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The Eco-Impact of Affluence

Updated: Jul 4, 2021

Nick Webb discusses the environmental impact caused by the consumptive lifestyles of the affluent classes.

Photo by Roberto Junior

Human beings have an undeniable tendency to want and to consume more than we need. This is what fuels the aggressive consumerism in our society.

While there are those of us who seek to be more environmentally conscious by cutting out plastics, recycling as much as possible, and using public transport, the current model of modern society still severely dilutes these efforts. 

The Research

New research suggests that economic growth and increasing reliance on new technologies in everyday life is having negative effects on the planet. The study, published in June, clearly shows a link between the wealthy and increased emissions, with the richest 0.54% of the world’s population (around 40 million people) being responsible for 14% of lifestyle-related greenhouse emissions. The top 10% are responsible for up to 43% of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. 

These numbers do not merely include the super-rich, but also those who are considered ‘globally affluent’. This means that many in wealthier countries like the UK who do not consider themselves as being rich have a disproportionate environmental impact. 

The Corporate Impact

The corporate drive to grow the economy promotes a high-consumption lifestyle, and creates a barrier to more sustainable living. While many governments are instigating new green policies and trying to promote more sustainable consumer activities, these only partially offset the mechanisms of ‘positional consumption’, where by people consume products they believe will increase their perceived social status once basic needs have been met. This “growth spiral” merely serves the super-affluent and increases overall consumption at all levels of society. 

Thomas Wiedmann, Manfred Lenzen, Lorenz T. Keyẞerand Julia K. Steinberger, who published the article “Scientists warning on affluence”, say that

“since the level of consumption determines total impacts, affluence needs to be addressed by reducing consumption, not just greening it.” 

This attempt to make the manufacturing process, and thus also the products themselves,more environmentally-friendly is by and large the favourite method used by governments, as it continues to encourage the levels of consumerism to grow,and therefore stimulates economic growth. 

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The arguments put forward for considerable change, however, suggest a mass shift in consumer and manufacturing patterns is needed. This includes dramatically greener manufacturing – more recycling, less reliance on fossil fuels, moving towards public transport and walking or cycling wherever possible, and changing nutrition to a larger plant-based diet. 

“It is now commonplace to acknowledge that humankind would need more than five planets if North American lifestyles were universalised” – Samuel Alexander, Office for Environmental Programmes, University of Melbourne

While there are many small-scale attempts by individuals and communities in wealthier nations to live in a way that is more eco-friendly, their effects will be marginal without larger-scale policy change. The threat, however, of economic decline brought about by lowering consumption makes many governments reluctant to investigate sustainable alternatives to existing consumer practices.   

While social movements are crucial in pushing for reforms in consumer patterns and continue to raise awareness of the ecological damage excessive consumption can have, it is more necessary than ever for governments to bring in more policies that protect the climate rather than sacrificing all for just to line the pockets of the super-rich.


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