International Society for Ecological Economics Internet Encyclopaedia of Ecological Economics
Consumption in ecological economics
Entry prepared for the Internet Encyclopaedia of Ecological Economics Inge Røpke Department for Manufacturing Engineering and Management Technical University of Denmark Denmark April 2005
1. Introduction Research in the field of consumption and environment hasgrown rapidly since the middle of the 1990s, and also in ecological economics, consumption issues have featured more prominently on the agenda. This overview1 outlines the background and the characteristics of the new wave with a specific focus on ecological economic contributions. First, the roots in environmental research are described, and the breakthrough for the interest in consumption. Thenthe specific motivation for dealing with consumption in ecological economics is presented, followed by an exposition of the main research questions related to ecological economic research on consumption. Finally, a few words are added on the development of consumption research in general, as this is important to understand the research taking place at the point of intersection between consumptionand environment. The concluding comment emphasizes that the intersecting field is still in its infancy. 2. Social background and early research Research interests tend to respond to dominant social discourses and to political and administrative demand – and sometimes research contributes to the emergence of new discourses. The increasing interest from the early 1960s in environmental issues wasinspired by the popularization of biological research, and in response to the increasing public interest, different scientific disciplines took up the challenge of dealing with environmental issues (for an outline of this early period in relation to ecological economics, see (Røpke 2004a)). In the popular debate, a critique of consumption appeared as part of the environmental discourse:environmentalists questioned the dominant societal aims of maximum economic growth and increasing consumption because of the related environmental costs, and consumption was often dealt with in moralistic terms. From the beginning, there was the promise of a “double dividend” idea that curbing consumption would simultaneously make us better off (Spargaaren 1997). However, the popular interest in consumptionwas little reflected in environmental research during the first decades of research.
Parts of this overview draw on (Røpke and Reisch 2004).
Most research on the interface between the economy and the environment focused on the environmental impact of production in relation to resource depletion and pollution and on the demand for environmental goods such as pleasing landscapes.Indirectly, of course, production presupposed consumption, but the importance of production methods and technologies was emphasized much more than living standards and consumption patterns. Some, such as Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich, emphasized the importance of living standards and the size of the population – popularized in the IPAT equation – and some early ecological economic contributions (seebelow) dealt with consumption in abstract terms. However, whereas the population issue became one of the dominant discourses, consumption issues remained relatively unnoticed, and the contributions tended to be very general. During the 1970s the contributions on consumption in an environmental perspective were few and isolated, but, at least, some more practical and specific research emerged. Oneof the first academic disciplines to contribute was consumer behaviour research. This field had developed within the marketing departments of U.S. business schools in the 1950s and had gradually separated from marketing and included more macro-oriented subfields such as consumer policy (Belk 1995). In the 1970s some of the leading thinkers within consumer behaviour and policy research called...
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