Fwd: The Fundamental Issue - Overshoot

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Jean Boucher

Jan 11, 2023, 10:47:08 AMJan 11
to SCORAI Group
Who is this Bill Rees guy?


The Great Simplification #53 with William E. Rees  ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌
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The Fundamental Issue - Overshoot

The Great Simplification #53 with William E. Rees

Jan 11
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Today, I am joined by systems ecologist William E. Rees, who’s had a large and longtime influence in the field of ecological economics. Here he outlines why most of the challenges facing humanity and the biosphere have a common origin - ecological overshoot above a long term carrying capacity. Bill also unpacks “the ecological footprint,” a concept that he co-created, that measures the actual resources used by a given population.

William Rees is a population ecologist, ecological economist, Professor Emeritus and former Director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning in Vancouver, Canada. He researches the implications of global ecological trends for the longevity of civilization, with special foci on urban (un)sustainability and cultural/cognitive barriers to rational public policy. Prof Rees is best known as the originator and co-developer with Dr. Mathis Wackernagel of ‘ecological footprint analysis’ (EFA), a quantitative tool that estimates human demands on ecosystems and the extent to which humanity is in ‘ecological overshoot.’

Bill describes his experience as a leading thinker in public policy and planning based on ecological conditions for sustainable socioeconomic development, and the challenges he’s faced working in a system which (so far) rejects such premises. Is it possible for a different way of measuring the system to set different goals of what it means to be successful as a society?

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Tom Walker

Jan 14, 2023, 1:56:51 AMJan 14
to jlb...@gmail.com, SCORAI Group
I just finished listening to Nate Hagens's interview of Bill Rees and heartily recommend that everyone listen. I agree with Bill about the biophysical reality and the refusal of our culture and our "highly-trained" technocrats to acknowledge that reality.

Please indulge me for a small digression. I have been recruited by a group to do a pop-up book to accompany a report on affordable housing that includes policy recommendations. Two things are missing from the draft final report. 

The first is any acknowledgement that housing policy, especially in the post world war II period, was conceived and executed as a component of economic growth strategy. We are where we are today, with vastly inflated land prices and widespread and growing housing inequity, because it seemed like a good idea at the time to policy makers to pursue housing policies that would increase material throughput and ecological footprint because those things register as GDP growth. 

The second thing missing from the draft final report is any substantive mention of climate change, ecological footprint, overshoot, or the environment. "Climate change" occurs once in the c.v. of one of the authors; environment occurs once in reference to concerns that environmental standards may increase development costs.

As a substantive counterexample, consider the following excerpt from a 1996 paper by Bill Rees and Mathis Wackernagel that refers to "affordable housing" in passing.

While urban regions certainly disrupt the ecosystems of which they are a part, the sheer concentration of population and consumption also gives cities enormous leverage in the quest for global sustainability. Some of the advantages of urban settlements are as follows (based on Mitlin and Satterthwaite 1994):
• lower costs per capita of providing piped treated water, sewer systems, waste collection, and most other forms of infrastructure and public amenities;
• greater possibilities for, and a greater range of options for, material recycling, re-use, remanufacturing, and the specialized skills and enterprises needed to make these things happen;
• high population density, which reduces the per capita demand for occupied land;
• great potential through economies of scale, co-generation, and the use of waste process heat from industry or power plants, to reduce the per capita use of fossil fuel for space-heating;
• great potential for reducing (mostly fossil) energy consumption by motor vehicles through walking, cycling, and public transit.

For a fuller appreciation of urban leverage, let us examine this last point in more detail. It is commonplace to argue that the private automobile must give way to public transportation in our cities and just as commonplace to reject the idea (at least in North America) as politically unfeasible. However, political feasibility depends greatly on public support. The popularity of the private car for urban transportation is in large part due to underpriced fossil fuel and numerous other hidden subsidies (up to $2500 per year per vehicle). Suppose we gradually move toward full cost pricing of urban auto use and reallocate a significant proportion of the considerable auto subsidy to public transit. This could make public transportation faster, more convenient, and more comfortable than at present, and vastly cheaper than private cars. Whither political feasibility? People would demand improved public transit with the same passion they presently reserve for increased road capacity for cars.

Most importantly, the shift in incentives and modal split would not only be ecologically more sustainable but also both economically more efficient and socially more equitable. (It should therefore appeal to both the political right and left.) Over time, it would contribute to better air quality, improved public health, greater access to the city, more affordable housing, more efficient land use, the hardening of the urban fringe, the conservation of food lands, and levels of urban density at which at least direct subsidies to transit become unnecessary. In short, because of complex systems linkages, seriously addressing even a single issue in the city can stimulate change in many related factors contributing to sustainability. Rees (1995) has previously called this the “urban sustainability multiplier.” 

In the interview, Bill Rees mentioned that the image of the "footprint" occurred to him because he had just acquired a new computer that had a smaller footprint. In much the same vein, when I was out walking to the store this morning it struck me that a lot of urban land in residential areas is occupied by roads and quite a bit that is filled with parked cars. So I did some quick calculations: 25.69km2 or 22.3% of Vancouver's land area consists of roads and road allowances. A recent property acquisition on the East Side was priced at $20 million per acre. This means that each car parked on a Vancouver street is occupying around $60,000 worth of property. For free. Amortized at 5% per annum, the city is giving away $3,000 worth of parking to car owners.

