What’s Blocking Sustainability? Why is the world sleepwalking into global ecological crisis?

A lecture by William Rees.
Culture Lab, Newcastle University.
7th March, 2012. Newcastle Upon Tyne.

This lecture by Dr Rees from almost 4 years ago is a very complete summary of what I have learned over my 4 or 5 years of reading, listening, viewing and research (I wish I had found it sooner!!). What I was able to add to my knowledge was a more complete understanding of the operation of the physical, human brain.


William Rees is a Professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia (UBC). His teaching and research emphasize the public policy and planning implications of global environmental trends and the necessary ecological conditions for sustaining socioeconomic activity. Much of his work is in the realm of ecological economics and human ecology. He is best known in this field for his invention of ‘ecological footprint analysis’, a quantitative tool that estimates humanity’s ecological impact on the ecosphere in terms of appropriated ecosystem (land and water) area. Dr Rees’ book on this method, Our Ecological Footprint (1996, co-authored with then PhD student Mathis Wackernagel) is now available in English, Chinese, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Latvian and Spanish. He is presently supervising several eco-footprint projects ranging from the sustainability implications of globalization to getting serious about urban sustainability.

Prof Rees is also a founding member and recent past-President of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics; a co-investigator in the ‘Global Integrity Project,’ aimed at defining the ecological and political requirements for biodiversity preservation; a Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute and a Founding Fellow of the One Earth Initiative. Drawing parts of his answer from various disciplines, Prof Rees’ current book project asks: “Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable?” A dynamic speaker, Prof Rees has been invited to lecture on areas of his expertise across Canada and the US, as well as in Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, the former Soviet Union, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the UK. In 1997, UBC awarded William Rees a Senior Killam Research Prize in acknowledgment of his research achievements and in 2000 The Vancouver Sun recognized him as one of British Columbia’s top “public intellectuals.” In 2006 Prof Rees was elected to the Royal Society of Canada and in 2007 he was awarded a prestigious 3-year Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellowship.

Click here to watch the lecture.

A New Look for a Dawning New Age?

So, we have a new government and I have a new header image for my blog, but does that herald a new age?

There appears to be differences of opinion about astrological ages. Besides, the Age of Aquarius with its “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding” hasn’t quite met expectations from my perspective. Mind you, I was about a decade too old to really BE in the late ’60’s and 70’s which made me untrustworthy (remember “Don’t trust anyone over 30”) and also un-hip. However, some astrological gurus say we are actually still in the Age of Pisces which would be awkward as we humans are in the process of causing massive reduction and even extinction of many or most fish species, harmony and sympathy notwithstanding.

Rather than “harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding”, we have just gone through perhaps the most divisive and politically acrimonious decade in Canadian history under the boot-heel of Stephen Harper and his secretive, anti-science, pro-fossil fuel, anti-cooperation government. This unhappy decade was topped off with a 78 day distasteful election campaign and the ouster of the tyrant.

During this campaign, an obvious attempt to disenfranchise eligible Canadian voters who would be unlikely to vote for the so-called “Harper Government” apparently backfired by bringing First Nations People to the polls in unprecedented numbers. I think this is a very positive note for the people who cared for what we now call Canada for thousands of years before they were unfortunate enough to be discovered by our ancestors from Europe. I can understand First Nations Peoples’ resistance to taking part in a system which they don’t see as relevant to them, I go through the same discussion with myself every election.

Even the attempt to prevent a new Canadian from becoming eligible to vote because of her wish to do what she feels is her religious duty failed. It is ironic that this “incident” occurred during a ceremonial procedure supposedly welcoming this new Canadian to her chosen new home and that it was the courts, always irksome to the former Prime Minister, that enabled her to vote.

Has a New Age commenced for Canada and Canadians? Time will tell. Traditionally, the Liberal Party is a party of the corporate elite and the new Prime Minister will have a tough time shedding the baggage of that past and the perceived entitlement of campaign funders but I hope he is genuine and will keep the promises made during the campaign. If he does, I am hoping that will set a precedent for the future of Canadian politics.

If none of this pans out and we continue along the well trodden but increasingly dangerous path of business-as-usual, enjoy the new header image. As with anything regarding the future it is a work-in-progress but the less complex and less stressful life it depicts is what I am wishing for my grandchildren and beyond – quality of life ahead of standard of living.

The new Alberta-fied NDP view of energy

Rachel Notley follows in Alison Redford’s footsteps with Quebec talks

Energy is a ‘product’ best moved through pipelines. Hafta look elsewhere for 21st century thinking I guess . . .

