Citizen Action Monitor

Professor William Rees offers a whole new approach to sustainability planning: Part 5 of 5

redflag 2Part 5 – Rees gifts us a new way forward, but in his Epilogue he doesn’t seem to hold out much hope for our survival — “We are our own worst enemy.”

No 1080 Posted by fw, June 21, 2014

epilogue – a short addition or concluding section at the end

The bad news is that evidently things still have to get much worse before we will muster the courage and clarity to try to make them better. The “good news” is that things are indeed getting worse….

Suggested epitaph: “Too clever by half but not nearly smart enough.”

The two quotes above, bracketing the beginning and ending of Rees’ Epilogue, foretell an unhappy outcome for Homo sapiens. The choice we face should not be a difficult one for modern humans, notes Rees: one path leads to global societal transformation, the other to systemic collapse. However, by the time Rees’ finishes arraying the formidable barriers to societal transformation, the outlook seems bleak, indeed.

As in the previous 4 parts, subheadings appear in hanging indents in Part 5, the final part in this series of posts, 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 single out and enhance the readability of an array of ideas grouped in paragraphs . Brackets ( ) are again employed in the body of the text to identify the numerical links to the endnote citations.

To access a free PDF version of  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


The bad news is that evidently things still have to get much worse before we will muster the courage and clarity to try to make them better. The “good news” is that things are indeed getting worse…. (60)

Rees summarizes his entire paper in one paragraph

  • This paper started from the premise that the human enterprise has already overshot global carrying capacity and that accelerating global change will soon force the world community to contemplate the end of material growth. (See Part 1).
  • I argued that if our best climate and environmental science is basically correct then humanity faces a choice between maintaining business-as-usual — in which case nature is likely to impose a chaotic implosion — or planning an orderly equitable contraction. (See Part 2).
  • In short, to achieve sustainability with justice we will have to deliberately scale back the global economy (or at least reduce the throughput of energy and material) and consider means to redistribute ecological and economic wealth at national and local levels. (See Part 3).
  • This would require the world community to collaborate in the social construction of a new economic narrative founded on stationary or steady-state thinking. (See Part 3).
  • We must also reconsider the role of globalization and trade and begin the relocalization of much economic activity at the community and regional levels. (See Part 4)

Although a daunting challenge, contemporary global integration can be deconstructed and replaced by relocalized, interlinked bioregions

Contemplating wholesale relocalization after decades of rhetoric on the inevitability of global integration makes it appear the most daunting of tasks. However, there is nothing ordained or sacred about contemporary globalization. It is purely a social construct, the product of many hu­man minds, laboriously negotiated global and regional agreements and arguably designed mostly to serve the interests of capital and the corporate sector. It can therefore be deconstructed and replaced. A global network of largely self-reliant bioregional subsystems based on the principles described above would ensure a more economically secure, ecologically stable and socially equit­able future for the majority of the world’s people. If each such interlinked bioregion managed to stabilize its domestic population and conserve adequate per-capita stocks of natural capita, the aggregate effect would be global sustainability.

The choice for Homo sapiens is clear – one path leads to global sustainability, the other to systemic collapse 

In theory, opting for this alternative should not be a difficult choice for Homo sapiens. Would an ostensibly intelligent, forward-thinking, morally conscious, compassionate species continue to defend an economic system that wrecks its planetary home, exacerbates inequality, undermines social cohesion, generates greater net costs than benefits and ultimately threatens to lead to systemic collapse?

Remarkably, the answer so far seems to be “yes.”

Formidable barriers to societal transformation  

    • There are simply no strong voices for caution among contemporary leaders and certainly no political constituencies for degrowth.
    • There is no nascent plan for a World Assembly for Mutual Survival.
    • Humanity’s unique capacities for collective intelligence, rational analysis and planning ahead for the common good play no major role in the political arena, particularly when they challenge conventional myths, corporate values and monied elites.
    • On present evidence, there is little possibility that anything like the proposals outlined above will be implemented in time for a smooth transition to sustainability. Daly was right: “evidently, things still have to get much worse before we will muster the courage and clarity to try to make them better.” (61)
    • We are our own worst enemy.
    • People are naturally both short-sighted and optimistic and thus discount the future; we generally react emotionally/instinctively to things that threaten our social status or political/economic power;
      • those most vested in the status quo therefore vigorously resist significant change;
      • corruption and greed (all but sanctioned by contemporary morality) over­shadow the public interest.
    • Mindless dedication to entrenched beliefs is a particularly powerful blinder to otherwise obvious truths.
    • History shows that the resultant “Woodenheadedness…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.” (62)
    • Neuroscientists have long recognized the general phenomenon, but the means by which people become so deeply committed to particular concepts has only recently been revealed. In the course of individual development, repeated social, cultural and sensory experi­ences actually trace a semi-permanent record in the individual’s synaptic circuitry — cultural norms, beliefs and values can acquire a physical presence in the brain. Once entrenched, these neural structures alter the individual’s perception of subsequent experiences. People tend to seek out situations, people and information that reinforce their neural “presets.” Conversely, “when faced with information that does not agree with their internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret, or forget that information.” (63)
    • In this light, the citizens of market democracies may well be blindsided by a socially constructed bias toward capitalist values and market ideology, which combines with innate behavioural con­servatism in a formidable barrier to societal transformation.
    • The fate of global civilization may therefore rest on humanity’s penchant for self-delusion in the face of harsh reality.

It may take a powerful external shock to shatter our treasured human illusions

People’s learned or “soft-wired” cognitive barriers can be broken down, but this requires acknowledgement of the problem and significant effort on the part of the individual — or an external shock powerful enough to shatter the treasured illusion.

Growing public resistance to corporatocracies may not be enough to overcome preferred lies and shared illusions

So where does this leave us? The pace of global change is quickening, but it may well be that the mainstream world community is too fractious in outlook, too belligerent in defence of polit­ical status and tribal territory and too wedded to conventional myths to rise to the sustainability challenge. Despite considerable grassroots activity and the proliferation of sustainability-oriented NGOs, preferred lies and shared illusions may hold sway over discomforting facts until it is too late to engineer a “prosperous way down.” (64)

Failure to adapt could mean an unprecedented implosion of global civilization

Should this be our fate, it wouldn’t be the first time a human culture has risked tripping into the abyss — the most intriguing thing about the evolution of human societies is “the regularity with which the pattern of increasing complexity is interrupted by collapse….” (65) (Exceptions are those societies that are able to reject problematic core values and beliefs and replace them with more adaptive cultural narratives.) (66) What would be unprecedented is the sheer scale of the implosion. Previous ill-fated societies were regional societies, but if global civilization goes down, it could mean the end of the entire human experiment. Homo sapiens will have been selected out by ecological and social environments in turmoil. We will have failed to adapt, despite exquisite documentation of the changing reality destined to do us in.

Suggested epitaph: “Too clever by half but not nearly smart enough.”


60 Daly, H.E. 2013. The fracking of “the limits to growth.” The Daly News, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.

61 Ibid.

62 Tuchman, B.W. 1984. The March of Folly, from Troy to Vietnam. New York: Alfred Knopf.

63 Wexler, B.E. 2006. Brain and Culture—Neurobiology, Ideology and Social Change. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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

65 Tainter, J. 1995. Sustainability of Complex Societies. Futures 27(4):397-407

66 Diamond, J. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking Press.

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