
  • decision criteria that resist overharvesting, depletion, waste accumulation, incomplete costing, uncontrolled ‘positive feedback’, irreversibility, nonsubstitutability, overconsumption, excess throughput, and limited regenerative capacities
  • the principle of respite
  • mechanisms that enable ‘negative feedback’ to be introduced to counter and rebalance unsustainable ‘positive feedback’
  • the precautionary principle
  • the polluter pays principle
  • the principle of selectively permeable boundaries
  • the principle of zero tolerable limits on and virtual elimination of persistent toxins
  • the reverse onus principle (burden of proof of safety and sustainability is moved to the proposed resource developer/user)
  • the principle of self-determined and self-directed work
  • a long-term decision-making orientation
  • self-acknowledgement of humans and human activity as part of (not apart from) the ecosystem — we are part of the environment, it is not ‘out there’ (giving a whole new much broader meaning to self-management than merely management by humans)
  • the principle of information preservation (appreciation of the value of long-standing, proven human practices, techniques and preferences)
  • appreciation that in complex adaptive systems, predictability is highly limited

These elements together are not only practical, but inherently rational — they create a coherent economic framework that is sustainable and that works. This ‘ecological rationality’, in complexity terms, is an emergent self-organizing property of communal effort cognizant of the biophysical and social constraints of capacity and impact. In short, it makes sense, and can be proffered as a superior model to the efficiency model, as more and more people come to realize that that the efficiency model is unsustainable and no longer makes sense.

The book includes a great quote from Kay & Schneider’s article Embracing Complexity from the 1994 Alternatives journal:

Systems theory suggests that ecosystems are inherently complex, that there may be no simple answers, and that our traditional managerial approaches, which presume a world of simple rules, are wrong-headed and likely to be dangerous. In order for the scientific method to work, an artificial situation of consistent reproducibility must be created. This requires simplification of the situation to the point where it is controllable and predictable. But the very nature of this act removes the complexity that leads to emergence of the new phenomena which makes complex systems interesting. If we are going to deal successfully with our biosphere, we are going to have to change how we do science and management. We will have to learn that we can’t manage ecosystems, we manage our interactions with them. Furthermore, the search for simple rules of ecosystem behaviour is futile.

One of the interesting arguments of the book is that the cult of efficiency, despite its ease of grasping, implementation, scaling and exploitation, is inherently contrary to and troubling to human nature. A truly untrammeled efficient market would allow the rich, for example, to harvest vital human organs from the poor, and to buy and sell children for labour and recreational purposes, yet such ‘sensible’ markets are anathema to every principle of humanity. While we do have tendencies toward self-interest, we also often show deep-rooted altruism and appreciation of thinking far beyond our own areas and life-spans. People have an innate sense of activity that is excessive and irresponsible and an instinctive revulsion to it (Bhopal, Exxon Valdez). We revile the crooks of Enron, rather than admiring them as models of self-interested economic opportunism. We don’t like clear-cut forests, strip mines and vast, relentlessly cruel factory farms. We do care about future generations, about struggling nations that accept our toxic waste out of desperation. We know that collectives, though they may not scale well, can work well on a small scale. We are inherently joiners and believers in doing the right thing, and, even, activists. We are inherently, and always have and always will be, problem-solvers, not passive consumers and not material maximizers. We have it in us to create a sustainable economy, an economy of sufficiency.

Here are my two favourite quotes from the book:

Today, with the imperative to translate the self-evident limits of a single planet into the limits of everyday life, the organizing principle might be sufficiency. Such a translation is unlikely, arguably impossible, under the logic of a consumer economy where specialization, large-scale operation, and consumer demand prevail. It is possible, though, when work follows the rhythms of task and nature, when the work is self-directed and generalist, and when work is more a calling than a job. It is possible under a logic of enough work and enough consumption.

Go to your local transport planning board meeting (or city council or zoning meeting) and wait for the issue of parking to arise. After all the proposals for dealing with ‘inadequate’ parking are aired, stand up and say something like this: “Maybe we have too much parking. Or we will have too much parking if present trends continue. Maybe what we should be doing, rather than planning for new garages and bigger lots, is deciding how much parking is too much, and then plan everything else around that: bike lanes, pedestrian crossings, public transit and whatnot.” Then brace yourself for the barrage.

