Ecological modernization theory and domestic consumption

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    Ecological modernization theory and domesticconsumptionGert Spaargaren aa Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The NetherlandsPublished online: 18 Jun 2010.

    To cite this article: Gert Spaargaren (2000) Ecological modernization theory and domestic consumption, Journal ofEnvironmental Policy & Planning, 2:4, 323-335, DOI: 10.1080/714038564

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  • Journal of Environmental Policy & PlanningJ. Environ. Policy Plann. 2: 323335 (2000)

    Ecological Modernization Theory and DomesticConsumptionGERT SPAARGAREN*Environmental Policy Group, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands

    ABSTRACT In the first part of the paper, the theory of ecological modernization is discussed with respect to some of itscentral assumptions, taking into account a number of the criticisms that have been raised against the theory. It is arguedthat the focus of the theory on substance and energy flows within social systems does not necessarily imply a resort tosome sort of nave realism which denies the inherently social and contested nature of environmental problems. It is,however, important for environmental sociologists to take on board indicators and criteria that refer to the materialdimension of social systems in order to be able to contribute to the debate on sustainable production and consumption.Furthermore, it is argued that environmental technologies are of crucial importance for bringing about more sustainableways of industrial production and consumption. It is described how the real or supposed dangers of a central focus ontechnology would result in a technological-fix scheme of environmental social change, or a shallow form of green capitalism.We conclude the section on the general characteristics of the theory with a plea for elaborating ecological modernizationtheory at the middle-range level, taking into account the different social and environmental characteristics of the varioustarget groups that figure as the central objects of environmental policy-making. The second part of the paper takes thetarget group of domestic consumers as a point of departure for elaborating ecological modernization theory. Structurationtheory is applied to design a model which can be used as an analytical tool in investigating the ecological modernization ofdomestic consumption. The EU-funded international DOMUS project is used to illustrate the need for consumerinvolvement in the ecological modernization of domestic routines and life-styles. The paper concludes with a shortdiscussion of the political questions that go along with eco-modernization of domestic consumption under conditions ofreflexive modernity. Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

    Key words: ecological modernization; domestic consumption; social theory; life-style

    Introduction

    Ecological modernization theory has becomeone of the leading perspectives in environmen-tal sociology. As a sociological theory, it isbroader in definition than, for example, politicalsciences, including the role of (civil society)actors in bringing about environment-inducedsocial change. During the past decade, we havebeen developing the ecological modernizationapproach on both formal and substantial levels.Formally, the ecological modernization ap-proach is situated within general sociology andthe environmental sciences, including, of course,environmental sociology (Buttel, 2000; Mol &Spaargaren, 2000; Spaargaren, 2000; Spaargarenet al., 2000). Situating it within such theoretical

    discourses allows for the confrontation withassumptions embraced by the demodernizationtheories of the 1970s (Schumacher, 1973; Ull-rich, 1979), neo-Marxist approaches of the1970s and 1980s (Schnaiberg, 1980) and theconstructivist approaches if the 1980s and 1990s(Yearley, 1991; Hannigan, 1995; Bluhdorn,2000). These confrontations highlightedspecific aspects of the ecological modernizationapproach and contributed to this evolving the-ory from its initial formulations to its presentshape. Elsewhere, we provided an overview ofthe ways in which ecological modernizationtheory has been developed over the past 20years (Mol & Spaargaren, 2000). The aim of thiscontribution is not to jump into the theoreticalassumptions and controversies, but rather topoint out a few crucial and, at the same time,disputed elements of the theory (section Somebasic characteristcs of ecological modernizationtheory). An important part of the paper will be

    * Correspondence to: Environmental Policy Group, WageningenUniversity, Hollandseweg 1, NL-6706 KN Wageningen, TheNetherlands. Tel: +31 317 483874; fax: +31 317 483990;e-mail: gert.spaargaren@alg.swg.wau.nl

    Copyright 2000 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.Received 2 February 2000

    Revised 21 September 2000Accepted 22 September 2000

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    on one particular discussion and illustration ofecological modernization theory, looking at therole of citizen-consumers in bringing aboutmore sustainable ways of domestic consumption(section A consumer-led perspective on ecolog-ical modernization: the example of domesticconsumption). The paper concludes with somequestions on the politics of the ecological mod-ernization of everyday life (section Intermezzo:empirical research on ecological modernizationof domestic consumption in some Europeancountries).

