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 6: Changing human behaviour and lifestyle: A challenge for sustainable consumption?

Elizabeth Shove

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


Elizabeth Shove Over the last decade or so, there has been a wealth of social and natural scientific debate about the environmental consequences of contemporary consumption and there is, by now, something of a consensus. It is clear that lifestyles, especially in the West, will have to change if there is to be any chance of averting the long-term consequences of resource depletion, global warming, the loss of biodiversity, the production of waste or the pollution and destruction of valued ‘natural’ environments. To put Brundtland’s famous definition1 another way round, future generations will encounter a much degraded world if present trends continue. Apparent agreement on this point disguises important theoretical divisions regarding the conceptualisation of behaviour, lifestyle and consumption. Are ‘lifestyles’ in some sense ‘chosen’ or are they better seen as ‘ways of life’, that is, as part of the social fabric (Harrison and Davies 1998)? What is the relation between ‘behaviour’ – what people do – and what they think? Is consumption an expression of taste, or a moment in a complex system of social, cultural and material reproduction (Shove and Warde 2002)? The task of sifting through these differences is of more than academic interest. As I suggest below, policies designed to promote sustainable consumption are generally founded upon an extraordinarily narrow understanding of human behaviour. It is not too difficult to explain why this might be so, after all, some theoretical positions are much more amenable to policy-making (as it is presently configured) than others....

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