ECO-FOOTPRINT ICON DR. BILL REES TELLS US THE TRUTH ABOUT HOW MUCH DAMAGE WE DO — PART 1
By Carol Crenna
We all know what a footprint is, and how its impression, if left without disturbance, can last millions of years on the land, like prehistoric fossils on a rock. But what type of mark, or footprint, are modern humans leaving for our future descendants to discover? It’s a sobering thought.
William Rees, PhD, is the internationally renowned bioecologist and university professor who originated “ecological footprint,” an award-winning concept for measuring environmental impact that has become a household phrase.
He wanted to find out exactly how much energy, material consumption and waste each of us should take responsibility for when he helped devise this tool. It’s now used globally by governments, universities and many organizations. Dr. Bill Rees and co-wrote the book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth with PhD student Mathis Wackernagel, which is now available in nine languages.
Here, in PART 1, Dr. Bill Rees offers straight forward and fascinating insights on the state of the planet. (PART 2 will be in next week’s blog.)
CAROL: How does the “ecological footprint” calculator work?
DR. BILL REES: Pick a population, examine it for a period of time, and then calculate the total land and water ecosystems needed to produce all of the goods and services that the population consumes, and to absorb all of the waste that it produces.
For a typical American or Canadian, the total is 4 to 6 hectares. There are only 1.8 hectares per person available on Earth of productive land and water. To bring everyone up to the West’s standard of living would take four planet Earths.
CAROL: What about using the oceans to grow food?
DR. BILL REES: Although it’s enormous, only about 10 percent of the ocean is productive. Most of it is a biological desert.
CAROL: You said “ecological footprint” is very controversial because the World Bank, United Nations, and most governments assume that the world can “grow its way to sustainability.” What do you mean?
DR. BILL REES: Economists believe that as a country develops, in early stages there will be pollution so the environment will deteriorate. But as it gets richer, it can afford to put catalytic converters on cars, pollution controllers on smoke stacks, and force environmental regulations on cities so the environment gets better.
Therefore the best way to improve your environment is to become rich.
This is a rationale for economic growth as the means to “buy” ecological sustainability. Economists recognize that poverty is a problem. But since we wouldn’t consider sharing our wealth with other people, the best way to deal with poverty is to grow their economy, which results in the “trickle down” effect: once there’s enough money circulating in the country all will benefit.
But ecological footprint says, “Wait a minute; growing the economy in Canada is destroying what it’s based on – our environment.”
For example, we grew the fisheries economy on the East Coast and destroyed the fish; we grew our fossil fuel economy to the point that it’s so depleted we now have to destroy far more of the environment with crude oil exploration.
The world is in a state of “over-shoot,” exceeding the capacity of the planet, and if we continue, it will lead to economic collapse, whether it’s climate change or loss of biodiversity. The “get richer” argument says that if we continue a little longer on the same path we’ll get rich enough to substitute all the lost resources with something else.
In other words, whereas ecological footprint says we’re destroying our fish and soil that grow the economy, economists say that we will simply replace them with fish farms and fertilizer.
We then end up with two even more unsustainable practices that replace originally unsustainable practices. But the point will come, perhaps even in my lifetime, that we won’t have the resources to be able to buy any more time using short-term stopgaps.
CAROL: Why won’t improved technology and energy efficiency help solve the problem?
DR. BILL REES: So we can continue to grow to satisfy the needs of everyone if we simply get more efficient use of energy and material?
Research proves that in the world’s most technological, economically-efficient countries such as Japan, the US and West Germany, as technology has improved, and as efficiencies have increased over the last decades, so has per capita consumption of materials and per capita production of wastes.
CAROL: You found that the environment doesn’t actually improve in wealthy countries.
DR. BILL REES: Yes. There are two reasons. Canada seems much cleaner because we only look at our localized obvious pollutants – car and factory toxins, for example. We don’t look at increased carbon dioxide, or think of it as a waste product, yet the richer a country gets, the more CO2 is produced. And it is the biggest waste product of every industrial economy on the planet.
We also don’t look at the fact that our dirty industries – manufacturing, cutting trees, waste disposal – haven’t disappeared; we have simply shipped them to China, the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries in the developing world.
China is an ecological disaster, but it is our consumption that demands they manufacture our endless need for cars, technology, household goods and therefore our “ecological footprint” in China.
What we import from China may have a worse impact, globally, because China’s environmental regulations are not as well enforced as ours (not to mention the long-distance shipping).
CAROL: So you ask, “Where are those catalytic converters for our less polluting cars made, and what impact did they have on the environment to make them?”
DR. BILL REES: Right. The resulting toxic chemicals end up in China, not here. If you continue the “rich” argument, you’ll realize that when China gets richer, there is nowhere that it can dump its dirty industries into because there are no more Chinas. So that China, which used to be food-self-sufficient, is now a huge importer of food because its farmland is being used for industry.
But this assumes that the rest of the world will be able to provide food to feed China – a massive demand that, again, it was able to support until increased industry. For example, if every Chinese person gets a little bit richer and is able to afford to eat one additional chicken each year, that totals 1.3 billion chickens.
If you calculate the amount of grain required to raise that many chickens it equals one half of Canada’s entire annual grain output. A small increase in richness results in a huge global impact.
CAROL: You said that creating compact, urban cities isn’t a sustainable way to house our population, and that they’re the human equivalent of “cattle feedlots.” Why?
DR. BILL REES: Governments think that by living in a city we are less dependent on nature because we don’t make our incomes from it, but it actually makes people more dependent on it. A city occupies not only the area within its physical boundary but neighbouring regions – several hundred times larger than it – used for its consumption.
The city is the feedlot, but the area the “cattle” need for food supply, manufacturing and minerals far exceeds it because as a city’s wealth increases, its need for material assets increases.
And if I think that I can always import my needs from somewhere else, there is no incentive to conserve local agricultural land. There is enormous pressure in some Canadian cities from developers for agricultural land to be developed for housing and industry, but the assumption is being made that California and Mexico will always be able to provide the food we need.
That was valid 50 years ago, but it’s no longer true.
California reported that, at current rates of water use and with climate changes, it won’t be able to sustain its production beyond 2050; and it currently produces 70 percent of North America’s table vegetables.
Where are we going to get it from if we have paved over southern Ontario’s growing belt and BC’s Fraser Valley?
CAROL: But you also said there are ecological advantages of dense concentrations of people.
DR. BILL REES: There are many, but we’re not taking advantage of them. Rapid transit, and walking and cycling to work would drastically reduce emissions compared to two cars per household.
If each family that drove an SUV in the city had it heavily taxed to provide public transit, the available money could enable individualized transit service with immediate pick-up at the door whenever they needed it.
Within cities, the many combined industries provide real opportunities to reduce energy and materials — the waste output of one kind of activity can be a resource for another; cities make treatment of industrial wastes and recycling possible because of the economies of scale. But we have to use these fully.
CAROL: Why don’t you like the term “environment,” and prefer “ecosphere”?
DR. BILL REES: The environment is something we made up; before the 17th century there was no such thing. It underlines Western thinking which separates humans from their surroundings. The only place humans are separate from the “environment” is in their mind.
The reality is there is no “environment” around us because we are the environment; as animals deeply embedded within this ecosystem (and the sum of all ecosystems called the ecosphere).
As long as you consider an “environment” that is outside you then you’ll have a place to dump your waste because you think that by throwing it away, it will no longer be a part of you, and you can do damage without hurting yourself.
Because the scale of the world’s human economy is now so large, it almost coincides with the total ecosphere, so the concept of environment as a separate entity becomes positively dangerous.