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Published by Ludovic Fansten

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Published by: Ludovic Fansten on Nov 23, 2010
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29 June 2010 
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Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK
Environmental Politics
Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/title~content=t713635072
The international political economy of (un)sustainable consumption andthe global financial collapse
Maurie J. Cohen
Graduate Program in Environmental Policy Studies, New Jersey Institute of Technology, USAOnline publication date: 08 February 2010
To cite this Article
Cohen, Maurie J.(2010) 'The international political economy of (un)sustainable consumption and theglobal financial collapse', Environmental Politics, 19: 1, 107 — 126
To link to this Article: DOI:
Full terms and conditions of use:http://www.informaworld.com/terms-and-conditions-of-access.pdfThis article may be used for research, teaching and private study purposes. Any substantial orsystematic reproduction, re-distribution, re-selling, loan or sub-licensing, systematic supply ordistribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden.The publisher does not give any warranty express or implied or make any representation that the contentswill be complete or accurate or up to date. The accuracy of any instructions, formulae and drug dosesshould be independently verified with primary sources. The publisher shall not be liable for any loss,actions, claims, proceedings, demand or costs or damages whatsoever or howsoever caused arising directlyor indirectly in connection with or arising out of the use of this material.
The international political economy of (un)sustainable consumptionand the global financial collapse
Maurie J. Cohen*
Graduate Program in Environmental Policy Studies, New Jersey Institute of Technology,USA
Adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit and elaborated at the JohannesburgConference a decade later, sustainable consumption occupies an increas-ingly prominent political position. Numerous governmental ministries andsupranational organisations have produced sustainable consumption plans.However, actual programmatic initiatives have been limited to modestinformation and education campaigns as policy proposals are constrainedby political contexts. Researchers have documented flows of materials andenergy, but have disregarded the political and economic dynamics thatanimate throughput movements. Inattention to factors that propel theglobal metabolism, scholarship largely failed to anticipate the ongoingglobal financial collapse. Work on the household economics andmacroeconomics of consumption is reviewed and an international politicaleconomy of (un)sustainable consumption is developed. Realignment of theglobal economic order will require renegotiation of the tacit agreementsthat the USA strikes with its trading partners and the design of moreefficacious systems of production and consumption.
international trade; debt; deficits; American empire; degrowth
While the prodigious throughput of materials and energy in affluent countrieshas featured in environmental debates since the early 1970s, governments neverimposed substantive responsibilities on consumers. Policy makers insteadcompelled industrial companies to abide by regulatory controls and subscribedto the presumption that overall consumption would continue to expand. As theinadequacy of this approach became apparent, the emphasis shifted towardsstrategies based on pollution prevention, ‘clean’ technology and environmentaleconomics. The most recent wave of policy innovation, largely motivated by
*Email: mcohen@adm.njit.edu
Environmental Politics
Vol. 19, No. 1, February 2010, 107–126
ISSN 0964-4016 print/ISSN 1743-8934 online
2010 Taylor & FrancisDOI: 10.1080/09644010903396135http://www.informaworld.com
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the urgent need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, centres on eco-efficiency,waste minimisation and product stewardship (von Weizsa ¨cker
et al 
. 1997,Hawken
et al 
. 1999, cf. White 2002, Barry 2007).Despite the continued centrality of production-led initiatives, sustainableconsumption has come to occupy an increasingly visible political position.First championed by a consortium of developing countries and nongovern-mental organisations (NGOs) prior to the United Nations Conference onEnvironment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, the concept has steadilyevolved into an institutionalised fixture of policy discussions. In addition,various commercial efforts to reshape household consumption have prolifer-ated, and allied ideas pertaining to ‘ethical shopping’ and ‘green consumerism’have become infused into marketing practice and popular culture (Brower andLeon 1999, cf. Hardner and Rice 2002, Pedersen and Neergaard 2006).This turn away from a resolute preoccupation with production, and thesubsequent forging of complementary demand-side strategies, has necessarilyentailed compromises. In particular, the cautious embrace of a weak con-ception of sustainable consumption has led to a withering of the novelty thatcharacterised early expressions of the concept. Pragmatic policy entrepreneurs,forced to work within political contexts that repudiate heterodox views of economic growth, have favoured straightforward initiatives to supplementconsumer information and education. Such neutralisation is palpable in thecascade of sustainability plans that now pour forth from government bureausand international organisations (UNEP 2001, UK DEFRA 2003, 2005, EEA2005, Finnish Ministry of the Environment 2005, UK SCR 2006, GermanFederal Environment Agency 2007, CEC 2008).The insipidness of contemporary policy making on sustainable consump-tion reflects the hesitancy of affluent countries to forthrightly confront theirwasteful materials and energy usage patterns. Researchers must shoulder someresponsibility for the disarray. Current disorientation is at least partlyattributable to an intellectual posture that eschews the political economy of resource appropriation and instead privileges the enumeration of metabolicflows. This fixation has relegated consideration of the engine that propels theoverall metabolism the global financial system to the periphery, asscholarship on the linkages between consumption and sustainability in themain failed to anticipate the ongoing global financial collapse. The currentprocess of retrenchment, with much of the world desperately trying to revert tothe status quo ante, provides an auspicious moment for reassessment.The premise of this article is that the notion of sustainable consumptionneeds to incorporate the global financial system into its frame of analysis. Todevelop this perspective, the section ‘The emergence of sustainable consump-tiontraces the history of sustainable consumption as a policy issue andhighlights both its established and insurgent schools of thought. The section‘The household economics of sustainable consumption’ approaches the issuefrom the standpoint of household economics and reviews relevant work of economists and sociologists. The section ‘Macroeconomic deficits and108
M.J. Cohen
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