Environmental Politics 9(1):3-16, Spring 2000*

"Ecological Modernization Around the World: An Introduction"

Arthur P.J. Mol and David A. Sonnenfeld

© 2000 Frank Cass/ Routledge


Many contemporary environmental social scientists and commentators suggest that a major turn occurred in the 1980s with regard to the continuing undermining of sustenance bases of western industrial societies. The Brundtland report [WCED, 1987] is often denoted as the codification of that transformation, which was marked by other historical events as well, including the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). Beyond this common understanding, divergent interpretations have developed on (i) the nature of that transformation, (ii) the actors and actions which have triggered innovations in societies' interactions with external nature, (iii) the extent to which such environmental improvements have reflected changing environmental ideologies and discourses, and (iv) the social and geographical distribution of those changes.

Numerous social scientists have analysed aspects of this turn, looking at, for example, the changing role of the nation-state in safeguarding the environment [cf. Jänicke, 1993], and the role of social movements in representing environmental interests vis-à-vis economic agents [cf. Rawcliffe, 1998]. Few attempts have been made to formulate more general explanations of current transformations of environmental practices, discourses and institutions. One of the more sustained efforts to do so has been a growing number of publications which can be brought together under the label, ‘ecological modernisation’. Scholars in different disciplines from around the world have been developing and ‘testing’ this body of work for nearly two decades. (1)

The present volume aims to contribute to the critical advancement of Ecological Modernisation Theory. It tries to capture and evaluate the state-of-the art of this approach's analysis of contemporary environmental reforms, while also presenting fresh challenges from outside this school-of-thought. Although Ecological Modernisation Theory is the central focus of this work, neither we, the editors, nor the individual authors interpret it as the only valid approach. Various articles in this volume give evidence of the limitations of the present state-of-the-art of Ecological Modernisation Theory and the need to confront it with other perspectives to develop it further. Moreover, contributors to this volume vary in their ‘support’ for this school-of-thought. Whether engaged or in debate with it, however, the authors find Ecological Modernization Theory to be one of the more valuable points of reference in contemporary social sciences for analysing society-environment interactions at the turn of the millennium.

In order to provide a conceptual framework in which to situate individual contributions, we first outline the historical emergence of Ecological Modernisation Theory and summarise its key features, before outlining the contents of this volume.

The Emergence of Ecological Modernisation Theory

Ecological Modernisation Theory was first developed in the early 1980s primarily in a small group of western European countries, notably Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (UK). Social scientists such as Martin Jänicke, Volker von Prittwitz, Udo Simonis and Klaus Zimmermann (Germany), Gert Spaargaren, Maarten Hajer, and Arthur P.J. Mol (the Netherlands) and Albert Weale, Maurie Cohen and Joseph Murphy (UK) made substantial contributions to this scholarship [see the various references in the different contributions to this volume]. More recently, empirical studies have also been carried out focusing on among others Finland (e.g. Jokinen and Koskinen, 1998; Sarinen, forthcoming], Canada [e.g. Harris, 1996], Denmark [e.g. Andersen, 1994], Europe [Neale, 1997], Lithuania [e.g. Rinkevicius, 1999 and this volume], Hungary [e.g. Gille, this volume], Kenya [e.g. Frijns et al., 1997] and Southeast Asia [e.g. Sonnenfeld; and Frijns et al., this volume]. It is the German sociologist Joseph Huber, however, who should arguably be seen as its founder [cf. 1982; 1985, 1991].

Even in its relatively short existence, Ecological Modernisation Theory has developed with considerable diversity and debate, not only by national background and theoretical foundation (2), but also chronologically. Reserving a more detailed overview and analysis of this literature for elsewhere, we believe it useful for the present purposes to distinguish at least three stages in the development and maturation of this school-of-thought.

The first contributions, especially those by Joseph Huber [cf. 1982; 1985], were characterised by heavy emphasis on the role of technological innovations in environmental reform, especially in the sphere of industrial production; a critical attitude towards the (bureaucratic) state (3); a favourable attitude towards the role of market actors and dynamics in environmental reforms; a systems-theoretical and rather evolutionary perspective with a limited notion of human agency and social struggles; and an orientation towards analyses at the level of the nation-state.

