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Luxurious Lifestyles Are Killing the Earth

How luxuries are killing the Earth—and our happiness.

The carbon footprint of the rich is enormous, as they live luxurious lifestyles with homes around the world, private jets, large yachts, designer clothes and jewelry, exotic vacations, and closets full of things they don’t use. The carbon emissions inequality is hard to believe—America’s 1 percenters emit fifteen times more greenhouse gas emissions per person than the average American and fifty times more than the average person worldwide.

Inequality and climate change go hand in hand around the world. Poor countries suffer the most from extreme weather, rising sea levels, and pollution. In particular, climate change causes a larger decline in national output in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa than in North America or the EU.

Let’s face it. The rich pollute the most and suffer the least from their pollution.

We need to ask—What do the rich achieve with their extravagant consumption? Not much, from a happiness and social welfare standpoint. The rich are not thriving, while they show off their self-importance. They are still feeling inadequate and wanting more because another rich person has an even longer yacht or a bigger house. We make ourselves miserable by comparing ourselves to one another. Thorstein Veblen, the 20th Century economist who coined the terms “conspicuous consumption” and “invidious comparisons,” pointed out how individuals use luxury goods to show off their status. Veblen observed that people were living on treadmills of wealth accumulation, competing incessantly with others but rarely increasing their own well-being.

This means that when inequality increases, we all feel less well-off even if our income has not gone down. Families compare their economic well-being to those at the top whose incomes are growing, and they see their lifestyle falling behind in comparison. Then economic insecurity replaces what had been considered a comfortable lifestyle, and the middle class and working families feel left behind. Meanwhile the rich spend their ever-higher incomes on status goods in the endless race to mark their position.

Over the past four decades, US economic growth has been captured by the top 5% of households. This growth begets more inequality without increasing social welfare, as it exacerbates invidious comparisons. Yet inequality continues to increase in the US, with the top 1% grabbing 95% of income growth and the bottom 90% experiencing declining incomes even as the economy recovered from 2009 to 2012. Feelings of social discontent and anxiety rise with growing inequality and keep people fighting to maintain their social position even as those at the top aren’t feeling more satisfied with their fancier lifestyles. Then the climate crisis is worsening within-country inequalities because low-income communities do not have the resources to recover from climate damages. Instead, a more equal distribution of income would improve social welfare, as invidious comparisons are replaced by communal feelings of belonging and status consumption of the rich is replaced by the basic consumption of families in need. We need to derive our happiness and well-being from other things than the material.

With rising incomes comes frivolous spending, which itself drives ever more needless consumption, all so we can try to maintain our relative position. This treadmill of wealth accumulation leads us to spend our incomes on status or luxury goods that tend to pollute the earth, instead of on what matters to us and our quality of life. Yet even though America’s top ten percenters emit six times the tCO2e of the bottom 50% of households, even the bottom 50% have an average carbon footprint that is four times the Paris Climate Accord goal of 2.1 tCO2e per person per year by 2050. The task to reduce CO2 for the United States with 16.4 tCO2 is much greater than for the European Union with 6.7 tCO2. If left unfettered, we cannot progress in the right direction of reducing our carbon footprint. Radical lifestyle shifts must happen. No longer can the rich consume mindlessly, with others running on the materialistic treadmill that the planet can no longer support.

How can we get off the wealth accumulation treadmill in an economic system that depends on it? Buddhist Economics provides a framework for creating an economy that works for all of us and for the earth. Once people have a comfortable standard of living with basic consumption and a social safety net, they derive happiness not from the pursuit of material goods or from invidious comparisons, but from each person caring for themselves and for others, and helping create and live in an equitable, resilient economy and society.

Buddhist Economics shows how inequality and climate change are intertwined, and how to structure our economy to provide basic consumption, education, healthcare, childcare, and a safety net to everyone. Then people can live a meaningful and balanced life that allows us and Mother Earth to thrive.

Posted by Clair Brown, Professor of Economics at UC Berkeley and author, Buddhist Economics:  an enlightened approach to the dismal science, and Jun Wong, research scientist at Stern School, New York University.

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