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How affluent people can end their mindless overconsumption

Every energy reduction we can make is a gift to future humans, and all life on Earth.

A new report from Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows the strikingly unequal way rich people are depleting the global carbon budget.
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If 2020 teaches us anything, it’s that the next crisis we could have prevented is probably right around the corner, and it will be painful. A pandemic that scientists warned was very likely to occur arrived and has already killed well over 250,000 people in the US. Dozens of predicted, large wildfires — the latest evidence of the climate emergency — recentlu torched the American West, their smoke more damaging to health than almost any fire season on record.

But it’s not too late to intervene and limit climate chaos.

A June paper in Nature Communications clarifies whose actions in this moment are “central to any future prospect of retreating to safer environmental conditions.” Yes, government and industry leaders are on the hook to decarbonize operations and infrastructure. But it’s also the affluent who use far more resources than the poor — more energy and more material goods per capita than the planet can sustain.

“Highly affluent consumers drive biophysical resource use (a) directly through high consumption, (b) as members of powerful factions of the capitalist class and (c) through driving consumption norms across the population,” the authors write.

The rich or merely affluent, it turns out, are actually the ones blowing through the world’s carbon budget — the maximum amount of cumulative emissions that can be added to the atmosphere to hit the Paris agreement’s 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming goal.

According to a September report from Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the richest 10 percent of the world’s population — those who earned $38,000 per year or more as of 2015 — were responsible for 52 percent of cumulative carbon emissions and ate up 31 percent of the world’s carbon budget from 1990 to 2015.

Meanwhile, the richest 1 percent of people — who made $109,000 or more per year in 2015 — alone were responsible for 15 percent of cumulative emissions, and used 9 percent of the carbon budget.

The rapidly accelerating growth in total emissions worldwide isn’t mainly about an improvement in quality of life for the poorer half of the world’s population, either. Instead, the report finds, “nearly half the growth has merely allowed the already wealthy top 10 percent to augment their consumption and enlarge their carbon footprints.” Another recent study found that affluent frequent fliers who make up just 1 percent of the global population are responsible for 50 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from commercial aviation.

In sum, as Tim Gore, head of climate policy at Oxfam, said in a statement, “The over-consumption of a wealthy minority is fueling the climate crisis yet it is poor communities and young people who are paying the price.”

Somehow, in all the campaigns to inspire climate action, the onus on well-off people to take the lead on sustainable consumption has been lost. But the Covid-19 pandemic may turn out to be the best opportunity — especially for the affluent among us — to shift consumption habits.

Here’s why: When we cut back on energy-intensive travel and shopping in the spring, it was easier to see the mindlessness, and even lack of satisfaction, in these patterns. For some people, “the Covid-19 crisis has shown that maybe we can do things differently, that a simpler life can be more fulfilling and provide more happiness,” says Tommy Wiedmann, a professor of sustainability research at UNSW Sydney and a co-author of the Nature Communications paper.

Permanently reducing air travel, driving, home energy use, food waste, and shopping to protect our kids and grandkids from climate chaos need not lead to any reduction in quality of life. In fact, it may even go a long way toward improving it (for ourselves and others). As Vox’s Sigal Samuel reported in June, the top change readers she surveyed said they wanted to maintain after quarantine was “reducing consumerism.” “A long period of being shut in and not spending as much has led to the realization that so much of our consumer behavior is about instant gratification, not lasting happiness,” she writes.

We can also use lessons from our new Covid-constrained life for further economic reforms tailored to the climate emergency reality we find ourselves in. As Pope Francis put it in a Saturday speech on climate change, “The current economic system is unsustainable. We are faced with a moral imperative ... to rethink many things,” including means of production, consumerism, waste, indifference to the poor, and harmful energy sources, according to Reuters.

In particular, degrowth is a promising framework for meeting basic needs and improving well-being while staying within the carbon budget and planetary boundaries.

While individual contributions to climate change may be dwarfed by the contributions of fossil fuel companies and heavy industry, individual changes can also spread by “behavioral contagion,” social tipping points, and positive feedback loops.

