Citizen Action Monitor

Professor William Rees offers a whole new approach to sustainability planning: Part 2

Part 2 – Rees makes the case for “steady-state sustainability” with justice

No 1077 Posted by fw, June 18, 2014

In the preceding post, Part 1, Rees reviewed what he sees as the most pressing global challenges we face – climate change, ecological overshoot, and rising inequality. Against this background, he clearly defined the goal of his ground-breaking paper: to advance a precautionary, transformational approach to sustainability planning.

In Part 2, Dr. Rees alleges that the world community is in deep denial over the global challenges it faces. A return to the “business as usual”, growth-induced response, which got us into this mess in the first place, is clearly unsustainable. He writes:

Unsustainability is a collective problem that demands collective solutions. Arguably, civilization will not survive without recognition that we are all on the same fragile spaceship whose safe passage depends on unprecedented inter-institutional co-operation at all spatial scales.

In this context, Rees frames an action plan, outlining the rationale and major elements for no-growth, “steady-state sustainability” with justice. He acknowledges that this proposed survival strategy “will seem impossibly extreme” to most capitalists, lists five essential human qualities necessary to get us on a cooperative path to sustainability, and worries that we might not be up to the challenge.

As in Part 1, subheadings are used to highlight main ideas and facilitate browsing, endnotes are substituted for footnotes, and text highlighting is added for emphasis. 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, June 12, 2014


We, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions, are ignored or ridiculed. Even with the flashing red lights before us, the increased droughts, rapid melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, monster tornadoes, vast hurricanes, crop failures, floods, raging wildfires and soaring temperatures, we bow slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and prowess. (22)

Ours is a world community in deep denial

Chris Hedges’ analogy of the world community and the crew of the Pequod in Melville’s Moby Dick describes a world in deep denial. Is this an inevitable response to crisis or is there another way? How might a more mindfully conscious world address the (un)sustainability conundrum?

This section provides the rationale and major elements for a truly transformational approach to sustainability planning.

The dire implications of growth-induced global change demand a seemingly impossible strategy in response

The proposed strategy will seem impossibly extreme to some so-called practical people. However, unlike mainstream solutions, it is consistent with the dire implications of growth-induced global change. (23) In particular, it recognizes that global-scale ecological and social turmoil ushers in a unique phase in human history. (24) Climate change has already disrupted the lives of millions, and eventually everyone will suffer the consequences of systemic collapse. No individual can implement the policies necessary (e.g. carbon taxes, resource quotas) to significantly reduce their ecological footprint or revamp the social programs needed for social stability. No country, however virtuous, can be sustainable on its own or remain insulated from global turmoil. Thus, the so-called developed world, long steeped in the rhetoric of competitive individualism, must now grapple with the notion that individual and national interests have all but converged with humanity’s common interests. Unsustainability is a collective problem that demands collective solutions. Arguably, civilization will not survive without recognition that we are all on the same fragile spaceship whose safe passage depends on unprecedented inter-institutional co-operation at all spatial scales.

Working cooperatively for the common good will require the ardent exercise of several intellectual and behavioural qualities that are unique (or nearly so) to our species:

      • high intelligence, the capacity to reason logically from available facts and data;
      • the ability to plan ahead, to direct the course of events toward desired ends;
      • an unequalled array of socio-behavioural means and mechanisms for co-operation;
      • the capacity for moral judgment, the ability to distinguish right from wrong; and
      • the ability to empathize with other people and even non-human species and to exercise compassion toward “the other.”

(It is worth noting that certain of these capacities have been deliberately repressed in the socio-political discourse of recent decades.)

Forced degrowth is inevitable – the question is, will it be planned and orderly or will it come as an inevitable result of a disastrous return to business as usual?

The starting point for any contemporary survival strategy should be to embrace a possibility that mainstream governments and international agencies have thus far been loath to contemplate (at least in the public arena): in coming decades, the human enterprise will likely be forced to contract. Two basic scenarios bookend the range of possible contraction possibilities.

1. BUSINESS AS USUAL: Any sustained effort to maintain the growth-based status quo risks triggering systemic collapse in the form of either uncontrollable climate change, wide-spread ecological destruction and the loss of essential life-support functions (25) or diminishing returns to investment in resources, commodity shortages, rising costs/prices, competition for capital, unrepayable indebtedness and increasing social disparity. Either set of conditions (or some combination) defines a path to economic implosion, civil insurrection, geopolitical turmoil and resource wars. (26)

2. A CO-OPERATIVE, WELL-PLANNED ORDERLY DESCENT: In theory, the global community is capable of deliberately planning and executing a “prosperous way down” and still has the resources to do so. (27) The goals would be to restore and maintain the ecosphere while ensuring social order and reasonable economic security for all. (28) As noted above, this approach requires a complete transformation of national and global development paradigms. (29)