The second period, from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, showed less emphasis on technological innovation as the key motor of ecological modernisation; a more balanced view on the respective roles of states and "the market" in ecological transformation [cf. Weale, 1992; Jänicke 1991; 1993]; and more attention to institutional and cultural dynamics of ecological modernisation [cf. Hajer, 1995; Spaargaren and Mol, 1991 and 1992; Cohen 1997]. During this period, scholarship on ecological modernisation continued to emphasise national and comparative studies of industrial production in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

Since the mid-1990s, the frontier of Ecological Modernisation Theory has broadened theoretically and geographically to include studies on the ecological transformation of consumption; ecological modernisation in non-European countries (newly industrialising countries, less developed countries, the transitional economies in Central and Eastern Europe, but also OECD countries such as the USA and Canada); and global processes. Works in the present volume fit squarely in this third phase of Ecological Modernisation Theory. (4)

Notwithstanding their temporal, national, and theoretical differences, one can gather this scholarship together under the aegis of Ecological Modernisation Theory. Such studies arguably have three broad perspectives in common: (i) moving beyond apocalyptic orientations to see environmental problems as challenges for social, technical and economic reform, rather than as immutable consequences of industrialisation; (ii) emphasising transformation of core social institutions of modernity -- be it not beyond recognition -- including science and technology, production and consumption, politics and governance, and the 'market', on multiple scales (local, national, and global); and (iii) positioning in the academic field distinct from counter-productivity/ deindustrialisation, postmodernist/strong social constructionist, and many neo-Marxist analyses.

We turn next to outlining some of Ecological Modernisation Theory's core themes.

Core Themes of Ecological Modernisation Theory

From the initial contributions onwards, the aim of Ecological Modernisation Theory has been to analyse how contemporary industrialised societies deal with environmental crises. The core of all studies in the tradition of Ecological Modernisation focuses on (existing and programmed) environmental reforms in social practices, institutional designs and societal and policy discourses to safeguard societies’ sustenance bases.

Some authors emphasise that these social transformations in institutions, practices and discourses are paralleled by physical changes in tendencies of environmental disruptions and material flows [e.g. Jänicke et al., 1992]. According to these latter scholars, from the mid-1980s onwards, a process of decoupling or delinking of material from economic flows emerged in ecological front-runner (5) nations such as Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Denmark. In a number of cases (countries, industrial sectors, issues), environmental reforms arguably even resulted in an absolute decline of natural resources used and emissions produced, regardless of economic growth in monetary or material terms (amount of products). (6)  Considerable debate has emerged about whether these improvements have actually taken place and to what extent any such improvements are structural or incidental.

It is not physical improvements per se, however, but rather social and institutional transformations which have been and still are at the core of much current scholarship on ecological modernisation. These transformations can be grouped in five clusters:

  1. Changing role of science and technology. Science and technology not only are judged for their role in the emergence of environmental problems but also valued for their actual and potential role in curing and preventing them. Traditional curative and repair options are replaced by preventive socio-technological approaches incorporating environmental considerations from the design stage of technological and organisational innovations. Science and technology are not marginalised despite an apparent growing uncertainty of expert knowledge regarding definitions and causes of, and solutions for, environmental problems.
  2. Increasing importance of market dynamics and economic agents (such as producers, customers, consumers, credit institutions, insurance companies etc.) as carriers of ecological restructuring and reform (in addition to the more conventional categories of state agencies and new social movements that prevail in all most all social theories on the environment).
  3. Transformations in the role of the nation-state. More decentralised, flexible and consensual styles of governance emerge, with less top-down, national command-and-control environmental regulation -- often referred to as political modernisation [cf. Jänicke, 1993; Jänicke and Weidner, 1995]. More opportunities for non-state actors to assume traditional administrative, regulatory, managerial, corporate (7), and mediating functions of the nation-states, referred to by some as subpolitical arrangements [cf. Beck, 1994; Hogenboom et al., 1999]. Emergent supra-national institutions also undermine the nation-state's traditional role in environmental reform.
  4. Modifications in the position, role and ideology of social movements. Increasingly, social movements are involved in public and private decision-making institutions regarding environmental reforms, in contrast to having been limited to the periphery or even outside of such processes and institutions in the 1970s and '80s.(8)   Along with this is a partial shift from anti-systemic, demodernisation to reform ideologies. These changes, in turn, have led to debates within social movement organisations regarding tensions of dualistic strategies and ideologies. And finally,
  5. Changing discursive practices and emerging new ideologies. Complete neglect of the environment and the fundamental counterpositioning of economic and environmental interests are no longer accepted as legitimate positions [cf. Spaargaren and Mol, 1992; Hajer, 1995]. Intergenerational solidarity in dealing with the sustenance base has emerged as an undisputed core principle.

