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The Shadows of Consumption

The Shadows of Consumption: Consequences for the Global Environment

Peter Dauvergne
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    The Shadows of Consumption
    Book Description:

    An environmentalist maps the hidden costs of overconsumption in a globalized world by tracing the environmental consequences of five commodities.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-27123-3
    Subjects: General Science, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  6. Introduction:: The Ecological Shadows of Rising Consumption

    • 1 An Unbalanced Global Political Economy
      (pp. 3-18)

      For thousands of years, the Ayles ice shelf sat off the northern coast of Ellesmere Island, a desolate stretch of glaciers and rock 500 miles (800 kilometers) south of the North Pole. Then, on an August afternoon in 2005, a mass of ice the size of 11,000 football fields suddenly broke free. No humans were nearby to bear witness. But it sent tremors flickering across earthquake monitors 150 miles (250 kilometers) away, and satellites recorded the image of the shelf floating out to sea.

      Why did this happen? Was the collapse simply a normal process of nature?

      Most scientists think...

    • 2 Dying of Consumption
      (pp. 19-32)

      The unequal globalization of the costs of consumption is putting ecosystems and billions of people at risk. Many living within small worlds of prosperity, however, end up seeing more progress than peril around them, pointing to better environmental practices and technologies, to energy-efficient appliances, greener architecture, organic foods. Relatively few in power ever question the side effects of a global political economy producing ever more “new and improved” products—even as threats to just about every ecosystem continue to escalate.

      Many natural environments are in crisis.¹ Over half of the world’s original forests and wetlands are now gone. The tropical...

  7. I Automobiles

    • 3 Accidental Dependency? The Road to an Auto World
      (pp. 35-42)

      At the beginning of the nineteenth century, cars were playthings of the wealthy. Now they speed through every culture, with the total number on the roads climbing to a billion in another decade. The global dependency on automobiles for transportation is no accident. It can be traced to the genius of entrepreneurs like Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan at General Motors, who vastly expanded markets by reducing profit margins, lobbying policy makers, advertising new models, designing cars for “obsolescence,” and destroying alternative forms of transport, such as the electric trolley. The history of the automobile shows how, over several generations,...

    • 4 A Better Ride: Selling Safe and Clean
      (pp. 43-52)

      Government regulations and competition among automakers since the 1960s have made the typical automobile safer and cleaner, in wealthier and poorer states alike. Governments across the First World began passing legislation in the 1960s and 1970s to establish standards for air pollution and auto emissions. California has been a leader in this regard since 1966, when it set the world’s first standards for carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons from automobile tailpipes. It has progressively strengthened regulations for automobile emissions, a trend seen in other jurisdictions in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia, and, to a lesser extent, in developing countries as well....

    • 5 The Road Tolls
      (pp. 53-60)

      A 2008 Toyota Prius no doubt causes less ecological harm than a 1965 Toyota Corona; and a 2008 Ford Taurus is no doubt far safer than a 1965 Ford Mustang. Still, the shadow effects of today’s safer and cleaner automobiles are growing as the numbers of these vehicles rise across the globe. A company like Toyota is now a model of how to produce large outputs with just-in-time efficiency, less waste, and high quality controls. It’s at the forefront of research in environmental technologies, too. But Toyota’s ultimate goal is not just to expand sales, capture markets, and increase profits—...

    • 6 The Globalization of Accidents and Emissions
      (pp. 61-64)

      The automobile over the last 100 years went from being a luxury toy to a normal purchase for normal people in just about every culture on earth. Hundreds of millions of people now depend on private motor vehicles. Workers rely on them to commute, parents rely on them to transport children to school and play, and families rely on them to vacation at cottages and beaches. Granted, many of these driverscoulduse public transportation, but it’s generally slower and less convenient.

      The structural dependency of societies on automobiles is not an accident of history. Networks of auto, tire, and...

  8. II Leaded Gasoline

    • 7 Leaded Science: Pumping Out Profits and Risks
      (pp. 67-78)

      The history of the ecological shadow of leaded gasoline begins on a Friday late in 1921. For five long years, Thomas Midgley Jr. and his team in the Fuel Division of the General Motors Research Corporation had been searching for an effective additive to increase the octane of gasoline, and thus reduce engine “knock” or pinging. Their successful test of tetraethyl lead at the DuPont plant on Friday, 9 December 1921, set DuPont and GM in motion. The new additive was effective, it was inexpensive, and a patent was easy to obtain.

      Then, in October 1924, just as consumers all...

    • 8 Lead Must Go
      (pp. 79-88)

      The leaded gasoline industry in the United States didn’t simply roll over and concede that “Lead must go.” On the contrary, in the early 1970s, the industry association embarked on a full-scale campaign to discredit critics, block legislation, and delay environmental regulations—it put ads in newspapers, lobbied politicians and bureaucrats, sued the Environmental Protection Agency, and worked hard to keep all of the corporate players on board. Nevertheless, as domestic sales of automobiles with catalytic converters (which worked only with unleaded gasoline) rose, support to phase down leaded gasoline grew, even among U.S. automakers and major oil companies.