Can there be any doubt which end of the spectrum an objective member of an intelligent, forward-thinking, plan-capable, morally astute and (mostly) co-operative species should choose? An orderly contraction is the only viable means to a just sustainability and this, in turn, implies nothing less than a deliberate rewrite of contemporary society’s grand cultural narrative. In particular, the world would have to abandon its core myths of perpetual progress and material growth and focus instead on degrowth toward a sustainable steady state with greater equity. (30)


It seems implausible that humanity will not alter its energy course as consequences of burning all fossil fuels become clearer. Yet strong evidence about the dangers of human-made climate change have so far had little effect. (31)

Right now the Degrowth option doesn’t stand a chance against the return to Business As Usual because —

Humans aren’t wholly rational

Those who track the state of the ecosphere should be excused for being discouraged. A complex of interrelated behavioural tendencies combine to stifle the political will for decisive action: humans generally have difficulty processing information that conflicts with what they already “know”; even when convinced of the need for change, people are not wholly rational in dealing with threats to their socio-economic status or political power; and privileged elites with the greatest stake in the status quo increasingly exert control over the political process.

Humans filter ‘reality’ through complex, abstract, socially-constructed frames of understanding, which lead people to favour explanations that confirm their existing position

The first of these barriers is nearly universal and reflects another unique quality of Homo sapi­ens — much of what we assume to be true, much of what masquerades as “reality” in our conscious minds, is to some degree socially constructed. (32) Other sentient organisms respond to the world as they find it, their reactions dictated by instinct, predictable stimulus-response mechanisms and simple trial-and-error learning. By contrast, human groups collectively create complex abstract frames of understanding through which they filter subsequent sensory and emotional inputs. Different framings will produce different responses to the same stimuli with correspondingly different impacts on the well-being of the individual or group involved.

As post-modernists like to remind us, there are no theoretical limits to the diversity and form of alternative perceptions. Indeed, every religious doctrine, political ideology, academic paradigm, worldview and cultural narrative is a social construct. But this by no means implies that competing constructs are equally valid, particularly those pertaining to important aspects of biophysical reality. The important thing to recognize is that socially constructed norms, whether or not they “map” well to reality, profoundly influence how people act out in the world. Indeed, the evidence shows that social constructs carry sufficient weight, even in the face of contrary facts, to determine the fates of entire societies. (33)

Grappling with the elephant in the room

Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist. (34)

The case for “steady-state sustainability” with justice

The contemporary growth economy is a malignant social construct. We need to replace it with an ecologically benign and socially equitable no-growth variant. The idea that the economy would eventually stop growing actually dates from at least the mid-18th century when Adam Smith (incorrectly) predicted that a surplus of labour and resource scarcity would impose a limit on growth after just 200 years. (35) Almost a century later, John Stuart Mill also argued that society would reach a “stationary state,” but he hoped for a deliberate transition. Mill saw no virtue in becoming richer than one need be and advocated instead for a just distribution of property “…attained, by the joint effect of the prudence and frugality of individuals, and of a system of legislation favouring equality of fortunes….” Thoroughly modern, Mill even made an ecological connection. He lamented that the “unlimited increase of wealth and population” would cause Earth to lose “that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to [nature], for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population.” He therefore hoped that people would come to “be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.” (36)

It took yet another century to reawaken interest in Mill’s “stationary state” (though Mill would regret that “necessity compels [us] to it”). Beginning in the 1960s, the work of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (37) and his acolyte Herman Daly (38) culminated in a new discipline, ecological economics, which has debated the notion of a steady-state economy for the past 25 years. Also with intellectual roots in Georgescu-Roegen, the first decades of the 21st century have spawned an increasingly global “degrowth” (décroissance) movement. Proponents advocate a gradual downscaling of production and consumption toward a more equitable and co-operative society that would ensure both ecological stability and human well-being. (39)

Thoughtful people contemplating steady-state sustainability with justice (the essence of our scen­ario 2) usually draw on the following arguments:

1. Continuous growth of anything in a finite space is anomalous and ultimately self-correcting. For 99.9 per cent of human history, local populations rarely grew for extended periods but rather fluctuated near carrying capacity as a function of food supplies, disease, etc. (40) The recent 200 years of continuous growth that we consider the norm is actually the single most abnormal period in human history. Indeed, the present (socially constructed) policy fixation on growth dates only from the 1950s.

2. Economic production is actually mostly a consumptive process. Manufacturing, for example, irreversibly transforms large quantities of useful energy and material into an equivalent mass of useless waste (even the smaller quantity of product eventually joins the waste stream). Economic activity inexorably dissipates resources and increases the entropy (randomness, disorder) of the ecosphere.

3. Beyond a certain income level (long passed in high-income countries) there is no further correlation between GDP per capita and objective indicators of either population health or perceived well-being. (41) Once basic material needs are met, it is not rich countries but rather countries with greater income equality that perform better on standard quality-of-life indicators. Greater social equity is “better for everyone.” (42)

4. With the promulgation of neo-liberal (corporate/capitalist) policies, an increasing proportion of the income gain from GDP growth accrues to the already wealthy — who don’t tangibly benefit — at the expense of middle and lower classes. (43) The income gap is increasing even as over-consumption depletes natural capital and undermines life-support systems. The chronically impoverished are hit the hardest, but such trends ultimately threaten everyone.

