The Human Ecological Predicament: Wages of Self-Delusion

Rees, William E. | May 9, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

With resource consumption and waste production outpacing nature’s capacity to keep up, humanity is on a precariously unbalanced path. Balance by Maik Meid | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Techno-industrial society is in dangerous ecological overshoot—the human ecological footprint is at least 60% larger than the planet can support sustainably (Wackernagel et al. 2002; Rees 2013; WWF 2016). The global economy is using even renewable and replenishable resources faster than ecosystems can regenerate and filling waste sinks beyond nature’s capacity to assimilate (Steffen et al. 2007; Rockström et al. 2009; Barnosky et al. 2012). (Even climate change is a waste management problem—carbon dioxide is the single greatest waste by weight of industrial economies.) Despite the accumulating evidence of impending crisis, the world community seems incapable of responding effectively. This situation is clearly unsustainable and, if present trends continue, will likely lead in this century to runaway climate change, the collapse of major biophysical systems, global strife and therefore diminished prospects for continued civilized existence (Tainter 1987; Diamond 2005; Turner 2014; Motesharrei et al. 2014).

The proximate drivers are excess economic production/consumption and over-population—human impact on the ecosphere is a product of population multiplied by average per capita consumption—exacerbated by an increasingly global compound myth of perpetual economic growth propelled by continuous technological progress (Victor 2008; Rees 2013). While there is evidence of some ‘decoupling’ of economic production from nature, this is often an artifact of faulty accounting and trade (e.g., wealthy countries are ‘off-shoring’ their ecological impacts onto poorer countries).  Overall, economic throughput (energy and material consumption and waste production) is increasing with population and GDP growth (Wiedmann et al 2013; Giljum et al. 2014). Consequently, carbon dioxide is accumulating at an accelerating rate in the atmosphere (NOAA 2017) and the years 2014, 2015 and 2016 sequentially shared the distinction of being the warmest years in the instrumental record (Hansen et al. 2017).

There is widespread general support for the notion of ‘clean production and consumption’ but in present circumstances, this must soon translate into less production and consumption by fewer people (Rees 2014). It complicates matters that modern society remains highly dependent on abundant cheap energy still mostly supplied by carbon-based fuels. Despite rapid technological advances and falling costs, it is still not clear that renewable energy alternatives, including wind and photovoltaic electricity, can replace fossil fuels in such major uses as transportation and space/water heating in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, in the absence of effective carbon sequestration technologies, reducing fossil fuel use remains essential to avoiding catastrophic climate change. Resolving this energy-climate conundrum will require major conservation efforts, the prioritizing of essential non-substitutable uses of fossil fuels and the banning of frivolous ones.

At the same time, this is a world of chronic gross social inequity which greatly erodes population health and social cohesion (Wilkinson and Pickett 2010).  According to Oxfam (2017), the world’s richest eight billionaires possess the same wealth as the poorest 50% of the human family. More generally, the richest quintile of humanity takes home about 70% of global income compared to just 2% by the poorest fifth of the population (Ortiz and Cummins 2011).

Higher incomes enable the citizens of high income countries to consume, on average, several times their equitable share of global biocapacity while denizens of poor countries are unable to claim a fair allocation of Earth’s bounty (WWF 2016). This situation is egregiously unjust, socially destabilizing and ecologically precarious.

The major social implications of these realities should be self-evident. In a rational world, the global community (e.g., the United Nations, the World Bank/IMF) would cease promoting material growth as the primary solution to both north-south inequity and chronic poverty within nations. On a finite planet already in overshoot it is not biophysically possible to raise the material standards of the poor to those of the rich sustainably—i.e., without destroying the ecosphere, undermining life-support functions and precipitating the collapse of global society. The reasoning is simple. Because they facilitate growth and (over)consumption, globalization and trade have enabled many densely-populated high-income countries (e.g., most Western European nations and Japan) to greatly exceed their domestic carrying capacities.  These nations live mostly on imported biocapacity—they are running ‘ecological deficits’ with other nations and the global commons (Rees 2013, WWF 2016). Not every country can be a net importer of bio-resources, so the development path worn by so-called ‘First-world nations’ cannot be followed by developing countries. (Note that the bloated eco-footprints of many high-income countries make them effectively more over-populated than are poorer countries with nominally higher population densities.)  In particular, it is irresponsible for the governments of high-income countries to treat economic growth as the panacea for all that ails them.