    • 9 Taking the Lead Out of Africa
      (pp. 89-92)

      Over the last decade, many developing countries have managed to phase out leaded gasoline. Many of these phaseouts have been easier and faster than in places like the United States. Why has this been possible? Answering this question helps explain why ecological shadows of consumption can—and do—sometimes quickly fade away, even in the world’s poorest places. To that end, this chapter analyzes the phaseout of leaded gasoline in sub-Saharan Africa from 2002 to 2006. Broadly, it shows how global environmentalism—combined with international aid, corporate interests, and local political will—was able to accelerate environmentally friendly change in...

    • 10 The Globalization of Risk
      (pp. 93-96)

      Our understanding of the health effects of tetraethyl lead has come a long way since Thomas Midgley rubbed it into his hands in 1924 to demonstrate its safety. Repeated exposure to trace amounts of lead, the medical community is now sure, can cause lasting harm. It can reduce fertility and increase sperm abnormalities as well as contribute to premature births and low birth weights. It can impair children’s brains and nervous systems as well as increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes in adults. And it can impair impulse controls and social skills, even contributing to delinquency in children...

  9. III Refrigerators

    • 11 Refrigerating the Ozone Layer
      (pp. 99-106)

      It took Thomas Midgley just three days in 1928 to discover a stable chemical compound to cool refrigerators, later sold by DuPont and General Motors under the trademark “Freon.” All tests showed this new compound to be utterly safe—so safe, as Midgley would show the American Chemical Society in 1930, a person could breathe it in and blow out a candle. Before long, manufacturers everywhere were using similar compounds in a class known as “chlorofluorocarbons” not only as refrigerants in refrigerators and air conditioners, but also as propellants in aerosol spray cans and fire extinguishers and as foaming agents...

    • 12 Phasing Out CFC Refrigerators
      (pp. 107-118)

      The global solution to CFC refrigerators has been simple: replace them with even more CFC-free refrigerators. International agreements and aid have spurred along this process of environmentally friendly change, with state regulators and corporate codes of conduct helping to ensure compliance and consistency. But, as this chapter will show, the main force of change has been the global market for CFC-free refrigerators, which has afforded firms opportunities to invest, trade, and profit from growing sales of these refrigerators—and thus recoup any revenue lost from phasing out CFC refrigerators.

      The phaseout of CFC refrigerators in the First World started shortly...

    • 13 Selling the “Superior” Refrigerator
      (pp. 119-128)

      Over the last two decades, competition among refrigerator and freezer companies has extended beyond just marketing CFC-free products. Firms like Electrolux, Whirlpool, and Bosch und Siemens Hausgeräte (BSH) have also been competing to develop more energy-efficient models, advertising them as win-win purchases for consumers—a way to save the environmentandsave on utility bills. Many are upgrading factories, modifying packaging, and introducing codes of conduct to conserve energy, emit less pollution, reduce waste, and promote recycling. Some are cooperating with governments and nongovernmental organizations to develop environmental legislation to make producers more responsible for recycling, thus creating incentives to...

    • 14 The Globalization of Plugging In
      (pp. 129-132)

      Thomas Midgley was no mad scientist. His aims in 1921 and 1928 were reasonable: to get rid of engine knock and to make a safer refrigerator. There was no malice, no cunning plot to set off tragic ecological consequences. He was merely a scientist of his times, dying in 1944 surely far more concerned about how the contraption he’d designed was strangling him than about the safety of Freon.

      The scientific consensus was firm for three decades after his death: CFCs were totally safe, stable and harmless wonder chemicals able to cool refrigerators, propel aerosols, and make foams. This consensus...

  10. IV Beef

    • 15 The Efficient Steer: Fast, Fat, and Cheap
      (pp. 135-146)

      InAn Essay on the Principle of Population(1798), the scholar Thomas Malthus put forth a seemingly inevitable principle: population, left unchecked, increases exponentially, while food production increases only arithmetically. Thus, following the laws of mathematics, mass starvation must one day ensue, causing a die-off of the human race.

      Yet Malthus was wrong, at least about the second premise of his principle: the production of food over the last two centuries has been able to keep up with—and often surpass—the exponential growth of the human population. Today, there’s more than enough food for the world’s 6.7 billion people,...

    • 16 The Ecology of Big Beef
      (pp. 147-154)

      Producing so much beef involves many ecological costs. Farmers are tilling land with pesticides and fertilizers to grow enough grain to fatten cattle quickly. Waste from feedlots is polluting local waterways and air. Growth hormones are tainting food chains, and antibiotics are flowing through ecosystems. The nutritional value of beef is inconsistent and declining in some places. Ranches and feed crops like soybeans are deforesting biodiversity hotspots like the Amazon. And grazing, fattening, and slaughtering billions of cattle every few years is depleting water supplies and emitting vast quantities of greenhouse gases like methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide.


