Gen-Xers and Millennials weary of listening to older folk bang on about how the Sixties were the pinnacle of human achievement and culture should take heed: they actually were, at least according to statistics gathered by a team of scientists from the Netherlands.
Researchers led by Harry Lintsen from the Eindhoven University of Technology gathered together all available information covering the use of raw materials and energy, as well as economic activity, in the Netherlands between 1850 and 2010.
Looking at items such as building materials, fossil fuels and food, Lintsen and colleagues estimated annual consumption across the period in terms of weight, rather than currency value, in order to create a consistent measure of human impact.
They discovered that over the decades the consumption of key resources had increased well above the increase in population. In 1850, the country contained three million people who collectively consumed 10,000 kilotons of material, most of it food. In 2010, the population had grown to 16 million, but consumption had swelled to 362,000 kilotons.
Increasing consumption, of course, should result in increased prosperity – and for a while, the researchers found, that was the case. In 1850, an estimated 21% of the population lived in poverty.
“There were two ways to solve this,” says Lintsen. “Redistribution of incomes, or raising the entire revenue structure, so that everyone would get more.”
The nation took the latter path, and by 1950 almost the entire nation had access to food, healthcare and housing. Life improved enormously, but within a few decades the trend that had brought better conditions for all would turn into something rather less desirable.
For a while, though, there was a sweet spot.
“The bottleneck in the consumption diagram, the starting point of overconsumption, is around 1960,” says Linsten.
“But then the poverty problem had already been solved! You could say that the quality of life and sustainability around that year were most in balance.”
If there was ever a golden time in the Netherlands – and, perhaps, in many other developed nations – it started then.
The researchers compiled data to illustrate 24 indicators that together present a picture of overall prosperity. These include life expectancy, air quality, food availability and air quality.
Plotted on a graph, the high point once again turns out to be 1960. After that – slowly at first, then more rapidly – consumption starts to increase but other quality of life measures remain static, or decline.
Linsten and his colleagues present their findings in a new book, Well-being, Sustainability and Social Development, released by academic publishers Springer, and available free online.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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