As the previous section shows, there is a positive relationship between biophysical resource use and affluence, as defined by income. Adding to this, the most affluent groups have higher incomes than expenditure, and their saving and investing leads to substantial additional environmental impact38. Therefore, and due to significant inter- and intra-national wealth and income inequality36,39, we differentiate between globally affluent groups, such as the European Union, and the most wealthy and affluent groups within countries, e.g. the <1–10% richest income segments36. As quantitative research36,40,41 shows, 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 next sections focus on affluent groups globally and on the intra-nationally most wealthy and affluent segments (hereafter called super-affluent).

Reducing overconsumption

Since the level of consumption determines total impacts, affluence needs to be addressed by reducing consumption, not just greening it17,28,29. 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 systems42. A suitable concept to address the ecological dimension is the widely established avoid-shift-improve framework outlined by Creutzig et al.43. Its focus on the end-use service, such as mobility, nutrition or shelter, allows for a multi-dimensional analysis of potential impact reductions beyond sole technological change. This analysis can be directed at human need satisfaction or decent living standards—an alternative perspective put forward for curbing environmental crises44,45. Crucially, this perspective allows us to consider different provisioning systems (e.g. states, markets, communities and households) and to differentiate between superfluous consumption, which is consumption that does not contribute to needs satisfaction, and necessary consumption which can be related to satisfying human needs. It remains important to acknowledge the complexities surrounding this distinction, as touched upon in the sections on growth imperatives below. Still, empirically, human needs satisfaction shows rapidly diminishing returns with overall consumption45,46.

As implied by the previous section on affluence as a driver, the strongest pillar of the necessary transformation is to avoid or to reduce consumption until the remaining consumption level falls within planetary boundaries, while fulfilling human needs17,28,46. Avoiding consumption means not consuming certain goods and services, from living space (overly large homes, secondary residences of the wealthy) to oversized vehicles, environmentally damaging and wasteful food, leisure patterns and work patterns involving driving and flying47. This implies reducing expenditure and wealth along ‘sustainable consumption corridors’, i.e. minimum and maximum consumption standards48,49 (Fig. 2). On the technological side, reducing the need for consumption can be facilitated by changes such as increasing lifespans of goods, telecommunication instead of physical travel, sharing and repairing instead of buying new, and house retrofitting43.

Fig. 2: The safe and just space for humanity.

Sustainable lifestyles are situated between an upper limit of permissible use (“Environmental ceiling”) and a lower limit of necessary use of environmental resources (“Social foundation”) (figures from ref. 49 and ref. 84 combined and adapted).

However, the other two pillars of shift and improve are still vital to achieve the socio-ecological transformation46. Consumption patterns still need to be shifted away from resource and carbon-intensive goods and services, e.g. mobility from cars and airplanes to public buses and trains, biking or walking, heating from oil heating to heat pumps, nutrition—where possible—from animal to seasonal plant-based products43,46. In some cases this includes a shift from high- to low-tech (with many low-tech alternatives being less energy intense than high-tech equivalents, e.g. clothes line vs. dryer) and from global to local47. In parallel, also the resource and carbon intensity of consumption needs to be decreased, e.g. by expanding renewable energy, electrifying cars and public transport and increasing energy and material efficiency43,46.

The avoid-shift-improve framework, coherently applied with a dominant avoid and strong shift, implies the adoption of less affluent, simpler and sufficiency-oriented lifestyles to address overconsumption—consuming better but less46,47,49,50. 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 poverty48,49. Thus, establishing a floor-and-ceiling strategy of sustainable consumption corridors is necessary48,49 (Fig. 2).

