Expecting Limits and Limiting Expectations – Economic Expertise, Environmental Policy and Consumption, 1970-2000

PD Dr. Rüdiger Graf, Potsdam (Principal Investigator)

Thomas Lettang M.A., Potsdam


The research project aims to broaden our understanding of how economists and economic actors reacted to the exogenous shock of the ecological crisis of the 1970s by developing a new body of experience-based economic knowledge as well as new economic practices. It seeks to determine the impact of economic expertise on the design of environmental policy in West Germany in the last third of the twentieth century. Asking how the importance of economic instruments in influencing environmental behavior changed in relation to rules, education, and what are currently called “nudges”, it will also locate West Germany’s environmental policy in its international connections and asymmetrically compare it with that of the United States. Using a broad understanding of regulation and governance, it will ask whether environmental policy was characterized by a trend towards increasing reliance on economic governance and determine how economists, politicians, state officials, interest groups, and environmentalists contributed to changes in the mixture of policy instruments.


The two PhD projects will scrutinize if and how economic knowledge and expertise influenced environmental policy-making in West Germany from the first federal “environmental program” in 1971 to the “ecological tax reform” in 1999. The first project will analyze the changing importance of economic incentives for the regulation of industrial production. It will examine how the environmental expert councils’ attitudes to economic instruments changed, if and how their advice was translated into concrete policy measures, and how important the EC/EU and the OECD were for the introduction of economic instruments into environmental policy. The second project shifts the focus from the regulation of industrial production to private household consumption, analyzing how expectations concerning the power of economic incentives to influence environmental behavior changed as a consequence of increasing experience with this and other regulatory instruments. Environmental education campaigns by state agencies and environmentalist associations will be examined for their reliance on economic and other strategies. Concentrating on product labelling, as well as on energy use, the project will review the hypothesis that the opposition between markets and morals lost its structuring force as social scientific and economic research on the behavioral determinants of consumption patterns increased.