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The ‘dangerous’ side effect of being rich

There's a dangerous side effect to being rich, science has found. Source: Getty

There is a significant link between humans’ pursuit of wealth and the decline in the planet’s wellbeing, and it spells bad news for the environment, scientists have warned.

The Scientists’ Warning on Affluence report stated that since income is strongly linked with consumption, and consumption is in turn linked with environmental impact, wealthier humans therefore impact the environment more than poorer humans.

“These findings mean that environmental impact is to a large extent caused and driven by the world’s rich citizens,” the report states.

And unless humans stop pursuing wealth, the environment will continue to deteriorate, the scientists warned.

“The evidence is clear,” they said.

“Long-term and concurrent human and planetary wellbeing will not be achieved...if affluent overconsumption continues, spurred by economic systems that exploit nature and humans,” the authors stated.

“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.”

So what can we do?

But rather than green-washing consumption, we should be looking to reduce it totally, the report found. 

That means not consuming certain goods and services, from living spaces like overly large homes to secondary residences, to not purchasing oversized vehicles. It also means not eating environmentally damaging and wasteful foods, or engaging in leisure or business travel.

Tech services can play their part by reducing the need for consumption, which means increasing the lifespan of goods, advertising telecommunication instead of physical travel, and sharing and repairing instead of buying new.

The scientists dub this the ‘avoid-shift-improve’ framework.

“The avoid-shift-improve framework...implies the adoption of less affluent, simpler and sufficiency-oriented lifestyles to address overconsumption—consuming better but less,” the authors stated.

It also means reducing inequality, they added.

“This also includes addressing socially unsustainable underconsumption in impoverished communities in both less affluent and affluent countries, where enough and better is needed to achieve a more equal distribution of wealth and guarantee a minimum level of prosperity to overcome poverty.”

So while affluence is usually aspired to, co-author of the report Julia Steinberg told UNSW that it shouldn’t be.

“Our paper has shown that it’s actually dangerous and leads to planetary-scale destruction,” she said.

“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.”

Thousands of scientists declare ‘climate emergency’

This study follows a paper published in the BioScience journal last year, signed by more than 11,000 scientists, that the earth was “clearly and unequivocally” facing a climate emergency, and the main culprits were the wealthiest countries.

“The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle. The most affluent countries are mainly responsible for the historical GHG emissions and generally have the greatest per capita emissions,” the scientists wrote in the paper.

The scientists noted “profoundly troubling signs” in the increase in human and livestock population numbers, meat production, fossil fuel consumption, commercial flights and carbon dioxide emissions. 

“Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritising basic needs and reducing inequality,” the scientists stated.

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