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Organization & Environment
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/1086026604268747
2004 17: 296Organization Environment
Kenneth A. Gould, David N. Pellow and Allan Schnaiberg
Afraid to Ask
Interrogating the Treadmill of Production : Everything You Wanted to Know about the Treadmill but Were
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10.1177/1086026604268747ORGANIZATION & ENVIRONMENT / September 2004Gould et al. / INTERROGATING THE TREADMILL
Everything You Wanted to Know About the Treadmill but Were Afraid to Ask
St. Lawrence University
University of California–San Diego
Northwestern University
This article is structured to answer a number of questions that have been raised over the
years about the origin, structure, and application of the treadmill of production theory. The
following questions are addressed: What was the theoretical structure of the treadmill of
production? Why does the theory focus on production rather than consumption? Was the
treadmill a dialectical or a linear change theory? How has the treadmill theory changed
under the growing globalization of production since 1980? Has the treadmill been evalu-
ated empirically? What forces have limited the diffusion of the treadmill in environmental
sociology? Is the treadmill more/still useful today for ecological analyses? For social
Keywords: consumption; ecological modernization; environmental sociology; produc-
tion; social movements
What Was the Theoretical Structure of the Treadmill of Production?
The treadmill of production was a theory introduced by Schnaiberg (1980) to
address the question of why U.S. environmental degradation had increased so rap-
idly after World War II. He argued that a growing level of capital available for
investments and the changing allocation of such capital investment together pro-
duced a substantial increase in demand for natural resources. Essentially, the major
changes outlined by the theory were that more capital was becoming accumulated
in Western economies, and this capital was being applied to replacing production
labor with new technologies to increase profits. These new technologies required
far more energy and/or chemicals to replace earlier more labor-intensive processes.
New technologies emerged from the organization of scientific and technological
research in universities and research institutes, as well as in the new “research and
development” departments of large firms. Moreover, unlike the prior use of labor,
the new technologies represented forms of sunk capital. To further increase profits,
managers of firms needed to increase the levels of production and sustain higher
Organization & Environment, Vol. 17 No. 3, September 2004 296-316
DOI: 10.1177/1086026604268747
© 2004 Sage Publications
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levels (because worker inputs could more readily be cut back as opposed to fixed
costs of machine operations).
The treadmill of production was thus, primarily an economic change theory,but
one that had direct implications for natural resource extraction as well as for the
opportunity structure for workers. In essence, the “treadmill” component recog-
nized that the nature of capital investment led to higher and higher levels of demand
for natural resources for a given level of social welfare (including wages and social
expenditures). Each round of investment weakened the employment situation for
production workers and worsened environmental conditions, but it increased prof-
its. For workers, this treadmill implied that increasing investment was needed to
employ each production worker. For ecosystems, each level of resource extraction
became commodified into new profits and new investments, which led to still more
rapid increases in demand for ecosystem elements.
Treadmill theory focused on the social, economic, and environmental condi-
tions for stakeholders (workers and community residents). Simultaneously, expan-
sion of the treadmill structure enhanced the economic and political power of share-
holders (investors and managers). Political gains for shareholders included a
growing capacity to induce both government and labor unions to support still more
investment of this sort, toemploy displaced and new workers, and to augment state
tax revenues. Over time, this increased political power of shareholders was
enhanced by their capacity to obtain still more political support for treadmill
expansion through an expanded use of profits for direct campaign contributions.
The initial treadmill theory was published in 1980 at the onset of a new era of politi-
cal conservatism in the United States. New antienvironmental and antisocial poli-
cies of the Reagan administration dominated the political landscape and offered lit-
tle support for the theory of the treadmill among both scholars and activists (see
below). Since 1980, in fact, most of those utilizing the treadmill theory in their
research have been younger scholars, especially in the global South (see below).
The treadmill theory presented an image of a society running in place without
moving forward. It represented a decrease in the social efficiency of the productive
system. This decreased social efficiency of natural resource utilization produced a
shift towards vastly increased rates of ecosystem depletion (resource extraction)
and ecosystem pollution (dumping wastes into ecosystems). Moreover, workers
and their families politically supported the expansion of this new capital-intensive
form of production. As workers were cast off by the growing treadmill,their major
consciousness was that accelerating this new form of investment was necessary
and sufficient for “social progress.” Thus, each round of socially dislocating
growth generated increased, rather than decreased, social support for allocating
investment to accelerating the treadmill of production.
Politicians were induced to provide direct and indirect support for such expan-
sion: They received strong support for doing this from investor-managerial groups.
And they received public support from workers and their unions who supported
virtually any and all kinds of “economic development.” Although some workers
and their unions attempted to resist these processes, even they were under growing
economic, social, and political pressure to accept this as the only path to social
progress, even if reluctantly. Any resistance to this change was labeled as antedilu-
vian, Luddite, old-fashioned, reactionary, and doomed to failure (see below) by a
variety of economic and political representatives. Ironically, this rapid growth in
support occurred despite considerable doubt about the future of the U.S. peacetime
economy after the end of World War II (with fear of a return to the economic
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depression of the 1930s). Within 5 years, however, the accumulated savings from
the wartime period were mobilized to create vast new infrastructural and manufac-
turing investments to stimulate production expansion.
Throughout this period of about 1945 to 1960, the promises of unlimited energy
(especially atomic energy) and newly accessible mineral and other extractive
resources (especially petroleum) led to social and political inattention to ecological
limits and unthinking support for unlimited economic expansion. Early 20th-
century attention to “sustained yield” (Hays, 1969) utilitarian approaches to land
and water were largely dismissed, and emerging pollution problems were not well
researched or managed. Waste was mostly moved into the commons, with spillage
into water systems, dispersal into air pollution, and dumping in land systems at
some distance to cities. These presaged the “limits to growth” (Meadows, Mead-
ows, Randers, & Behrens, 1972) perspective, which emerged in the later 1960s and
1970s. They were largely ignored in favor of attending to economic expansion.
Part of this disattention was facilitated by the growing social class segregation
of the population. Middle-class workers, who benefited from the expansion of the
treadmill, largely moved to emerging bedroom suburbs. Blue-collar workers, and
many craftspeople, lived in cities or small or company towns where they struggled
with rising local pollution and community health problems, juxtaposed with their
need to preserve their jobs. Although pollution was a negative externality for both
white-collar and blue-collar workers, it was geographically and socially removed
from many members of the rising educated middle class yet increasingly dispersed
into communities of the working class. Middle classes lived upwind and upstream
of polluting enterprises. Blue-collar workers were induced and/or coerced to live
downwind and downstream or adjacent to community pollution, under the
decreased costs of local property and the limited wages of the blue-collar workers.
This class-based distribution of residential location insulated production decision
makers from the health/environmental consequences of their decisions (Gould,
Ironically, one of the precursors of the treadmill model was an early argument of
Barry Commoner, a socially progressive biologist (and later a Green Party presi-
dential candidate) who helped expand ecological consciousness in the United
States. Commoner’s (1977) ecological analysis of declining capital productivity
paralleled our own work. This was in stark contrast to the standard economic and
managerial focus on worker productivity. Both in the 1970s when Commoner
wrote and especially in the current political-economic climate, the obsession with
increasing worker productivity has dominated many policies. From the standpoint
of the treadmill theory, increasing worker productivity is often associated with
accelerating the treadmill—producing still fewer worker benefits from a given rate
of natural resource extraction. Indeed, raising worker productivity was the central
dynamic of corporate decision making in the initial theorizing about the treadmill
of production. The treadmill process aimed to displace many workers—through an
increase in physical capital per worker (and hence, potential environmental impact
per worker), using profits to raise production technology. The goal was to enhance
profitability or return on investment. Inherent in this process was a substantial
increase in energy needs and chemical waste discharge, as well as elimination of
habitats for flora and fauna. During the period since 1945, habitat destruction has
probably been the best marker for expansion of the treadmill (either through
resource extraction or waste disposal).
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Two outcomes of this emerged for workers. For most, this eventually led to a
decline in wages and job opportunities, what Harrison (1994) has termed the “low
road to development.” Part of this was accomplished by crushing worker unioniza-
tion through job blackmail (Kazis & Grossman, 1982). An ever-growing part of
this was created by closing U.S. plants and moving to locations in the global South,
where labor was substantially cheaper, workers were nonunionized, and workers
and politicians were desperate for new employment possibilities for their young
populations. From maquiladoras in Mexico to sweatshops and intense factory
work elsewhere, the rate of return on investment rose substantially. Workers in the
United States became more desperate for new investment, as noted above, and
workers abroad accepted new employment, which appeared to raise their living
standards somewhat. Both increase the potential for higher environmental damage,
often by eliminating existing environmental protection, because both also produce
greater economic volatility.
