Ecological Modernisation Problem Of Consumption Economics Essay

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To truly answer this question without merely glancing the surface of issue, it is vital that the parameters of the terms; ecological modernisation and consumption, are defined in the context of this discussion. The relationship between the two must be considered, alongside the past attempts of ecological modernisation, in dealing with the problem of consumption as well as the current framework. One must also understand the ideas of sustainable growth, sustainable consumption and the limits to growth. So as to understand how successful ecological modernisation is in dealing with the problem of consumption.

What does Ecological Modernisation mean?

"A policy strategy which aims to restructure capitalist political economy along more environmentally benign lines, based on the assumption that economic growth and environmental protection can be reconciled." (Carter, 2007)

Ecological Modernisation (EM) is an idea that has gained attention among scholars and policy makers within the last few decades. The theory is in a sense, Sustainable Development (SD) through a different lens; suggesting that enlightened self-interests, the economy and ecology can be harmoniously combined. The theory further suggests that, environmental productivity can be like capital and labour productivity; it can be a source of future growth.

One the major goals of EM, is to reinvent the status quo of industrial practices to a symbiotic cradle-to-cradle process. With the idea that less waste equals more productivity and efficiency, while reducing resource consumption.(Carter, 2007)(Claudia Soares, 2002) By taking into account substance flow from a sociological point of view, it aims to bridge the gap between technical and social environmental sciences. It stresses that the current environmental crisis is a social one, in regards to the problem of dealing with our sustenance base and consumption.(Gert Spaargaren, 1998)

One of its major criticisms is that, the theory is limited in its application to its countries of origin; Germany and Netherlands, having little to do with the developing world. The theory also raises the question as to whether technological fixes alone can solve the current crisis, though some as a misconception may see this. It can be seen as environmental friendly capitalism; accepting the capitalist society as the cause of current environmental problems, while rejecting the idea of a fundamental restructuring of economic and state systems.(Carter, 2007) It is agreed that sustainable capitalism is impossible and that it's just another form of green-washing.(Dana Fisher and William Freudenburg, 2001) In addition EM is seen to promote environmental racism and the non-implementation of environmentally friendly practices/processes, by self regulating cooperations.(Gert Spaargaren, 1998) The diagram below shows the spread of alignment with the theory.

Fig 1: Interpretations of ecological modernisation. (Dana Fisher and William Freudenburg, 2001)

Businesses favour EM theory, as it seems to hit the triple bottom line of economics, society and the environment, while not challenging the status quo of the free market and the capitalist regime. This is in contrast to the perspective that free trade and the capitalist system, is the primary cause of environmental degradation.(Gert Spaargaren, 1998)

What is meant by Consumption?

Simply defined as the using up of resources. Economists see it as the opposite of production with its exact definition varying depending on the school of thought. However, we are concerned with the concept of Sustainable Consumption (SC), which is defined by the 1994 Oslo symposium on sustainable consumption as;

"The use of services and related products which respond to basic needs and bring a better quality of life, while minimizing the use of natural resources and toxic materials as well as emissions of waste and pollutants over the life-cycle of the service or product, so as not to jeopardize the needs of future generations." (Norwegian Ministry of the Environment,1994)

Changing consumer behaviour has been a critical issue for policy makers and researchers since the early 1990s, when sustainable consumption was first put on the political agenda.(Eivind et al, 2006) When looking at sustainable consumption, EM theory can be said to have a narrow definition critiquing the fundamentals of modern consumer society. In this way, the theory can be used to analyse environmental change at the consumption junction.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006) The consumption junction is defined as;

"...all those places where provider logics meets the life world logics of citizen consumers as end users of new products and services" (Gert Spaargaren, 2006)

This junction is seen to be the most promising place to start to develop a union between market/technology driven innovation perspectives and everyday life perspectives.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006) The standing paradigm is to encourage consumers to purchase environmentally friendly products, however, a more radical solution will be simply to buy less stuff.(Eivind et al, 2006) Researchers are increasingly directing focus towards the use phase of the consumption cycle, as there is substantial production occurring in modern households, from food production to house renovation. That said it is vital to consider all phases of consumption. (Eivind et al, 2006) The diagram below is an illustration of the consumption process, with the use-phase comprised of; reshaping, co-producing and consuming.

