I am broadly interested in questions about transition – about how global society can shift from a world dependent on rapid growth of material consumption and resource exploitation to something more prosperous, sustainable, and equitable. I study how this shift is already occurring. I ask questions about barriers to this transition. I explore trimtabs for meaningful change.
My work inhabits four converging areas: systems of sustainable consumption and production, teaching for turbulence, the individualization of responsibility among conscientious consumers, and higher-education innovation for a post-growth world. With others, I seek to nudge us toward a world of sufficiency and efficiency, where the affluent consume far less than what we’d currently consider to be natural or normal, and where a carbon-centric economy is a thing of the past.
How might technological and cultural innovation in support of strong sustainable consumption best be imagined and nurtured, especially in the global North? How can politically heretical notions of ‘degrowth in overdeveloped societies‘ be authentically incorporated into a politics of prosperity that decenters consumption and challenges consumerism? Is the current focus on gross national happiness sufficient, or counterproductive?
Questions like these animated my 2002 work on consumption with Thomas Princen and Ken Conca, my inquiry into the voluntary simplicity movement, and my later focus on the politics of time and sacrifice in the United States. My relocation to Southeast Asia strengthens my interest in these themes, especially as students and I assess the network of sustainable-consumption scholars in the region. My recent work on these themes includes “Sustainable Consumption: Three Paradoxes” (GAIA, v23, July 2014) and, with Fuchs et al., “Power: The Missing Element in Sustainable Consumption and Absolute Reductions Research and Action” (Journal of Cleaner Production, September 2016). I am currently collaborating with European scholars on a book project on “sustainable consumption corridors.”
Are environmental studies and science (ESS) programs preparing students for times of turbulence? What would teaching for turbulence and global citizenship look like within the context of an undergraduate education? And why should those who plan and deliver ESS education, or who work in areas of global citizenship, care?
My interest in these questions dates back to the late 1990s, when I became curious about competing architectures of ESS programs and their impact on students’ sense of the possible (aka “political imagination“). Collaborative work with students at Allegheny College led to “Environmental Studies: The Sky is Not Falling” (BioScience, 2000), which reports on competing ESS program designs. Subsequent collaboration with teacher-scholars of global environmental governance produced an edited volume (Encountering Global Environmental Politics) a few years later.
Flash forward to 2009: An undergraduate research advisee, intrigued by this prior work, surveyed undergraduate U.S. ESS students (random national sample, n= 437, 2009/2010) and uncovered unsettling patterns of misperception and powerlessness. His work inspired my return to questions of education for sustainability, leading to “Teaching for Turbulence” in State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible? and, with Tom Princen, “Fifteen Claims: Social Change and Power in Environmental Studies.”
A research team of Yale-NUS undergraduates are building on this work via a more comprehensive survey of ESS students. We want to know how ESS undergraduates view social change, and what they think of assertions like “crisis is necessary to move societies toward environmental sustainability” or “most of our environmental problems are rooted in human nature.” We hypothesize that significant majorities of ESS students, independent of discipline or sub-field, subscribe to disabling myths about social change, consumer sovereignty, human psychology, and the politics of transition.
Results of this multi-year randomized survey of U.S. undergraduates in ESS programs are being compiled for presentation (see here and here) at the June 2018 annual meetings of the Association of Environmental Studies and Science.
Higher Education for a Post-Growth World
What if today’s tepid economic growth in most of the rich world — around 1.5 – 2%/year — is a harbinger of a more pronounced slowdown to come? To some politicians and policymakers, this would mean fiscal and social disaster. Yet ever-continuing growth of material throughput in the economy, even at rates as low as 2%/year, doesn’t square with most notions of environmental sustainability. Unlimited material growth on a finite planet is an oxymoron. By accelerating the work-and-spend treadmill that accounts for so much personal stress, continuous growth may not be psychologically sustainable either.
Environmental and psychological concerns aside, there is good reason to believe that the high-growth days are behind us, at least in the rich world. Rather than focusing solely on how to reinvigorate economic growth, why not also develop and disseminate a host of social innovations matched to a low-growth/post-growth world? And who better suited to develop and pilot these innovations than the leaders and researchers within higher education?
The best of these innovations would squeeze more social prosperity out a slowing economy. They wouldn’t clash with efforts to crank up economic growth. They’d offer a splendid “Plan B” fallback in the event that the days of eye-popping economic expansion are behind us. They could go a long way, moreover, to reversing the misfortunes of communities that have been bypassed by recent economic expansion.
By pioneering these innovations, colleges and universities fulfill their mandate to serve the public good. They also more deeply advance their own commitment to sustainability.
A recent essay in State of the World 2017: EarthEd, which also enjoyed publication in adapted form in The Chronicle of Higher Education, presents the broad argument. Next steps involve assessing the extent and distribution of these ‘post-growth’ sustainability innovations across higher education and identifying exemplar cases of best practices and reproducible innovation.
Colleagues and I are currently exploring an edited book project that could segue into a larger multi-year project. Yale-NUS students interested in research opportunities should contact me for more information.
In Progress – More in July 2020