Scientists Warn of Environmental Destruction Caused by the Wealthiest

Plaquemines Parish Coastal Zone Director P.J. Hahn rescues a heavily oiled bird from the waters of Barataria Bay, La., which were laden with oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on June 26, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

(CN) — Affluence and over-consumption are destroying the planet and only large scale economic and lifestyle changes can save it, a group of sustainability scientists warned in a paper published Friday.

In the paper titled Scientists’ Warning on Affluence published Friday in the journal Nature Communications, a team of researchers describe the link between wealth and environmental impacts and presented possible solutions for sustainability.

“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,” said lead author Tommy Wiedmann, a professor of sustainability research in the University of New South Wales’ engineering department.

“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,” Wiedmann added.

Weidmann warned that although technology can assist in addressing some of the challenges of sustainability, it cannot solve the problems because it cannot keep up with the rapidly growing levels of consumption tied to affluence.

“Affluence is often portrayed as something to aspire to. But our paper has shown that it’s actually dangerous and leads to planetary-scale destruction,” said co-author Julia Steinberger, professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds. “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.”

According to the paper, the majority of the world’s environmental impacts are caused primarily by the richest of the rich, and it will fall on them to begin reparations and cut back some of the damage done.

“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 the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich said. “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.”

He said that discussions on how to address ecological crises must recognize “the responsibility of the most affluent for these crises.”

“I am often asked to explain this issue at social gatherings. Usually I say that what we see or associate with our current environmental issues (cars, power, planes) is just the tip of our personal iceberg,” explained co-author Manfred Lenzen, a professor of sustainability research at the University of Sydney.

“It’s all the stuff we consume and the environmental destruction embodied in that stuff that forms the iceberg’s submerged part. Unfortunately, once we understand this, the implications for our lifestyle are often so confronting that denial kicks in,” Lenzen continued.

The responsibility does not fall solely on the individuals though, the authors noted. Societies, economies, and cultures encourage individuals to achieve monetary success.The researchers said the future will rely on a change in economic paradigms.

“The structural imperative for growth in competitive market economies leads to decision makers being locked into bolstering economic growth, and inhibiting necessary societal changes,” said Wiedmann. “So, we have to get away from our obsession with economic growth — we really need to start managing our economies in a way that protects our climate and natural resources, even if this means less, no or even negative growth.”

Weidmann pointed to policymaking in New Zealand as an example of one way to control economic growth for sustainability’s sake. Lawmakers there instituted the Wellbeing Budget in 2019, under which all new spending contributes to one of five improvement goals: mental health, reducing child poverty, supporting indigenous peoples, moving to a low-carbon-emission economy, and technological advancement.

The budget encourages reforming the economy rather than growing it, which the authors said is impossible to achieve sustainably.

One way the team suggests implementing this strategy elsewhere is by establishing taxation policies for the wealthy that will effectively reduce overconsumption.

“Policies may include, for example, eco-taxes, green investments, wealth redistribution through taxation and a maximum income, a guaranteed basic income and reduced working hours,” Weidmann said.

Moving forward, Weidmann hopes to use this information to create model scenarios, and present different modes of development with computer simulations in order to show different possible impacts depending on the path chosen.

“We have 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,” Weidmann said.

“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 ever more. We can’t keep behaving as if we had a spare planet available.”

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