Citizen Action Monitor

Bill Rees’ Degrowth Vision – Planned descent toward socially just sustainability for all: Part 1

Earth, we have a problem: Human consumption is overwhelming the replacement and reproductive capacities of nature

No 1550 Posted by fw, December 28, 2015

Bill Rees

Bill Rees

“So, we have a situation in which one species on the planet, like all others, is part of a larger whole called the ecosystem. But our species has the myth of perpetual growth and technology to aid and abet that myth. And what it has meant is that the scale of the human enterprise has far exceeded in its consumptive capacity, the ability of the ecosystems that sustain us to regenerate themselves. So, if you think about it, every major fish stock on the planet is in a state of decline. Agricultural soils, we treat in our culture, the same way we do a mine. We don’t husband our soils, we mine them. So that if you look back to the turn of the 19th century, southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the richest chernozem soils on the planet, but in just over 100 years of industrial agriculture we have consumed and dissipated over half of the organic material and natural nutrients that required some 10,000 years of post-glacial soils’ building process to accumulate.”William Rees

This is Part 1 of a multipart series of posts featuring a video presentation by the distinguished William Rees, human ecologist, ecological economist, and University of British Columbia Professor Emeritus. In April 2014, Rees took part in an event hosted by The Extraenvironmentalist in partnership with Degrowth Vancouver. The theme: ‘Why Degrowth?

In Part 1, following Rees’ definition of degrowth, he outlines how the scale of human activity has exceeded the ability of earth’s ecosystems to sustain themselves. One human activity in particular captures his attention — fossil fuel use, which is part of every kind of economic activity. Fossil fuels emit carbon dioxide (CO2), far and away humankind’s worst waste management problem, exceeding earth’s natural consumptive capacity. And carbon dioxide, as we now know all too well, drives climate change, humankind’s primary existential threat. Rees’ argues that degrowth, a planned contraction of human economic activity, is a safe and feasible path toward a sustainable, equitable steady state within the means of nature. While challenging, degrowth is a hell of a lot better than the alternative – societal collapse.

A Glossary of terms appears at the end of this post, with definitions of 2 terms: ecosystem and ecosphere.

Below is an embedded 35-minute video of Rees’ talk, Why Degrowth, along with my transcript featuring added subheadings. The transcript covers the opening 7-minutes of Rees’ talk.

Alternatively, click on the following linked title to access the host website, Rees’ video, and two other related videos. There is no transcript available at this site.

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Why degrowth? Dialogue on pathways towards a smaller economy, by William Rees, 2014 The Extraenvironmentalist / Vancouver Degrowth Live Event Series, April 16, 2014

The Video: Why Degrowth

TRANSCRIPT (Opening 7 minutes)

Degrowth Defined

Before I get started I want to tell you what I mean by degrowth. I think what most of us who are engaged in this have some variation on this theme.

Degrowth is a controlled or planned contraction of human economic activity toward a sustainable, equitable steady state within the means of nature. So it represents a level of economic activity that is compatible with the productive capacity of the ecosystems upon which we are dependent.

[Human Consumption is Overwhelming the Replacement and Reproductive Capacities of Nature]

It’s important to understand that our human economy is a subsystem of the natural system, the ecosphere

Our culture has forgotten that the human economy is a subsystem of the natural system called the ecosphere. Every act of economic production is actually… (no audio) … from hamburgers and using energy in the process, not to mention the beef and the bread and so on and so forth, or trading stocks in New York or Toronto.

Every act of economic activity involves the consumption of energy

Every act of economic activity involves the consumption of energy, which is permanent and irreversible, in the sense that energy is constantly being degraded and radiated off the planet, through use, and every activity involves the throughput of some material. And I mean every activity. And that material throughput, although theoretically is recyclable, most of it isn’t recycled.

The human species has the myth of perpetual growth; technology aids and abets that myth

So, we have a situation in which one species on the planet, like all others, is part of a larger whole called the ecosystem. But our species has the myth of perpetual growth and technology to aid and abet that myth.

The scale of human activity has exceeded the ability of our ecosystems to sustain themselves

And what it has meant is that the scale of the human enterprise has far exceeded in its consumptive capacity, the ability of the ecosystems that sustain us to regenerate themselves.

In just 100 years, Canadians have used over half the organic material and nutrients of 10,000 years of soils’ building process

So, if you think about it, every major fish stock on the planet is in a state of decline. Agricultural soils, we treat in our culture, the same way we do a mine. We don’t husband our soils, we mine them. So that if you look back to the turn of the 19th century, southern Manitoba, Saskatchewan, the richest chernozem soils on the planet, but in just over 100 years of industrial agriculture we have consumed and dissipated over half of the organic material and natural nutrients that required some 10,000 years of post-glacial soils’ building process to accumulate.

