ECO-FOOTPRINT ICON DR. BILL REES: HOW MUCH DAMAGE WE DO PART 2
By Carol Crenna
What type of mark, or footprint, are modern humans leaving for our future descendants to discover? This conjures images of Godzilla’s foot crushing everything in its path.
It’s particularly alarming for people like Dr. Bill Rees who study our destructive impact on the Earth’s fragile ecosystems.
Bill Rees, PhD, is best known as the originator of “Ecological Footprint”, which has become a universal term for measuring environmental impact. Doctor Rees, who wrote the book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, now supervises many eco-footprint projects involving globalization and urban sustainability. The award-winning professor’s new book asks, “Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable?”
Here is PART 2 from our interview.
CAROL: Why don’t we recognize that we’re animals and that we can’t use more than is produced in nature, or add more waste than can be absorbed by it?
DR. BILL REES: When I was in university, I was constantly in search of what I thought should have been obvious: the study of human beings as a species. I failed miserably to find any course that treated human beings as an organism that’s intricately connected to the planet and reliant on it for survival.
We have become in our Western techno-mechanical world so psychologically alienated from nature that we do stupid things. Humans have a natural tendency to think more about the here and now, the immediate pleasure and pay off, than to consider the future and its costs.
This thinking had survival advantages 50,000 years ago, but it doesn’t any longer.
So we make up foolish lies to tell ourselves that we are “sustainable” if we do certain things to actually be able to continue doing exactly as we were. So we tell ourselves that we are “sustainable” if we carry fabric grocery bags while driving our hybrid cars to the supermarket, and take farmland to develop 4,000 square foot “ecologically designed homes.”
We put a new label on it that makes us feel better.
If we didn’t lie to ourselves, we couldn’t face these deplorable acts and would have to do something about them; they prevent us from looking at the truth.
For example, we allow Alberta all of the waste that it wants because otherwise it might “hurt the economy,” not recognizing that climate change is probably now doing more global damage to the economy than all gains of growth.
CAROL: Should we try to bring others up to standard, or lower ours?
DR. BILL REES: Most of us intellectually realize what has to be done, especially when science has proven that we must have an 80 percent reduction of fossil fuel to decrease global warming, for example. But we would prefer to buy “carbon credits” so that we can continue using the same amount and try buying our way out.
We make new “environmental” technology such as bio-ethanol or bio-diesel fuel, which are catastrophic steps backward rather than steps forward, actually doing more damage to the planet, but allowing us to keep driving our SUVs.
CAROL: We don’t see these promoted as much as they were a few years ago. Could you explain why?
DR. BILL REES: The rationale for bio-diesel is to reduce CO2 emissions. But where do we grow bio-diesel? In tropical forests that have been burned to produce oil palm plantations — the carbon that has been released into the atmosphere by burning those forests, and then not having that rainforest there to absorb CO2, is vastly larger than whatever would be saved by using bio-diesel.
CAROL: What about ethanol?
DR. BILL REES: Ethanol fuel – the biggest bio-crop in North America right now, produced in the billions of gallons – uses one fifth of the US’s corn. Corn is the most ecologically damaging crop – producing 10 to 20 times the rate of soil erosion of other crops due to pesticides, ground water contamination, and machinery required.
The argument is that this is replacing fossil fuel, but scientific studies show that the fossil fuel used to get the bio-fuel from corn – the heavy equipment, fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, shipping it to factories, and very intensive manufacturing – uses more to create it than the ethanol that is produced to replace it. You would be better off driving your car using fossil fuel than ethanol.
Due to ethanol, corn prices have increased 300 percent, which caused food riots in impoverished Mexico because they can no longer afford corn to make basics like tortillas.
So it becomes a moral issue. We’re growing more corn, not to feed people, but taking it away from people to feed SUVs. This translates into more land taken away from grains and other basic food crops around the world to produce fuel, which raises food costs over 100 percent in poorer countries.
Our short-term gratification tells us that we would prefer to buy carbon credits so that we can continue drive the same amount and try to buy our way out.
