The Ecological Economics of Consumption
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The Ecological Economics of Consumption

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.
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Chapter 3: The society, its products and the environmental role of consumption

Joachim H. Spangenberg


Joachim H. Spangenberg 3.1 INTRODUCTION Sustainable development does not provide an ideological blueprint for a future society: nobody knows what the future will look like, although we are all involved in creating it. For this creation process we need an orientation, a compass indicating the direction of what is probably desirable, offering a sustained quality of life in particular in the long run, and for all the Earth’s citizens. For implementing these insights, for making them operational and relevant in day-to-day decision-making we need a democratic, highly participative political process to translate the general orientation, based on the values of the society, into concrete strategies and politics. However, while this participatory approach calls upon responsible citizens (or selfish ones with an enlightened self-interest), the same individuals are consumers as well. How can and should they contribute to sustainable development in this role, and which motives would orient their preferences towards sustainable development and environmentally benign consumption (Røpke 2001)? For mainstream neoclassical economists it is simple: preferences are exogenously given, and they do not change endogenously. Every consumer is a homo oeconomicus with full information, taking decisions exclusively based on selfish utility maximisation: social or ethical values, emotions and affection are not relevant for this ‘ideal’ person’s ‘rational’ behaviour (unless interpreted as basically selfish motivations). In a truly Orwellian use of language, consumers are all taken to behave like the kind of guy you would not invite for dinner (Bossel 2000), and this is called ‘rational’. Furthermore,...

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