Tim Jackson

In a small apartment in the sprawling suburbs of Mumbai, the financial capital of India, 35-year-old George Varkey wakes at dawn to the sound of his newborn baby's uneven breathing. Already the apartment is hot and humid, the air stirred rather than cooled by small electric fans. His wife, Binnie, is preparing breakfast. His elderly parents, four-year-old son, and younger brother are all still in bed. George is keen to be ready early. Today a news team from the BBC in London is coming to visit.1

George's apartment has three rooms and a tiny kitchen. The modern apartment block has running water and electric power. There is a small fridge in the kitchen and a TV in every other room. The family's latest acquisition is a DVD player. Outside is George's Suzuki sedan, essential to his small advertising business. He takes home 55,000 rupees (a little under $1,200) a month. Together with his brother's earnings as a mechanic and his wife's part-time nursing, the family lives reasonably well on just over 1 million rupees ($24,000) a year, well above the average household income in India of $3,000 a year.2 George and his family are part of a rapidly growing consumer market—India's "bird of gold." In the last two decades, household income has roughly doubled. In the next two decades, average incomes are expected to triple. By 2025 India will be the fifth largest consumer market in the world, surpassing even Germany in terms of overall spending. On a per capita basis, however, India will still be poor. Each person will still spend on average less than 50,000 rupees, a little over $1,000, a year. Yet in only 20 years the share of the population classified as "deprived" will be more than halved—from 54 percent today to 22 percent by 2025. And this is in spite of the fact that by then India will nearly have passed China to become the most populous nation on Earth.3

Dr. Tim Jackson is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom.

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles

Someone who might benefit from this economic "miracle" is 26-year-old Vidya Shedge, another participant in the BBC program. Vidya lives with 10 members of her family in a single room in the considerably poorer outskirts of Mumbai. There is no running water, no fridge, and no DVD player. But they do now have electricity—enough to burn three incandescent lightbulbs and a couple of fans during the hottest part of the day. Vidya's ambition is to save enough from her 7,500 rupees ($160) a month job in a bank to afford a car. She, too, is looking forward to her visit from the BBC. They want to talk to her about "carbon footprints."

Perhaps surprisingly, both George and Vidya already know something about climate change. They understand that human activities are responsible for global warming. George has even discussed what his household can do to reduce their carbon emissions. Every room in the apartment has energy-efficient lightbulbs. A little more surprisingly, and in spite of believing that the industrial world must lead the way, both George and Vidya are relatively optimistic that something can be done to halt climate change.

A recent international survey confirms these counterintuitive findings. In June 2007 the HSBC Bank published a Climate Confidence Index. People in India showed the highest level of concern about climate change—60 percent of respondents placed it at the top of their list of concerns—the highest commitment to change (alongside Brazil), and the highest level of optimism that society will solve this problem. Skepticism and intransigence, it seems, are mainly the domain of industrial nations. The United States and the United Kingdom scored lowest on commitment. France and the United Kingdom scored lowest on optimism. India's optimism in finding solutions is driven in particular by the younger age groups. A whole new gen eration of Indians see hope in the future.4 Justifying that hope will not be easy. For George's family, life has clearly improved since his parents' generation. And yet his standard of living—measured in conventional terms—is modest at best. Vidya's family has a massive hill to climb. Eleven people living in one small room with a combined income of $16 a day is a level of poverty long consigned to history in the West. So how is it going to be possible for George, Vidya, 1 billion other Indians, and great numbers of Chinese (not to mention people in Africa, Latin America, and the rest of Southeast Asia) to achieve the standard of living taken for granted in the United States—and still "solve the problem" of climate change?

How can a world of finite resources and fragile environmental constraints possibly support the expectations of 9 billion people in 2050 to live the lifestyle exemplified for so long by the affluent West? That is the challenge that guides and frames this chapter.5

The Math of Sustainability

Broadly speaking, the impact of human society on the environment is determined by the number of people on the planet and the way in which they live. The math of the relationship between lifestyle and environment is pretty straightforward. It was set out several decades ago by Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University and has been explored in detail in many other places since. In essence, the lesson is simple. Reducing the overall impact that people have on the environment can happen in only a limited number of ways: changing lifestyles, improving the efficiency of technology, or reducing the number of people on the planet.6

The question of population is clearly critical. Population is one of the factors that "scales" humanity's impact on the planet.