It is well established that at least in the affluent countries a persistent, deep and widespread reduction of consumption and production would reduce economic growth as measured by gross domestic product (GDP)51,52. Estimates of the needed reduction of resource and energy use in affluent countries, resulting in a concomitant decrease in GDP of similar magnitude, range from 40 to 90%53,54. Bottom-up studies, such as from Rao et al.55 show that decent living standards could be maintained in India, Brazil and South Africa with around 90% less per-capita energy use than currently consumed in affluent countries. Trainer56, for Australia, and Lockyer57, for the USA, find similar possible reductions. In current capitalist economies such reduction pathways would imply widespread economic recession with a cascade of currently socially detrimental effects, such as a collapse of the stock market, unemployment, firm bankruptcies and lack of credit50,58. The question then becomes how such a reduction in consumption and production can be made socially sustainable, safeguarding human needs and social function50,59 However, to address this question, we first need to understand the various growth imperatives of capitalist social and economic systems and the role of the super-affluent segments of society60.

Super-affluent consumers and growth imperatives

Growth imperatives are active at multiple levels, making the pursuit of economic growth (net investment, i.e. investment above depreciation) a necessity for different actors and leading to social and economic instability in the absence of it7,52,60. Following a Marxian perspective as put forward by Pirgmaier and Steinberger61, growth imperatives can be attributed to capitalism as the currently dominant socio-economic system in affluent countries7,51,62, although this is debated by other scholars52. To structure this topic, we will discuss different affected actors separately, namely corporations, states and individuals, following Richters and Siemoneit60. Most importantly, we address the role of the super-affluent consumers within a society, which overlap with powerful fractions of the capitalist class. From a Marxian perspective, this social class is structurally defined by its position in the capitalist production process, as financially tied with the function of capital63. In capitalism, workers are separated from the means of production, implying that they must compete in labour markets to sell their labour power to capitalists in order to earn a living.

Even though some small- and medium-sized businesses manage to refrain from pursuing growth, e.g. due to a low competition intensity in niche markets, or lack of financial debt imperatives, this cannot be said for most firms64. In capitalism, firms need to compete in the market, leading to a necessity to reinvest profits into more efficient production processes to minimise costs (e.g. through replacing human labour power with machines and positive returns to scale), innovation of new products and/or advertising to convince consumers to buy more7,61,62. As a result, the average energy intensity of labour is now twice as high as in 195060. As long as a firm has a competitive advantage, there is a strong incentive to sell as much as possible. Financial markets are crucial to enable this constant expansion by providing (interest-bearing) capital and channelling it where it is most profitable58,61,63. If a firm fails to stay competitive, it either goes bankrupt or is taken over by a more successful business. Under normal economic conditions, this capitalist competition is expected to lead to aggregate growth dynamics7,62,63,65.

However, two factors exist that further strengthen this growth dynamic60. Firstly, if labour productivity continuously rises, then aggregate economic growth becomes necessary to keep employment constant, otherwise technological unemployment results. This creates one of the imperatives for capitalist states to foster aggregate growth, since with worsening economic conditions and high unemployment, tax revenues shrink, e.g. from labour and value-added taxes, while social security expenditures rise60,62. Adding to this, states compete with other states geopolitically and in providing favourable conditions for capital, while capitalists have the resources to influence political decisions in their favour. If economic conditions are expected to deteriorate, e.g. due to unplanned recession or progressive political change, firms can threaten capital flight, financial markets react and investor as well as consumer confidence shrink51,58,60. Secondly, consumers usually increase their consumption in tune with increasing production60. This process can be at least in part explained by substantial advertising efforts by firms47,52,66. However, further mechanisms are at play as explained further below.

Following this analysis, it is not surprising that the growth paradigm is hegemonic, i.e. the perception that economic growth solves all kinds of societal problems, that it equals progress, power and welfare and that it can be made practically endless through some form of supposedly green or sustainable growth59. Taken together, the described dynamics create multiple dependencies of workers, firms and states on a well-functioning capital accumulation and thus wield more material, institutional and discursive power (e.g. for political lobbying) to capitalists who are usually the most affluent consumers61,67. Even if different fractions of the capitalist class have manifold and competing interests which need to be constantly renegotiated, there is a common interest in maintaining the capitalist system and favourable conditions for capital accumulation, e.g. through aggregate growth and high consumption51,62. How this political corruption by the super-affluent plays out in practice is well documented, e.g. for the meat industry in Denmark6.

