Consumption and Sustainable Development

Since its origins, industrial ecology has been mainly concerned with reducing the environmental impact of the use of energy and materials in industrial production by improving the efficiency of production processes. Some industrial ecologists have claimed that material inputs could be reduced by substantial amounts (e.g., a factor of 4 or even 10) without diminishing economic growth. Such technological prescriptions are mainly addressed to public policy makers and corporate executives on the implicit assumption that they would not require much change in the motives or behaviors of consumers or negatively impact their well-being.

Recently, however, a new emphasis on consumers and consumption has emerged. Many researchers came to doubt that reliance on changes in the sphere of production alone could achieve the required scale of impact. The inflow of social scientists into industrial ecology brought the recognition that households are the major decision makers regarding consumption, and analysis about alternative consumption behaviors should be addressed in the first instance to them. In a consumer society, industrial stocks and flows are demand driven, in contrast to the dynamics governing the availability of traditional materials in ecosystems. In an ecosystem, predators have control over the number of prey they seek to consume, but they have no direct control over the number of prey potentially available for consumption. By contrast human consumers, particularly in the most affluent, industrialized economies, have control over not only how much gets consumed but also over what gets consumed and produced - and through this connection potentially over how it gets produced.

Life-cycle analysts and IO economists have produced a substantial body of work analyzing the environmental impacts of different types of households and their consumption activities. Most attention has focused on motorized mobility, housing, and intake of food because of the demon-strably intensive use of resources to satisfy consumption requirements in these areas. The objective ofthis research is to explore alternative ways for satisfying the human need for food, housing, and mobility with less environmental damage. Recent studies have provided a framework for bringing physical measures into the analysis of social accounting matrices, data sets compiled by a number of national statistical offices that describe the consumption patterns of distinct types of households. A special issue in 2005 of the Journal of Industrial Ecology is devoted to the industrial ecology of sustainable consumption.

Such investigations are part of a broader inquiry about the sustainability of systems and, in particular, sustainable development (see Sustainable Development) of the global economy. Development of alternate energy systems that can substantially reduce reliance on fossil fuels by making more direct use of solar energy in both production and consumption, thus moving industrial systems back in the direction of ecological systems, promises to be an active area of research. A shift in the diets of the affluent from animal-based toward more plant-based foods could have substantial impacts on resource use in agriculture. Such scenarios about the future will be analyzed using frameworks that integrate material flow data, life-cycle descriptions of products and processes, and IO models of individual economies and of the world economy. As increasing numbers of researchers with roots in different disciplines turn their attention to the challenges of sustainable global development, the distinctive contributions from industrial ecology will reflect its origins in the ecology of the industrial system.

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