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles

Table 4-1. Population and Carbon Dioxide Emissions, Selected Countries, 2004




or Region



per Person


(million tons)

(tons of CO2)

United States
























United Kingdom












European Union

(15 countries)








Source: See endnote 7.

Another is the expectations and aspirations of the increasing population. This chapter focuses primarily on the latter. But a simple example based on George and Vidya's carbon footprints helps illustrate the relationship.

In George's household, the carbon footprint is around 2.7 tons of carbon dioxide (tCO2) per person. In Vidya's, it is less than a fifth of this, under 0.5 tCO2 per person. (The average carbon footprint in India is 1 tCO2 per person.) The difference is mainly due to the different level and pattern of consumption in the two households, since the efficiency of technology providing goods and services is pretty much the same. Basically, George's household enjoys a much higher standard of living in conventional terms. If India's 1 billion people all lived as George does now, that country would have moved from fifth place in the list of carbon emitters in 2004 to third, below only the United States and China. (See Table 4-1.) Their personal carbon footprints would still be low by western standards, however.7

The technological efficiency of providing goods and services is higher in the European Union (EU) and the United States than it is in India. All other things being equal, then, this should lower the carbon footprint in industrial nations. So huge regional disparities in per capita footprint are almost entirely due to the pattern and level of consump-tion—to differences in lifestyle.

Clearly, western nations have been the key driver of climate change so far. Between 1950 and 2000, the United States was responsible for 212 gigatons of carbon dioxide, whereas India was responsible for less than 10 percent as much. So it is clear that the richest people on the planet are appropriating more than their fair share of "environmental space." Yet this lifestyle is increasingly what the rest of the world aspires to.8

Much is made of efficiency improvements. And some relative improvements in the carbon intensity of growth are evident in some countries. (See Figure 4-1.) But these gains are slow at best, and in China they have been reversed in recent years. This is one reason that China's carbon dioxide emissions recently surpassed those of the United States. Across the world as a whole, greenhouse gas emissions grew by 80 percent between 1970 and 2004 and could double again by 2030.9

In summary, any gains in technological efficiency are simply being swamped by the sheer scale of rising aspirations and an increasing population. If everyone in the world lived the way Americans do, annual global CO2 emissions would be 125 gigatons—almost five times the current level—by the middle of the century. In stark contrast, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has esti-

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles

Figure 4-1. Carbon Intensity of GDP, 1990-2004

0.0 1990

Figure 4-1. Carbon Intensity of GDP, 1990-2004

Source: IEA


United States


- EU15













mated that the world needs to reduce global emissions by as much as 80 percent over 1990 levels by 2050 if "dangerous anthropogenic climate change" is to be averted. This would mean getting global emissions below 5 gigatons and reducing the average carbon footprint to well under 1 ton per person, lower than it now is on average in India.10

This challenge clearly calls for an examination of assumptions about the way people live. What is it that drives and frames people's aspirations for the "good life"? What lies behind the runaway aspirations that seem so unstoppable in the West and are rapidly becoming the object of desire in every other nation?

The "Science of Desire"

In the conventional economic view, consumption is the route to human well-being. The more people have, the better off they are deemed to be. Increasing consumption leads to improved well-being, it is claimed.

