William Rees: What's Driving The Planet's Accelerating Species Collapse?
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
Originally published at Peak Prosperity, Nov 15, 2017 (You can also listen to the podcast of this interview, located at the bottom of this page.)
The data regarding planetary species loss just gets more alarming.
Today's podcast guest is bioecologist and ecological economist Dr. William Rees, professor emeritus of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. Rees is best known for his development of the "ecological footprint" concept as a way to measure the demand a particular population places on the environmental resources it needs to survive.
Since the beginning of modern agriculture (around 1800), human activity has increased demand on planetary resources at an exponential rate. More energy has been expended -- and more resources consumed -- in the past 40 years than in all of human existence beforehand. That is placing a greater and greater strain on ecosystems that are now dangerously depleted.
"At the dawn of agriculture, just ten thousand years ago, human beings accounted for less than 1% of the total mammalian biomass on the planet. Today, there’s been a sevenfold increase, roughly speaking, in the biomass of vertebrate species on the planet -- but most of that is human-induced. Today, human beings account for about 32 - 35%of the total biomass of mammals, a much greater biomass than at the dawn of agriculture. But when we throw in our domesticated animals and our pets, it adds up to 98.5% of the total weight of mammals on planet Earth."
Chris: Welcome, everyone, to this Peak Prosperity podcast. It is October 23, 2017. I am your host, Chris Martenson. Now, at Peak Prosperity we burrow into what we call the three E’s, that’s the economy, energy and the environment. Today we’re going to be going more deeply into that last E, the environment. Now, a little background maybe is in order. When I was a kid I was always outside. My friends called me Nature Boy. I always knew where to find frogs, snake and turtles. Now, I spent countless hours being what people today would probably call bored. But I now recognize that is an important means of gathering information, maybe by osmosis or some – how I processed it, but from that childhood I can tell you that Mother Earth is in deep distress. She’s pulling back the tendrils of life, and they are retreating at an astonishingly quick pace. Life is ebbing.
Now, that’s my sense, but the data is confirming that with depressing regularity. All you have to do is be brave enough to read it and understand what you're reading. Ecosystems are very complicated webs going from single celled organisms all the way up to apex predators and everything in between. When you unbalance an ecosystem, especially by removing entire swaths, the consequences can range from mild to complete collapse. Today we’re going to be talking about all that and more with William Rees, a bio-ecologist, ecological economist, former director and professor emeritus of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. Dr. Rees is perhaps best known as the originator and co-developer, with his graduate students, of ecological footprint analysis. The expanding human ego footprint is arguably the world’s best-known indicator of the unsustainability of our techno industrial society. His early research focused on environmental assessment, but gradually extended to the biophysical requirements for sustainability and the implications of global ecological trends. Along the way he developed a special interest in modern cities as dissipative structures and therefore its particularly vulnerable components of the human ecosystem. Dr. Rees is also author of over a hundred and fifty peer reviewed papers and numerous popular articles on sustainability science and policy. Hey, I’ve met and worked with Dr. Rees as we were both fellows of the Post Carbon Institute at the same time. Dr. Rees, welcome to the program.
Dr. Rees: Well, thank you very much, Chris. It’s a delight to be here.
Chris: Well, can I call you Bill?
Dr. Rees: Absolutely.
Chris: All right. Well, Bill, let’s start here. How did you become interested in being an ecologist?
Dr. Rees: Well, it started a long time ago when I was a young fellow in Ontario, southern Ontario, growing up part of the year on my grandfather’s farm. And I became very, very appreciative of the extent of which we are connected deeply to the land. There was one particular day, I remember, we’d all come in from the fields early – this is in the early 50s, so we didn’t even have a tractor. I had loaded by pitchfork a horse drawn wagons – hay on to the horse drawn wagons. So we worked hard, and my granddad used to say grace at the table. There were maybe ten or fourteen of us around that table, eight cousins and a bunch of uncles and so on, and we were waiting for him to come in to say grace, but we were allowed to pile our plates high. And on this particular occasion I just stared at everything on the plate, and it came to me as a ten-year-old everything on that plate I had something to do with. I had weeded the tomatoes and dusted the eggs and whatever. And I realized, as if the rug had been pulled out from under me or I was in free-fall, that I was deeply connected to the Earth. In fact, it came to me that I was made out of the food that I eat and therefore out of the ground that we stand on.
And that made an indelible impression on my mind and one that ultimately lead to ecological footprint analysis because if we’re so connected to the Earth – it came to me many years later – that the first question of human ecology is just how much of the Earth’s surface is dedicated exclusively to supporting me and the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed? And the answer to that question is your personal ecological footprint.
Chris: Now, let’s go right there because I’m fascinated with this footprint idea. I love simplifying ideas, so people can get their arms around something seemingly complex. That’s why I like the idea of the ecological footprint. I wonder if you’d be willing to explain that concept for our listeners?
Dr. Rees: Yeah. At one point in my early academic career I had been challenged by an economist after a brief paper I had given on something called carrying capacity. Now, carrying capacity to an ecologist is simply a measure of the population of a given species that a habitat can support without it being destroyed by overuse by that species. Every farmer knows that if you put too many cattle on the back forty they’ll overgraze it, so there’s a carrying capacity for just about every species. It varies because climate and other circumstances change, but in general, if you manage your land within its carrying capacity, it will be sustainable.