The evidence argues instead that the world community should cooperate on redistribution, on devising methods to share the benefits of development more equitably. (Unsustainability is a collective problem that requires collective solutions.) Contrary to politicians’ assertions, there is an unavoidable conflict between material economic growth and ‘the environment’. The larger the human enterprise, the more diminished the ecosphere. H. sapiens has competitively displaced countless other species from their habitats and food resources. From only one percent 10,000 years ago, humans and their domestic livestock had grown to comprise over 97% of Earth’s mammalian biomass by 2000 (Smil 2011). This number may be closer to 98.5% in 2017.

The goal should be to enhance the material well-being of developing countries and the poor while simultaneously reducing both aggregate material throughput and world population. Ensuring an economically secure and ecologically stable environment for all requires:

1. that rich nations consume less to free up the ecological space needed for justifiable consumption increases in poorer countries (BCSD 1993; Moore and Rees 2013); and

2. that the world implement a universal population management plandesigned to reduce the total human population to a level that can be supported indefinitely at a more-than-satisfactory average material standard. This is what it means to ‘live sustainably within the means of nature’ (Rees 2014).

Fortunately, planned degrowth (Kerschner 2010; Gheorghică 2012) toward a quasi steady-state economy (Daly 1991, 2008) is technically possible (von Weizsäcker et al. 2009), would benefit the poor and could be achieved while improving overall quality of life even in high-income countries (Victor 2008).  Considering the human suffering that would be avoided and number of non-human species that would be preserved, it is also a morally compelling strategy.

Obviously, the foregoing diagnosis is anathema to the prevailing growth ethic, the belief that well-being is a linear function of income, and political correctness pertaining to population policy. Many will therefore object on grounds that the foregoing prescription is politically unfeasible and can never be implemented.

They may well be correct. The problem is that what is politically feasible is often ecologically irrelevant. Effective sustainability policy must be consistent with available scientific evidence; ‘alternative facts’ are mere self-delusion. Failure to implement a global sustainability plan that addresses excess consumption and over-population while ensuring greater social equity may well be fatal to the human prospect. Indeed, adherence to any variant of the status quo promises a future of uncontrollable climate change, plummeting biodiversity, civil disorder, geopolitical turmoil and resource wars. In the circumstances, opponents of the present prescription have an obligation to propose an alternative plan that similarly promises ecological stability, economic security, social equity and improved population health to future generations.

William E. Rees, PhD, FRSC is a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and former director of the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) at UBC. Rees originated and co-developed ecological footprint analysis, which is described in the book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth.

Literature cited

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Daly, H. (1991) Steady-State Economics (second ed.) Washington: Island Press

Daly, H. (2008) A Steady-State Economy. Presentation to the UK Sustainable Development Commission (24 April 2008). Accessed 17 January 2017.

Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed. Viking (US) / Allen Lane (UK).

Gheorghică, A.E. (2012) The Emergence of La Décroissanse. CES Working Papers, IV (1),  Iași, Romania:  Centre for European Studies, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University.

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Hansen, J., Satoa, M., Ruedyb, R., Schmidt G.A. , Lob,K.,  Persin, A. (2017) Global Temperature in 2016. New York: Columbia University Earth Instutute. Accessed 18 January 2017.

Kerschner, C. (2010)  Economic de-growth vs. steady-state economy.  Journal of Cleaner Production 18:  544–551.

Moore, J. and W.E. Rees (2013) Getting to One Planet Living, Chapter 4 in State of the World 2013 – Is Sustainability Still Possible? Washington: World Resources Institute.

Motesharrei, S.,  J. Rivas, E. Kalnay (2014) Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies. Ecological Economics 101: 90–102.

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Ortiz, I. and M Cummins. 2011. Global Inequality: Beyond the Bottom Billion – A Rapid Review of Income Distribution in 141 Countries.  New York: United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

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Rees, W.E. (2013) Ecological Footprint, Concept of.  In S.A Levin (ed.) Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, second edition, Volume 2, pp. 701-713. Waltham, MA: Academic Press.