This book is an important advance in thinking about complexity and sustainability, and I recommend it for anyone planning to create, or even thinking about creating, models of a better way to live or make a living. We need to work together to develop a theory of sufficiency and sustainability, so that, in the face of the deniers and technophiles and efficiency luddites, we can not only say that our models are intuitively superior, but also show compellingly that they are more rational. We have a lot of work to do.

* The book includes a wonderful side-essay deconstructing the myths of ‘productivity’, remarkably similar insentiment and argument to my recent controversial article on the subject.

This entry was posted in Preparing for Civilization's End. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Logic of Sufficiency

  1. Ellen LaConte says:

    Surely I have just discovered the twin brother from whom I was separted at birth. Except that I am 60 and not nearly as clever. But I AM–following instinct, or intuition, as I too have learned late to do — finishing up a book I’ve been working on passionately for three years called Critical Mass. Critical Mass, for my purposes, is the sum of the environmental, economic, social and political consequences of breaking Life’s rules and living beyond Earth’s means. The attitude of sufficiency, the practices of subsistence and methods of self-organizing along Life’s lines that I call organic democracy for the purpose of organizing local democracultures and regional and inter-regional networks of them are what I offer into the Daly, Princen, Pollard, Elgin, Dominguez-Robin, Porto Alegre, James Robertson, et al soup.So I will continue to read your blog — I’m just entering the blogosphere myself having been happily and necessarily in retreat for a number of years — and reference it and be grateful for it.I’m with you on immune system dysfunction and healing, too.

  2. Karen M says:

    I just indulged in a small rant on a related topic on the train the other day… with a tolerant acquaintance. Shorter version: I blame the profession of accountants, because when they strayed from accounting, and into managing businesses, they expected (demanded?) returns over much shorter time spans, quarterly or even monthly.In the past, businesses were usually run by people who knew, understood, and maybe even loved their business. The knew its cycles, and its ups and downs. Accountants, however, would not allow the desirability of understanding such variations. And making money became about businesses spending too much time buying other businesses, and holding too much debt, and effectually killing them, when they should have been minding their own business. And here we are now (stateside anyway) with little industry and manufacturing to call our own, and we’re only slightly better off in the service industries. If we have learned nothing else in the past few years, we should should learned that redundancy is vastly underrated. Katrina, health care crisis, bankruptcies, massive layoffs, etc. have all demonstrated how easy it is for people to fall through the safety net, when you’re lucky if there is even one.Yet, those who have contributed to creating this mess, will instead point to Halliburton et al as demonstrating a need for more efficiency, rather than more redundancy. Hah! Halliburton really demonstrates the need for more “account”ability. I say, let’s make the accountants return to their proper sphere: holding the numbers and their handlers accountable. And leave the running of businesses to the people who love them. Or at least understand them.

  3. Karen M says:

    My apologies to any accountants among Dave’s readers. I do distinguish competent individuals from unmanageable groups.

  4. Jon Husband says:

    Shorter version: I blame the profession of accountants, because when they strayed from accounting, and into managing businesses, they expected (demanded?) returns over much shorter time spans, quarterly or even monthly.I have often called a subset of this “the revenge of the cost accountants” .. probably in response to having been called “boring” once too often … which in turn has led to the “business case-ification” of everything under the sun.Now, understanding the business case for initiatives is obviously an essential exercise to carry out, but all too often it has been used as the core (or only) driver for any decision while not taking into consideration many other aspects of a “system” .. that whole ‘complexity” thing Dave is on about.

  5. Karen M says:

    Indeed. Jon, you probably could have written my comment for me, and much better. (I peeked at your web site.) My rant was strictly a lay person’s, as I have no real qualifications, and just my own observations. I did have some exposure, though, now that I think of it, as an in-law to a very successful “small-business” entrepreneur (~300-500 employees ?) in my 20’s who had little patience for those he termed “bean-counters.” Perhaps, he just resented needing them. Perhaps, though, I might not have noticed some of the things I have without that exposure. It’s a lovely thing to read Dave’s posts and the (other) comments they inspire, and the sites I come across, as a result.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Heh…As some of you know, I am a Chartered Accountant. Alas, the profession does attract a lot of narrow minds, traditional, unimaginative thinkers, and staunch believers in conventional wisdom. In particular, they believe that what they measure with such meticulous attention actually means something. But in their defence, a lot of accountants who care about their customers and think outside the box have actually acquired a lot of useful knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, and are very sympathetic with ideas related to sufficiency and sustainability. After all, it makes logical sense, and accountants are always attracted to that, even when it’s not quite as neat and cut-and-dried as they might like.

Comments are closed.