Citizen Action Monitor

Professor William Rees offers a whole new approach to sustainability planning: Part 4

Part 4 – It’s time to end the cult of consumerism, which is ecologically destructive, and to return to policies and programs to strengthen community, cooperation, and common interest.

No 1079 Posted by fw, June 20, 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.

In Part 4, Rees argues that it’s time to end the cult of consumerism, which is ecologically destructive, and to return to policies and programs to strengthen community, cooperation, and common interest. To accomplish this, he says we need to find a new balance between globalization and localization. Towards this end he proposes some new rules and regional trade treaties to give nations more flexibility in reacting to changing circumstances. In his closing thoughts on relocalization, Rees explains, in, at times, challenging technical language, the benefits of reconnecting urban regions to essential, self-reliant local ecosystems, thus ensuring recycling of organic wastes and nutrients back to farms and forests, and simultaneously reducing dependence on imports for life’s necessities.

As in previous parts, hanging indented subheadings are used in Part 4 to highlight main ideas and facilitate browsing, endnotes are substituted for footnotes, and text highlighting is added for emphasis. Brackets ( ) are again employed in the body of the text to identify the numerical links to the endnote citations.

To access a free PDF copy of Rees’ original 20-page 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


End “cult of consumerism”, which is ecologically destructive

The cult of consumerism is not only spiritually empty but also ecologically destructive. To repair the failing ecosystems and life-support functions upon which we all depend, steady-state thinking emphasizes investment and conservation over spending and consumption. It also must work to restore trust in government as needed to mend our social safety nets and cultivate mutually sup­portive relationships among social groups.

Abandon neo-liberals’ unbridled confidence in free market ideology

Both ecological and social sustainability require that we abandon neo-liberals’ unbridled confidence in markets as the sole wellspring and arbiter of social values. Climate change, fisheries collapses, ecosystems degradation and illegal sweatshops are all examples of gross market failure. The World Assembly must relegitimize national government intervention in markets to protect the common good; the world needs sound planning, selective reregulation and comprehensive extra-market adaptation strategies for global change.

To fix broken markets, adopt policies favouring “true-cost economics” — that prices reflect full costs of production and use

A major goal is to ensure that prices reflect the full costs of production and use. True-cost economics recognizes the need to:

      • End perverse subsidies to the private sector (e.g. to the fossil fuel sector, fishing fleets, the corn ethanol industry, and private banks “too big to fail”);
      • Reregulate the private sector as necessary to protect the public interest;
      • Introduce scheduled ecological fiscal reforms — tax the bad (depletion and pollution) as well as the good (labour and capital). This might require a combination of pollution charges/taxes on domestic produces and import tariffs on underpriced trade goods; (49) and
      • Tie development policy to the “strong sustainability” criterion (i.e. maintain constant, adequate per-capita stocks of critical natural, manufactured and human capital assets in separate accounts). This requires that we learn to live on sustainable natural in­come, not natural capital liquidation. Society must therefore:
        • Implement “cap-auction-trade” systems for critical resources such as fossil fuels — i.e. place sustainable limits on rates of resource exploitation (or waste discharges), auction off the exploitation rights to available capacity, and use the rents thus captured to address subsequent equity issues;
        • Revise systems of national accounts to include biophysical estimates of essential natural capital stocks and sinks in support of the previous measure;
        • Enforce an adequate minimum (living) wage; and
        • Replace or supplement GDP with more comprehensive/realistic measures of sustainable human well-being.

Rewriting the social contract

Introduce programs to strengthen community, cooperation, and common interest

Consistent with the principles of community, co-operation and people’s common interest in an orderly transition, the World Assembly would generate guidelines for individual nations to renew the social contract and repair social safety nets. National plans would include programmatic tax reform based on recognition that taxation is society’s means of pooling resources in service of the common good, particularly in times of widespread threat. Specific elements of the program might include:

      • A return to more progressive taxation policies encompassing income, capital gains, estate and corporate taxes; (50)
      • Using taxes and positive incentives to promote a shift from private capital accumulation to investment in public infrastructure (e.g. transit, community facilities) and human development;
      • Recognition that a negative income tax (e.g. guaranteed basic income) may be necessary to assist low-income families through the transition and to ensure access to the basics for life;
      • Investment in job training and job placement. Obsolete, unsustainable “sunset” industries must be phased out (e.g. coal-based electricity generation) and workers will need new skills for employment in emerging sunrise industries (e.g. solar energy technologies, passivhaus building); (51)
      • Capitalizing on the advantages of a shorter work week and job-sharing to reduce unemployment and improve people’s work/life balance (self-actualization);
      • Other measures to promote full employment; and
      • Implementing state-assisted family planning programs everywhere to stabilize/reduce human populations.


Five reasons to rethink globalization and restore locality

The global survival plan would also partly unravel today’s increasingly unsustainable eco-economic entanglement of nations. The rationale is clear:

First, the human mind is incapable of adequately understanding, let alone safely controlling, the behaviour of complex global-scale systems under stress. (52) On the other hand, local/regional human communities and ecosystems are more manageable and any negative “surprises” will be confined to the affected region.

Second, unfettered trade allows trading regions to exceed their local carrying capacities with short-term impunity while it both depletes remaining reserves of natural capital and accelerates global pollution, increasing the risk to all. Global overshoot would be eliminated if each region were sustainably managed.

Third, the economic restructuring (e.g. national/regional economic specialization) required for global market efficiency reduces domestic economic diversity and resilience, destroys livelihoods and sometimes whole communities and devalues the skills of local populations. Moreover, be­cause specialization makes people dependent on trade for everything no longer produced locally, it increases their vulnerability to global change — crop failures, energy bottlenecks, geopolitical instability and even changes in market conditions. (53) What will China do when it can no longer feed itself because global surpluses are inaccessible or have disappeared?

Fourth, global economic integration is partially a product of abundant cheap energy. With rising energy costs (the end of the fossil fuel bonanza?) the relocalization of production in heavy-goods sectors affected by rising transportation costs is already occurring and, as energy supplies shrink, the rest of the economy will necessarily follow.

Fifth, unlike capital, many people feel affinity to their home communities (and are not fluidly mobile in any case).

Revise World Trade Org. rules and regional trade treaties to give nations more flexibility in reacting to changing circumstances

To rebalance the tension between the global and local economies, the world community should revise WTO rules and similar regional trade treaties (e.g. NAFTA, the European Union). Nations and regions will be able to adapt creatively to emerging conditions only if they are free to:

      • Develop deglobalization plans to reduce dependence on foreign sources and sinks (i.e. reduce nations’ ecological footprint on others’ ecosystems and the global commons);
      • Generally increase national self-reliance in food, energy and other essential resources as a buffer against climate change, increasing scarcity and prices, and global strife;
      • Simultaneously relocalize, re-skill domestic populations, strengthen domestic mar­kets and diversify local economies through import displacement. Every nation/ region should be able to produce the basic goods to feed, clothe and house itself, for example;
      • Encourage development of local currencies and local exchange trading systems to facilitate intra-regional trade and buffer local economies from external market fluctuations;
      • Insist on terms of international trade that prohibit capital depletion and that provide the producer surpluses needed to maintain essential natural capital stocks (e.g. soils, fish stocks); and
      • Invest in rebuilding local/regional natural capital stocks (e.g. fisheries, forests, soils, biodiversity reserves, etc.) that have been traded away, using revenues collected from carbon taxes or resource-quota auctions.

Do not abandon global trade: “Trade if necessary, but not necessarily trade”

Let’s be clear that rebalancing does not mean abandoning international trade. Trade does provide an important buffer in the event of domestic shortages caused by drought or disaster; it is necessary to acquire vital goods that cannot be produced locally. In any event, some countries and regions with large ecological deficits will remain highly trade-dependent at least until their populations fall to more sustainable levels. The rule for resilient local economies should be: export only true ecological surpluses (no net loss of productive natural capital) and import only important commodities that cannot reasonably be sourced at home. “Trade if necessary, but not necessarily trade” serves as convenient shorthand.

