A Warning On Affluence

A new study published this month in Nature Communications argues that we cannot rely on technology alone to solve existential environmental problems – like climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. Long-term and concurrent human and planetary wellbeing will not be achieved if affluent overconsumption continues, spurred by economic systems that exploit nature and humans.

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.

Wiedmann, Thomas, Manfred Lenzen, Lorenz T. Keyßer, and Julia K. Steinberger. ‘Scientists’ Warning on Affluence’. Nature Communications 11, no. 1 (19 June 2020): 3107. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16941-y.

Table below synthesises the literature on possible solutions ranging from reformist to radical ideas, including degrowth, eco-socialism and eco-anarchism.

All these approaches differ from the established green growth (ecomodernism) approach, in that they at least adopt an agnostic, if not negative, position on the question whether or not GDP can be sufficiently decoupled from environmental impacts. Hence, these approaches also differ from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), since SDG 8 aims for continued global GDP growth of ~3% likely contradicting several other SDGs, e.g. SDG 12 and 13.

The authors think that SDGs do not represent a theoretically coherent framework, since they are part of a deliberative process, and sideline underlying power dynamics as well as interactions between injustices.

The digital revolution—and more broadly the Fourth Industrial Revolution (FIR) with converging, step-change innovations in digital technology, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, 3D-printing, biotechnology and nanotechnology—has been touted as an enabler of absolute decoupling through sheer exponential efficiency gains.

While digitalisation is already a key driving force in societal transformation, it has so far led to more consumption and inequality and remained coupled with the indirect use of energy and materials, therefore sustaining resource-intensive and greenhouse-gas growth patterns at the macro-economic level. Even if the FIR were to achieve absolute decoupling, this would come at a potentially high risk for privacy, liberty, data sovereignty, civic rights, security, equality and democracy.

Can inspiring visions for a sustainable life in prosperity, within planetary limits, be formulated and demonstrated? The authors think that multidimensional approaches underpinning social wellbeing and environmental goals, such as Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, are strong alternatives to GDP-focused ones and may inspire transformative change.

The paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Kudos to Nature Communications and the authors for the initiative, and for being consistent… an intellectual trait more needed than ever.

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Featured Image: The safe and just space for humanity (fig 2. op. cit.)

One comment

  1. we cannot rely on technology alone to solve existential environmental problems

    Sounds like Einstein:

    “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

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