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Environmental Values

Individual Guilt or Collective Progressive Action? Challenging the Strategic Potential of Environmental Citizenship Theory

Rasmus Karlsson

Environmental Values 21 (2012): 459-474. doi: 10.3197/096327112X13466893628102


While structural approaches to sustainability have remained unable to muster wider political support, green political theory has for some time taken a voluntarist turn, arguing that deep changes in attitudes and behaviour are necessary to reduce the ecological debt of the rich countries.

Within environmental citizenship theory it is believed that justice requires each individual to start living within his or her ‘ecological space’. Firmly rooted in the pollution paradigm, environmental citizenship theory holds that the path to sustainability goes through a dramatic reduction in economic activity and international trade. Since such cuts in material welfare run counter to the preferences of many, doubts can be had about their political plausibility. More seriously, with a world population of more than seven billions, it is doubtful that even such harsh sacrifices would suffice to ensure environmental sustainability.

This article challenges environmental citizenship theory by arguing that it is tied to a conception of sustainability which is both theoretically misleading and strategically unfortunate in a rapidly industrialising world. Instead of further individual guilt, there is an urgent need to define new collective progressive projects aimed at universal affluence and natural restoration. Fashionable as a sense of individual guilt may be, it fails to recognise the responsibility of the rich world to provide new technologies capable of securing global environmental sustainability.


Long-term sustainability, green political theory, environmental citizenship

REFERENCES to other articles in Environmental Values:

Morality and Climate Change: Is Leaving your TV on Standby a Risky Behaviour? Catherine Butler

'Getting Rich Is Glorious':Environmental Values in the People's Republic of China. Paul G. Harris

Collective Environmental Virtue. David Clowney

CITATIONS in other Environmental Values articles

Editorial: Response and Responsibility. Clive L. Spash

Should Ecological Citizenship Advocates Praise the Green State?. Carme Melo-Escrihuela

Stability and Change in British Public Discourses about Climate Change between 1997 and 2010. Stuart Capstick, Nicholas Pidgeon and Karen Henwood

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