Princen’s Traffic Control Measures

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

Thomas Princen, in Treading softly: paths to an ecological order (2010) elaborates on eight instrumental factors that prevent change from neoliberal free market capitalist systems of Advanced Industrial Society. Princen (2010: 29 – 58) calls these factors “traffic control measures”, a catchy euphemism denoting frequently encountered ideological beliefs about the world, specifically the consumer-capitalist economy that has had global influence for decades. These are beliefs and ideas, says Princen (2010: 30), that belong to defenders “of the familiar; builders who stack yet more cards on top [of an already flimsy house of cards], ignoring [the cards’] origins, boosters who see great promise ahead in high-tech innovation and freewheeling markets, discounting who wins and who loses: these are the people who do not like to talk about a different path”. The resonance of Princen’s sentiments with various topics already discussed in this study so far should be clear: the view that the contemporary industrial society (the house of cards in Princen’s analogy) is precariously positioned due to issues of sustainability in the context of the ecological crisis, as broadly explored in Chapters 1 and 2; the Promethean characteristics explored in Chapter 3 of, first, technology as an ultimate tool for all problems, second, the focus on the quantitative epitomised by the neoliberal free-market, and third, the competitive modus operandi of capitalism; and “those who do not like to talk about a different path” have been addressed at various points during the course of Chapter 4.

The first traffic control measure, says Princen (2010: 32), is the view that goes as follows: “I know we’re consuming too much. We’ve got to cut back. But if we do, it’ll hurt the economy. So how do we consume less without hurting the economy?” Princen is paraphrasing from a very contemporary context, specifically a context where ecological issues have been acknowledged globally by various corporate and political entities, but also one where consumption trends and ecological degradation continue to rise at often exponential rates (see Chapters 1 and 2). The logic behind this traffic control measure is that the economy as it is requires not only huge levels of consumption of resources, but also continuously increasing rates thereof in the typical capitalist sense (see section 3.4). The problem is therefore that consumption cannot slow down overall in such a model, because the economy, requiring increasing rates of consumption, will begin to collapse if rates of consumption were to level off, never mind decrease. Princen (ibid) admits that the potential collapse of this kind of economy is “real and worrisome” by itself, but more importantly he points out that “this position presumes that nothing we are doing now might hurt the economy”. He adds, “the question – how do we consume less without hurting the economy? – presumes that the economy itself is doing just fine, that when there are problems, such as a recession, what’s needed is a bit of stimulus here, some productivity gains there, and it’ll keep on doing what it is so good at doing –growing, providing jobs, generating a return on investments”. Princen immediately points out the problem with such a position:

Here is the paradox: the economy depends on increasing consumption, but ever-increasing consumption strains ecosystems, both resources (soil and water, for instance) and waste sinks (the oceans and atmosphere). Before tackling this paradox head-on, let’s turn the above question of consuming less on its head. A system that grows endlessly crashes. Think of cancer cells, debt-ridden mortgages, fisheries. It defies logic, not to mention a few well-known laws of physics (like thermodynamics), to presume that with continuing growth in consumption that is, continuing growth in the total throughput of material and energy through our economy—the current economy will not crash.

This cancer analogy by Princen was encountered in Chapter 3 to second Kovel’s comparison of capitalism to a cancer. After making this explicit reference to the link between consumer capitalism and ecological degradation, Princen (2010: 32-33) continues by stating that when the question is “turned on its head”, the “burden of proof shifts” – the defenders of the consumer capitalist status quo are the ones who have to explain how the consumer capitalist status quo can possibly continue. Princen (Ibid) quickly points out that the “defenders of endless growth” can provide no such proof, so instead they call for faith based on “extrapolations from the past – historically speaking, a very recent past, just a hundred years or so, a past with abundant, cheap and readily controlled fossil fuels, especially oil”. Princen is pointing out that the ‘reality’ is quite different from such a ‘fictional’, extrapolated view of the world, and notes (2010: 33) that the real issues are ones coterminous with those focused on in Chapter 1 of this study, issues such as unsustainable clean water use, fertile soil loss, and climate instability. Princen (2010: 35) later touches on the role of language in the context of the dominant ideology of neoliberal economic prioritisation:

Part of what is at issue here is language – not just words and phrases, but perceptions and actions. It is through language that we understand our world and enact our world, including abstractions like “the economy” and “consumption.” When people speak of the economy as if it is an organism, all of us cannot help but think of the economy as being natural, a real living being. This way of thinking is typified by attitudes that now constitute the conventional wisdom: A growing economy is a strong, healthy economy. A weak economy is anemic, lethargic. It needs a stimulus. It must be revived.

Of course, as Princen (2010: 36) notes, if the ‘organic’ metaphor for the economy is considered further, it is clear that nothing organic lasts forever, but that this aspect of the organic metaphor for the economy is always absent in the ‘conventional wisdom’ of the dominant capitalist order. Princen (Ibid) is confident that this order “cannot continue. It is not sustainable.”

