Practices on the move: Water and energy consumption in urban China

  • Harriet Larrington-Spencer

Student thesis: Phd


Within China, rapid resource consumption and significant negative environmental consequences are the result of industrialisation and economic development predicated upon, and prioritised over the protection of, environmental resources. Recognising this, the CCP have developed ecological civilisation as the ideological framework for the 21st century. This draws upon ancient Confucian and Taoist philosophy of people and nature living in harmony. Within ecological civilisation, the household is identified as an important space within which to deploy policies and green technologies to reduce consumption by promoting efficiency. Such interventions, however, commonly fail to reduce domestic resource consumption and have unintended consequences including consumption rebound and exacerbating pre-existing inequalities related to domestic labour. Recognising this, this thesis aims to develop critical insights into domestic water and energy consumption in urban China, moving beyond household into home and producing complex accounts of consumption dynamics, thereby contributing to an agenda of distributing responsibilities in environmental governance. To support this, the theoretical development of this thesis utilises feminist geography and sustainable consumption studies, alongside China scholarship on the family, home, and housing, to situate domestic resource consumption within the material and social realities of urban China. The home is understood as both materially and socially permeable, connecting everyday life within the home to ideologies of population governance and care beyond home. Reflecting the challenges of undertaking research in urban homes in China - recognising both research histories and the politicization of home - the research methodology is adaptive and innovative, utilising the concept of permeability to undertake home audits, water and energy consumption diaries, and qualitative interviews in 47 participant homes that represent the diversity of urban experience in Shanghai. Overall, this thesis makes several contributions. Empirically it extends understandings of water and energy consumption in homes in urban China, demonstrating how qualitative research can be used to provide critical insights into practices and extend space for intervention beyond techno-efficient approaches. Theoretically, it contributes to sustainable consumption scholarship, demonstrating how work in feminist geography and China scholarship on the home and family can better position consumption within the permeable home as entangled with care and connected with wider ideological and conceptual regimes – namely ecological civilisation. It draws out the implications of this dynamic on women’s labour, considering market deregulation is predicated upon women undertaking labours in the home that were previously socialised. Through this work, this thesis contributes to an agenda of distributing responsibility in environmental governance and extending space for sustainability interventions to reduce the environmental impact of everyday life.
Date of Award1 Aug 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAlison Leigh Browne (Supervisor) & Saska Petrova (Supervisor)


  • water
  • energy
  • consumption
  • sustainability
  • China

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