Rees, W.E. (2014). Avoiding Collapse — An agenda for sustainable degrowth and relocalizing the economy. Vancouver, BC: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Accessed 25 December 2016.

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Turner, G. (2014)  Is Global Collapse Imminent?  MSSI Research Paper No. 4. Melbourne: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

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Wackernagel, M., N.B. Schulz, D. Deumling, A.C. Linares, M. Jenkins, V. Kapos, C. Monfreda, J. Loh, N. Myers, R. Norgaard, J. Randers (2002) Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 99: 9266–927.

Wiedmann, T.O., H. Schandl, M. LenzenD. Moran, S. Suh, J. West , and K. Kanemoto (2013) The material footprint of nations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112: 6271–6276, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1220362110.

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  • Les Kuzyk

    I met both Professors William Rees and Peter Victor at the 2010 Footprint conference in Italy and have subsequently published two academic papers (and other writings including climate ‘fiction’).
    Our Near Future

    My latest summarizing global calculation says the same as they do …
    The Ecological Footprint (60% carbon) by 2050 Equation
    1.6 * 1.28 * 1.71 * 0.4 = 1.4 planets (we got one!)
    1.6 planets consumed annually currently (2017) (Canadian lifestyle 4.7 planets)
    1.28 projected population growth
    1.71 projected economic growth
    0.4 projected complete solution to carbon emissions problem (our climate change focus)
    1.4 calculated planets consumed in 2050

  • jim.swanek


    Dear, dear. The idea that 750 million will give up the middle class lifestyle their parents and grandparents sweated and died to achieve so that the 3rd through 7th children of folks in africa and elsewhere can have much more is ludicrous. Strict border controls and resource wars are about to begin, where the numbers of people don’t matter on either side – only the guns.


  • Max Kummerow

    I did some simple spreadsheet simulations using the Kaya Identity:
    C (emissions) = C/E (carbon emitted/energy unit) x E/Y (energy/output) x Y/P (per capita income) x P (population). A climate conference I attended was all about technology solutions (reduce C/E, renewable solar and efficiency, less E/Y). But my simulations showed that with growth about 3% (2% income growth, 1% population growth), it is hard to build enough windmills–16 times more demand in a century, four doublings). So the answer isn’t “this or that” it is “this and that” or “all of the above.” Not sure how to get that message across.

  • mkc73

    Climate change is not the problem, it is the default solution.

  • J4zonian

    ”human impact on the ecosphere is a product of population multiplied by average per capita consumption”

    That’s a misleading way to look at the problem. Human harm to the ecosphere is overwhelmingly caused by the richest few percent of people: Half of all human greenhouse gases are emitted by the richest 7-10% of people. The poorest 6 billion people emit only about 20% of the GHGs; that means if we somehow magically eliminated all of them we’d still have 80% of the problem—and similar proportions of other problems—to solve some other way. The rich actually cause most of the GHGs attributed in this model to the poor as well, because the rich decide where and how the poor will live, what they make and grow, and are increasingly taking over carbon-neutral traditional small-scale agriculture all over the world, and turning it into carbon-emitting industrial meat- and annual commodity-centered ag. and ecologically destructive fuel production. Indigenous people are being wiped out by the same corporate-government model, but ensuring indigenous people have land rights and control of their traditional lands is also shown by research to be one of the best ways to sequester rather than emit carbon.

    Population growth rates are half what they were in the 1960s and are still falling, expected to level off by 2050 even if we don’t do what helps reduce them most (which of course we should)—ensure equality and education for all, especially women, and security in sickness, old age and hard times. The rich world is already at replacement rate; the only significant population growth is happening among groups who do almost no harm to the Earth.

    We already produce enough grain alone to feed everyone on Earth more Calories than each person needs, and that’s not counting beans, fruits and vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, oil crops and home-grown organic ginger brew.

