by the University of New South Wales
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—we need far-reaching lifestyle changes and different economic paradigms.
In their review, published today in Nature Communications and entitled Scientists’ Warning on Affluence, the researchers have summarized the available evidence, 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, to name but a few,” says lead author Professor Tommy Wiedmann from UNSW Engineering.
“However, 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.
“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, i.e. to save energy and resources, but these technological improvements cannot keep pace with our ever-increasing levels of consumption,” Prof Wiedmann says.
Scientists’ warning on affluence
Wiedmann, T., Lenzen, M., Keyßer, L.T. et al. Scientists’ warning on affluence. Nat Commun 11, 3107 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-16941-y
The overwhelming evidence from decomposition studies is that globally, burgeoning consumption has diminished or cancelled out any gains brought about by technological change aimed at reducing environmental impact 11.
If consumption is not addressed in future efforts for mitigating environmental impact, technological solutions will face an uphill battle, in that they not only have to bring about reductions of impact but will also need to counteract the effects of growing consumption and affluence 28,29.
To avoid further deterioration and irreversible damage to natural and societal systems, there will need to be a global and rapid decoupling of detrimental impacts from economic activity. Whilst a number of countries in the global North have recently managed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions while still growing their economies 30, it is highly unlikely that such decoupling will occur more widely in the near future, rapidly enough at global scale and for other environmental impacts 11,17. This is because renewable energy, electrification, carbon-capturing technologies and even services all have resource requirements, mostly in the form of metals, concrete and land 31. Rising energy demand and costs of resource extraction, technical limitations and rebound effects aggravate the problem 28,32,33. It has therefore been argued that “policy makers have to acknowledge the fact that addressing environmental breakdown may require a direct downscaling of economic production and consumption in the wealthiest countries” 17,p.5
Since the level of consumption determines total impacts, affluence needs to be addressed by reducing consumption, not just greening it 17,28,29.
Following this analysis, it is not surprising that the growth paradigm is hegemonic, i.e. the perception that economic growth solves all kinds of societal problems, that it equals progress, power and welfare and that it can be made practically endless through some form of supposedly green or sustainable growth 59
…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 95. 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 level17,96. While the digital revolution undoubtedly increases labour productivity—demonstrated by individual leading businesses showing a strong productivity paradox—it remains to be seen whether the same is true for resource productivity, and this will depend on governance and regulation.
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 96,97.