Citizen Action Monitor

Bill Rees’ Degrowth Vision – Planned descent toward socially just sustainability for all: Part 2

We are now in a state of overshoot, outpacing earth’s regenerative capacity, hurtling toward societal collapse

No 1551 Posted by fw, December 29, 2015

“We are now, however, in a state of overshoot…. We’ve reached the point, where by many measures, we are using the earth at about 50% faster than it can regenerate. 50% faster than the earth regenerates. Now even a school kid will ask how can that be? How can we use something faster than it is regenerating? …. And the answer is because there were enormous stocks of so-called natural capital assets that has accumulated through geological time on this planet — coal, oil, natural gas in an incredible abundance…. So we start with enormous stock and we deplete them. We illiterately convert the substance of ecosystems into our own bodies and into the artefacts of our culture. So we’re in a world of overshoot. But we’re in denial about this…. Perhaps what is most intriguing in the evolution of human societies is the regularity with which the pattern of increasing complexity is interrupted by collapse.”William Rees

In Part 1 of this multipart series, Dr. Rees defined the concept of degrowth, outlined how the scale of human activity has exceeded the ability of earth’s ecosystems to sustain themselves, then zeroed in on how humankind’s use of fossil fuels has driven climate change. We now face an existential threat. Rees contends that an aggressive contraction of economic activity is our best chance to transition to a sustainable planet. The alternative could be societal collapse.

In this post, Part 2, Rees says that for a smart species, we can be pretty dumb. We are, he says, a rogue species. Our increasing use of fossil fuels since the mid-19th century has, for example, driven relentless exploitation of this planet. The result, as we now know, is an earth in a state of overshoot, outpacing its capacity to regenerate the resources we consume. Today, humans are largely in denial of the existential hole they have dug for themselves. Citing the historical evidence of Joseph Tainter and others, Rees shares this significant truth – over time, human technological progress inevitably increases the complexity of human societies, and, left unchecked, increased complexity can end in societal collapse. What goes up must come down. Symptoms of collapse typically include: corruption at the top, governance rigidity, and diminishing returns to investment in just about everything

Below is an embedded 35-minute video of Rees’ talk, Why Degrowth, along with my transcript featuring added subheadings. The transcript covers a 12-minute segment of Rees’ talk, beginning at the 7:03-minute mark, ending at 19:02 minutes.

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 (Start 7:03 – End 19:02)

Humankind’s four unique qualities – if only we would use them

First of all, here’s the context. I’ve already implied that there’s something special about the human species. And it’s our capacity as a species that has – I’m going to say – four really unique qualities. There’s several, but I think the important ones are:

  • High intelligence – and by high intelligence I mean the capacity to reason from the evidence. It’s the capacity to reason logically based on what we know.
  • Another quality of human beings is the capacity to plan ahead. No other species on earth has the capacities associated with high intelligence or the ability to plan ahead. To use the product of reasoning to change the future.
  • We also have the capacity to be moral beings, to distinguish right from wrong. I assert it is wrong in a planet of plenty for a billion people to be constantly plagued by the disease and ill-nourishment of poverty when there’s another billion people who are excessively endowed with wealth and capital and all the rest of it. That’s a moral judgement call. But no other species can make it.
  • We also have other qualities that we share with other species but uniquely available to us in intensity and that’s empathy and sympathy for other species and other people – should we choose to exercise them.

Fig. 1

Great Acceleration

[Source: Great Acceleration 2015, by International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme]

No evidence of the application of these human qualities in the policies of the federal and BC provincial governments

Now I raise these four qualities because I want you to think about which of them do you see in evidence in, for example, British Columbia’s current economic development policy based on the exploitation of fossil fuels and exports into world markets? Which of these qualities do you see exercised by our federal government on Ottawa as it shuts down our research libraries and muzzles our scientists and essentially keeps the Canadian public in ignorance of our own scientific knowledge about the state of the economy, the state of the nation and so on and so forth?

