ReviewThe Logic of Sufficiency. By Thomas Princen. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. 401 pp.

As the air and water of modernity become murkier and murkier by the rush-hour of globalization, it is becoming clearer and clearer that contemporary society in the West has lost (or violently destroyed) its own sense of what is enough. Narratives of perpetual growth, fueled by a belief in the inerrancy of “progress” and “development,” abound—we’re literally drowning in them, especially if you take stock in peak-oil theory and its prophecy of the demise of American suburbia.

Shortly after the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, I read a newspaper article that toyed with the idea of building some kind of mammoth offshore mechanism that would divert or assuage the forces of a tsunami were one to threaten the Pacific Northwest. More recently, I came across another article that suggested we send a giant glass shield into orbit that would deflect the sun’s heat and effectively slow the effects of global warming. The fundamental assumption beneath all this is at least two-fold: that our technology can only get better with time while producing no long-term consequences and, as our political leaders have repeatedly insisted, that the American way of life is non-negotiable.

Fortunately, the political leaders of the West, while they can buy up farmland and convert wilderness to cookie-cutter-beige-suburban-chain-store landscapes, can lay no claim to the last word. They are never the sole actors.

On the other hand, there are more than enough hacks who have the next superficial, world-saving paradigm shift to sell in a Barnes and Noble paperback for an extra dime and a self-imposed pat on the back. The climate for real change can get depressing. Wading through run-of-the-mill paradigm shifters isn’t dissimilar to strolling through a landfill in search of a wilderness experience. But such a discovery isn’t impossible. An encounter with Thomas Princen’s recent book, The Logic of Sufficiency, is like stumbling over a sweet-smelling sapling of Sitka spruce amid the broken beer bottles and banana peels of useless and self-serving ideologies.

Princen’s argument in the book is directed largely at contemporary economics. His approach, as the title suggests, is based on the question of “sufficiency” as opposed to “efficiency”—the latter having gained religious stature among contemporary economists. In short, he seeks to imagine what would happen if our economic policy was based on the principle of “enough” rather than “as much as possible.”

I’m often skeptical of people who endorse the status quo in order to engender change—a logic that too often leads folks to insist “It’s just the way it is; deal with it.” I’m inclined to chalk them up as moderates, recalling Martin Luther King, Jr.’s indictment of the white moderate, “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” King insists, rather, “the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.”1 Princen’s book is perched precariously on that line, but his arguments may be subtle enough to engender a palpable shift in the current economic paradigm. The reason for this is that his analysis not only intelligently critiques the dominant economic modus operandi but it just-as-intelligently critiques the abounding logics of complete overhaul. “‘Restructuring’ and ‘rethinking’ are certainly in order,” he writes in the preface, “yet the proposed solutions tend to be more of the same: use resources more efficiently.”2 He goes on to note that “[sufficiency] is often mentioned in environmental critiques and in calls for new thinking and new directions. But nowhere . . . has it been developed in a systematic way” (vii). As a remedy, his book attempts to do just that.

The book is organized into two parts: a theoretical and a practical. Part one develops the theoretical underpinnings of sufficiency as a new economic principle, contrasting it smartly and thoroughly to the efficiency principle. The third chapter details the “brief and curious” (and I’ll add “terrifying”) history of efficiency in Western economics, marked by movements such as “Taylorism,” Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific production management system that stressed “labor efficiency” over profits and industrial growth (the latter two, the system showed, would follow the former). Taylorism instigated, Princen writes, “the American efficiency craze” of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century. He cites books such as The Efficient Age, Efficient Living, and Personal Efficiency, which pushed for “social efficiency”—a belief that “efficiency was the means to social harmony” (64). Numerous journals arose, such as Efficiency Magazine,Efficiency Magazine and Sales Manager, and 100%: The Practical Magazine of Efficient Management (published by The Efficiency Company). A favorite article from one such publication is entitled “The Waste of Getting Tired.” Several “efficiency societies” emerged, too, including The Taylor Society and The Efficiency Society of New York (66). Princen’s research on the subject of efficiency is exhaustive. From here, he moves onto an entire chapter about a simple economic efficiency tool: the ratio. He argues that the ratio, as it is used in economic modeling, is never merely technical, but rather has become one of the most powerful rhetorical tools in what amounts to economic advertising on a super-national scale. He notes that we use ratios extensively in our everyday lives (e.g. our hourly wage, the bandwidth of our internet connection, or, especially lately in light of heightened oil prices, the fuel efficiency of our cars). “But,” he writes, “we rarely stop to ask why we are using a particular set of numbers and units, let alone deign to uncover their full meaning or challenge the prerogatives of those who successfully appropriate them” (87). Take miles-per-gallon: Princen suggests that the MPG ratio used so successfully by auto-makers lately (especially in the push for hybrid rather than full electric cars) fails to ask what is excluded, “such as total miles driven, or the speed driven, or drivers’ patterns of accelerating and braking.” He then notes that after the oil crisis of the 1970’s, as fuel efficiency increased, “total fuel consumption increased, too. Each of those cars got more miles for a gallon of gasoline burned. But more cars hit the roads, each car drove farther and faster, and governments built more roads” (95). Thus, with a simple binary, the miles-per-gallon ratio, while trumpeting the efficiency of modern cars, perpetuates the illusion that more efficient engines reduce fuel consumption and help “save the environment.” Instead, consumers realize that they can drive many more miles for the same price, unwittingly buying and burning the same amount of gasoline. Therefore, Princen suggests, increased fuel efficiency has tended historically not to decrease, but rather to increase the consumption of gasoline as automobile transportation becomes a more viable economic option, regardless of environmental impact.