This view goes a long way toward explaining why the pursuit of the gross domestic product (GDP) has become one of the principal policy objectives in almost every country. Rising GDP symbolizes a robust and thriving economy, more spending power, richer and fuller lives, increased family security, greater choice, and more public spending. The rise of India's "bird of gold," its consumer class, is heralded in financial markets with huge delight. China's vigorous economy has led to an equally striking sense of market optimism.11

Economics has remained almost willfully silent, however, on the question of why people value particular goods and services at all. The "utilitarian" model has become so widely accepted that most modern economic textbooks barely even discuss its origins or question its authenticity. The most that economists can say about people's desires is what they infer from patterns of expenditure. If the demand for a particular automobile or household appliance or electronic device is high, it seems clear that consumers, in general, prefer that brand over others. Their reasons for this remain opaque within economics.12

Fortunately, other areas of research—such as consumer psychology, marketing, and "motivation research"—have developed a somewhat richer body of knowledge. This "science of desire" has mainly been dedicated to helping producers, retailers, marketers, and advertisers design and sell products that consumers will buy. Little of the research concerns itself explicitly with the environmental or social impacts of consumption.

Indeed, some of it is downright antithetical to sustainability. But its insights are extremely valuable for a proper understanding of consumer motivation.13

For a start, it is immediately clear that consumption goes way beyond just satisfying physical or physiological needs for food, shelter, and so on. Material goods are deeply implicated in individuals' psychological and social lives. People create and maintain identities using material things. "Identity," claim consumer researchers Yiannis Gabriel and Tim Lang, "is the Rome to which all theories of consumption lead." People narrate the story of their lives through stuff. They cement relationships to others with consumer artefacts. They use consumption practices to show their allegiance to certain social groups and to distinguish themselves from others.14 It may seem strange at first to find that simple stuff can have such power over emotional and social lives. And yet this ability of human beings to imbue raw stuff with symbolic meaning has been identified by anthropologists in every society for which records exist. Matter matters to people. And not just in material ways. The symbolic role of mere stuff is borne out in countless familiar examples: a wedding dress, a child's first teddy bear, a rose-covered cottage by the sea. The "evocative power" of material things facilitates a range of complex, deeply ingrained "social conversations" about status, identity, social cohesion, and the pursuit of personal and cultural meaning.15

Material possessions bring hope in times of trouble and offer the prospect of a better world in the future. In a secular society, consumerism even offers some substitute for religious consolation. Recent psychological experiments have shown that when people become more aware of their own mortality, they strive to enhance their self-esteem and protect their cultural worldview. In a con-

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles sumer society, this striving has materialistic outcomes. It is almost as though people are trying to hold their existential anxiety at bay by shopping.16

At a recent Consumer Forum organized for the Sustainable Consumption Round-table in the United Kingdom, people were asked to talk about their hopes and fears for the next decade or so. They spoke about their desire to do well for their children and grandchildren. There was a strong wish to live in safe, sociable communities. People expressed spontaneous concern about others, about poverty in the developing world, and—without being told the interests of the sponsors—about the environment: climate change, resource scarcity, recycling. Shot through these expressions of concern, however, like a light relief, were recurrent, persistently materialist themes: big houses, fast cars, and holidays in the sun. Getting on and getting away pervades narratives of lifestyle success.17

This deep reliance on material goods for social functioning is not unique to the western world. George and Vidya also say they want to see a good future for their children. They want to do well and be seen to do well among their peers. Just below the surface, these aspirations are cashed out in broadly western terms. Vidya's overriding ambition is to afford a car. For the first time in their lives, George and Binnie are planning a holiday outside India. Getting on and getting away means as much there as it does in London, Paris, New York, and Sydney.18

Very similar values and views are clearly discernible in China, Latin America, and even parts of Africa. The consumer society is now in effect a global society—one in which, to be sure, there are still "islands of prosperity, oceans of poverty," as Indian ecologist Madhav Gadjil puts it. But one in which the evocative power of material goods

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles increasingly creates the social world and provides the dominant arbiter of personal and societal progress.19