    Some basic characteristics ofecological modernization theory

    One of the confrontations that ecological mod-ernization theory has deliberately sought hasbeen with ecology, biology and the naturalsciences. The premise of this contention isbased upon the conviction that the environmen-tal crisis is a real crisis, dealing with real,objective, physical properties of social systems.In this sense, physical properties that have beenchanging over time confront us with a challengethat has to be taken seriously in order to avoiddistorted social reproduction. This objectivist orrealist position of ecological modernizationtheory has resulted in some severe criticisms,and significant disagreement from some (strong)constructivists (Bluhdorn, 2000). With respectto the realism associated with ecological mod-ernization theory, we want to point out thatecological modernization theory is not thespecific realm of nave technical scientists be-lieving that the environmental crisis can bereduced to (undisputed) physical properties andtheir technical engineering. Instead, the ap-proaches of environmental scientists and policy-makers who work with substance and energyflows-related definitions of the environment in atoo narrow or restricted way are precisely theapproaches being challenged. By taking sub-stance flows into consideration from a sociolog-ical point of view, the objective is to bridge thegap between the technical and social environ-mental sciences. This is not an easy task, giventhe gulf between oversocialized constructivists

    and undersocialized environmental (e.g. climatechange) experts and policy-makers, who tend tooverlook the fact that there are people, socialsystems and human behaviours attached tochanging substance flows. Ecological modern-ization theory, as developed by sociologists,stresses the fact that the environmental crisis isa thoroughly social crisis in terms of a series ofproblems in the way we deal with the suste-nance base. These problems, it is argued, arenot incidental or ad hoc in character, but stemfrom a structural design fault (Giddens, 1990,pp. 151152) in the organization of productionand consumption in modern societies.

    Ecological modernization theory focuses onthe ways in which substance flows managementcan and should be organized in modern soci-eties in a more appropriate way, arguing thatsuch management or control pertains both totechnological and social devices and mecha-nisms. The fact that science and technology(both in hardware and software dimensions)receive a prominent position within ecologicalmodernization theory has triggered some lastingmisinterpretations, which sometimes result inthe ecological modernization approach charac-terized as technocratic or as a technological-fixapproach. Indeed, environmental reform in theecological modernization school would meanresorting to the ultimate power of new tech-nologies that solve environmental problemswithout any real or profound social changes(Hannigan, 1995, p. 184). The probable root ofthis misunderstanding is that environmentaltechnology plays an important role within eco-logical modernization theory. The developmentfrom (compartmentally organized) end-of-pipetechnologies in the early 1970s to (integrated)preventive technologies in the late 1980s, is, infact, one of the key elements of ecologicalmodernization theory, because these latter tech-nologies are of crucial importance for whatHuber (1985, p. 20) refers to as the switch-overinto a more sustainable modernity. In the tech-nological-fix criticism, it is also implicitly orexplicitly argued that ecological modernizationtheory lacks the radicalism that characterizesdemodernization and treadmill perspectives onenvironmental change, and leads to an associa-tion that calls for green capitalism (Martell,

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    1994, p. 72). This is understandable to someextent, given that ecological modernizationtheory does not plead for a dismantling ofcapitalism altogether. Instead, it focuses on theindustrial modes of production and consump-tion, regarding this cluster of institutions as themain cause of environmental problems. Takingon board issues like innovation, diffusion of newtechnologies or management techniques, as ap-plied in industrial organizations, it deals withthemes like Fordist versus post-Fordist pro-duction regimes and their implications for theenvironment. In that sense, ecological modern-ization theory can be situated in the stream ofthought that is often referred to as industrialsociety theory.

    Compared with treadmill analyses (Schnai-berg, 1980; Pellow et al., 2000) or demoderniza-tion perspectives (Ullrich, 1979), ecologicalmodernization theory is indeed less radical,largely because it does not start from the a prioriassumption that a more sustainable organizationof production and consumption in modern soci-eties is impossible because of their capitalistcharacter. It also does not oppose growth in allrespects and on all occasions. In these respects,ecological modernization theory resemblessome of the major assumptions of the Brundt-land report, although it is more precise in devel-oping criteria or sets of criteria that can andshould be used to make judgements on thesustainability of production and consumptioncycles.