    A recent Oxfam study shows that 8 men own as much as the poorest 3.5 billion, down from 85 people just 3 years ago. If you have just 4 things—a bed, a roof, clothes in a closet and food in a refrigerator—you have more than 85% of the people on Earth. The rich consume such a phenomenal proportion of resources and produce such worse pollution, that we could feed, clothe, house and provide fulfilling ecological lives for everyone here now and in the future—if we all lived sensible lives.

    This problem is caused almost entirely by the rich, and suffered from first and most by the poor. Misdiagnosing the problem will, among other serious problems, cause us to fail to prevent global cataclysm.

    The risk of global collapse is rising quickly. The solutions are to replace fossil fuels with efficiency, clean safe renewable energy—all the forms of solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, etc.; to reforest the planet and transform chemical industrial agriculture into small-scale local low-meat organic permaculture. We need a global US-WWII level citizen and industrial mobilization to do this in the next 5-8 years.

  • One can do a tiny bit of good joining 34 Million Friends of the UN Population Fund. PLANNED parenthood for every baby born anywhere. That would be cool!!

  • Michael Mielke

    For an old warrior like myself, it is wonderful to see Bill Rees, once again simplify the ecological, economic, equity and energy issues into a consumable context……..

    Meaning, “It’s the Consumption, Stupid!!”

    Rees has been one of the Guidestars for us for over a generation, since he released Ecological Footprint in 1996………..

    Five years earlier, Paul Ehrlich w/ Anne presented Healing the Earth, and it still applies and still rings TRUE.

    Add Ophuls and Catton and you have the “Five Perspectives” that could lead to a viable future. And I assert that the Ehrlichs deserve two of that handful of Luminaries.

    Michael Mielke

  • Dana Visalli

    Thanks William, it is always good to read your insights and understanding. It is interesting to me that you give climate change top billing….when you spoke here in Twisp WA in 2002 we were collectively less concerned about climate change, but none-the-less very aware of the unsustainability of techo-society due to I = PAT. It is currently a profound sacrilege to say so, but living matter (aka ‘the biosphere’) is composed of about 85% carbon dioxide. Now if you ask 100 people what biomass is made of….you will find that every one of them will answer incorrectly.
    What am I saying here? Climate change is ecology for ecological idiots. No climate change activist addresses the root causes of climate change, which is population x affluence. No climate change activist even knows that carbon dioxide, in spite of its evil qualities, is the probably the single most important chemical compound in the biosphere. No so-called climate activist would acknowledge that life abounds when the land and water is warm enough and that life ceases at cold temperatures. Climate change is a hangnail on the major ecological issues confronting humanity, IMHO.

    • Killian O’Brien

      Bull. Everybody knows we are made of C. We also know it is not absolute temps alone that matter, but also, and most urgently, rates of change and extreme events.

      Why lie?

  • Max Kummerow

    Scarcity caused by growth will not be cured by more growth. (I suggest that as a plausible common sense slogan to argue against the pro-growth optimists.)
    The Plan B that makes sense to me is:
    1. Reverse population growth by investing in family planning programs in high fertility areas and a major campaign to “reposition” abortion as often a morally superior choice. This is the simplest to implement because birth control is cheap and offers clear benefits to individuals and societies. Lower fertility is the key to increasing prosperity in poor, high fertility countries, maybe in all countries. Also will help reduce GHG emissions due to land clearing.
    2. Reduce consumption in rich countries–actually way less painful than it sounds. Would mean less debt, smaller houses to clean, less ratrace, less stress, more leisure, less crap in the garage and closets, maybe better family and social lives.
    3. Protect environment–mainly about species conservation, land conservation and a global carbon tax or a transition from fossil fuels.
    4. 1 & 2 above have already addressed social justice issues to some degree, but progressive taxes and increased aid to the poor, especially for education and health care and family planning have roles to play as well.
    5. Somehow, if we are to have democracy, we have to have institutions capable of getting the truth to the public. Fox News and Christian radio are doing the very opposite–propagandizing for selfishness, blindness and eventual disaster. Right wing billionaires (read Dark Money by Jane Mayer) have created an oligarchy in the U.S. more powerful than the political parties and capable of corrupting politics, universities and public discourse. More responsible elites will have to create countervailing information sources or America is cooked.

