Citizen Action Monitor

William Rees is back with an update to his hugely popular 2010 lecture “Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable?”

If you really want to understand why it’s so damn difficult to transition from the mess we’ve created to the path of global sustainability, watch Professor Rees’ updated video presentation.

No 632 Posted by fw, December 11, 2012

Given the huge popularity of Professor Rees’ 2010 lecture, which questioned whether global sustainability was even possible for humans — concluding that it’s not likely — the decision to post a single, full-length version of his 2012 video update to that presentation was a given. It’s time to revisit and rethink the implications of his thought-provoking analysis of the human condition.

Unlike the 2010 presentation, which gave short shrift to a discussion of a way out of the crisis, the 2012 update scopes out some initial steps on a path to a sustainable future, underscores the good and bad news, and concludes with the dire consequences of maintaining the status quo

Regrettably, Rees’ prescription for a sustainable future does not get beyond the “must do” stage to the “how to” phase. He acknowledges it will take a massive global movement to realize the goal, and that time is not on our side. But, apart from references to some relevant books, he offers no clues on how to build a populist movement.

This post is presented in three parts –

  • Part 1 – A summary overview of selected key points in Rees’ 2012 lecture (with apology to Professor Rees for failing to do justice to his information-rich presentation)
  • Part 2 – An embedded, complete video of Rees’ 2012 lecture (1:14:32 in length).
  • Part 3 — A bulleted chronological index to the on-screen slides of the Rees’ PowerPoint presentation. (The index content derives in whole or part from the PowerPoint slides).

What’s Blocking Sustainability? Why is the world sleepwalking into global ecological crisis? A lecture by William Rees, Culture Lab, Newcastle University, March 7, 2012.

Part 1 – A summary overview of selected key points in Rees’ 2012 update

Professor Rees’ thesis goes something like this.

Global sustainability is possible, but only if humans first understand the nature of the maladaptive factors that got us into this mess in the first place. If we fail to make the necessary changes and adjustments and continue on a business-as-usual path, we will face an eco-crisis, resource conflicts/war and possible societal collapse.

Rees’ effort to help ordinary folks understand the interconnected biological, socio-cultural and triune brain roots of our sustainability problem distinguishes his contribution to the climate change/sustainability debate from most other voices.

In support of his thesis, here is a list of  8 salient factors that Rees  says are related  to the nature of our sustainability/climate change problem

  1. Genetic ‘presets’ account for humans’ ecologically unsustainable behaviour. Unless or until constrained by negative feedback, humans, like all other species will expand to fill all accessible habitat and use all available resources (in the case of humans, ‘available’ is determined by contemporary technology)
  2. We are creatures with an ingrained socio-cultural inheritance assimilated during our formative years. So, on top of our dysfunctional biological inheritance, we humans carry a deeply seated 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.
  3. The use of abundant cheap fossil fuel energy in the 19th century enhanced our biological and cultural drivers, advancing the pace of economic growth and development and population explosion.
  4. In recent decades, cultural drivers have instilled in us a “perpetual growth myth”. Given our exploitative biological nature, we nurtured the myth of endless progress: “There are no limits to the carrying capacity of earth.” (Lawrence Summers, 1991). “Technology exists now to produce in virtual inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature.” (Julian Simon, 1995).
  5. The collateral impact of this rapid and unrelenting economic and population growth has been a 38% increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since the 19th century. As CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere over time, the earth’s temperature continues to rise. Globally, the first six months of 2010 were the warmest in the instrumental record. 2010 tied with 2005 for hottest year recorded. The world is on track for a catastrophic four Celsius degree increase in mean global temperature in this century. This is just one symptom of fundamental human ecological dysfunction
  6. The consequence of an unholy union of our biological nature with our nurturing socio-culture is a world in overshoot, embarked on an unsustainable growth path. Human behavioural patterns, which were adaptive in pre-techno-industrial society, continue to be reinforced by prevailing, deeply embedded cultural norms and narratives. However, in a fast-paced consumer oriented, techno-industrial society, these cultural norms and narratives from the past overwhelm the surrounding ecosphere.
  7. Moreover, we are, it seems, a deeply conflicted species, trapped by our triune brains. 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. Circumstances in which reason predominates are limited to relatively trivial circumstances. That is: Passion and instinct often trump reason.
  8. Homo sapiens is genetically predisposed to abandon reason for comfortable cultural myths and social narratives. Why does intelligent mental process so often seem not to function? During individual development, sensory experiences and cultural norms literally shape the human brain’s synaptic circuitry in patterns that reflect and embed those experiences. Subsequently, people seek out compatible experiences and, “when faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information.” (Bruce Wexler, Brain and Culture). “The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error…” (The Crowd: A study of the popular mind by Gustave le Bon, 1896). “For us to maintain our way of living, we must… tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves… [the lies] are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities” (Derek Jensen).