    Reflection on the basic characteristics andpossible (theoretical and political) uses of thesecriteria is one of the prime occupations ofecological modernization theory. During thepast two decades, sets of criteria have beendeveloped that allow for a discussion, withingovernmental and academic circles, on the eco-logical rationality of certain technologies, pro-duction arrangements and even complete sectorsof (chemical) industry. These ecological criteriahave been and still are gaining (albeit slowlyand gradually) an independent existence in thesense that they can no longer be reduced toeconomic or political criteria alone. On thelevel of formal theory, one can conceive of thisfact in terms of a separate sphere that comes toexist alongside the spheres of the economy,culture and politics, as Figure 1 illustrates.

    Figure 1. Growing independence of the ecological sphere.

    It is important to note that fashionable con-cepts, such as pollution prevention pays (PPP),winwin, or Dopple Nutzung are not the kernel ofthis approach, as is often claimed in (business)circles that reduce ecological modernizationsimply to an efficiency revolution (see thecontribution by Huber to this issue). Such fash-ionable concepts are significant, however, inhighlighting the existence of new principles thatcan be added to basic understandings of what amore sustainable way of organizing industrialproduction and consumption might look like.Principles of recycling, prevention, green grossnational product, energy extensification and theuse of sustainable energy sources are today ele-ments of everyday (business) discourse. What isessential is not the fact that the greening ofproduction can bring about profits (one aspectalways highlighted by certain interest groups),but the fact that it will, eventually and in-evitably, result in a process of monitoring andguarding of all the major substance and energyflows. Instruments such as life cycle analyses(LCA), environmental performance indicatorsand the use of all kinds of environmental qualitynorms (e.g. International Standards Organiza-tion (ISO)) are becoming increasingly importantin this respect (Van Koppen & Hagelaar, 1998).

    Furthermore, it is assumed in ecological mod-ernization theory that monitoring is followed bymonetarization. In Hubers (1985) terms, ecol-ogizing of the economy goes hand in hand withthe economizing of ecology. There must be aprice attached to the use of substance flows.1

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    The relation between economic and ecologicalrationalities must be explored more precisely,ecological modernization theory argues that theindependent set of ecological criteria should beused alongside other, existing economic criteria inorder to adequately judge the productivity orperformance of industries and technologies. Inthis respect, ecological modernization theorydoes not argue for ecological criteria to be usedas absolutist, ultimate or sine qua non criteria, assome environmentalist (Bartlett, 1986; Dryzek,1987) or human ecologists (Odum, 1969;Fischer-Kowalski, 1997) would have it. As Hu-ber (1991) reminds us, one should not forgetthatwhen introducing ecobalancing and an-nual reports on environmental performanceswithin companies, or in the case of ISO envi-ronmental norms and different forms of eco-benchmarkingeconomic parameters remaincrucial for the overall survival of the company.However, this relative independency argumentalso works the other way around: when talkingabout economic aspects of sustainability, oneshould not exclude from the discussion all theissues thatif measured in classical economictermscould somehow sometimes be of poten-tial harm to the company.

    So much for the ecological modernizationapproach as a general theory of environment-induced social change. It will be evident thatthe overall approach described thus far tran-scends and cross-cuts some of the disciplinaryboundaries upheld in the present academicworld. Without embracing a full-blown interdis-ciplinary perspective, ecological modernizationtheory can profit from specific inputs from tech-nical, economic and social science disciplines.At least at the international level, it can beobserved that some connections are developingbetween research groups, and that it is recog-nized that multidisciplinary work is becomingsomething of a rule, instead of the exception,within the factor four tradition.2 Sociologistscan and should make a specific contribution tothis broader research field by focusing on twobasic aspects that are not fully and automaticallyrecognized within other disciplines.

    First, the importance of the role of humanagency in bringing about more sustainable pro-duction and consumption arrangements. When

    studying productionconsumption cycles, soci-ologists should not lose sight of human agency,particularly within dematerialization projects,where human agency runs the risk of disap-pearing in large data sets and holisticsystem-theoretical modelling. All productionconsumption cycles consist of social practices thatcan and should be studied at two levels (microand macro), without accepting a micromacrodivision of labour that would draw very rigiddividing lines between the two approaches.When dealing with this issue at the conceptuallevel, the structurationist argument of the dual-ity of structure (Giddens, 1984) still appears tobe the most valid solution to the micromacrodivide (an issue returned to later).

