Clark University (2009) – Abstracts

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Paper Abstracts

Listed in order of presentation/discussion.

1. What’s Blocking Sustainability? Human Nature, Cognition, and Denial
William Rees, University of British Columbia
In 1992, 1700 of the world’s top scientists issued The World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: “[A] great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” Over a decade later, the authors of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (the most comprehensive such assessment ever undertaken) were moved to echo the scientists’ warning: “Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” Ours is allegedly a science-based culture; for decades our best science has suggested that staying our present growth-based path to global development implies catastrophe for billions of people and undermines the possibility of maintaining complex global civilization. Yet there is scant evidence that national governments, the United Nations or other official international organizations have begun seriously to contemplate the implications for humanity of the scientists’ warnings, let alone articulate the kind of policy responses the science evokes. The modern world remains mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial seemingly dedicated to maintaining the status quo. We seem, in philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words, to be “in flight from thinking.” Just what is going on here? I attempt to answer this question by exploring the distal, biosocial causes of human economic behavior. My working hypothesis is that modern H. sapiens is unsustainable by nature—unsustainability is an inevitable emergent property of the systemic interaction between contemporary techno-industrial society and the ecosphere. I trace this conundrum to humanity’s once-adaptive, subconscious, genetic predisposition to expand (shared with all other species), a tendency that is currently being reinforced by society’s socially-constructed addiction to continuous material growth. Unfortunately, these qualities have become maladaptive and both defective genes and malicious “memes” can be selected out by a changing environment. To achieve sustainability, the world community must write a new cultural narrative designed for survival on a finite planet, one that overrides humanity’s out-dated expansionist tendencies.


2. Opportunities for Significant Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emission Reductions in University Dining Halls: Ethical Consumption of Meat and Dairy
Jody Emel, Clark University
Roberta Hawkins, Clark University
Dominic Pacarelli, Clark University

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the livestock sector generates greater levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions–18 percent–than transportation. Thus, significant reductions of GHG emissions may be achieved through dietary change. Using available data from existing lifecycle assessments of livestock production and consumption, we estimate by how much GHG emissions might be reduced on the Clark University campus if a “meatless” and “dairyless” day were practiced. We also review recent consumption theory in the geographic literature and raise questions regarding the ethics and efficacy of relying on individuals or institutions to resolve GHG emissions problems.


3. Localism, Urban Investment, and Sustainable Consumption
David Hess, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
The policy problem of how to encourage more sustainable household consumption in the United States is discussed with respect to three historical developments that have significant implications for policy design for sustainable consumption. First, the liberalization of markets that has occurred since the 1970s has resulted in income stagnation and decreased purchasing power for many Americans. Definitions of what constitutes a sustainability shift in household consumption vary across income levels that are becoming increasingly polarized and, for all but the wealthiest, increasingly constrained financially. As a result, sustainable consumption policies need to attend closely to affordability and their congruence with the potential for household savings. Second, because there has been growth in other forms of socially and environmentally responsible consumption, proposals for a shift in household consumption based on environmental criteria are now constituted in a field of other contenders for ethical household consumption, including sweat-free, fair trade, and localist consumption. As a result, both convergences and divergences between sustainable consumption and other types of socially responsible consumption need to be understood in designing sustainable consumption policies. Third, retirement investments have increasingly become open to household-level choice that includes socially responsible and environmental funds. These investment choices may end up in conflict with household consumption preferences, and the household’s gains in sustainable consumption may be offset by losses caused by choices in retirement fund investments. Consequently, both consumption and investment need to be considered together under the broader rubric of sustainable household expenditures. By situating the problem of sustainable consumption inside the economics of affordability, the politics of generalized ethical consumption, and the relationship between household consumption and investment, policies that motivate shifts in household consumption can be designed with greater success.


4. Can We Consume Our Way to Climate Restoration? An Agenda for Studying “Smaller Carbon Footprint” Consumption
Andrew Szasz, University of California at Santa Cruz

Increasing public concern about climate change has motivated the growth of a specific kind of “green consuming,” one that promises, through the aggregation of individual shopping decisions, to lower American society’s carbon footprint. Can such acts of consumption contribute to solving the climate crisis? Under what conditions? Two kinds of potential impacts are identified: material impacts, which could begin to be substantial if very large numbers of consumers start choosing “lower carbon footprint” commodities, and psychological/political impacts, if buying such commodities leads to greater politicization of the consumer, that is, if green shopping encourages the consumer to increasingly identity herself or himself as an environmentalist. Conversely, such impacts will be minimal if “lower carbon footprint” goods remain minor, niche products appealing to a small consumer base and if, as a result of certain psychological and sociological processes this kind of consuming does not occasion greater politicization but leads, instead, to satisfaction and disengagement. I identify the conditions that would favor such impacts becoming significant. Based on that discussion, I describe the kinds of research that would need to be undertaken if we were to fully understand the current situation of and trends in “lower carbon footprint” consuming.