Well, I thought this applied also to humans. And I gave a little talk of what I thought the carrying capacity of our local region here was – the lower mainland land of British Columbia. And I was taking aside afterwards by an economist and told that if I maintained this direction in my research at UBC that my academic career would be nasty, brutish and short. Those were his exact words. And he therefore wanted to take me to lunch and educate me about carrying capacity. And the bottom line was that it had no meaning for human beings, and he told me that economists had long since abolished the concept of carrying capacity. And because of trade and human ingenuity we were never constrained by local resources, we could always import things that ran out, and if we couldn’t import things then technologic developments would replace anything that nature provided, and so humans were never constrained in their growth and so on by any natural constraints.
So carrying capacity had been abolished, and I was making a bit of a fool of myself by raising that issue once again.
So I ran away from that meeting. I was a very young, wet behind the ears PhD with my tail between my legs, but it occurred to me, some months later actually, that all I had to do to defeat that economist’s argument was flip over the traditional carrying capacity ratio. So instead of asking how many people does this area support, which infinitely does become irrelevant if you can bring stuff in from everywhere else, but ask it this way – how much area, wherever it is on the Earth, is needed to support the people in this region? And if I could figure out a way to answer that question, then I could show the economist that whereas trade and technology certainly increased what appeared to be an increase in local carrying capacity, it really meant that we were just shuffling carrying capacity around the planet, and people in area A were surviving on excess carrying capacity imported from area B, which meant that area B was constrained in its increase in growth, and that we were drawing down resources all over the planet.
So the ecological footprint, to try to make this brief, is defined as the total area – the total area of productive ecosystems needed on a continuous basis to support any specified population wherever on Earth that land area is based. So to make it really simple, just think if you eat carrots and wheat and grain and you have cotton clothes or wool clothing and so on and so forth, all the food and fiber that we eat is produced by the land. Moreover, most of the waste that we produce is assimilated by the land. And there’s a finite capacity for these wastes to be assimilated and for the food and fiber to be produced. And we can trace the consumption of any person or any city or and country back to the land and calculate because we know both the amount of consumption and we know the productivity of the land base. We can calculate what area of land is required to support any specified population from an individual to a city to a whole country. And if you're an average Canadian or American this amounts to about five or six hectares, global average – hectares of global average productivity or perhaps even seven hectares. And by the way, a hectare is 2.47 acres, so we're talking about upward, oh, about twenty acres, let’s say, per person when you include everything we consume and particularly the carbon sink function required to absorb and assimilate the carbon wastes that we produce.
So we’ve never really been born. The placenta is the means by which an infant in its mother’s womb is fed, by the umbilical cord. The umbilical cord attaches to the placenta which is attached to the mother’s womb, and we extract all our food from our mother, and we excrete our waste through that placenta into the mother’s bloodstream. Once we’re born that relationship simply changes to being a relationship with Mother Earth. The Earth does still provide us with all our food and fiber, and assimilates all of our waste. So we transform from a parasite on our maternal parent to a parasite on the planet Earth.
Chris: Now, in preparing for this, Bill, I come across some information. Let me know if it’s not right, but the basic information I have here is there’s about 11.2 billion hectares available to the global population. So that’s what we’ve got to sort of live on, and on average there’s 1.8 bio-productive hectares per person on the planet. So that’s average. But you're saying that in North America, Canada, US, we obviously are way above average, at least in this one dimension.
Dr. Rees: Absolutely. If you divide the total area, the productive ecosystems of the planet, and that includes marine environments, forested land, grazing land, all of the arable land that we have under crops and so on, there’s somewhere between eleven and twelve billion hectares. And so divide that by the current population and the global average – what I call the fair Earth share – some people think that’s an unfair term, but let’s face it – if humans treated each other equitably we’d each be equally entitled to a similar share of the Earth productivity. So it amounts to 1.7 average hectares per capita. Well, we in rich countries use four times that – two to three to four times depending on where you live. And so we use the global marketplace as a means by which people with money can appropriate far more than their fair share of the Earth’s bio productivity simply be entering global markets.
And of course, people with extremely low incomes can’t play in that game, and so we see that people in the poorest countries, in Africa particularly and parts of East Asia, wind up with much less than their fair share. There are people living on less than the equivalent of one half of a global hectare. So just as there are a billion-overweight people on the planet and the people who get insufficient nourishment there’s well over a billion people with vastly larger footprints who are essentially using the biocapacity that isn’t available then to a billion or so people who live on less than a hectare per capita.
Chris: Now, I want to get to the idea of leaving something for something living that’s not humans, but let’s go there in a second. Do you have any sense of what the footprint was and hectares of people from a preindustrial or even a hunter/gatherer standpoint? That is, if we were going to look at a non-fossil fuel based carrying capacity, what kind of numbers are we talking about?
Dr. Rees: Oh, much less than even the poorest today, well, a half hectare, let’s say. It’s hard to say without the specific numbers in hand. But clearly, if you go back even to the beginning of the 19th century, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. There was still that twelve or more billion hectares because we’ve reduced it quite significantly, so available to each person in 1900 would have been about eight hectares, and they weren’t using anything close to that. And that number’s larger than the average large footprint of North American’s today. So clearly, most of the damage done to the planet has been done in the period from roughly 1800 to the present time.
And, in fact, that’s been a period of continuous exponential growth. Exponential growth means there’s a constant, more or less, constant doubling time, and if you look at it I'm that way here’s a number that blows people’s minds. One half of all the petroleum, coal and other energy ever used has been used in the last forty years or so. In fact, we’ve probably used more energy and more other resources – so let’s just say we’ve used more resources and therefore pillaged the Earth to a greater extent in the last forty years or so than in all of previous history combined. And if we double the economy again in the next fifty years, and there’s a corresponding increase in the consumption of energy and the material resources be people, then in the next fifty years we will have used more resources than all of history up until the present day. That’s what exponential growth does.