5. With integrated fiscal, tax, employment and population policies and the like, it should be possible to create an ecologically viable, more equitable, economically stable, no-growth economy with minimal unemployment and poverty. (44)

Even some climate-change scientists are breaking from their normal policy-neutral stance by voicing explicit support for orderly economic contraction. Unless the world can reconcile economic growth with an unprecedented 6 per cent per year decarbonization rate, avoiding a potentially catastrophic 4°C increase in mean global temperature may well require a “planned economic recession.” (45) Mill was a century and half ahead of his time.


22 Hedges, C. 2013. We are all aboard the Pequod. Nation of Change—Human Rights(9 July 2013).

23 There may be other alternatives, but for success each must be consistent with biophysical and social reality.

24 The mainstream shows signs of awakening. Even the World Bank acknowledges that “The science is unequivocal that humans are the cause of global warming” and that “we are on a path to a 4°C (7.2°F) warmer world…with potentially “devastating impacts on agriculture, water resources, ecosystems, and human health.” Bottom line? Four degrees of warming “must be avoided” and “…bold, … immediate global action is needed to slow the growth in greenhouse gas emissions this decade”

25 Barnosky, A.D. et al. 2012. Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere. Nature 486:52-58. doi:10.1038/nature11018

26 Klare, M. 2001. Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. New York: Owl Books (Henry Holt). // Klare, M. 2012. The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources. New York: Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt).

27 Odum, H. and E. Odum. 2001. A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

28 Victor, P. 2008. Managing Without Growth. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

29 Greer, J.M. 2008. The Long Descent. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

30 An economic steady state implies a more or less constant rate of energy and material throughput, compatible with the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosphere. The steady state is not to be confused with a stagnant state. A steady-state economy can be dynamic, constantly changing with the rise of new and the decline of “sunset” industries. It is an economy dedicated to qualitative improvement in well-being, not merely quantitative growth.

31 Hansen, J., M. Sato, G. Russell and P. Kharecha. 2012. Climate Sensitivity, Sea Level, and Atmospheric CO2. New York: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute.

32 Berger, P.L. and T. Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

33 Tainter, J. 1988. The Collapse of Complex Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press. // Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Press.

34 Boulding, K. 1973. Attributed to Kenneth Boulding in: United States. Congress. House (1973) Energy reorganization act of 1973: Hearings, Ninety-third Congress, first session, on H.R. 11510, p. 248.

35 Smith, A. 1776. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. London: W. Strahan.

36 All quotes from Mill, J.S. 1848’bk,4, chap 4. Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy  (7th ed. [1909], W.J. Ashley, ed). London: Longmans Green and Co.

37 Georgescu-Roegan, N. 1971. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

38 Daly, H.E. (ed.). 1973. Toward a Steady-State Economy. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, // Daly, H.E. 1991. Steady-State Economics: Second Edition with New Essays (orig. 1977). Washington, DC: Island Press 1991.

39 Kerschner, C. 2010. Economic de-growth vs. steady-state economy. Journal of Cleaner Production18:544-551.

40 All species populations would be capable of continuous geometric (exponential growth) in an infinite habitat. Normally, however, space and resource shortages combined with disease, predation and weather effects hold populations in check. Human ingenuity and technology have temporarily loosened the grip of such negative feedbacks on the human enterprise.

41 Lane, R. 2000. The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. New Haven: Yale University Press. // Victor, P. 2008. Managing Without Growth. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

42 Wilkinson, R. and K. Pickett. 2010. The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin Books 2010.

43 In 1980 the richest countries with 10 per cent of the world’s population enjoyed a gross national income 60 times that of the poorest countries with10 per cent of the world’s population. By 2005 the ratio stood at 122:1. Meanwhile, the poorest quintile of the population within many countries has suffered a declining share of national consumption over the last 15 years (WHO 2013). For example, the top 1 per cent of income earners in the US captured 95 per cent of total income gains since 2009 and now enjoy 10 per cent of total household income. The richest 10 per cent of households take home half the nation’s income (Saez, E. 2013. Striking It Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Updated with 2012 preliminary estimates). Berkeley: University of California at Berkeley: Department of Economics). While the trend is less dramatic in Canada, the total net worth of the poorest 20 per cent of Canadian families actually decreased by 15 per cent between 1999 and 2012, leaving them with negative net worth (debts exceeding assets) of more than $10 million. By contrast, the richest 20 per cent of Canadian families captured two-thirds of the total increase in national wealth during this period and their net worth grew by more than 80 per cent (Canada 2014).

44 Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity without Growth—Economics for a Finite Planet. London: Earthscan. // Victor, P. 2008. Managing Without Growth. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

45 Anderson, K. and A. Bows. 2008. Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A doi:10.1098/rsta.2008.0138.

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