Above a certain level, additional wealth does not bring greater happiness. More important are health, security, liberties and rights, equality, personal relationships, education, work, control over one’s life, leisure time, tranquillity, access to nature and a positive mind set. Addressing these nonmaterial needs would improve well-being without increasing consumption.
We must decouple human well-being from material consumption. Instead of seeking ever more stuff, individuals and society should focus on obtaining or providing well-being in nonmaterial ways. Research has found that once individuals reach a certain level of subsistence additional wealth has only limited impact on well-being. Thus, wealthier societies have not become markedly happier despite the increase over time in material prosperity.
There are a number of factors that affect well-being. These include physical and mental health, physical and financial security, civil and personal liberties and democratic rights, relative equality, familial and other personal relationships, education, meaningful and satisfying work, control or influence over one’s environment, time and affairs, leisure time and opportunities, lack of disturbance, access to nature and a positive mind set.
Ensuring these for the majority requires developing and maintaining a social environment that is compatible with these desires. Governments and other organizations are increasingly seeking to develop measurements of well-being as they recognize the limitations of a simple focus on gross national product.
What is a sustainable lifestyle?
Humanity as a whole is already consuming more resources than the Earth can in the longer term provide. Therefore consumption in the richer countries will have to be reduced to allow those in poorer countries to attain a decent lifestyle.
Consumption will inevitably grow in developing countries as they industrialise and urbanise, even if they take on board the need for sustainable lifestyles. It will be up to wealthier communities, principally in developed countries, to moderate their lifestyles and adopt consciously green practices.
Contraction and convergence
The concept of Contraction and Convergence (C&C) was conceived by the Global Commons Institute in the early 1990s. The principle is that the rich should consume progressively far less resources per capita than before, while the poor consume rather more than they did, so we converge towards a common ‘fair share’ for each, which the planet can sustain.
We support C&C or global equity, but it must take account of the plain arithmetic fact that every additional person reduces everyone else’s sustainable share. We have therefore insisted on including a population base year at which the ultimate target figures, notably for sustainable carbon emissions per person, should be calculated country by country. Without it, countries with high population growth would consume ever more, at the expense of those who had succeeded in restraining or reducing their numbers. We were delighted when Kofi Annan endorsed our view in his Chairman’s Key Recommendations following a conversation we had with him after a workshop we gave at the Global Humanitarian Forum in June 2009.
Population numbers, lifestyles, and sustainable technologies are a classic trade-off. If we want a sustainable future, we need to address not one or two but all three of these issues in parallel.