Citizen Action Monitor

Professor William Rees offers a whole new approach to sustainability planning: Part 1

In Part 1, Rees summarizes the most pressing global challenges we face – climate change, ecological overshoot, and rising inequality

No 1076 Posted by fw, June 17, 2014

William Rees enjoys a prominent place in Citizen Action Monitor. Many of his papers and presentations are featured here. His contributions continue to attract numerous visitors to this site. (The easiest way to access his works on this blog is to simply enter his name in the Search box).

In a major new paper, UBC Professor Emeritus William E. Rees, originator of “ecological footprint analysis”, explores the interconnections between the ecological and social crises we face. Emerging from this analysis, Rees advances a bold and challenging way forward.

“The solutions proposed relate to trade policy, taxation policy, regulatory policy, a re-localization of economic planning, and many other areas, but also speak to the urgent need to shift popular culture away from rampant consumerism and a blind faith in material growth. Rees contends that tackling the ecological crisis will require a much more equitable sharing of the world’s resources – a “new social contract” both locally and globally”. [Source: New paper warns of global “ecological overshoot” and rising inequality]

In Part 1, below, I have taken the liberty of introducing some minor changes to Rees’ original 20-page paper: 1) the final two paragraphs in his opening “Introduction and Rationale” have been moved to the beginning of this post because it is in these two paragraphs that Rees’ presents the purpose of his paper; 2) subheadings are used to highlight main ideas and facilitate browsing; and 3) endnotes are substituted for footnotes. Brackets ( ) are used in the body of the text to identify the numerical links to the endnote citations.

To read Rees’ original paper, click on the following linked title.

Avoiding Collapse: An agenda for sustainable degrowth and relocalizing the economy by William E. Rees, PhD, FRSC, UBC School of Community and Regional Planning, published by Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, June 12, 2014

Goal of the paper (The following two paragraphs actually appear on page 5 in the original paper)

Against this background, the goal of this paper is to advance a precautionary, transformational approach to sustainability planning. This framework recognizes that despite a half-century of alarm over the “environmental crisis” and 20 years of political rhetoric on “paradigm-shifting” and “sustainable development,” action to date has been mere reform-at-the-margin, not fundamental transformation. (20) Indeed, it is arguable that no real progress is possible while the beliefs, values and assumptions of capitalism remain entrenched. Any rationale for rewriting global society’s dominant economic narrative must, therefore, dramatically shift the ground for development planning. I assume, for example, that there are real biophysical limits to growth and that both climate change and widespread ecological degradation are indicative of both potentially fatal overshoot and gross market failure. It follows that government intervention in the economy for the common good is justified, even necessary for the survival of global civilization. Drawing on various disciplines from cognitive psychology through environmental science, sociology and economic history, I outline some of the broad framing necessary at the global level and specific policies needed at the national and (bio-) regional scales to achieve a planned descent to a sustainable steady state.

In assessing the proposed strategy, the reader would do well to keep contemporary Canada and British Columbia in mind. The federal government’s current economic plan is heavily dependent on tar-sands development and pipeline expansion, i.e. the export of bitumen (among the dirtiest of fos­sil fuels) to US and world markets; the provincial government has tied BC’s economic wagon to as-yet uncertain export markets for liquefied natural gas (LNG) extracted using ecologically destructive and energy-intensive hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). (In addition, there are plans to expand coal ex­ports.) The boreal forest is being stripped; salmon-bearing rivers, groundwater and the coastline are threatened; domestic carbon emissions are ballooning; and the nation is becoming a major exporter of climate change — all without serious national debate on this or alternative development strategies. Both levels of government apparently remain in thrall to corporate interests, subscribe to the myth of growth-as-progress and completely discount the environmental and climate risks of business as usual. And should we not be concerned that with such short-term opportunistic “development” strategies the nation reverts to its 19th-century role as an exporter of staples (21) to more advanced economies?

