An alternative framework of international development and new forms of consumption of good/services are implicit in achieving the goals of UN climate conference recently held in Poland.

With 4.3 billion persons living on $5 or less per day, we cannot expect these persons or their countries to initially participate in the cost of climate change improvement without more favorable development. The reduction of hunger and poverty are inherent in the fight for a better climate because the poor are exactly the most exposed and least protected to adverse climate change. Rather than favor the developing world, the advanced nations have encumbered them with debt and exportation of profits; the net financial flows for the developing world are negative by 26.5 trillion dollars between 1980 and 2012 (Hickel, 2017). A more radical and effective development framework is emerging as proposed by the same author in his book The Divide. Certainly it will be an uphill battle as it involves elimination of debt burdens of developing countries, more global democracy in international financial institutions, more just wages, tax justice and land security.

Obviously the current Western model of production and consumption is highly individualistic, targeting through advertising our desires, by following the trails of our digital lives through almost all of our Internet apps on cell phones and other digital devices. Even our political orientation can be influenced in this way. The consumption is short-term “sugar-high” satisfaction, to be repeated by purchase of another product shortly thereafter. This is extremely costly to the environment, overloading us with the production, consumption and transportation of products that serve secondary needs. The capitalization of companies selling consumer discretionary goods/services is 60 per cent of the capitalization of companies in the entire consumer sector of the S&P500 companies this year (Bespoke, 2018).

And this is in sharp contrast to what really makes us happy: strong social relationships. The famous Harvard Study of Adult Development has proved that embracing community helps us live longer, and be happier. Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives. Importantly, international studies on happiness indicate that happy countries have high social capital and strong friendship networks. A cross-national study of 143 countries revealed that high levels of social trust and having someone to count on in case of need are associated with more positive feelings, better life evaluations, and the absence of negative feelings in most countries of the world. Also persons who participate in volunteering activities and with a high level of social trust are more likely than their peers to have better life evaluations and more positive feelings (Calvo et al. 2012).

A new model of consumption is emerging based on social experience and sharing. The experience of culture in a social setting in the form of a concert or intelligent tourism staying with local natives and guides are examples. In the future, services that enhance our sociality will grow. We also have come to realize that we can share under-utilized capacity of our basic properties such as homes and automobiles; and the sharing economy has been born. In the past everyone enjoyed owning a car or a record, instead now use is more important that ownership. This greatly reduces the number of goods that must be produced. Sociality and sharing have a much lighter ecological footprint than the continuation of individualistic consumption of goods. The long-term gains of the sharing economy in terms of better utilization of capacity have been estimated at 570 billion euro for the EU28, according to the European Parliamentary Research Service (Goudin, 2016).

Developing nations should be aware of these alternatives; otherwise they will develop slowly and fall into the trap of consumerism that business is so anxious to sell, which may lock them into energy infrastructures and greenhouse gas production that they could have, at least in part, avoided. We are reminded that according the latest data 670,000 MW of coal power plant capacity is currently in planning or already under construction in 59 countries (Urgewald, 2018). We are individuals and will always require some satisfaction of individual needs beyond the basic requirements of food, shelter, health and education; but at our best we are social, and should recognize that we have let individualism go too far in consumption and international relations.

Text by William Mebane, former Director of Energy Efficiency Department, ENEA

Bespoke (2018)
Calvo R., Zheng Y., Kumar S., Olgiati, A., Berkman L., (2012), Well-Being and Social Capital on Planet Earth: Cross-National Evidence from 142 Countries
Goudin, P., European Parliamentary Research Service, European Added Value Unit PE 558.777- January 2016
Hickel, J. (2017), The Divide, Windmill Books, London.
Urgewald (2018), Coalexit