Prof Julia Steinberger (Twitter, Wikipedia, Google Scholar) is Professor of Professor of Societal Challenges of Climate Change at the University of Lausanne. Her research examines the connections between resource use (energy and materials, greenhouse gas emissions) and societal performance (economic activity and human wellbeing), and she was a Lead Author for the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report with Working Group 3 on mitigation.
Her research on ‘Living Well Within Limits’ shows it is entirely possible just extremely unlikely. Everyone can have decent living standards but only if there is equality.
Her work shows that there is no opposition possible between acting to prevent the worst and acting to enable good things. In short, in order to avoid the hell of runaway climate change we need to create a version of heaven, where all have decent living standards.
Recorded: Fri 4 March 2022.
Living Well Within Limits (LiLi) addresses crucial but understudied questions including: If remaining within planetary boundaries requires rapid decreases in resource & energy use, how could these scarce resources best be employed to enhance and preserve well-being?
Some important publications from LiLi:
- Providing decent living with minimum energy: A global scenario. Conclusion: possible to meet all global population needs with 1960s levels of energy use.
On ‘trade is extractive from Global South to Global North’, see Hickel, Jason, et al. “Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: drain from the global south through unequal exchange, 1990–2015.” Global Environmental Change 73 (2022): 102467.
‘Decent Living Conditions’ (4:50) — Rao, N.D., Min, J. Decent Living Standards: Material Prerequisites for Human Wellbeing. Soc Indic Res 138, 225–244 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-017-1650-0
‘Fair’ inequality, consumption and climate mitigation, Joel Millward-Hopkins and Yannick Oswald 2021 Environ. Res. Lett. 16 034007
IPCC Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability here
“It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell” UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, 1954 here
UK Citizens Assembly on the path to Net Zero here. Wikipedia entry on the French Citizens Convention for Climate here.
Geographic experiments in ways of taking control of economic parts of their lives: Big Local; New Constellations; Participatory City.
Foundational Economyis a collective of (mainly) European academic researchers working together to develop a new way of thinking which challenges mainstream ideas about what economic policy should be.
0:55 – Q1 What are you doing now? And how did you get there?
4:05 – BONUS QUESTION: Is it possible to live well within limits?
6:25- BONUS QUESTION: for everyone to reach a decent living standard, is it necessary to have equality (or, do we need to take away the billionaire yatchs)?
10:22 – Q2. What is the future you are trying to create, and why?
12:50 – BONUS QUESTION: Given the impacts of claimte change, is there a tension between (1) avoiding the worst and (2) creating decent living standards for all?
21:09 – Q3. What are your priorities for the next few years, and why?
26:15 – Q4. If someone was inspired to follow those priorities, what should they do next?
29:00 – Q5. If your younger self was starting their career now, what advice would you give them?
29:56 – Q6. Who would you nominate to answer these questions, because you admire their approach?
30:45 – Q7. Is there anything else important you feel you have to say?
Quotes, Insights and Themes
“If you’ve got to the thing you want to study you have to take yourself where the question takes you.”
In Living Well Within Limits was able to model minimum energy requirements for wellbeing and satisfaction. Next:
- Dynamic model starting from existing infrastructure and industry towards living well within limits. Including labour and how we work.
- Consider trade. Current trade relations dependent on raw resource extractivism from the global south to the global north.
Living well within limits is entirely possible just extremely unlikely.
- Possible technically: we can deliver decent living conditions with existing technologies using less than half of current global energy use.
- Extremely unlikely because it involves equalising the world. Taking away the yatchs and investing in low-carbon infrastructure.
When you model ‘fair inequality’ (where everyone reaches a decent minimum, but others can go further) you only need some ‘over’-consumption before you balloon out of your energy budget and make transition to low carbon energy system much more difficult.
With sustainability, there’s no free lunch. Everything you choose to do, except for not consume, comes with its own consequences. And even not consuming comes with its consequences in terms of deprivation.
Renewable energy is great but it relies on extraction of critical minerals from geopolitically sensitive locations with vulnerable populations.
At some point this century, and hopefully not in a a sudden way, we’re going to reach maximum population. Population is not the driver of our current environmental problems. Consumption and inequality are. High consumers are driving the lion’s share. But if you do this levelling up thing, if you say, every, every human being on the planet has a commitment from all of us to live a decent lives have decent living standards, then population does become the limiting factor.
If we can get over that population hump, and then on the other side, at some sort of minimum level then, who knows, future generations may have the headroom for more inequality.