INTRODUCTION AND RATIONALE

Global ecological and socio-economic trends demand a whole new approach to sustainability planning

The overarching premise of this paper is that human-induced global change represents a new context for development planning that cannot safely be ignored. Global ecological and socio-economic trends should now be major considerations in reframing even local planning strategies. Indeed, I argue that meaningful consideration of global trends would generate a whole new approach to sustainability planning at every spatial scale. It also represents a more hopeful way forward than anything under consideration today.

But first, a summary of the need for a new approach

But prior to outlining the core elements of such an agenda, a brief summary of the compelling need for a new approach is necessary.

1/ Humans have exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of Earth; we’re in overshoot

While denialists have managed to befuddle popular understanding, there is solid scientific consensus that the world is in ecological overshoot, i.e. that the human enterprise exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth. (1)Environmental and earth scientists have shown that human demands on the ecosphere exceed its regenerative capacity and that global waste sinks are over owing. The accumulation of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, is perhaps the best-known example, but is just one symptom of humanity’s frontal assault on the ecosphere—climate is changing, the oceans are acidifying, fresh waters are toxifying, the seas are over shed, soils are eroding, deserts are expanding, tropical forests are shrinking, biodiversity is plummeting. The growth of the human enterprise continues at the expense of depleting self-producing natural capital and polluting life support systems. (2)

2/ World economy faces shortages of essential non-renewable resources

Moreover, for the first time since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the world economy is also facing shortages of essential non-renewable resources. Global extraction of conventional petroleum had peaked by 2006 (3) and current consumption can be maintained only by exploiting ever-more-difficult-to-extract and expensive crude from the seabed, or “tight” oil from ancient shale and tar-sands deposits (and it is questionable how long even this can last). (4)

By 2008, 63 of the 89 depletable mineral resources that sustain modern industrial economies had become globally scarce as revealed by diminishing returns to exploration and dramatically rising prices. (5) As the impacts of resource exploitation and excess consumption exceed safe planetary boundaries, (6) Homo sapiens’ remarkable evolutionary success morphs into ecological dysfunction that threatens the survival of global civilization.

3/ Chronic poverty and egregious inequality are the roots of social upheaval and barriers to sustainability

And there is an attendant social problem. The litany of ecological damage and resource scarcity is largely the result of production and consumption to satisfy just the wealthiest 20 per cent of the world’s population. At purchasing power parity exchange rates, this privileged elite enjoys more than 70 per cent per cent of global income (i.e. consumption) while the poorest 20 per cent survive on a paltry 2 per cent, less than $1.25 per person per day. If these data are not sufficient to underscore chronic gross inequity, consider that the wealthiest 61 million individuals—less than 1 per cent of the human population—enjoy the same income as the poorest 3.5 billion, 56 per cent of the population. (7) While recent decades have seen a reduction in the proportion of people in abject poverty, mostly in China, progress is glacial. Ortiz and Cummins (8) estimate that it would take more than 800 years for the bottom billion to reach 10 per cent of global income at current are rates of improvement. Meanwhile, the absolute number of impoverished has never been greater. In 2005, 40 per cent of the human family—2.6 billion people, which is more than the entire population of Earth in the early 1950s—lived on less than $2 daily. Chronic poverty and egregious inequality are the roots of social upheaval and arguably as much barriers to sustainability as is ecological decay.

4. Mainstream extols “business as usual” as best way to generate wealth required to address ecological challenges

The mainstream “solution” to this double-barrelled conundrum is sufficient economic growth for everyone to become rich. (9) Prompted mainly by corporate interests (through lobbying and election campaign financing), politicians of every stripe assert that only an expanding GDP can eliminate poverty and provide the wealth needed to address ecological concerns. This “solution” ignores ecological overshoot and resource shortages, and it conveniently obviates any discussion of various means to ensure a more equitable sharing of Earth’s limited bounty. (This last point is particularly regrettable given that most of the increase in national income in the US, Canada and elsewhere in recent years has gone to the already wealthy; see note 43.) Nevertheless, the world community has expended much effort in recent decades restructuring the global economy to facilitate growth. The accompanying rhetoric extols deregulation, globalization, expanding trade, competition and freer markets; nagging environmental concerns are dismissed with the promise of greater economic ef­ficiency, ecologically benign technologies and enhanced factor productivity (essentially producing more from less). A deluded public generally cheers approvingly from the bleachers.