With an understanding of the nature of our sustainability/climate change problem, here is a selection of 3 steps on Rees’ prescribed path to a sustainable future

  1. Write a new, more adaptive cultural narrative. The economic policy emphasis must shift from efficiency and growth (merely getting bigger) toward equity and development (qualitative improvement, getting better). The underpinning values of society must shift from competitive individualism, greed, and narrow self-interest, toward community, cooperation, and our collective interest in survival
  2. Set new goals featuring reduced material throughput and greater social equity. “Industrialized world reductions in material consumption, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means” (World Business Council on Sustainable Development, 1993). For sustainability with equity, wealthy OECD nations should be taking steps to reduce their ecological footprints by 50% to 80% (Rees, 2006)
  3. Cognitive steps forward. Re-legitimize public planning at all levels of governance. We need comprehensive integration and adaptation strategies for global change (markets alone can’t achieve sustainability). Abandon the cult of consumerism. The material ethic is spiritually empty and ecologically disastrous. Cultivate saving and conserver values over shopping and consumer values

The good news/bad news

We have the technology today to enable a 75% to 80% reduction in energy and (some) material consumption while actually improving quality of life. Yet we do not act. Privileged elites with the greatest stake in the status quo control the policy levers. Ordinary people hold to the expansionist myth. Society remains in paralysis.

As the 2007 Tallberg Forum report phrased it: “Do we know what to do? Probably yes. Will we do it? Probably not.”

And Joseph Tainter has warned us that societal collapse is possible if we fail to act: “… what is perhaps most intriguing in the evolution of human societies is the regularity with which the pattern of increasing complexity is interrupted by collapse…”

Part 2 – An embedded, complete video of Rees’ 2012 lecture (1:14:44 in length).

Part 3 — A bulleted chronological index to the on-screen slides of the Rees’ PowerPoint presentation. (The index content derives in whole or part from the PowerPoint slides).

00:00 — Rees’ introductory remarks

02:30 — Summary — The presentation makes the case that –

  • People are not fundamentally rational: data and analysis (i.e., high intelligence) are not always major factors in political decisions about economy and environment
  • Emotion and instinct operating in the short-term self-interest of decision-makers and those with the greatest stake in the status quo, often override intelligence and long-term self- and public interest
  • Planned change is possible, but only if global society understands the nature of the problem
  • The alternative? The status quo = eco-crisis, resource conflicts/war and possible societal collapse

04:50 Premise 1: Today’s techno-industrial society is inherently unsustainable

  • Unsustainability is an inevitable emergent property of the systemic interaction between techno-industrial society, as presently conceived, and the ecosphere
  • Both nature (genes) and nurture (memes) are responsible. That is:
    • Innate behavioural dispositions that were once adaptive have become maladaptive but are nonetheless being reinforced by the prevailing cultural norms and narratives

06:59 — Biological Factor: Genetic ‘presets’ for ecological behaviour

  • Unless or until constrained by negative feedback, humans, like all other species will:
    • Expand to fill all accessible habitat and
    • Use all available resources (in the case of humans, ‘available’ is determined by contemporary technology)

10:30 — A Fisheries Example: Canada’s Shame

  • Graph — Spawning stock biomass of northern cod

11:44H. Sapiens: The Outlier Species

  • Graph — showing that H. Sapiens is arguably the most successful vertebrate ever to walk the planet

13:07 — The Socio-Cultural Factor: The Perpetual Growth Myth

  • “There are no… limits to the carrying capacity of the earth that are likely to bind any time in the foreseeable future…” (Lawrence Summers, 1991)
  • “We have in our hands now… the technology to feed, clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing population for the next 7 billion years… (Julian Simon 1995)

17:08 — Result and context: The anomalous, unsustainable, oil-based expansion of civilization on a finite planet

  • Graph — 2000 years of recent human population growth – explosion began with use of fossil fuels

21:15 — The indisputable role of fossil energy

  • Graph — increase in fossil fuel use over time from 1850

22:34 –Collateral impact – Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (A 38% increase since 19th century)