What I am trying to do is give people something else to aim for than just economic growth (as currently understood).
Many people are trapped in a mindset where we only get good things through a certain level of economic activity. I wanted to give people something to aim for in terms of much more reducing consumption, reducing demand levels, possibly having economic growth, but still ensuring, you know, living conditions where people are safe.
I think our project did contribute quite a bit in terms of opening up that space of imagination and saying, there is a different world out there to aim for, like, we don’t have to think about it purely through an economic cost benefit lens, we can think about it through: What is the economy enabling to us to do in terms of investment, in terms of getting everybody through the next to the next few decades, which are going to be so dangerous?
There is no trade off between avoiding the worst and creating decent living standards for all. And there also are very few options. If you want to do climate, you have to do sustainable development. And if you want to do sustainable development, you have to do climate.
There is no opposition possible between acting to prevent the worst and acting to enable good things. Because if we fail on either count, we basically enter the zone where we fail along the board.
As the recent IPCC Working Group 2 report on climate impacts shows there, there is no way that the vast majority of humanity and biodiversity can adapt to certain levels of warming.
Aiming for two degrees of warming (which we shouldn’t do, we should be aiming for far lower than that already means shutting down fossil fuel infrastructure and industry within the next couple of decades, within, you know, a little bit slower than for 1.5 degrees, but you still got to do it.
We can only create safety by creating good living conditions.
Because if you don’t do that your efforts to try to keep the fossil fuels in the ground are going to fall apart because people are going to be fighting for their lives. And so that’s another thing is that the we need to create the good conditions that allow people to make it through without fossil fuels. And that does not allow us to have massive levels of inequality for instance.
David’s summary: Our action on climate, biodiversity and other issues has been so slow, that we have removed lots of other kinds of options. Before we had several possible paths that avoided catastrophe. Now we have one rather rickety rope bridge across an abyss for the next couple of decades. Beyond that, if we get to relatively equal consumption levels of a lower population the options for humankind open out again, but our grandchildren, or great grandchildren, not in the coming 50 years, 60 years.
Julia’s response: Yes, and because people are very good at inventing and very creative, I think once we head in that direction, we might be surprised at what’s possible.
Living well within limits kind of looks a bit sudden, different and painful for rich people. Although for billions upon billions of people, the decent living conditions I am proposing are way better than they have now or could aspire to under economic growth as usual. Because we can learn stuff and decide to do things differently. I think that it might look a lot better than we think
Addressing loss aversion. People have a very different attitude when they’re asked to change something that everybody else is being asked to change. They might complain, but they’re complaining together. There’s also effect an effect of social cohesion if a measure is applied fairly if it’s seen that it benefits everybody. You know, that’s well explained and and rich people don’t get away with with with cutting the rules. Which makes it all the more important to have lots of forms of justice, including procedural justice.
When you’re thinking about it as a citizen, as opposed to as a consumer, they become much more amenable to or actually leading on taking that kind of decision. (See also the interview with Jon Alexander on the need for everyone to be treated as, and act as, citizens.)
Priority: looking at the economy from the perspective of provisioning systems that are economic democracies from a sectoral perspective.
Neither central planning nor unfettered markets are going to work, and it is not going to be one size fits all. It’s sort of about helping people think in a more imaginative way about, you know, what does a democratic transport system look like? Who decides what level what kind of structures what kind of, you know, from production to consumption, infrastructure design, same thing for food, same thing for healthcare, same thing for housing.
Different sectors are going to require different geographic scales.
What does a citizenship look like in the future? People will have a civic role of being involved in these provisioning systems.
In neoliberalism, we are outsourcing core decisions about our lives and our futures to the economy. And what I’m saying is we stopped doing that.
Let’s look systematically. It’s not going to be the same everywhere. But what does it look like to democratise our provisioning systems, from work to ownership to consumption to just being around that provisioning system in the community?
What we really need are people who are alert on their feet, and are able to write, to be to be on television and go and talk about this unmapped area. That is possible, but that nobody’s talking about or to go and write newspaper columns about it, and so on, we really need like a counter force that pushes back against what’s being said now, or I would say 99% of it is, is really harmful crap.
Become a commentariat but for a liveable, fact-based future.
I’d say never to take anybody else’s advice, because that always wasted about two years of my life. Trust your own interests.
There is a reason why you are interested in what you’re interested in. You might not have the right words for it. You might not have the right reference frame in terms of the academic literature or latest research results, but there’s a reason why you’re interested what you’re interested in, and you should pursue that.