Chris: Doublings and redoublings with each new doubling consuming as much as all of history up to that point in time.
Dr. Rees: That’s right. And, in fact, Albert Bartlett, who is a very well-known physicist from the University of Colorado used to have a wonderful little analogy – well, not even an analogy – but he talked about the lily pad on the pond. And he said look here, supposing you had a pond with one lily pad on it, and that lily pad double every day. Lily pads happen to grow quite quickly. So one day you’ve got one lily pad, the next day you’ve got two lily pads, and over the course of a month the pond becomes completely covered in lily pads, and it’s growing exponentially, these lily pads. So on what day is the pond only half full? And most people think, well, it must be around the fifteenth or twentieth day, something like that. But the correct answer is – you know Chris?
Chris: Well, it’s on the last day.
Dr. Rees: The next to the last day, the twenty-ninth day. So if you're exponentially growing you start with one lily pad, but the pond is totally covered on the thirtieth day, it’s half full on the twenty ninth day. So people can look out and say look here, it’s only half full, we’ve got a long time to go. The fact is you're pretty much near the end of your rope. And I think we’re in that stage right now. We’ve had this enormous increase in consumption and economic throughput in the last few decades, and it’s on an exponential pathway. The explosion of the human enterprise really began, as I say, in the nineteenth century. You know, it’s interesting from that point of view because we have seen this explosive growth for less than two hundred years. And what that means is only eight generations of the thousands of generations of people that have existed on this planet – only eight generations of people have seen sufficient growth and technological change in their lifetimes even to notice it happening.
So this period that we take to be the norm, this period of growth that we take to be the norm, is actually the single most abnormal, or anormalist, period in the history of our species. Every morning all we read about in the papers is how the economy is growing at two or three percent. Well that’s doubling in about two percent every thirty years or so, thirty-five years. So this is really an amazing period and unique period in history, and one that cannot carry on for any more doublings.
Chris: Exactly. And the shocking thing in that lily pad story to me is that the next stumper question is what time and what day is that pond still a ninety-seven percent empty space, it’s only three percent covered? And the answer is it’s just five days back because you go from one hundred percent to fifty to twenty-five to twelve to six to three. So that’s five steps back. So on the twenty fifty it’s still just a few pads in the corner, nothing to worry about. But in your and my lifetimes – I’m fifty-five right now, and so one of the concepts that I work with people and like to orient people around is this idea of shifting baselines. The idea that where one starts one's career is kind of where your baseline gets set. So if I became a fisheries biologist today I might go out and my baseline for what fish stocks would look like would be entirely different from someone who started forty years ago. In the scope of your own lifetime, how have baselines shifted for the things that you study?
Dr. Rees: Oh, that’s an amazing question, an excellent one. Actually, the concept of baseline drift was developed by one of my colleagues at UBC – Pauley in the Fisheries Institute at UBC – Daniel Pauley. So he noticed in the fisheries biologists of the younger generation than him that took what they saw at sea more or less as the way things are and we have to conserve that. And obviously with the longer time horizon you realize there’s only a tiny fraction of the fish in the sea that used to be there. So people take whatever they see when they're born or growing up or being educated as the norm and, in fact, they're unaware that the baseline has drifted from its origins. So let’s look at that a little bit and at the rapid rate of change.
It turns out that just this week a paper was published in Germany showing that over the past twenty years or so, insect populations have plummeted by about seventy five percent. So there’s an extensive network of semi-amateur insect collectors throughout Germany, and they organized all these people in the study over the longer term and they found that the common insects, particularly flying insects, have declined by seventy five percent in just the past twenty or thirty years. With this there has been a fifteen or twenty percent decline in common bird species. Now I looked up what’s going on here in North America – the sparsity of – because these aren’t the sorts of things that people study very often, but I did find out that in Canada, for example, there is a similar decline in certain insects. And we’ve seen amongst insect eating birds, almost the entire group of insects eating birds – this is everything from whippoorwills to nighthawks to swallows and swifts and so on – there are declines up to seventy percent. And in my own region – these are really quite good data apparently – in my own region, in the Greater Vancouver region, since 1970 there’s been a ninety-eight percent decline in barn swallows and bank swallows and other insectivorous birds of that kind.
I actually did my PhD on bird population ecology, part of it, so I keep a fairly good eye on what local bird populations are doing. And it’s been obvious to me for years that the dawn chorus, that period in the morning when all bird song picks up in the early spring, has almost disappeared from my very leafy neighborhood here in Vancouver. So there’s a dramatic decline in wildlife in Canada in general, and I'm sure this is probably the case in North America. A large species that are generally monitored by the wildlife service and so on have similarly declined by thirty to forty to fifty percent over the last thirty years.
One of my colleagues at the University of Winnipeg – or Manitoba, rather, in Winnipeg – has done some very interesting back casting work that talked about baseline drift. He has estimated that at the dawn of agriculture – so you had mentioned what did it look like back in preindustrial times – well at the dawn of agriculture just ten thousand years ago human beings accounted for less than one percent of the total mammalian biomass on the planet. Today, there’s been a seven-fold increase, roughly speaking, in the biomass of vertebrate species on the planet, but most of that is human induced. So today human beings account for about thirty-two to thirty five percent of the total biomass of mammals, and it’s a much greater biomass than at the dawn of agriculture. But when we throw in our domesticated animals and our pets, humans and their domesticated animals amount to ninety-eight and one-half percent of the total weight of mammals on planet Earth.
