To be rich is a thing that many in our society spend their whole lives striving for. Not having to worry about money and indeed, splashing it on designer clothes, chains of diamonds and private planes is seen by some to be the ultimate dream.
But life like this comes at more of a cost than we realise. To coincide with the 2017 World Economic Forum, Oxfam published a new report, which claimed that the eight richest people in the world control the same wealth as half of the world’s population. A vital debate certainly – and yet not the only one that needs to be had.
We know that “wealthy” countries in Europe, North America and parts of Asia have higher per-capita environmental burdens than poorer countries, and that the people of the former are living beyond the bio-physical boundaries – the limits of the environment – in order to do so. But those at the top levels of these countries are practising lifestyles with even higher environmental consequences, enabled by their own wealth.
In an average mature economy like the UK’s, the ecological footprint is 6.69 global hectares per person. That means if everybody in the world had this lifestyle we would need 3.7 planets to support us all. Yes, there are those who are living with a smaller footprint, but that is not a life the majority are striving for.
Life of luxury
The wealthy few who embrace luxurious and extravagant lifestyles impose a great burden on the environment because they acquire so many possessions, and then use them in particularly profligate ways. Many have private jets and super-yachts.
Of course, those of us who are not in the elite minority could just be envious of those with affluent lifestyles. Or maybe many of those at the top have been deflecting or otherwise containing the debate, side-steppping it as they are so often accused of doing with taxation. It may even be that we all ignore the environmental consequences because modern society sees the “jet-set” lifestyle as one to aspire to, not denigrate. Perhaps all of us have some guilt in the knowledge that we too have recklessly extravagant elements to our lives, and that these may be rather difficult to change.
The luxury consumption and sustainability debate is one that Plato had back in 380 BC. But then, the threats of climate change and other environmental issues were not so pressing.
Now, the future of the planet relies on humans worldwide creating policies to mitigate our own environmental burdens. But by targeting those affluent lifestyles which are doing more ecological damage, we might be able to address the disproportionate cost.
Affluence and sustainability
However, it is not as easy as saying we need to limit how many mansions one person owns; there are several components to the ecological burdens of wealth. Neither is this something that can be expressed simply by looking at above-average carbon emissions – though that certainly is one important dimension.
Take a look at this example: the annual average personal carbon footprint was 7.3 tonnes in 2010, and yet the estimated sustainable footprint we should all have by 2050 is 1.5 tonnes per annum. A Learjet private plane, flying on one trip from Aspen, Colorado to San Francisco – 1,386.6km (861 miles) – would, according to our calculations, have CO₂ emissions of 4,411.8kg. By contrast, driving the average car 10,000km (6,213 miles) over a year would emit about 1,600kg of CO₂.
But to live an affluent lifestyle, one does more than hop on a jet. There are the houses, cars, boats, clothes, jewellery, technology – money is no object so there is no limit to the amount of objects one can possess.
You might be wondering how simply owning a lot of “things” can damage the environment. One way to understand this is through the ecological rucksack concept. This measures the total quantity in kilograms of materials moved from nature to create a product or service, minus the actual weight of the product. Aluminium, for example has a rucksack “factor” of 85:1, so 85kg of material is required to make 1kg of aluminium. Diamonds on the other hand have a factor of 53,000:1.
Though we all know what a standard lifestyle of the rich looks like nowadays, in truth the ecological footprint is largely unknown beyond the individual acts we can analyse. We could be dangerously underestimating the damage that a handful of people are doing to the environment, and not properly mitigating it.
This is not just a call for research into affluent lifestyles, we must name and shame those who are being reckless with the environment for the sake of themselves, and instigate policy action to stop them.
Eight billionaires might not account for half of the world’s environmental problems – and perhaps they do a lot of good, too – but the ecological burdens they create are surely greater than eight subsistence farmers in India. And it is about time we knew just how much more damage they are doing.
About The Author
Peter Wells, Professor of Business and Sustainability, Cardiff University and Anne Touboulic, Assistant Professor, University of Nottingham