Ecological Modernisation: An Introduction


Formulated in the 1980’s by sociologists in western European countries like Germany, Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, ecological modernisation was tasked with the hope of more diversity and pluralism in technological innovations for creating an economy that would support environmental sustainability. The essential belief nested within ecological modernisation is that ecology and economy can be blended together to create favourable outcomes for all stakeholders involved. They theory posits itself in the rationale that a conscious production chain and technological innovations that find implementation through policies can create a global impact towards safeguarding the ecology and ensuring economic development. It is important to understand the context within which this theory was espoused and its evolution through the years in order to gain a better understanding of one of the key ideologies that have impacted the social sciences in the last 60 years. It also allows for a critique of the theory to understand its significance and relevance to the present day, thus providing guidance in the structure and philosophies of theories that are being developed since. This article aims to chart the history of ecological modernisation, the core themes of this theory, its applications, key debates that surround it, and its relevance to the modern-day socio-economic structures.


The age of Western Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe gave rise to an era of massive industrialisation and urbanisation that mechanised the world and heralded an age of ‘modernity’ which has consolidated a world view that has been prevalent during the recent past. Modernity and industrialisation gave rise to one school of thought, the Human Exceptionalism Paradigm, which characterised that modern industrial society could be considered independent from its biophysical environment. By considering humans as external to the ecology, the discourse encouraged a wanton use of natural resources and an anti-ecological perspective. Not surprisingly, this development of the industrial era gave rise to extractive and consumption-heavy production, wastage of resources, and environmental pollution. This trend was furthered by the ‘Great Acceleration’ following World War II which applied the same models of linear growth to less developed nations and led to an increase in the potency of environmental issues. These factors contributing to ecological duress reached their pinnacle, resulting in the emergence of environmentalism that ushered in a wave of awareness, mediation, and politicisation of the global ecological needs.

The new discourse, New Ecological Paradigm, focused on the interconnectedness of humans and their ecology, stressing on the importance of interdependence and the consequences of humanity’s actions on nature. It is within this shifting discourse that international organisations such as the United Nations started their first debates and summits on environmental policies, and the Brundtland Report [WCED, 1987] paved the way for the understanding of the role that nation-states played in technological innovation and safeguarding the environment. Since this report, an extensive amount of research has been done on ecological modernisation and the role that it plays in the technological advancement of countries, promoting international dialogue, and developing economies that contribute to a better ecological environment.

Core Tenets

One of the most common descriptions of ecological modernisation is as a technology-driven, innovation-oriented approach to environmental policies. While rooted in creating new paradigms for economics, the theory also has a grounding in policy implementations and how they impact the diffusion of technology and controlling of pollutants from harming the environment. The theory proposes a harmonic blend between economics and ecology to create environment-friendly solutions that pushes market growth and environmental safety in a ‘win-win’ situation for all. Ecological modernisation necessarily predicates a global society that hinges on political, economic, and ecological interactions between governments, international NGOs, multinational corporations, and scientific institutions to build a multi-stakeholder synergy that promotes economic growth and environmental sustainability. Over the years, the scope of the theory has extended to include studies on ecological transformation of consumption and ecological modernisation in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, and countries in Eastern Europe and Asia.

The core, traditional study of ecological modernisation focuses on the existing practices, institutional designs, and policies to ensure safety for consumption and sustenance of the society. A key tenet is the allocation of environmental ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ by markets. For instance, consider the creation of carbon markets through control of emissions via regulations placed by international institutions and volume of emission output being sold to corporations and factories. This, ecological modernisation theory believes, will lead to an abetment of carbon emissions and result in the decarbonisation of economic activity.

According to (Mol) transformation of institutions is mapped out across these key areas:

1. Scientific research and technological innovation and upgrade.

2. Increased importance of market dynamics and economic agents such as producers, consumers, credit institutions and multi-national corporations.

3. Decentralisation of nation-state governance and less stringent top-down models and regulations regarding environmental safety.

4. Social transformation and social movements that encourage public-private participation rather than peripheral or closed-door decision-making institutions.

Political Considerations and Applications

The early literature of ecological modernisation was only focused on industrial and technological aspects, placing little or no heed to social factors that influenced the context in which such change took place. However, later interpretations of the theory became more reflexive in outlook, incorporating the emphasis on changes in consumption and production, democratisation of policies, and inclusion of issues of social justice. The two different models have been characterised as ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ ecological modernisation, highlighting the two ends of the spectrum within which this theory is applied.

Hovardas describes weak ecological modernisation as ‘problem solving’ in nature and limited to the framework of references within which it asks questions, provides solutions that are low-risk and is nested within the original structures of economics. For instance, the development discourse and GDP as a measurement for growth are the main sources for charting the success of ecologically sustainable technologies, sometimes surpassing the social goals that impact policy frameworks and environmental sustainability. It develops no critical questions of its own and is inefficient in producing socio-economic changes. Market-led growth and the inherently capitalistic production strategies are the hallmarks of the theory, encouraging the belief that change can take place from staying within the prevailing forms of industrial sectors and markets.

