Both developed and developing countries have decadal development trends in areas such as technology, industrialization, economy and trade. There are also differences due to political, cultural and religious values, and the social strata and income levels of consumers. A new and pervasive influence is hyper-accelerated globalization, driven by the advent of the Internet and social media into peoples’ homes and lives, and the rapid and deep integration of governance systems, commercial ventures, and services in and between communities and countries through digitalization.

It would be unfair to expect anyone to foretell how humanity would evolve, worldwide, after half a century. Scenario-based projections account for ‘known knowns’ and to some extent, ‘known unknowns’, but not the ‘unknown unknowns’ – the transformative disruptions that overhaul how the world operates and its people behave.

The last fifty years have seen many such disruptions, starting with the record doubling of global population from ~3.7 billion in 1970 to ~7.8 billion in 2020, and its consequent impact on global resources. The Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt in March 2020; two years since, it has infected 508 million people and taken more than 6.2 million lives – and has changed, forever, the way people live, work, travel and interact. Such experiences have led us to accept that transformative change is, indeed, possible, but we need to be far more agile than we have ever been.

To move towards more sustainable lifestyles, we need to understand and accept that lifestyles are derivatives, and not the definers, of the global political, social and economic systems. Therefore, hyphenation of ‘sustainable’ with ‘lifestyle’ without redefining lifestyle will not be sustainable.

This paper is part of a series that supports the Stockholm+50: Unlocking a better future report.