Citizen Action Monitor

Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable? Pt 2/13: We’re in a state of overshoot

No 19, Posted by fw, June 13, 2010

The following selected excerpts from Professor Rees address to a World Federalists’ Meeting in Vancouver on April 15, 2010, are from a You Tube video, which you can watch below at the end of this post, or on You Tube at  UBC Ecologist Bill Rees Part 1.

The gap between our favourable self-image and our irresponsible behaviour

Professor Rees’ opening words set a bold tone for his talk:

“We advertise ourselves as an intelligent species, species capable of logical thought. We pretend that we are capable of forward planning. We act as if we are compassionate toward others. And yet if you look at the way we behave on the international stage there’s not much evidence of intelligence, forward planning, or compassion. The most recent global example would be, in my view, the gross failure of the Copenhagen talks around climate change.”

“What’s going on here? Why is it that our self-image – this notion that we are evidence of intelligent life on earth — seems to deviate so much from the facts of the matter?”

What are the “facts of the matter?”

1992: World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. Some 1,700 of the world’s leading scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued this appeal:

WARNING: We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

Rees notes:

“If you were to plot global events against the time that this particular statement came out you will notice that it had no effect whatsoever.”

1995: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Board’s Statement Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well being

“I [Rees] was part of this document as were 10,000 other scientists around the planet. The largest study ever taken of the state of the world’s ecosystems that sustain human existence. Now again, not a reserved statement. The problem again is that if we plot the actual impact of humankind on the planet you cannot see any evidence of an awakening, a coming to consciousness of the reality of that relationship if indeed it is real.

2008: Human Ecological Footprint, 1961-2003 by William Rees

“This is just a plot of the human ecological footprint. This is something I have developed with my students. I want to define it for you. Your ecological footprint is simply the area of productive ecosystems required to produce the resources that you consume and to assimilate your waste output. And it’s an exclusive area. Obviously the green land that you use can’t be used by me. So we’re all competing with each other for the limited bio-capacity of the planet, whether we’re conscious of it or not.”

The human ecological footprint is greater than the bio-capacity of the planet

“The average human needs about two hectares to sustain the average lifestyle on earth. Canadians use about eight hectares, so we’re four times above the world average. America, ten hectares, about five times above the world average. The point then is that the earth is growing in population. The per capita footprint consumption is increasing even faster. And so we passed sometime in the 1980s the point at which the average consumption on earth exceeded the average capacity of the planet to maintain that level of consumption. So if you add up the total aggregate human ecological footprint it is greater than the bio-capacity of the planet.”

A World in Overshoot

How can we be consuming more than there is?

“Now you can ask, ‘Well how can that be? How can we be consuming more than there is?’ The answer is: ‘By drawing down the bank account.’ Ecosystems are like bank accounts. They’re productive assets. Fish stock will produce an annual interest of catchable fish without being depleted. A forest adds a couple of percent a year in terms of total biomass. We can harvest that sustainably. But if your forest is adding biomass at the rate of two percent per year and you’re harvesting at four and five and six percent per year you’re depleting that asset. You’ve exceeded the corrective capacity of the forest or the fish stick or the soil or whatever it might be.”

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto

“So we’re in a state of overshoot, exceeding the productive capacity and assimilative capacity of the planet – that’s what climate change is all about – more CO2 can then be assimilated by the photosynthetic processes of green plants and for that reason we can be in a state of overshoot for some considerable time before a collapse is induced.”

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 2

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