If the city was to develop just one quarter of its residential streets as residential property, it would be worth (at current prices) around $30 billion dollars. (I had to do several conversions back and forth from square km to square meters to acres, so possibly that number is off by a decimal point but I think I got it right.) I'm just making ballpark estimates here to make the point that maybe the path to affordable housing is not so exclusively through HOUSING policy but could be a side benefit of environmentally-informed transportation policy.

And no, I am not suggesting this would be the solution to ecological overshoot. But I am suggesting that systems thinking that takes into account ecological consequences of past urban development policies could lead to more promising affordable housing solutions. Maybe we could help mitigate some of the insoluble problems by using their conceptual framework to solve the potentially solvable ones?


Tom Walker (Sandwichman)

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Cohen, Maurie

Jan 14, 2023, 8:39:34 AMJan 14
to lumpo...@gmail.com, jlb...@gmail.com, SCORAI Group
I was delighted to read Tom Walker's commentary (and the quoted passages from Bill and Mathis's earlier work) advocating for closer linkage between transportation planning and affordable housing. In fact, since Tuesday is the first day of the new academic semester, I am going to distribute his posting to the ~20 students in my course on Sustainability Planning and Practice to frame and motivate our work over the next fourteen weeks. At the same time, I take this opportunity to offer a few minor footnotes mostly as extensions to Tom's excellent points.

1. We do, at least in North America, have instructive examples of this kind of work in the form of transit villages and other related forms of integrated planning. The construction of high-density concentrations around metro stations in and around Washington, DC is a notable and visible example of this practice (though its benefits have frequently been undermined by offsetting expansions in automobile infrastructure).

2. It may seem tangential but stick with me here. I have long found the "heads I win, tails you lose" practice that pervades land-use planning (at least in the United States) to be extremely bemusing. If we build a "locally undesirable land use" (so-called LULU) in a community (for example a wastewater-treatment plant), proximate property owners are up in arms (and not infrequently banging on the courthouse doors) demanding that the project constitutes an "illegal taking" that requires compensation for DECLINING property values. However, if a public project -- for instance a metro station or a highway interchange -- INCREASES the value of nearby land, owners are able to realize a "windfall." In fact, during the preliminary stages of such an investment there is typically a pattern of Wild-West style jockeying that goes on as a succession of different owners take their respective cuts from the pending appreciation. Yes, there is typically some public benefit from rising property taxes due to the increasing land value, but political influence (if not outright corruption) oftentimes limits the size of these payments (or at least pushes them far out into the future). Tom's reference to "system linkages" suggests that we really need to get better at capturing the rising land values from public investments and steering that money into reinforcing feedback loops rather than allowing it to accumulate in the coffers of a few well-positioned private landowners. Though I have not studied the issue in detail (and I suspect that there are others on this distribution who have this expert knowledge) the London congestion charge represents a good example of using the taxes raised from car drivers to subsidize improvements in public transit and the catalyzing of improvements that have contributed to more liveable (and arguably sustainable) conditions in the city.

3. Tom is clearly correct in his assessment of the role of (large) home construction as a driver of economic growth. But we should not dismiss the fact that the early waves of mass suburbanization in North America (and in the US in particular) DID result in appreciable improvements in public health and well-being for many people (and subsequent generations) by substantially improving housing quality. And renewed interest these days in so-called "inner ring suburbs" among some portions of the homebuying public is a testament to the inherent desirability of these communities (which incidentally enable less automobile-dependent lifestyles because they were built at higher densities than subsequent construction in further afield suburbs and exurbs). One of the challenges is the economics of homebuilding: the cost of building a "small house" is roughly comparable to the cost of building a "large house" so homebuilders prefer the latter because it offers higher margins. Also, of course, local governments enable large(r) homes in their zoning and land-use plans because such residences pay more in property taxes and, in aggregate, contribute fewer children to local school systems (which, again, at least in the United States, tend to be locally funded). In other words, it is more profitable for everyone in the supply chain (homebuilders, lawyers, real-estate agents, property appraisers, tax collectors, and so forth) to build 50 4,500 square foot homes on one-acre lots than 100 2,500 square foot homes on half-acre lots). So a key strategy to realizing Tom's ambition for better linkage between housing and transportation planning is to impose a limit on the size of new home construction (anyone interested in this general issue might want to pull up this article or contact me off-list).

4. An under-discussed issue in the "history of the automobile" is the regional politics of the car industry. One last time referencing the United States, the northern Midwest (specifically Michigan and Ohio) were (and continue to be) politically pivotal in national elections. This factor combined with the material intensity of automobile production and all of its interlinkages to other sub-industries once gave this mode of economic activity profound potency. At least prior to the 1980s, anyone who could read an input-output table was intimately aware of the extraordinary power of the employment and income multipliers that were driven by the automobile industry. As a result, for both political and economic purposes, national transportation planning came to favor building cars over other alternatives.

5. Finally, I have no reason to dispute Tom's calculations regarding the massive implicit subsidies to automobiles that come with allowing the warehousing of private cars in the public domain. Anyone interested in this issue really needs to have a look at Donald Shoup's book, The High Cost of Free Parking.

Kind regards from New Jersey (one of the seedbeds of American suburbanization!),


NJIT logoMaurie J. Cohen
Professor and Chair
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences
mco...@njit.edu • (973) 596-5281

A Top 100 National University
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