So we’re engaged here, through sheer growth, in the scale of the human enterprise in what ecologists refer to as competitive displacement. This is a finite planet. There’s a finite flow, a limited flow, of photosynthetic energy through the planet which we share with thousands, indeed, millions of other species. Now, on a finite planet with limited energy flow the more any one species takes the less is available for everything else. So as humans have gone from less than one percent of the total biomass to over ninety-eight and a half percent of an increased biomass, it means that almost all other species with which we share that photosynthetic flow have been pushed off the planet. So we’ve gone from millions to a few thousand elephants. We’ve gone from thousands or hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of tigers to a handful, and so on. Wildlife on the planet today is clinging to the edges of existence. They may not have gone extinct, but their populations are reduced to a tiny fraction, a few percent, at best of what used to be.
North America had forty to sixty million bison regularly migrating north and south through our great plains. Well, they’ve been replaced utterly by the food crops that we grow for humans or to support our domestic animals. So this competitive displacement, humans are the fiercest competitors on the planet for the planet’s living resources, means that other species essentially disappear. So today there’s a few thousand bison on domesticated farms or in a couple of parks, but a shadow of what used to be. And that’s typical of the way human beings have simply displaced all other life forms that compete with us for our shared habitats on the planet.
Chris: And all of this contributing to the idea of a footprint, and I realize we should probably finish that part of the conversation. How big is our footprint? So if we say the Earth can support - there’s one Earth, so that’s a unit of 1.0. How many Earths are we using up? Is that a way to look at it? I’ve heard it mentioned that way, there’s another way to look at it.
Dr. Rees: One of the commonest questions when I speak to school children, I tell them, look, if you got serious here you’d realize your footprint is five or six hectares, but there’s only one and a half hectares available to you. So the first question is well, how can I be using five or six hectares if there’s only one and a half hectares available? And, in fact, if you go to the world average, the average person on the planet, much poorer than the average North American uses 2.8 hectares. So even the average person uses about sixty, seventy percent more than is available. Well, the first question is how can we be using more than is available? And the answer is we’re doing it by depleting the stocks of natural capital that have built up over millions of years of evolutionary time. So we are living by depleting the fisheries, by eroding our soils, by, as I said earlier, displacing all other species from their sources of food. We’re destroying the forests and so on and so forth.
So if you ask the question, well, how many planets would we need to sustain our current levels of consumption, the current levels of consumption at say, North American or European levels, we need somewhere between two and four additional planet Earths before we have a sufficient steady flow of photosynthetic products to maintain our current rates of consumption. So we are living by liquidating the so called natural capital. I hate that word, but nevertheless that’s the one that’s come into use. We’re liquidating the natural capital. And for people who don’t quite understand that, let’s just use a simple analogy with money. Supposing your rich uncle dies and leaves you a million dollars. You invest it a five percent. Well, your capital is your million dollars. It produces itself at the rate of fifty thousand dollars a year. That’s your interest. So if you're willing to live on fifty thousand dollars a year, you can live in perpetuity. That’s called sustainability because every year you're going to get fifty thousand dollars from your bank account. But as soon as you take sixty thousand or seventy or eighty or ninety or a hundred you begin to use not only all of the interest produced in that year but you're beginning to eat into your capital. And the point comes at which you’ll get an NSF check because you’ve liquidated your entire capital. And that’s exactly, I think, the path we’re on today.
We are depleting our oil supplies, we’re depleting our mineral supplies, we’re depleting our supplies of soil. Fish stocks are in precipitous decline. The numbers I gave you earlier show that even insects from insect eating birds, mammals are all rapidly in decline because humans are virtually, literally – well, not virtually literally – we’re literally displacing them from their habitats and from their sources of energy. Human beings – here’s the greatest irony of all – we still have economists assuring us that technology and trade have eliminated any concern for carrying capacity. They tell us that technology is enabling us to decouple – that’s the word they use – or to dematerialize, so the economy is said to be dematerializing, becoming less and less dependent on nature. The economy is decoupling from nature, but the reality is, in our footprint work, that if you look at not in money flows but in actual material and energy flows, humans have never taken more from nature. Our footprints continue to grow with every increase in income, and we’re literally more connected and more dependent on a stable ecosphere than ever before in history.
So here we are, a so called intelligent species, believing that we’re decoupling from nature when, in fact, human beings are the single largest consumer organism, both predatory and herbivorous consumer organism, in every major ecosystem type on the planet. We think of tyrannosaurus Rex as a voracious predator, but humans are by far the greatest predator that ever lived. And on top of that we’re the biggest herbivore that ever lived, and currently occupy that position in every ecosystem on the Earth while living out of a myth that we’re decoupling from nature. It really is quite absurd when you think about it.