Here we’ll lay out some of the key opportunities for fellow fortunates who have the economic freedom to choose how and what they consume. Individual, grassroots changes are essential to a bigger systemic change; personal growth and flourishing can happen through resource degrowth.

Optional consumption in the form of long-distance travel is imposing unoptional burdens on future humans for centuries.
Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

Yes, individual choices matter, especially if you’re affluent

From a global perspective, middle-class Americans are in the top 10 percent income-wise. “A $59,000 income in the United States has enough buying power to put you in the 91st percentile globally for per-person income,” according to the Washington Post. And beyond that, our fellow fortunates all have “optional consumption” that we engage in, often unreflectively.

Given that leverage, every energy reduction we can make is a gift to future humans, and all life on Earth. And we should be on guard for excuses to avoid changing individual consumption behaviors; they’re often based on logical, arithmetic, and moral errors.

For instance, affluent people sometimes argue that their consumption choices don’t matter because they’re just one person on a planet of more than 7 billion. But consider the physics of tipping points using an analogy from a 2019 piece we wrote, “12 excuses for climate inaction and how to refute,” which helps explain why our decisions today are so much more critical than they were a decade ago — or even this time last year.

A useful image here is a pile of sand on one side of a weighing scale; at or near the tipping point, it’s easy to see that every tiny grain of sand contributes to when that side of the scale ultimately falls. Your seemingly tiny contribution — the optional flight, the round-the-clock air conditioning, the thrice-weekly portion of beef — can, arithmetically, add up to make a critical difference. And “the bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty,” Greta Thunberg said in her widely cited 2019 speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Where the weighing scale image fails is that there isn’t just one tipping point or one single outcome, but rather a spectrum. The fewer greenhouse gases we emit, the nearer to the safer end of the spectrum we can stay, and the less climate chaos we will create.

We usually have options where we can choose to have more or less climate impact. Every time we choose more and not less, we’re imposing compounding burdens on others and on our descendants. Our choices will determine whether the future is “merely grim, rather than apocalyptic,” as New York’s David Wallace-Wells writes in his book The Uninhabitable Earth.

Restrained consumption is also a way to prevent the deepening of racial and economic injustice and inequality — low-income people and people of color are among the first to lose the most in climate disasters. Working toward justice means being a resource-responsible consumer.

“I think it is important for people to say that they will not do certain types of consumption anymore,” Julia Steinberger, a professor of ecological economics at the University of Leeds and a co-author of the Nature Communications paper, tells Vox. “It’s about making this way of life more visibly unacceptable. The rich could show their status and prestige with other things than lots of cars and huge houses and lots of material wealth.”

With all this in mind, here are five potential resource-responsible actions to commit to, in no particular order:

  1. Drive and fly less, since the top 10 percent uses around 45 percent of land transport energy and 75 percent of air transport energy, per a 2020 paper by Steinberger in Nature Energy.
  2. Retrofit your house and purchase clean energy, since roughly 20 percent of US energy-related greenhouse gas emissions come from heating, cooling, and powering households.
  3. Buy food mindfully (less meat and dairy, don’t waste what you buy), since meat and dairy account for around 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
  4. Shop less, since the fashion industry generates at least 5 percent of global emissions.
  5. Ditch status-signaling SUVs, since SUVs were the second-largest source of the global rise in emissions over the past decade, eclipsing all shipping, aviation, heavy industry, and even trucks.

The pleasures of much of our consumption are fast forgotten, but the costs are slow and will be felt by generations for centuries to come

Despite what consumption enthusiasts and their enablers (marketers, economists, etc.) preach, the benefits and pleasures of much of our consumption are fleeting. Many of us have an inkling of this from our own experience, but we’re trapped on the treadmill of unthinking hedonic habits.

That enduring lack of true satisfaction is confirmed by much ancient wisdom: Enlightenment, or Nirvana, is the “ the absence of greed, absence of dislike, and absence of egoism,” as the Buddhist writer and scholar Stephen Batchelor notes in an interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett. And one of the most robust findings in social science, according to economist Robert Frank at Cornell, is the research on how emotional well-being doesn’t improve above an annual (individual) income of $75,000.