Super-affluent consumers drive consumption norms

Growth imperatives and drivers (with the latter describing less coercive mechanisms to increase consumption) can also be active at the individual level. In this case, the level of consumption can serve as a proxy47,60,68. To start with, individual consumption decisions are not made in a vacuum, but are shaped by surrounding (physical and social) structures and provisioning systems47,61,69. Sanne66 and Alexander47 discuss several structural barriers to sufficiency-oriented lifestyles, locking in high consumption. These include lack of suitable housing, insufficient options for socialising, employment, transport and information, as well as high exposure to consumer temptations. Often, these conditions are deliberately fostered by states and also capitalists (the latter overlapping with super-affluent consumers and having disproportionate influence on states) to increase consumption61,66.

Further active mechanisms to spur growth include positional and efficiency consumption, which contribute to an increase in consumption overall52,60,68,70. After basic material needs are satisfied, an increasing proportion of consumption is directed at positional goods52,70. The defining feature of these goods is that they are expensive and signify social status. Access to them depends on the income relative to others. Status matters, since empirical studies show that currently relative income is one of the strongest determinants of individual happiness52. In the aggregate however, the pursuit of positional consumption, driven by super-affluent consumers and high inequalities, likely resembles a zero-sum game with respect to societal wellbeing70,71. With every actor striving to increase their position relative to their peers, the average consumption level rises and thus even more expensive positional goods become necessary, while the societal wellbeing level stagnates42,71. This is supported by a large body of empirical research, showing that an individual’s happiness correlates positively with their own income but negatively with the peer group’s income71 and that unequal access to positional goods fosters rising consumption52. This endless process is a core part of capitalism as it keeps social momentum and consumption high with affluent consumers driving aspirations and hopes of social ascent in low-affluence segments70,72. The positional consumption behaviour of the super-affluent thus drives consumption norms across the population, for instance through their excessive air travel, as documented by Gössling73.

Lastly, in capitalism, workers must compete against each other in the labour market in order to earn a living from capitalists7,63. Following Siemoneit68, this can lead to a similar imperative to net invest (increase the level of consumption/investment) as is observed with capitalists. In order to stay competitive, individuals are pushed to increase time and cost efficiency by investing in cars, kitchen appliances, computers and smartphones, by using social media and online trade etc. This efficiency consumption—effectively another facet of the rebound effect38,47,68—helps to manage high workloads, thus securing an income, while maintaining private life. This is often accompanied by trends of commodification61, understood as the marketisation of products and services which used to be provisioned through more time-intensive commons or reciprocal social arrangements, e.g. convenience food vs. cooking together. As in the food example74, this replacement of human labour with energy- and material-intensive industrial production typically increases environmental pressures47,75. Through these economic pressures, positive feedback loops and lock-ins are expected to emerge, since other consumers need to keep up with these investments or face disadvantages, e.g. when car or smartphone ownership become presupposed. Taken together with positional consumption, structural barriers to sufficiency and the substantial advertising efforts by capitalists, these mechanisms explain to a large extent why consumers seem so willing to increase their consumption in accordance with increasing production60.

Solution approaches

In response to the aforementioned drivers of affluence, diverse solution approaches and strategies are being discussed47,52,76. We differentiate these as belonging to a more reformist and a more radical group (Table 1). This is based on the categorisation by Alexander and Rutherford77. All these approaches differ from the established green growth (ecomodernism) approach28,78,79, in that they at least adopt an agnostic, if not negative, position on the question whether or not GDP can be sufficiently decoupled from environmental impacts28,52,78,80. Hence, these approaches also differ from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), since SDG 8 aims for continued global GDP growth of ~3% p.a., likely contradicting several other SDGs, e.g. SDG 12 and 1381,82,83. Further, the SDGs are not representing a theoretically coherent framework, since they are part of a deliberative process45, and sideline underlying power dynamics as well as interactions between injustices83. Nevertheless, approaches underpinned by multi-dimensional social wellbeing and environmental goals, such as Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics84, are strong alternatives to GDP-focused ones and may inspire transformative change in the context of the more reformist solution approaches outlined below. Importantly, the following discussion can only provide a rough overview of the respective approaches.