The second traffic control measure is encapsulated by the phrase “Gotta move forward” (2010: 39), rhetoric, explains Princen, that diverts people’s attention: it “deflects real action. It lets off the hook those who have written the rules of the game – the game of endless extraction and consumption – and who themselves have profited so handsomely from that game. And it perpetuates that very same game, only with a green gloss”. This phrase, “Gotta move forward”, is “the quintessential rhetorical expression of progress” (2010: 40), the kind of Promethean ‘progress’ that gave rise to, and grew alongside, technological, scientific and industrial paradigm discussed in Chapter 3. Politicians and big business people alike can admit that the corporate capitalist state has engaged in ecologically and socially problematic activities, but then immediately state that there is no use ‘dwelling on the past’, and instead insist that society at large must simply ‘move forward’. The forward movement, however, is “on the same path, of course. No mention of other paths. No questioning whether this path or this mountain is the right one” (Ibid). The widespread use and acceptance of this rhetoric in neoliberal society clearly promotes adherence to the dominant socio-economic and political order. It is partly why conversation in the mainstream about ‘alternatives’ to problematic systemic mechanisms often result in defenders of the status quo stating that ‘there is no alternative,’ the acronym for which is TINA. “Gotta move forward” is the language of progressives, says Princen (Ibid), “in a society dedicated to progress, to seeing bounteous plenty in the future and backward misery in the past. It is a useful rhetorical tool for painting opponents… as anti-progress, as ne’er-do-wells acting against all that makes modern life good”.

Princen (2010: 41) states unambiguously that one must, “whenever the term [‘gotta move forward’] is used, assume, until proven otherwise, that it is self-serving, self-justifying, and manipulative. It cannot, needless to say, be a basis for getting on a sustainable path.” This warning is applicable, furthermore, to the reasoning that is used by defenders of the consumer-capitalist status quo, specifically the reasoning that constitutes the traffic control measure that Princen (Ibid) calls, simply, ‘externalities’. Externalities are the problems such as “litter, erosion, global warming, and all that” that progressives claim can be dealt with only by further commitment to the path of economic and technological expansion as per the neoliberal capitalist paradigm (think of the industries discussed in Chapter 2) that has been shown to be instrumental in the ecological crisis in the first place. When critics question this paradigm, a “fear card” (2010: 42) is played by progressives and any calls for alternatives to capitalist free market consumerism are painted as threats that could collapse the precarious economy. Says Princen (Ibid): “The fear card makes it difficult to have a conversation about the core elements of this wondrous economy, this economy that is simultaneously a powerhouse and a weakling, that is rife with so many ‘externalities’ that one wonders if they are not actually ‘internalities’, outputs inherent in this political economy.”

The fourth traffic control measure is the notion that “consumers rule” (Princen 2010: 44-45). The theory is that consumers determine the ‘properties’ of the economy, that “consumers make their own conditions, that they are autonomous, fully informed individuals who drive production through their market decisions”. Princen (Ibid) continues to explain that this theory started out as a useful “analytical tool” but later became established as a market principle. The reasoning behind the principle is that consumers chose not to buy a specific product, then producers will be forced to stop making the product. So if a product is ecologically unsustainable, it is up to the consumer to stop purchasing it rather than the producer’s responsibility to take responsible ecological action. Princen (2010: 44) explains that the problem here is that those

who wish to expand markets continuously, those who have an abiding faith that consumption can and should expand indefinitely, get a free ride: when things go wrong, when the rich get richer, when the “externalities” are no longer trivial (e.g., greenhouse gases, persistent toxics, disappearing soil), when life-support systems around the world are disrupted (e.g., climate, freshwater), the expanders can blame “the consumer.” After all, the consumer rules.

The notion that ‘consumers rule’ is often accompanied by traffic control measure number five: the claim that ‘technologies save’. Princen (2010: 46) explains that this notion rests on the (Promethean) historical foundation of the concept of efficiency, which was originally applied to machines in order to decrease the amount of energy needed to achieve the same (or better) ends. Frederick Winslow Taylor, however, took the concept of efficiency and applied it “not just to machnies but to people (i.e. workers) who run machines.” Princen (Ibid) continues to explain the impact on society of the spreading concept of efficiency:

Efficiency, so successful in the workplace, soon seeped out of the factory to infuse government, land management, schooling, even worship. An “efficiency craze” took over early twentieth-century America. A simple idea, a handy means of improving production, became a goal in its own right. As such, people lost sight of why efficiencies were useful. And into that political space stepped those who would use the concept for all sundry goals: increasing wages and controlling unionists; replanting forests and clear-cutting forests; urging people to shop judiciously and to buy impulsively; creating a productive economy with an optimal distribution of resources and stimulating that very same economy to grow, and then grow some more, and more.

