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William Rees: Ecological Footprint

19 January 2009

I met Dr. Rees in Ames, IA, three years ago after he spoke at Iowa State University.  Wendy Powers arranged for us to eat breakfast with him where he was staying overnight before returning to Vancouver, where he works in the UBC school of Public Planning or some such.  He is as delightful a conversationalist at the breakfast table as he is an engaging speaker in a lecture hall.

Dr. Rees, as some of you may know, is the one who, along with his former doctoral student Mathis Wackernagel, coined the term “ecological footprint.”  Simply put, the eco-footprint occupied by a given entity – a city, perhaps, or a concentrated animal feeding operation, or maybe an industrial facility – is the total area of ecologically productive land and sea that is required to (a) provide all of the resources needed by and (b) assimilate all of the wastes generated by that entity.  So, for example, at least one author computing the ecological footprint of Vancouver, British Columbia, found that Vancouver effectively occupies 14 times its geographic land area.  It’s helpful to think of what that means in practical terms:  if the number 14 is correct, it means that Vancouver has to borrow on a more or less permanent basis 13 additional land areas from someone else in order to support its many habits, its standard of living, etc.  Wackernagel and Rees estimate that the standard of living worldwide is such that we already occupy the equivalent of four Earths…or we would, if China and India were to achieve the U. S. standard of living in the near term.  

(I loaned out my copy of Wackernagel and Rees to one of my grad students, so I can’t recall which of those two scenarios is the case.  It doesn’t really matter, though; if our global footprint exceeds the ecologically productive area of land and sea actually available to us, that is sufficient evidence that humanity is not sustainable, whether it is a factor of four now or won’t be a factor of four until later.)

Given that we only have one Earth available to us, how is it possible to have an ecological footprint greater than the Earth’s total ecologically productive area?  Rees explains that it’s a relatively short-term phenomenon in which we are subsidizing our standard of living with a bunch of energy sequestered in geologic time, in the form of fossil fuels.  We are  mining energy from millennia past and using it to create a standard-of-living “bubble.”  The closest analogy is a rich kid burning up his inheritance instead of getting a job…like the early prodigal son, come to think of it.  (I wonder if there is an academic discipline known as “ecological criticism” in any seminaries anywhere?)

BTW, just about everybody admits that if we had to run our economies on so-called “renewables” alone – solar, wind, hydro – our economies would grind nearly to a halt.  They wouldn’t stop entirely, of course.  But everyone admits it, either tacitly (in the case of conservatives) or shrilly and self-righteously (in the case of Gore et al.).  Many conservatives object, for example, to liberal initiatives that promise – as Obama has done, incidentally – to make coal-fired power plants too expensive to be profitable, effectively shutting them down, and they object because such initiatives would force us to reduce our economy’s total energy consumption.  (Drastically.)


You may be familiar with the popular term “carbon footprint,” but they’re not the same thing.  A carbon footprint is an element or subset of an ecological footprint; there’s more to ecological sustainability than carbon fluxes.


Anyway, as I was straightening my office this morning, I came across my notes from Dr. Rees’ speech back in November of 2005 at Iowa State.  The title of his speech was, “Is Humanity Sustainable?”  Here are some bullets from his remarks.

* The opening salvo:  “We don’t really understand sustainability.”

* Premise:  “Humans are the product of natural selection, with a twist.”  By that, Rees means that we are products of both biological factors (genes, and their mutations over time) and cultural/social factors (“memes”).  The “twist” is the cultural dimension, which he will explore later in the speech…but you can bet he will be hostile to Western faith traditions!

* Hypothesis:  “We are inherently unsustainable, or biased against sustainability; our beliefs and values are incompatible with ecological factors.”  This is the move he makes to set up his explanation as to how the “twist,” the cultural/social dimension of the Earth’s ecology, subverts the process of natural selection that would, one infers, be inherently sustainable.  

At this point, Rees called several authors to testify:  Clive Ponting (1991), Joseph Tainter (1990), and the famous and fascinating Renaissance humanist-scholar Jared Diamond, whose 2004 book Collapse rocked the academic world.  Those authors, especially Diamond, give us a litany of case studies (e. g., Easter Island) of complex societies that have collapsed primarily because they ate their seed corn.  Other evidence Rees cited included the North Atlantic cod fishery, which he said “has flipped into a different regime of equilibrium.”  Nonlinear dynamicists – folks who study the behavior of complex systems with strong feedback mechanisms and multiple, mutually dependent processes – will hear echoes of chaos and tipping points in all of this.


Rees also pointed briefly to a paper by Fowler and Hobbs (2003) (Proc. Royal Soc. B:  Biological Sciences 270(1532):2579-2583).  This is a fascinating paper that compared the human subsystem to other subsystems in Earth’s ecology in terms of population size, CO2 production, energy use, biomass consumption, and geographical range.  Fowler and Hobbs concluded that we – humans – are an “outlier species,” by which he means that the values of those measurable quantities in the human subsystem are statistically quite far from the average values for other, comparable subsystems in the Earth’s ecosystem.  

If that were true in any other context, we’d be raising a red flag.  Instinctively, for example, we know that cancer is a physiological abnormality; it consumes and produces way too much, finally robbing the body of too much and dumping too much poison into it.  (Fowler and Hobbs do not call humanity a “cancerous lesion,” but the analogy is not far from the surface when they use terms like “pathology” to describe humanity’s ecological plight.)


So, Rees said, we can observe two things.  First, “all species tend to expand to fill the ecological space (niche) available to them” – consuming the resources, occupying the geography, and generating the wastes that must be assimilated somehow.  Second, Boltzmann (1905) taught us that “life’s struggle is a struggle for free energy;” energy availability, in other words, is the key.