Yet there was a smaller class of workers who experienced this process as a “high
road to development”—their wages, skills, and careers were enhanced by their
incorporation into the new physical (and electronic) technological systems. This
included not only workers directly involved in the new production but also a wide
range of workers involved in marketing, financial analysis, and customer service.
In recent years, however, this high road has become increasingly susceptible to the
core logic of the treadmill. For middle-level managers, and educated professionals
of all types, there are strong pressures to increase “worker productivity” to sustain
corporate profitability by reducing expenses.
Beyond the core logic of the treadmill, this model generally encourages analysts
to take into account a range of factors that produce environmental insults as well as
understanding how these factors make environmental policy making so complex.
The treadmill model underscores the importance of paying attention to dialectics
and contradictions in the behaviors of individuals, groups, the state, and industry.
When we develop a sociological understanding of the constraints and choices
within which individuals and institutions exist, environmental conflicts and solu-
tions become clearer and yet more inaccessible. Although the majority of U.S.
workers would like to live and work in safer, cleaner environments, they are unable
and/or unwilling to take direct action to achieve these realities. Although most
Americans indicate that quality time is an important goal in their lives, they tend to
spend more time working every year. Elected officials must maintain their legiti-
macy with the voting public and secure the “monopoly” powers of the state (Tilly,
1978). But they routinely make decisions that erode state power and public legiti-
macy. Ratifying free trade agreements, which undermine the ability of nation-
states (and subsidiary forms of government) to exercise social control, starkly
illustrates this contradiction. Industry needs to secure and maintain the obedience
of its workers, but managers engage in practices that violate the social contract and
mitigate against worker trust.
The treadmill model also underscored the importance of social inequality,
power, and conflict as key parts of the social systems’ effects on the environment.
Many scholars simply surveyed environmental attitudes and concern. But tread-
mill theory offered an analysis of what people thought about not only the environ-
ment but also the behaviors of their social institutions, affecting the natural world.1
Using the treadmill as our tool, we have often taken positions that are unpopular
or that run counter to the prevailing consensus on a number of topics. For example,
there is a scholarly tendency to celebrate (and overstate) the influence of the envi-
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ronmental, antitoxics, and environmental justice movements (Bullard, 1993;
Dunlap & Mertig, 1992; Szasz, 1994). In contrast, we have used the treadmill
model squarely to face the reality that these social forces were (and remain) at a
major power disadvantage vis-à-vis political and economic elites. Indeed, we
believe that environmental sustainability/protection around the globe has declined
substantially despite the work of these movements.
This sort of “bad news” reporting in scholarly circles is generally unappealing
and often frustrating for those of us who would like to believe that both the environ-
ment and our societies are moving toward a state of sustainability. The same
dynamic applies to the debate between treadmill theorists and proponents of eco-
logical modernization, with the latter adopting a fundamentally upbeat outlook on
industrial practices (Garcia Johnson, 2000) despite continued and intensified eco-
logical destruction around the globe. This approach has, at times, met with both
acceptance and resistance from activists as well; they have a social investment in
reports that the global ecological crisis is serious but also seek affirmation that their
actions are having a positive affect on ecosystems.
Why Does the Theory Focus on Production Rather Than Consumption?
Schnaiberg (1980) initially outlined the substantial change in technologies in
the third quarter of the 20th century. The newer technologies were inevitably more
energy intensive and chemical intensive on one hand and less labor intensive on the
other. Capital mobilization for these changes in production technology arose from
a substantial postwar economic boom, which led to increased production and prof-
its. Next, these profits were disproportionately used to develop and introduce new
physical technologies. However, to amortize the fixed and operating costs of the
new technology, production generally had to be substantially increased. In turn,
this increased the demand for natural resources, both energy and other. Once in
place, the expanded production of the new technologies substantially increased
both the volume of production waste and the toxicity of wastes (due to increased
use of chemicals).
From the outset, then, the treadmill of production focused on decision making
in the realm of production. Its model of socioenvironmental dynamics emphasizes
production rather than consumption. Although consumers may be the ultimate
purchasers of some of the products of the new technologies, decisions about the
allocation of technologies is in the realm of production managers and owners.
Decisions about types of technologies, the use of labor, and volumes of production
are made outside the realm of consumer decision making. Individuals, communi-
ties, states, and corporations can consume only the outputs of a given production
technology. The majority of what social systems consume must be extracted from
nature (extraction being the leading edge of any production process) and then fur-
ther processed to generate a final product. Although consumers can accept or reject
these products, they have no influence over the allocation of capital to productive
technologies. Thus, it is within the production process where the initial interaction
of social systems with ecosystems occurs.
Many popular economic theories postulate the responsiveness of supply to
demand. Yet it is in the decision to provide supply, and the means by which that
supply is provided, where social systems and ecosystems first collide. Production
decisions may or may not be influenced by anticipated consumption decisions. But
the relationship between production and ecosystems, which provide the total stock
of potential materials for production, is a direct one. In contrast, the relationship
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between consumption and ecosystems is at best indirect. Consumption decisions
must be made in the context of previous production decisions as well as prior social
distribution decisions.
By recognizing the relationships between economic structure and political
power, the treadmill model contextualizes the role of consumer decisions within
the material parameters of their political-economic contexts. Consumer choice
devolves from (a) the constraintsof specific prior production decisions, (b) specific
prior economic distribution decisions, and (c) a specific distribution of policy and
decision-making power. To place consumption decisions first in our analyses
would obscure the power relations embedded in the political economy. Henry
Ford’s famous “consumer choice” comes to mind: He told the public they could
purchase any color Model T they wished “as long as it’s black!” “Consumer behav-
ior” studies contain few theories about the power underlying them. Obscuring the
distribution of economic and political power serves the discipline of neoclassical
economics quite well in its status quo reinforcement functions. It violates the criti-
cal analytical and empirical requirements of sociology, however. A key dimension
of the exercise of power is the ability to influence, if not dictate, the choices of those
less powerful (Lukes, 1974). Individual choices to not consume products gener-
ated by powerful actors involve an underlying power struggle between highly
unequal contenders.
The mechanisms through which human need and human desire are formed are
largely determined by preexisting conditions of production, beyond the basic bio-
physical needs of humans as living organisms (food, warmth, shelter, social inter-
action). Desire is socially constructed, and material desires are largely constructed
by material producers (Schiller, 1996). The transformation of socially constructed
material desire into human need is a result of social processes, which are heavily
influenced by those who control production decisions. Contrary to classical and
neoclassical economic theories that posit that consumer preferences determine the
contour of markets, this consumer behavior was consciously being shaped by
industry. The “gospel of mass consumption” was the successful construction of
consumer desires not by consumers themselves but by the captains of industry and
their collaborators in the advertising sector. Thus, the extraordinary rise in produc-
tive output after World War II was complemented by a rise in personal consump-
tion among U.S. citizens.
It may be argued that individual, community, state, and/or corporate consumers
may alter or terminate specific forms of production by consumer boycotts. How-
ever, these collective victories still do not empower consumers to determine the
means by which alternatives will be produced or even what alternatives will be pro-
duced. Indeed, it is possible that no alternative will be produced, thus freeing con-
sumer capital to be funneled into the consumption of yet other items already made
available by producers. In theory, the decision not to consume may terminate the
production of specific products. In rarer cases, they may even terminate specific
forms of production. Yet there are few if any examples of either of these termina-
tions occurring directly through consumer choice, and only a handful have even
been implemented through political pressures exerted by social movement organi-
zations (which are politically organized interest groups of consumers). Even the
famous grape boycott succeeded mainly in raising social consciousness about
working conditions among farm laborers; it was an economic and political failure.