Chris: Now, I want to add one thing to your bank account analogy. The rich uncle’s left us a million dollars. Let’s say that was the North Atlantic fish stocks. That was the cod stocks that used to be there, and they were reproducing at five percent a year. We could harvest that five percent in perpetuity. We didn’t. We started harvesting at ten or twelve percent or whatever the numbers were, and we collapsed – the fish stocks are gone. But there’s a subsidy in this story which is fossil fuels. You mentioned the photosynthetic throughput. But all organisms – my background, my PhD is in a biological science – so I understand energy flows very intimately because when I was doing cell biology work if I didn’t remember to put glucose into my cultures of nerve cells, they would rapidly simplify and die – so complexity and order and structure and energy all make intuitive sense to me because I spent so much time learning that. But for people who aren’t aware energy is everything. And so we’re being so subsidized by these fossil fuels. You mentioned a seven-fold increase in the terrestrial biomass once humans got on board here. And many people, I think, might inappropriately think oh look, humans are agents of abundance. Do you have a sense of that fossil fuel subsidy, how many of the trillions of BTUs of caloric product that are flowing through in terms of work that’s performed by tractors or the direct subsidy of Haber Bosch nitrogen being put on to the field so they can grow? What’s that contribution?
Dr. Rees: Well, it’s enormous. In fact, it’s very interesting that if you compare the explosive growth of humanity since the middle part of the 19th century when we got serious about fossil fuels and you plot that against our use of fossil fuels the two curves are utterly parallel. So I often argue, as do other energy analysts, that the expansion is explosive – expansion of humankind is entirely fossil fuel based. Others say well, look here, it’s because of improved medicine and so on, higher survival rates. But the counter to that is look, even with those higher survival rates we couldn’t feed those surviving people without the inputs from fossil fuel.
Fossil fuel had been the principal means by which humans beings acquire all the other resources necessary to sustain the growth of the human enterprise. And I mean all the other resources. It’s sometimes said that – if you go back to the 19th century and you had a plate of food on your table, 99.99 percent of that was generated strictly by solar energy. Today, something like 90 percent of it is essentially fossil fuels. I have a relative in Saskatchewan who single-handedly harvests two thousand acres of mixed crops – canola and various legumes, for example. Single man, but he’s got a barn full of machines that look as if they came out of Star Wars. Millions of dollars’ worth of equipment, all fossil fuel generated. All run by fossil fuels. So we make the machinery, we manufacture it, we process it, we process our crops by fossil fuel.
Human beings are, the modern world is, a product of fossil fuels. The productivity of our land has been greatly increased by the application you mentioned, the production of nitrogen by fossil fuels. Much of our natural gas goes into the generation of fertilizers for agricultural purposes. Pesticides are a byproduct of the fossil fuel sector. And so wherever you look human beings are utterly dependent of energy. In fact, it amazes me when I walk around the streets and just notice all of the processes ongoing that are utterly fossil fuel dependent. You then have to ask yourself how can any of this be sustained if the fossil fuel era is either forced to come to an end because of climate change, or because we simply deplete our fossil fuel reserves, which we are in fact doing.
Chris: Well, that actually, I think, one of the – this is where I begin to approach this conversation with people who may not have had the experience of being connected to nature, understanding that we are still a subset of natural ecosystem processes. Those aren’t things that we can just sort of outsource or recreate easily. And I watch this techno conceit sort of come in and I watch people struggle with the ideas. So this German report that came out about the insects – it actually got a decent amount of traffic. I saw in Newsweek, of course, they said wow, first paragraph this three quarters decline, that seems worrying. But the next paragraph was and if those insects went away in the United States they perform fifty-eight billion dollars’ worth of services. I’m like, no they don’t. They perform priceless services. Fifty-eight billion is the value we receive from it, but the cost to provide that service is a different number.
If you don’t have bumble bees, let alone just that one thing doing their vibration pollination of tomatoes, imagine how many dollars you’d have to spend to have people going around with little electric toothbrushes vibrating every flower on every tomato plant at the right time. They all tend to bloom at the same time. There’s a season. So it would be – fifty-eight billion is the wrong number, but it also reinforces this idea that eh, fifty-eight billion – could we afford that? I guess, geez, the Federal Reserve prints up eighty-five billion a month at the height of their quantitative using program. It’s three weeks of printing. People are missing it.
Dr. Rees: Absolutely. And by the way, you're talking to a guy who spent a couple of summers recently when we had almost no honey bees around here going out into my little squash patch with a paint brush doing exactly what you're talking about. It’s hard work.
Chris: It is hard work. And depressing. But that’s astonishing, and so you know, Bill, it’s really hard because – go for it.
Dr. Rees: I really want to pick up on – can I pick up on something you mentioned there about the human system being a part of nature. In fact, we have to begin to think of the human enterprise, the human system, if you will, as a subset of a much larger system called the ecosphere. And just that simple shift in perspective makes a huge difference. What’s the shift? Right now we’re still teaching in virtually every university on the planet a brand of economics that starts from the assumption that the economy and the ecosphere, or what people call the environment – I don’t like that term for reasons we could get into – but the economy and the environment are two separate systems. And, in fact, economists think of the environment as a subsystem of the economy. Now there way of fixing everything is to internalize the environment into the economy, to internalize the cost of damages and the price system will then adjust and then we’ll stop doing those things. This isn’t working, and it’s a nonsensical approach in the first instance. Because as soon as you start from an analytic perspective, it’s the economy and environment are separate systems, you begin to think that each is independent of the other and that therefore if you throw in the idea of technologic gains constantly increasing our efficiency in the use of resources and so on, it quickly becomes possible to imagine a future of unlimited growth. And that’s exactly where we are.