This invasive, insidious notion of efficiency as described by Princen above is well situated within the context of Promethean technology as explored in Chapter 3. There it was clear that the very specific historical trends – dominating nature, discovering and controlling the secrets of nature for the profit of the discoverers – propelled scientific, technological and economic endeavours. Such endeavours laid the foundation for the widespread advanced industrial attack on nature, and Princen’s observations about efficiency add to the understanding of how ecologically problematic phenomena are rapidly accelerated. As he says (2010: 46-47), efficiency is, “at root, and age-old commonsense idea”, but it became a means of disguising

and displacing full costs. It became a way of leading everyone to believe that society is marching forward, that we are all together on that endlessly productive, ever-ascending path. In fact, though, that path is eroding, its own material ground being eaten away by false beliefs in the beneficent rule of consumers and the come-to-the-rescue promise of new technologies. In the end, efficiency is a crutch, an excuse, a diversion. It is a handy guise for those who believe that perpetual industrial expansion on a finite planet is possible, indeed, that this economy is scientific, modern, consumer-driven, and just.

This dichotomy – that the increase of efficiency is a commonsense idea, versus the ecologically problematic outcomes that accompany ‘efficiency gains’ (as described by Princen above) – further explains why and how social change is prevented. It is hard to dismiss a seemingly commonsense idea, and unpopular in a Promethean context to criticise the well-established mantra (‘we must increase efficiency’), never mind go so far as to link efficiency increase with widespread ecological degradation in a world where people are conditioned by social and political powers to accept efficiency gains as a positive phenomenon.

Princen (2010: 49) identifies a further four traffic control measures that prevent social change. They are all claims that support the view that ‘things will change’ only if certain conditions are met:

Things will change (1) only when there’s a crisis; (2) only when leaders muster the political will; (3) only when people are properly educated; and (4) only when people’s values change. These too are traffic control measures that, we will see, keep our thinking and our behavior and policies on that straight and narrow path, endlessly climbing, forever extracting, consuming, and discarding until the ground underneath crumbles away.

The first claim makes use of the word ‘crisis’, as does the title of this study, but in this study the word denotes a broad, interconnected web of ecological issues that are gradually being revealed and together do pose a looming threat to the future of life on the planet, whereas the traffic control measure in question can be considered one that uses the word ‘crisis’ as something more immediately life-threatening, like a fire. Certainly, action can and does occur when a crisis is in the midst, as in the case when a fire breaks out and neighbours work together to prevent a home from burning down. However, crises are not the only times that instigate change. Princen (2010: 50) uses the example of slavery to dismiss the claim that a crisis is needed to facilitate social, political and/or economic change. Slavery was accepted as ‘normal’ for much of Western history, but was challenged by “a dozen shopkeepers and clergy… in 1787”. The details of how the abolitionists achieved the change are irrelevant here; the point is that the dominant classes in London at the time perceived no crisis. “Instead, a few people acquired new understandings, took a strong moral stance, and confronted power” (Princen 2010: 51). The relevance of this example to the contemporary ecological situation is clear. The dominant upper-middle classes of neoliberal society are generally comfortable and indeed may not change until threatened by a crisis, and the fact that many people conditioned by consumer capitalism believe that things won’t change until there’s a crisis may indeed prevent proactive steps towards change. But such factors do not logically guarantee that proactive social change will occur only when a crisis arises, as was the case with slavery.

The traffic control measure – that only a lack of political will is what prevents practical steps to any kind of social action aimed at the eco-crisis – is what Princen (2010: 54) calls “the mother of all diversions”. He quotes Robert Chambers (Ibid) to explain: “lack of political will means that the rich and powerful have failed to act against their own interests”. Princen (2010: 55) continues to quote Chambers in this regard:

[T]his ‘lack of political will’ lament ‘is a way of averting eyes from the ugly facts’ – ugly facts like who actually benefits from current patterns of over-consumption, and who actually loses, now and into the far future. Ugly facts like extreme wealth among thousands, abject poverty among billions. Ugly facts like extreme floods and fires, like disappearing rivers and groundwater, like grain and medicine shortages.

The section in this Chapter (4) entitled ‘Democracy in a free-market neoliberal capitalist system’ contains an outline of the established ‘marriage’ of politics and business. What is discussed in that section applies fully to this ‘lack of political will’ traffic control measure.

The final traffic control measures (Princen 2010: 56 – 58) – “people must be educated” and “[t]heir values [must be] changed” go hand-in-hand and are summarised by Princen (2010: 56) as follows: “Education is the answer. We have to reach young people. Tell them what’s happening. Get them to see that we’re in trouble, big trouble. Society needs a total transformation in values. And that has to start with the young – in high school, grade school, even preschool!” Princen, as an educator himself, is sympathetic to this argument, but points out (Ibid) that teachers are generally not “aware and concerned and in positions of influence…, at least not on the issues that drive [Princen’s] book”. More importantly, teachers, says Princen (2010: 57), are less influential on young people’s values than are parents, peers, and the media (in that order). Education, then, plays a relatively minor role in the shaping of values in young people. Princen (Ibid) does hint at what is really needed in the context of changes in values; his words will close this section and the chapter, and anticipate the content of the following chapter (5), which will focus on alternatives to the Promethean ideologies:

So this segment of youth does not need “new values.” These young people can see as well as anyone (and certainly better than those with fossil-fuel lenses) that the current order is broken. What they need is a new vision and new language and answers to the tired old assertions of the past, of the fossil-fuel past, of the technology-and-efficiency-will-solve-all past, of the endless frontier and noble imperial past.