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Doing Less-With-More…

A common green perspective is that solving sustainability problems is a matter of increasing levels of global cooperation and economic efficiency.  Thomas Princen – Associate Professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment – suggests that today’s world is characterized by increasing levels of cooperation and efficiency, often in the name of sustainability. Global forestry organisations are impelled to extract more fiber per hectare of forest; and the world’s water managers are compelled to draft new water management agreements. Yet deforestation proceeds unabated, and freshwater availability continues to dwindle. Could it be, Princen asks, “that the principles themselves – cooperation and efficiency – are part of the problem”?

Cooperation is central to all human societies. Without it, by definition, we stop being ‘social’. And yet not all human societies cooperate to the same extent. Over the past 12,000 years most humans have gone from living in relatively small communities numbering a few hundred to a few thousand individuals (bound together by kinship relationships), to living in modern nation states comprising tens or even hundreds of millions of people, bound together by governments and (increasingly) corporations. In so doing, the scale of human cooperation has increased several orders of magnitude. And although the benefits of this might seem obvious, explaining why this happened is anything but. There are many debates and no ready-made answers among social scientists.

Over the last 12,000 years, alongside the increasing scale of human cooperation, we have also witnessed an equally large increase in the scale of human-induced environmental modification. Indeed, we have seen the development and exacerbation of numerous sustainability problems – too many to list. The increasing scale and interconnectedness of our societies has been associated with our unsustainability, and not the other way around. And yet global cooperation continues to be touted as an answer to our sustainability woes.

Likewise, efficiency is central to all human societies. Evolution has honed us to be frugal. No animal can survive without efficiently extracting energy and matter from the environment in which it lives. But in the language of sustainable development ‘efficiency’ is often a pseudonym for ‘productivity’. The goal is not literally to use less, but to produce more by utilising fewer inputs per unit of production. This is the old more-from-less sustainability catchphrase. But if rampant consumption is part of the problem, then isn’t doing more-with-less precisely the opposite of a good idea? Doesn’t doing more-with-less equate to consuming the world’s dwindling resources (the ‘less’) at an ever-faster rate (the ‘more’)?

Personally, I’d like to encourage everyone to do precisely the opposite. Relax. Let your hair down. Try doing less-with-more. Because by doing less, there will be more.

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