Scientists’ Warning: Consumerism is the Leading Cause of the Environmental Crisis

Consumerism exists to sustain a widely adopted economic model built on the imperative of constant economic growth. A new study identifies consumerism in the wealthiest countries as the foremost cause of climate change, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse. Alternative economic systems are there and need to be embraced by public and political discourses.

A new study1 published in Nature Communications, led by Dr Thomas Wiedemann of the University of New South Wales, Australia, stresses that the issue of overconsumption especially in the wealthiest countries lays at the roots of the current environmental crisis, more so than population growth.

The study highlights that “it is clear that prevailing capitalist, growth-driven economic systems have not only increased affluence since World War II, but have led to enormous increases in inequality, financial instability, resource consumption and environmental pressures on vital earth support systems”. “The strongest pillar of the necessary transformation is to avoid or to reduce consumption until the remaining consumption level falls within planetary boundaries, while fulfilling human needs”.

It thus follows that tackling the environmental crisis would require a direct downscaling of economic production and consumption in the wealthiest countries. The study points out 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”. The affluent lifestyles of the world’s wealthiest societies not only determine and drive global environmental and social impacts, but also disproportionally impact on the poor, who are most heavily affected by environmental catastrophes and in the worst positions to cope with them.

“Since the level of consumption determines total impacts, affluence needs to be addressed by reducing consumption, not just greening it”, reads the study. Envisioning future economies based on sustainable or green growth may be nothing but illusory, as the decoupling of economic growth from environmental impacts has never been achieved before. We need a shift away from prioritising economic growth in order to come out of the current crises triumphant. The authors extend their critique to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal no.8, which aims for continued global GDP growth of ~3% p.a., “likely contradicting several other SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], e.g. SDG 12 and 13″.

“Estimates of the needed reduction of resource and energy use in affluent countries, resulting in a concomitant decrease in GDP of similar magnitude, range from 40 to 90%”.

Shown is how the global material footprint (MF, equal to global raw material extraction) and global CO2 emissions from fossil-fuel combustion and industrial processes (CO2 FFI) changed compared with global GDP (constant 2010 USD). Figure credits: 1

The study also emphasises that technological progress alone won’t get us out of the current crises. That is because overwhelming evidence shows that “burgeoning consumption has diminished or cancelled out any gains brought about by technological change aimed at reducing environmental impact”.

Discussions framed around alternative economic models that do not prioritise economic growth and rather emphasise human wellbeing and environmental protection, such as degrowth, are already embraced by many scientists, though they lag behind in entering public and political debates.

The safe and just space for humanity. Sustainable lifestyles are situated between an upper limit of permissible use (“Environmental ceiling”) and a lower limit of necessary use of environmental resources (“Social foundation”). Figure credits: 1

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Reference

  1. Wiedmann, T., Lenzen, M., Keyßer, L.T., and Steinberger, J.K. 2020. Scientists’ warning on affluence. Nat Commun. 11: 3107. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16941-y

Cover image credits: https://bit.ly/30VtzKg

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