THE FUNDAMENTAL CLASH OVER CONSUMPTION

THE FUNDAMENTAL CLASH OVER CONSUMPTION

Industry ecology, the blending of environmental and business goals, has come of age. But one thing is clear: This is no time to celebrate the death of conflict.

The advent of industrial ecology lays bare the philosophical divides more easily obscured when antagonists cast the debate as one between environment and economy. Now we have two competing environmental visions.For industrial ecologists, sustainable development means eco-efficiency. For many old-style environmentalists, sustainability means a denunciation of the ''consumer society.''

There was plenty of convergence at a meeting on sustainability in May that drew together 4,000 attendees in Detroit. One panel honed in on the economic and environmental benefits of ''green building'' designs that minimize energy consumption. Conference co-chair Ray Anderson, chief executive of Interface Flooring, celebrated his company's efforts to make green goals generate more greenbacks.

Two weeks later, at a conference for environmental activists and economists, attendees discussed ''precision agriculture.'' That's where new-age farmers drive tractors equipped with computers that provide a virtual image of the field - its moisture content, current chemical composition, and other details - so pesticides and herbicides can be applied with precision to each square foot of terrain. Precision means less pollution and better yields.

While this convergence is just the beginning of more substantial blends between environment and economy, consensus on basic values or appropriate policy tools is nowhere in sight.

Contrast the ideas behind precision agriculture with those expressed at another event. A young environmentalist, listening to BP Amoco and Nike tout their eco-efficiency, planted an accusatory finger at all assembled. The gist of what he said was this: ''All you folks may be getting more efficient, but you are still aiding and abetting a materialist, consumer society.''

At another conference sponsored by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, one Friends of the Earth emissary spoke in earnest of limiting the allowable square footage of livable space allotted to each of us. There you have it: the chasm. It has at least two troubling dimensions.

First is the divide about the fundamental problem. On the one hand are those who view human consumption as the central challenge. Beyond meeting some imprecise set of basic needs, they would limit consumption.

Across the divide are those who take human materialist yearnings as more or less a given but aspire to deliver each good or service at an ever-decreasing level of environmental impact.

Enter the second divide - one that centers on the tools of change.

Limiting consumption entails either a spiritual transformation - a reorientation of the ''new man'' theory that once dominated socialist discourse - or it entails politically enforced consumption limits.

Eco-efficiency, by contrast, entails letting competitive markets flourish, acknowledging tradeoffs, and responding to the wildly diverse goals of different people.

It is tempting to shove the anti-consumption sentiment into a corner as the viewpoint of an isolated minority, since most folks, apparently, give no sign of eschewing their consumption preferences for a more ascetic existence. But this perspective, if not embraced in practice, nonetheless lurks behind the words and actions of many people who say ''yes'' when asked if they care about the environment.

It is cropping up in attempts to shift people out of their automobiles and onto mass transit or to mandate high-density, smaller-size housing. It also surfaces in the widening battles over proposals for zero logging or zero grazing on public lands.

Empiricism may bridge some of this divide if eco-efficiency can be shown to translate, over time, into reductions in resource consumption. Despite a growing population, the task is not as impossible as it may seem. For instance, a simple CD-ROM can store 90 million phone numbers once requiring five tons of phone books.

Yet critics see these innovations as yielding too little, too late.

The limits-to-consumption contingent views a world of finite resources, limited resilience, and limits to the ability of knowledge to supplant ''stuff'' in satisfying human desires. The eco-efficiency contingent, on the other hand, perceives that competition for scarce resources creates an intrinsic incentive to do more with less and, eventually, to prevent pollution and limit waste.

Claims of eco-efficiency cannot bridge the gap between these competing visions. And the prospects are troubling. The anti-consumption vision requires a sort of spiritual transformation, one that is personal and apolitical. But many crusaders for such change want not so much to change people's personal ethics through persuasion as to impose reductions in consumption through political action.

If history is any guide, this is an agenda destined to pit the haves against the have-nots, and industry, once more, against environmentalists.