The Paradox of Well-being

In the conventional view, the recipe for progress is simple: the more people consume, the happier they will be. A close look at what motivates consumers uncovers a whole range of factors—family, friendship, health, peer approval, community, purpose—known to have a strong correlation with reported happiness. In other words, people really do consume in the belief that it will deliver friends, community, purpose, and so on. But there is a paradox at work here that at one level is tragic. People have a good grasp of the things that make them happy but a poor grasp of how to achieve these things. The assumption that more and more consumption will deliver more and more well-being turns out to be wrong.20 Using data collected in the World Values Survey, Ronald Inglehart and Hans-Dieter Klingemann examined the hypothesis that happiness (or life satisfaction) is linked to income growth. The good news is that the equation just about works for George and Vidya. There is an increasing trend in life satisfaction at lower levels of income. (See Figure 4-2.) The bad news is that the relationship will begin to diminish as their incomes rise further. Across most industrial countries there is at best only a weak correlation between increased income and reported happiness. And in countries with average incomes in excess of $15,000, there is virtually no correlation between increased income and improved life satisfaction.21

The same paradox is found within individual nations over time. Real income per head has tripled in the United States since 1950, but the percentage of people reporting themselves to be very happy has barely increased at all—in fact, it has declined since the mid-1970s. In Japan, there has been little change in life satisfaction over several decades. In the United Kingdom, the percentage reporting themselves very happy dropped from 52 in 1957 to 36 today.22

Some key aspects of people's well-being, far from improving, appear to have declined in western nations. Rates of depression have been doubling every decade in North America. Fifteen percent of Americans age 35 have already experienced a major depression. Forty years ago, the figure was only 2 percent. One third of people in the United States now experience serious mental illness at some point in their lives, and almost half of these will suffer from a severe, disabling depression. During any single year, about 6 percent of the population will suffer from clinical depression; suicide is now the third most common cause of death among young adults in North America.23

Teasing out the underlying causes of this unhappiness is not particularly easy. But there are two fairly compelling sets of data suggesting that consumerism itself is partly to blame. The first set suggests a negative correlation between materialistic attitudes and subjective well-being. Philosopher Alain de Boton has shown how an unequal society leads to high levels of "status anxiety" in its citizens. Psychologist Tim Kasser and his colleagues have shown how people with more materialistic attitudes—people who define and measure their own worth through money and material possessions—report lower levels of happiness. Striving for self-esteem through material wealth appears to be a kind of "zero-sum game" in which the constant need for betterment and approval only serves to entrench people in an almost neurotic spiral of consumption.24

A second, equally compelling set of evidence relates rising unhappiness to the undermining of certain key institutions. Subjective

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles

Figure 4-2. Subjective Well-being and Per Capita Income, 2000

Source: : Inglehart and Klingemann

H 50

Iceland Netherlands v 0

Puerto Rico 4



Ghanai Nigeria® Bangla- • desh 0 India


Brazil Argentina Venezuela

Pakistan ®Poland nCzech • Republic

Zealand ► South Korea


Denmark Norway

Australia • Belgium Britain Itlly



United States




Azerbaijan i

Georgia Lithuania®


Ukraine 4

I Estonia • Romania > Bulgaria t Russia


1000 5000 9000 13000 17000 21000

GNP per Person (ppp estimates, 1995 dollars)


well-being depends critically on family stability, friendship, and strength of community. But these aspects of life have suffered in the consumer society. Family breakdown, for example, has increased by almost 400 percent in the United Kingdom since 1950. The percentage of Americans reporting their marriages as "very happy" declined significantly over just 20 years during the latter part of the last century. People's trust and sense of community have fallen dramatically over the last 50 years.

In the middle of the twentieth century, more than half of all Americans believed that people were "moral and honest." By 2000 the proportion had fallen to little over a quarter. Participation in social and community activities declined markedly over the same period.25 In other words, there appears to be a correlation between rising consumption and the erosion of things that make people happy— particularly social relationships. This correlation does not necessarily mean, of course,

The Challenge of Sustainable Lifestyles that one thing "causes" the other. But in practice, as described later, there are some pretty compelling reasons to take seriously the idea that the structures and institutions that are needed to maintain growth simultaneously erode social relationships. As economist Richard Layard describes it: consumption growth has "brought some increase in happiness, even in rich countries. But this extra happiness has been cancelled out by greater misery coming from less harmonious social relationships."26

One tragic result of this elusive search for happiness is that industrial societies are closing off options for other people, both now and in the future, to lead fulfilling lives— without even being able to show reward for it in the here and now.

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