A group of researchers, led by a UNSW sustainability scientist, have reviewed existing academic discussions on the link between wealth, economy and associated impacts, reaching a clear conclusion: technology will only get us so far when working towards sustainability.
In their review, published on 19 June 2020 in Nature Communications highlighted the need for far-reaching lifestyle changes and different economic paradigms.
"Recent scientists' warnings have done a great job at describing the many perils our natural world is facing through crises in climate, biodiversity and food systems, to name but a few," says lead author Professor Tommy Wiedmann from UNSW Engineering.
Unfortunately, none of these warnings has explicitly considered the role of growth-oriented economies and the pursuit of affluence. 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.
Professor Wiedmann shared that the key conclusion from their review is that we cannot rely on technology alone to solve existential environmental problems - like climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. âWe also have to change our affluent lifestyles and reduce overconsumption, in combination with structural change.â
During the past 40 years, worldwide wealth growth has continuously outpaced any efficiency gains.
"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," Prof Wiedmann says.
Co-author Julia Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Leeds, says affluence is often portrayed as something to aspire to. She shares that their paper highlights the dangers and the planetary-scale destruction from the worsening climate crisis.
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.
"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 over-consumption and affluence need to be addressed through lifestyle changes.
However, the scientists say responsibility for change doesn't just sit with individuals - broader structural changes are needed.
Professor Wiedmann explains that the structural imperative for growth in competitive market economies leads to decision makers being locked into bolstering economic growth, and inhibiting necessary societal changes.
There is a need to get away from our obsession with economic growth and start managing our economies in a way that protects our climate and natural resources, even if this means less, no or even negative growth.
"In Australia, this discussion isn't happening at all - economic growth is the one and only mantra preached by both main political parties. It's very different in New Zealand - their Wellbeing Budget 2019 is one example of how government investment can be directed in a more sustainable direction, by transforming the economy rather than growing it."
The researchers say that "green growth" or "sustainable growth" is a myth.
One way to enforce these lifestyle changes could be to reduce overconsumption by the super-rich, for example through taxation policies.
Prof Wiedmann's team now wants to model scenarios for sustainable transformations - that means exploring different pathways of development with a computer model to see what we need to do to achieve the best possible outcome.
The research team has already started doing this with a recent piece of research that showed a fairer, greener and more prosperous Australia is possible - so long as political leaders don't focus just on economic growth. The team hopes that this review shows a different perspective on what matters, and supports us in overcoming deeply entrenched views on how humans have to dominate nature, and on how our economies have to grow ever more.