Ecological Modernization Theory Explained


Ecological modernization theory is a school of thought that can be found in social science. It argues that an economy benefits when there is a move toward environmentalism. It is a unique theory within the scope of “Green Politics” as it is both a policy strategy and an analytical approach to having a discourse on environmental awareness.

This theory was first proposed in the 1980s. A group of scholars in Berlin, attending the Free University and the Social Science Research Center, pursued the idea that modernizing ecologically could provide industrial development and then economic growth. Several researchers and scholars have pursued this idea, including Joseph Huber, Amory Lovins, Arthur Rosenfeld, and Gert Spaargaren.

The basis of this theory is surprisingly simple. It makes the assumption that environmental productivity, defined as the productive use of a natural resource, can be a source of future growth just as capital and labor productivity are.

What Is Included with Ecological Modernization?

Any form of environmental productivity can qualify as being beneficial in the ecological modernization theory. That may include any or all of the following possibilities.

• Increases in energy efficiency.
• Increases in resource efficiency.
• Product and process innovations.
• Hazardous substance substitutions.
• Improvements in product design.

An example of ecological modernization theory would be the creation of carbon capture technologies. Coal-fired power plants were one of the most common sources of energy in the first half of the 20th century. Combusting coal releases particulates, carbon dioxide, and other emissions into the atmosphere.

The development of carbon capture technology prevents those emissions from being released. That qualifies as either an improvement in product design (changing the coal-fired power plant) or as a hazardous substance substitution (eliminating carbon dioxide release).

The CO2 that is captured with this technology can become a liquid or gaseous product that is used in other industries. Carbon dioxide can be turned into dry ice, refrigerant, and other products that are used in a variety of industries. By utilizing the new technology, new products and resources can be introduced. That can reduce costs and increase profits, which creates new resource chains.

At the same time, the environment benefits by not having the same emission levels potentially creating a greenhouse gas effect.

Ecological Modernization Can Be Global or Local

Since 2000, ecological modernization has developed the topic of creating a sustainable household. By improving lifestyle choices or consumption patterns that improve a personal impact on the environment, economic gains become possible on a personal or community level. Curbside recycling programs are an example of this theory.

Households may be given a recycling container with specific instructions about which products qualify. These items are placed into the container and picked up on a regular basis. The cost of the program, along with the recycling revenues that are generated, create a fund where people and communities benefit from the process.

The funds from such a program could be used for infrastructure, social programs, or even further environmental improvements.

At the same time, by reducing the waste that goes into landfills or escapes into the environment as litter, additional benefits can be achieved. Not every economic impact needs to be based on monetary units. The chance for a person to take a walk in a forest without encountering litter can create a relaxation affect which improves their overall employment productivity.

Concerns with the Ecological Modernization Theory

The primary issue that the ecological modernization theory must confront is the free market. A capitalistic point of view will place competition and profit at a higher priority than the environment. Capitalism only utilizes this theory if it is the best possible way to make the most money. Because of that priority emphasis, the eventual outcome must always be environmental degradation, even if short-term environmental gains are realized.

Many businesses are left to self-regulation practices as well and the ecological modernization theory requires some level of oversight. Innovation must be universally applied for it to be environmentally beneficial. Far too often, however, practices and processes become proprietary as a way to ensure a profit margin for a business. That means one organization might be focused on improving the environment, but not every business.

Is it possible to build an economy while still saving the environment? Sure, it is. To achieve these benefits, societal changes and priorities may be required to maximize what could occur. If that does not happen, then it is difficult, if not impossible, for the ecological modernization theory to be implemented.