We all want to live well. Why shouldn't we? Wanting to do it is only human, after all. There's just one problem: Conspicuous consumption, often mistaken for living well, is environmentally unsustainable.
Don't take our word for it. There is research to prove it.
According to a recent article published in the journal Nature Sustainability, planet Earth simply does not have enough resources to allow the more than 7 billion people in the world to live comfortably. After examining more than 150 countries, the international team of study authors found that none of these nations is committed to true sustainability. Meaning: All of these countries exploit far more of their available resources than is good for the planet.
That should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the situation in Europe, where millions of citizens waste too much water, too much food and too many natural resources. On the other hand, there are similar patterns of waste across much of the planet.
"We found that no country meets the basic needs of its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use," the researchers write.
"Almost everything we do, from dining to surfing the Internet, uses resources in some way, but the connections between resource use and human well-being are not always visible to us," added lead author Daniel. O'Neill, of the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds in the UK.
While the planet's resources are adequate to meet the basic needs of people around the world, the quest by millions and millions of people to live beyond the means of the Earth is putting great pressure on those resources. Worse still, rich nations are using planetary resources at such high rates that developing countries have little left.
"Although rich nations like the United States and the United Kingdom meet the basic needs of their citizens, they do so at a level of resource use that goes far beyond what is globally sustainable," said one of the researchers. "In contrast, countries that are using resources at a sustainable level, like Sri Lanka, are not meeting the basic needs of their people."
What is needed are drastic changes in conspicuous consumer lifestyles. "Radical changes are needed for all people to live well within the limits of the planet," said Julia Steinberger, another scientist at the University of Leeds who was involved in the project. "This includes going beyond the pursuit of economic growth in rich nations, moving rapidly from fossil fuels to renewable energy and significantly reducing inequality."
Unfortunately, two of these goals are mutually incompatible. Reducing economic inequality in the long run without economic growth will not work, at least without a drastic redistribution of accumulated wealth, which has been attempted in communist countries and has invariably led to massive impoverishment of the general population. But the message remains clear: consuming natural resources beyond our means is bad for the planet and ultimately for us too.