UBC Ecologist William Rees on Sustainability, Political Activism
At a public meeting April 15 entitled "Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable", Dr. William Rees of UBC's School of Community and Regional Planning stated that humanity's survival depends on an 80% reduction in energy use.
Such a massive transformation in how our society operates will also necessitate a shift in cultural values away from competitive individualism toward cooperative problem-solving.
We Use 25% More Resources Than We Can Replenish
For tens of thousands of years, the human population was relatively stable, but with growing use of fossil fuels in the 19th century, our numbers began to increase exponentially. In 1800, there were about 1 billion people; by 1900 under 2 billion, and today more than 6.7 billion.
A graph presented by Rees indicated that by the mid 1980s, humankind started to surpass the total carrying capacity of the earth, and we are currently using approximately 25% more resources than nature can replenish.
Furthermore, if every person on earth obtained the lifestyle of the average in North America, we would need equivalent resources of three more planets. The evidence that we are pressing against limits can be seen in climate change, ozone depletion, sea-level rise, deforestation, loss of fisheries, pollution, and plant and animal extinctions.
While the world's poor who depend most directly on local ecosytems for their livelihoods may initially suffer the most, rich countries will be unlikely to avoid the consequences of resource wars and the plight of environmental refugees.
Overeating, Energy Depletion
Rees hypothesizes that many human beliefs and practices have become maladaptive. For example, primitive man would eat all available food because it was scarce and spoiled easily. But today, with food plentiful in affluent societies, there is an epidemic of obesity.
Similarly, the myth of progress and everlasting resources may have had a rationale in pre-industrial society, but such ideas are no longer helpful now that the frontier is gone and resource use is approaching its upper limit.
Unfortunately, humans have a unique ability to deny and discredit information that doesn't fit its current beliefs. Rees' recommended reading list includes Barbara Tuchman's March of Folly, which describes several historical instances where groups with fixed ideologies pursue policies contrary to their own self-interest, while ignoring the continued failure of their actions and the challenge by vocal critics.
Rees' favourite cartoon shows a businessman making a presentation to his colleagues, pointing out that "While the end-of-world scenarios will be rife with unimaginable horror, we believe the pre-end period will be filled with unprecedented opportunities for profit."
Collective Solution Required
The good news is that the changes we need may be less painful than we expect. Research shows that after a certain level of material wealth in a society, life expectancy and health outcomes reach a plateau, whereas self-reported assessments of well-being start to decline.
Living in a less competitive environment where basic needs are met may in fact result in increased happiness. To an audience member who stated that she had already given up her car and had become a vegetarian, but wondered what else she could do, Rees suggested she become more politically active.
While individuals have to do their part and confront the expansionist myth, major responsibility for urgent action must rest with government and other societal actors. Showering with a friend is not the whole answer.
Rees was speaking at the monthly public meeting of the Vancouver Branch of the World Federalist Movement-Canada, an organization that supports the development of a global community based on the rule of law and democratically accountable international institutions.
A PowerPoint presentation of a previous public lecture by Dr. Rees on the subject of human sustainability is available online.