If you start from an analytical perspective of seeing the economy and environment as separate systems and that human ingenuity can replace anything that we actually need from nature, then growth is unlimited. And that’s myth we keep telling ourselves. The reality is that the human enterprise is a subsystem of the ecosphere, not the other way around. And that any growth in the material scale of the human enterprise necessarily comes by converting a part of nature into some part of the human enterprise. Our bodies, the 7.7 billion humans on this planet, are really substitutes for the billions of other organisms that we have displaced from their energy sources. The energy, material, and photosynthetic energy that would have produced those sixty million bison on the great plains of North America now support the energetic equivalent of that number of human bodies or domestic animals. So there can be no growth of the human enterprise without the diminishment of the rest of the ecosphere because we are literally contained within it, and our growth depends on depleting parts of it. We’ve become, instead of kind of a mutualistic part of nature, we’ve become a kind of cancerous cell that is growing at the expense of the rest of nature.
Chris: Well, I wanted to say that talking with young people who are alert and aware this all becomes rather disturbing and feels very depressing. Here’s some headlines just from this week. A headline was “Starving Killer Whales are Losing Most of their Babies.” This comes up from your way. They're out of food. And they say, oh, look, they're out of salmon. But if you actually chase it down you're like, well, there’s fewer salmon because the salmon don’t have any herring to eat because those all got – if fact we’re out trawling for krill now – one of the more disappointing things I’ve heard. So we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel and leaving nothing for the apex predators. Not a surprise. Another headline: “More Acidic Oceans Will Affect All Sea Life.” That’s a study that just came out with two hundred fifty scientists weighing on just how the things that are beginning to track and measure and how they might project those. And you mentioned before that we lost more than fifty percent of all wildlife since 1970 because these doubling times are happening. This is really happening now.
So as we progress forward, what’s your sense of urgency in this particular story and message and how do we begin to wrap our heads around it because, as I mentioned before, my – what I’ve seen in ecosystems is that they are remarkably resilient and then all of the sudden they go through a phase change and they flip into some new state of being, prairies become deserts. And once they do that very hard to make them back into prairies, at least in a human time-frame. So in terms of disruptive or unpleasant or even catastrophic impacts, what’s your sense of where we are in this story?
Dr. Rees: Well, I think you're starting to talk about complex systems behavior. And by definition it’s exceedingly difficult to predict. So the first thing we have to say is that even though you’ve seen a trend moving along in a fairly regular, steady basis, this can lead us into an ecological trap. People tend to think, for example, around climate change, yeah, the climate's changing, it’s too bad, we can just back off. And that’s simply not the way complex systems work. We may reach what you, I suppose, implicitly defined as a tipping point, some point at which the behavior of the system changes dramatically, and it ceases to be the system that we’re familiar with.
You mentioned earlier, Chris, the North Atlantic cod stocks, and I think it is a really good example of what we’re talking about here. The North Atlantic cod were exploited by humans on a sustainable basis for literally hundreds of years – by Europeans, by North Africans, and later by North Americans. But then when modern technology got into the game, particularly factory freezer trawlers, we were able to take more and more of these – by the way this is all powered by fossil energy, so it underscores another point you made about our subsidy of our exploitation of the Earth using fossil energy – so fossil energy has enabled us to over exploit the cod stock. So that in 1992 there was a plunge, I mean, the breeding stock had fallen so much so that the Canadian government, which was the ostensible manager of much of these cod, put a moratorium on fishing. Now 1992 is a long time ago. The cod weren’t extinct, they aren’t extinct yet, but they’ve never recovered despite no extensive commercial fishing for decades.
So what’s going on here? Now we don’t know for sure because it’s a complex system and inherently unpredictable. But is seems as if the huge pressure by human fishing on that cod stock so changed the internal structure of the ecosystem that the species relationship shifted in such a way as to inhibit the cod from reoccupying the major niche that they occupied prior to the collapse. So we have induced a structural change in the ecosystem that made the ecosystem unamicable to the cod and therefore to the human beings dependent on them. Now if this had been a little isolated system the humans would have probably gone extinct. And the only reason they didn’t is because the rest of Canada bailed them out. We’ve been paying the fishing families of Newfoundland and other places dependent on those cod, I think, something like $600 a month as compensation for not being able to go fishing.
But it we extend this analogy to the much larger system, then we’re pressing climate to the point where there may be a massive shift. So we may reach a point in climate where a similar tipping point is changed such that global climate belts move, and we can no longer grow food on the best agricultural soils. People say, well, Canada will benefit because it will get warmer. But look, you can’t grow the kinds of crops we do on the soils that the climate will be over. In other words, the warm, moist climate may be over the boggy acid soils of what is currently the Boreal Forest and it’s not particularly suitable for crop growing. Plus we won’t probably have the fertilizers and energy to use that land in any case.
So yes, we are pushing a number of systems toward the point where it’s at least conceivable that major shifts in the system structure – these are called catastrophic events take place, and they're essentially reversible in the short term. This isn’t science fiction because the paleoclimatic record shows that at several points in previous global history very rapid changes have occurred in a matter of two or three decades where the ice is melted, or sea levels have risen, or the temperatures have gone several degrees above or below norms and completely changed the quality and composition of life on Earth.
Now keep in mind, you said yourself, that ecosystems are extremely resilient. The Earth is extremely resilient. It’s gone through many, many perturbations that have massively changed the species composition of ecosystems, both land and sea. So we’re not here in jeopardy of destroying the Earth and the life on the planet, but we are clearly in danger of making the kind of environment that we’re in inhospitable to the kind of civilization we have. Human civilization has developed during a period of relatively stable climate during a period of extremely abundant energy and resources. We have grown as a result of this combination of factors and we tend to take this as the norm.