So, we’ve a real problem here of cognitive dissonance. We’re going in a place in our minds which is remote from the real world.

Human use of fossil fuels since the mid-19th century has driven exponential growth in just about every human endeavour

Well, one of the ways we’ve used intelligence is in the application of technology to grow the economy. And we’ve been remarkably successful. These are simply graphs to show the exponential explosion of just about everything to do with human beings since the 1700s, okay?, particularly since about the middle part of the 19th century. That’s when we got into fossil fuels in a big way. And I want to make the point that fossil fuels are really the basis for the entire explosion of human numbers. The entire explosion of all the artefacts associated with human activity.

Fig. 2

overshoot

Fossil fuel is the means by which we acquire all other resources needed to grow the human enterprise. We’ve gone, in just 150 years, from a point in which 100% of the caloric content of a plate of food, with solar energy, harvested through animal and human labour, which was really secondary solar energy, to the point where now 90 out of 100 calories on your plate is the product of fossil fuel: fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and so on and so forth. So this dependence is complete. This building is a product of fossil fuel. Modern cities are impossible in the absence of fossil fuel. And all of the artefacts associated with urban life – as illustrated by the previous slide [Fig. 1] – are the result of fossil fuel.

The result is we are now in a state of overshoot, outpacing earth’s capacity to regenerate the resources we consume

We are now, however, in a state of overshoot. I emphasized this in my introductory remarks. We’ve reached the point, where by many measures, we are using the earth at about 50% faster than it can regenerate. 50% faster than the earth regenerates. Now even a school kid will ask how can that be? How can we use something faster than it is regenerating?

We started with an enormous stock of natural capital assets and are quickly depleting them

And the answer is because there were enormous stocks of so-called natural capital assets that has accumulated through geological time on this planet — coal, oil, natural gas in an incredible abundance. But accumulated over tens of millions of years, tens of millions of years ago. Soils: I mentioned the Prairie soils – those massive deposits of chernozemic soils that took ten or eleven thousand years to generate which we’ve depleted by 50 or 70% in just a century or half or so, now. And so on.

Worse still, humans are in denial about what they are doing

So we start with enormous stocks and we deplete them. We illiterately convert the substance of ecosystems into our own bodies and to the artefacts of our culture. So we’re in a world of overshoot. But we’re in denial about this.

Moreover, humans are hostile to the concept of economic degrowth

Most people wouldn’t attend a talk like this because the concept of degrowth is so hostile to our imbedded imagery of the necessity of growth. And even that’s a paradox. Because if you looked at those curves [Fig. 1], they show 150 or 200 years of human history during which there has been explosive growth.

For most of human history, populations fluctuated with the carrying capacity of the environment

But what about the previous 200,000 years of history in which there was no growth? Or at least the best we could say was that the growth of human population was represented by the spreading of our species over the surface of the earth — that took about a 50,000-year period. But within any particular habitat human populations fluctuate with the carrying capacity of the environment. Good years produce lots of food, lots of babies born; bad years the mortality increases and the population fluctuates at or near human carrying capacity.

But as our numbers increased, so too did our consumption until today when we find ourselves in overshoot

What we’ve done is eliminate the negatives – disease, shortages of food, shortage of resources. We conquer, you know, the climate in a local environment, enabling much greater survival. And so our numbers increase. But, of course, as our numbers increase, we demand more and more materials and as incomes go up per capita and absolute consumption of the system goes up and we wind up in this kind of overshoot situation.

Fig. 3

ecofootprint

The concept of “ecological footprint” gives us a measuring stick to tell us the amount the ecosystem area to sustain us on a per capita basis

This is what it looks like. Ecological footprint analysis. The technique that we’ve developed at UBC — my students and I over some couple of decades actually, and still ongoing – is a simple notion that we can look at any person or any nation’s flows of energy and material and follow that back through the production cycle to land and water ecosystems. So if you think of yourselves – you are probably wearing a cotton — this happens to be wool – these are cotton pants, I’m standing on a wooden stage, you’re sitting on chairs made out of petroleum by-products and so on and so forth. There’s nothing in the room, including your bodies, that can’t be traced back through the economic production cycle to an ecosystem somewhere.

