Would you like to be rich? Most likely, your answer is, “Yes! Who wouldn’t want to be rich?” Clearly, in societies where money can buy almost everything, being rich is generally perceived as a good thing. It implies more freedom, fewer worries, more happiness, higher social status.
But here’s the trick: wealth destroys our planetary life support systems. Furthermore, it also obstructs the necessary transformation towards sustainability by driving power relations and consumer norms. To put it bluntly: the rich do more harm than good.
This is what we found in a new study for the magazine. Nature’s Communications. Together with co-author Lorenz Keyßer of ETH Zürich, we reviewed recent scientific literature on the links between wealth and environmental impacts, the systemic mechanisms that lead to excessive consumption, and possible solutions to the problem. The article is one of a series of warnings from scientists to humanity.
The richest are the most responsible.
The facts are clear: The richest 0.54%, some 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50% of those earning income , almost 4 billion people, only emit about 10%. The world’s top 10% revenue is responsible for at least 25% and up to 43% of our environmental impact.
Most people living in developed countries would fit this category, which means you don’t have to consider yourself rich to be rich globally. Even many poorer people in rich countries have a disproportionately large and unsustainable resource footprint compared to the world average.
However, it is less clear how to deal with the problems that come with wealth. Progressive policy makers talk about “green consumption” or “sustainable growth” to “decouple” the richness of climate collapse, loss of biodiversity and other destruction on a global scale.
However, our research confirms that there is actually no evidence that this decoupling is actually occurring. While technological improvements have helped reduce emissions and other environmental impacts, global wealth growth has consistently outpaced these gains, causing all impacts to increase again.
And it seems highly unlikely that this relationship will change in the future. Even the cleanest technologies have their limitations and still require specific resources to function, while efficiency savings often simply lead to higher consumption.
If technology alone is not enough, therefore, it is imperative to reduce consumption by the wealthy, resulting in sufficiency-oriented lifestyles: “better but less.” However, all of this is easier said than done, as there is a problem.
The super rich way of the world they live in
The blockade has seen a massive drop in consumption. But the unprecedented dive resulting in CO₂ emissions and air pollutants was merely incidental to the blockade, not a deliberate part and will not last.
So how can we reduce consumption as much as necessary in a socially sustainable way, while safeguarding human needs and social security? Here it turns out that the main obstacle is not the technological limits or the economy itself, but the economic imperative to grow the economy, stimulated by excessive consumption and the political power of the superfluents.
Rich and powerful people and their governments have a vested interest in deliberately promoting high consumption and hindering sufficiency-oriented lifestyles. Since the consumption decisions of individuals are strongly influenced by information and by others, this can encompass high consumption lifestyles.
“Positional consumption” is another key mechanism, where people consume more and more state goods once their basic needs are met. This creates a growth spiral, driven by the wealthy, and everyone strives to be “superior” relative to their peers as the level of overall consumption increases. What seems normal or normal in a developed country quickly becomes a major contribution globally.
So how can we get out of this dilemma?
We review a variety of different approaches that may have the solution. They range from reformist ideas to radical ideas, and include post-development, degrowth, eco-feminism, eco-socialism, and eco-anarchism. All of these approaches have in common that they focus on positive environmental and social outcomes and not on economic growth. Interestingly, there seems to be a strategic overlap between them, at least in the short term. Most agree on the need to “prefigure” as much of the new, less wealthy, economy as possible in the old, while still demonstrating that sufficiency-oriented lifestyles are desirable.
Grassroots initiatives such as transition initiatives and ecovillages can be examples of this, leading to cultural and consciousness change. Eventually, however, far-reaching political reforms are needed, including maximum and minimum incomes, green taxes, collective business ownership, and more. Examples of policies that begin to incorporate some of these mechanisms are the Green New Deals in the US. The USA, the UK and Europe or the New Zealand Wellbeing Budget 2019.
Social movements will play a crucial role in driving these reforms. They can challenge the notion that wealth and economic growth are inherently good and have “social tipping points.” Ultimately, the goal is to establish economies and societies that protect the climate and ecosystems and enrich people with more well-being, health and happiness instead of more money.
Excessive consumption and the growth economy are the main drivers of environmental crises
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Citation: The influx is killing the planet, scientists warn (2020, June 24) retrieved June 24, 2020 from https://phys.org/news/2020-06-affluence-planet-scientists.html
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