Scientists’ warning on affluence

In a new study, scientists warn that technology is not the silver bullet for mitigating and solving the many global environmental issues the world is facing.

An international team of researchers, including Professor Julia Steinberger from the University of Leeds, have reviewed existing academic discussions on the link between wealth, economy and associated impacts.

The review puts forward a clear conclusion: technology will only get society so far when working towards sustainability – far-reaching lifestyle changes and different economic paradigms are urgently needed.

The research team, led by University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia, have summarised the available evidence, identifying possible solution approaches in their study published today in Nature Communications.

The authors highlight the recent warnings from scientists regarding climate, biodiversity and food systems, but these warnings have failed to highlight the role of growth-oriented economies and the pursuit of affluence.

Co-author Julia Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics in the School of Earth and Environment at Leeds, says affluence is often portrayed as something to aspire to.

“But our paper has shown that it’s actually dangerous and leads to planetary-scale destruction. To protect ourselves from the worsening climate crisis, we must reduce inequality and challenge the notion that riches, and those who possess them, are inherently good.”

But our paper has shown that it’s actually dangerous and leads to planetary-scale destruction. To protect ourselves from the worsening climate crisis, we must reduce inequality and challenge the notion that riches, and those who possess them, are inherently good

Professor Julia Steinberger, School of Earth and Environment

In fact, the researchers say the world’s affluent citizens are responsible for most environmental impacts and are central to any future prospect of retreating to safer conditions.

Lead author Professor Tommy Wiedmann from UNSW Engineering said: “In our scientists’ warning, we identify the underlying forces of overconsumption and spell out the measures that are needed to tackle the overwhelming ‘power’ of consumption and the economic growth paradigm – that’s the gap we fill.

“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 lifestyles and reduce overconsumption, in combination with structural change.”

During the past 40 years, worldwide wealth growth has continuously outpaced any efficiency gains.

“Technology can help us to consume more efficiently — to save energy and resources —, but these technological improvements cannot keep pace with our ever-increasing levels of consumption,” Professor Wiedmann says.

Reducing overconsumption in the world’s richest

“Consumption of affluent households worldwide is by far the strongest determinant – and the strongest accelerator – of increased global environmental and social impacts,” co-author Lorenz Keysser from ETH Zurich says.

“Current discussions on how to address the ecological crises within science, policy making and social movements need to recognize the responsibility of the most affluent for these crises.”

The researchers say overconsumption and affluence need to be addressed through lifestyle changes.

However, the scientists say responsibility for change doesn’t just sit with individuals – broader structural and economic paradigm changes are needed.

“The structural imperative for growth in competitive market economies leads to decision makers being locked into bolstering economic growth, and inhibiting necessary societal changes,” Prof Wiedmann says.

“So, we have to get away from our obsession with economic growth – we really need to start managing our economies in a way that protects our climate and natural resources, even if this means less, no or even negative growth.”

Professor Steinberger said: “In the UK, we see that our government’s fixation on economic growth is continually standing in the way of effective action on existential threats, from the climate crisis to the coronavirus pandemic. The benefits of focusing on well-being and bolstering social programmes is supported by extensive research. A shift to well-being economics is long overdue – indeed Scotland and Wales have already joined the Well-being Economics Alliance.”

The researchers say that "green growth" or "sustainable growth" is a myth and technology will not be able to keep up with the increasing environmental impacts caused by economic and population growth.

One way to enforce these lifestyle changes could be to reduce overconsumption by the super-rich, for example through taxation policies.

“'Degrowth' proponents go a step further and suggest a more radical social change that leads away from capitalism to other forms of economic and social governance,” Prof Wiedmann says.

“Policies may include, for example, eco-taxes, green investments, wealth redistribution through taxation and a maximum income, a guaranteed basic income and reduced working hours.”

The research team now wants to model scenarios for sustainable transformations – that means exploring different pathways of development with a computer model to see what is needed to achieve the best possible outcome.

Further information

The paper Scientists' Warning on Affluence is published in Nature Communications 17 June 2020.