    Second, sociologists should stress the needfor a re-evaluation of productionconsumptionarrangements from a consumer-led perspective.For a long time, environmental sociology shareda productivist orientation to the study of indus-trial society with most social sciences. Morerecently, the post-Fordist turn has established aperspective that recognizes the crucial positionof consumers and consumer groups in structur-ing productionconsumption cycles under thecondition of (late or reflexive) modernity. Theconcept of consumer society is, therefore, nolonger seen as a starting point for merely criti-cizing overconsumption, but it is recognizedinstead as the key concept to a better under-standing of the dynamics of industrial societies.

    By elaborating on these two general ques-tions, environmental sociologists can contributeto shaping and improving environmental poli-cies related to different target groups. The so-called target group approachdescribed, forexample, in the Dutch National EnvironmentalPolicy Plans (VROM, 1989, 1994)implies therecognition that society can no longer be regu-lated in a uniform way from one centre orcentral government; instead, it should take intoaccount more horizontal ways of policy-making,in which target groups actively take part in theself-steering towards sustainability. On theother hand, target groups were initially selectedwith reference to their environmental perfor-mance only, without taking into account thevery different social dynamics that exist be-tween and within these groups. In this way, it

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    has taken a long time for policy-makers torecognize that consumers are very differentfrom producers, retailers or farmers, not onlywith respect to their environmental characteris-tics and dynamics, but also in terms of the socialcharacteristics behind their environmentalperformance.

    The different social roles and institutionsconnected to the different target groups requirean approach that is not only different withrespect to the environmental policy targets setor the instruments chosen. They also demand atheory of environment-induced social changethat takes these broader social dynamics intoaccount at the conceptual level. Put rather sim-ply, there is not one factor four (or ten) or onedematerialization route with an accompanyingtheory, but there are many routes with varioussets of social actors, and involving differentsocial mechanisms. At a general level, crucialprinciples such as monitoring of substanceflows, and the subsequent need for a moneta-rization of these flows remain valid. However,the concrete forms through which this can beachieved vary for different target groups, and

    within different geographical configurations.We can and should focus on these middle-rangelevels when further developing ecological mod-ernization theory for the future.

    A consumer-led perspective onecological modernization: theexample of domestic consumption

    It can be argued that home-based social prac-tices or domestic routines are an important issuefor environmental scientists, because it is herethat our relationship with the sustenance base,our daily interaction with nature on a routinebasis, is shaped to a considerable extent. Thebasic approach put forward by ecological mod-ernization theory to the study of domestic con-sumption will be outlined in this section (formore details, see Spaargaren & Van Vliet, 2000).Figure 2 visualizes the basic principles of ourconsumption approach.3

    The socio-technical innovations developed toenable the greening of (domestic) consumption

    Figure 2. Conceptual model for analysing the ecological modernization of domestic consumption.

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    are outlined in the bottom half of Figure 2. Thedesign, development, diffusion and (non)-adoption of these (environmental) innovationsare among the central objects of study in thesociology of technology. There, it is argued thatone should always take into account the histori-cal context of origin of the new products anddevices that are or should be used by house-holders to green their domestic practices. Greenproducts and services are not just there, andthey do not drop out of thin air. They areembedded in socio-technical networks that em-brace specific groups of producers, retailers,consumers and numerous other relevant actorsin the (food supply) chain or (energy) sectorunder study. To understand why, how and towhat extent domestic routines incorporate thenew equipment, products, goods or (utility) ser-vices, one has to study the ways in which thesesocio-technical devices are produced, madeavailable, acquired and used by different actorgroups in the chains or cycles of production andconsumption. The sociology of technology of-fers a lot of valuable insights here, by looking atthe dynamics of the chain at different phases ofthe process. When studying the modes of pro-duction, provision, access and use of the prod-ucts and services that are used by domesticagents to pursue more sustainable domestic rou-tines, one can avoid most of the pitfalls of, forexample, those (economic) perspectives on con-sumption that focus almost exclusively on singleproducts, made available and acquired primarilyin the market mode of consumption (Douglas &Isherwood, 1979).

    Thus, the bottom half of Figure 2 indicatesthe fact that socio-technical innovations, stud-ied from the perspective of the sociology oftechnology, are an important element in theanalysis of the ecological modernization of do-mestic consumption. However, this should betaken further. Within the sociology of technol-ogy, the notion of human agency has beendeveloped only to a limited extent (Cowan,1983; Schot, 1992). When it comes to analysingthe reasons or motives of human actors forrefusing or adopting certain socio-technicaldevices, the floor is usually left to social psy-chologists, who dominated environmental soci-ology for a considerable period of time (for a

    more elaborate discussion, see Spaargaren,1997b, chapters 56). This resulted and, tosome degree, still results in a division of labourthat reproduces the classical divide betweenindividuals and socio-technical networks, be-tween actors and structure. To avoid this dual-ism, the top half of Figure 2 was designed invisualizing the way in which human agency canbe given a central place in the analyses ofdomestic consumption without lapsing into ei-ther an exclusively subjectivist or a predominantobjectivist account of domestic consumption.Following the arguments and concepts put for-ward by Giddens (1984) in his work on thestructuration theory, we conceive of domesticroutines as social practices implicated in theduality of structure.

