Try as we might, there are only so many lifestyle tweaks the average person can make to put a dent in the looming environmental crisis. Sure, you can shop consciously, alter your diet, compost, and reuse until all of your belongings are on their last legs, but as long as overconsumption remains the symbol of success, our individual attempts at sustainability feel largely in vain. The super-rich are still standing in the way.
Society has put richness on a pedestal and, as scientists argue in a new analysis, the pursuit of affluence goes directly against the idea — and feasibility — of a sustainable system. Capitalism and those who benefit from it most are driving the most destructive forces at play in climate change and environmental degradation, burning through resources by design in the name of growth. Big companies may invest in “green” technologies or pledge to reduce their footprints, but that’s just not enough to offset the cost of overconsumption. Much of the time, their actions just contradict those problems anyway, or come across as some elaborate, tone-deaf joke.
“Technology can help us to consume more efficiently, i.e. to save energy and resources, but these technological improvements cannot keep pace with our ever-increasing levels of consumption,” Tommy Wiedmann, a professor at the University of New South Wales and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
It can’t end at innovation — In the report published in Nature Communications last week, researchers stress that it’s an all-around paradigm shift we really need, not just a focus on technological mediation. “The key conclusion from our review is that we cannot rely on technology alone to solve existential environmental problems — like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution — but that we also have to change our affluent lifestyle and reduce overconsumption, in combination with structural change,” Wiedmann said.
The team looked at economic growth and efficiency gains side-by-side over the past few decades, reviewing existing research and analyses by the dozens. All of this together, the researchers say, shows a clear link between income and consumption and, in turn, impact. That trend can be seen going back to the 1970s and prior. The disparities are striking, though not all that surprising to those of us not on the top level.
Citing a 2016 study on emissions, consumption, and net productivity, the team notes:
These values mean that the world’s top 10% of income earners are responsible for between 25 and 43% of environmental impact. In contrast, the world’s bottom 10% income earners exert only around 3–5% of environmental impact. These findings mean that environmental impact is to a large extent caused and driven by the world’s rich citizens. Considering that the lifestyles of wealthy citizens are characterized by an abundance of choice, convenience and comfort, we argue that the determinant and driver we have referred to in previous sections as consumption, is more aptly labeled as affluence.
That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless — Activists and researchers have long been making the point that environmental justice is intertwined with social justice. Low-income communities so often end up on the front lines of natural disasters simply because affluent societies placed them there; that only gets worse with the deepening effects of climate change.
There's still certainly a chance to fix this mess, but only if we stop acting like it’s the burden of populations that are most vulnerable as it is. At the end of the day, billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are still planning to get off this planet just before the eleventh hour. Don't count on being able to afford a ticket yourself, though. The real problem is precisely that affluence — and the ongoing notion that it’s what we should all aspire to.
This mindset, according to co-author Julia Steinberger, is “actually dangerous and leads to planetary-scale destruction.”
“To protect ourselves from the worsening climate crisis,” the University of Leeds professor says, “we must reduce inequality and challenge the notion that riches, and those who possess them, are inherently good.”
Scientists’ warning on affluence. Abstract: For over half a century, worldwide growth in affluence has continuously increased resource use and pollutant emissions far more rapidly than these have been reduced through better technology. The affluent citizens of the world are responsible for most environmental impacts and are central to any future prospect of retreating to safer environmental conditions. We summarise the evidence and present possible solution approaches. Any transition towards sustainability can only be effective if far-reaching lifestyle changes complement technological advancements. However, existing societies, economies and cultures incite consumption expansion and the structural imperative for growth in competitive market economies inhibits necessary societal change.