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Publications archive


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Consumption and the Environment

Environmental Economics Seminar Series
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1996
ISBN 0 642 24878 8


In 1994 the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, through its Environmental Economics Unit, commissioned the Centre for Continuing Education at the Australian National University to conduct a series of seminars for invited speakers and participants on four newly developing environmental economic issues: Consumption and the Environment; Taxation and the Environment; Equity and the Environment; and Environmental Policy and International Competitiveness. The seminars were held in Sydney, Canberra (two) and Melbourne between November 1994 and June 1995. This report is one of the four reports on those seminars. The views expressed at the seminars are not necessarily the views of the Department.


A seminar on Consumption and the Environment was held at the University of Sydney on 17 November 1994. The Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories (DEST), sponsored and initiated the seminar and the Centre for Continuing Education and the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at The Australian National University organised and facilitated the event. This publication is a record of the proceedings of that seminar.

The papers included are concerned with the need for Iffestyle changes, information on the implications of consumption, and the effectiveness of policy instruments essentially of the moral suasion variety.

In the last 40 years there have been many significant transformations in our planetary existence that we would all be aware of These include the rise of economic welfare, the technological revolution centred around the computer and communications, the rise in world population, the emergence of the feminist movement and claims for sexual equality, and environmental degradation in its many forms. This seminar was initiated by DEST to consider the causal conjunction between two of these factors - that is, consumption and environmental deterioration.

In considering this process, it is very useful to look at the I = PAT equation that Holden and Erlich came up with in the 1970s and which is referred to in the background paper to this seminar by Mick Common. That is: the environmental impact (I) of a population is the multiplicative outcome of the total population (P), an index of per capita aMuence (A), and the disruptive effects of the technology in place in that society (T). This allows us at least some means of assessing that if consumption is reduced by, say, five per cent and the disruptive effects of technology are reduced also by five per cent, the overall reduction in environmental impact will be 10 per cent, provided the population does not increase. A rise of 10 per cent in the population would, of course, wipe out any such improvement.

The agenda for this seminar was examining the case for changing consumption habits, either in the composition or the level of consumption, or both. There are significant issues that arise there. If there are good arguments in favour of change, what are the areas in which policy action is required? We might look at that in a number of ways: What are the most important areas to move on? What are the easiest areas to move on? What are the most effective means?

When we look at these matters we will raise issues of economy and also issues of physical science, individual psychology and social attitudes. Some of the issues that may confront us lie even deeper than that. I like the story of the Zen master who was instructing two novices. He handed the first one an F-A-N, and the first novice picked it up and fanned himself. The master nodded and gave it to the second novice, who went away and made some tea, spread the fan and handed the tea to the master on the fan. The master gave his accolades to the second novice because he perceived that there was a reality out there in the world which could be distorted or imposed upon by the actual concept we use mentally to describe this thing called an F-A-N.

In this issue of environment, economics and consumption, even the concepts that we are using may in fact stand in the way of our appreciation of and ability to solve the problems we are looking at.

In traversing this territory with the help of these papers and in the discussion which follows we can offer some advice to DEST on 'where to from here?'


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