And I have to keep underscoring this is the single most abnormal period in the entire history of our species. And we cannot assume that just because it’s been this way for a few hundred years that it’s going to continue to be this way for a few hundred years more, particularly given the nature of the exponentiating impacts that we are having on the very ecosystems that support us. We are in danger of crossing many tipping points in many systems simultaneously. And I have to say just one other thing. It’s not the first time that civilizations have pushed beyond the limits of their local ecosystems. And every other time in which this had happened those civilizations have reached some pinnacle of achievement only to ignominiously collapse within a few decades thereafter.
Chris: And, of course, that’s the thing that I think captures a lot of attention and rightly so. And deeper down, though, Bill, I’ll tell you that my own – the way I experience this emotionally is with – there’s grief there, obviously, and sadness at losing – I just consider life to be an astonishing, amazing thing and insects to elephants, everything in between. But there’s a sense here that we can do better than this. I have a sense of disappointment lurking under all this that it’s not our job to make sure that there’s elephants in Kenya so they can have a tourism industry. They got put there by creation somehow because their another sentient species occupying a place that I can’t possibly divine because I don’t understand complex systems well enough to understand what this evolutionary impulse really is all about. And I do know, though, that if we were going to be good stewards and living as a part of, not apart from, nature, that we could step into what I think is a very significant and meaningful and purposeful role that’s way beyond being consumers of whatever cheap bobbles are coming along or being sold to us. It’s a real sense that we’re squandering an extraordinary opportunity here. That’s how I approach it.
Dr. Rees: Well, I think the way you are talking is an idealistic approach, and it’s certainly not the way most people approach it. Keep in mind too that most of the damage that we’ve been talking about has been caused satisfying the needs of fewer than a quarter of Earth’s population. The loftiest quarter of people consume something like seventy five percent or eighty percent of all resources and are therefore responsible for most of the damage of both consumption and pollution. Meanwhile, we have proclamated across the planet the world view that everybody can live the way we do in Europe or North America. We’ve drifted from some kind of a spiritual relationship with our communities and nature to this very materialistic relationship. It’s what’s called a social construct. And we have purposely promoted this across the world to “promote growth.” The only way we can see, and again, this I think is a legacy of our economic attitudes of improving the lot of people elsewhere is not by increasing their sense of unity with nature or other people, but rather to say that you're poor, and you need to get rich through growth and by the way, we’ll help you to do that by lending you all this money to develop your resources and oh by the way, you have to pay us back interest and so on and so forth.
So we have created an economic and materialistic model of human existence on the Earth that makes several additional billion people wish to live the way we have done for the last century or so, and it simply cannot be done sustainably on planet Earth. Now, in theory, human beings could develop an alternative approach, the one you describe where we see ourselves as stewards of creation, and where we attempt to rehabilitate the ecosystems that we’ve destroyed and so on. I think you get the picture. But there’s absolutely no evidence, no evidence whatsoever that large, mainstream institutions, from the United Nations to the World Bank to any national government, would promote such a perspective or point of view.
Every one of our major institutions is dedicated to the proposition of continued economic growth. We see this as the only means to alleviate the chronic poverty. You know, half the world’s population still live on less than $3.50 a day, and that’s a pretty good definition of poverty. And the way United Nations – sustainable development goal – see us achieving sustainability is by eliminating that poverty through economic growth. So I think we’ve created a kind of – well, again, it’s a social construction - of how we go about living on the planet that is at complete odds with the ways in which the complex dynamic biological and physical systems of planet Earth operate.
So it’s a very difficult position to be in. I wrote about it recently in this way. I said, look, intellectually speaking we’ve created a model of the world that is so primitive relative to the way the real world works that it’s comparable to trying to drive spaceship Earth, with all of its complexity, using a 1955 Volkswagen Bug driver’s manual. It’s such a completely inadequate guide to how to work the planet that it’s bound to fail. And I think we’re seeing evidence that it is failing everywhere we look.
Chris: Yeah. I agree. And many of my listeners report having a very tough time trying to get their friends and loved ones, colleagues, neighbors to listen to, let alone respond to, difficult messages and your own work is obviously very troubling in its implications, at least for the human techno-industrial experiment. But what can you tell us about your learning, your successes and failures and communicating your life’s work?
Dr. Rees: Well, I suppose on one level I can say that we’ve had enormous success. For example, ecological footprint concept. It’s used around the world by governments, by major international development agencies, by various private contractors as a way of monitoring progress or lack thereof toward sustainability. So one the one hand I think we’ve had some real success in turning the ecological footprint, this measure of human’s demands of the planet, into probably the best-known symbol of our unsustainable state. So that’s good.
One the other hand, one of the things that I like to do is to plot major technological events including the development of the eco footprint, if I can call it that, against the trends line in resource use, in pollution, in atmospheric carbon dioxide and so on and forth. And the fact is we can’t identify any major points with which we can show a connection or a difference occurring as a result of these insights. So, things seem to be getting steadily worse despite the fact that we have this increasing rhetoric about the need to become sustainable. You know, the whole sustainable development concept dates from 1987, and if you plot the rates of change in various, important variables from, say, the 50s through to the present time you cannot detect a blip that indicates that a change in attitude occurred with the development of the concept of sustainable development. So, I don’t think we’ve had much effect really. It’s an unperformable experiment because you could argue that things would be much worse without these insights, but certainly things continue to get worse, and it’s not obvious that there’s been a great change in attitude.