    The notion of the duality of structure shouldbe handled in practical research by workingwith two types of perspectives on the very samesets of social practices: the perspective of strate-gic conduct, on the one hand, and that ofinstitutional analysis on the other. When work-ing from the perspective of strategic conduct,the focus is on the reasons and motives ofagents, their life-styles as connected to narra-tives of the self, or statements of self-identity.This actor-centred perspective emphasizes thefact that however pervasive and immobile somesocial structures or institutions seem to be, theyare always produced and reproduced by knowl-edgeable and capable human agents who areable to provide comments, reasons and evensome explanation for what they are doing andhow they are doing it. The general principle oftreating people as accountable human agents isalso particularly relevant to issues of green life-styles and sustainable consumption patterns.Moreover, we would argue that the concept oflife-style has an important role to play in thestudy of the greening of consumption as strate-gic conduct. In this sense, life-style is embracedas a fruitful alternative to the psychologicalconcept of attitude,4 rather than being rejectedas a vague concept as some authors wouldprefer. The reported vagueness or multiple defi-nition question that would come along with thelife-style concept surroundswe would ar-gueall of the core concepts of sociology(such as, for example, the concepts of power,

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    agency, time and ideology). The only solutionto this problem is to make explicit ones theo-retical perspective and to provide, within thisspecific theoretical framework, a concrete andconsistent definition of the life-style concept.The definition of the life-style concept withinstructuration theory runs as follows: A lifestylecan be defined as a more or less integrated setof practices which an individual embraces, notonly because such practices fulfil utilitarianneeds, but because they give material form to aparticular narrative of the self (Giddens, 1991,p. 81). Part of this narrative in the context ofdomestic consumption will be the level of com-fort, cleanliness and convenience (CCC) (seeShove, 1997) one is accustomed to.

    Taking the motives and interest of humanagents seriously does not have to imply that, asa result of a mode of strategic conduct analysis,we would forget about the fact that actors arenot isolated single units or individuals, butalways co-actors or co-civilians. The embedded-ness of social action is taken as the primarypoint of departure when taking on board aninstitutional perspective on domestic (consump-tion) routines. Using this perspective or modeof analysis, we focus on the rules and resourcesunderlying domestic practices. In other words(again borrowing from the sociology of con-sumption), we are looking at ways in whichthese rules and resources are structuring thesystems of provision implied in the consumptionpractices under study (Fine & Leopold, 1993).With respect to domestic consumption, Otnes(1988), a Norwegian sociologist who took onboard some of Giddens basic notions, refers tothese systems of provision in terms of the col-lective socio-material systems (CSMS) (see Fig-ure 2) that are involved in the process ofserving and being served in everyday life.These systemstap-water system, electricitygrid, heating infrastructure, sewage systemetcare an essential part of the sustenancebase, as they are crucial to the material under-pinning of our everyday lives.

    Theoretically, the argument is that domesticconsumption can and should be studied withinboth modalities or modes of analysis, withoutcreating a division between the micro andmacro or between actor and structure. Taking

    domestic consumption as a focus also impliesdeveloping a consumer-oriented perspective onthe ecological modernization of production andconsumption. Empirically we are confrontedat least in a number of European countrieswith a process of ecological modernization thatis mirrored in a myriad of dark-green en light-green life-styles and domestic environmental ar-rangements, with different and diversifyingmodes of production, provision, access and use.To illustrate the use of the model as an analyti-cal tool for empirical research, we will shortlydiscuss the EU-funded research project DO-MUS as an illustration (Chappells et al., 2000).

