climate change consumerism growth

Three priorities from the Royal Society

This week I’ve been reading People and the Planet, a report from the Royal Society. It’s a broad ranging survey of humanity’s relationship with the earth, and the interplay of consumption and rising population. They sum up the problem in three key challenges. Since they reflect a lot of my own thinking, I thought I’d post them.

First, the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people need to be raised out of extreme poverty. This is critical to reducing global inequality, and to ensuring the wellbeing of all people.

Second, in the most developed and the emerging economies unsustainable consumption must be urgently reduced. This will entail scaling back or radical transformation of damaging material consumption and emissions and the adoption of sustainable technologies, and is critical to ensuring a sustainable future for all.

Third, global population growth needs to be slowed and stabilised, but this should by no means be coercive. A large unmet need for contraception remains in both developing and developed countries.

I’ve focused my own writing around point number two, hence the blog title. We have agencies working on poverty and development. There are other organisations encouraging action on population growth. It’s that middle bit that tends to fall through the cracks, perhaps because it doesn’t look like a very appealing message.

In truth, there’s no reason why scaling back our material consumption should mean less fulfilling lives. We know the things that make life meaningful, and that past a certain point consumption only plays a supporting role to things like healthy relationships and rewarding work.

People and the Planet has more to say how this can be done. They mention decoupling, the circular economy and accounting practices that value natural capital. They suggest an emphasis on collaboration rather than competition that David Cameron would do well to listen to, having declared us to be in the economic equivalent of war earlier this week: “So long as an excess of competition between nations continues, the future of humanity is in doubt.”

They also cross the rubicon and mention growth. “At present, consumption is closely linked to economic models based on growth” they write. “There is a need to explore alternative models to the growth-based economy. This is not to suggest simply abandoning the current model. There are serious challenges in devising an economy with flat or contracting GDP. The most significant of these arise from the need to generate full employment for the working age population, the need to stabilise debt-based financial systems, and the need to maintain high quality public services. None of these difficulties eliminates the urgency of addressing the problem.”

In the midst of that scepticism about growth, they recognise the crucial fact that many of the world’s people need to increase their consumption. “In the richest parts of the world per capita material consumption is far above the level that can be sustained for everyone in a population of 7 billion or more. This is in stark contrast to the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people, who need to consume more in order to be raised out of extreme poverty.”

This is the balance we need to strike. Poorer countries need to grow and develop, while overdeveloped countries reduce their consumption and re-define what it means to be wealthy in the 21st century.


  1. Jeremy, You may also find some alignment with this:

    “Thus the issue of ecology economics is not only ‘the third bottom line’, it might be more aptly renamed the economics of survival of the human species. That includes everyone, regardless of one or another economic hypothesis or theory they might prefer. We can endlessly debate and discuss von Mises/von Hayek free market economics/capitalism which proved successful except for the times it failed, and then study why it failed – repeatedly, the most recent failure in September 2008. We can endlessly debate and discuss opposing Keynesian government interventionist economics/capitalism, which proved successful except for the times it failed. That has been an alternating pattern for the past eighty years in Western capitalism. We can discuss the successes and failures of various flavors of communism and fascism. At this point, the simple fact is that regarding economic theory, no one knows what to do next. Possibly this has escaped immediate attention in Ukraine, but, economists in the US as of the end of 2008 openly confessed that they do not know what to do. So, we invented three trillion dollars, lent it to ourselves, and are trying to salvage a broken system so far by reestablishing the broken system with imaginary money.

    Now there are, honestly, no answers. It is all just guesswork, and not more than that. What is not guesswork is that the broken – again – capitalist system, be it traditional economics theories in the West or hybrid communism/capitalism in China, is sitting in a world where the existence of human beings is at grave risk, and it’s no longer alarmist to say so.

    The question at hand is what to do next, and how to do it. We all get to invent whatever new economics system that comes next, because we must.”

    (From the 2008 presentation on Economics in Transition at Sumy 2008)

    1. Jeff, yesterday, I concluded with a very similar comment (in two sentences), to the piece you present above, and then deleted it as I felt it would be seen too negatively. Now, I must support it. The RS conclusions have been made by so many, for so long (even the contraceptive connection), so they are way behind the times, and they merely conclude with us needing negotiation! In some links to earlier blogs, Jeremy repeatedly mentions the inevitable slowness of it all. So, one cannot help but wish to bring action quicker than all these old words, words, words? Not very helpful, I know, but at least, it joins others in expressing our urgent need for more action and a desire to know how to bring it on quicker. Note to self – become more philosophical!

      1. It’s taken some time to connect with like minded others locally and that’s probably going to be the greatest part of the problem for most. Very recently a group of young people have occupied an unclaimed farm estate and begun developing a food sovereignty co-op. I’m trying to help connect local resources with the aim of developing an alternative local market infrastructure:

    2. That’s a very honest appraisal. It’s unusual for anyone to admit that it’s all guesswork from here, rather than pushing their own solution. And yes, our economics is locked in an irrelevant debate between two equally obsolete philosophies, but only at the top level. There are lots of interesting projects on the fringes, building that alternative.

  2. The is no avoiding hitting the wall, because there is no way you can make people -who aren’t already naturally inclined to do so- give up their consumption addiction. Get alternative working now so instead of fighting for resources -which seems the default- we start sharing them.

  3. Great post Jeremy and this is the conflict I live in working with the Global Poverty Project to alleviate extreme poverty from the world but just as passionate about simplicity where less is more. I suppose the best thing I feel I can do to ‘bring down consumption of the west’ is to model a life that is happy, simple and with lots of friends – Happy, simply. – a sustainable lifestyle model and education project.
    Would love to hear more about effective ways to achieve point No 2 as this blog does very well.

    1. There are so many good examples of people living happy simply. It’s just hard to compete with the 3,000 adverts people see every day! But if we’re modelling it to our friends and neighbours, that’s got to be enough for most of us.

      1. I agree but for me is how do we break it into the mainstream as they should be our audience. So I am always keen to learn and share how we do this and make it fun, attractive, worthy and low-threshold. We need the 101 of simplicity and global responsibility to then have people enter the spectrum and move themselves along it – just this blog does but I feel in a 201 kind of way. Basically how do we get more people to know and learn about the perspectives you cover in this blog… Not really a question more of a thought.

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