As we saw on Wednesday with the Natural Capital Declaration, there is increasing recognition for the planet’s finite resources and the need to reform a ‘business as usual’ model. Within a landscape framework, where there are multiple interests and multiple objectives, it is important that the non-monetary values of the well-being of people, ecosystems, and other natural resources be recognized. Professor Jules Pretty speaks to this from the findings of a recent journal article examining indicators of resource use. Like the commitments made by the private sector signatories of the Declaration, this piece also puts forward commitments that countries and society as a whole can follow.
A variety of global metrics indicate the Earth has overshot its capacity to supply source and sink resources without substantial negative feedback. In a recent paper, I analysed the relationship between consumption indicators (oil, freshwater, vehicle and meat consumption, gross domestic product (GDP), CO2 emissions) and well-being latitudinally across 189 countries, and over a period of 60 years within three affluent countries. All latitudinal analyses show the characteristic “consumption cliff and affluent uplands” shape: so at low per capita GDP, life satisfaction increases sharply up the cliff as GDP rises; after a threshold, well-being and wealth are no longer linked across the affluent uplands. Consuming more does not bring further benefits. Then looking at Japan, UK, and USA since the 1950s, GDP per capita has grown between three and eight fold, but mean levels of well-being remained unchanged. It is not good.
A priority will now be to create opportunities for divergent ways of living. Although material culture has been sought as the means to meet personal well-being, it has failed both the affluent and poorest. A green economy will require human attachments to both place and possessions, thus reducing disposal and damage. Such entanglement produces high affiliation that improves life satisfaction, as does much non-material consumption.
Conventional economic growth based on rising consumption of currently prevailing goods and technologies is not tenable. It will leave billions poor and under-consuming; it will leave the affluent unhappy; it will so damage finite natural capital that necessary mitigation and adaptation expenditure will be too great to contemplate. A shift to a green economy is inevitable. It is simply a question of whether it occurs before or after the world becomes locked into severe climate change and other loss of natural capital. On the assumption that before is preferable, then the following five commitments need quickly to be made and implemented:
- Commitments by affluent countries to reduce their material consumption by a factor of ten;
- Commitment by affluent countries to invest in improving the status of women in the poorest countries and support increased consumption of the poorest so that they can climb the consumption cliff;
- Commitments by all countries to invest in displacement technologies that improve natural capital whilst providing the necessary services to improve human well-being;
- Commitments by all countries to limit spending in areas that deplete natural capital;
- Commitments by all countries to employ taxes and market instruments to shift domestic consumer preferences and behaviour in all major economic sectors of energy, transport, buildings, agriculture, industry, forestry, and waste.
Both author E.M. Forester and Wendell Berry saw this need for a deeper connection with the land and recognition of its limits. “Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong forever,” said Margaret in Howard’s End by Forester, “it may be followed by a civilisation that won’t be a movement, because it will rest upon the earth.”
Pretty, J. 2013. The Consumption of a Finite Planet: Well-Being, Convergence, Divergence and the Nascent Green Economy. Environmental and Resource Economics. DOI: 10.1007/s10640-013-9680-9