Strong ecological modernisation on the other hand, emerged from a socio-political context within which the primary focus shifted to consumption and policymaking. The implementation of effective ecological modernisation can be seen in ‘smart cities’ that are emerging in many developing countries where technological drive is a necessity for facilitating an inclusive and ecologically ‘smart’ strategy of growth and development. The stronger version of the theory renewed an interest into understanding the socio-cultural aspects that influenced the scope of political interventions and encapsulate the environmental challenges that are being faced today.

Ecological modernisation is heavily dependent on policy action and implementation. Being a knowledge-based theory that encourages research and scientific development, it is reliant on government and stakeholder spending on research initiatives, and policies that encourage the use of new innovations. The success of the theory lies in a public understanding of utilising technology to create more effective solutions to face environmental challenges. The theorization of market-driven innovation translates practically into the need for better decision-making and targeted regulations being executed at the policy levels, taking into account active stakeholder participation.

However, the theory deems government-led regulations and policies inflexible and more focused on meeting contemporary goals like party-agendas, rather than working towards long term goals and strategies that are for ecological benefits. It seeks to battle social problems like poverty by making production and consumption more sustainable. Moreover, the theory postulates that technical and social changes should be integrated into the market system so that the system itself becomes capable enough to address the problems. Thus, it targets the drivers of environmental behaviour themselves in order to motivate them into adopting more ecologically beneficial regulations, certifications, and legislation into their institutions to comply with environmental-friendly guidelines and ensure economic growth. Lynch-wood and Williamson describe the key drivers of environmental behaviour as legislations, stakeholders, economic opportunities, and ethical motivations.

Incentives provided by US-based Benefit Corporations to acquire legitimacy and proof of their ecological mindfulness and quality of products that serve the environment, as much as they herald economic progress, are an example of how the different drivers interact. This is a lucrative certification which requires high standards for maintenance, legitimacy, and provides an edge over non-B-Certified corporations. Companies like the Patagonia, Lush, and Ben and Jerry’s are examples of big firms that aim to improve their ecological impact. They, however, also step beyond the paradigms of ecological modernisation and aspire to contribute towards social and pressing environmental issues such as biodiversity protection, and mitigation of climate change.

Critiques of the Theory

Ecological modernisation, being inherently knowledge-based, while successful in producing relevant research and results for environmental sustainability, is often met with resistance and limitations at policy implementation levels. Innovations being introduced to the consumers often clashed with the interests of stakeholders that were more comfortable with the traditions flowing from the industrial period and not open to taking the risks that accompany the changes these innovations brought.

Furthermore, technological innovations are criticised about being unable to meet the demands of abetting imminent ecological problems like soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and climate change. They also fail to account for the differences in cultural and social contexts that determine the effectiveness of an innovation. The plurality of the theory lies only so far as to include ecological paradigms into the study and structure of capitalist economic frameworks. Social and cultural plurality is unacknowledged in the ‘weaker’ framework of the theory and remains confined to the role of receiving technological and regulatory changes that are implemented on the society as a whole.

Being macroeconomic in focus, and inherently vested in capitalism, it fails to encapsulate the alternative methods of charting development in a society, for example the Human Development Index, or the Gross National Happiness Index (Ecological Macro-Economics). The focus on production and market-led initiatives also excludes the social and cultural paradigms in such a manner that the theory is at a loss on how to restructure itself. It failed to take into account how out-of-sync the global environmental challenges have become with regards to the institutional reforms that it espoused. The acceleration of climate change, industrial pollution, and biodiversity loss, along with rising socio-economic inequalities have revealed the flaw in the central argument of the ecological modernisation theory, that societies can be made more sustainable with some correctional adjustments. It is clear today that a more intensive restructuring and reorganisation of society is required in order to move away from the known, extractive institutions in place.


Situated in a western and global north understanding of the global impact of industrialisation and technological innovations to better suit the environment, the ecological modernisation theory falls short in the inclusivity of plural narratives both in terms of the economic structures that are found in different non-western countries, and in including the social and cultural aspects that impact economic and environmental changes. The theory, in the present day, requires a restructuring that would provide a room for discussions on more targeted policies that include global south and non-western perspectives, and a human component to innovations that allow for more effective integration of the solutions to combat ecological challenges. Rising in the aftermath of the intensive industrialisation and capitalisation of the market and global development, this theory did serve an important role in taking the discussion about ecological concerns and economic solutions to climate change forward. Granted that the theory does not adequately solve the problems being faced today, it is still relevant in understanding the role played by different actors and, in critiquing the theory, we find solutions for our way forward.

This piece is authored by Sakshi Agarwal who finished her post-graduation in Global Prosperity from University College London. She is passionate about philosophy, social service, literature, and history, she is aspiring to a career in research and writing.



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