Politics of Sustainable Consumption

Discipline: Semester at Sea Seminars
Instructor: Maniates
Credits: 3
Day: C
Start: 1520
End: 1635
Field Work: Day 1 - Thursday, 10 July | Ireland
Prerequisites: Two courses in some combination of political science, economics, anthropology, or sociology, and rising junior or rising senior status; or permission of instructor. Download Syllabus

Consumerism may be the single greatest threat to environmental and social stability on the planet.  Billions of people are now being drawn into a consumer culture of increased consumption and a growing focus on acquisition of a wide array of consumer products.  Most would agree that the world cannot support seven billion people consuming at the level of the top consumers of the United States or Europe.  And many scholars and activists are now concluding that overconsumption in many parts of the world leads to ecological ruin and chronic unhappiness and stress.

But in the end, how much is enough, and for whom?  Who decides?  And what might the politics of and policies for taming consumerism and overconsumption look like?  This seminar explores these questions (and others like them) that animate a politics of ‘sustainable consumption.’  We will interrogate the literature on ‘sustainable consumption,’ explore the conflict occasioned by a range of ‘sustainable consumption’ policies, and assess the power of key actors and interests on all sides of the issue.  Through case studies and class activities, we will draw on the experience of many countries on our itinerary.  Our aim is to use ‘sustainable consumption’ to enhance our ability to think more systematically about power, politics and policymaking, and to draw on our growing ability to think about politics to analyze the sometimes contradictory theories of power and social change within the sustainable consumption discourse.

Field Work

Country: Ireland
Day: 1 - Thursday, 10 July

The Irish government has recently embarked on an effort to become “a world leader in sustainably produced food and drink” (see www.bordbia.ie/).  The Irish Food Board, and its recently created “Bord Bia” organization (both government entities) are pursuing a wide range of strategies for transforming the production of food in Ireland.  Their hope: better fed, healthier Irish at home and growing export markets for sustainably produced food abroad.  Sounds good – but how does one go about reorienting critical components of a nation’s food production system?  What are the economics and politics of such an endeavor?  Can ‘sustainable food’ go mainstream, or will it always be a niche market?  And just what does ‘sustainable’ mean in this context, anyway? We will spend our day with the chief sustainability manager for Bord Bia.  Our lab will begin with an orientation to the history, mission, and strategies used by Bord Bia to drive a ‘sustainability revolution’ in Irish agriculture. We will then travel to a farm outside of Dublin to assess Bord Bia’s programs from a farmer’s perspective.  Academic Objectives: 1. Apply concepts of ‘sustainability’ developed in class to real-world examples 2. Identify mechanisms (information, economic, policy) for driving complex systems (like the food system) toward sustainability 3. Better understand the theory and practice of sustainable agriculture 4. Assess the conflicting pressures on the Irish government as it struggles to revitalize the Irish economy