Again, however, the decision of what alternative forms of production will be
offered for consumers to choose from is not in the hands of consumers. It remains
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with a small minority of powerful individuals (treadmill elites) who are empow-
ered through their access to production capital. Decisions that determine produc-
ers’ access to natural resource inputs and to ecosystem waste sinks arise from a
stratified and politicized society driven largely by:
producers’ access to capital
producers’ access to labor
producers’ assessment of potential liability
producers’ assessment of marketability
producers’ assessment of profitability
Such producer decisions are influenced by the regulations imposed by the state
and by negotiations with their labor forces. This is why the treadmill of production
model emphasizes the role of nonelite individuals as citizens (polity) and workers
(labor) rather than as consumers (Gould, Schnaiberg, & Weinberg, 1996). It is also
why the model emphasizes collective actions (such as those of nongovernmental
organizations or social movements) over individual choices/actions. Nonelite
treadmill participants alter the nature of social system–ecosystem interactions
through pressuring private capital and/or state decision makers to make more
proenvironmental decisions in production processes. Much of the limited success
in achieving treadmill alteration in the post–World War II era was achieved through
social movement pressures. For example, most if not all environmental legislation
passed during this time was the result of progressive forces seeking to slow the
excesses of treadmill institutions. Similarly, as labor, treadmill nonelites may use
their role in physical production to directly induce capital actors to alter their pro-
duction processes. Organized labor has done so sometimes for environmental con-
cerns or more frequently, because of occupational safety and health concerns
associated with ecologically disruptive technologies (Schnaiberg, 1986).
Thus, the treadmill model implies that more democratic ownership and control
over production could ameliorate social and ecological problems more than
attempts to control rates of consumption or consumer choice of certain products.
Consumers can choose Pepsi or Coke or some low-calorie, “green” alternative soft
drink. Yet this is largely irrelevant if the ownership and control over all these prod-
ucts is in the hands of producers who are simultaneously displacing workers, tax-
ing the state’s resources, and placing great burdens on the ecosystem. Clothing is
another “consumption” example. 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 ecologi-
cal 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 production processes.
Unfortunately, consumerist approaches to the problem of the treadmill almost
never consider the goal of treadmill deceleration. The question of how much we are
consuming (i.e., growth) is rarely challenged. The focus is only on changing what
goods we are consuming. This is perhaps not surprising, as consumerist
approaches are fundamentally about protecting the right to consume as muchas
they are about corporate and social responsibility. For example, the major recy-
cling campaigns spearheaded by many national environmental groups in the 1980s
and 1990s emphasized recycling, itself an environmentally problematic industrial
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process (Weinberg, Pellow, & Schnaiberg, 2000). Yet they largely eschewed more
socially and ecologically effective practices of reuse and reduction of production.
In earlier analyses (Schnaiberg & Gould, 1994, chaps. 9-10; Gould et al., 1996;
Weinberg et al, 2000, 164-169), we demonstrated that as long as companies harvest
timber at increasing rates (i.e., increases in production), it matters very little
whether environmentally conscious residents are recycling their waste (i.e., con-
sumers) because any potential gains from residential recycling are offset by pro-
duction. This type of analysis preceded and informed research on “commodity
chains” by noting the multiple points at which social, political, and economic
forces affect each other and environmental protection efforts.
The treadmill model argues that the collective bases of historical successin
altering aspects of the political economy arise only through direct or indirect politi-
cal conflict with state and capital elites. Treadmill nonelites’ roles as individual
consumers are the “tail end” of the system, not the leading factor. In contrast, their
collective roles as citizens and workers offer the potential to alter the production
decisions of elites who essentially control social system–ecosystem interactions.
The treadmill model at least suggests the need for a more radical restructuring of
the political economy. Citizen-workers need to achieve more control over produc-
tion decisions. In this perspective, prolonged engagement in enduring conflicts
with powerful treadmill decision makers may be effective (Schnaiberg & Gould,
Production is the locus at which we can observe and measure the degree of eco-
logical withdrawals and additions, as well as potential solutions. Yet it is also
where industry leaders will fight the most to maintain their autonomy vis-á-vis the
state, environmentalists, and labor. Control over production is the critical battle-
ground for industrialists generally and where the waste industry, in particular, drew
the line in the struggle over the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976
(Szasz, 1994). Industry successfully fought to shift federal mandates for recycling
outside the production process onto consumers and states in an effort to protect
profitability and control over production. Globally, industry leaders engage in a
range of actions to ensure this control, from relocation to avoid unionization to the
use of private and state armies to intimidate, torture, and execute opponents
(Gedicks, 2001). For them, production is legitimately the exclusive province only
of the owner/management/shareholder class, with virtually no input from other
affected parties.
The treadmill is organized under the premise that producers, not consumers, are
the major driving factor in the political economy. Consumers, for example, would
prefer to be able to purchase environmentally responsible products, but this deci-
sion is ultimately up to producers. However, we should never ignore consumer
behaviors. Growth in urban pollution has been rising, in part, due to increased vehi-
cle ownership and mileages. These have offset a large portion of the emission
reductions gained from motor vehicle controls. This is a classic illustration of the
treadmill of production at work. In view of the unforeseen growth in automobile
emissions in urban areas combined with the serious air pollution problems in many
urban areas, Congress has made significant changes to the motor vehicle provi-
sions on the 1977 Clean Air Act, but the core problem of growth in consumption
and production of automobiles is left unchallenged.2
A policy focus on consumption is almost always the easy path: It generally
absolves industry and the state of responsibility for a host of problems:
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it leaves production largely undisturbed;
it fails to challenge the fundamental structure of the industry in question; and
it often blames poor populations for not engaging in “enlightened,” “respon-
sible,” and “conscious” consumer practices.
Although the treadmill model’s emphasis remains on production, it could also
be said that it addresses the way that producers and other stakeholders literally con-
sume the ecosystem and become consumed by the (il)logic and seductions of the
treadmill. As such, it could be said that we have redefined or broadened our notions
of what consumption is (industrial and collective vs. personal/individual). The
study of the social, economic, and environmental impacts of personal consumption
is gaining greater visibility (see Clapp, 2001; Park, 2003; Schor & Holt, 2000) and
we welcome this development. However, scholars emphasizing this phase of the
product lifecycle would do well to remember that it is just that—a cycle that begins
with production.
Was the Treadmill a Dialectical or a Linear Change Theory?
One of the critiques of the treadmill is that it appears to be a theory of linear
change. There are two quite distinct aspects of our research on the treadmill. First,
we note that the initial theory of the treadmill was a historical model of changes that
seemed to have appeared in the United States and other industrial societies. Along-
side this historical pattern, Schnaiberg (1980) initially proposed that there were
many political-economic alternatives to the social and ecological impacts of an
accelerating treadmill. As workers confronted new social and economic restric-
tions, they would act politically to favor policies offsetting the treadmill tenden-
cies. Likewise, as environmental degradation began to have more pronounced
effects on communities and families, citizen-workers would act to reduce rela-
tively unrestricted economic control over ecosystems. In both cases, Schnaiberg
predicted that social and political actions would serve to reduce the growing influ-
ence of treadmill institutions and ideologies. Among other strategies, he listed the
following possibilities:
small-scale entrepreneurialism in lieu of large corporate employment;
direct state provision of essential public services (e.g., transportation,
profit seeking could decrease, in favor of other goals of corporate entities;
rising labor costs could reduce capital available for technological innovation;
state subsidies for provision of employment by the private sector;
expansion of state agencies to absorb displaced workers;
unsold production may raise inventories and reduce capital accumulation and
firms could absorb more profits rather than investing them (e.g., in salaries or
support for increased public sector consumption, to offset reduced consumer
demand; and
increased taxation to reduce capital investment and enhance social services
(pp. 228-229).
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As part of his initial work, Schnaiberg (1980) described the dialectical dimen-
sions of economic growth and environmental impacts. He outlined three syntheses—
an economic, a managed (planned) scarcity, and an ecological synthesis. Each of
these would leave treadmill forces in a different level of dominance of the political-
economic system. The treadmill was quintessentially an economic synthesis. By
1975 to 1980, however, there were significant policies of environmental protec-
tion, which Schnaiberg labeled as planned scarcity. Here the state would limit the
degree to which treadmill institutions had access to ecosystems. At the other
extreme, the ecological synthesis would entail the state’s substantial control over
ecosystems, without regard to issues of profitability and of wages/employment.
Treadmill institutions would, theoretically, have to restructure their activities to
deliver employment and wages and to protect crucial aspects of ecosystem func-
tioning. Interestingly, the ecological synthesis bears surprising similarity to the
concept of sustainable development, the successor to Schumacher’s (1973) inter-
mediate technology development trajectory. Equally important, however, is the
fact that in the past 25 years, there appears to be very limited movement towards
sustainable development nationally or globally. Even the proposals of the Kyoto
conference, which quite modestly proposed to limit production of greenhouse
gases to reduce global warming, failed to find support in the United States (and a
complex mixture of support and opposition elsewhere).
