While the United States is the wealthiest country with a GDP of $20 trillion, it also has the 2nd most GHG emissions. As seen in recent investments such as D.E Shaw’s solar project, people are relying on technology to solve our issues in climate change. But while technology can help, a recent study shows one of the most crucial climate issues can’t be solved by it: overconsumption. And “the affluent citizens of the world are responsible for most environmental impacts and are central to any future prospect of retreating to safer environmental conditions,” researchers say.
The research further links affluent people with overconsumption, showing how far-reaching lifestyle changes are necessary to address climate change.
Affluent citizens and their environmental impact
There has been extensive research trying to prove the affluent emit the most GHG emissions. A recent study shows the wealthiest 0.54 percent, or 40 million people, are responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related GHG emissions. In contrast, the bottom 50% of income earners, or 4 billion people, only emit around 10%.
Affluent citizens have many different consumption patterns to generate such a disproportionate amount of GHG emissions. Yet, there hasn’t been many solutions to address this massive disparity.
The relationship between affluence and environmental impact
And as income inequality continues to grow, “affluent overconsumption” also continues to drive environmental impact. For example, affluent members’ spending patterns are often influential in setting a series of trade and production activities, rippling among dozens of international supply networks.
Affluent citizens’ consumption patterns are also differentiated by their perception of normal. Peers greatly influence high-consumption lifestyles; even if basic needs are already met, there’s often a mental competition to out-buy their peers.
The study offers a few candidate solutions. “Affluence needs to be addressed by reducing consumption, not just greening it,” the study states. However, implementing this will be incredibly difficult.
There needs a distinct line drawn between human need, satisfaction, and overconsumption. Luxuries, which are not necessary, will need to be restricted in the long run. For example, overly large homes and vehicles, environmentally harmful foods, frequent travel, will have to be limited.
On the other hand, businesses also play a role in creating overconsumption. Many businesses purposely decrease their product lifespan to force consumers to rebuy their products, which leads to unnecessary consumption. Furthermore, with the current technology, businesses can utilize telecommunication, where physical travel can be easily replaced.
Why affluent countries will never be able to implement these solutions
Yet with affluent countries like the United States, capitalism will not let these solutions take place. Businesses need to compete, leading to reinvesting profits into a more efficient production, innovating new products, and convincing consumers to buy more.
And if businesses cannot do this, they will go bankrupt. Then, stronger companies may take them over and perform better in the market. Therefore, overconsumption will never die as capitalism continues to perpetuate affluent spending, the study says.
But moving from capitalism seems like a long shot. Instead, a solution the study brought was implementing “maximum and minimum incomes, eco-taxes, collective business ownerships” while staying conscious over-consumption.
Even though overconsumption can bring short term pleasure, research shows consequences future consequences are something we need to consider.
Jalen Xing is a Writer at theRising and the co-founder of Students For Hospitals. You can pitch him stories at jalen.xing [at] gmail [dot] com.