Home > The Great Unraveling? > What’s Causing the Environmental Crisis?

Human destabilization of natural systems is related to a range of factors, including technology, population, and, importantly, levels and types of consumption. In turn, these factors are affected by a host of economic, political, legal, and cultural considerations, which differ markedly throughout the world. In this episode of the “Great Unraveling?” series, Julia Steinberger joins Laurie Laybourn-Langton to explore the socio-economic structures and dynamics driving the environmental crisis.

Julia Steinberger is Professor of Social Ecology and Ecological Economics at the University of Leeds and a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th Assessment Report. Her research project, “Living Well Within Limits,” investigates how universal human well-being might be achieved within planetary boundaries.



Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
Human destabilization of natural systems is related to a range of factors, including technology, population, and, importantly, levels and types of consumption. In turn, these factors are affected by a host of economic, political, legal, and cultural considerations which differ markedly throughout the world. In this episode, we explore the socio- economic structures and dynamics driving the environmental crisis.

To do so, I’m joined by Julia Steinberger, who is Professor of Social Ecology and Ecological Economics at the University of Lausanne. And a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report. A research project, “Living Well Within Limits,” investigates how universal human wellbeing might be achieved within planetary boundaries. Julia, welcome.

Julia Steinberger 
Thanks for having me.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
So, let’s kick off with a question about a recent paper that you and co-authors published in Nature. In it you explore the links between consumption, affluence, and the environmental crisis. Can you tell us a bit more about how they are linked?

Julia Steinberger 
So, I think the first link to make is between consumption and environmental damage, so consumption cannot happen without production and cannot happen without extraction from the environment. On the other side, there’s pollution, emissions waste, and, obviously, greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, carbon emissions are the—fun fact—largest waste, largest pollutant, by weight of industrial societies… so much larger than solid waste, for instance.

When we consider the whole system, consumption is often viewed as the driver. Sometimes people call production the driver of consumption itself. But consumption is not equally distributed. So almost all environmental impacts can be traced to consumption activities. But those consumption activities themselves can be associated with different income classes around the world. 

And so one of the things we can see, now that we have much higher resolution data, is that we can really see that high affluence. Income and wealth are always tied to higher levels of consumption, much higher levels of environmental impact. So complete—disproportionately high, in fact—because we see that affluent populations consume more energy-intensive and resource-intensive goods, particularly in the form of transport, than less affluent ones.

So we can really tie affluence and inequality to a large bulk of environmental impacts, which is really interesting. We see that not all consumers are equal environmentally, the same way that they’re not economically.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
And what do you say to those who posit that technology can be relied upon to successfully mitigate these unsustainable environmental impacts of consumption? So for example, you gave transport, there is a particular element of consumption among affluent groups that leads to disproportionate environmental impacts.

What do you say to those who say, “Well, fine, we are in the process of inventing technologies that will mean that we can decouple negative environmental impacts from that type of consumption.”

Julia Steinberger 
That’s something that I think is really tied to the fact that we’re seeing this dominant effect of affluence. And we’re seeing a very limited effect of technology. So one factor to understand is… there’s several facts to understand about technology.

First of all, technology is not neutral. Technology is not neutral in terms of the investment in technology. And in terms of the purposes of its use. So because we have certain industries that are currently dominant, they attract… there’s this phenomenon of state capture, whereby they take research and innovation funding for themselves, for developing their own technology. So we always see more technology, more research funding, even coming from the public sphere, into existing damaging technologies, than into ones that would have lower environmental impact.

So, talking about technology—sort of in a broad brush—really hides what’s happening in the structure of the economy, which is very, very different. Because we see that the structure of the economy is different, that it has different sectors, with different historical ties to the state, and so on. We cannot talk about technology as a single entity. 

The other thing that we see is that we had incredible technological development over the past century, over the past decades. And it is not decoupling environmental impacts from affluence, from economic growth. So it has a very, very strong record of failing to do that. What it can do, however, is it can drive economic growth. So it can, it can drive relative decoupling.

Each individual process might become slightly less environmentally damaging, but because technology makes the whole process cheaper, the economy as a whole can afford more of that process, leading to higher levels of resource use.

And we see this as a sort of macro—we call it the macro rebound effect—whereby a unit efficiency leads to overall scale increase in resource use in the economy.  And this is something that can be modeled, for instance by my colleagues, Marco Sakai and Paul Brockway, where they have a model which explicitly shows how technology efficiency leads to growth, and growth of the whole system leads to more resource use, leads to more pollution, leads to more impact. So that that’s one point.

However, technology is essential if we want… the right kind of technology, used in the right way, is really essential if we want to achieve what I would call “living well within limits.” Because one of the things that we’re seeing—for instance, when we look in developing countries or very low income countries—is that low-income households use more energy, have a larger energy footprint of their household, than high-income households. And the reason for that is technological availability, the availability of clean fuels, electricity, and efficient conversion appliances.