Arguably, this business-as-usual (BAU) panacea is doomed, even on its own terms. BAU ignores the “rebound effect” and discounts the ecological impacts of increased inter-regional connectivity. The past half-century of global market integration has been accompanied by unprecedented gains in material productivity and technological innovation. Yet the world has witnessed an equally unpreced­ented explosion in the consumptive throughput of just about everything; for example, roughly half the fossil fuel ever burned has been consumed in just the past 30 years. (10) Meanwhile, the material effect of globalization has been to expose the world’s remaining pockets of resources to growing numbers of expectant and increasingly affluent consumers. Global restructuring extended the formal economy spatially, while enhanced efficiency and competition lowered prices and increased wages and salaries. As more people with more money chase cheaper goods and services, demand rises, the world economy expands and resource depletion/pollution accelerates. Various “resources” from honeybees through petroleum to songbirds slip down the scale from abundance to scarcity.

5/ Mainstream overlooks the inconvenient fact that global overshoot has already topped 50%

The overarching problem is one that the mainstream has yet to acknowledge: on a planet already in overshoot, there is no possibility of raising even the present world population to developed coun­try material standards sustainably with known technologies and available resources. By 2008, the world population had reached 6.7 billion (it hit 7.2 billion in 2014) with an average eco-footprint of approximately 2.7 global hectares (gha) per capita. (11) However, there were only about 12 billion productive hectares on Earth or just 1.8 average hectares per capita — global overshoot has already topped 50 per cent. (12)

We can refer to “1.8 average hectares per capita” as one’s equitable, or fair, “Earth share.” It represents the biocapacity available to support each person, assuming the world’s productive ecosystems were distributed equally among the entire human population. (13) In this light, consider that average Europeans require the productive and carbon assimilative capacities of four to five gha per capita to support current levels of consumption. Thus, if everyone on Earth reached European material standards, aggregate demand would exceed 30 billion gha on a planet with a total of only 12 billion hectares of productive land and water. We would have a biocapacity shortfall of almost two Earth-like planets. The North American eco-footprint is seven gha/capita; to achieve North American levels of consumption and carbon emissions for everyone would demand at least three additional Earths (and we would still have to accommodate the material demands of the additional two billion people expected by 2050). This already precarious situation is deteri­orating because the fair Earth-share is a moving target, one that shrinks annually with increasing population and accelerating ecosystem degradation. Even the arithmetically challenged should recognize that trying to grow our way out of poverty is ecologically naive and ultimately disastrous for everyone. (14)

6/ World’s “haves” live in part on biocapacity imported from distant poorer countries

Moreover, should we not be concerned that demand in most densely populated, high-income countries has long since exceeded domestic biocapacity? The United Kingdom, for example, uses at least three times as much extraterritorial biocapacity to maintain its consumer lifestyles as is contained within its national territory. (15) The world’s “haves” live, in part, on biocapacity imported from the global commons and poorer countries half a planet away. (16,17) By contrast, the chronically impoverished survive on 0.5 gha or less and leave almost no footprint beyond their local environs. The world’s poor simply don’t have the money needed to access even their equitable allocation of the world’s bounty.

7/ As things stand, poorer countries are unlikely to ever achieve their “fair share” of consumption levels

Indeed, if current trends continue, it is unlikely they will ever achieve “fair share” levels of consumption, let alone eco-equity. Even as climate change and ecosystems degradation take their toll on productivity, remaining “surpluses” of local biocapacity are being appropriated by the rich through trade and, most recently, the phenomenon of “land-grabbing.” Richer countries and local and transnational corporate interests are leasing or buying outright millions of the most productive hectares of land in poorer countries in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, denying access to, and sometimes forcibly evicting, local people from their traditional lands. (18) Oxfam reports that as many as 227 million hectares of land — an area the size of Western Europe — had been sold or leased in developing countries since 2001 (enough to feed a billion people, roughly the number of currently calorically undernourished people on the planet). (19) This latest expression of egregious inequality in an increasingly fractious resource-poor world is likely to foster civil unrest and exacerbate geopolitical instability in coming years.

