Citizen Action Monitor

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? By Prof Wm Rees: Pt 1/13 Summary

No 18 Posted by fw, June 13, 2010

On April 15, 2010, UBC Professor William Rees asked a gathering of the Vancouver Branch of the World Federalists this provocative question: Is humanity inherently unsustainable?

Fortunately for us, his address was video-recorded and posted on You Tube in an 8-part series. Part 1 is accessible at the end of this post. Alternatively, go to Part 1 on You Tube here, where, from this starting point, you will find links to the other 7 parts in the series. The average length of each part is about 8 min 42 sec. The editing cuts between the parts are rough, typically ending in mid-sentence with no completion of the thought in the next part.

I have transcribed all the videos and have added, in sequence, substantive selected excerpts of Rees’ address. Including this summary overview of his complete address, there are 13 posts in all.

William E. Rees is a professor at the University of British Columbia and former director of the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) at UBC. He is perhaps best known for co-authoring, Our Ecological Footprint. For more information on professor Rees, see this Wikipedia entry, William E. Rees.

Summary overview of Rees’ address

University of British Columbia professor William Rees is puzzled. We see ourselves, he says, as intelligent, compassionate beings, capable of forward planning, and yet the evidence suggests otherwise. For example, we are the primary drivers of perilous global climate change, living well beyond our means. We have overshot the earth’s carrying capacity. We’re on an accelerating trajectory towards a potentially catastrophic 4°C increase in the average global temperature sometime this century. And although we have received countless warnings from the scientific community, and can plainly see for ourselves the accumulating evidence of the environmental devastation that is already occurring, we remain in a state of studied ignorance or outright denial. Allowed to go unchecked, we are on a sure path to self-destruction.

To account for this glaring disconnect between our self-perception as intelligent beings and our patently self-destructive behaviour, Rees turns to biology and ecology, his fields of expertise, for an explanation. He argues that whether we choose to believe it or not, humans are no different from all other animals, a product of evolution. As such, we have evolved, over the ages, and in separate stages, an integrated three-part brain which does not always — or even often – enable us to act self-consciously or intelligently.

On top of that, we are creatures with a cultural inheritance assimilated during our formative years. We are carriers of a set of beliefs, values, assumptions, and ideologies that influence our thinking and colour our perception of the world. Once acquired, these patterns of behaviour are difficult for the self to escape or for others to change.

But what happens when a species, biologically and culturally well adapted, finds that its environment is rapidly changing around it?  That it has become maladaptive? Under such circumstances, in a species versus Nature competitive struggle, Nature always wins. Species carrying maladaptive mutations will not survive. We are those maladapted mutants.

How did we get ourselves into this mess?  In part, blame it on biological drivers, explains Rees. Every species has two tendencies that humans share: 1) expand to fill all potential habitats; and 2) use all available resources in a habitat. And then some. If we encounter a problem, we invent a new technology; if something is not available locally, we import it; and if we can’t pay in cash, we use plastic. We are members of a class of biological species with a natural proclivity to press up against the carrying capacity of our habitats.

We humans have lived within the earth’s carrying capacity for about the first 50,000 years of our existence on earth. But a technological advance around 1850 let the genie out the bottle.  The birth of the petroleum industry flooded the earth with cheap energy. And things haven’t been the same since. It is more than a coincidence that 1850 was also the beginning of an explosive growth in human population. True to our biological nature, in a mere 160 years, self-indulgent, insatiable human hordes have over-exploited the earth’s resources, in some cases to the point of exhaustion or extinction. We have exceeded earth’s carrying capacity.

What about cultural drivers? How have they contributed to our living far beyond our means? Rees points to the “power of myth”, specifically the power of “the myth of progress”.  Given our exploitive nature, we nurtured the myth of endless progress: “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life” (Victor Lebow, 1955); “There are no limits to the carrying capacity of earth” (Lawrence Summers, 1991); and “Technology exists now to produce in virtual inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature” (Julian Simon, 1995). As a result, western societies in particular are now in overshoot, embarked on an unsustainable growth path. And the global income gap between the rich and the poor is steadily increasing.

Is there a way out of this mess? Yes . . . but! The really inconvenient truth is that the developed world has to contract, allowing the developing world to catch up and converge with us. Is contraction and convergence really necessary? Scientifically, yes it is. Is it politically feasible?  Well, political animals do not have a particularly stellar track record of rising to the occasion. As historian Barbara Tuchman noted, “Logic and reason are not primary determinants in human affairs.”

As an evolutionary survival mechanism, selfishness has served us well. We are naturally disinclined to give up our accumulated material possessions, much less our long-held cherished beliefs, values and ideologies. So we characteristically seek experiences that reinforce our values and preconceived beliefs, and we deny, discredit or reject any disconfirming information. The majority who believe in A, B, and C will continue to do so until they die. But those of us in the minority, who believe in X, Y, and Z, and who want to change the world, will face formidable challenges from the rich and powerful who will fight to maintain their privileged positions.

Drawing his presentation to a close, Rees warns: “I cannot be sustainable on my own. No country can be sustainable on its own. If the rest of the world carries on down the current pathway they will take us down with it.”

But in the next breath, he ends on a hopeful chord: “Together we can pull this off, if we convince enough people that it is in their selfish interests to serve the collective interest. It’s the only way that we’re going to make any real difference on this planet. . . . [We must create] a new cultural mythology that emphasizes our common interest, community values and our shared interest in retaining the only planetary home that we have.”

No easy task.

March 7, 2011 UPDATE: I have recently discovered that a full transcript and mp3 audio recording of Rees’ lecture is available on The Radio Ecoshock ShowClick here to access these free downloads.


End of Part 1

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