And so what we need is we need massive public investment in the right kind of technology to allow those households, who are super poor, to lead good living standards at low levels of energy use. And we can see equivalence in our own societies where we have very inefficient housing, very inefficient modes of transport. So the things we need to do to in our daily lives are inefficient, and we need public investment to get out of that. 

But it’s not a private question of private consumption, as much as it’s one of public investment across the board. And that — oriented towards sufficiency effectively, towards allowing people to do the things they need to do to lead a good life at a much lower level of impact—that’s essential to reach sustainability. Right now, our infrastructures and our modes of energy conversion are very inefficient. And that needs to be utterly transformed. So technology has a huge role to play.

Technology and economic growth are a very, very bad mix, which is what we’ve been seeing for the last decades. So, therefore, we require deeper changes to our socio-economic models than we currently have. So you’re talking now about the coupling of technology and with compounding material growth.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
What kind of changes therefore do we need to make in prevailing socio-economic models to ensure that people can live sufficiently and well within planetary boundaries?

Julia Steinberger 
So I think that this is one of the other points where we see ourselves having a negative effect, is that affluent people not only have affluent consumption and affluent lifestyles, they also are more powerful in terms of their socio economic influence, and in terms of their links to political power. So they have determining effects, right?

There’s several different ways in which affluence is detrimental. And I think that when we’re thinking about the transition to a positive socio-economic future, we also see the role of the affluent, the affluence of the 1%, whatever you want to call it, standing in the way of that. Also, because they are, in some ways representative and beneficiaries of the industries that benefit from economic growth, without requiring economic growth for their own stability, like the automotive industry, which requires growth for stability.

So, when we’re thinking about moving away from this damaging… I mean, planetary damages, things are very bad things need to change very fast, in a very, very different direction… we need to also confront this fact that we have an unequal society where certain class of people are benefiting from growth, as opposed to the rest of us, and also benefiting from the industries that are driving environmental destruction.

And that these things are tied together, that these are not separate things to consider. And I think in terms of moving away from that, one of the things we have to do is, we have to put well being and you know, public health—and in the time of coronavirus, very, very topical, we really see the importance of that. But it’s important from a climate perspective, an environmental perspective as well. We are talking about public health crises, effectively. We have to put those front and center.

I work in collaboration with the Wellbeing Economics Alliance. And what we’re seeing is the countries where the civil servants, and the policymakers, and the politicians have already started to engage with what would it mean to run our decision-making not based on economic growth, and then we expect good things to come from economic growth, but to actually focus on the good things themselves that we really need to do like environmental limits and well-being for our population… prosperity for our population… making sure that human needs are satisfied across the board under that people have good living conditions… If we make our decision-making go in that direction, we can do better for coronavirus. 

So the countries that already had that thinking, percolating at the back of their decision-making processes, were in fact able to face the coronavirus crisis in a different way. And thinking specifically about New Zealand, which is well-being economy. Scotland did a lot better than the rest of the UK. So there are places there are places where we’re actually…We don’t know what that new economy is.

Some people say, “Oh, if you don’t want growth, and capitalism as it is now, then you want to go back to Stalinist Russia.” Those are not the only two options. But it’s true that we’re thinking about what a well-being economy within environmental limits is, is something that nobody has done fully yet. And so we have to be on this journey.

In terms of policymakers, politicians, industry leaders, we have to go there, and we have to go there stepping into uncertain future. The only thing that’s certain is that on our current trajectory things are disastrous, with a very real likelihood of abolishing the conditions that are necessary for human civilization within a century, which is big. So we have to move away from that. And we have to move away from that under conditions of uncertainty.

But the things we can keep in our mind are principles and processes. The principles are to put human well-being first. And environmental necessities first. And these two things do not have to be contradictory. And that’s something that my research shows quite clearly.  But what we have to be able to do is, we have to be able to focus on the public provision of the conditions of good life at low-resource use. And that’s something that is not currently very well thought through.

But we’re seeing it emerge in cities, when cities are trying to become car free. We’re seeing it emerge in area-based massive housing retrofits, where you just have huge economies of scale, and just go through and allow people to live their lives without having huge energy bills, which is also good for the economy later on. And we have to sort of start moving in this direction of public luxury, private frugality—or private sufficiency—which is something that can really allow people to live well in a in a more durable way.

I think the other principle to keep in mind is one of economic democracy. There’s been a lot of criticism of green technologies. Michael Moore’s movie is just one example. I’m not going to get into that. But there are legitimate criticisms of extractive technologies on the green side. And what has to be kept in mind is a question of process and a question of putting, again, the well-being of people and their understanding of where this is going front and center. And I think Ketan Joshi wrote a very nice piece on the pros and cons of different ways of deploying renewable technologies.

This is something that we have to keep thinking about, that we can’t do this in a top-down, planned way, that we have to do it in a way that’s really engaging people at every level. And we have mechanisms to do that. We can think through what those different economic mechanisms look like. But I think that having this idea of economic democracy at the center of this is really important.

Laurie Laybourn-Langton 
Julia, we’ve reached time, thank you very much for talking with us today.

Julia Steinberger 
Thank you.