Overconsumption is the bane of sustainability, new study concludes

Technology alone won't solve our environmental problems.

Any transition towards a sustainable world can only be effective if societal changes complement technological advancements, according to a new study. Nevertheless, this will be difficult as societies, economies and cultures push for more consumption and economic growth.

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 Researchers led by University of New South Wales sustainability scientist Tommy Wiedmann looked at the existing academic discussions on the link between wealth, economy and associated impacts, summarizing the available evidence and identifying possible solution approaches.

“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,” said Wiedemman. “However, none of these warnings has explicitly considered the role of growth-oriented economies and the pursuit of affluence.”

We can’t rely only on technology to solve the current existential environmental problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss, the researchers argued. Instead, we need to change our lifestyles and reduce overconsumption in combination with structural change. However, as this pandemic has shown, individual action is also insufficient to sustainably reduce emissions — we need massive societal levels if we want to keep the Earth livable.


Co-author Julia Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Leeds, said in a statement that affluence is often portrayed as something to aspire to. But affluence is actually a driver of social and environmental impacts, warning about its dangers.

“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,” Steinberger said.

The world’s most affluent citizens are responsible for most environmental impacts and are central to any future prospect of retreating to safer conditions, the researchers argued, asking to acknowledge the role of overconsumption and affluence through significant lifestyle changes.

If we want to transition to a sustainable world, we need to change our ways as well as our technology. But the responsibility doesn’t lie only on individuals — broader structural changes are required.

“Individuals’ attempts at such lifestyle transitions may be doomed to fail, because existing societies, economies and cultures incentivize consumption expansion,” Prof Wiedmann said. “We have to get away from our obsession with economic growth and manage our economies in a way that protects our climate and natural resources.”

The researchers dismissed the idea of “green growth” or “sustainable growth” and described it as a myth. As long as there is a growth of population and the economy, it is impossible for technology to keep up with reducing the environmental impacts, Wiedmann said.

Instead, they proposed different ways to enforce lifestyle changes, such as reducing overconsumption by the wealthiest through taxation policies. The list of possibilities also includes wealth redistribution, a guaranteed basic income, reduced working hours and green investments.

The next step for the team will be to model scenarios for sustainable transformations, which means looking at different pathways of development with a computer model to see what we need to do to achieve the best possible outcome. They started with Australia, showing fairer, greener and more prosperous country is possible.

“We hope 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 evermore. We can’t keep behaving as if we had a spare planet available,” they argued.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Fermin Koop, June 2020