Table 1 Meta approaches for sustainable prosperity.

The reformist group consists of heterogeneous approaches such as a-growth80, precautionary/pragmatic post-growth52, prosperity42 and managing85 without growth as well as steady-state economics86. These approaches have in common that they aim to achieve the required socio-ecological transformation through and within today’s dominant institutions, such as centralised democratic states and market economies52,77. From this position it often follows that current, socially vital institutions, such as the welfare state, labour markets, healthcare, pensions and others, need to be reformed to become independent from GDP growth52. Generally, bottom-up movements are seen as crucial, leading to value and cultural changes towards sufficiency42,47. Eventually, however, significant policy changes are proposed to achieve the necessary downshifting of consumption and production42,77,86 and/or the reduction of environmental impacts through decoupling52,80. These include, among others, stringent eco-taxes or cap-and trade systems, directed investments in green industries and public institutions, wealth redistribution through taxation and a maximum income, a guaranteed basic income and/or reduced working hours42,77. Although these policies already seem radical when compared to today’s policies, the proponents of reformist approaches are convinced that the transformation can be achieved in current capitalist economies and democratic states42,77,86.

The second, more radical, group disagrees and argues that the needed socio-ecological transformation will necessarily entail a shift beyond capitalism and/or current centralised states. Although comprising considerable heterogeneity77, it can be divided into eco-socialist approaches, viewing the democratic state as an important means to achieve the socio-ecological transformation51,65 and eco-anarchist approaches, aiming instead at participatory democracy without a state, thus minimising hierarchies54,87. Many degrowth approaches combine elements of the two, but often see a stronger role for state action than eco-anarchists50,51,88. Degrowth is defined here as “an equitable downscaling of throughput [that is the energy and resource flows through an economy, strongly coupled to GDP], with a concomitant securing of wellbeing“59,p7, aimed at a subsequent downscaled steady-state economic system that is socially just and in balance with ecological limits. Importantly, degrowth does not aim for a reduction of GDP per se, but rather accepts it as a likely outcome of the necessary changes78. Moreover, eco-feminist approaches highlight the role of patriarchal social relations and the parallels between the oppression of women and exploitation of nature89, while post-development approaches stress the manifold and heterogeneous visions of achieving such a socio-ecological transformation globally, especially in the global South90.

Degrowth advocates propose similar policy changes as the reformist group50,80. However, it is stressed that implementing these changes would most likely imply a shift beyond capitalism, e.g. preventing capital accumulation through dis-economies of scale and collective firm ownership, and thus require radical social change59,62,91. Eco-socialists usually focus more on rationing, planning of investments and employment, price controls and public ownership of at least the most central means of production to plan their downscaling in a socially sustainable way65,77.

Both groups agree on the crucial role of bottom-up movements to change culture and values, push for the implementation of these top-down changes and establish parts of the new economy within the old47,50. Finally, eco-anarchists do not view the state as a central means to achieve the socio-ecological transformation. Instead, they stress the role of bottom-up grassroots initiatives, such as transition initiatives and eco-villages, in prefiguring the transformation as well as cultural and value changes as a necessary precondition for wider radical change. With these initiatives scaling up, the state might get used to remove barriers and to support establishing a participatory-democratic and localised post-capitalist economy54,77.

In summary, there seems to be some strategic overlap between reformist and the more radical eco-anarchist and eco-socialist approaches, at least in the short term77. The question remains how these solution approaches help in overcoming the capitalist dynamics previously outlined, since here bottom-up and governmental action seem to be limited. It is important to recognise the pivotal role of social movements in this process, which can bring forward social tipping points through complex, unpredictable and reinforcing feedbacks92,93 and create windows of opportunity from crises77,94.

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