Ecological modernization is an optimistic, reform-oriented environmental discourse and school of environmental social science that has gained increasing attention among scholars and policymakers in the last several decades in Europe, North America, Japan, and elsewhere (Hajer, 1995; Redclift and Woodgate, 1997; Mol, 2001; Dickens, 2004).
Proponents of ecological modernization assert that it is desirable and sometimes possible for societies to develop both economically and socially and at the same time conserve the environment. It is suggested that some improvements can be achieved through technological advances that help to reduce the consumption of resources via increasing efficiency (i.e. pollution prevention, waste reduction), typically by taking externalities from one economic production process and using them as raw material inputs for another (Christoff, 1996). Industrial ecology is frequently cited as a good example. The theory has also been linked with sustainability (see the more familiar expression 'ecologically sustainable development'). A frequently used phrase in the ecological modernization literature is 'cradle to cradle' manufacturing, contrasted against the usual 'crade to grave' forms of manufacturing - where waste is not re-integrated back into the production process. A more recent development in the ecological modernization literature has been the emergence of civil society as a key agent of change (Fisher and Freudenburg, 2001). So called 'bridging' technologies in the sustainability transition such as hybrid cars are also regarded as emblematic of ecological modernization.
As a strategy of change, some forms of ecological modernization may be favored by business interests because they seemingly meet the triple bottom line of economics, society and environment that is held underpin sustainability, yet do not challenge free market principles. This contrasts with many environmental movement perspectives, which regard free trade and its notion of business self-regulation as part of the problem, or even origin of environmental degradation. Under ecological modernization, the state is seen in a variety of roles and capacities: as the enabler for markets that help produce the technological advances via competition; as the regulatory (see regulation) medium through which corporations are forced to 'take back' their various wastes and re-integrate them in some manner into the production of new goods and services (e.g. the way that car corporations in Germany are required to accept back cars they manufactured once those vehicles have reached the end of their product lifespan); and in some cases as an institution that is incapable of addressing critical local, national, and global environmental problems. In the latter case, ecological modernization shares with Ulrich Beck (1999, 37-40) and others notions of the necessity of emergence of new forms of environmental governance, sometimes referred to as subpolitics or political modernization, where the environmental movement, community groups, businesses, and other stakeholders increasingly take on direct and leadership roles in stimulating environmental transformation. Political modernization of this sort requires certain supporting norms and institutions such as a free, independent, or at least critical press, basic human rights of expression, organization, and assembly, etc. New media such as the Internet greatly facilitate this.
Critics argue that ecological modernization will fail to protect the environment and does nothing to alter the impulses within the capitalist economic mode of production (see capitalism) that inevitably lead to environmental degradation (Foster, 2002). As such, it is just a form of 'green-washing'. Critics question whether technological advances alone can achieve resource conservation and better environmental protection, particularly if left to business self-regulation practices (York and Rosa, 2003). For instance, many technological improvements are currently feasible but not widely utilized. The most environmentally friendly product or manufacturing process (which is often also the most economically efficient) is not always the one automatically chosen by self-regulating corporations (e.g. hydrogen or biofuel vs. peak oil). In addition, some critics have argued that ecological modernization does not redress gross injustices that are produced within the capitalist system, such as environmental racism - where people of color and low income earners bear a disproportionate burden of environmental harm such as pollution, and lack access to environmental benefits (see nature's services) such as parks, and social justice issues such as eliminating unemployment (Bullard, 1993; Gleeson and Low, 1999; Harvey, 1996). Moreover, the theory seems to have limited global efficacy, applying primarily to its countries of origin - Germany and the Netherlands, and having little to say about the developing world (Fisher and Freudenburg, 2001). Perhaps the harshest criticism though, is that ecological modernization is predicated upon the notion of 'sustainable growth', and in reality this is not possible because growth entails the consumption of natural and human capital at great costs to ecosystems and societies.
Ecological modernization, its effectiveness and applicability, strengths and limitations, remains a dynamic and contentious area of environmental social science research and policy discourse in the early 21st century.