So the theory of the treadmill inherently entailed a dialectical system, in which
social forces benefiting from its expansion would engage in political contests with
those diminished by such expansion. And in the past 25 years, there have indeed
been local, national, and multinational contests challenging the treadmill. Yet it is
our assessment that the empirical history of the period from 1976 to 2004 is one in
which the treadmill has only occasionally been slowed. It is more accurate to sug-
gest that its rate of growth has sometimes been slowed by political opposition. One
of Schnaiberg’s (1980) naive expectations was that the publication of the treadmill
model would lead to substantial mobilization of opposition to the treadmill.
Yet history has given the lie to his expectations. It is hard to argue empiri-
cally that despite the plethora of state regulations, the empowering of global
conferences, and the emergent networks of progressive social movements (non-
governmental organizations), the treadmill has been shrunk. There have been a few
modest victories, such as the increased energy efficiency of many productive enter-
prises and the reduction of air, water, and land pollution in a variety of locales,
especially in the United States and some other industrial societies. There has been a
rise of education in business schools about “environmental management” and new
social theories about ecological modernization as a form of reflective modernity
(Beck, 1992; Mol, 1995). And yes, there has been an enormous increase in
postconsumer recycling in industrial societies (Weinberg et al., 2000).
Yet treadmill structures have adapted quite well to these new challenges. We
could state boldly that increasing the return on investment has displaced every
other social and environmental goal in this period. Moreover, this principle has
become dominant in more societies through the forms of globalization that have
been dominated by investors from the previously industrial societies. Indeed, this
principle is increasingly dominating all forms of globalization, despite the resis-
tance by socially and environmentally progressive forces in northern and western
Europe, as well as indigenous peoples everywhere (Collinson, 1996; Goldman,
1998). We could go even further than this: It seems apparent that more of human
activities all throughout the world fall under the influence of the treadmill institu-
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tions and logic than was true in 1980. In one sense, this growing monoculture of the
production system is expressly antithetical to the goal of sustainable development
or to the even more modest goal of a seriously managed scarcity model (Stretton,
1976). From the perspective of the treadmill, the media representation of economic
change is profoundly misleading. When “productivity” increases, especially
through increased technology per worker, this is actually an acceleration of the
treadmill—producing higher production and profits with fewer workers. In effect,
this increases the demands for more treadmill investment by increased levels of
displaced workers. As we write this, more reporters are noting that job woes persist
even as the economy begins recovery in what is now becoming infamously known
as a “jobless recovery” (Krugman, 2003, pp. 73-75). This is a concept that raises
troubling questions about what exactly a “recovery” is if it excludes employment
security for workers. Paradoxically, consumer debt is at an all-time high, a scenario
we envisioned earlier (Schnaiberg & Gould, 1994, chap. 6).
So, we can argue that the treadmill theory was dialectical but that the empirical
history of the United States and global political economy since 1980 has been only
weakly so. Indeed, rather than the treadmill expanding linearly over this period, it
has expanded exponentially. As we will note below, this causes serious reevalua-
tion of various proposals for environmental protection, including the recent argu-
ments of ecological modernization theorists (Mol, 1995).
How Has the Treadmill Theory Changed Under
Growing Globalization of Production Since 1980?
Other than our own work, there has been little systematic application of the
treadmill logic to analyses of globalization. However, there were some preliminary
treatments of global change even in Schnaiberg’s (1980) initial work. In many
ways, even his earliest primitive analysis presaged the effects of NAFTA and the
World Trade Organization changes: a rise in investment in less-developed coun-
tries would eventually lead to reduced consumer spending and hence, to a reduc-
tion of U.S.-based production for the U.S. market. This in turn should have reduced
the environmental impact of U.S. production and hence, afforded more potential
for ecosystems to recover from past disruption (if the state intervened to pressure
the treadmill institutions to do this).
To trace the role of the treadmill under conditions of globalization, however,
requires some careful distinctions. One of our recent puzzles was the fact that the
rising U.S. imbalance of trade payments has left the United States as the world’s
largest debtor nation! Yet there has been little political attention to this situation,
which could, according to macroeconomic theories of trade, lead to a total collapse
of the U.S. treadmill structure. Why has this aberration caused such little political
A partial answer seems to require us to distinguish between states and global
interest groups. When the United States experiences a vast array of imports for a
much lower array of exports, what does this mean actually? To whom is “the United
States in debt?” Ultimately, the answer seems to be, in part, to U.S.-based investors
and managers who have shifted production abroad and imported the results of this
“foreign production” (foreign investors have taken on an increasing level of debt in
U.S. investments in recent years as well). Because the treadmill’s major goal is
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increasing return on investment, after all, U.S. investors and managers desire to
reduce U.S. investment in favor of greater investment abroad, precisely because of
the attraction of lower overseas wages (and often lower environmental protection,
as in the NAFTA debates). In addition to offering this direct benefit to U.S.inves
tors and managers, this system pacifies more U.S. environmentalists (through
reductions of local production and pollution). And finally, in an era of downsizing
and wage reductions, the importation of more-cheaply-produced “foreign” goods
has permitted less affluent U.S. workers to buffer themselves somewhat against
their wage losses or wage stagnation. Interestingly, still a third benefit of this for
U.S.-based investors and managers is that it strengthens their claims that they need
labor and environmental protection concessions from workers and the stateto
remain “competitive” (often with their own overseas production organizations!).
In general, capital seems to have shifted more towards environmental degrada-
tion through production abroad than it has to environmental protection within the
United States or in U.S. investment-countries overseas. Moreover, there appears to
be a shadow “pricing” of environmental disruption by globalizing treadmill inter-
ests. They are grudgingly willing to reduce or ameliorate pollution from their pro-
duction facilities. But in return, they absolutely refuse to accept any limits to pro-
duction (actually, profit limits). Thus, we in the United States have cleaner streams
and rivers and some reductions of air pollution. But in return, ecological damage
due to logging, mining, and agriculture has increased dramatically since 1980,
both in the United States and in U.S.-investor locales overseas (at least as measured
by ecological indicators of habitat destruction and species extinction). The export
of hazardous chemical wastes and the transfer of toxic technologies has followed
the same pattern, producing extreme occupational health problems and ecological
disruptions in the global South as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cele-
brates improvements within certain environmental indicators as if they were
primarily the result of developing cleaner production domestically (Clapp, 2001;
Daykin & Doyal, 1999).
Indeed, in an age where there have been increasing calls for sustainable devel-
opment and sustainable biodiversity, the loss of habitat and associated species in
countries of the global South has rapidly accelerated since the United Nations Con-
ference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Although
some of this may be due to increases in population (Rudel, 1993), the majority of
habitat loss appears to have come through increased investment in extractive activi-
ties (agriculture, mining, and especially forestry; Rudel, 1993; Sonnenfeld, 2000).
This is the major cause of habitat destruction, despite recent and visible declara-
tions and policy mobilization by organizations whose main mission is environmen-
tal sustainability through population reduction and control (see, for example, the
Population Institute, Federation for American Immigration Reform, Sierra Club).
Loss of species diversity is further accelerated by the pollution associated with the
increased processing and manufacturing activity (e.g., refineries and petroleum
distribution, etc.). Many of the rates of natural resource extraction (e.g., oil mining)
and pollution (e.g., power plant emissions) have been decreased in the United
States and other industrial societies. But the globalizing capital flowing from
investors from industrial countries (now increasingly capital “service countries”)
has been guided by “cheap natural resources” and weak environmental regulation
in the global South, along with cheap labor.
Once again, this suggests we be extremely cautious in accepting arguments
about “hypermaterialism” (superefficient technologies) as predicted by ecological
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modernization theorists. It is true, for example, that there has been some decoup-
ling between energy consumption and GNP increases within the United States in
the past two decades. Yet it is not true that all of this “U.S. GNP” arises from U.S.
production. Much of the service revenues of U.S. corporations arise from coordi-
nating investment and production abroad. When we examine the ecological impact
of such non–U.S. production, we find increased materialism with few limitations
imposed by states or corporate entities on natural resource consumption
(Goldman, 1998; Sonnenfeld, 2000). Returns on investment abroad add to the U.S.
GNP, but ecological losses and natural resource consumption are not factored into
the U.S. production record (York & Rosa, 2003).
In its initial presentation (Schnaiberg, 1980), the treadmill was largely concep-
tualized as an analysis of the relationship of the U.S. political economy to the natu-
ral environment. Implications for other northern industrial economies were
implicit, and the relationship of those economies to those of the global South was
also alluded to. Nevertheless, it is clear that the treadmill itself already operated on
a global scale and had significant global implications. Schnaiberg’s The Environ-
ment was published just as
the nonaligned movement of Southern nations was collapsing;
the Washington Consensus on neoliberal global integration was gaining
transnational electronic networks were still under construction;
the Southern debt crises were appearing on the horizon; and
transnational trade liberalization agreements were yet to be fully negotiated.
