Environmental and Resource Economics

, Volume 55, Issue 4, pp 475–499 | Cite as

The Consumption of a Finite Planet: Well-Being, Convergence, Divergence and the Nascent Green Economy

  • Jules PrettyEmail author


A variety of global metrics indicate the Earth has overshot its capacity to supply source and sink resources without substantial negative feedback. Here the relationship between consumption indicators (oil, freshwater, vehicle and meat consumption, GDP, \(\mathrm{CO }_{2}\) emissions) and well-being is analysed latitudinally across 189 countries and longitudinally over 60 years within three affluent countries. All latitudinal analyses show the characteristic “consumption cliff and affluent uplands” shape: e.g. at low per capita GDP, life satisfaction increases sharply up the cliff with rising GDP; after a threshold, well-being is independent of GDP across the affluent uplands. Longitudinal analyses of Japan, UK and USA since the 1950s show per capita GDP has grown between 3- and 8-fold, but mean levels of well-being remained unchanged. Consumption patterns are now converging on those typical in affluent countries. Indicators for seven baskets of countries: Affluent North America–Europe–Oceania, Affluent Asia, fast developing BRICs and CIVETS, high income Resource Extractors, Poor with Green Peaks, and the Poorest show the factors of consumption between the poorest and affluent (5- to 100-fold) and the fast developing and affluent (2- to 10-fold). A finite planet cannot resource such convergence. One indicator, climate change, grows more of a concern as evidence emerges, yet denial remains strong. A priority is to create opportunities for divergent ways of living. Although material culture has been sought as the means to meet personal well-being, it has failed both the affluent and poorest. A green economy will require human attachments to both place and possessions, thus reducing disposal and damage. Such entanglement produces high affiliation that improves life satisfaction, as does much non-material consumption. As yet, most political and economic systems are far from recognising these imperatives, though there have been notable policy innovations. A shift to a green economy is inevitable. It is simply whether it occurs before or after the world becomes locked into severe climate change and other consequences of harm to natural capital.


Consumption Ecosystem services Green economies  Possessions and places Well-being 



I am grateful to Glenn Albrecht, Peggy Barlett, Fikret Berkes, Zareen Bharucha, Steffen Böhm, Bill McKibben, David Orr, Malcolm Potts, Colin Samson and Netta Weinstein for valuable advice and comments on earlier versions of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of EssexColchesterUK

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