/ 27 January 2017

​Wealth is a threat to environment

South Africa is a hyper-consumerist country - only the United States
South Africa is a hyper-consumerist country - only the United States

To be rich is a thing that many people in our society spend their whole lives striving for. Not having to worry about money and 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.

The wealthy few who embrace luxurious and extravagant lifestyles impose a great burden on the environment. They acquire so many possessions, then use them in particularly profligate ways. Many have private jets and super-yachts.

There are several components to the ecological burdens of wealth. They can’t be expressed simply by looking at above-average carbon emissions, though that is one important dimension.

Take a look at this example: the annual average personal carbon footprint was 7.3 tonnes in 2010, but the estimated sustainable footprint we should all have by 2050 is 1.5 tonnes a year.

A Learjet private plane, flying on one trip from Aspen, Colorado, to San Francisco — 1 386.6km — would, according to our calculations, have carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of 4 411.8kg. By contrast, driving the average car 10 000km over a year would emit about 1 600kg of CO2.

There are also the houses, cars, boats, clothes, jewellery and technology. 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, meaning that 85kg of material is required to make 1kg of aluminium. Diamonds 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 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 time we knew just how much more damage they are doing.

Anne Touboulic is an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham. Peter Wells is professor of business and sustainability at Cardiff University.

Read the full version of this piece at theconversation.com