Such social transformations feature as central topics of scholarship on ecological modernisation in western industrialised countries, and increasingly elsewhere as well. Two further positions can be identified in these studies. Some scholars [cf. Weale, 1992; Mol, 1995; Spaargaren, 1997] use these premises as analytical tools to understand social dynamics of present-day processes of environmental reform. A second group [including Christoff, 1996; Boons, 1997; Dryzek, 1998] moves beyond this position, claiming that these premises have not only analytical value but also normative merit in outlining desirable and feasible paths for environmental reform -- or they contest such premises.

Contents of This Volume

Papers collected in this volume reflect the core themes outlined above and are a typical product of what we have labelled the third phase of Ecological Modernisation studies. The papers fall into two general groupings. The first several are primarily oriented towards forwarding ecological modernisation’s theoretical foundations. They assess historical debates the school-of-thought has been engaged in, extend Ecological Modernisation Theory to address environmental aspects of consumption practices and consumer behaviour, and examine the relationship between national ‘knowledge orientations’ and ecological modernisation, respectively. The subsequent papers draw from empirical case studies to assess the usefulness of this theoretical framework in understanding environmental reform processes in three sets of countries outside of north-western Europe. Two articles focus on western OECD countries (the USA and Finland); two others pay attention to transitional economies in eastern and central Europe (Lithuania and Hungary); the final two concentrate on newly industrialising countries in South-East Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand; and Vietnam, respectively).

In the first selection, Arthur Mol and Gert Spaargaren review both older and newer theoretical debates with which Ecological Modernisation Theory has engaged. During the 1980s, proponents of this approach including the two authors demarcated themselves from both ‘counter-productivity’ (deindustrialisation or small-is-beautiful) and anti-capitalist perspectives. More recently in the 1990s, ecological modernisation theorists clarified differences between their approach of addressing environmental problems and that of social constructionists, postmodernists, and radical (deep) ecologists. Interestingly, some of the common roots and perspectives between Ecological Modernisation Theory and eco-Marxism with respect to social inequalities and ecological restructuring also are explored.

In the next paper, Gert Spaargaren and Bas van Vliet challenge environmental social scientists to address the environmental implications of consumption practices and consumer behaviour. Rejecting traditional social psychological studies of consumer behaviour as inadequate for the task, they draw from Giddens’ structuration theory, Bourdieu’s theory of distinction, Warde’s and others’ sociology of consumption, and Cowan’s, Otnes’, Shove’s and others’ work on domestic consumption, to outline an ecological modernisation perspective on the greening of domestic consumption. Spaargaren and van Vliet suggest that processes of ecological modernisation are affecting not only material production, but also increasingly consumption as well, to the level of daily practices of individual households. They call for improved social scientific analyses and policies for understanding and encouraging green consumer behaviour, and outline a conceptual model for doing so.

Maurie Cohen continues his contributions to Ecological Modernisation Theory in the third article, exploring the importance of environmental values and orientations in ecological modernisation, enriching its up till now undertheorised cultural dimensions. He constructs an ideal-typical model of environmental knowledge, combining variations of ecological consciousness and epistemological commitment. Using the Netherlands as a case study, he then suggests the usefulness of national studies of ‘environmental knowledge orientations’ to predict the likelihood of success of ecological modernisation in different countries.

David Pellow, Allan Schnaiberg and Adam Weinberg question the validity of Ecological Modernisation Theory in the fourth selection, through a case study of the social relations and environmental impacts of an urban waste recycling program in Chicago, USA. Among others, they challenge one of Ecological Modernisation Theory’s core hypotheses: that production processes are increasingly designed and conducted using ecological criteria. They observe that in Chicago, recycling has been placed on an increasingly profit-oriented basis, to the detriment of both employees of that industry and the natural environment. They argue that this case validates Schnaiberg’s well-known "treadmill of production" thesis, in which economic élites increasingly dominate all aspects of society and the environment unless checked by grassroots social movements. The authors call for continuing empirical research from both treadmill of production and ecological modernisation perspectives, including on ‘zero-sum moments’ of ecological decision-making when ‘real and inherent conflicts among stakeholders’ must be confronted.

