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Environmental Values

Sovereign Citizens and Constrained Consumers: Why Sustainability Requires Limits on Choice

Susanne Menzel and Tom L. Green

Environmental Values 22 (2013): 59-79. doi: 10.3197/096327113X13528328798273


There is resistance to policies that would reduce overall consumption levels to promote sustainability. In part, this resistance is aided by the economic concept of consumer sovereignty (CS) and its presumption that choice promotes wellbeing. We investigate the concept of consumer sovereignty in the context of deepening concerns about sustainability and scrutinise whether the two concepts are compatible. We draw on new findings in psychology on human decision-making traits; we take into account increasing awareness about human dependencies on 'functioning' ecosystems and uncertainties on how ecosystems, human activities and human wellbeing are interlinked. We conclude that commitment to the concept of consumer sovereignty is incompatible with sustainability due to human characteristics, the difficult-to-predict behaviour of ecological systems and ignorance about the impact of human action on natural systems. We propose that the choice-set of available goods and services on markets should be constrained when consumption patterns can be linked to degradation of services provided by nature when those services are seen as crucial for human wellbeing. We advocate constraining the available choice-set through established governmental institutions aided by deliberative processes that engage members of the general public. Finally, we acknowledge that such processes are imperfect; nevertheless, we foresee that they will be essential for fostering wise decision-making and moving towards sustainability.


Consumer sovereignty, decision-making traits, human impact on ecosystems, uncertainty, ignorance, deliberative decision-making

REFERENCES to other articles in Environmental Values:

A Critical Assessment of Public Consultations on GMOs in the European Union. Marko Ahteensuu and Helena Siipi

Involuntary Simplicity: Changing Dysfunctional Habits of Consumption. Guy Claxton

Redefining the Good Life in a Sustainable Society Lester W. Milbrath

Uncertainty and Participatory Democracy. Luigi Pellizzoni

How Much is that Ecosystem in the Window? The One with the Bio-diverse Trail. Clive L. Spash

CITATIONS in other Environmental Values articles

Editorial: Changes Needed. Clive L. Spash

The Capabilities Approach and Environmental Sustainability: The Case for Functioning Constraints. Wouter Peeters, Jo Dirix and Sigrid Sterckx

Eco-Sufficiency and Distributive Sufficientarianism - Friends or Foes? Philipp Kanschik

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