Goal of the paper

Against this background, the goal of this paper is to advance a precautionary, transformational approach to sustainability planning. This framework recognizes that despite a half-century of alarm over the “environmental crisis” and 20 years of political rhetoric on “paradigm-shifting” and “sustainable development,” action to date has been mere reform-at-the-margin, not fundamental transformation. (20) Indeed, it is arguable that no real progress is possible while the beliefs, values and assumptions of capitalism remain entrenched. Any rationale for rewriting global society’s dominant economic narrative must, therefore, dramatically shift the ground for development planning. I assume, for example, that there are real biophysical limits to growth and that both climate change and widespread ecological degradation are indicative of both potentially fatal overshoot and gross market failure. It follows that government intervention in the economy for the common good is justified, even necessary for the survival of global civilization. Drawing on various disciplines from cognitive psychology through environmental science, sociology and economic history, I outline some of the broad framing necessary at the global level and specific policies needed at the national and (bio-) regional scales to achieve a planned descent to a sustainable steady state.

In assessing the proposed strategy, the reader would do well to keep contemporary Canada and British Columbia in mind. The federal government’s current economic plan is heavily dependent on tar-sands development and pipeline expansion, i.e. the export of bitumen (among the dirtiest of fos­sil fuels) to US and world markets; the provincial government has tied BC’s economic wagon to as-yet uncertain export markets for liquefied natural gas (LNG) extracted using ecologically destructive and energy-intensive hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). (In addition, there are plans to expand coal ex­ports.) The boreal forest is being stripped; salmon-bearing rivers, groundwater and the coastline are threatened; domestic carbon emissions are ballooning; and the nation is becoming a major exporter of climate change — all without serious national debate on this or alternative development strategies. Both levels of government apparently remain in thrall to corporate interests, subscribe to the myth of growth-as-progress and completely discount the environmental and climate risks of business as usual. And should we not be concerned that with such short-term opportunistic “development” strategies the nation reverts to its 19th-century role as an exporter of staples (21) to more advanced economies?

Endnotes

1/ WWF. 2012. Living Planet Report 2012. Gland, Switzerland: Worldwide Fund for Nature // Rees, W.E. 2013a. Ecological Footprint, Concept of. In Simon Levin (ed.), Encyclopedia of Biodiversity (2nd ed.). Salt Lake City, UT: Academic Press/Elsevier

2/ Rockström J., W. Steffen, K. Noone et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461:472-475 // Rees, W.E. 2013a. Ecological Footprint, Concept of. In Simon Levin (ed.), Encyclopedia of Biodiversity (2nd ed.). Salt Lake City, UT: Academic Press/Elsevier

3/ IEA. 2010. World Energy Outlook 2010—Executive Summary. Paris: International Energy Agency. Available at: http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/media/weowebsite/2010/WEO2010_es_english.pdf.

4/ Heinberg, R. 2013. Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future. Santa Rosa, CA: Post Carbon Institute.

5/ Clugson, C.O. 2012. Scarcity: Humanity’s Final Chapter? Port Charlotte, FL: Booklocker.com, Inc. // World Bank. 2013a. Commodity markets outlook. Global Economic Prospects, Vol. 2 (July 2013). Washington, DC: World Bank. Available at http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPROSPECTS/Resources/334934-1304428586133/CommodityMarketsOutlook_July2013.pdf 

6/ Rockström J., W. Steffen, K. Noone et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461:472-475

7/ Ortiz, I. and M. Cummins. 2011. Global Inequality: Beyond the bottom billion. UNICEF Social and Economic Policy Working Paper. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). April 2011.  // Shah, A. 2013. Poverty Facts and Stats. Global Issues—Social, Political, Economic and Environmental Issues that Affect Us All. Available at: http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats .

8/ Ortiz, I. and M. Cummins, op. cit.