Fig 2: Illustration of the consumption process. (Eivind et al, 2006)

Lifestyle politics is used to analyse lifestyles, where people partake in activities such as consuming goods and services, which support everyday life and relate to prominent themes in global lifestyle politics.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006)

One must also consider growth and its impact on available resources and the ecosystem. Herman Daley et al, 1993, consider the resulting idea of sustainable growth impossible. They go on to say that when it is applied to economics, it is a self contradicting oxymoron; since the economy is linked to the finite ecosystem. A growing economy will require consumption of natural and human capital at a cost to ecology/society, eventually reaching a limit of what can be provided by the ecosystem. Thus, we can not continue to grow and paint it sustainable, this is in a nutshell is the idea of limits to growth.

Ecological Modernisation and Consumption

It is a common view that sociologists should not lose sight of the human factor when studying production-consumption cycles. The crucial position of consumer groups in structuring production-consumption cycles in a modern society, has become more recognised in recent years. It is now argued that home based social practices are important when talking of the environment; our relationship with the sustenance base and creation of routines via our daily interaction with nature, Fig 3 below illustrates this.(Gert Spaargaren, 1998)

Fig 3: Domestic consumption practices and the duality of structure (Gert Spaargaren, 1998)

This leads to the idea of sustainable household, where lifestyles and consumption patterns are reshaped, becoming more environmentally benign. Furthermore the concept of a consumer society, is now recognised as a key idea to understanding the dynamics of industrial societies; it is finally understood that consumers are very different from producers/retailers, not just in regards to their environmental characteristics, but also with their social characteristics behind their environmental performance. EM is now taking on board a consumer led perspective on production-consumption cycles, which is vital for the future development of the theory.(Gert Spaargaren, 1998) Treating people as accountable agents is relevant when considering issues of green lifestyles and consumption patterns, where the concept of lifestyle plays a vital role when studying the greening of consumption as strategic conduct.


So how then has EM attempted to solve the problem of consumption and the issue of limitation to growth? To start with, research has been conducted to develop a better handle on the situation. Indicating that there is a negligence of the crucial role of consumers in the development and use of innovations, citizens do have a say in environmental arrangements developed by experts.(Gert Spaargaren, 1998) Bearing in mind that the common view that, consumers matter in the smallest of ways; they follow suggestions put forward by dominant providers in the system. Another research question proposed by Gert Spaargaren is the characterization of the nature and level of EM over a series of key social practices in different consumption domains. The model implies that human factors are situated within social practices.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006)

In developing a framework for solving the problem of consumption using EM, ideas such as sustainable consumption and limits to growth sparked serious debates within socio-political circles.

Sustainable Consumption debate

Jason Huber one of the funding fathers of EM theory dismisses the role of consumers in bringing about environmental change, concluding that the theory should be developed on the producers side while not bothering too much about the consumers.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006) As a result the first generation theories developed in the 1970s and 1980s, treated consumption as a function of production with its impact framed as life cycle analysis of product life policies and dematerialisation strategies, judging consumer behaviour to be less relevant to industrial ecology.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006) Disagreeing with the view that the responsibility for environmental problems should be given to citizen individuals, to solve big problems by making small changes in their shopping patterns, taking attention away from social forces and power relations at stake.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006)

Gert Spaargaren 2006, states that Kersti Hobson takes a critical stance with discourses on sustainable development and sustainable consumption developed in the 1990s. In these debates SC is seen to be the rationalization of lifestyle practices, making them more efficient according to the logic of instrumental rationality; part of EM paradigm. As a result, discourses of SC in high income countries fail to address issues of power inequalities, allowing them to have real controls over future international frameworks of environmental governance.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006) He goes on to state Mikko Jalas' view that this discourse puts forward a one sided view of SC, suggesting that by improving the eco-efficiencies of products and technologies the environmental problem can be dealt with, impeding the possibilities of contentment when applied to household consumption. It was further argued that the theory ignores the reality that some problems can not be dealt with just in terms of improving efficiency. Radical changes in our lifestyles are needed in response to the paradigm of economic growth.