5. The Importance of Local Information to Attitudes about Climate Change Policy
John Gowdy, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Marsha Walton, New York State Research and Development Authority

The climate change debate has taken on a new urgency with the latest scientific information about current CO2 emissions, projections of future CO2 levels, and past climate regimes. Recent emission rate projections are substantially higher than those of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or the Stern Review, primarily because of coal burning in China. In view of the magnitude of emission increases it seems unlikely that a “safe” level of atmospheric CO2 can be maintained without aggressive mitigation policies. Yet most Americans favor a cautious wait-and-see approach to climate change policies. There is a growing gulf between the scientific consensus as to the seriousness of the risks of climate change and public perception of the problem. Most Americans are concerned about climate change yet they are reluctant to support the public policies required to mitigate it or to change personal behavior. A primary reason seems to be that people view the problem as affecting those in the distant future and those in distant countries. In this study we test the hypothesis that people would be more willing to support aggressive climate change policies if given information about how they, and their family, friends and neighbors, would be directly affected. We explore this question by comparing the attitudes of groups given information about future climate change impacts in their specific local region to groups who were given only general, non-local, information. We report the results of experiments with college students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


6. Institutional Contexts for Sustainable Consumption: The Case of Green Chemicals
Edward Woodhouse, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Sustainable consumption would have to include purchases of nontoxic or less toxic chemical products. What would that mean, what are the barriers to achieving it, and is it realistic to suppose that enough of those barriers might be sufficiently reduced? What does the chemicals story have to teach about sustainable consumption more generally, and are there conceptual insights that may be of general interest to scholars in STS, environmental studies, and related fields?


7. Market Evasion and Participation: Implications for More Sustainable Energy Consumption
Eric Arnould, University of Wyoming
Melea Press, University of Wyoming

This paper aims to cast light on strategies of intervention to induce more sustainable energy consumption with reference to the contemporary consumer landscape and with special attention to consumer tendencies for evasion and participation in the market system. The limited research conducted so far on energy consumption and sustainable consumption generally, shows that classic approaches to mass behavioral change such as public information and social marketing are unlikely to be very effective (Owens and Driffill 2008). Instead, approaches based on an understanding of macro level social forces and cultural models may be more likely to provide actionable insight. To show this, the paper discusses some conceptual aspects of electrical energy consumption and how it might be rendered more sustainable, and highlights results from exploratory research that informs understanding of domestic energy consumption practices.


8. Is Sustainable Consumption Possible?
Richard Wilk, Indiana University

In this paper I ask how deeply consumer culture has become embedded in contemporary North American society. I suggest that we need to begin with greater conceptual clarity, particularly on terms which are part of the very phenomenon we are trying to study–consumption and freedom for example. Metaphor theory helps distinguish between folk-concepts and analytical categories, explaining why and how consumption is so deeply connected to fundamental concepts of family, gender, individualism, ethnicity and nationality. By clarifying the structure of the consumption metaphors in English, I demonstrate why some forms of consumption are much more visible than others. I propose that there are several other central metaphors which have a direct affect on the way North Americans make decisions about buying and using energy and service. These include “balancing,” part of a moral calculus through which people find equivalences between activities and products they deem “good” and “bad,” and an “elevator” or “step” model which is used to understand progress, standards of living and quality of life. Perhaps the most centrally important metaphor for understanding consumption is that of “freedom,” which connects choices about purchasing with ideals of fairness and balances between individuals and communities. I suggest that there are several competing models of fairness and freedom among North Americans, connected to different models of authority and morality. This paper concludes by challenging the notion that “consumption” is really a valid analytical category, though we must understand how consumption functions as a folk-construct if we are going to formulate successful strategies for change.


