Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Institutional Change for Strong Sustainable Consumption: Sustainable Consumption and the Degrowth Economy

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

Institutional Change for Strong Sustainable Consumption: Sustainable Consumption and the Degrowth Economy

Article excerpt

Introduction

The notion of sustainable development comprises two core elements: meeting human needs and respecting the limits imposed by the environment (WCED, 1987). Thus, neither underconsumption nor overconsumption is sustainable. Any sustainable consumption policy worth its name must limit resource consumption in absolute terms (hence be "strong"), as the environment is sensitive to absolute anthropogenic pressure, regardless of the amount of wealth created in destroying it. It must also help eradicate poverty, that is socially unsustainable underconsumption, an objective so far pursued by economic growth strategies.

By contrast, the current austerity politics in Europe, resulting in stagnant or declining disposable incomes for the majority of the population, is the result of neoliberal growth policies. On one hand, it illustrates brutally to the rest of Europe what has been an encroaching reality for many countries (in particular to those subject to structural adjustment policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund) over the last several decades--that growth of the economy in no way guarantees increasing incomes for the majority of the population (an expectation based on the post-war experience), let alone an increase in welfare or quality of life. On the other hand, if neoliberal growth politics were replaced by degrowth politics, ceteris paribus, stagnant income would result as well. Consequently, for degrowth to be socially responsible, ceteris must not be paribus. Any sustainable degrowth strategy must be embedded in an overall restructuring of the social, economic, and institutional fabric of societies and economies, of production, allocation, and consumption patterns.

Although economic and political elites bind ever closer to it, the dominant political narrative is fading the more the prospect of perpetual growth vanishes (Arrow et al. 1995; Ayres, 1999; Spangenberg, 2010; Steffen et al. 2011; Bonaiuti, 2012; Muraca, 2013). As we move from the age of abundance to an era of externally enforced frugality, a new definition of sustainable consumption that fits resource-constrained development conditions is necessary. Sustainable consumption can no longer mean voluntarily refraining from some of the consumption options available (which were part of an overall unsustainable development and waiving them was of limited effectiveness due to rebound effects), but the ability to lead a dignified life, maintaining or enhancing quality of life despite shrinking resource availability.

Reconciling social and environmental criteria in sustainable consumption strategies requires a suitable conceptual framework and the adjustment of the institutional settings of society. The next section of this article describes the concept of environmental space (Opschoor, 1987) as a suitable basis for strong sustainable consumption policies (Buitenkamp et al. 1993). The third section presents recent results making the concept operational and discusses consumption implications (Lorek & Fuchs, 2013; Lorek & Spangenberg, 2014). Section four discusses the need to change institutions, including the rules of societal decision making, in particular orientations and mechanisms. I then conclude with some hints at possible political steps.

Environmental Space

The Concept

Opschoor's (1987) initial definition of environmental space was intended to define thresholds for resource consumption to secure non-deteriorating services for future generations. In this scheme, resource consumption should be reduced to a level at which the annual reduction of resources and their service potentials can be compensated by newly discovered resources and efficiency gains in using them. Assuming, in addition, equitable per capita consumption entitlements, Opschoor concluded that a reduction of northern per capita consumption by a factor of eight to ten was necessary. Spangenberg (1995) modified the reduction targets into safeguards for ecosystems and their services, ending up with rather similar target figures. …

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