People Believe Achieving Environmental Sustainability Could Hinder Quality of Life

Attempts such as the U.S. ‘Green New Deal’ to create a more environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable world face a major challenge – people are sceptical you can achieve all three. And they believe that targeting environmental outcomes like climate change and pollution comes at a cost to efforts to improve their quality of life.

The study, led by Dr. Paul Bain in collaboration with his colleague Dr. Tim Kurz at the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology and international collaborators, aimed to identify where people saw areas of compatibility and tension for achieving sustainability. To do this, over 2100 people from 12 developed and developing countries were asked what the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed to achieve – environmental, economic, and/or social sustainability.

The findings, published today (Monday 2 September 2019) in Nature Sustainability, showed that people understood sustainability in four distinct ways. However, the dominant view, common across all countries, showed that most people saw environmental sustainability in tension with social sustainability, but not with economic sustainability.

“Vocal opponents of environmental sustainability issues such as climate change often warn of their devastating macro-economic consequences. But economic consequences may not resonate so strongly with ordinary people, whose concerns appear to be more about wellbeing and quality of life in their society,” Dr. Bain said.

“A minority of people believed you can achieve it all, but most believed you can’t solve all problems at once, and where we direct our resources has consequences elsewhere.”

“It’s a bit like households – investing in solar panels and insulation for your house to address climate change may mean not sending kids to schools with high fees or getting the top health insurance, or vice versa. Yes there are economic consequences, but the main concern is how to trade-off these environmental and social outcomes – environment versus education / health.”

He added: “Our research mirrors these types of personal trade-offs ‘writ large’ to society – people believe addressing environmental sustainability means less attention to solving social issues like education and health, and also to things like reducing inequality, fostering peace, and improving infrastructure. While we expected people to think sustainability involved trade-offs, until now we didn’t know exactly what these trade-offs were.”

The findings may help design better policies and the communication activity around them to overcome public scepticism that a more sustainable world is achievable. They may also have consequences for developing large-scale sustainability policies such as a ‘Green New Deal’.

Dr. Bain explained: “We wanted to understand what people think about sustainability across cultures, to inform ways to communicate about it more effectively.”

“We can’t tell people we can achieve environmental and social sustainability and expect them to just accept it – many people won’t because it conflicts with their intuitions. To reduce this conflict and increase acceptance people need to be told how these tensions will be addressed, making it clear how an environmental policy such as shutting down coal mines or reducing beef consumption is supported by social initiatives to support the mining and farming communities affected.”


Environmental sustainability refers to maintaining the viability and health of the natural world. This includes using renewable environmental resources, rationing non-renewable resources until renewable substitutes are found, and controlling pollution.

Social sustainability refers to providing an acceptable level of wellbeing and quality of life for people over time. This includes minimizing destructive conflicts, having acceptable levels of fairness, opportunity, and diversity, and meeting basic needs for health and wellbeing.

Economic sustainability refers to managing finances and investments to promote productive economic activity into the future. This includes avoiding activities leading to excessive debt and interest payments, and making optimal use of available resources.

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