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