As those changes to the global political economy emerged, the need for a more
consciously transnational articulation of the treadmill model became clear.
The South Commission and the United Nations Conference on Environment
and Development (the Earth Summit of 1992, in Rio de Janeiro) both served to
focus greater social attention on the global dimensions of environmental problems
and the specific ways environmental problems were manifested in the global
South. The relationship between transnational economic production and growing
global inequality and accelerating ecological degradation were highlighted. As a
result, in Schnaiberg and Gould’s (1994) Environment and Society, the treadmill
was more deeply contextualized in global history and the transnational economy.
The South was seen as moving from scarcity to even greater scarcity. Historic and
increasing reliance of the Northern industrial treadmill on access to Southern natu-
ral resource pools, labor pools, markets, and waste sinks were given greater pri-
macy in this later iteration of treadmill theory. So were the implications of those
transnational connections for domestic and international environmental politics.
Here, the emphasis was placed on the transnational distribution of economic bene-
fits and ecological costs and the acceleration of withdrawals and additions. Result-
ing diminution of social returns to increased productive capacity and the structural
dependency of labor were also more clearly articulated. The focus was on eco-
nomic actors with growing ease of transnational operation.3The transnationali-
zation of the treadmill model was well timed to meet the era of “globalization.”
The local scale at which most humans experience global dynamics were seen as
increasingly shaped by changes imposed by globalization on national political
economies. Problematizing the then-popular slogan of “Think globally, act
locally,” Schnaiberg and Gould (1994) argued that due to the greater capacity of
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private capital actors to operate on a global scale, each locality was forced to com-
pete with others because all were in an increasingly vulnerable competitive posi-
tion. As a result, the effectiveness of local political action to protect the environ-
ment would be diminished and environmental protection conflicts would need to
match the scale of operation of capital.4
The growing hegemony of treadmill values and political economic forms mani-
fest in corporate-led neoliberal globalization was further addressed in the new fore-
word to Environment and Society (Schnaiberg & Gould, 2000). This brief intro-
duction to the earlier work identified the treadmill model as a set of global
processes, relations, and forces decreasingly tied to the U.S. state. We noted that
the treadmill had become more entrenched and less availableto deceleration or dis-
mantlement. Marking the 20th anniversary of the publication of Schnaiberg’s
(1980) The Environment, this forward articulated the extent to which the earliest
national-level model had transnationalized and largely defeated competing alter-
native models for renegotiating socioenvironmental dynamics.
However, it also notes the emergence of new and/or renewed national and trans-
national political coalitions in opposition to a transnationalized treadmill. Most
notably, by undermining the security of labor, treadmill transnationalization to
some extent broke the alliance among workers, private capital, and the state that
had been the primary engine of treadmill support (Rubin, 1995, and others have
called this the breaking of the “social contract” in U.S. labor relations). By simulta-
neously disempowering labor and accelerating ecological disruption, the transna-
tional treadmill made it possible (or even necessary) for labor to lend support to the
opponents of treadmill expansion at the transnational level. Labor-environmental
coalitions urged in earlier iterations of treadmill theory emerged more at the turn of
the century than they had in the 1980s (Gould, Roberts, & Lewis, 2004). Trans-
nationally organized “extralocal action” to confront the treadmill called for in
Local Environmental Struggles (Gould et al., 1996) emerged, especially in the
anticorporate globalization movement (Buttel & Gould, 2004).
In short, as the scale of treadmill actors’operation increased through processes
now termed globalization, the treadmill model scaled up to address the move from
primarily national to primarily transnational political economic arrangements.
Has the Treadmill Been Evaluated Empirically?
When the initial treadmill theory was presented by Schnaiberg (1980), it had no
formal empirical evaluation. Indeed, the theory itself had been grounded in ana-
lytic induction (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). In formal terms, this means that the theory
“fit” the data from which it was actually abstracted. So the 1980 volume repre-
sented a grounded but untested theory. What has happened in the period from 1980
to 2004? Most directly, we have individually and collectively tested how well the
treadmill fits social production trends in the intervening decades. This includes
work on Great Lakes water pollution (Gould, 1991, 1992, 1994), on local mobili-
zation for toxic waste control (Weinberg, 1997), on local wetland protection efforts
(Gould et al., 1996), on global environmental treaties (Gould et al., 1996), on the
rise of postconsumer recycling in the United States (Weinberg et al., 2000), on
ecotourism (Gould, 1999), on local alternative technology initiatives in the global
South (Schnaiberg & Gould, 2000), and on environmental injustice in the waste
treatment and electronics industries (Pellow, 2002; Pellow & Park, 2002).
Each of these studies had a different set of specific questions, but all are sub-
sumed under a general quest to see whether recent social reforms have led to more
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socially progressive and ecologically sustainable production. Although the details
of each study differ, they all fail to find a substantial weakening or deceleration of
the treadmill structures and processes. Indeed, as noted earlier, these studies were a
painful lesson for us on how resilient the treadmill has become.
It appears that there is more empirical (or political) support for the major con-
tending theory—ecological modernization—that has emerged in the past decade
or so (Beck, 1992; Mol, 1995). Central to ecological modernization theory is an
assumption that the design, performance, and evaluation of production processes
have been increasingly based on ecological as well as economic criteria (Mol,
1995, 1996; Mol & Spaargaren, 2000; Spaargaren, 1997; Spaargaren & Mol,
1992). As a theory of industrial change, ecological modernization suggests that we
have entered a new industrial revolution, one of restructuring of production pro-
cesses along ecological lines (Mol, 1995). Yet recent summary and empirical cri-
tiques of ecological modernization theory (Schnaiberg, Pellow, & Weinberg, 2002;
York & Rosa, 2003) indicate the methodological and theoretical limitations of such
supporting studies.
In their evaluation of ecological modernization theory, York and Rosa (2003)
compared the strength of ecological modernization theory with political economic
approaches to global environmental problems, including the treadmill of produc-
tion model. Drawing on a range of examples (the Thai pulp industry, global envi-
ronmental treaty ratification, the coal industry, the Dutch chemical industry, etc.)
York and Rosa concluded that there is stronger evidence supporting the treadmill
model than there is for the ecological modernization theory. This is largely because
the treadmill model actually evaluates more than the simple adoption of environ-
mentally responsible policies. They examined whether this produces positive or
negative ecological impacts locally and extralocally. Ecological modernization
scholars have, on the whole, not pursued this line of analysis.
It is certainly true that the treadmill theory is insufficient to explain all patterns
of economic and environmental change since 1980, but we believe the evidence
indicates stronger support for the treadmill model in comparison to the ecological
modernization framework.
What Forces Have Limited the Diffusion
of the Treadmill in Environmental Sociology?
Just a few months after the publication of Schnaiberg’s (1980) The Environ-
ment: From Surplus to Scarcity, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United
States. He ushered in a neoconservative agenda, emphasizing state deregulation
and transnational neoliberalism. This new political zeitgeist of the 1980s was
clearly antithetical to the treadmill theory’s articulation of the need for “politics
over markets” (Lindblom, 1977). Its antienvironmental, treadmill-accelerating
agenda simultaneously validated the treadmill model while making resistance to
the treadmill more difficult. By increasing the power and liberty of transnational
corporations and treadmill elites, rolling back the initial gains of environmental-
ists, and launching an attack on the countervailing forces that sought to constrain
corporate power (Derber, 1998), the Reagan administration dimmed the prospects
for slowing or dismantling the treadmill just as the theoretical frameworkwas
making its intellectual debut.
The declining power of organized labor, which had been a powerful force pro-
moting both progressive distribution and environmental health, had some impact
as well. Civil societyresistance of the 1960s and 1970s (e.g., Shuman, 1998), offer-
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ing countervailing forces to the treadmill of production, also waned. Environmen-
tal and other social movements, which were often insurgent prior to thepublication
of Schnaiberg’s (1980) The Environment, became more conservative. They
became more cooperative with private capital and the state. Adoption of “Third
Wave” environmentalism strategies supplanted earlier insurgence (Dowie, 1995).
An increasingly professionalized mainstream environmental movement now
emphasized cooperative approaches, voluntary action on the part of treadmill
actors, and “flexible,” market-based approaches to source reduction and ecosystem
protection. This stance resonated well with the Reagan administration’s neoliberal
political-economic agenda (and continued into the Clinton era) but withdrew from
any serious challenges to the treadmill.
