Why it is time to shift away from maximizing material production

A new study looks at how global progress towards achieving several SDGs is related to growth in gross domestic product (GDP) per person. Photo: J.F Salas/Unsplash

An income increase and purchasing power above US$15,000 will not help meet basic human needs and risks getting us off track on sustainable development goals

Story highlights

  • Transformation of the world towards sustainability in line with the 2030 Agenda requires progress in human well-being within the planetary boundaries
  • Study tracks development of wellbeing-related SDGs against GDP per person in seven world regions and the world as a whole
  • Main human needs are achieved at around US$15,000 measured in 2011 US$ purchasing power parity (PPP), across world regions

MO MONEY MO PROBLEMS: If everyone on Earth lived as the global richest 1%, we would be in trouble. So is it possible to improve global living standards and meet human needs and aspirations while staying within the planetary boundaries?

Yes, according to new research in Global Sustainability led by centre researcher David Collste.

Progress versus growth

The study, which was co-authored by colleagues Sarah Cornell, Johan Rockstrom and researchers from BI Norwegian Business School, looked at how global progress towards achieving wellbeing- and needs-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is related to growth in gross domestic product (GDP) per person.

In the development of Earth3 — a model that simulates linked socio-economic and environmental developments taking the 17 SDGs and nine planetary boundaries into consideration — the study found that main human needs are achieved at around US$15,000 measured in 2011 US$ purchasing power parity (PPP).

Our research demonstrates that a future in which the SDGs have been achieved with limited pressures on planetary boundaries is possible.

David Collste, lead author

Challenging the economic growth paradigm

Per capita GDP is used by economists to analyse the prosperity of a country based on its economic growth.

The research by Collste and his colleagues challenges the currently held grey growth paradigm, which asserts that continued economic growth is a universal remedy for some of the most pressing challenges of modern societies and should be a key goal of national and international economic policies.

It is also in line with studies of life satisfaction and the Easterlin paradox, which suggest there is a level where national income increases are no longer strongly associated with higher life satisfaction.

“There is rapidly growing consensus that it is time to shift the world's focus away from maximizing material production to assuring human well-being in a flourishing environment,” say the authors.

Moving forward

The insights from the Earth3 model contribute to a simple and straight-forward yet useful way to link human well-being SDG performance to income levels.

They will be being further explored in the context of the Earth4All project, an initiative initiated by The Club of Rome, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Norwegian Business School, building on the legacies of The Limits to Growth and the Planetary Boundaries frameworks.

“Achieving the SDGs within planetary boundaries is possible, but we do not have much time,” conclude the authors.

Read the article Human well-being in the Anthropocene: limits to growth

Published: 2022-01-31

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