So it occurred to me way back in the ‘70s that if I could measure the amount of the ecosystem area required to sustain just me, I’d have an idea of what I now call my personal ecological footprint. See, how many of you have lain awake at night – I used to do this – staring at the ceiling of your bedroom, trying to fall asleep, wondering just how much of the earth’s surface is dedicated to supporting just me in the style to which I am accustomed. Well, not many of us do because it just seems to flow to us automatically. But the reality is, despite our technological wizardry, and the illusion of increasing independence of nature, we’re more dependent now than ever on nature by the measure of the ecological footprint.

It takes a hell of a lot of land to produce the food and fibre we consume and to assimilate our carbon wastes

It takes anywhere between 4 and 7 or even 10 global average hectares to sustain one person in the average industrial country. Europeans, 4 to 5, 6 hectares per capita and North Americans, 6, 7, 8 hectares per capita. Hectare – by the way, is 2.47 acres. It’s a hell of a lot of territory needed to produce the food and fibre that we consume and to assimilate just our carbon wastes.

We are now part of Mother Earth, the economy is our placentum that feeds us and assimilates our wastes

So each of us is still — we’ve never been born – you’re attached to your maternal mother by an umbilical cord, and there’s a placenta, and the placenta is an organ by which you exchange food and wastes between the infant in the womb and the mother, Okay. Well, you are part of Mother Earth and the economy is our placentum – it’s the means by which we suck nutrients from the planet and dump our wastes back into the planet. And the eco-footprint is a measure of your personal placenta. And for most of us in this room it’s around 5 to 7 hectares, in that range – hell of a lot of territory. It’s a hell of a lot of territory because, on the planet today, there are about 13 or 14, well it says about 12 – it’s getting smaller – billion hectares of biophysically productive land and waterscape. Divide that by the 7.2 billion people and you come up with a number around 1.7. On earth today there are 1.7 hectares of biophysically productive land and waterscape per person. In the absence of energy, what goes up must come down. This is an abnormal phenomenon.

Fig. 4

Joseph Tainter

The mention of growth did not appear in the economic literature until the 1950s – Today growth is taken as the norm

The growth that we have experienced as a species in terms of population numbers and infrastructure is the single most abnormal or anomalist period in history and yet interestingly, if you do a survey of the mention of growth in the economics literature, it doesn’t even show up until the 1950’s. Growth was NOT an element, a platform in the political, any political parties — what am I saying? – it was not a plank in the platform of any political party until well into the 1950s. So it’s that recent a phenomenon in terms of a public dialogue and mission in the post-war period. That’s when it happened. And yet we take it now to be the norm and the only way that we can go. So, we have to recognize that previous cycles of human cultures have followed a pernicious pattern.

I’m not making this up. Refer to a book called The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter. Or another one, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Or more simply, Ronald Wright, a local anthropologist, A Short History of Civilization. They all make the same point. That unconscious societies go through a cycle of increasing complification*, leading to rigidification, non-response to data…[Bill is interrupted here] (*complification – to over-complicate something that is really simple).

Increasing complexity in human societies is interrupted by collapse

… So, Joseph Tainter…. Perhaps what is most intriguing in the evolution of human societies is the regularity with which the pattern of increasing complexity is interrupted by collapse.

Symptoms of collapse include: corruption at the top, governance rigidity, diminishing returns to investment in just about everything

Now, I don’t have time to get into the whole theoretical foundations of his statement, but I can say that the symptoms of collapse that are identified in his book are corruption at the top, rigidity of the governance structure, increasing diminishing returns to investment in just about everything. These are all problems plaguing the modern world today.

***** END OF PART 2 *****

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