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

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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.
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Keywords: consumer sovereignty; decision-making traits; deliberative decision-making; human impact on ecosystems; ignorance; uncertainty

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2013-02-01

More about this publication?
  • Environmental Values is an international peer-reviewed journal that brings together contributions from philosophy, economics, politics, sociology, geography, anthropology, ecology and other disciplines, which relate to the present and future environment of human beings and other species. In doing so we aim to clarify the relationship between practical policy issues and more fundamental underlying principles or assumptions.

    Environmental Values has a Journal Impact Factor (2016) of 1.279.
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