Some of our least effective consumption occurs in the form of self-soothing habits. When we’re feeling bad, or anxious, or bored, we often seek relief in impulsive shopping, a.k.a. retail therapy.

What longer-lasting reliefs beat fleeting fun? You may have experienced part of the answer in these Covid-constrained conditions. For many, an activity as simple as a walk has been their day’s treat.

That’s especially true if you find beauty or curiosity on your walk, where you notice things interesting enough to achieve what Iris Murdoch called “unselfing” — taking you out of your self-centered anxieties, even if only temporarily. (Here’s some background on this idea from Maria Popova.)

These spirit-supporting pleasures typically take more effort than reaching for “junk” treats (like a quick online purchase). But, in addition to being more satisfying, they often lack negative knock-on effects, like putting more carbon into the atmosphere. This carbon cost isn’t just about you — it is our collective legacy to our children and all future humans.

Hopefully, Covid-19 can teach us to pay attention to planetary boundaries and other collective threats we’ve long ignored. On climate, we should wake up to the intergenerational zero-sum game we are playing, where the carbon-generating and resource-depleting consumption we indulge in now compromises the safety of future humans.

Every physical resource is limited, or is renewable within certain limits. And this logic means there is no “green growth” solution here unless we reduce consumption: the approach known as “degrowth.”

Degrowth, explained

Even before Covid-19, a fundamental restructuring of the economy was very clearly needed to right the gaping inequities, the shockingly lopsided accumulation — nay, hoarding — of wealth. The factors that led to that are only being exacerbated by Covid-19. But as we recover from the pandemic, richer countries and citizens have a tremendous opportunity to remold under another paradigm.

Degrowth, as the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel puts it, is about rich countries “actively scaling down resource use and energy use.”

On a recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast, he clarified: “When people hear ‘degrowth,’ they think that sounds like a recession. But here’s the thing ... a recession is what happens when a growth-oriented economy stops growing. It’s a disaster. People lose their jobs. They lose their houses. Poverty rates rise, etc. ‘Degrowth’ is calling for a shift to a fundamentally different kind of economy altogether.”

As Wiedmann, Steinberger, and their co-authors describe it, degrowth is a “downscaled steady-state economic system that is socially just and in balance with ecological limits.”

Taking advantage of this opportunity also requires going beyond a focus on carbon emissions. Clean energy, for example, won’t deliver a sustainable economy by itself. It’s about our resource use more broadly. (Even preexisting sweeping proposals like the Green New Deal often don’t address material limits.)

As Hickel wrote in June in Foreign Policy:

Ecologists say that the planet can handle maximum annual resource use of about 50 billion metric tons per year. We crossed that planetary boundary in the late 1990s, and today we’re overshooting it by more than 90 percent. This is what’s driving ecological breakdown: Every additional ton of material extraction has an impact on the planet’s ecosystems.

The outer limit works out to be about 6 metric tons per human per year. The current US average is 35 metric tons, with those toward the top of the income scale consuming vastly more. This means there is no avoiding the urgent need for deep cuts in energy and material use in rich nations, especially among those countries’ richest citizens.

Since we may not be able to remove much of the carbon that has already been emitted, or return the materials that have already been extracted, it’s best now to adopt a forward-looking redemption stance. What matters most is reducing impacts from here on out, rather than prosecuting past “sins,” often committed unwittingly, or by rich-mimicking rather than explicit choice. And that means choosing not to mindlessly add more grains of sand to the scale.

There are green shoots visible of the vast changes needed. China committed Tuesday to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 and peak its emissions by 2030. Night trains are coming back in Europe partially in response to people demanding low-carbon alternatives to flying. A group of European central bankers wrote in the Guardian in June that “the pandemic offers a unique chance to green the global economy” and is mobilizing businesses, investors, banks, and governments “to ensure climate risks are effectively managed in the financial system.”

You, too, can bank on bettering your personal economy by creating a new normal of mindful consumption and making it visible to others in the affluent class, as Steinberger advises. You’ll be a better, and probably happier, person. And other humans, including your kids, will thank you.