"We must fundamentally question the ways we strive for and derive utility while consuming" (Gert Spaargaren, 2006)

The question is raised on whether it is possible to address at the same time, both the problems of improving the production/consumption lifecycles and addressing the problem of growth and contentment in everyday life.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006) In the second generation of EM theory, the paradigm is seen to argue for more growth believing that market forces and yet to be invented technologies will solve the current crisis. Fig 4 is a simple diagrammatic representation of aligned perspectives.

FIG 4: Simplified summary of different perspectives on sustainable development and consumption. (Gert Spaargaren, 2006)

To summarise the debate, it can be seen that EM theory is associated with the eco-efficiency revolution that emerged in industrial circles in the 1980s and the policies of SC put forward by mainstream institutions. On the other hand, the second generation of the theory combines a focus on eco-efficiency, green products and technology paying equal attention to the everyday life of citizen consumers in relation to their use of green goods and services.(Gert Spaargaren, 2006) Alan Warden since the 1990s seems to perpetuate the notion that production-consumption cycles must be understood, in terms of the different modes of production and the different modes of use.

Limits to Growth debate

The relationship between economic growth and environmental impact has spurred debate, with one side arguing the case of the limits to growth and the other referring to the phenomenon of the environmental Kuznets curve.(J. H. Spangenberg et al, 2002) In 1972 a team of analysts for Massachusetts Institute of technology, produced the report 'The Limits to Growth' (LtG), which presented challenging scenarios for global sustainability. It used global economic subsystems such as; population and consumption of non-renewable resources in a computer simulation, with a timescale from 1900 to 2100. The results of which require an understanding and controlling of global pollution. The message from the simulation was that, continued growth will lead to our society exceeding the Planetary limits sometime in the 21st century, resulting in the collapse of population and economic systems, which can be avoided by early changes in our behaviour, policy and technology.(Graham Turner, 2008) These warnings have for the most part been resisted possibly primarily due to the discrediting of LtG.

The simulation claims a population decline might result, contrasting inaccurate and exaggerated statements made about LtG such as; a statement by the United Nations Environmental Programme suggesting an interpretation on LtG that concluded world collapse by 2000. While some critics discredit LtG by supporting false information, other critics select data from Ltd that support their criticisms, while ignoring all other connected data.(Graham Turner, 2008) Graham Turner 2008, puts forwards an observation of how accurate many of the predicted trends are 30 years after the original LtG publication.(Graham Turner, 2008) R. Ayres, comments on the limits to the growth paradigm, saying that economic growth is not and has never been an important factor for increasing human welfare, instead technological progress has promoted growth and welfare. Adding that trade was at best a minor contributor, which may now have a detrimental effect on welfare, while along with growth of GDP it is incompatible with environmental protection.(Robert Ayres, 1996)

The conclusion from the LtG publication is;

"...the global system is on an unsustainable trajectory unless there is substantial and rapid reduction in consumptive behaviour, in combination with technological progress." (Graham Turner, 2008)

As the economy grows it will consume resources. Though it is unrealistic to expect economic growth to improve distribution justice and environmental pressures, it is possible to delink growth and environmental pressures on a short to medium term. However this action will have to overcome the time consuming phase of policy deliberation.(J. H. Spangenberg et al, 2002) J. H. Spangenberg et al 2002, state that;

"...economic development can be regarded as sustainable as long as it produces non-decreasing benefits without being environmentally or socially unsustainable..." (J. H. Spangenberg et al, 2002)