    • 17 Sustainable Beef? Chasing a Stampede of “Regular” Steers
      (pp. 155-164)

      Markets for natural, organic, and grass-fed beef are growing in many countries. Ranchers serving these markets tend to follow higher environmental standards for managing forests, land, water, and wildlife. They generally work on a smaller scale, treating cattle with more care, using fewer growth hormones and antibiotics, and avoiding both protein supplements from animals or fish and feeds from farms using pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified crops. The cattle tend to live in more sanitary and spacious settings and to eat a more vegetarian diet. And, finally, the beef generally contains fewer chemical preservatives, synthetic ingredients, and artificial colors...

    • 18 The Globalization of More Meat
      (pp. 165-168)

      Producers and retailers respond to consumers—to their desires, tastes, rising incomes, and, most concretely, to their actual purchases—because more customers means more profits. Yet, as the case of beef shows, the notion that demand arises from the innate needs and cravings of freethinking consumers—even for a basic need like food—is far too simplified.

      Governments can shape consumer demand by declaring certain things illegal, by limiting choice with restrictive trade or social policies, by imposing differential taxes, and by setting labeling standards. They can do so through incentives, as well, by subsidizing producers to develop or expand...

  11. V The Harp Seal Hunt

    • 19 To the Red Ice: Heroes and Overharvesting
      (pp. 171-182)

      The seal hunters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in what is now Atlantic Canada were heroes of local folklore by the beginning of the twentieth century, men who endured the hardships of the hunt to eke out a living for their families. From the 1960s into the 1980s, the global outcry against the inhumanity of the seal hunt turned this history inside out. The consumers of luxury furs increasingly began to see these onetime heroes—called “swilers” by Newfoundlanders—not as hunters on a hunt, but as barbaric men on a rampage, clubbing bawling baby seals to death, stealing...

    • 20 The Brutes! Killing Markets with Activism
      (pp. 183-192)

      Activists in the 1960s made little headway convincing Newfoundlanders to end the annual hunt for harp seals. Although the Canadian federal government did begin to regulate harvesting and impose quotas, activists rejected this response as inadequate. The anti-sealing campaign began to gain ground in the 1970s as environmental groups like Greenpeace joined forces with animal rights groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare. The activists were idealistic, imaginative, and daring. TV crews captured them confronting hunters with spray paint in a bid to save a few seal pups. Movie stars joined them to cuddle whitecoats in front of millions...

    • 21 Hunting Beaters for Globalizing Markets
      (pp. 193-202)

      In the mid-1990s, the Canadian government—with the population of harp seals now over 5 million—took steps to expand the fleet of small vessels hunting “mature” seals. It kept the ban on hunting 6- to 12-day-old whitecoats in place, but quietly raised harvesting quotas for beater seals (2–12 weeks old), providing direct and indirect subsidies to small-vessel fishermen and seal-processing facilities to revive commercial interest. Before long, prices, markets, and profits for seal pelts were rising. Today, this small-vessel hunt is the biggest in over a half century, turning what activists once saw as a lesson in how...

    • 22 The Globalization of Slippery Markets
      (pp. 203-206)

      The history of the Atlantic sealing industry from the mid-eighteenth to mid-twentieth centuries is typical of many renewable “resource” histories over this time. Generations of ordinary men went through harrowing hardships on the ice floes to earn a pittance from the sealing shipowners. The ice and sea took the lives of over 1,000 of these swilers—some, like the men of theNewfoundlandin 1914, dying in a nightmare of agony. Still, every year, thousands of veterans would return and hundreds of boys would go to the ice to become men. Going to the ice was a way of life,...

  12. Conclusion:: Transforming Global Consumption

    • 23 The Illusions of Environmentalism
      (pp. 209-218)

      The ecological shadows of consumption are continually shifting—moving from place to place, advancing, and receding. A rising global population and rising rates of personal consumption are causing these shifts, as are the globalizing pressures of corporations, trade, and financing, the values of new generations of consumers, and the consequences of technological and scientific “advances.” What are the impacts of these shifting shadows on the global environment? Looking at the consumption of products like automobiles, refrigerators, and beef over several generations, we find that the global environmental impacts of these—and a wide range of other—consumer goods have intensified...

    • 24 A Brighter World Order of Balanced Consumption
      (pp. 219-232)

      Transforming environmentalism to control the shadows of consumption will take years of consultations and negotiations. The following musings are therefore intended simply as a way to begin a conversation. Working toward more “balanced consumption,” I submit, has the potential to mitigate many, if not most, of the damaging ecological effects both of individual consumption and of the corporate, trade, and financing structures producing consumer goods.

      Any lasting progress toward more sustainable global patterns of consumption will require a mix of policies and incentives. Wealthy consumers can assist by pursuing more personal balance between needs and indulgence—by practicing, in the...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 233-262)
  14. References
    (pp. 263-288)
  15. Index
    (pp. 289-316)