    Intermezzo: empirical research onecological modernization of domesticconsumption in some Europeancountries

    The central object of the DOMUS researchproject (Spaargaren, 1997a; Van Vliet, 1998)was to provide a theoretically meaningful de-scription of the ways in which consumers areinvolved in the ecological modernization of do-mestic arrangements for dealing with water, en-ergy and waste. It goes without saying thatthese arrangements represent, for environmentalscientists, a very important potential for thegreening of modern industrial life-styles. Theexpert systems involved in the provision ofenergy, water and waste are regarded as crucialtarget groups for environmental policy-making.Finally, there are some sectors of modern soci-ety that are going through a period of massiveand profound transformations caught in catch-words such as liberalization, privatization orthird-party access (TPA); transformations thatalso stretch beyond the reach of national (gov-ernmental) actors, and are, to a considerableextent, influenced by EU policies.

    Of course, issues such as (the saving of)energy, water and (the prevention of) waste arecentral subjects in a lot of (social science) re-search. Hence, it was not too difficult to collectempirical examples of innovations in the threecountries under study: Sweden, the UK andthe Netherlands. An inventory was made of

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    environmental innovations (in the technical andthe social sense) that were carried out, imple-mented or piloted at the grass-roots level, inaddition to those of official agencies or expertsystems (Raman et al., 1998; Van Vliet et al.,2000). The difficult part of the research, how-ever, was the fact that environmental innova-tions in these areas are framed in apredominantly technical language, which has astrong bias towards environmental performancein a restricted sense. Devices are discussedmainly with respect to the changes they canbring to energy and material flows, withoutmuch reference to the social practices they helpto perform. Also, the inventory showed thatlittle attention is given to consumers and con-sumer involvement in any case. Experts produceand provide green technical devices withoutmuch anticipation or reflection on the condi-tions of access and use as relevant to users/consumers. While everyone is very much aware,at a general level, of the new dynamics withinthe energy, water and waste-sectors, and thereseems to be a general agreement on the growingstrategic importance of good relationships withconsumers, this general scheme is not oftenprojected on actual green innovations.

    The DOMUS project tried to make a contri-bution in this respect by illustrating the fact thatone can also witness profound changes in theoverall relationships between providers and con-sumers when dealing with green innovations.Changes that pertain to all the dimensions ofthe process, from production to provision to accessto use (see Figure 2) and vice versa. Now that theold networks of provision have gone and arefragmented and under reconstruction (Guy &Marvin, 1996), the possibilities for experiment-ing with new (power) relations are abundant.The ecological modernization of domestic rou-tines and concomitant systems of provision isnot just a technical affair, or something to beleft in the hands of technical engineers, it is athoroughly social and political process. Theso-called Green Electricity Schemes are a casein point. They are available in all possible tech-nical and institutional variants one can think of.The DOMUS project was able to illustrate thefact that the very same (for example, photo-voltaic (PV) electricity) technologies can be

    applied in profoundly different ways when itcomes to the modes of access and use from theside of the consumers (Van Vliet et al., 2000).5

    However, the (political) choices accompanyinggreen technologies seem to be hardly recog-nized or given proper attention by providers.

    The (sub)politics of domesticconsumption

    The basic neglect of the crucial role of citizen-consumers in utility sector-related environmen-tal innovations pertains to the sociologicalliterature too. In sociology, home is the placewhere families are based and reproduced. Whenlong-term changes in domestic routines are theobject of study within sociology or anthropol-ogy, the focus is on changing power relationsbetween family members, and on new divisionsof labour between families and the outsideworld (e.g. Cowan, 1983). The long-termchanges in the material underpinnings of every-day life are only incidentally discussed, andhardly ever investigated empirically from anenvironmental point of view (Otnes, 1988).Moreover, in the sociological literature concern-ing citizenship participation in policy-making,the category of utility-sector consumersas aparticular type of (more or less captivated) con-sumersis also lacking.

    In trying to make up for this lack of attention,we propose, in the DOMUS project, to discussconsumer involvement in two respects, usingdifferent bodies of literature in the social sci-ences. First, one can rethink consumer involve-ment in terms of in-use involvement, referringto the different modes of access and use ofsocio-technical arrangements that govern theuse of energy, water and waste within domesticroutines. Second, when abstracting from her orhis individual arrangements, citizen-consumerscan become involved in the production andprovision of household-related socio-technicalinnovations within the (sub)political domain, tobe referred to as (sub)political involvement.With this analytical distinction in mind, we arebetter able to discuss the politics of domesticconsumption in all its major dimensions.

