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This is now the world’s greatest threat – and it’s not coronavirus
Affluence could be our real downfall.
A detailed analysis of environmental research has revealed the greatest threat to the world: affluence.
- Affluence is the biggest threat to our world, according to a new scientific report.
- True sustainability will only be achieved through drastic lifestyle changes, it argues.
- The World Economic Forum has called for a great reset of capitalism in the wake of the pandemic.
That's one of the main conclusions of a team of scientists from Australia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, who have warned that tackling overconsumption has to become a priority. Their report, titled Scientists' Warning on Affluence, explains that true sustainability calls for significant lifestyle changes, rather than hoping that more efficient use of resources will be enough.
"We cannot rely on technology alone to solve existential environmental problems – like climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution," writes the report's lead author, Professor Tommy Wiedmann from Australia's University of New South Wales Engineering, in an article on Phys.org. "We also have to change our affluent lifestyles and reduce overconsumption, in combination with structural change."
Sustainable lifestyles are situated between an upper limit or 'environmental ceiling' and a lower limit or 'social foundation'. Image: Nature
A growing global challenge
There is widespread acceptance that the planet faces an ecological tipping point. "To care for humanity, we must care for nature," said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on World Environment Day in June. He stressed the importance of making changes as the world recovers from the recent pandemic: " As we work to build back better, let's put nature where it belongs – at the heart of our decision making."
Approximately half of global GDP is bound up in the natural world, according to the UN. In addition to the many millions of jobs dependent on nature, there are also billions of people intimately connected to and wholly reliant upon natural remedies and medicines.
Plus, the use of tree-planting and reforesting programmes could reduce the impact of global emissions and help meet the Paris Agreement target to keep global temperature increase below 1.5C.
Call for systemic changes
The threat of human-made environmental harm was highlighted in the World Economic Forum's Global Risk Report 2020, where it is in the top 10 of both the most-likely and the greatest-impact risks.
The chief problem outlined by the report is that any gains in resource efficiency and environmental protection offered by technology-based solutions have been outrun by the growth of consumption. The report also posits that it might be time to rethink traditional ideas about supply and demand
In capitalist societies, the theory goes that consumer need drives the rest of the economy – businesses will only produce things for which there is a demand. But the reality of 21st-century global capitalism is a little more complex than that – some economists argue that growth itself is the problem.
Global emissions, shown as the green dotted line, keep pace with the rise in production (purple) and global GDP (orange). Image: Nature
Time for a great reset
Writing shortly before World Environment Day, the Forum's founder and executive chairman, Professor Klaus Schwab, called for a great reset of capitalism in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. His vision of the great reset includes creating a stakeholder economy, where the market pursues fairer outcomes for all, underpinned by changes to tax, regulatory and fiscal policies, and new trade arrangements.
Schwab also calls for investments that advance shared goals, such as equality and sustainability. This is something that is already taking place in parts of the world where economic-stimulus programmes are being enacted.
In addition, Schwab urges us to address health and social challenges with the innovations made possible by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. That means more public/private collaboration in pursuit of the public good.
The pandemic has devastated families and brought major economies to a standstill. But by directing resources into new and improved systems and processes, rather than shoring up the existing ones, Schwab believes a lasting change for the better is possible.
That belief is echoed by the scientists' report, which shows that affluence is "actually dangerous and leads to planetary-scale destruction," says co-author Julia Steinberger, Professor of Ecological Economics at the University of Leeds. "To protect ourselves from the worsening climate crisis, we must reduce inequality and challenge the notion that riches, and those who possess them, are inherently good."
- The suburbs are the spiritual home of overconsumption. But they ... ›
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- What an ancient disease teaches us about COVID-19 - Big Think ›
- What are the world's biggest threats in 2021? - Big Think ›
- Virus made inequality much worse across the world, says report - Big Think ›
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
The future of deepfakes<p>In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.</p><p>But the <a href="https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=324528215059254" target="_blank">video</a> is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real. </p><p>The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a <a href="https://www.brookings.edu/research/is-seeing-still-believing-the-deepfake-challenge-to-truth-in-politics/#cancel" target="_blank">2020 report from The Brookings Institution</a>. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes. </p><p>As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."</p>
Context is everything.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a number of new behaviours into daily routines, like physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitizing. Meanwhile, many old behaviours such as attending events, eating out and seeing friends have been put on hold.
A new study looks at how images of coffee's origins affect the perception of its premiumness and quality.
- Images can affect how people perceive the quality of a product.
- In a new study, researchers show using virtual reality that images of farms positively influence the subjects' experience of coffee.
- The results provide insights on the psychology and power of marketing.