9. Speaking of Sustainability: The Potential of Metaphor
Tom Princen, University of Michigan

One approach to understanding and promoting sustainable consumption is to get the language right. Not just saying “sustainable” and “conserve” and “green” a lot, but speaking in ways consistent with the imperative of living within ecological constraint. Regarding an agenda for social change, philosopher Richard Rorty put it well. Paraphrasing, he said cultural change occurs not when people argue well but when they speak differently. Here, then, I motivate different speaking by focusing on metaphor, not because metaphors add poetic flourish but because they have power over how humans think and act. Indeed, although “metaphor has traditionally been viewed as a matter of mere language,” write cognitive linguist George Lakoff and linguistic philosopher Mark Johnson, cognitive science indicates it is best understood “as a means of structuring our conceptual system and the kinds of everyday activities we perform.” What is more, Lakoff and Johnson argue, “It is reasonable enough to assume that words alone don’t change reality. But changes in our conceptual system do change what is real for us and affect how we perceive the world and act upon those perceptions.” And metaphors guide action appropriately to the extent they are grounded in experience, direct and indirect, and fit the purpose at hand—here, getting on a sustainable path. This paper explores how, through metaphor, proponents of sustainable consumption can shift from a world view that is linear, mechanistic, reductionist, expansionist and consumerist to a world view that is cyclic, organic, complex, constrained and, shall we say, productive or self-generating. The fact that metaphors are inescapable, that they provide normative interpretations and affect how we act suggests that new metaphors, ecologically grounded ones, can indeed be constructed. The fundamental shifts now underway make such constructions imperative.


10. The Environmental Costs of Life Satisfaction: A Cross-National Empirical Test
Kyle W. Knight, Washington State University
Eugene A. Rosa, Washington State University

Neoliberal economics continues to presume a monotonic, positive relationship between income and welfare, on the one hand, and between income and the amelioration of environmental conditions—via the environmental Kuznets curve—on the other hand. Multiple examinations outside and within the STIRPAT research program ( have failed to sustain neoliberal claims resting on the environmental Kuznets curve. Furthermore, previous early research by Mazur and Rosa (1974) and recent research by Dietz, Rosa, and York (2009) seriously challenge the relationship between income, “objective” measures of well-being, and environmental amelioration. A considerable number of studies have examined the connection between economic consumption and measures of happiness or subjective well-being. None to our knowledge, however, have investigated the connection between environmental consumption and these or similar welfare measures. In this paper we extend this line of well-being research to examine the environmental costs associated with increases in life satisfaction, a leading subjective well-being measure, using graphical and regression techniques. Our results indicate that the relationship between ecological footprint per capita and average life satisfaction is non-monotonic; at higher levels of consumption, increased consumption leads not to higher levels of life satisfaction, but to the same or even lower levels of satisfaction. We also found that among countries with high levels of life satisfaction, consumption levels vary widely. We discuss our conclusions in the context of arguments about neoliberal paths to ecological sustainability.


11. Enough of That Already: Inroads and Limits of Efforts to Cut High-Carbon Consumption in Canada
Anders Hayden, Boston College

Dominant responses to climate change and other environmental problems aim to decouple economic growth and ecological impacts. In contrast, a sufficiency perspective challenges the “secular religion” of production and consumption growth. This paper examines ways in which sufficiency is making inroads in Canada’s debate over climate-change solutions. Part of a larger research project, including the UK, it draws on interviews with individuals in government, business, environmental groups, labour, and other sectors, analysis of documents such as position papers, and public statements by key actors. A macro-level critique of growing output and consumption, while present on the margins of public debate, clearly runs into daunting obstacles. Concern over consumption excess has found more favourable prospects at the micro level—challenging specific commodities, practices, or sectors. Relatively attractive targets for politicians, among others, wanting to signal ecological concern include plastic bags and bottled water, which represent visible symbols of excess, for which alternatives are readily available, and which do not represent core economic sectors. (Incandescent light bulbs have some similarities). Second, the idea of less of some things has made advances when, paradoxically, it can be linked to a broader economic growth agenda. Examples include efforts to reduce “food miles,” in which a sufficiency-based focus on living within local limits overlaps with state and business interests in local agro-industrial expansion, and state promotion of reduced electricity consumption to ensure power-system reliability, upon which overall economic growth depends. However, in some areas where micro-level sufficiency appears most needed, such as air travel and meat and dairy consumption, calls for less consumption have been muted. Unless and until ecological imperatives become powerful enough as a political force of their own to enable a macro-level economic growth critique to gain influence, these cases suggest that ideas of sufficiency may find some of their best prospects in more limited circumstances where they can attach themselves to either the legitimation or, ironically, the economic imperatives of states.