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    In-use involvement refers to involvement inthe functioning of the socio-material collectivesystems. Here, we can benefit from some of thenotions of the sociology of science and technol-ogy, especially as developed by Cowan (1983),Callon et al. (1986), Cramer & Schot (1990) andSchot (1992). The DOMUS project providessome excellent empirical examples of very simi-lar technological systems being organized withand without consumer involvement. This raisesquestions regarding the forms and the appropri-ate levels of consumer involvement that peopleactually want when they become engaged in theprocess of the greening of their life-styles anddomestic consumption. In dealing with thesequestions in some detail, we should move awayfrom old questions regarding the acceptance ofinnovation, such as the one-dimensional ques-tion of how much money do they want to payfor it?. By being more precise about both the(material, social and cultural) efforts and re-wards that come along with certain innovations,the (perceived) consequences of the innovationsfor the different segments of the life-style, andthe potential effects of the innovation on(sub)culturally accepted levels of comfort, con-venience and cleanliness (Shove, 1997), a moresophisticated theory can be developed with re-gard to the ecological modernization process inthis specific domain of social life, resulting inmore sustainable systems of provision and in-forming upon more sustainable life-styles fordomestic agents. In the DOMUS project, weencountered cases that actually represented dif-ferent models of in-use involvement. Sometimespeople developed bottom-up forms of (greener)self-provision, which were aimed at gaining au-tonomy vis-a-vis the big utility companies,bringing rather intensive efforts from citizen-consumers themselves along with them. In othercases, environmental innovations took the formof consumer groups opting for forms of co-pro-vision, in which both the utility providers andthe domestic consumers took their (more or lessequal) share. Finally, there are consumers whoprimarily want to be served, even when moresustainable arrangements are at stake. This isillustrated in the great variety of green electric-ity schemes offered to domestic consumers byutility companies in several European countries.6

    Most of these schemes do not change anythingwith respect to the hardware of energy provi-sion at the domestic level. Consumers are justasked to apply for the green scheme, and paysome extra money for it. Providers guaranteethat somewhere in the energy infrastructure anamount of green energy will be generated thatequals the electricity consumption of the house-holders. A reliable third party (for exampleWorldwide Fund for Nature or Friends of theEarth) can see to it that the green promisesmade by companies to householders are actuallymet (Spaargaren, 1999).

    Second, life-style is not just an individualaffair and citizenship involvement pertains alsoto the ways in which people become engaged,not just with their own energy-, water- andwaste-handling devices and arrangements, butwith the subpolitics of domestic consumption.Citizens might become involved in the ways inwhich domestically relevant environmental ar-rangements are developed by experts in water,energy and waste companies (utility sectors), onthe one hand, and experts within municipal andcentral governments on the other. With respectto this mode of influencing broader processes ofpolicy-making, it can be argued that some ofthe traditional institutions for policy-makinghave become obsolete (see also Offe, 1986;Beck, 1992; Beck et al., 1994; Giddens, 1998). Inthis period of reflexive modernity, we shouldindeed opt for new kinds of arrangements andinvolvements that Beck and Giddens refer to assubpolitics. Political engagement that does notstop at the classical repertoire of voting,protesting and boycotting, but takes into ac-count forms of co-production and co-provisionof energy, water and waste arrangements atdifferent scales in time and space, from theindividual home to the neighbourhood, the na-tional level and beyond. In the DOMUS pro-ject, the subpolitics of domestic consumptionwas found to be less developed than the debateon in-use involvement. In dealing with environ-mental movements and grass-roots initiativestoo, the debate on energy, water and wasteseems to be dominated by technical and eco-nomic aspects. The potentials or dangers for theecological modernization of domestic consump-tion stemming from the overall processes of

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    privatization and liberalization are only begin-ning to be discussed (Chappells et al., 2000).

    When exploring the future involvement ofcitizen-consumers in the systems of provisionthat form the material underpinnings of domes-tic consumption along these lines, we run(again) into questions that have occupied envi-ronmental sociologists for a long time.

    Is small (still/again) the most sustainable? Asa result of technological developments andchanging attitudes of expert systems, thereseem to be greater possibilities for decen-tralized systems, (re)connected to the cen-tral grid in a flexible way. These tech-nological developments are closely related tochanging power relations between producersand consumers. One of the more interestingaspects of these changing relationships be-tween the decentralized and the central isthe question whether the Schumacher(1973) adage small is beautiful can be refor-mulated in a way that fits the socio-technicalnetworks that are characteristic of reflexivemodernity.