9/ Beckerman, W. 1992. Economic growth and the environment: Whose growth? Whose Environment? World Development 20:481-496.

10/ Steffen, W., P.J. Crutzen and J.R. McNeill. 2007. The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature? Ambio 36(8):614-621. Available at: http://mfs.uchicago.edu/public/institutes/2013/climate/prereadings/steffen_et_al–the_anthropocene.pdf

11/ A population’s eco-footprint is the area of productive land and water ecosystems required, on a continuous basis, to produce the renewable resources that the population consumes and to assimilate its carbon wastes (Wackernagel and Rees 1996; Rees 1996, 2013a, 2013b). A “global hectare” (gha) is a hectare of world average productivity. We convert population eco-footprints into standard ghas to enable fair comparisons among regions or countries with differing ecosystem productivities.

12/ This means that it would currently take about 1.5 years for the ecosphere to regenerate the renewable resources people use, and to assimilate the carbon their economies emit, each year (WWF 1012). Alarming enough perhaps, but note that eco-footprint data are generally underestimates because, in the absence of adequate data, they do not account for local overexploitation (e.g. soil erosion or declining fish stocks) and include only carbon wastes (Rees 2013a).

13/ Rees, W.E. 2010. What’s blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition and denial. Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy 6(2):13-25. Available at: http://sspp.proquest.com/archives/vol6iss2/1001-012.rees.html .

14/ Also for other species — biocapacity appropriated for human use is irreversibly unavailable for non-human organisms. Continuous growth of the human enterprise therefore necessarily diminishes nature.

15/ By contrast, Canada, with its relatively small population and large territory, is one of only a handful of countries whose domestic biocapacity (15 gha/capita) is more than adequate to satisfy domestic demand (6.5 gha/capita). However, the nation’s apparent eco-surplus is absorbed servicing the eco-deficits of over­consuming countries, including the UK. Indeed, exports of food and fibre are contributing to the depletion of the nation’s soils, commercial forests, fish stocks, etc. (Kissinger and Rees 2009; Rees 2013b).

16/ Rees, W.E. 2012. Cities as Dissipative Structures: Global Change and the Vulnerability of Urban Civilization. Chapter in M.P. Weinstein and R.E. Turner (eds.), Sustainability Science: The Emerging Paradigm and the Urban Environment. New York: Springer.

17/ Regrettably, globalization and trade separate high-end consumers spatially and psychologically from the ecosystems that support them. Wealthy consumers thus remain blissfully unaware of their increasingly precarious dependence on distant “elsewheres” for their very existence, even as excess consumption depletes the faraway supportive ecosystems.

18/ The 2007–08 boom in food prices, and subsequent high and volatile prices, reminded many import-dependent countries of their food insecurity, prompting them to seek secure supplies overseas. Together with the reduced attractiveness of other assets, this led to a “rediscovery of the agricultural sector by different types of investors and a wave of interest in land acquisitions in developing countries” (Deininger and Byerlee et al. 2011, xxv), increasingly including Canada

19/ Oxfam 2011. Land and Power: The growing scandal surrounding the new wave of investments in land. Oxford: Oxfam GB (for Oxfam International). // Oxfam 2012. Our Land, Our Lives (Oxfam Brie ng Note). Oxford: Oxfam GB (for Oxfam International).

20/ Rees, W.E. 2013b. Carrying Capacity, Globalisation, and the Unsustainable Entanglement of Nations. In P. Lawn (ed.), Globalisation, Economic Transition and the Environment—Forging a Path to Sustainable Development. London: Edward Elgar. // Kissinger, M. and W.E. Rees. 2009. Footprints on the Prairies: Degradation and sustainability of Canadian agriculture in a globalizing world. Ecological Economics 68:2309-2315. // Kissinger, M. and W.E. Rees. 2010. Importing terrestrial biocapacity: The U.S. case and global implications. Land Use Policy 27:589-599.

21/ For more on Canada’s past and present as a staples exporter, see the CCPA report: https://www.policyalterna­tives.ca/publications/reports/staple-theory-50.

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