Part of the problem is this war of words that we’re having. Humans are a unique species in that – I’ve used the term before – we socially construct our perceptions of reality. So, even when sustainable development came out everybody could buy into it because people who are ecologically or environmentally inclined heard protect the environment in the concept of sustainable development. You can’t develop sustainably without protecting the environment. But people with a growth mentality, economists in particular, saw it merely as a way of continuing to grow, so sustainable development became sustainable growth, and they're really quite different things. But in the minds of technological optimists and economists and others who believe that human ingenuity is our greatest resource, and that we can continually improve in our efficiency of resource use, to them sustainable development became the status quo, only more so. More so in the sense that we could continue to go along our current path if only we got governments out of the way, we eliminated inefficient regulation, if only we freed human ingenuity so that technological change could move us forward. If only we got a little more sensitive towards our use of ecosystems, then all would be well, and so on. So sustainable development became kind of a, I suppose, status quo on steroids. But it’s just the social construct that enables us to continue to do what we’ve always been doing but doing it a little more efficiently. And that, unfortunately, is a huge problem.
There’s another big problem here. By the way, Chris, I can stop at this point and I’m just rambling on, and I’m going to make a major point now that we probably should have made right at the beginning. Is that okay?
Chris: Go for it. Please.
Dr. Rees: There’s another major point, and I think we have to recognize, as I’ve said a couple of times, that humans have demonstrated their competitive superiority by displacing all of these other species from the planet. Humans are an evolved species. We are a product of evolution, and way back in the early days of our evolution we were just like any other species from the bacteria on the petri dish to the lily pads on the pond, human beings, like all other species, evolved such that we would have a natural tendency, it’s our natural tendency, to expand to all available habitat. We also have a natural tendency, a genetic predisposition, to use resources now, to use up all available resources. So the way to survive in the preindustrial primitive was to exercise those two qualities better than any other human group or any other species.
I think you just have to recognize that every species has this compulsion to survive that involves occupying all available habitat and using all available resources. So if you drop a single bacterium on a petri dish filled with nutrient broth it will grow exponentially, just as our lily pad on the pond grows exponentially, until eventually, and it’s only a few days, that petri dish will be completely covered with a bacterial colony which uses up all its resources. So, again, expand the fully available habitat, use the available resources. The bacteria then insist, and blow away to find another petri dish.
But humans are doing the same thing. We’re competing with vast numbers of other species for the limited resources on the Earthly petri dish, but because of our high intelligence we’re better at it than other species. So humans have now the largest geographic range of any vertebrate species. We occupy habitats that aren’t even habitable because we can bring stuff in from elsewhere. Think of the Arctic or the Antarctic in particular. We’re also using up all available resources. We’re literally gouging the... grinding away at the bottom of the earthly barrel. We’re finding petroleum kilometers below the seabed which is kilometers below the surface of the sea. We’re fracking for oil. We’re getting minerals out of ores that only twenty years ago would consider useless rock because with each major advance in technology we become better and better at scouring the barrel for the remaining bits of resources.
And we have, in other words, a natural predisposition to continue to grow, to expand, and to use up all available resources. And it’s aided and abetted by our ingenuity. This is where the economists are right. Human ingenuity enables us to use technologies in ways that no other species could, so that we can expand the horizon of usable resources. But in the process, we’re destroying the rest of the planet and making it uninhabitable to so many other species. And ultimately, I would argue, if we aren’t able to use our intellect to overcome these natural predispositions to grow and expand, then I think we will do ourselves in.
My ultimate dream is that the human intellectual powers, I mean, we have certain unique qualities that make us human. Now these are the higher intellectual powers associated with our ability to analyze data and to use them to plan ahead. No other species can plan ahead. No other species can reason from the evidence. And if we can elevate those two capacities, in our current ecological dilemma, to the point where they override, on a global scale, our tendency to grow and expand, if we can use those capacities to realize that look, the way to alleviate poverty is to share the wealth rather than to continue growing. If we can recognize that true happiness does not derive from the consumption of goods but rather from the strength of human relationships, of social capital, so called. It derives from being economically secure. It derives from being in an ecologically stable environment. If people can begin to accept that those are the roots of happiness, if we can distinguish between growth, which simply means getting bigger from development, which means getting better – we need to focus on development which means getting better, increasing our potential for self-realization, to use an old hippie term – but the point of the matter is there are many, many options available to us that we are choosing not to take.
We are not exercising our intellectual, our analytic capacities above and beyond our inclinations to grow and consume, and hence we’re failing to rise to the challenge of being truly human. Those truly human qualities of analytic ability, of reasoning from the evidence, of planning ahead are being abandoned in this compulsion to consume, consume, consume. And if we don’t exercise those qualities then we will, in fact, terminate the human evolutionary sequence. The evolution of those higher intellectual qualities will have been deemed a failure, and we’ll simply go extinct. And that may not be a bad thing from the long-term perspective of life on Earth, but it will show that high intelligence is not necessarily a long-term advantage in the competitive race.
So it really is – the greatest challenge in my mind to human beings is to start to exercise those truly human qualities to overcome certain predispositions and to use those truly human qualities to engineer a planet, to design a planet, that is spiritually rewarding, that puts us in our place, and that shouldn’t be a humiliating or humbling exercise, but one which simply recognizes that we can be part of creating a greater harmony, and move forward on the basis of development rather than mere growth; on the basis of recognizing our role, not only as humans in a human community, but as a species in a much larger community that must work together. All the working parts are necessary to stabilize the ecosphere so that we can have a sustainable economy, a so called steady state