The implicit danger of binary thinking emerges strongly from the argument. Predictably, the final chapter of part one imagines what a logic of sufficiency might do to consumption, citing as a jumping-point the great enclosure of the British commons from the 1700’s through 1845. Before then, Princen argues, the common lands were used and cared for under a logic of sufficiency since the interested parties—the land-workers themselves—had a physical investment in the health of the land for both themselves and their livestock. The logic was based, he suggests, in “work,” which he defines as “activities that are necessary for survival or reproductive success and that are generally burdensome, unpleasant, tedious, or lacking in any intrinsic satisfaction other than procuring necessities” (131). This logic, Princen argues, following the likes of Wendell Berry, is grown out of a necessary but often lacking connection between consumption and environment. He waxes a bit classical when he suggests that such work ought to “satisfy the actor in some important way; they demand focused attention and acquired skills and result in a sense of competence, of ‘doing a job right’” (131). But I don’t mind the occasional positive value in scholarly writing, especially in arguments of such import, and in such well-worn clothes. There are Christological tones here, too—resonances of lilies and ravens and trusting in divine rhythms for provision.

Having spent half a book developing a systematic theory of sufficiency-against- efficiency, Princen spends the remainder discussing three case studies of companies or groups that have instituted some variation on an economics of sufficiency. The move to praxis is a welcome one, effectively lifting the theory supporting it out of the mire of, well, mere theory. He begins with the famous Pacific Lumber Company, which, until it was bought-out in the last few years, had exhibited exceptional longevity and continual financial stability while continuing to under-harvest its timber stands. The second study details the sustainable lobster practices of Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. And finally, Princen discusses the peculiar history of Toronto Island, an offshore neighborhood just under a mile across the bay from downtown Toronto, which has opted (via years of continuing struggle) to disallow easy automobile access to its community. The three case studies can grow a bit tedious in the reading—possibly a consequence of my penchant for the literary rather than the economical—but it is hard to argue against their persuasiveness. Princen works hard to incorporate some personal accounts and human accents into the economical drone.

Princen is certainly up against overwhelming forces. Implementing a logic of sufficiency on a large scale in American economics is a scary thought, considering that the possible consequences include the leveling of the wealthy elite—or, to put it in weightier terms, the demolition of the American plutocracy. Private wealth has proven to be arguably the most powerful force history has known, not to mention, as Paul wrote to Timothy, the root of all kinds of evil. Such a high-pressure task as Princen has undertaken is bound to develop structural weaknesses, and sufficieny is not invulnerable. My major criticism of the book is that it conveniently leans a little heavy on Northern, predominantly white, middle- to upper-middle class situations for its material support—a logging company in Northern California, an secluded semi-urban neighborhood of Toronto, and a Maine lobstering island reminiscent of Nantucket—nothing even approaching the Mason-Dixon line. The relative hegemony of cultural forces at work in Princen’s studies appear somewhat lighter and subject to fewer variables than culturally, racially, and religiously more diverse regions. This emerges in the prose surrounding the book’s second part—Princen, despite arguing for “what is enough,” tends to repeat similar principles of sufficiency as they apply to similar situations almost ad nauseum towards the end of the book.

In the interest of optimism, I’ll chalk up these insufficiencies as the inevitable and necessary quirks in a brand new machine. Ultimately, it is deeply exciting to imagine what kind of real shift in economic thinking this book might inspire. With The Logic of Sufficiency, Princen has dug up just enough topsoil and laid down just enough manure to make a rich field for future farmers and a rich economic picture for future framers. And, just when it seems like it could be too much, the book itself is lovely, sporting a sleek and strangely seductive image of a satisfyingly sufficient glass of water. Indeed, in the heat of a warming world, Princen’s book is simply refreshing.

1 “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
2 Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005, viii. Subsequent citations will appear parenthetically in the text.