  • Graph – rate of increase of concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere over time

25:08 — Result? Mean global temp up 0.8 C in 125 years

  • Graph — CO2 is only one of GHG but it is the one that is changing

26:15 — And the heat goes on

  • Globally, the first six months of 2010 were the warmest in the instrumental record
  • 2010 tied with 2005 for hottest year recorded
  • The world is on track for a catastrophic four Celsius degree increase in mean global temperature in this century
  • This is just one symptom of fundamental human ecological dysfunction

27:44 — Result of nature + nurture? A world in ‘overshoot’

  • Graph – we reached ‘overshoot day’ for 2011 in August (ecological footprint)
  • CO2 greatest waste product we are producing

31:46 — In theory, H Sapiens has unique potential to confront the crisis

Four intellectual and emotional qualities distinguish humans from other advanced vertebrates

  • Unparalleled capacity for evidence-based reasoning and logical analysis,
  • Unique ability for long-term forward planning
  • The capacity to exercise moral judgment
  • Compassion for other individuals and other species 33:13

36:00 — However:

  • “…man today is in flight from thinking.” Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking (1955)

36:54 — Whither high intelligence and forward planning?

  • Despite decades of hardening evidence and rising rhetoric on the risks of global change, no national government, no prominent international agency, no corporate leader anywhere has begun to advocate in public let alone implement the kind of policy responses that are called forth by the best science available today

37:32 — How can we explain this conundrum?

  • “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution? (Theodosius Dobzhansky)

38:10Premise 2: H. Sapiens is an evolved species

Therefore,

  • Nothing in human affairs – including much of economic and social behaviour – makes sense except in the light of evolution. As noted:
  • Human evolution is determined as much by socio-cultural factors (memes) as by biological factors (genes)

39:01 — Trapped by our ‘triune brains’?

  • Diagram of the triune brain

43:40 — Tension in the integrated mind

  • We claim to be a uniquely self-conscious, rational species
  • We ‘live’ in cerebral awareness
  • However, circumstances in which reason predominates are limited to relatively trivial circumstances. That is: Passion and instinct often trump reason

44:16 — In short, H Sapiens is a deeply conflicted species

  • Cartoon punch line: “And so, while the end-of-the-earth scenario will be rife with unimaginable barriers, we believe that the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit.”

45:34 — And we’ve know about it for a long time!

  • “Man was created by nature in such a way that reason might dominate the senses and that by its law all rage and desire of passion and lust might be restrained, but when the image of God has been forgotten… we begin to serve the beasts within us…” (Mirandola 1463-1494)
  • “There are indeed potions in our own bodies and brains capable of forcing on us behaviours that we may or may not be able to suppress by strong resolution” (Antonio Damasio, 1994)

47:35 — Shared illusions: Our collective shield against the harsh barbs of reality

  • H. Sapiens is genetically predisposed to abandon reason for comfortable cultural myths and social narratives
  • “The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error…” (The Crowd: A study of the popular mind by Gustave le Bon, 1896)
  • “For us to maintain our way of living, we must… tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves… [the lies] are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities” (Derek Jensen)

49:06 — Then there’s the instinctive essence of socio-political behaviour

  • When safety or survival are at stake, (including personal prestige, socio-economic status and political power) innate behavioural propensities that operate beneath consciousness in the limbic system and brainstem tend to override more rational responses. This ‘brutish’ rationality has historically paid off. As Machiavelli recognized:
  • “… the way men live is so far removed from the way they ought to live that anyone who abandons what is for what should be pursues his downfall rather than his preservation (Machiavelli, 1469-1527)

51:19 — “Know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed.” (Count Axel Oxenstierna of Sweden)

The March of Folly by Barbara Tuchman

  • “Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to… reason? Why does intelligent mental process so often seem not to function?”
  • “Wooden-headedness… plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions [i.e., ideology] while ignoring any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.” (Barbara Tuchman, 1984)

53:18 — An explanatory cognitive mechanism

  • During individual development, sensory experiences and cultural norms literally shape the human brain’s synaptic circuitry in patterns that reflect and embed those experiences.
  • Subsequently, people seek out compatible experiences and, “when faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information.” (Bruce Wexler, Brain and Culture)

57:29 — So, the question of the day

  • What would truly intelligent, compassionate, forward-thinking, planning-capable species do in response to the historical record and ongoing trends?

