Click the audio player for an interview with William Rees, professor at UBC and former director of the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning. Rees is well-known for his development, with Mathis Wackernagel, of the ecological footprint concept, which is an analytical tool for measuring a community’s energy and material consumption.
For further explanation of the concepts discussed in the interview, see the following references:
Rees, W.E. 2009. The Ecological Crisis and Self-Delusion: Implications for the Building Sector. Building Research & Information 37 (3) 300 – 311.
Rees, W.E. 2008. Human Nature, Eco-Footprints and Environmental Justice. Local Environment, The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability 13 (8) 685 – 701.
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MB: Could you explain your Ecological Footprint concept?
Rees: Ecological footprinting was developed as a way of measuring in very concrete terms the human impact on the environment. We first look at all the energy and material goods and services consumed by an individual or a given population in a given year. Then we take another step. We can translate virtually any commodity into a given land area that corresponds to a quantity of that commodity. So if you think of food, there has to be a given area for producing food and for carbon dioxide emissions there has to be an assimilation area. We add up all the total material and energy flows and convert it to a corresponding land area and then we have a measure of a population’s ecological footprint.
MB: Why did you feel a need to develop this tool?
Rees: It was really in response to economists who feel that there are really no limits to economic growth. That through technological efficiency gains the economy could “decouple” from the environment, that is to say that as we got more and more efficient with the use of goods and services, there would be less and less material and energy associated with each unit of GDP growth. Robert Solow said in the 1970s that if the world can substitute for natural resources with technological gains, then in effect we can get along without natural resources and exhaustion is merely an event not a catastrophe. Human ingenuity and technology could always solve environmental issues.
I was looking for a tool that could test whether we were in fact “decoupling” and what we’re showing is completely contrary to the popular wisdom. In fact, in rich countries, which are the technologically most advanced, people have the largest ecological footprints so the notion that the economy is de-materializing or decoupling from nature is not substantiated by ecological footprint analysis. With each technological efficiency gain, there’s actually an increase in consumption. Efficiency gains lead to higher wages and salaries so there is more money chasing cheaper goods and services. Growth in per capita consumption and population is overwhelming any decoupling that may be taking place.
MB: Why couldn’t internalizing the ecological costs and market based solutions lead to a more sustainable society? Is this not the case?
Rees: First we have to ask if “green” consumerism is going to solve these problems but much of it is sheer illusion. Green consumerism is still consumerism. What we’re doing is convincing people that they can continue to maintain their existing lifestyles without having to be concerned about the environmental impact simply by labeling them green.
MB: Do we need to move away from a market-based system?
Rees: We say that we live in a market economy but that’s a form of self-delusion. We as a species tend to believe in our constructed social myths than we do in reality. To think that we live in a so-called market economy is an absolute myth. Almost none of the conditions that should be satisfied to have efficient markets are satisfied in the kind of economy we have. There should be no externalized social or environmental costs in a true market system. Every market economist and politician should be recognizing that Canada needs a carbon tax or cap and trade for carbon emissions to internalize the damage caused by excess carbon emissions but we’re not seeing that. If we were paying the true social costs of the production and consumption of good and services, almost everything would cost a great deal more than it does today. If we were really in a market economy, we would not allow the import of goods that are not being brought in at less than the true costs of production. We are completely willing to allow the environmental and social costs to go unaccounted for so that we can have cheap goods. We would be far better off ecologically and socially if we actually had a true market economy but we don’t. It is an illusion.
MB: Would we not run into problems in a market economy if our objective is still limitless economic growth?
There’s no doubt that there are places in the world where growth is necessary. The assumption is that people benefit from higher incomes but there are diminishing returns. We have objective indicators of the state of a population such as longevity, infant mortality, literacy rates and so on. Most of those variables are correlated with income but only up to a point. For example, maximum longevity is reached at about $12,000 income per capita. And yet rich countries with higher incomes are not gaining anything in terms of objective measures of health. Moreover, with measures of subjective well-being, in many high income countries we see a negative correlation now between rising incomes and population well-being in terms of the number of people reporting themselves to be happy.
So what’s the point of growing if it’s destroying the environment? I would say an intelligent species would identify the point at which we can maximum performance in both objective and subjective indicators and this becomes the optimal scale of the economy. There is no point in increasing incomes beyond this.
MB: How did we get to where we’re at where our economy and our environment are fundamentally at odds with each other?
Rees: If we go back a couple hundred years, most people lived in poverty. Gradually we improved our lives considerably through economic growth but it eventually became addictive and embedded in the ideology of capitalism. Growth is currently the major social policy goal of every government on the planet. We take this to be the norm but it fact it is a relatively new phenomenon. There has only been a couple hundred years of growth and only since the 1950s has any government made growth a principal policy of government. We’re witnessing a self-delusion in that what we take to be the norm is in fact very unusual.
As well, humans like every species have a natural predisposition to survive, grow and accumulate – to expand and use up resources. We are programmed to grow. The problem is that we’re more successful at this than any other species so we’ve held back all the negative feedbacks that would normally hold us in check such as diseases or food shortages. Since the 1950s, we’ve created a cultural paradigm around growth that has been incorporated into the market economy that has become the major underpinning of industrial capitalism.
We see virtually in every country the rich are benefiting most from rising incomes whereas the poor who have the most to gain from growth are getting less and less. In the relatively recent past, the richest 20% of people on earth take home 74% of global income whereas the poorest 20% earn only 1% and this disparity is getting worse. It is an absurd system full of hypocrisy.
MB: What does a sustainable economy mean to you?
Rees: For the global economy to be sustainable, it cannot consume more than nature can produce and it cannot more wastes than nature can assimilate but clearly we’re not doing that. This is why fisheries are collapsing, soils are eroding, dead spots in the ocean, contamination of our food supply, rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere and so on. So clearly the scale of material and energy throughput has to decrease. It will require a change in lifestyles in rich countries – putting less emphasis on material things and more on giving people the opportunity to do things that satisfy them deeply.
If we don’t do that, we will continue down a path which will ultimately result in the incapacity of the planet to support the total human footprint and the prospects for human civilization decline. There will be wars and conflicts over remaining pockets of resources.
We have a society so bent on accumulation we are blinded to our own biophysical realities. That said, the theory and the capacity in technological terms are there should we choose to take the necessary measures. We cannot do this as individuals. These are collective problems caused by collective actions. The only way we can address these things is through government intervention in the economy. I cannot as an individual implement a carbon tax. I cannot drive my car less if I live in the suburbs and there is no public transit. Government must act on the public behalf for the public good.