Enter agriculture and the widespread use of fossil fuels.  We call them (Rees noted sardonically) “two huge leaps forward.”  Rees doesn’t buy it, although I must admit to a wry snicker or two the next morning, as he joined us in enthusiastic consumption of a wonderful breakfast of bacon, eggs, butter, coffee, and orange juice.

Rees went next to the “mythic foundations of human culture,” which directed our attention at the way we use myth, philosophy, economic theory, and other religious tools to justify our cultural structures.  The whipping boys here are pretty obvious:  globalization and trade, primarily, which “perpetuate the illusions that eliminate negative feedback that would jar us into different aggregate choices” as a human society.  In the context of ecological footprint, this means that globalized trade links suppliers of surplus ecofootprint (read:  third-world nations) with consumers of excess ecofootprint (advanced economies like the U. S. and Europe).  Liberal cynics call this phenomenon “ecological imperialism,” and they see evidence of it every time international initiatives like Kyoto enter the public debate afresh.  To Rees, the so-called “rising tide that lifts all ships,” or globalized trade, is one of those myths that we use to justify the West’s hyper-consumption of the globe’s finite stocks of natural capital – clean water, productive fisheries, the rainforests’ species diversity (which is a sine qua non for natural selection), and fossil fuel reserves.  Rees quoted the young, contemporary philosopher Derrick Jensen:  “we must tell lies to one another” to keep making the self-destructive decisions we’re making as societies and cultures.


There is so much more to be said about all of this, but perhaps this is a good place to stop.  Let me conclude, then, with a couple of capstone observations from Rees:

  • “We need to re-write the cultural myths that we use to justify our way of life.”
  • “There is no prima facie evidence that one-fifth of us should live at so much higher a standard of living than the rest.”
  • “Capitalism has run its course.”  (It was useful for a time, but…)

I hope this has been a fair treatment of Dr. Rees’ engaging remarks.  And the next time you see a BP commercial about reducing our “carbon footprint,” perhaps you’ll be reminded of Dr. William Rees, who got the whole “footprint” idea into the popular lexicon.


In case you’re wondering, qb finds much to ponder in all of this.  “Cognitive dissonance” abounds.  And as I’ve posted on many occasions here, I think it’s probable that M. King Hubbert’s “peak oil” theory is fundamentally correct:  burning fossil fuel is like eating seed corn.  Still, I’m not convinced that the globe’s temperature trend – I don’t want to call it “global warming,” given the last 10 years’ worth of global temperature data – can be attributed to human causes.  If burning our finite reserves of fossil fuels is a recipe for the collapse of the global society, I’m not convinced it’s because of the so-called greenhouse-gas emissions; it’s just because we’ll eventually zero out our capital accounts, and we won’t be prepared to live in the (relatively) energy-depleted ecosystem that results.  I think it’s imperative, therefore, that we prepare ourselves philosophically – yes, religiously – to follow Jesus of Nazareth into a life of sacrificial love for the other.  Suckled on oil and its bounteous luxuries, when it finally starts to run out the Earth’s human subsystem will find itself mired in devastating violence, competing for what remains…all in vain, as it will turn out.


Have a nice day!


8 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 January 2009 1:03 pm


    While eating my lunch I was surfing and found this piece from across the pond.


    My own take is that we are experiencing tremenous urban warming as well as CO2 increases whose consequences cannot be determined. Can humans screw up the environment? Yes. Can we repair it? Possibly.



  2. queueball permalink*
    23 January 2009 1:55 pm


    Self-appointed prophets must have an innate need to be strident and uncompromising. How impolite!


  3. 23 January 2009 3:22 pm


    Thought you might agree with his thinking about green “scams.” And, seriously, what about his charcoal scheme? Any truth to it?


  4. queueball permalink*
    23 January 2009 3:41 pm

    The term “scam” is too loaded for me. I do not doubt that there are some shysters out there, but I tend to view most of the climate-change scientists as speaking in good faith. As in many other contexts – Iraq among them – the science and intelligence are not necessarily conclusive, and we’re all looking (forgive me for belaboring the piont) for serviceable, descriptive narratives. “Connecting the dots,” if you will.

    Any scheme that puts more biologically inert carbon in the ground than it takes out is a net winner in terms of decreasing atmospheric CO2. But the jury is out on whether or not we need to do that. The glaring irony in the dude’s argument is that the globe has been through this so-called “catastrophic warming” trend before we were here, and yet…here we are.


  5. 23 January 2009 4:05 pm


    If the human race is as resilient as that old bird–94 and the Space Shuttle–we’ll manage.


  6. queueball permalink*
    23 January 2009 4:19 pm

    That’s a big “if,” Coop. Odds are he’s an outlier. In fact, I read a journal article a few days ago that describes how much of an outlier WE are as a species in this grand ecosystem we call “Earth.” Sustainability, indeed. qb

  7. 24 January 2009 10:10 pm


    It seems to me that our God-given creativity will, despite our folly and willfulness and sometimes damnable intentions, serve us, if we are wise, better than well. And while I do not believe in secularized notions of progress or pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, I do believe that God’s intentions for us and this good earth are being worked out heavenwardly.

    May you receive a double blessing as you look upon your boys and your bride,


  8. queueball permalink*
    25 January 2009 2:32 pm

    If we are wise…we will pause over our current malaise long enough to consider how our impulsive profligacy and our sense of entitlement are conspiring to put us where we are. Does it not seem that God would have us be self-disciplined, sober-minded, and thoughtful? But that is not our way. qb

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