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Raymond De Young
School of Natural Resources and Environment
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

21 May 2014

However vast were the natural resources that we used to build our techno-industrial civilization, they were never limitless. Biophysical constraints, always a part of our existence, could be ignored for these past few centuries, a one-time era of resource abundance. This is no longer possible.

Soon we will all, of necessity, come to accept that biophysical limits are a defining characteristic of life. Yet such acceptance will be hard for us because it will demand profoundly different world views, daily behaviors and community settlement patterns (De Young and Princen, 2012).

To date our primary response to our confrontation with ecological limits has been to promote green consumerism. This approach asks that we lean our consuming behavior enough to create a sustainable steady-state society. It is a relatively gentle approach because it contains the implicit promise that after achieving the goal of a steady-state, the comforts and conveniences of modernity will remain.

Unfortunately, pursuing this green-and-lean approach for decades has produced no noticeable decline in our ecological footprint or emissions profile. We also note that despite efforts at environmental education, design, marketing and policy-making, our consumerist life-patterns continue to consume the planet and disrupt its climate. But perhaps the most troubling realization is that, having delayed the necessary response to biophysical limits, the depth and duration of the needed transition is now understood to be unprecedented.

Adapting to a deep, drawn-out decline in net resource availability is not something with which we are familiar at any level: personal, local or national. Indeed, our collective experience has been one of exponential growth in energy and material consumption and in consumer sovereignty, met lately with a celebration of the consumerist mentality. Thus, responding well to the expected resource descent likely will demand more of us than we are currently willing to admit or ready to provide. In fact, what we now perceive to be requests for radical changes in our consuming behavior (and therefore changes that we deem socially and politically unacceptable) will likely prove to be totally inadequate in the face of the emerging biophysical reality. Simply put, “leaning and greening” our consumer lifestyles is no longer a sufficient response.

If we paused for a moment, and reflected on this bleak portrayal, it would be easy to despair of the human prospect. However, such despair comes from having used the wrong frame to view our situation and options. The work proposed here employs an alternate frame, one that focuses on not green consumerism but rather green citizenship. This may seem a small, perhaps even an academic distinction, but it is in fact a crucial issue, one with major implications for our transition to an environmentally resilient society. For what is often overlooked is that citizens may have goals, motives and social-support needs that are fundamentally different from those of consumers. Yet, to date, essentially all of our attention, funding and science has been focused on green consumerism.

The failure to fully understand green citizenship, and how it differs from green consumerism, may partially explain our difficulty in crafting a sustainable society. It is not likely that we could ever have succeeded at creating a truly sustainable consumerist society, and now it is possibly too late, and certainly too dangerous, to run that experiment to its conclusion. It is more likely that green citizenship will become the foundation of any successful response to an unprecedented resource descent.


De Young and Princen (2012). The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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