The relationship between economic affluence, quality of life, and environmental implications of production and consumption activities is a recurring issue in sustainability discussions. A number of studies examined selected relationships, but the general implications for future development options to achieve environmentally and socially sustainable development of countries at different levels of per capita resource footprints, quality of life, and income have not yet been investigated in detail. In this study, we use a global dataset with 173 countries to assess the overall relationship between resource footprints, quality of life, and economic development over the period of 1990–2015. We select the material footprint and carbon footprint and contrast them with the Human Development Index, the Happiness Index, and GDP per capita. Regression analyses show that the relationship between various resource footprints and quality of life generally follows a logarithmic path of development, while resource footprints and GDP per capita are linearly connected. From the empirical results, we derive a generalized path of development and cluster countries along this path. Within this comprehensive framework, we discuss options to change the path to respect planetary and social boundaries through a combination of resource efficiency increases, substitution of industries and sufficiency of consumption. We conclude that decoupling and green growth will not realize sustainable development if planetary boundaries have already been transgressed.
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