Water tables in world’s agricultural areas are falling more rapidly than they can be regenerated

In most of the world’s agricultural areas, where they are dependent on groundwater, the groundwater tables are falling much more rapidly than they can be regenerated. So in parts of India and China and the United States – the Oglala Reservoir, which produces so much of the food upon which we are dependent – these water tables are falling metres per year. And in some places the drills can’t keep up so that agricultural land is going out of production.

[Earth’s Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Problem is a By-product of Every Kind of Economic Activity]

Climate change is a carbon dioxide waste management problem, which is part of every kind of economic activity

I could go on and on and on. And it’s not just about consumption overwhelming the replacement and reproductive capacities of nature, we’re overfilling waste sinks as well. How many of you have heard of climate change? Climate change is a waste management problem. Climate change is a waste management problem, in a proximate sense, because it’s primarily driven, at this point, although there’s other gases catching up, by carbon dioxide, which results from the burning of the energy I talked about earlier, which is part of every kind of economic activity.

Only in the last 5 years have we become more aware that carbon dioxide is the single largest waste by weight in our economy

Now carbon dioxide – most people weren’t even aware that it was a waste until about four or five years ago – but it always has been. Carbon dioxide – listen – is the single largest waste by weight in every industrial economy. So we can think all we like of the waste that we dispose of in our kitchens and bathrooms and through the garbage system and so and so forth – trivial, compared to the sheer mass of carbon dioxide.

Our burning of carbon in fossil fuels adds to the CO2 waste that is created by natural processes

And it stands to reason because one of the largest inputs to the industrial economy is carbon-based fuel – coal, oil, natural gas — and in the burning of those things, the carbon is converted to carbon dioxide, which goes into the atmosphere. We don’t see it the same way we do when we take out a pail of garbage, but the sheer volume of carbon dioxide exceeds any other waste product produced in an industrial economy. It’s driving climate change, therefore, is an example of a waste sink overflowing.

The earth’s ecosphere can no longer assimilate all the CO2 produced

The whole of the ecosphere is no longer capable of assimilating the total production of carbon dioxide. Normally it’s taken up by photosynthesis and in a system that is compatible with nature, the rate of production of carbon dioxide by living systems is exactly balanced by the rate of assimilation by photosynthesis in green plants. And it’s just recycled through the process.

Humans, a rogue species, are producing more CO2 than the ecosphere can reabsorb

But a rogue species has come along that is using carbon-based fuels, which were laid down by photosynthesis tens of millions of years ago, much more rapidly than the contemporary ecosphere can reabsorb that carbon and deposit in soil and so on and so forth.

So the point then that I want to make is that we are a rogue species that has broken from the natural negative feedbacks that would normally keep a species in check by virtue of our high intelligence and our ability to manipulate materials and energy to very narrow human purposes. And this has become hugely problematic.

[Why Degrowth? It’s a Hell of a Lot Better than the Alternative]

So tonight we’re here to talk about the idea of “Why degrowth?” I’ve already defined it. And I want you to get this clear – degrowth is the purposeful contraction of the economy in a controlled manner until it is a sustainable steady state in which there is a more or less equitable distribution of the products of the economy – it doesn’t have to be completely equal, but we should not have on this planet a billion people in poverty and another billion suffering from obesity, there’s a clear imbalance there – so we need equity within the means of nature. And we’re still at the point where it’s just marginally possible.

So that’s the goal of the degrowth rhetoric as it were.

Why degrowth? Because it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative. And that’s what I want to talk about tonight.

***** END OF PART 1 *****

Glossary of Terms

The ecosystems

One ecosystem is any area that happens to have an specific set of features (living species and physical-chemical conditions) that make it significantly different from its surroundings. Thus, a forest is an ecosystem, but a lagoon or a puddle of water in that forest, are themselves ecosystems too. A city is also an ecosystem: a man-made ecosystem.

The limits of many ecosystems are difficult to define. For instance, a lagoon in a forest can be fed with water from an aquifer that extends throughout an area much bigger than the forest itself, and that also feeds with water the farm-land that surrounds the forest. This way, the lagoon, the forest and the farm-land are connected. Ecosystems are not isolated in Nature: there are connections and transitional areas between them.

The Ecosphere

Every ecosystem can have other ecosystems inside of it. The Earth itself is one ecosystem and comprises all the other ecosystems. The Ecosphere is the name we give to our planet when we think of it as an ecosystem, and it has a biotope and a biocenosis. The biotope of the Ecosphere is made up by the Geosphere, the Hydrosphere and the Atmosphere. The biocenosis of the Ecosphere is called Biosphere, and comprises all the living beings of the Earth.

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