Opposing the idea assumed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of a continuous and unconditioned growth as sustainable growth.(J. H. Spangenberg et al, 2002) The paper concludes saying that there can be transition strategies towards a sustainable society diminishing unemployment and environmental impact. Admittedly the model is limited, but it is seen as a stepping stone to a better more rounded solution. This is better than abstract theories of sustainable development that do not survive the transition into the real world of unregulated global markets.(J. H. Spangenberg et al, 2002) Primarily using the laws of thermodynamics, this model was again confirmed in 2005.(F. C. Krysiak, 2006)


EM started tackling the problem of consumption first from the producers' end of the spectrum, before realising the importance of the citizen consumer; recognising that there is substantial production occurring within the household. The theory has put forward ideas that attempt to reshape consumption patterns particularly in the industry, but also in the household paying equal attention to citizen consumers.

The key to the success of any theory, is the acknowledgement of and steps to overcome the problem of consumption; particularly the levels of consumption and the limits to growth, brought on by economic growth consuming resources. EM seems to turn half-an-eye towards the idea of the need for a fundamental restructuring of the capitalist regime, suggesting the flawed idea of sustainable capitalism.

Sustainable consumption as proposed by EM inevitable leads to the limits to growth paradigm. EM is a supporter of growth, the real question is; the necessity of economic growth for progress. It is better instead to view progress in terms of welfare as a result of science and knowledge, where economic growth comes as a supplement. It is true that economic growth was useful, but it must be recognised that it is at the end of its usefulness. In fact it has harnessed science and knowledge for its own use limiting welfare progress of the society-complex.

The methods proposed by EM though limited, are a good point to move on from. As its practices are better than other non-implementable philosophies suggested.

Implications of the current framework and Recommendations

The ultimate solution would simply be to consume less products and services, opting for quality instead of quantity, that is to say; make walls that also provide heat, lighting and so on. LtG should not be ignored, disregarded or resisted as it is important in putting together a structure to efficiently tackle the current environmental crisis. The idea that economic growth drives welfare progress may have once been true during the time of Henry Ford, but it is not this case in our current era. If anything it is causing a lot more problems than it is solving. Take for example the move of multinational cooperations (MNCs) to low-cost labour countries reducing employment in their home countries, while selling the goods produced at profitable prices. Profitable primarily for stakeholders in these MNCs, indeed it can be said that they have a huge say in the wax and wane of policies; at home and internationally. All this does is keep the benefits of capitalism in the hands of a few, outsourcing all its related negatives to everyone else. The diagram below is an attempt to illustrate the need to switch the perceived driver of our progress, from the status quo to a new and possibly radical idea; for a society proceeding along time.

Increasing Energy State

What's next?

Economical Drive








Energy Levels

Chaotic Nexus of Choice

Energy state of Society-complex


Science and Knowledge Drive

Instinct DriveFig 5: Diagrammatic description of perceived drivers of the social complex represented as an energy state increasing energy over time.

Just as we have transitioned from relying solely on instincts, to technological innovations to solve our problems; with the drivers switching their focus from welfare progress to productivity over time. So also do we need a switch from the paradigm of the economy as a driver for welfare growth, as its focus now is predominantly on productivity and not progress. The economical growth is a result of the ever present social progress not the other way around. Consider this thought; when burning a piece of wood over time, either the wood continues to burn until the wood itself can no longer support the fire; extinguishing the fire, or the individual doing the burning terminates the process. The wood in this thought, is the system that supports the society-complex and the fire is the driver. The point in time will come, when a particular driver can no longer work within the confines of a given system, at which point it will encounter the Chaotic Nexus of Choice. To put it simply, either we stop the fire or the Planet will stop it for us.

The solution I propose, is the dialling down of society's dependence on the perceived driver; economic growth. Focusing more on the quality of goods and services than the quantity, releasing science and knowledge (or another driver) to facilitate progress.