Towards sustainable consumption and production in North America: building legitimacy through roles and responsibilities in a "beyond compliance" operating environment.

AuthorBowles, Stefanie

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

--Barack Obama, 2008 Inauguration Speech


    Sitting at the intersection of a number of disciplines, sustainability policy is characterized by learning and debating about what "environmental" problems mean for society. (1) In the flux surrounding mainstream North American policy responses to the de-stabilization of global climate and socio-economic systems, a fledgling discourse coalition is emerging around the concept of a "low-carbon economy." (2) While still in the early stages, it is not the first socio-sustainability discourse to eventually be institutionalized at the federal levels in the United States and Canada, as generation after generation attempt to reconcile socio-economic and environmental imperatives. Such institutionalized discourses (e.g., "pollution prevention") represent a moment of consensus within a particular institutional structure, most notably the environment departments at North American federal levels.

    This paper begins with a discussion of the some of the key assumptions in the emerging low-carbon economy consensus, which it situates in the context of the existing discourse of pollution prevention as embedded in federal environment departments in North America. It then proceeds to analyze the connection between low-carbon economy tenets and those of the concept of ecological modernization developed primarily in Europe. Historical resistance to the application of ecological modernization approaches in North America is then reviewed, revealing divergent discursive manifestations of the appropriate role of technology, the relationship of humanity to nature, and individual and collective interests.

    Transitioning from a review of institutionalized sustainability discourses, a political economy lens is used to identify the emergence of a "beyond compliance" operating environment for all actors, as the parameter setting function of the state declines (see section 3.1). Both driving this decline and characterizing it are new generators of marketplace legitimacy (e.g., visible logos and certifications), the structural deference by regulators to voluntary standards (e.g. the "strategic partnership" between the International Organization for Standardization ("ISO") and state signatories to the World Trade Organization ("WTO") Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade--see section 3.3), and supply chain imposed environmental and social risk mitigation measures.

    This systemic reconfiguration takes us out of federal environment departments, engenders a blurring of roles and responsibilities, and raises a number of key questions for all actors moving forward in a beyond compliance operating environment:

  2. What does a beyond compliance environment and a decline in parameter setting functions mean for accountability and risk mitigation? Can we actually entrust consumers/procurers with this responsibility?

  3. Will low-carbon and ecological modernization approaches provide an adequate response to our economic and social sustainability challenges?

  4. What does this mean for the United States and Canada's bilateral approach to economic development, as exemplified by the North American Free Trade Agreement?

    Finally three potential intervention points are offered: (1) create new democratic North American regional institutions with specific projects related to standardization; (2) establish clear roles and responsibilities between the private sector, government, civil society, business and citizens in a beyond compliance environment; and (3) deliberatively re-vision the good life & the social compact at all levels.


    Starting points can reveal a lot about an analysis. Language provides concepts and meanings to illuminate the world, and while they can fundamentally unite us, they can also serve to divide along disciplines and worldviews. In the broad field of sustainability, a few disciplines generally predominate (the physical sciences, economics, engineering, business, political science, etc.) and engage in rhetorical (3) dialogue and debate about how sustainability is defined and addressed, in which people bring to the table their own knowledge. Heterogeneous groups engaging in/around sustainability often realize that they need to create a concept map, "green dictionary," or glossary before they can move forward together. Discourse approaches help us understand and trace the consensus that has resulted from different dialogues and debates, and in doing so, we can understand how, where, and when sustainability was defined, institutionalized and acted upon in decision-making through law, economic instruments, policy and programming.

    Using discourse to illustrate policy dynamics, I critically analyze key low-carbon economy assumptions, then situate it in the context of the previous discourse consensus of pollution prevention as institutionalized in federal agencies. I then link it to the related concept of ecological modernization, whose reception in North America is revealing of current dynamics and obstacles surrounding perceptions and beliefs of state-industry relations and roles and responsibilities, which are then addressed in the following section.

    2.1 The low-carbon economy and pollution prevention

    The inclusion of a low-carbon economy discourse in mainstream North American federal policy circles does represent a significant sustainability-inspired shift in North America. (4) It is a watershed insofar as it opens up the possibility that human economies do not have to necessarily function in opposition to the environment and that, rather than an exclusive or inherent cost, "green" can represent an opportunity for firms, investors, workers, and communities. Primarily through the climate change and energy lens, inroads have been made at the federal levels. (5) In both the United States and Canada, portions of the fiscal stimulus were devoted to energy efficient buildings and public transportation infrastructure. The United States has led the G-20 to commit to phase out public subsidies for the oil and gas sector. (6) In Canada, shadow national accounts are now produced which include greenhouse gases by sector and energy intensity. Both countries are working together in "The North American Clean Energy Dialogue" with working groups addressing carbon capture and storage ("CCS"), efficient electricity grids, and research and development. (7)

    While inroads have been made, a low-carbon discourse tends to understand the sustainability crisis as one primarily of climate change, which is often seen as caused by a pollutant, namely greenhouse gases. In this perspective, climate change is a discrete environmental problem, sometimes compared to ozone layer depletion, and is conceived as something that can be solved via technological substitution and increased energy efficiency, engendered by energy price increases and/or research and development supported innovation. In addition to the narrow focus on carbon and a profound implicit technological optimism is the pre-supposition that the economic model itself can continue on much as before (e.g., specialization and trade, consumption as the main driver of economic growth, etc.) as long as it is modified by new sources of energy or end-of-pipe pollution controls (e.g., CCS), geo-engineering solutions, (8) or eco-efficient goods and services.

    A low-carbon lens also focuses narrowly on the output of carbon emissions, which isolates carbon from input energy and isolates energy from the materials it displaces--materials which were once intact ecosystems essential for the perpetuation of human and non-human habitats. This narrow carbon focus dramatically reduces the scope of relevant environmental information for decision-making, which in order to be comprehensive would include additional information in addition to the aforementioned material flows, such as water use, toxicity, and social sustainability. At a more abstract level, understanding the problem as one of pollution does not question the intentionality of the input, it keeps the focus on the negative after effects (e.g., the "externality") as opposed to the actual system that produced it. A related vein includes attempts at moving away from thinking of "waste"; rather the point is to conceive of a system where there is no such thing as waste, and no such thing as pollution. (9)

    Since the 1990s, a discourse of "pollution prevention" has permeated the policy and programming of both Environment Canada and the Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA"). In Canada, the main piece of federal environmental legislation is an "Act respecting pollution prevention," (10) and we have a database of Pollution Prevention programs, as well as the Canadian Roundtable for Pollution Prevention where we give awards to companies for preventing pollution. In the United States, pollution prevention has been similarly engrained. The Pollution Prevention Act was passed by Congress in 1990 in which "Congress declared it to be the national policy of the United States that pollution should be prevented or reduced at the source whenever feasible." (11) In addition to National Pollution Prevention Roundtables, every September the EPA promotes Pollution Prevention week.

    The language of "preventing pollution" was intended to move the environmental protection institutions and, by extension, society beyond the end-of-pipe pollution control approaches of the 1970s. (12) However, many of today's most urgent environmental problems have as their fundamental root ever-increasing volumes of production and consumption and the associated use of raw materials...

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