Beyond the Spectacle? A Comparative Critique of the ‘Green Consumer’ in Global and Chinese Sustainability Transitions




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De Montfort University


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Peer reviewed


This thesis presents the findings of a comparative analysis between the neoliberal sustainable development narrative and the fast-emerging Chinese ecological civilization narrative from a political ecological perspective. The contradictory role of the ‘sustainable consumer’ that the narratives employ is used to draw conclusions on the extent of convergence and divergence between the two potentially competing discourses. This allows for original contributions on how subjects are created and governed in discourses of sustainability transitions.

As sustainable development increases its reach as a mode of governance, covering new spaces and even ‘future generations’, it brings into being new kinds of citizens: the ‘sustainable consumer’. This citizen type reconciles the contradictory demands on the citizen to be both a consumer and an environmentalist. Environmental citizens are thus incorporated into market architecture as ‘sustainable consumers’ to assume the role of the privileged agent of change whose political possibilities are limited. This paradox is analysed from a poststructuralist perspective, where the consumer subject performs the market-sanctioned role of sustainability while contributing to its ongoing depoliticization. The extension of market logics into the governance of crises, transition, and imagination is arguably challenged by a Chinese narrative that promotes a ‘different form of development’. Some have argued this offers ‘hope’ for a counter-narrative to the dominance of market logics.

This thesis, however, shows such arguments are flawed in two ways. First, the treatment of ecological civilization as a singular discourse fails to account for the opposing articulations of it between domestic and international audiences. Second, the role of consumerism in absorbing care for the environment is fundamental to both ecological civilization and neoliberal sustainable development: neither discourse offers a different form of environmental citizenship beyond the consumer. Markets continue to mediate human-nature and socio-nature relations, with implications for considering China’s emergent role in global environmental governance.





Research Institute