12. Pursuing Sustainability in a World Shaped by Explosive Growth
John Stutz, Tellus Institute

Current technology, attitudes, values, and institutions determine our level of economic activity. Rarely do we consider that activity from the perspective provided by economic history. Taking that perspective one sees that the years since 1950 have been a period of explosive growth. Normally, when explosions occur, the response is to take cover and wait for things to return to normal. However, if the explosion goes on for decades it becomes a part of ordinary life. That is where we find ourselves today. This paper begins by presenting evidence supporting the characterization of economic growth since 1950 as “explosive.” It then discusses the extent to which our expectations have been shaped by this growth. Next it turns to the pursuit of sustainability in the global consumer society poised on the brink of affluence which explosive growth has created. Using CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel use as an example, the need to reduce both the environmental impact per unit of economic activity and the growth in that activity is explained. This leads to a discussion of the possibility of an income transition which, along with the ongoing demographic transition, would move us away from explosive growth in the future. The requirements for an income transition are a shift in focus from material to time affluence and a reduction in income inequality. Drawing these points together, the pursuit of sustainability is characterized as a “three-front war” in which victory requires reductions in the environmental impacts per unit of economic activity, the explosive economic growth to which we have become accustomed, and the massive inequality in income that has accompanied it. This paper is largely a work of synthesis and interpretation. There are, however, two things which are somewhat novel. The first is the development of numerical criteria for consumer and for affluent and near-affluent societies. These criteria provide a quantitative basis for the claim that the world today is a global consumer society poised on the brink of affluence. The second is the introduction and use of the spread, a measure of global inequality that highlights the difference in income between developed and developing nations.


13. Connecting Communities of Practice on Sustainable Production and Consumption: Prospects for Regional Cooperation
Jeffrey Barber, Integrative Strategies Forum
Jack Luskin, University of Massachusetts-Lowell

A wide spectrum of different understandings, policies, and strategies is involved in the broad but decentralized social movement to change production and consumption patterns. Practices range from those at the individual and household level working to transform habits or entire lifestyles and livelihoods to those aimed at transforming institutions, industries, and cultural norms. These practices and the individuals and organizations engaged in them are often linked through professional or social networks and communities, each with their own methods, jargon, publications, personal relationships, history, and perspectives. Efforts to build a coherent political movement promoting communication, cooperation, and coordination among these communities of practice requires an appreciation and understanding of their differences as well as their common aims and interests. This paper explores efforts to understand and engage these communities of practice, as well as initiatives to link them together in a broader social and political movement to change North America’s unsustainable consumption and production patterns.


14. Advancing Sustainable Household Consumption: Insights for Effective Policy Development
Vanessa Timmer, One Earth Initiative
Emmanuel Prinet, One Earth Initiative
Dagmar Timmer, One Earth Initiative

This paper presents key insights for effective policy development regarding sustainable household consumption in a North American context, with specific examples given for Canada. The paper begins by examining the global context of current consumption patterns, where it is noted that humanity is currently living beyond its ecological means, utilizing resources and creating waste 30-40% faster than what the Earth can regenerate or absorb each year. Global consumption, including household consumption, is placing unsustainable and increasing stress on the Earth’s life support systems. In addition to the emergent ecological degradation, current unsustainable production and consumption patterns are also raising significant social justice concerns. To advance sustainable household consumption, it is important to avoid a number of paradoxes, constraints, and unintended consequences which policy analysis and research are revealing. Awareness of these issues will help governments move forward with an appropriate instrument mix of policy tools and approaches that support real progress towards sustainable consumption and production. These include, for example, the value-action gap, where more information does not necessarily lead to corresponding sustainable consumption actions and behaviour change; and the limits of market-based approaches, whereby economic instruments and tools can be powerful leverage points, but may backfire or fail to address the wider cultural shift that is necessary for profound and lasting change. Sustainable household consumption needs to be approached through a systems-thinking perspective, which includes: seeing the whole system and looking for relationships and connections; anticipating unanticipated consequences and looking for change over time; finding leverage points; engaging a variety of actors and employing an instrument mix; and adopting an adaptive, learning approach. A central conclusion of this paper is that households cannot advance sustainable consumption on their own, but require collective solutions and collective actions by government and other stakeholders.