Across the world, Pekka Jokinen examines the impact of Europeanisation on agri-environmental policies and practices in Finland, paying special attention to changes in institutional arrangements, discourses and practices. Although it has been suggested that ecological modernisation is facilitated by processes of globalisation, Jokinen finds mixed results in the Finnish case: discourses have changed, but institutional arrangements have been transformed only marginally. Prior to joining the European Union (EU), the Finnish state devoted considerable resources to supporting progressive agri-environmental practices by Finnish farmers. Under terms of membership in the EU, this was considered an unfair subsidy, however, and had to be discontinued.

In the different setting of transitional economies, Leo Rinkevicius finds Ecological Modernisation Theory useful in analysing shifts in culture and institutional practices in the Baltic republic of Lithuania. Taking an historical approach, Rinkevicius examines environmentalism in Lithuania under Soviet rule, during national liberation, and in the current transition to becoming a liberal, market-oriented society. Consistent with western European experience, Rinkevicius finds that in Lithuania, too, environmental activism has transformed from its formerly oppositional role to being more integrated in society and institutions. At the same time, such activism in Lithuania retains what he refers to as a ‘mixed value-orientation’, with both ‘eco-managerial’ and ‘romantic-idealistic’ aspects.

Zsuzsa Gille analyses the relevance of contemporary notions of industrial ecology and ecological modernisation in understanding the development of waste management practices from World War II onwards in another transitional European society, Hungary. Provocatively, she argues that Hungary’s state socialist leadership established some of the first ‘industrial ecological’ programs in the early years of Hungarian socialism, in the 1950s -- well before the popularity of such ideas in the West. Waste reuse programs were established in response to western blockades of industrial goods exports to Hungary. In later years, Hungary’s waste reuse programs became progressively distorted from their original intent, however, resulting in stockpiling of unused wastes and waste-based products. Today in its postsocialist transition, Hungary faces a very different dynamic, with western European countries and firms striving to make the country a regional ‘waste processing zone’. Gille invokes what she argues are progressive aspects of Hungary’s earlier waste utilisation programs, and calls for greater citizen and worker participation in formulation of contemporary waste management policies and practices.

The final two papers in this volume examine the relevance of Ecological Modernisation Theory to newly industrialising countries in South-East Asia. David Sonnenfeld explores what he posits are both accomplishments and contradictions of ecological modernisation in South-East Asia’s pulp and paper sector. Faced with strong local and transnational social movements on one hand, and favourable global market conditions on the other, domestically owned manufacturing firms adopted cleaner process technology in the construction of new facilities. In this case, adoption of cleaner technology, Sonnenfeld suggests, was arguably only partially ‘ecologically-modern’ in that increased of pulp production in South-East Asia was predicated on expanded destruction of natural forests and establishment of fast-growing exotic tree plantations in place of smallholder farming. Greater attention should be paid by technology firms and technology-exporting countries, he argues, to developing ecologically modern approaches for small- and medium-sized enterprises, which provide important sources of employment in developing countries.

Lastly, Jos Frijns, Phung Thuy Phuong, and Arthur Mol examine the applicability of Ecological Modernisation Theory to one of Asia’s newest ‘tiger’ economies, Viet Nam, also in transition from a ‘command and control’ to a more market-oriented economy. With rapid industrial development and increasing environmental threats, they find that Viet Nam is only in the early stages of developing an environmental regulatory apparatus and policy framework, has a hardly adequate program for encouraging technological change into more environmentally sound directions, and lacks a strong national environmental movement that can press for ecological reforms. They conclude that Ecological Modernisation Theory has only marginal explanatory power for understanding environmental reform processes in Viet Nam today. Frijns, Phung, and Mol do find in Ecological Modernisation Theory, however, a hopeful set of prescriptive principals with which Viet Nam could advance the effectiveness of environmental policy and management structures and practices. But Ecological Modernisation in such a context would differ from the original Eurocentric version.


Taken as a whole, we believe the papers in this volume push Ecological Modernisation Theory forward on at least five fronts: its geographical scope, coverage, and applicability; its theoretical stance relative to other environmental social science and policy perspectives; its coverage of dynamics of consumption as well as production; its attention to issues of national and civic culture; and its relevance to transitional and newly industrialising as well as advanced industrial countries.

