Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Too Big for Environmental Law to Deal With, Part 4: Consumption

It’s time for another installment of my series on issues that seem too big for environmental law to deal with.  This week, the big issue is consumption, aka the incredible amount of stuff we buy. 

I hesitate to point to this one as too big, because several environmental law scholars have taken it on very successfully.  The work of Michael Vandenbergh stands out.  He has fleshed out the carbon-neutral individual; proposed supply chain regulation that could affect Chinese energy use; and built a stabilization wedge from household behavior change.  Other references points include Doug Kysar’s work on the process/product distinction and Jim Salzman’s admirably early work on sustainable consumption and the law.  Dan Farber has also recently been speaking and posting (here and here) about consumption.  

So maybe, just maybe, this one falls short of “too big.”  But I would maintain that it is a tough issue for environmental law scholars to get a handle on and say something useful about.  Take me, for example.  I write a lot about regulation and enforcement, so I have often thought about what I can say about regulation to reduce consumption.  The answer I tend to come to is “not much,” at least with regard to traditional regulatory approaches.  Regulation of household consumption is a non-starter for obvious reasons.  Regulation of industrial consumption is also tricky business for reasons I discussed in a previous post.  While voluntary regulation such as eco-labeling or voluntary commitments has potential, I can’t help but see it as a band-aid on a bullet hole. 

And there is something bigger (of course!).  I often find myself thinking that consumption truly does lie at the heart of present-day American capitalism and culture.  Then the question becomes: “what can environmental law do to reshape American capitalism and culture?”  That seems pretty big.

- Lesley McAllister

p.s.  A few other great resources on consumption: 
* Annie Leonard’s The Story Of Stuff 

* Michael Vandenbergh’s (et al.) recent piece on carbon labeling in Nature Climate Change

* The field of happiness studies (complete with its own journal),


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