“[Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard] understands energy continues to be a key driver of economic prosperity not just in Alberta but across Canada and he acknowledged pipelines are ultimately the best way to move that product.”

In case anyone wants to know, here’s a 21st century idea:
Use ‘conventional’ oil, refined as close as practical to the source, to build the necessary infrastructure to power a sustainable energy future. This includes a very smart grid, right to the house/business, electric transportation vehicles, batteries and other storage solutions, solar, wind, tide, wave, micro-hydro, all including R&D. This infrastructure would also require a large on-going workforce for operations, maintenance, retro-fitting and future expansion and upgrading, also including R&D.

Compare this with fracking, steaming, mining, polluting and sending the product through a pipeline and tankers to other nations who will hopefully have entered the 21st century and killed the market for this sort of outdated production. This would provide a few jobs, for a short time and no future.

” I want to thank, Enbridge, Monsanto, Nestle and General Motors for their on-going support . . . “

A couple of days ago, I was watching a clip from the US that included a wonderous idea for electoral reform. I don’t remember where I watched it or who it was — fortunately it doesn’t matter — the idea is this:

For the duration of the term of office, any elected official when visible to the public should be required to wear a Nascar style jumpsuit emblazened with the logos of hers/his corporate sponsors. The name of the corporation must be clearly readable to television viewers or bystanders in the case of a public appearance.

Any corporation sponsoring politicians would be required to maintain an easily found website with the extent of all current political support as well as historical records including names and amounts. This would allow we citizens to know who and what those we elect really represent.


I am reading “Simplicity” – Edward de Bono, 1998.

The author points out the difficulty of simplifying forms if it is undertaken by people who know the system.

“They cannot see why anyone should find ambiguities or difficulties. Perhaps there could be a professional ‘simple-minded’ body which could be hired to ‘misunderstand’ basic instructions.The experts would then have to outwit the simple-minded people so that these people could no longer make mistakes.”

Good News

We describe less than one of the smallest thing we can measure as Zero. But, what if there is an infinitely small as well as an infinitely large? If we can’t get to Zero, is there a Zero? Would not infinitely small be the same as infinitely large and if so, would size still matter?

I would think not.

Different Strokes . . . (of the pen)

I have just finished reading Derrick Jensen”s “Endgame – Volume II : Resistance”; and started “The Long Descent” by John Michael Greer (2008). Jensen sees the end of the Industrial Age as sudden and catastrophic and councels the hastening of that event by whatever means we have at our disposal. The reason for this is to save as many resources as possible for the rebuilding of society by following generations. I don’t take exception to any of his thinking as described in the book.

Greer, on the other hand, sees the end coming as a long and painful descent to a time with a much smaller population to match the much more limited residue of resources. This has been the result of the ending of most, if not all previous civilizations which have simply run out of  resources as we are currently doing. His councel is to keep looking ahead at reality, transition as painlessly as can be done and emphasize the retention of culture and knowledge where possible.  I also agree with his premises and view for the future.

A third route into the future is the one we are currently following, pretend the crises don’t exist and carry on with the status quo — this route will, without question be the most damaging to Earth and may well leave humanity with no chance of survival. At the very least, isolated pockets of our descendants would have a place in nature similar to the earliest of the human species — both predator and prey.

Below is an excerpt from “The Long Descent” —

” . . . Imagine that someone, confronted with a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness, insisted instead that he would live forever. For that reason, he refused either to treat the illness or make sure his family had some means of support in the event of his death. He would be considered completely irresponsible by most people — and for good reason. This is exactly the collective situation we’re in right now. For more than three decades we’ve known exactly what factors are pushing industrial society towards its own collapse, and it’s no secret what has to be done to make the transition to sustainability, but the vast majority of people in the industrial world remain unwilling to embrace the necessary changes — and nothing currently suggests that they are interested in thinking about the generations in the future who will grow up in the ruins of our society.

At this point it’s almost certainly too late to manage a transition to sustainability on a global or national scale, even if the political will to attempt it existed — which it clearly does not. It’s not too late, though, for individuals, groups, and communities to make the transition themselves, and to do what they can to preserve essential cultural and practical knowledge for the future. The chance that today’s political and business interests will do anything useful in our present situation is small enough that it’s probably not worth considering.  . . .”

I see these 2 concepts as complementary rather than opposing. At my age (75), I can’t move quickly enough to take part in “removing” dams to let the salmon back up the river without getting caught but I can have a place in at least promoting intentional communities, shelters built from natural materials, permaculture, steady-state economics and other ways of living on the land without destroying it, something that Aldo Leopold said we had never learned how to do. That way, the dam removers will have a place to hang out between gigs and nutritious food to keep their strength (and speed) up.