It is too early to ascertain the full extent of Ecological Modernisation Theory’s applicability to different economic, cultural, political-institutional and geographical settings and locations around the world. The papers assembled here report mixed results. They converge, however, in finding that the approach and tools of Ecological Modernisation Theory are useful for social scientific analysis and policy formation, even where all conditions for development of ecologically modern institutions do not yet exist. At the same time, some processes of ecological modernisation are global (even while others are not), and thus this body of theory remains at least partially relevant around the world.

Ecological Modernisation Theory is very much a living and growing school-of-thought. Although reared in the context of political and policy debates in north-western Europe, its intellectual ‘stock’ becomes more heterodox as its scope and influence expands. Old demarcations, such as with certain forms of neo-Marxism and green politics in the western European context are tested again in new contexts and encounters with similar but different intellectual traditions from other parts of the world, with challenging outcomes. Ecological Modernisation Theory’s accommodation with concerns about global and local inequality illustrate this dynamic, as are efforts to ‘stretch’ it to address or explain dynamics in the vastly different political contexts of transitional societies, both in Europe and Asia.

As a maturing but still young school-of-thought, it is only natural for Ecological Modernisation theory to expand in exploration of important dimensions of contemporary life inadequately addressed by other environmental social scientific approaches. Here, Ecological Modernisation Theory’s roots in classical European social theory are real strengths -- in addressing issues of consumption practices and consumer behaviour, taking positions between ‘realists’ and social-constructivists, understanding the development of cultural institutions and practices, and even taking up such intellectually challenging topics as notions of ‘national culture orientations’. In undertaking such efforts, Ecological Modernisation Theory may ultimately not only contribute to environmental social science and policy, but also strengthen linkages between those transdisciplinary pursuits and mainstream social science.

Being still a theory in the making, it should not surprise us that numerous issues remains to be elaborated and addressed by Ecological Modernisation Theory. Key outstanding issues include the nature of requisite political and institutional cultures for successful (and ‘reflexive’) ecological modernisation; the varying role & importance of environmental and other social movements and non-governmental organisations in ecological modernisation, especially in countries with weaker histories and institutions of popular participation; global and domestic inequalities in capacities to establish and maintain ecologically modern institutions, technologies, and practices; and the dialectics of globalisation in its various outlooks and dimensions, and ecological modernisation.

The final word on Ecological Modernisation Theory has yet to be spoken, due in no small part to the changing nature of environmental reform processes themselves. Much work remains to be done developing, testing and critiquing this school-of-thought, both in general, including its theoretical premises, and more particularly in its applicability to different social systems, political configurations and traditions, and geographical regions around the world. We hope that this volume contributes to such efforts as much as it is the beginning of them.


(1) Martin Jänicke claims to have been the inventor of the concept and first introduced the notion of ecological modernisation in the late 1970s during political discussions in the Berlin Community Council, of which he was a member.

(2) Theoretical traditions range from systems theory [e.g. Huber, 1985; 1991], to institutional analysis [ cf. Mol, 1995], to discourse analysis [see Hajer, 1995; see also Weale, 1992].

(3) This perspective was shared by Martin Jänicke in his early writings [cf. Jänicke, 1986].

(4) But see for instance also some contributions brought together in a volume edited by Spaargaren, Mol and Buttel (1999), as well as a special issue of the journal Geography (forthcoming in 1999 or 2000).

(5) These nations are front runners not so much in absolute terms of minimal environmental additions and withdrawals per country or per capita, but rather in terms of policies that transform existing trends of increasing resource consumption and emissions [cf. Andersen and Liefferink, 1997]

(6) See for instance the studies of Jänicke et al. [e.g. 1992], the publications of the European Environmental Agency [cf. 1998], those in the tradition of dematerialisation and Factor 4 [or 10 or more; cf. Reijnders, 1998], those in the tradition of the so-called green or environmental Kuznets curve [cf. the special issues of the journals, Ecological Economics, 1998; Environment and Development Economics, 1996; and Ecological Applications, 1996].

(7) In the case of the privatisation of parastatal organisations.

(8) Although one can question whether its should be analysed as a social movement, the German political party, Die Grünen (the Greens), stands as a model for this transformation in ideology and position. The process leading ultimately to a position as coalition partner in the German government from 1998 onwards has indeed been paralleled by major internal debates and struggles.


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* Reprinted in Arthur P.J. Mol and David A. Sonnenfeld, eds. 2000. Ecological Modernisation Around the World:  Perspectives and Critical Debates. London and Portland: Frank Cass. [abstract, contents, excerpts, ordering]

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