The Prophet of the Footprint – Sunday column, January 23, 2011
“The ecological footprint is a very simple measure, and it’s intended to measure one thing,” says Bill Rees. “How big would the little planet required to support Silver Donald Cameron be?
“You eat food, you drink water, you deposit waste back into the environment. Everything that we consume has an origin somewhere in the earth, and every waste that we produce has to be assimilated somewhere on the planet. For this to happen sustainably, there has to be a continuous capacity to produce the things we consume, and to assimilate the things that we waste. If you add all that up, that becomes your personal planetoid – in effect, the footprint that you have on the earth.”
As a Canadian, my ecological footprint covers about eight hectares – but the earth only provides two hectares for each of its 6.8 billion people. The average Canadian consumes the resources that should be supporting four people, not just one.
Ecological footprint analysis is among the most powerful tools ever devised to measure and illustrate human impacts on the planet, and Bill Rees is the man who devised it. A professor in the planning school at the University of British Columbia, Rees and his former student Mathis Wackernagel literally wrote the book on the subject. Our Ecological Footprint (1996) has been published around the globe and translated into nine languages.
Rees studies human ecology, which regards human beings as a species, subject to the same biological forces as other organisms. Lean, bearded, wry and brilliant,with a PhD and a fellowship in the Royal Society of Canada, he is every inch the rational scientist.
He is also a passionate human being who believes that our half-evolved species has yet to prove itself intelligent, that we are currently on a short slope to disaster, and that the possibility of turning humanity back from the abyss makes this the most exciting moment in history – and the most dangerous.
One of his most powerful lectures was entitled, “Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?” In our situation, he asks, “what would an intelligent species do?
The evidence shows us “that rising rates of consumption are destroying the planet, which will ultimately result in huge problems for all of us,” he says. The evidence also shows that beyond a certain level of income, growth does not increase our health or happiness. Yet we insist on further growth.
“So if we really were an intelligent species, we would be looking for two things,” Rees says. “Where is that critical income level at which we max out our well-being? And secondly, what’s the optimal scale of the global economy? How much energy and material can move through the economy without drawing down the natural productive capital or filling up the waste sinks?
“What we need to do is identify the optimal scale of the global economy, allocate it among different countries on a fair basis, and then determine how we’re going to live within the limits of the planet. Because if we don’t do that, it’s going to take us down.”
Foreseeing disaster, an intelligent species would change its behaviour – but we haven’t learned do that. Rees notes that we knew that the New Orleans levees were faulty, and that the northern cod were being grossly over-fished. In both cases, knowledgeable people called for changes, and their prescriptions and predictions were ignored. We all know the results.
Can we learn from such experiences? Global environmental catastrophe, says Rees, is inevitable only if we refuse to change. But such a change would be a great evolutionary leap, since both our genetic inheritance and our competitive, acquisitive culture favour short-term satisfaction over long-term planning and prudent preparation.
We can’t change our genes, but we can change our culture – and that’s why “the point of attack is the cultural narrative,” says Rees. The cultural narrative – the myth of endless growth — is driving the ecological crisis. The good news is that“we’re the first generation that’s been able to pick up the pen and rewrite the cultural narrative.”
If we change the story that we are living today, we thereby change its ending. And that’s the key to the human future.
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