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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2012

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Sustainability Science Needs to Include Sustainable Consumption

Caption: Environmental friendly housing in England.

Caption: Environmental friendly housing in England.

Robert Kates's Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology—An Introduction to the Key Literature of Sustainability Science1 is a marvelous compendium of publications on human-nature interactions and their impacts, and related topics. I envision that a student completing a course based on the reader will acquire an extensive understanding of complex human-ecosystem interactions and of the processes and trends in human behavior that are undermining long-term sustainability of the human-eco systems, and will gain some knowledge of innovative approaches to ecosystem management and restoration. The hypothetical student will probably walk away from the class with a sense of urgency and with a vision of a formidable policy and political agenda for the nations of the world: from health, to stabilizing the population, to assuring food security, to building sustainable cities, to reducing the intensity of material consumption, and much more. The student will be a better critical thinker, and will have acquired some tools for data analysis and interpretation.

But what if this student wants to understand the root causes of our current overuse of the earth's life support systems? What if she wants to understand why, with so much scientific knowledge and such urgency, governments have taken so little action? Why have the traditional policy approaches—regulations, economic incentives, information disclosure—been used so sparingly, and when they have been used, why have they produced so little progress? What are the main obstacles to a sustainability transition in individual countries and globally? What if, after graduating, this student wants to focus her just-acquired knowledge toward weakening these obstacles? What can she do in her private and professional life (other than becoming a scholar) to affect future change?

I am afraid that this course will not empower her to engage with the preceding questions. The section entitled “Knowledge into Action” sets an agenda for actions but it is not empowering. In order to do so, the reader needs to delve much deeper into the “A” (affluence) and “T” (technology) terms of the IPAT2 equation. In the following are some observations about what is missing in the current version of the reader.

First, the curriculum that Kates proposes does not address one of the most fundamental causes of the unsustainable consumption rate of materials and energy in the rich global North (and increasingly in other rapidly growing economies): the belief, among politicians, policymakers, traditional economists, and many among the intellectual elites that economic growth in the rich countries of the world is unavoidable or outright necessary. In this paradigm, human well-being is tightly coupled with economic growth, which is assumed the only way to provide people with by Halina Szejnwald Brown Needs to Include Sustainable Consumption 22 E nvironment VO LUME 54 NUMBER 1 employment and living wages. And because the gross domestic product (GDP) depends so much on consumer spending, it thus follows that consumption must grow, even though it is ecologically disastrous.

The 1972 “Limits to Growth” is included in the reader, but with no followup with the more recent thinking of how societies can pursue human well-being under the conditions of limited or nonexistent growth. But there is an expanding body of scholarship that seeks to scholarship, and there are early indications that it is possible. But to develop these ideas further, one must start by fundamentally questioning dominant neoclassical economic theory, and considering the political context of such subversive questioning. We must examine the history of consumer society's emergence, and contemplate its cultural, social, ecological, and political significance. We need to study institutional resistance to change. Accordingly, the reader needs to include economics, and cultural and institutional theory of consumerism,6-8 with an eye to what these radical new perspectives Environmental friendly housing in England. Wikipedia Commons/Paul Miller Many believe that economic growth in the rich countries of the world, demonstrated by this large suburban house, is unavoidable or outright necessary. iStockPhoto/christopherarndt address precisely this question. Studies show that economic growth, beyond a certain level, provides little improvement in societal well-being, and that more could be achieved by reducing wealth inequality.3 New research by innovative economists seeks alternative ways of achieving wellbeing (including reducing unemployment) in a steadystate or even shrinking economy.4,5 In other words, the decoupling of human and ecological well-being from economic growth is the subject of intense have to say about the growth paradigm. I can just imagine the lively and challenging class discussions provoked by recent publications on that topic, when such are included in the sustainability science curriculum.

Caption: Many believe that economic growth in the rich countries of the world, demonstrated by this large suburban house, is unavoidable or outright necessary.

Caption: Many believe that economic growth in the rich countries of the world, demonstrated by this large suburban house, is unavoidable or outright necessary.

Second, the proposed curriculum has relatively little to say about the role of technology, other than holding the banner of dematerialization through energy efficiency and material substitution. Dematerialization was a good idea once, and we were all intrigued by it. But over time, research has shown that dematerialization has so far delivered very little reduction in the use of resources and greenhouse-gas emissions. Energy efficiency is necessary, but when pursued as the only path toward reducing fossil fuel consumption, more often than not it may actually lead to increased demand through the so-called rebound effect.9-10 I am not claiming that technology is not a vital part of a sustainability transition.

