If we're really serious about solving the climate crisis, we need to start tackling our economy's overwhelming 'power' of consumption, researchers warn in a new report.
While having money is often portrayed as something to aspire to, the wealthiest nations and individuals are also wreaking the most environmental destruction. If we keep heading in this direction with rampant economic growth, parts of our planet will become uninhabitable.
"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," argues ecological economist Julia Steinberger from the University of Leeds in the UK.
This new perspective was put together by a team of environmental scientists, engineers, physicists, and economists, and it's based on existing knowledge and recommendations from the scientific community.
Examining the current literature on affluent households, researchers found wealth is the strongest determinant of global environmental impacts. Digging further, they also described what force lies behind this heavy footprint.
While the majority of studies on the subject agree the major drivers of environmental impacts are technology change (which can reduce our impact) and consumption (which has been accelerating our impact), it appears the latter has been outrunning the former for decades. And that's true for the entire world, as well as numerous individual countries.
In short, even if we get better at storing renewable energy, or capturing carbon dioxide, technology alone can't save us from biodiversity loss or pollution. After all, during the past four decades, worldwide wealth has grown much faster than any scientific 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," says environmental engineer Tommy Wiedmann, from the University of New South Wales in Australia.
The link between wealth and environmental destruction is clear to see, and without far-reaching lifestyle changes and fundamental shifts in our attitude towards money, this evidence suggests things are only going to get worse.
But while individual sacrifices among the wealthy are clearly needed, Wiedmann and colleagues argue those attempts are doomed to fail unless there are also broader structural changes put into place.
A change in economic paradigms is, for instance, sorely needed. The idea of 'sustainable growth', the authors argue, is a utopia that cannot be achieved in reality; wealth will always roll faster than technology down a hill.
"[W]e have to get away from our obsession with economic growth," Wiedmann says.
"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."
Scientists and economists around the world have been warning for years that our economy needs to be re-examined, but so far, little attention has been paid to that idea and our house has continued to burn while the rich become richer.
According to the authors of this new perspective, the best solutions are ones that tax the wealthiest and invest in the poorest people and most vulnerable ecosystems. As such, nations around the world should consider eco taxes, green investments, wealth redistribution, a maximum and minimum income, and a guaranteed basic income to help untie our environment from this economic snowball.
If we're up for it, we could even go a step further and leave the idea of capitalism altogether.
"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," says Wiedmann.
"We can't keep behaving as if we had a spare planet available."
The study was published in Nature Communications.