Citizen Action Monitor

Professor William Rees offers a whole new approach to sustainability planning: Part 3

Part 3 – Rees outlines how world leaders should react if confronted with a major global catastrophe

No 1078 Posted by fw, June 19, 2014

In 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 alleged 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. 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.

In Part 3, William Rees asks readers to imagine a scenario in which a major global catastrophe has precipitated a great awakening among world leaders. Shocked into action, they establish a World Assembly for Mutual Survival. The Assembly formulates an alternative conceptual framework that better models the harsh ‘reality’ they face. Among other actions, a radical shift in social-cultural norms and values is called for. To win global public support and acceptance of the plan, a worldwide social marketing campaign will be absolutely necessary. Rees anticipates objections to centralized decision-making by a World Assembly and the risk that global marketing will be perceived as a form of “brainwashing”. But calamitous times on a global scale call for bold, universal measures.

As in previous parts, subheadings are used in Part 3 to highlight main ideas and facilitate browsing, endnotes are substituted for footnotes, and text highlighting is added for emphasis. Moreover, some additional bulleted formatting is used to enhance readability. Brackets ( ) are again employed 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


It is only in the backward countries of the world that increased production is still an important object: in those most advanced, what is economically needed is a better distribution, of which one indispensable means is a stricter restraint on population. (46)

What if a major catastrophe precipitates great awakening, how should world leaders react?

Let’s assume that the rising cost of global change or some major catastrophe precipitates a great awakening, that world leaders are shocked into agreeing that the science of climate change is basically correct and demands a decisive collective response.

First step – create a World Assembly for Mutual Survival

They [world leaders] will be on war footing and, with unprecedented unity, will launch a World Assembly for Mutual Survival.

Formulate an alternative conceptual framework that better models reality

The first thing this high-level forum might acknowledge is that the crisis is the inevitable result of an ill-conceived economic paradigm that assumes poverty and most other human problems can be resolved by technology and growth alone. The question then becomes “what alternative conceptual framing might provide the foundation for a new global narrative that better conforms to reality?”

Set a clear goal like this one – “To engineer the creation of a dynamic, more equitable  steady-state economy that can satisfy the basic needs of the entire human family within the means of nature”

Certainly recognition of biophysical limits to growth would be near the top of the list. The World Assembly might therefore adopt as its overall goal: to engineer the creation of a dynamic, more equit­able steady-state economy that can satisfy the basic needs of the entire human family within the means of nature. Fair enough.

Recognize that degrowth alone is not enough; there’s a need for radical reduction of fossil fuel use, material consumption, and pollution

However, our best science tells us that for the human enterprise to operate compatibly “within the means of nature” merely curtailing growth would not be enough. This is a world in overshoot — a sustainable steady-state economy will be a materially smaller economy. In general terms, the world needs to reduce fossil energy use, material consumption and pollution by 50 per cent or more by mid-century.

Since global growth is rejected as poverty-reduction tool, the preferred alternative is more equitable distribution especially among developing countries

Moreover, to address egregious inequality, wealthy countries would have to reduce their energy/material throughput by 80 per cent by 2050 and abandon fossil fuels entirely shortly thereafter. (47) The additional commitment is necessary to free up the “ecological space” needed to improve material conditions in developing countries where, in Mill’s words, “increased production is still an important object.” If global growth is no longer available as a poverty-reduction tool, “a better distribution” (Mill again) emerges as the only viable policy option.

Recognize that a radical shift in social-cultural norms and values is a prerequisite for orderly transition to sustainability

Needless to say, contraction is not an idea that resonates with contemporary economic thinking. If an orderly transition requires the consent and involvement of a majority of citizens, it also demands a dramatic shift in social-cultural norms. Specifically, the new narrative must de-emphasize —

      • competitive individualism,
      • greed and short-term self-interest and
      • trumpet instead the adaptive strengths of co-operation, community and people’s common interest in survival.
      • It must also discard the shrivelled representation of the human character portrayed in neo-liberal economic models.
        • Homo economicus is an atomistic self-interested utility maximizer devoid of family, community, place and any meaningful relationship with nature;
        • this creature defines “rational” strictly in terms of maximizing personal consumption.
      • Real people are vastly more complex; we live socially in physical communities and are capable of expressing a full spectrum of attitudes, behaviours and relationships to the rest of the world.
        • We can all be greedy and self-serving on one occasion, generous and selfless on another;
        • we can all enjoy the thrill of competition but are just as capable of joyful co-operation;
        • for most people, money is a means to live, not an end in itself.
      • The key insight is that, while human nature displays a spectral palette of attributes and behaviours, cultural nurture helps determine which of these “colours” shine most brightly.
      • As previously noted, we socially construct the cultural norms that shape our interactions with each other, with other species and with the ecosystems that sustain us.

Launch worldwide social marketing program to win support of majority of citizens

This is good news. As part of a survival plan, the world community will agree to a worldwide social marketing program designed both to bring the majority of citizens on board and to counter the inevitable push-back from those with the greatest stake in the status quo. Public re-education is necessary to inform ordinary citizens of the severity of the crisis and to animate values and behav­iours compatible with the steady state. The program must advance a positively attractive vision of the future that ensures economic security, social cohesion and ecological stability. It must also graphically contrast this vision with the future of resource wars, geopolitical turmoil and climate chaos likely to unfold if we maintain our BAU [Business As Usual] trajectory.

There will undoubtedly be objections to any such global social learning exercise. However, let’s remember that the denizens of today’s self-destructive consumer society are already the most thoroughly socially engineered generation of humans ever to walk the planet; that billions of dollars are spent every year in public relations, advertising and deliberate misinformation campaigns to ensure that they remain tuned to the status quo; and that this programming is destroying their future prospects. (48)


46 Mill, J.S. 1848. Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy (7th ed. [1909], W.J. Ashley, ed). London: Longmans Green and Co.

47 Rich countries will have to phase out fossil fuels entirely before century’s end. Taking into account the pace of climate change and paleoclimatic evidence that even 2 Celsius degrees of mean global warming would be catastrophic, the latest science argues for limiting atmospheric CO2 to 350 ppm (it’s currently near 400 ppm and rising) and warming to 1 Celsius degree (Hansen J. P. Kharecha, M. Sato et al. 2013. Assessing “dangerous climate change”: Required reduction of carbon emissions to protect young people, future generations and nature. PLoS ONE 8(12):e81648.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648.). If we were to begin cutting carbon emissions by 6 per cent annually, we would achieve the required short-term 80 per cent reduction by 2040 and be essentially free of fossil energy by 2090.

48 Since the 1970s, business interests in North America have been remarkably successful in reframing popular political discourse to reflect corporate capitalist values against the perceived threats of civil rights, environ­mentalism and other “common good” values. The evidence is in corporate sponsorship of university chairs of (neo-liberal) economics, the founding and financial support of numerous influential neo-conservative think tanks (e.g. the Cato Institute, the Heartland Institute), and the sponsorship of right-wing talk radio and television programming. The latter are notable for their anti-intellectual/anti-science stance as reflected in support for creationism and climate change denial.

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