CAROL: Should we no longer drive?
DR. BILL REES: It isn’t about no longer driving. I drive an Echo which is three times more efficient than most cars (and I ride by bicycle a lot for transportation). If everyone shifted from a 290-horsepower ego-gratifying SUV to a compact Smart Car, we’d save far more energy than all ethanol produced.
CAROL: Why do you suppose that we act like aliens or parasites in our own land, collapsing natural sources of food, and depleting and contaminating our own environmental home?
DR. BILL REES: One of the ways humans get gratification is to appear better than our neighbours. If I’m relatively poor but am doing a little better than my neighbours, I get a certain amount of gratification. If I am extremely rich and doing a little better than my neighbours, I get the same amount of gratification.
It is completely relative. What is important is being able to feel superior to someone else.
CAROL: So you are saying that our lives are driven by ego.
DR. BILL REES: I am saying that in order to make more than my neighbours, I help grow the economy. But what if the costs of growth outweigh what economic gains I made – to my health and my environment?
If we did a true global benefit cost analysis, we might now be able to show that the total global costs of growth would exceed the benefits. A rational species would stop growing – since we’re going backward.
But the problem is that the rich and powerful are getting the benefits, and the poor and weak are getting the costs.
We keep making decisions to keep growing to serve the pseudo benefits of those in power (pseudo because they’re not even happier, healthier or feeling more secure). Growth is happening in the wealthy countries, and poor countries such as Africa are in decline.
CAROL: You say that even the wealthy aren’t happy, and that indicators of human welfare – longevity, literacy, health, sense of wellbeing and happiness – are proven not to increase after wages improve beyond a very minimal amount. Why do you think we continue to seek wealth then?
DR. BILL REES: Obviously we all need a good income, and there is a positive effect of it on your welfare. But there reaches a point where further increases provide no true benefit, and that point has been researched to be about $10,000 globally.
Psychologists who study people’s sense of wellbeing find that wealth does not necessarily increase people’s happiness. In fact, some of the happiest people on the planet live in places like Kerala, India, where per capita incomes are about one-sixtieth of those we find in the US.
This is great irony. I don’t know why we are engaged in this incredible rat race to maintain ourselves at the leading edge of the income pack.
CAROL: Can we change this in a country as expensive to live in as Canada?
DR. BILL REES: In Canada, people are working longer hours rather than fewer hours. For the first time in the history of the industrial world, we have the capacity to give people more leisure time, to spend more time with our families, to create community, but we aren’t.
I think it is time to begin to question the morality, the ethics, and the assumptions underneath these models. Wouldn’t it be better to start examining options of changing our behaviour patterns?
We are sacrificing many of the happiness indicators such as safe cities, a secure sense of community, and a healthy environment – the very things that would improve people’s welfare – in exchange for rising incomes.
As Herman Daly (author of Ecological Economics) said, “Growth is an uneconomic proposition where the quality of life for people is deteriorating even as their incomes increase.”
CAROL: This sounds like we’re verging on insanity.
DR. BILL REES: We’re a conflicted species because we know on one level that what we’re doing is insane, but we’re so addicted to it that we don’t change. Therefore, we keep driving the forces toward our fatal, unsustainable collapse.
CAROL: What can we do?
DR. BILL REES: One of the greatest environmental think tanks, The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, concluded that the Western world must reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80 percent, and reduce our consumption of goods by 50 percent; and we can do both without damaging our quality of life.
In practical terms, that means:
1. Reduce what ever you currently buy by half – buying what you need, not what you want (Do you really need another pair of shoes or new techno-gadget?)
2. Consider your habits – walk to the store; take the bus to work; drive a small, fuel efficient car; change to super-efficient heating, lighting, appliances; stop using destructive chemical cleaners
3. Help small eco-companies like local organic food suppliers and Canada’s electric car companies
4. Push governments to change their policies to reflect the needs of average people, not just help the rich get richer at the expense of the poor.