Decoupling, Environmental and Economic


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


The ecological crises facing the world, that is the pace of ecological destruction, rising levels of pollution and natural resource depletion, have become important environmental concerns in the modern era addressed in a number of environmental approaches and theories (e.g., see, arguments made in: ecological marxism, ecological footprint approaches, Environmental Kuznets Curve analysis, ecological disorganization theory, Gaia Theory, Jevon’s Paradox, and Limits to Growth arguments as examples. This ecological crisis of consumption leading to ecological destruction has become a concern addressed in what is called the decoupling argument, the idea that technological innovations in production can lead to economic development without the production of ecological destruction. The idea is that new forms of technology allow for increased efficiency in production, reducing the consumption of raw materials, increasing recycling and reuse of spent materials, and producing declines in ecological destruction from raw material resource exploitation and pollution.

In recent years, this argument has become central to positions taken by the United Nations Environmental Programme UNEP; (see, this entry UN Environmental Programme). In 2011, the UNEP produced a report on environmental-economic decoupling, and strategies for increase the likelihood of decoupling (UN Decoupling Report).

Numerous academic studies have examined the issue of environmental-economic decoupling. For example, Giljum et al. (2005) examine this issue in the context of environmental governance in the European Union; examples of how this has occurred in the Flemish economy (Van Canegham et al., 2010); with respect to carbon dioxide emissions from transportation in Taiwan, Germany, Japan and South Korea (Lu, Lin and Lewis, 2007); and in the Chinese economy over time (Yu, Chen and Hu, 2013).

Whether the economy and environmental can successfully be decoupled sufficiently is still open to debate. On this point, ecological Marxist, for example, argue that the environment and economy cannot be decoupled since ecological destruction is a requisite component of capitalist production (see, ecological marxism). Ecological Marxist argument on this point are supported by Limits to Growth arguments. In contrast, the to these views, Environmental Kuznets Curve , literature suggests that the normal progress of economic development leads to declining rates of ecological destruction, and hence to decoupling.

One could argue that the decoupling argument has importance to green criminological theory, yet has not appeared directly in the green criminological literature. This argument would be particularly relevant to assessments of ecological destruction and the development of a green criminological position on types of policies that might limit ecological destruction. Various arguments made by Stretesky, Lynch, Long and Barrett have relevance to this argument with respect to the position that could be taken within green criminology (Stretesky, Long and Lynch,2013; Lynch et al., 2013; Long et al., 2012). That argument follows the approach taken in ecological Marxism and treadmill of production theory to suggest that the economy and environment cannot be decoupled under capitalism. Following that argument, new forms of economic organization are required to protect the ecological system from the destructive effects of capitalism.

Further Reading

Giljum, Stefan, Thomas Hak, Friedrich Hinterberger, and Jan Kovanda. 2005. “Environmental governance in the European Union: strategies and instruments for absolute decoupling.” International Journal of Sustainable Development 8, 1: 31-46.

Long, Michael A., Paul B. Stretesky, Michael J. Lynch and Emily Fenwick. 2012. “Crime in the Coal Industry: Implications for Green Criminology and Treadmill of Production.” Organization & Environment 25,3: 328-346.

Lu, I. J., Sue J. Lin, and Charles Lewis. 2007. “Decomposition and decoupling effects of carbon dioxide emission from highway transportation in Taiwan, Germany, Japan and South Korea.” Energy Policy 35, 6: 3226-3235.

Lynch, Michael J., Michael A. Long, Kimberly L. Barrett and Paul B. Stretesky. (2013). Is it a Crime to Produce Ecological Disorganization? Why Green Criminology and Political Economy Matter in the Analysis of Global Ecological Harms. British Journal of Criminology 55, 3; 997-1016.

Stretesky, Paul B., Michael A. Long and Michael J. Lynch. (2013). The Treadmill of Crime: Political Economy and Green Criminology. UK: Routledge.

Van Caneghem, Jo, Chantal Block, H. Van Hooste, and Carlo Vandecasteele. 2010. “Eco-efficiency trends of the Flemish industry: decoupling of environmental impact from economic growth.” Journal of Cleaner Production 18, 14: 1349-1357.

Yu, Yadong, Dingjiang Chen, Bing Zhu, and Shanying Hu. 2013. “Eco-efficiency trends in China, 1978–2010: Decoupling environmental pressure from economic growth.” Ecological Indicators 24: 177-184.

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