Transnationally, the Southern debt crises of the 1980s disabled many alterna-
tive development strategies adopted by developing nations. This crushed most
treadmill-alternative pilotprojects. The weight of international debt payments and
the international financial institutions’ structural adjustment policies suppressed
efforts to build alternative structures for production and distribution. Ideological
support for such efforts from “mixed economies” and social welfare states of
Europe was diminished as well. The combined influence of Reagan in the United
States and Thatcher in the United Kingdom shifted the global political climate and
also led to an upsurge in U.S. military interventions and muscle flexing around the
globe (Blum, 1995). Transnational insurgence against the Washington Consensus
model of global economic integration was displaced by new corporate libertarian
deregulatory regimes (Derber, 1998; Korten, 2001). Dismantlement of Eastern
Bloc state socialist economies at the start of the 1990s, and their replacement with
“shock therapy” policies of Western “free markets” removed the last global social
support for opposition to the treadmill. The treadmill emerged as the only path for
social and economic change, regardless of its ecological consequences.5
All of these changes to domestic and transnational political economies, and the
resultant acceleration of ecological disorganization, poverty, and inequality,
served to empirically validate the predictions of the treadmill model. Yetevenas
treadmill theory proved correct in assessing the causes, consequences, and neces-
sary alternatives to ecological degradation, it became less politically viable.
Those seeking to further their careers in the study of socioenvironmental
dynamics were thus deterred from adopting a theoretical framework that layin
direct opposition to state, private capital, and international financial institution–
policy regimes. A better option was to search for models that might be more ame-
nable to the political and economic zeitgeist. Mainstream environmental move-
ments had chosen to move toward Third Wave environmentalism, and the influence
of the mainstream environmental movement on the field of environmental sociol-
ogy should not be underestimated. With radical structural proenvironmental
change off of the political agenda, some environmental scholars retreated into
intellectual abstraction.
They sought insights and careers in constructionist models. These posed no
threat or challenge to power holders who controlled the gates for grant funding and
for policy-maker access. Others chose to focus on areas of apparent environmen-
talist success in an era of major environmentalist failure. They chose to reify grass-
roots struggles as national and transnational struggles waned. Others chose to
adapt Third Wave environmentalism into sociological theory. In this view, the
treadmill would simply self-correct for environmental limits through market
mechanisms. This supported rather than opposed the emerging neoliberal agenda.6
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In addition, some of the resistance to the treadmill model stems from its power
to nullify commonly proposed and often popular nonstructural solutions toenvi
ronmental problems (i.e., efficiency, recycling, appropriate technology, ecological
modernization, ecotourism, population control, attitude adjustment, voluntary
simplicity, etc.). Many of these solutions had become sacred cows of the environ-
mental movement at the time that Schnaiberg’s (1980) The Environment was pub-
lished, thus providing a political opening for treadmill theory to be simultaneously
cast as anticapitalist and antienvironmentalist. By presenting structurally based
critiques of the solutions offered by both treadmill elites and their environmentalist
opponents, the theoretical framework was left with few potential political and
intellectual allies. Even within the academy, the treadmill model is more often
critiqued as “depressing” than inaccurate, reflecting the model’s utility in debunk-
ing the environmental myths surrounding nonstructural paths to socioecologically
sustainable development trajectories. Environment and Society: The Enduring
Conflict (Schnaiberg & Gould, 1994) included critical analyses of recycling and
“appropriate technology” and more overtly called for political conflict as a means
to achieve sustainability. This position served to deepen the alienation of both
treadmill elites and mainstream environmentalists from treadmill theory.
Is the Treadmill More/Still Useful Today for
Ecological Analyses? For Social Analyses?
An increasing number of younger scholars are drawing on the treadmill, per-
haps because national and global environmental politics support and reflect the
treadmill model more than they do other theoretical frameworks. Battles over envi-
ronmental protection have recently become more contentious, more transnational,
and more multifaceted. The “Battle in Seattle” at the World Trade Organization’s
millennium round of talks, and the recent shutdown of talks at the World Trade
Organization meeting in Cancun, Mexico, attest to this. Environmental protection
is no longer restricted to the domain of policy “experts,” academics, and scientists.
People are starving while land and watersheds, forests, and ways of life are being
destroyed (Gedicks, 2001; Goldman, 1998).
Scholars need frameworks and models that reflect reality. The treadmill has
always offered this, particularly for academics who are willing to accept the possi-
bility that the trajectory of national and global environmental protection has been
limited at best. Abstract, detached modeling techniques and opaque theoretical
constructions are not as accessible, useful, or appealing to scholars, students, and
publics who seek to understand the contentious and ecologically disorganized
world. After more than three decades of institutionalized environmental protection
at the U.S. federal level, why is the United States more ecologically compromised
than ever before?7
Moreover, the treadmill offers a much more credible and useful theoretical link
between environmental sociology and other subfields within the sociological dis-
cipline. Although environmental sociology claims to be interdisciplinary (Dunlap
& Michelson, 2002), its weaknesses include its failure to build lasting bridges to
sociology itself. The treadmill of production bridges environmental sociology with
the sociology of work, Marxist sociology, political sociology, urban sociology, the
sociology of the world system, and the sociology of race, gender, and class.
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Equally important is the capacity of the treadmill to speak to all sociologists.
This affords them a broader scope to incorporate environmental factors into their
epistemological, methodological, and theoretical work. Nonenvironmental sociol-
ogists might deepen and broaden their approaches to sociological phenomena by
adopting what Humphrey and Buttel (1982) termed the “double determination”—
that approach to the study of society incorporates both social theory and a focus on
the natural world. Treadmill scholars have always understood that environmental
politics are driven by both social/human and ecological/natural factors and limita-
tions. Environmental sociology’s founders intended to challenge the dominant
Durkheimian paradigm, which restricted sociologists to explaining social phe-
nomena only through other social phenomena. A broadening of this approach is
intrinsic in treadmill analyses.
1. Another key theoretical contribution is the link between the treadmill model and more
recent developments in environmental sociology. For example, the treadmill of production
predated the now well-established field of environmental justice studies and advanced the
argument that environmental problems and solutions are not shared equally across or within
populations. It laid a foundation for more recent research that focuses on how other forms of
inequality (such as race and gender) intersect with environmental policy. Schnaiberg’s 1980
work is cited in many environmental justice studies and texts, including Robert Bullard’s
(1990) landmark book Dumping in Dixie (see also Hurley, 1995; Pellow, 2002; Pellow &
Park, 2002; Walsh, Warland, & Smith, 1997).
2. As environmentalists and treadmill scholars now know, a combination of production
and consumption of automobiles and trucks has maintained high levels of air pollution in our
urban areas. Specifically, although motor vehicles built today emit fewer pollutants (60% to
80% less, depending on the pollutant) than those built in the 1960s, cars and trucks still
account for almost half the emissions of the ozone precursors (volatile organic compounds
and nitrogen oxides) and up to 90% of the carbon monoxide emissions in urban areas.
3. Special attention was given to the effects of treadmill penetration on more socially and
ecologically sustainable development paths and initiatives throughout the global South and
the mechanisms by which the treadmill would force out alternative development strategies
at local and regional levels were described.
4. The call for transnational, extralocal, political conflict with treadmill elites appeared
just before the embryonic anticorporate globalization movement would gain substantial
social visibility (most notably 3 years later in November of 1999 in Seattle, Washington).
5. The political climate for adoption and diffusion of the treadmill model became quite
hostile and difficult. Treadmill theory implies that deep structural changes in the direction of
progressive distribution and growth deceleration are central to any viable solution to envi-
ronmental problems. But the structural changes that were being implemented by transna-
tional corporations, states, and international financial institutions were in a diametrically
opposed direction. This made the possibility of implementing treadmill prescriptions
appear less viable than ever.
6. Each of these theoretical and intellectual tacks was less threatening to careers and
promised better intellectual markets. Structural analysis and neo-Marxism became decreas-
ingly fashionable in response to the external political realities. This was increasingly mani-
fest in internal professional organizational pressures. In short, treadmill theory became
politically and professionally inexpedient.
7. Studying levels of environmental concern or the public declarations by state and
industry elites about their devotion to sustainability can be useful for analyzing how individ-
uals and organizations produce discourses on and interpret environmental problems. But
these approaches do not allow one to examine the root causes of the environmental crisis or
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even the actual outcomes of state and corporate environmental policies. If scholars wish to
follow this line of analysis, the treadmill is a far more useful framework.
