Thursday 15 December 2011

Tipping Points: What Lies Ahead?

“Human beings are the single most ecologically significant marine carnivore. We’re also the dominant grassland and forest vertebrate herbivore,” says Dr. Bill Rees.

“We’ve used technology to exploit fossil fuels, which enabled us to clean out the oceans and mow down forests. We’ve expanded to fill all accessible habitats and tend to use up all available resources. And all these actions have been supported by a ‘socially constructed’ belief in continuous progress and infinite economic growth.

"Unfortunately, Earth is finite and humans and their economies are embedded in the same ecosystems they are consuming.”

“There is no separation between us and nature,” Dr. Rees says. He warns that the climate and critical ecosystems may be reaching tipping points and there is no guarantee that conditions on the other side will support civilized existence.

Bill Rees* is a professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. His ecological footprint model is a widely-used measure of human demand for land and resources.

A Collective Response
Dr. Rees believes that we are facing a collective crisis that requires a collective response. However, our culture emphasizes individual responsibility rather than a collaborative society. Our culture has perpetuated a myth that everyone can become a millionaire. This works to individual advantage if one succeeds, but the system is structured so that wealth trickles to the top, leaving large numbers of citizens unemployed or underemployed, homeless, and relying on food banks and charitable donations to survive.

The so-called free market economy was intended to enhance efficiency and growth, but it has come at the expense of equity and true development. Dr. Rees believes that the market economy has failed for two reasons.

Welfare for the Rich First of all, “governments often tax good things, subsidize bad ones, and rescue poorly managed businesses. For example, the banks and General Motors should have been allowed to fail,” Dr. Rees says. “Instead, they were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. It’s welfare for the rich, for the same corporate interests that usually argue for less government and lobby to tear down social safety nets for ordinary people.”

Dr. Rees argues that if there must be public subsidies or loans, they should be redirected from the automobile industry to the manufacture of public transit vehicles and improved transit service—collective assets for the common good whose provision also conserves resources and improves urban environmental quality.

True Cost of Production Secondly, globalization has masked the true cost of production, further undercutting market efficiency. In a global economy, governments tolerate the externalization of significant production costs to improve their nation’s competitive position. But this means that retail prices don’t tell the truth about the costs of goods and services. Sales may increase, but it is at the expense of ecosystems and people.

Dr. Rees points to computers as an example. “We have cheap computers in North America because we’ve offloaded the dirty manufacturing to poor countries along with the pollution,” Dr. Rees says. “We wouldn’t tolerate those levels of pollution in Canada. If the computers were manufactured here, we’d have to use cleaner production processes, and the cost would reflect the difference.”

Dr. Rees believes that if prices reflected the true cost of production, we’d consume fewer resources, the environment would improve, and there would be incentives for increased innovation. For example, the cost of gasoline would rise dramatically if we took into account environmental costs, but this would promote the development of lighter vehicles and fuel-efficient engines. We’d drive smaller cars that were adequate for in-town driving rather than large, gas-guzzling trucks. Meanwhile, our climate-changing carbon emissions would be lower. As matters stand, climate change remains the best known example of massive market failure.

Globalization was intended to enhance efficiency by promoting specialization. Unfortunately, specialization has come at a cost. Canada exports its raw materials, returning to its historic role as ‘hewer of wood and drawer of water.’ We have no fallback position because we’ve lost so much economic diversity, we’ve deskilled our population, and we’ve lost our capacity for self reliance.

“Eastern Canada relies on off-shore OPEC oil,” Dr. Rees says. “If we must develop the oil sands (not necessarily a good idea!), let’s build up our domestic pipeline and refining capacity, keep the jobs in Canada, and export only surplus oil to the States.”

The Common Good
People have become disenchanted, even cynical, about governments. The political right calls for reduced government involvement and reduced taxes. And yet, only governments can act on behalf of the population as a whole. The free market doesn’t provide roads, schools, or hospitals.

“Taxes should be seen as a responsibility rather than a burden,” Dr. Rees says. “Taxes are the means by which people pool their resources to achieve a common good.”

Rees recommends relocalizing many economic activities to maintain economic diversity and multiple employment opportunities. Also, while no one can hope to manage the global economy, we have a fair chance of controlling local or regional economies and their supportive ecosystems.

When it comes to exploiting non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels, we should invest an adequate portion of the revenue in developing renewable alternatives so we have a fallback when the non-renewables run out. Shifting to a sustainable economy also means investing in job training and job placement programs to equip people for employment in sunrise industries as unsustainable sunset industries are phased out. Other social safety nets may also be needed to support families during the transition to a post-carbon economy.

An Intelligent, Compassionate Species
Dr. Rees points out that we focus our attention on making ever more money, and yet there is no longer a correlation between average income levels and health or well-being in wealthy countries. More money will not necessarily protect anyone from catastrophic global change. “Both rich and poor went down with the Titanic,” he says.

 Achieving sustainability means that “we need to shift our cultural values from competitive individualism towards community, cooperation, and a collective interest in repairing the earth for survival.”

“We pride ourselves on being an intelligent, forward-planning, moral and compassionate species, but as we confront one of the largest crises to face us as a species, we so far seem incapable of exercising those qualities for our mutual benefit. I am optimistic that we have the basic abilities to survive – but only if we can muster them decisively in our collective interest.”

* Dr. Rees was in Saskatoon for the launch of Resiliency: Cool Ideas for Locally Elected Leaders, published by the Columbia Institute’s Centre for Civic Governance. He also spoke at the University of Saskatchewan and agreed to be interviewed for an article in EcoFriendly Sask.

Photo Credits: iStock_000017154396, iStock_000017532512