The Ecological Economics of Consumption

The Ecological Economics of Consumption

Current Issues in Ecological Economics series

Edited by Lucia A. Reisch and Inge Røpke

Research on consumption from an environmental perspective has exploded since the late 1990s. This important new volume cuts across disciplines to present the latest research in the field.

Chapter 5: Beyond insatiability – needs theory, consumption and sustainability

Tim Jackson, Wanger Jager and Sigrid Stagl

Subjects: environment, ecological economics, social policy and sociology, sociology and sociological theory


Tim Jackson, Wander Jager and Sigrid Stagl 5.1 THE DISCOURSE ON HUMAN NEEDS Ever since the Brundtland Report, the language of human needs has been etched deeply into the conceptual framework of sustainable development (WCED 1987).1 For even longer than that, the concept of ‘needs’ has played an important role in our understanding of consumer behaviour and has been a key input to the disciplines of economic psychology, consumer research and marketing (Kassarjian and Robertson 1968). Philosophers from Plato onwards have discussed the relevance of human needs to conceptions of the ‘good life’ and the role of governance (Haines 1985). More recently, the concept of needs has provided the foundation for an extended ecological and social critique of conventional development (Max-Neef 1991). In spite of these various manifestations, the discourse on human needs remains a fiercely contested one (Douglas et al. 1998). Some argue that human needs can provide an organizing framework within which to articulate themes about development, progress, quality of life and human happiness. Others point to the failures of development strategies grounded on the idea of ‘basic needs’ and suggest the need for alternative conceptualizations based on ‘capabilities’ and ‘functionings’. Others again insist that needs are an irrelevant distraction from the pursuit of development and that conventional economic concepts of revealed preference and rational choice are more reliable instruments for understanding consumption and for negotiating sustainability. One of the aims of this chapter is to provide a review of these different discourses. In particular, the chapter...

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