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