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Joel Makower is a frequent contributor to WorldChanging:

The Journal of Industrial Ecology, on whose editorial board I sit, has just published an issue devoted to the topic of sustainable consumption -- “an attempt to close the gap especially in environmental research between production and consumption,” in the introductory words of the issue’s guest editor, Dr. Edgar Hertwich, Program for Industrial Ecology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The Journal is published by MIT Press.

With the generous support of its sponsors -- including the Garfield Foundation and the United Nations Environment Programme -- the entire issue is free and downloadable from the Journal’s site.

I contributed a book review for the issue; more on that in a minute. Among the two-dozen other articles and reviews are contributions by two of my colleagues:

  • Betsy Taylor, founder of the Center for a New American Dream, whose piece (Consumption: It Is Time for Economists and Scientists to Talk) describes an emerging new economic model that redefines wealth and well-being. An excerpt:

    We need consumption but it must be redirected. Consumption fuels much of the global economy but it is not an inevitable good nor is it always rational, as neoclassical economists will fervently argue. We must dramatically re- duce consumption of certain renewable and non- renewable resources to avoid further harm. Think of water, fossil fuel, wood, fish, and toxic industrial and electronic products, among others. Nothing rational or good can come from the extraordinary depletion of the Ogallala aquifer under the Great Plains of the United States. The withdrawal of this groundwater has greatly surpassed the aquifer’s rate of natural recharge. The same can be said about the depletion of fisheries worldwide or the rapid felling of forests, with irreversible loss of habitat and biodiversity. We must have new rules of the road--policies, prices, indicators, and incentives to rein in our consumption of things that are precious, not only to us, but to future generations.

  • Alex Wilson, publisher of Environmental Building News, who co-authors a piece (Small is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment) about the environmental impacts of our ever-expanding houses. An excerpt:

    As house size increases, so too do the environmental impacts associated with buildings and development: resource consumption increases, the land area affected by development grows, storm-water runoff increases as impermeable surface area increases, and energy use rises. In addition to carrying larger environmental burdens, larger houses cost more to build and operate. For single-family houses, “small is beautiful” in terms of environmental performance. . . .

    One would expect that, relative to material use, there would be an economy of scale as house size increased--that material use per unit area of floor area would drop as floor area increased. But that is not necessarily the case, according to Gopal Ahluwalia, the director of research at NAHB. Although NAHB has not compiled data on material use as a function of house size, Ahluwalia believes that, because larger houses tend to have taller ceilings and more features, larger houses may actually consume proportion- ally more materials. He estimates that a new 5,000-square-foot house will consume three times as much material as the 2,082-square-foot house NAHB has modeled, even though its square footage is only 2.4 times as large.

    Examples of other articles in the issue include:

  • Live Better by Consuming Less? Is There a 'Double Dividend' in Sustainable Consumption?

  • Slower Consumption: Reflections on Product Life Spans and the 'Throwaway Society'

  • Sustainable Consumption of Food: A Framework for Analyzing Scenarios about Changes in Diets

  • Economic and Societal Changes in China and their Effects on Water Use

    All of these, as I said, can be downloaded for free.

    As for me, I proffer a review of three books on the topic of shopping: Going Shopping: Consumer Choices and Community Consequences,by Ann Satterthwaite; High Price of Materialism,by Tim Kasser; and I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers,by Thomas Hine. An excerpt:

    For better or worse, we live in a commercial world and consumer society. You can see it at work in the cacophony of advertisements and commercial messages that intrude in our daily lives, in the companies and webs of commerce whose existence depends on our endless appetite for more, and in the political leaders who work to promote unsustainable levels of economic growth, often at the expense of ecological and human needs. You can see it at work in our culture of debt and our need for keeping up with the Joneses. Yet the environmental impacts of our consumption are virtually hidden. Most of us do not see firsthand the natural resources extracted from farms, forests, rangelands, oceans, rivers, and mines that go into what the average American consumes each day.

    And so the question, “How much is enough?” has become much more than a philosophical curiosity--it is a fundamental question of a society grappling with sustainability’s complex challenges. Among them are the following: how to rein in rampant resource depletion, close the equity gaps among the classes, reduce mushrooming household debt, maintain sound local economies, and clear the cloud of cynicism and hopelessness that seems to have darkened the lives of untold billions of have-nots.

    All told, there's a lot of good reading material to -- well, consume.

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    Thanks - good reading material! Many of the articles are worth a look for the references alone.

    Posted by: Hassan on 15 Jun 05



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