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Impacts of Western lifestyles in a telecoupled world: Mapping and specifying current and future demand for ecosystem services

  • 27 March, 2023
  • 11:45
  • VU University Amsterdam, Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), Environmental Geography
  • P.H. Verburgprof.dr. C. J.E. Schulp
  • Dr. T. Kastner

Human use of natural resources is exceeding the planet’s ecological ceilings. To reverse this trend, sustainable production and consumption was placed on the global governance agenda at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, a large number of empirical studies have been carried out to characterise the environmental impact of consumption. It has become clear that humanity’s pressure on ecosystems is mainly related to the use of natural resources for food, shelter and mobility, and that the wealthiest people contribute disproportionately to the overall pressure because of the consumption culture associated with affluence. It has also been shown that most environmental impacts are not visible to final consumers because the goods and services they use are often produced miles away. This understanding has largely been supported by conceptual and methodological developments around the concepts of lifestyle, ecosystem services and telecoupling. However, these concepts have only been marginally combined so far, leaving open questions about the role of lifestyle in explaining the use of ecosystem services and ecological impacts. This dissertation brings together ideas and methods from research around these concepts to propose indicators and tools to characterise the role of lifestyle as a determinant of the extent and geography of ecosystem services demand and impacts. Different aspects of lifestyle – diet, holiday, mobility – are empirically addressed, with a focus on Western countries where living standards are relatively high and affluent consumption is the norm. Chapter 2 questions the potential ecological outcomes of a large-scale shift from the current standard diet in the United States of America (USA) to more plant-based alternatives. Chapter 3 examines tourist preferences for different holiday styles as a determinant of carbon emissions from leisure travel within the European Union (EU). Chapter 4 draws a quantitative link between current mobility patterns in the European Union and the expansion of rubber plantations in the tropics, which is leading to deforestation. In addition, Chapter 5 critically looks at the trade model used in chapters 2 and 4 to trace the origin of commodities available for use in the USA and the EU and proposes a way forward. Finally, Chapter 6 synthesises the methodological and empirical findings of Chapters 2 to 5 and operationalises these findings into recommendations for businesses and governments on how to support the transition to sustainable consumption in Western societies. Overall, this thesis shows that our understanding of lifestyle as a determinant of ecological impacts can be improved by reusing available large-scale survey results, contextualising individual agency and substantiating indicators of demand for ecosystem services with qualitative information. Taken together, the chapters demonstrate that prevailing preferences in Western societies explain the extent and spatial patterns of demand for ecosystem services and associated impacts. They also highlight the dependence of Western lifestyles on far-flung ecosystems and globalisation processes such as international trade and leisure travel. This body of research therefore re-emphasises the role of demand-side measures in reducing the overall impact of Western societies and the importance of addressing potential impacts beyond borders. Ultimately, this perspective on the role of lifestyle as a driver of sustainability issues in a telecoupled world argues for cooperation between different actors – individual consumers, businesses and governments – to carry out the transition to sustainable consumption patterns.


Perrine Laroche

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