    Do environmental innovations at the domes-tic level allow for or contribute to new formsof solidarity, or even communitarianism? Inthe debate on the limits to privatization orindividualization, some philosophers arguethat new forms of subpolitics should also beassessed with respect to the contributionthey can make to new forms of solidaritythat could accompany new environmentalarrangements. With utility infrastructuresmoving away from their end-users by beingorganized and managed at increasing levelsof scale, the same technologies allow fornew forms of subpolitical arrangements thatmight give the block or neighbourhooda new, present-day (materially visible)identity.

    These old questions deserve present-day treat-ment. Formerly, in the context of the debateson demodernization, the answers almost auto-matically followed from a general retreat ofmodern society. Sustainable domestic provisionwas identical to self-provision in local units thatwere off grid, both in the technical and socialdimension. Now that the opt-out solution is no

    longer regarded as a feasible strategy, andgreen(er) arrangements are available in all possi-ble social and technical forms, we should comeup with new answers. If used as input to apolitical debate on sustainable consumption un-der the condition of reflexive modernity, thissearch for new answers will perhaps inspire lotsof citizen-consumers to actively partake in thatexercise.

    Notes

    1. In this respect, ecological modernization theoryresembles the notion of internalization of exter-nal costs used by many environmentaleconomists. For an early formulation of thisthesis, see Hueting (1974).

    2. Among the numerous examples available, wejust mention the Wuppertal Institute and theirwork on ecological footprints, the industrialmetabolism group around Marina Fischer-Kowalski, the EAWAG-institute in Zurich andthe Refine project coordinated by WageningenUniversity.

    3. The fact that domestic consumption is taken as aspecific type of social practice (Warde, 1990)does not mean that we hold these domestic prac-tices to be the only or single most relevantcategory for the sociology of consumption. Theconcepts of sustainable consumption and sustain-able life-styles are more embracing categories, asnot all consumption practices are best explainedor investigated from a home-bound perspective.In theoretical terms, the timespace organizationof everyday life is essentially, though not exclu-sively, connected to the home as locale or physi-cal setting of consumption. For example, theproductionconsumption cycles in the food in-dustry (with a specific role for retailers) cannot beinvestigated solely from a domestic consumptionperspective. This is because they are not onlyconnected to the home-bound practices of storingfood and preparing meals, they also imply com-plementary roles of consumers as shoppers,dreamers, air-miles or bonus-point savers etc.

    4. In the so-called attitudebehaviour paradigm,which was developed especially from the work ofFishbein & Ajzen (1975), attitudes serve as themost important predictor of (consumption)behaviour.

    5. Green electricity can be bought from utility com-panies or from the environmental movement; it

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    can be applied at the level of the individualhome, the block or the neighbourhood; it canbe applied stand-alone or grid connected, or acombination of the two; it can be used hiddenaway or highly visible etc.

    6. Cases in point are the experiments with PVtechnologies, as applied in the built environ-ment. First, in some cases, people are develop-ing their own, integrated sustainable homes inthe form of bottom-up housing projects initiatedby groups of future inhabitants of the sustain-able homes. Here, PV technologies are used incombination with other environmental innova-tions (decentralized sanitation systems, wind-mills and so on), in order to become self-sufficient in energy and water consumption.Delinking from existing utility infrastructureswhich are judged to be offering only limitedpossibilities for green householdingis one ofthe driving motives of the future inhabitants.Second, there are cases where sustainable op-tions are not defined in terms of grid auton-omy, but instead forms of co-provision betweenutility-providers and local consumers are strivenfor. Here, the PV technologies are eitherbought or rented from the utility companies,which also perform the installation and mainte-nance of the system. Domestic consumers makeuse of their own green electricity when per-forming tasks within the households, and theyonly use the central grid as a guard network. Adouble metering system keeps the householdersinformed about their level of self-sufficiency vis-a-vis their reliance on the central grid. Finally,projects are developed by utility companies incoordination with local authorities, and buildingagencies where PV technologies are attached tothe roofs of all the houses in the area (bothprivate ownership and rental houses), withouteven consulting (future) inhabitants about this.The electricity generated by these systems isplugged into the central grid without any formof monitoring at the decentralized level. House-holders use the central grid just like every oneelse, finding comfort from the idea that theirhouses make an active contribution to thegreening of the central grid. It goes withoutsaying that the three forms of application of PVtechnology all offer different possibilities forhouseholders to become involved in the provi-sion of energy at the local level, both in thetechnical sense and with respect to theirchances of displaying green life-styles (Spaar-garen, 1999).

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