15. The Poverty Perspective on the Politics, Culture, and Economy of Sustainable Consumption
Diana Mincyte, University of Illinois and Ludwig Maximilians University-Munich

This paper focuses on poverty and its relation to consumption. By examining how poverty thresholds in the United States were historically defined in terms of consumption, the paper argues for the inclusion and representation of the large populations of poor consumers (37.3 million in 2007) within the political visions of the sustainable society. Without considering the poor, the current definition of sustainable consumption renders the low income population as undeserving participants in the new socio-environmental systems and fails to develop a comprehensive approach to understanding and implementing sustainable systems of provision. There are at least three implications of taking the poverty perspective to studying sustainable consumption. First, the poverty perspective calls for a more careful consideration of constraints, limitations, and infrastructural restrictions that shape consumer behavior—as opposed to assuming the freedom of choice in purchase decision making. Second, the paper makes a case for the inclusion of alternative “making do” practices when considering the ways to steer consumer behavior toward more sustainable economies. “Making do” refers to repairing, reusing, re-fitting, scavenging, bartering, or freecycling among many other practices driven by economic constraints. Finally, taking the poverty approach suggests revising and expanding the term “consumption” to include a wide range of practices beyond its current narrow preoccupation with shopping and consumerism. While markets have become central for mediating social systems since early Modern times, shopping does not and cannot capture the entire range of relations between a subject and an object that are dialectical and interrelated. Such a pre-occupation with consumerism is problematic not only because it is based on the uncritical assumptions about how social change happens, but also because it defines us, as a scholarly field, as a study of “sustainable consumerism” rather than “sustainable consumption.” The paper concludes with a proposition to define consumption as a transformation performed through labor in things, subjects, meanings and energy, a much broader spectrum of activities than buying.


16. Social Institutions, Consumption Impacts, and Opportunities for Making Change Happen
Rachel Shwom, Rutgers University
Janet Lorenzen, Rutgers University

Humans live their daily lives through participation in multiple heterogeneous social institutions. A social institution is a set of rules or norms that define appropriate behavior and roles for a specified context. Though institutions are characterized by their stability, gradual or radical institutional change may occur. Clemens and Cook (1999) provide a theoretical conceptualization of sources of institutional change by disaggregating institutions into schema and resources. Institutional schemas provide opportunities for change to the extent that they are mutable, possess contradictions, or provide multiple rules for behavior. Institutional resources contribute to the potential for change processes of a) containment and diffusion, b) learning and innovation, and c) mediation. This paper identifies several American social institutions (marriage and family, the American dream and home, Christmas) and provides examples of how they impact major consumption decisions by making them “taken for granted” assumptions in our lives. We then apply Clemens and Cook’s theorization of the sources of institutional change and identify potential strategies and arenas for inducing desired changes for the dematerialization of social institutions. Special attention is paid to the role that NGOs can play in advancing change through amplifying the institutional change potential already existing in schemas and resources.


17. Coding Consumption in the Built World: A Framework for Analysis and Action
Steven A. Moore, The University of Texas at Austin

Building codes, understood in the broadest possible way, are both an index of changing social values and a strategy to enforce those values. In this paper I argue that what we think to be purely technological problems always have a social dimension and that what we think to be purely social problems always have a technological dimension that is socially mediated through the process of code-making. Within this broad context, I examine the emergence of Green Building Codes as a category particularly important for the project of sustainable development. The Brundtland Report of 1987 holds that sustainability can be achieved only through the balancing of three competing frames of interpretation—economic development, environmental protection, and social equity. In practice, however, equity is generally ignored. Elsewhere (Moore and Wilson 2009) I have proposed that the appearance of what I call Civil Codes constitutes a hopeful path toward the inclusion of social equity as a necessary dimension of sustainable development. In this paper I take a different tack. I focus on Sumptuary Codes and theoretically test them as a method to suppress consumption of natural resources and thus achieve economic development and environmental preservation, but without realizing social equity. To do so I first set out a typology of codes. This framework provides the background to examine The New Urbanism as an exemplar sumptuary code and to assess its performance with regard to consumption and sustainable development. I conclude by arguing that the value of this investigation is not only theoretical, but to provide a framework for constructing and testing hybrid building codes through participatory action research.


18. Does Changing a Light Bulb Lead to Changing the World? Civic Engagement and the Ecologically Conscious Consumer
Margaret Willis, Boston College
Juliet Schor, Boston College

Consumption is commonly seen as the quintessential apolitical sphere and a diversion from serious civic and political action. We argue that this view may be mistaken. We present data from a national survey in the United States of over two thousand “conscious consumers” which covers a wide range of consumer actions and choices, as well as a number of measures of political and social engagement and activism. We find that far from being a “distraction” from political and social activism, conscious consumption is highly correlated with it. We have collected measures of conscious consumption and activism from the past as well as the present in an attempt to untangle complex causal relations. At the very least, we show the view that while it is important that approaches to climate change and ecological crisis more generally not become overly individualized, appeals to individual consumption behaviors may contribute to constructing a broader movement for change.