“Any use of violence implies a failure to love.” — are you sure about this?

Below is a passage from Derrick Jensen’s Endgame Volume 2 in where he takes issue with dogmatic pacifism which he equates with fundamentalism as practiced by zealots of various stripes.

“I have many other problems with the pacifist use of the idea that force is solely the dominion of those in power. It’s certainly true that the master uses the tool of violence, but that does not mean he owns it. Those in power have effectively convinced us they own the land, which is to say they’ve convinced us to give up our inalienable right to access our own landbases. They’ve effectively convinced us they own conflict resolution methods (which they call laws), which is to say they’ve convinced us to give up our inalienable right to resolve our own conflicts (which they call taking the law into your own hands). They’ve convinced us they own water. They’ve convinced us they own the wild (the government could not offer “timber sales” unless we all agreed it owned the trees in the first place). They’re in the process of convincing us they own the air. The state has for millennia been trying to convince us it owns a monopoly on violence, and abusers have been trying to convince us for far longer than that. Pacifists are more then willing to grant them that, and to shout down anyone who disagrees.

Well, I disagree. Violence does not belong exclusively to those at the top of the hierarchy, no matter how much abusers and their allies try to convince us. They have never convinced wild animals, including wild humans, and they will never convince me.”


One of the funniest letters I have ever received in the mail was recently delivered to me. It came from ICBC (The Insurance Corporation of British Columbia) . . . not known for humour. It starts, “Dear valued customer” and goes downhill from there.

It seems they just moved to a new computer system and, as part of the move, they have been checking vehicle descriptions from the old system and found a discrepancy in mine. This has resulted in them overcharging me $2.00 for insurance on that vehicle since 2008 and they have calculated the refund at $2.00 plus interest of 3 cents for a total of $2.03.

There is then an explanation of why they do not refund amounts less than $5.00 as the cost of producing the cheque, covering letter, an envelope and postage to mail it to me is more than $5.00. OK so why did they go to the trouble and expense of producing a form, covering letter, an envelope and postage to mail it to me to tell me they over-charged me but won’t give me my money back? They have stolen my $2.03 and then spent some more of my money to send me a letter, telling me about it – so now I’m pissed off – maybe it’s not so funny after all!

Will Geoengineering Fix Us or Otherwise?

This is a very dangerous concept and I will tell you why.

As I have said elsewhere on this blog, anywhere else I can and to everyone who will listen to me (a small but important minority), we have lost our sense of who and what we are and where we fit in the continuum of life on Earth. We do not understand the effects we have on the biosphere and cannot comprehend the degree to which we are interconnected with everything, living or not, on the only home we have – Spaceship Earth. We tend to think that we are special, so special that we can think, design and work our way out of any problem we may encounter, especially if we might cause problems ourselves – as unlikely as that may seem to us.

Experience tells a very different story. Our attempts to design, build and manage complex systems such as equitable economic systems, corruption-free political systems, healthy and sustainable food production systems, global peace initiatives, sustainable energy supply systems and many others have, over time, degenerated into at least partial, sometimes catastrophic, failure. Effects from a number of these human-designed systems have had and continue to have massively disruptive impact on natural systems such as climate, terrestrial and oceanic food chains, agricultural soils as well as the on-going realities of poverty and war.

So, having disrupted the global climate system to the point of threatening our very existence, we now think we can design and build fixes to re-stabilize it to something like it was naturally before the industrial revolution. And we think we can re-design plants and animals to better suit them for use by humans without disturbing the myriad species with which they currently interact in the wild.

Now a bit from the author of the article referenced above:

In his new book, A Case for Climate Engineering, [Canadian environmental engineer David] Keith says that geoengineering is a “brutally ugly technical fix.” He cheerfully admits that he has a lot of qualms about it as a technology that could have dangerous and unintended consequences, and that it doesn’t address the root cause of climate change: the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

“I think the important point is that it’s not hard to do, that all the hard questions are about whether we should do it, who controls it, how well it works.”

. . . and what if it doesn’t (work) but does have those “dangerous and unintended consequences”? Who we gonna call . . . Ghostbusters??

If we really are intent on placing mirrors in orbit around the earth, rather than having them face the sun so we can “control” the amount of radiant energy reaching Earth, I would vote for turning them around so we could look up into the sky and see ourselves for the fools we really are.