Bringing it back home: relocalization

Those people…living in relatively self-reliant, organic, village-scale settlements should be able to ride the change with minimal difficulty and will emerge into the post-civilization phase intact. (54)

Reconnect urban regions to essential, self-reliant local ecosystems, thus ensuring recycling of organic wastes and nutrients back to farms and forests, thereby reducing dependence on imports for life’s necessities

The uncertainties associated with global change also have important implications for urban form and function. (55) Urban designers and planners should begin now to rethink cities — or rather urban regions — so they function as complete quasi-independent human ecosystems. This is the ultimate form of functional bio-mimicry. (56)

The city-as-ecosystem requires the relocalization of many ecological functions. Contemporary urbanization, combined with globalization, has transformed local, integrated, cyclical human ecological production systems into global, horizontally disintegrated, unidirectional throughput systems. (57) Rather than being recycled on the land, essential nutrients contained in grain from the Russian steppes or Canadian prairies wind up in distant oceans, irreversibly discharged from urban sewage outfalls all over the world. The soils of some of the world’s most important breadbaskets have lost half or more of their natural nutrients in just a century of mechanized agriculture.

The least vulnerable and most resilient urban system might be a new form of urban-centred bio­region (or eco-city state) in which a densely built-up core is surrounded by essential supportive ecosystems. The goal is to consolidate as much as possible of the human community’s productive hinterland in close proximity to its consumptive centre. Organic “wastes” and nutrients could then be economically recycled back to farms and forests.

Such a bioregionalized city would reconnect its human population to “the land.” Citizens would see themselves to be directly dependent on local ecosystems and thus have a strong incentive to manage them sustainably. Less dependent on imports for the necessities of life, bioregionally focused populations would be partly insulated from external climate vagaries, resource shortages and distant conflicts.

Ideally, regional eco-cities would develop economic and social planning policies to facilitate reducing their residents’ ecological footprints to a globally equitable 1.8 gha per capita. This is technically possible (58) and the implicit greater equity could actually improve individual and community well-being. (59) In any case, footprint contraction is essential to protect the regenerative capacity of nature and, where possible, to maintain populations within regional carrying capacity.

Clearly, the bioregional vision would require new governance structures that devolve significant control over their extended territories and resource hinterlands to eco-city states. These mechanisms would function to manage land, ecosystems and other resources vital to sustaining human life in the long-term collective interests of the entire community. This, in turn may require stinting some customary private property rights. On a planet in overshoot, it is unacceptable for landowners to destroy through “development” the life-support functions required by everyone. Protecting a redefined commons would be a fundamental goal of any socially just and sustainable steady state.


49 For more on how an equitable and effective carbon tax can be modelled, see Lee, Marc. 2011. Fair and Effective Carbon Pricing: Lessons from BC. Vancouver: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

50 The CCPA has produced many reports outlining ideas for progressive tax reform. See for example Lee, Marc and Iglika Ivanova. 2013. Fairness by Design: A Framework for Tax Reform in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

51 For more on the transition to green jobs, see the Climate Justice Report by Lee, Marc and Amanda Card. 2012. A Green Industrial Revolution: Climate Justice, Green Jobs, and Sustainable Production in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

52 This is perhaps the most powerful argument against attempts to “geo-engineer” solutions to climate change. Unintended systems responses are inevitable, unpredictable and most likely to be negative.

53 Rees, W.E. 2002. Globalization and sustainability: Conflict or convergence? Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society22(4):249-268., // 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 // 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 Policy27:589-599.

54 Mare, E.C. 2000. Sustainable Cities: An Oxymoron? Seattle: Village Design Institute.

55 Register, R. 2006. EcoCities: Rebuilding Cities in Balance with Nature (rev. ed.). Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

56 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.

57 Rees, W.E. 1997. Is “sustainable city” an oxymoron?  Local Environment 2:303-310. // 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.

58 von Weizsäcker, E., K. Hargroves, M. Smith et al. 2009. Factor 5: Transforming the Global Economy through 80 per cent Increase in Resource Productivity. UK and Droemer, Germany: Earthscan. ISBN 978-1-84407-591-1.

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

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