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Kenneth A. Gould’s work in the political economy of environment,technology, and development exam-
ines the responses of communities to environmental problems, the role of socioeconomic inequality in
environmental conflicts, and the impacts of economic globalization on efforts to achieve ecologically
and socially sustainable development trajectories. He is coauthor of Environment and Society: The
Enduring Conflict (St. Martin’s Press, 1994; Blackburn Press, 2000) and Local Environmental Strug-
gles: Citizen Activism in the Treadmill of Production (Cambridge University Press, 1996).
David N. Pellow is associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California–San Diego. His
books include People, Power, and Pollution: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Move-
ment (with R. Brulle; MIT Press, 2004), The Silicon Valley of Dreams: Environmental Injustice, Immi-
grant Workers, and the High-Tech Global Economy (with L. S. Park; New York University Press, 2002),
Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago (MIT Press, 2002), and Urban Recy-
cling and the Search for Sustainable Community Development (with A. Schnaiberg & A. Weinberg;
Princeton University Press, 2000).
Allan Schnaiberg’s work has concentrated on issues of “saving the environment, from whom and for
whom?” since 1973. His book The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (Oxford, 1980) developed the
initial theory of the treadmill of production. His later collaborations elaborated this theoretically and
empirically in Environment and Society: The Enduring Conflict (St. Martin’s Press, 1994; Blackburn
Press, 2000), Local Environmental Struggles (Cambridge University Press, 1996), and Urban Recy-
cling and the Search for Sustainable Community Development (Princeton University Press, 2000).
at Mina Rees Library/CUNY Graduate Center on February 13, 2013oae.sagepub.comDownloaded from

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... Political economy perspectives are critical of the link between sustainability and economic growth. The treadmill of production theory, in particular, argues that economic growth is the main driver of environmental degradation (Gould et al., 2004;Schnaiberg, 1980). Proponents of this view argue that in advanced industrial countries, economic growth is driven by investments in resource-intensive and highly polluting production technologies which displace labor resulting in the need for more economic growth to absorb the displaced labor. ...
... In addition, income inequality may be an important factor affecting EWEB. In the treadmill of production theory and other political economy theories, inequality is an important component of the social systems' effects on the environment (Gould et al., 2004). Inequality may affect EWEB by disproportionately distributing consumption and whatever well-being benefits it entails, so that, among marginalized groups and the poor, consumption is restricted while the privileged enjoy high levels of consumption. ...
... A linear relationship between economic development and EWEB would indicate support for modernization theories. A negative quadratic relationship would support the political economy perspective of Schnaiberg (1980) and colleagues (e.g., Gould et al., 2004). The variable in the quadratic was centered before squaring, by subtracting the mean, in order to reduce collinearity with the linear term. ...
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Recent research has conceptualized sustainability as the environmental efficiency of well-being (EWEB). This concept takes into account the benefits societies are able to produce from their demands on the environment. Research along these lines indicates that countries vary widely in the efficiency with which they transform the Earth’s resources into well-being. Here, we take up this finding as a puzzle to be explained. We construct a new measure of EWEB using the ecological footprint per capita (a measure of environmental consumption) and average life satisfaction (a measure of subjective well-being). We draw hypotheses from political economy, modernization, and sustainable consumption theories in the environmental social sciences. Using full information maximum likelihood estimation, we test the effects of climate, political, economic, and social factors on EWEB with a sample of 105 countries. Key findings include a negative quadratic effect of economic development on EWEB, a negative effect of income inequality, and a positive effect of social capital.
... They argue that private capital, the state, and labor depend on economic growth for profits, taxes, and wages, creating a type of path dependency with an array of social and ecological consequences. The constant pursuit of profit and expansion has " direct implications for natural resource extraction " , pollution generation, and overall environmental conditions [89]. Treadmill theorists explain that each expansion in the production process to sustain economic operations on a larger, more intensive scale generates higher natural resource demand, often at rates that exceed ecosystem regenerative capacity and that contribute to an increased disorganization in nature [67,[88][89][90][91][92]. ...
... The constant pursuit of profit and expansion has " direct implications for natural resource extraction " , pollution generation, and overall environmental conditions [89]. Treadmill theorists explain that each expansion in the production process to sustain economic operations on a larger, more intensive scale generates higher natural resource demand, often at rates that exceed ecosystem regenerative capacity and that contribute to an increased disorganization in nature [67,[88][89][90][91][92]. Moreover, they contend that energy-intensive materials, such as plastics and chemicals, which are incorporated into manufacturing, generate widespread waste and pollution that producers externalize [91][92][93][94]. ...
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The vague, yet undoubtedly desirable, notion of sustainability has been discussed and debated by many natural and social scientists. We argue that mainstream conceptions of sustainability, and the related concept of sustainable development, are mired in a "pre-analytic vision" that naturalizes capitalist social relations, closes off important questions regarding economic growth, and thus limits the potential for an integrative socio-ecological analysis. Theoretical and empirical research within environmental sociology provides key insights to overcome the aforementioned problems, whereby the social, historical, and environmental relationships associated with the tendencies and qualities of the dominant economic system are analyzed. We highlight how several environmental sociology perspectives-such as human ecology, the treadmill of production, and metabolic analysis-can serve as the basis for a more integrative socio-ecological conception and can help advance the field of sustainability science.
... Die Theorie der Treadmill of Production (ToP) -also des Hamsterrads kapitalistischer Produktion und Konsumption -ist ein polit-ökonomischer Erklärungsansatz mit neomarxistischen Wurzeln, der hauptsächlich in der Umweltsoziologie entwickelt wurde. Hierbei besteht die wesentliche Funktion des Staates darin, kapitalistischen Verwertungsinteressen mächtiger ökonomischer Akteure zu dienen (Schnaiberg 1980, Gould et al. 2004, siehe Brand 2008. Vertreter dieser Theorie argumentieren, dass der Staat vom Markt dominiert wird und in keinem Politikbereich (am allerwenigsten im Umweltbereich) ein bedeutender unabhängiger Akteur ist. ...
In diesem Beitrag untersuchen wir den Zusammenhang zwischen staatlicher Regulierung im Umweltschutz und der Umweltperformanz. Ausgehend von drei theoretischen Perspektiven, welche die Beziehung von Staat und Markt beim Umweltschutz unterschiedlich konzeptualisieren, identifizieren wir fünf Pfade, wie staatlicher Eingriff und Umweltperformanz miteinander verknüpft sein könnten. Wir untersuchen dann die empirische Relevanz dieser Pfade mit einer quantitativen Analyse, die 29 umweltpolitische Maßnahmen in für 37 Länder und den Zeitraum von 1970 bis 2010 umfasst. Dabei finden wir zumindest für einige Politikbereiche und einige Länder Hinweise, die auf eine Effektivität nationalstaatlicher Regulierung hinweisen. Zukünftige Forschung kann auf unserem Rahmen aufbauen, um weitere Hypothesen zum Policy-Outcome-Nexus zu generieren und zu testen.
... Treadmill theories consider processes of production to be the central locus in which the relationships of power behind ecological destruction can be most effectively observed, measured and addressed. As Gould et al. (2004) note, production is the point at which "industry leaders will fight the most to maintain their autonomy vis-à-vis the state, environmentalists and labour" (303). This statement introduces the three core groups seen to influence the relationship between ecology and economy; agents of capital, labour organizations and the state. ...
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Green criminologists often deploy the notion of harm to capture patterns of environmental victimization sitting outside the narrow and legalistic confines of environmental “crime”. In doing so, their analytical gaze is cast wide, resulting in a lack of focus on states and their specific obligations to protect citizens from such victimization. The current article addresses this by using the dialectic conception of state crime to direct criminological attention towards these obligations. Using its constituent elements of human rights, deviance and legitimacy, the article examines the state duty to protect environmental human rights, the importance of involving opposition groups in research on deviant state activity and the challenges faced by scholars attempting to evidence the illegitimacy of such practice. In doing so, the literature from state crime and green criminological scholarship is synthesized, resulting in a concept of state environmental crime that is of utility to both fields.
... The constant pursuit of profit and expansion has "direct implications for natural resource extraction," pollution generation, and overall environmental conditions (Gould, Pellow, and Schnaiberg 2004:297). Treadmill theorists explain that nature, in the form of matter and energy, fuels industry and animates commodity production; each expansion in the production process to sustain economic operations on a larger, more intensive scale generates higher natural resource demand, often at rates that exceed the ecosystem's regenerative capacity (Burkett 1999;Foster et al. 2010;Gould et al. 2004). Moreover, they contend that energy-intensive materials, such as plastics and chemicals, are incorporated into manufacture, generating widespread waste and pollution that producers externalize (Foster 1994;Gould, Pellow, and Schnaiberg 2008;Pellow 2007;Schnaiberg and Gould 1994). ...