57:48 — Our challenge, should we choose to accept it: Write a new, more adaptive cultural narrative

  • The economic policy emphasis must shift from efficiency and growth (merely getting bigger) toward equity and development (qualitative improvement, getting better)
  • The underpinning values of society must shift from competitive individualism, greed, and narrow self-interest, toward community, cooperation, and our collective interest in survival

1:00:32 — Overall Goals: Reduced material throughput and greater social equity

  • “Industrialized world reductions in material consumption, energy use, and environmental degradation of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the needs of a growing world population fairly within the planet’s ecological means” (World Business Council on Sustainable Development, 1993)
  • For sustainability with equity, wealthy OECD nations should be taking steps to reduce their ecological footprints by 50% to 80% (Rees, 2006)

1:02:43 — Contraction is no longer a taboo subject

Books providing a detailed rational and policy prescriptions for economic contraction are proliferating

  • A Prosperous Way Down
  • Prosperity Without Growth
  • Managing Without Growth (York U Prof)

1:04:10 — A Convenient Truth: GDP growth in rich countries is borderline futile

  • Since 1976 the Canadian economy has grown by 130%, GDP per capita is 70% higher
  • There has been no change in the percentage of the population is poverty or in the unemployment rate
  • The absolute numbers of impoverished and unemployed has increased
  • Subjective well-being is constant or declining

Graph shows slope of diminishing returns

Richard Wilkinson The Spirit Level

1:07:13 — Cognitive Steps Forward

  • Re-legitimize public planning at all level of governance. We need comprehensive integration and adaptation strategies for global change (markets alone can’t achieve sustainability)
  • Abandon the cult of consumerism. The material ethic is spiritually empty and ecologically disastrous. Cultivate saving and conserver values over shopping and consumer values

1:08:00 — For starters, let prices tell the ecological truth! Price stimulates behaviour change

  • Acknowledge that government intervention is legitimate and necessary to correct for gross market failure (i.e., climate change)
  • Introduce scheduled ecological fiscal reform – tax the bads (depletion and pollution) not the goods (labour and capital); end perverse subsidies (e.g., to the corn ethanol industry)
  • Tie development policy to the ‘strong sustainability’ criterion (e.g., maintain constant adequate per capita physical stocks of critical natural capital)

1:08:56 — Social Policy for Sustainability

  • Limit income inequality
  • Return to more progressive taxation
  • Re-balance private and public capital accumulation
  • Implement job training and job placement programs
  • Implement new social safety nets
  • Enable shorter work days (weeks, years)
  • At a minimum, stabilize populations

1:09:07 — Motivation and Rationale? It’s in everyone’s long-term best interest

  • Individual and national interests have converged with humanity’s common interests. That is:
  • Sustainability is a collective problem that demands collective solutions (no country can become sustainable on its own)
  • Failure to act for the common good will ultimately lead to ecological decay, civil insurrection and resource wars

1:10:07 — The gathering storm

The good news

  • We have the technology to day to enable a 75% to 80% reduction in energy and (some) material consumption while actually improving quality of life (Factor Five)

The bad news

  • Yet we do not act. Privileged elites with the greatest stake in the status quo control the policy levers. Ordinary people hold to the expansionist myth. Society remains in paralysis.

“The scientifically necessary is politically unfeasible. But the politically feasible is scientifically irrelevant.”

1:11:49 — Closing Words of the 2007 Tällberg Forum (Sweden)

  • “Do we know what to do? Probably yes. Will we do it? Probably not.”

1:12:29 — This is serious business

  • Maladaptive memes (social constructs, ideologies, paradigms and narratives) like disadvantageous genes, can be ‘selected out’ by a changing environment
  • Whole societies have failed for their beliefs

1:13:06 — Is societal collapse possible? It wouldn’t be the first time

  • Easter Island is history but is the industrial world far behind?
  • “… what is perhaps most intriguing in the evolution of human societies is the regularity with which the pattern of increasing complexity is interrupted by collapse…” (Joseph Tainter, 1995)

IMPORTANT NOTE: You can download your own .mp4 video of William Rees’ lecture by clicking on this link SD .MP4 file

Fair Use Notice: This blog, Citizen Action Monitor, may contain copyrighted material that may not have been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Such material, published without profit, is made available for educational purposes, to advance understanding of human rights, democracy, scientific, moral, ethical, and social justice issues. It is published in accordance with the provisions of the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling and its six principle criteria for evaluating fair dealing

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