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About the 2009 Inaugural SCORAI Workshop:
Individual Consumption and Systemic Societal Transformation

The SCORAI Network convened its inaugural workshop on the theme of Individual Consumption and Systemic Societal Transformation. Invitees to this two-day event considered challenges at the interface of material consumption, human fulfillment, lifestyle satisfaction, and macroeconomic and technological change. The aim of the gathering was to design a coherent North American research program, to forge connections between scholars and communities of practice, and to contribute to the ongoing policy dialogue on these issues.

The international financial collapse and the global climate crisis both persuasively demonstrate that the prevailing neoliberal model of economic growth is highly unsustainable. To initiate transformation it will be necessary to formulate a new economic paradigm that is both sustainable and equitable and that is able to fulfill individual and societal aspirations for a “good and ethical life.” Given the intimate connections between material standards of living and generally understood notions of wellbeing, there is a critical need to link the consideration of alternative economic systems with debates on sustainable consumption and technological change.

Because of contemporary emphasis on continuous economic growth and ever-expanding volumes of material and energy throughput, the social and technological dimensions of sustainable consumption have to date received little attention within academic research and often constitute a fringe consideration for both nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and policy makers. Especially in North America, questions of consumption are generally cast as matters of individual sovereignty or as outcomes attributable to the fact that consumers are “locked into” prevailing cultural norms or suboptimal patterns and infrastructures. Some scholars and NGOs have in recent years begun to question these assumptions and to suggest that a “good and ethical life” is attainable not by consuming in greater abundance, but by consuming differently. Examples of such initiatives are the “slow food movement” and other appeals for “conscious consumption,” as well as the Tellus Institute’s call for a “Great Transition.”

Technological innovation is generally recognized as playing an important role in helping to reduce individual and collective consumption of materials and energy. This emphasis is especially prominent in the context of global climate change where attention has focused on limiting the use of carbon-based fuels, on improving the efficiency of product manufacturing, and on various engineered approaches to encourage the adoption of new consumer practices. These strategies have considerable public appeal, largely because they seem to be substitutes for the more complicated challenge of changing individual consumer practices. However, technology alone cannot resolve the deeper problems associated with unsustainable patterns of consumption. Untoward impacts can be expected due to rebound effects from energy efficiency improvements and from the failure to address the relentless demand for continuous economic growth. Moreover, an exclusive focus on technological solutions sidesteps discussion about wellbeing and systemic societal transformation. The workshop hopes to open up new avenues and to move beyond promises of “technological fixes” while at the same time remaining cognizant of overly exuberant conceptions of social change.

Financial support for the inaugural SCORAI workshop was provided by the ProQuest-U.S. Geological Survey Partnership, the Tellus Institute, and the following Clark University administrative units (Provost’s Office; Department of International Development, Community, and Environment; Graduate School of Geography; and Graduate School of Management).

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