The economy as an environmentally and socially destructive treadmill

To make progress on sustainability, greens, environmentalists, conservationists, nature lovers, and outdoor recreationists must recognise that simply espousing and advocating sustainable development is not nearly enough to bring it about in any meaningful way.

It is necessary to understand the logic of the existing economic system, its political and social institutions, and what drives this system relentlessly to exploit, degrade and ultimately destroy the natural world. Only with this understanding are we are fully empowered to challenge it head-on, in order to make sustainability its primary goal.

Allan Schnaiberg, in association with Kenneth GouldDavid Pellow and others, has developed a theory that attempts to provide the required insight and understanding. This theory names the economic system the treadmill of production. Calling on the distinctly negative image of a treadmill – like the prison treadmill that broke Oscar Wilde – makes it clear that, by this analysis, something is fundamentally wrong with the way our economy functions.

Schnaiberg and Gould (2000) begin their exposition of the theory with some basic assumptions. The concept of sustainable development implies there is a relationship between ecological and economic goals. Indeed, it can be considered to be the integration of two goals: ecological sustainability and economic development. Two related assumptions, therefore, underpin sustainable development:

1. the effective functioning of society requires us to maintain many features of environmental systems; and

2. Therefore we must restrict some social uses of these environmental systems.

There is a broad coalition accepting these two assumptions and supporting demands for sustainable development. However, while this coalition regularly makes itself heard, proposals for action on the environment are frequently blocked, minimised or subverted by powerful interests with very different goals and no concern whatsoever for the maintenance of the environment. The treadmill theory explains why these interests, in order to preserve their economic power, must prevent any substantive moves to a sustainable economy.

So let’s take a look at the basic framework of the theory:

— Over the past 50 years or so, more and more capital has been accumulated in western economies. This capital is invested in technology development, to allow technology-intensive production to replace labour-intensive processes, thereby increasing profitability.

— New technologies represent forms of sunk capital – unlike labour – and therefore levels of production must be increased and, importantly, must be maintained (because costs can’t be cut so easily as they could in the past by mass lay-offs of workers) to deliver the return on investment that investors expect.

— The need for higher levels of technology-based production leads to “higher levels of demand for natural resources for a given level of social welfare.” These resources may be the raw materials of production or the sources of energy needed to run the production process.

— Each round of investment increases profitability but worsens the situation for the environment, each level of resource extraction leading to still greater demand for resources. The consequences are accelerating pollution, habitat loss, and species extinction.

— Each round of investment also worsens the employment situation, as more investment is needed to employ each worker. From a worker’s point of view, therefore, yet more investment seems to be necessary for social progress (in the form of the maintenance of employment and increases in income).

— As the treadmill runs in this manner, the economic and political power of shareholders and managers is enhanced because workers feel compelled to support “virtually any and all kinds of ‘economic development’.” This support is given regardless of the fact that running the treadmill ever more intensively has ever more destructive consequences for the quality of life for workers and their communities in general. Thus the social forces pushing for ecological sustainability and environmental justice are at “a major power disadvantage vis-à-vis political and economic elites.”

— Just to be on the safe side, any resistance to the continued running of the treadmill (eg critiques of endless economic growth) is castigated as “antediluvian, Luddite, old-fashioned, reactionary.”

Thus the treadmill theory is strongly at odds with the other major academic description of the economics and sociology of sustainable development, the ecological modernisation theory. The treadmill most certainly does not proceed to ecological modernisation’s happy ending whereby a benevolent green capitalism gradually emerges at the behest of market pressure and the gentle prompting of environmental lobbyists. As Richard York explains, the treadmill theory argues that

environmental problems cannot be solved in [the present economic] system, since growth puts ever-increasing demands on the environment by extracting natural resources and generating pollution. Thus, achieving environmental sustainability requires radical restructuring of the political economy and a move away from growth dependence.

Schnaiberg’s theory, with its focus on production, also suggests that we are psychologically trapped on the treadmill by our role as workers rather than our role as consumers, as has been suggested elsewhere. But this insight also tells us where the maximum leverage can be exerted on the economic system.

As Gould, Pellow and Schnaiberg(2004) note, “control over production is the critical battleground … where industry leaders will fight the most to maintain their autonomy vis-à-vis the state, environmentalists and labor.” Thus it would seem that organised labour, ie green unionism, has a potentially much more significant role to play in the restructuring of the economy along sustainable lines than individual sovereign consumers expressing their ‘choices’. In the longer term, the treadmill theory also suggests that “more democratic ownership and control of production could ameliorate social and ecological problems more than attempts to control rates of consumption or consumer choice of certain products.”

Of course, the union movement around the world is under the severest pressure, and has been for 20 years or more, in the face of the dominant neoliberal agenda of many governments and global institutions. The conclusion to be drawn here is that greens must join unions, build much stronger ties with the union movement, support legislation that strengthens unionism, and join with those determined to build a strong green unionism. And the many greens who own or run businesses could offer support to unions by encouraging workers in their businesses to unionise, and by shaping their businesses along democratic lines.

Moreover, because the direct meeting point between economy and ecology lies firmly in the realm of production, it further follows from the treadmill theory that ‘green consumerism’ is of limited value. An illustration given by Gould, Pellow and Schnaiberg is clothing manufacture:

Unless consumers in the North produce their own clothes, they leave producers the appealing option of producing virtually all clothing in sweatshops that exploit laborers and typically produce various ecological disruptions (in both agriculture and transportation). So long as owners are free to invest in low-wage countries (or engage low-wage immigrants in industrial countries), consumers exercise little control over these productive processes.

In such a scenario, taking control of production would be far more effective in making real moves towards sustainability than trying to exert pressure on the demand side by making green consumption choices in a heavily-loaded ‘free’ market.

In many ways, then, the treadmill theory is a return to territory that has been the setting for many of the struggles of social democracy in the 19th and 20th centuries, but has largely been ignored by greens: the struggle between capital and labour. The difference now is that Schnaiberg’s theory gives labour a new consciousness of the critical role it can play, not just in promoting social justice but in creating an ecologically sustainable world.


Kenneth A Gould, David N Pellow & Allan Schnaiberg (2004) Interrogating the treadmill of production: Everything you wanted to know about the treadmill but were afraid to ask. Organization & Environment, 17(3), 296-316.

Allan Schnaiberg & Kenneth A Gould (2000) Environment and society: The enduring conflict. West Caldwell, NJ, USA: Blackburn Press.

Further reading

Allan Schnaiberg, David N Pellow & Adam Weinberg (2000) The treadmill of production and the environmental state.

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