To the contrary, and as such it should be part of the reader. But this topic deserves a wider and more sophisticated treatment (I found just one article that touches upon it). Over the past decade, a large body of scholarship has emerged on the interdependence among technology, culture, institutions, and lifestyles, often under the umbrella of sociotechnical transitions. This research highlights how institutions, culture, and large technological systems co-evolve. It shows the interactions and mutual dependencies among the technologies used in everyday lives, social practices, and values, either increasing or decreasing use of energy and materials.12 Introducing into the reader a module on sociotechnical system changes and on social practices would have a profound effect on empowering and mobilizing students seeking ways to facilitate a sustainability transition in technological societies, both rich and getting rich. This module will show my eager hypothetical student how her own individual life is connected to the larger forces leading to an unsustainable Earth.

Third, the reader is oddly silent on the role of social movements in affecting social change and altering dominant institutions. A student in the course on Sustainability Science and Technology who is planning to become a change agent will surely want to understand the role of social movements in past major transformations of our institutions, power relations, and values. The reader devotes considerable space to values, but the focus is mostly (though not exclusively) on ecological values. Why is it so? Do we really believe that people with strong ecological values and spiritual connections to nature are consuming fewer materials and less energy than their brethren living in highrise buildings in New York City who cannot name birds and trees? Perhaps we should consider what types of lifestyle changes will have to take place in a world characterized by a non-growing economy among the rich countries, and growing urbanization among the developing countries, and then identify the scholarship that elucidates the types of values that make this transition a positive force in people's lives.13,14 At that point, the reader will also be ready to expand the topic of governance, politics, and the relative roles of top-down interventions (including, but going beyond, regulations) and bottom-up initiatives.15,16

In the preface to the reader, Bill Clark states that this first edition is a work in progress. It is in that spirit that I offer these suggestions. Let us expand the boundaries of the emerging sustainability science to include the perspectives from the radical wing of economics, from technology studies, sociology and economics of consumerism, social movements, institutional theory, and others, all through the lens of human behaviors that may help us transition to ecological and social sustainability.

1. R. Kates, Readings in Sustainability Science and Technology—An Introduction to the key Literature of Sustainability Science, CID Working Paper No. 213 (Cambridge, MA: Center for International Development, Harvard University, 2010).

2. The IPAT Equation, I = P × A × T, is one of the earliest attempts to describe the role of multiple factors in determining environmental degradation. It describes the multiplicative contribution of population (P), affluence (A) and technology (T) to environmental impact (I). P. R. Ehrlich and J. P. Holdren, “Impact of Population Growth.” Science 171 (1971): 1212–1217; B. Commoner, “The Environmental Cost of Economic Growth.” In: Population, Resources and the Environment. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (1972);

3. R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009).

4. P. Victor, Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2008).

5. T. Jackson, Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Final Planet (London: Earthscan, 2009).

6. E. Huddart Kennedy and N. Krogman, “Toward a Sociology of Consumption,” Journal of International Sustainable Society 1, no. 2 (2008): 172–189.

7. J. Schor, The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need (New York: HarperPerrenial, 1998).

8. L. Cohen, A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (New York: Vintage Books, 2004).

9. H. Herring and S. Sorrell, Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Consumption: The Rebound Effect (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

10. C. Calwell, Is Efficent Sufficient? (Stockholm, Sweden: European Council for Energy Efficient Economy, 2010).

11. D. Owen, “The Efficiency Dilemma: If Our Machines Use Less Energy, Will We Just Use Them More?,” The New Yorker, December 20 and 27 (2010): 78–85.

12. F. W. Geels and J. Schot, “The Typology of Socio-Technical Transition Pathways,” Research Policy 36 (2007): 399–417.

13. A. Haxeltine, T. Hargreaves, N. Longhurst, and G. Seyfang, 2011. Where Does Change Come From? Theoretical and Conceptual Framings for Research and the Role of Civil Society and Changing Social Practices and Socio-Technical Transitions, presented at the Second Workshop of the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative ( (April 2011, Princeton, NJ).

14. K. Soper, “Re-Thinking the ‘Good Life’: The citizenship dimension of consumer disaffection with consumerism,” Journal of Consumer Culture 7 (2004): 205–229.

15. J. G. Speth, “American Passage: Toward New Economy and New Politics,” Ecological Economics (forthcoming, 2011, accessible by Science Direct).

16. M. Cohen, H. Brown, and P. Vergragt, “Individual Consumption and Systemic Societal Transformation: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 6, no. 2 (2010): 6–12,

Halina Szejnwald Brown is Professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Clark University. With a doctoral degree in chemistry, Brown's current research focuses on socio-technical transitions, sustainability policy, sustainable consumption, and small-scale experimentation and learning, with special interests in energy, housing, and transportation. Brown is a co-founder of Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI), a network of scholars and practitioners working at the interface of social and technological change, wellbeing, and sustainable lifestyles. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Fellow of the Society for Risk Analysis. She has authored 60 journal articles and two books: Corporate Environmentalism in a Global Economy (Quorum 1993) and Effective Environmental Regulation (Praeger 2000).

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