... Developed by Allan Schnaiberg, the 'treadmill of production' is a model that explains the insatiable and growing hunger for material goods. This hunger creates environmental withdrawals of natural resources and the addition of waste to the environment (Gould et al., 2004;Schnaiberg, 1980). Drawing on Schnaiberg's theoretical approach, I argue that logistics lubricate the treadmill of production. ...
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This paper examines the domestic growth and overseas expansion of Turkish firms as part of the treadmill of production. The treadmill of production is an environmental and political-economy approach to society’s insatiable hunger for material goods. In this approach, economic growth leads to withdrawals of natural resources, and the addition of waste to the environment that stresses both nature and society. Drawing on the treadmill of production approach, I argue that logistical service providers are a coping and modernisation mechanism for accelerated urban growth and economic expansion. This process is visible in the expansion of privatised waste management, and even more so in rapidly urbanising regions where growth and modernisation are of great importance to policy-makers. Owing to the importance of growth and expansion, logistics firms in newly industrialised countries, like their counterparts in the Global North, increasingly export logistical services overseas. This, in turn, accelerates the treadmill of production internationally. As such, this paper will also look at the expansion of Turkish firms into Pakistan.
... The constant pursuit of profit and expansion has "direct implications for natural resource extraction," pollution generation, and overall environmental conditions (Gould, Pellow, and Schnaiberg 2004:297). Each expansion in the production process to sustain economic operations on a larger, more intensive scale generates higher natural resource demands, often at rates that exceed ecosystem regenerative capacity (Foster, Clark, and York 2010;Gould, Pellow, and Schnaiberg 2004). Moreover, they contend that energy-intensive materials, such as plastics and chemicals, are incorporated into manufacture, causing widespread waste and pollution (Foster 1994;Gould, Pellow, and Schnaiberg 2008;Pellow 2007;Schnaiberg and Gould 1994). ...
... Treadmill of production theorists focus on the causative role of new energy and chemicalintensive technology in creating an ever greater demand for natural resources, increasing waste streams and the toxicity of chemicals (Gould, Pellow, and Schnaiberg 2004;Schnaiberg 1980). It is the treadmill of production, run by treadmill elites, that plays a determinative role in exacerbating consumption, and as a result, the environmental footprint of nations. ...
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This paper develops a theoretical integration and estimates an associated structural equation model of the ecological footprints of nations. The ecological footprint is an approximation of environmental pressure on natural resources that stems from production, consumption, and the resultant disposal of waste. We use structural equation modeling techniques to test an integrative perspective based on direct and indirect effects, taken from human ecology, ecological economics, modernization, and political economy approaches, as well as from the natural sciences. We find evidence for the conjuncture of many of the theories investigated and for contextualizing the footprint in a global network of causes. The model raises questions about conclusions reached in prior analyses based on direct effects only. The significant roles played by natural and economic forces suggest a need to attend to multidisciplinary dynamics. With the exception of " weak sustainability," the indirect and direct impacts suggest ever-escalating levels of the footprints of nations.
... Of the leading theoretical perspectives in socio-environmental research, the Treadmill of Production model (Gould et al. 2004), World Systems Theory in Ecology (Roberts and Grimes 2002;Roberts and Parks 2007), Political Economy of the Environment (Boyce 2002) and Inequality, Democracy, and the Environment theory (Downey and Strife, 2010) all place the commercial interests of a small percentage of wealthy people, most often from developed countries, as the cause of harm, intentionally or unintentionally, to people and their environmental resources in less developed countries. Stemming from power disparities and social inequalities, the rich and influential elite are able to degrade social relations and misappropriate environmental resources by 1) allowing a few people to undemocratically make decisions for the vast majority, 2) transferring costs to less powerful individuals or groups, 3) blocking the development or transmission of pro-environmental knowledge and beliefs, 4) shaping and limiting the choices and manners in which people can act pro-environmentally (or medically), 5) framing the policies and debates of what constitutes pro-environmental responsibility for corporations or networks, and 6) diverting attention away from anti-environmental activity of harmful organizations or industries (Downey and Strife 2010). ...
Afin de placer les contributions à ce numéro dans un contexte théorique plus large, nous montrons comment les problèmes écologiques peuvent être approchés à partir des perspectives qu’offre la sociologie de l’environnement. Les problèmes écologiques sont des constructions sociales résultant d’un processus complexe de définition, d’appropriation et de diffusion sociale. Ils donnent lieu à des débats et des controverses publiques, dévoilant des conflits et des alliances entre acteurs sociaux. Ils peuvent conduire à des décisions collectives s’institutionnalisant en politiques et pratiques publiques et privées. Quatre approches des enjeux environnementaux, accentuant des aspects différents des relations sociales à l’environnement, sont passées en revue : l’écologie politique, l’écologie humaine, la modernisation écologique, et l’analyse des controverses socio-écologiques. Les articles rassemblés dans ce numéro s’inscrivent dans l’une ou l’autre de ces approches, à l’exception de l’écologie humaine.
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Workers and environmentalists in the United States have often found themselves on opposite sides of critical issues. Yet at the WTO meeting in Seattle in November 1999, they came together in a historic protest many see as a watershed in the formation of a new blue-green “Seattle Coalition.” However the two camps are again in con?ict over substantive issues, and in the changed political climate of post 9-11, the question arises of the coalition’s durability. The paper ?rst brie? y reviews the history of labor-environment interactions in the United States. It then examines a series of problems and potential areas of promise for the movements: di?culties of coalition-building, expectations of reciprocation, local vs. national connections, and the question of di?ering class cultures and interests. Finally, three areas of potential research and action are suggested: new roles for the mainstream environmental groups, just transition alliances and climate justice alliances. We propose that the environmen-tal justice and environmental health wings of the green movement are more suited to making long-term coalitions with labor than are habitat-oriented green groups.
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This paper examines the major structural characteristics of the anti-corporate globalization movement, its key bases and antecedents, its relationship with other global social movements (GSMs) and the key challenges it faces in the post-9/11 period. We suggest that despite the potential of the anti-corporate globalization movement to usher in major social changes, the movement faces a number of major crossroads in terms of ideology, discursive approach, and overall strategy. We argue that there has been coalescence of a good many GSMs, including the international environmental movement, under the banner of the anti-corporate globalization movement. We focus primarily on the interrelations of these two GSMs, noting that over the past decade there have been trends toward both the “environmentalization” and “de-environmentalization” of the anti-corporate globalization movement. While the defection of many mainstream environmental groups from the “Washington consensus” and the resulting environmentalization of the trade and globalization issue were critical to the “Seattle coalition,” there has been a signifi cant decline in the movement’s embrace of environmental claims and discourses, and a corresponding increase in its use of social justice discourses. One implication of our analysis is the hypothesis that while the current vitality of the anti-corporate globalization movement can be gauged by its having adopted an increasingly coherent ideological stance in which international inequality and global corporate dominance are targeted, to be successful the movement will need to coherently ideologically integrate social justice with environmental and sustainability agendas. Th e amenability of the environmental GSM to such ideological integration will have important ramifi cations for the future trajectory of the anti-corporate globalization movement.
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In contrast to the early 1970s, in the early 1990s the environment does not seem to wither away from public and political agendas and even seems to be entering the ‘economic agenda’. It can be hypothesised that the environment is on its way to becoming a crucial factor in the widely discussed transformation of modernity. To what extent do environmental considerations and interests contribute ‐ or may contribute in the future ‐ to the restructuring of production? Ecological modernisation theory is a valuable starting‐point for analysing the contemporary reflexive reorganisation and transformation of production along ecological criteria. The discretion on the basic tenets of this theory emphasises the major differences with competing theories on environment and modernity as well as some of the central points of criticism raised against it.
Traditional understandings of the relationship between health and work have been called into question in what has variously been termed late modern, high modern and postmodern society. Conventional models, developed in the context of western industrial societies, are based on notions of work that fail to account for the experience of growing numbers of individuals. They also draw on ideas about the nature of science that have been challenged from a number of perspectives. Finally, they assume modes of political organisation which can no longer be taken for granted in societies where risks are often global and yet individuals’ experience of work may be more and more fragmented.