    • NJ Hagens

      That was very well stated Max…

    • Killian O’Brien

      Despite NJHagens enthusiasm, you are not going anywhere near far enough. The nature of the beast you seem to know, but the nature of the world to come eludes you… even though it alrwady exists.

      What are you missing?

      Also, while population is an ultimate goal and there are gains to be had even in the short term, it is impossible to mitigate against short-term climate change via population if changes continue to occur in the 2nd and beyond standard deviations. Simplification is the key, but this requires systems opposite in nature from ehat we have now both politically and ecinomically.

  • martin naylor

    The only possible way to save this planet is too have a world wide movement that supplies the above facts and supplies the solutions including how to change all of our relationships [this is the most important solution] I have the solution on how to do the above but not the computer skills initially I need I need a project manager and away we go in every country at once

  • Clive Lord

    Oh dear! Yet another excellent account of what needs to be done, giving references to excellent accounts of how it could be done, but, like them, without addressing the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’, which explains why none of this is happening anywhere near fast enough.
    Since I first heard this thesis in the ‘Limits to Growth ‘ study by the MIT in 1972, I have been urging the adoption of a Basic, unconditional income for all individuals. This would not of itself make it feasible to limit economic activity to the carrying capacity of the ecosphere, but it would make it thinkable, whereas now, those profiting from unsustainable practices cannot envisage having to contract, and a recession is more frightening to most than the approaching threat of climate mayhem.

    • Steven B Kurtz

      Income is inedible. It provides zero shelter. It is simply power to access goods and services and in no way increases the supply of either. The primary issue is the quadrupling of human numbers in one century. There are individuals alive who were born in 1917.

      We are in plague phase (ask a biologist), and until population is reversed to shrinkage rather than growth, problems will only increase. Unfortunately the irrational religious fundamentalists have been outbreeding the rational planning types. Until nature changes the ratio, the chances of peaceful shrinkage decrease daily. And I’ll bet for charity on this at longbets dot org. International Planned Parenthood is my chosen recipient.

    • Killian O’Brien

      In a non-finite world, I love UBI. In a finite world, it is merely a somewhat more equal sui-genocidal economics.

      Virtually nobody seemsto realize economics itself is the problem, so they fail to realize yiu cannot get from here to sustainable via any form of economics except the most basic sense of the term: Exchange.

      Concepts like UBI can only be implemented if understood to be nothing more than a very short-term bridge to a regenerative system.

      Regenerative systems require no “economic” system given thwy can only exist within a fractal, absolute, Commons structure where decisions are at scale and ni hierarchy exists.

      • Clive Lord

        Economics is no the root cause, it is a symptom of an underlying problem – a culture, a general mind set which thinks of per capita growth as essential to our well being (and in conjunction with this,often does not see population increase as a problem – Steven Kurtz).
        Nothing in Killian O’Brien’s reply rebuts my message (seem my weblog for a full explanation), but to try to put it in a nutshell, you seem to agree with me that lower economic activity is essential. in which case your ‘exchange’ becomes a euphemism for ‘drastic redistribution’.
        No one can contemplate a reduction in economic activity unless they can be guaranteed security. My proposal for this is the Basic income which will not produce the results you fear because it will be balanced by taxation. What is your proposal?

        • Killian O’Brien

          Don’t care what others have to say when it clearly violates common sense, logic, and, especially, First Principles.

          Economics is voodoo.

        • Killian O’Brien

          Yes, UBI can be a bridge, as stated above, but not an endpoint, because the only way to manage resources well enough to get through both climate and resource limits is unprecedented cooperation among “modern” peoples, and that will require a Commons basis, and that negates any need for income.

          If you want to use UBI to help create infrastructure for the Commons, I’d agree, and essentially suggested the same back in 2008.

          I’d update to use fee and dividend to finance local sustainable infrastructure and pair with UBI to provide the security for communities to transition. Problem is, if you tell the gov’t that’s what you are doing, they won’t fund it.

          Gotta get 535 Mr. and Ms. Smiths into Congress or prepare to follow via campesina’s lead.

      • Clive Lord

        Being cyber-illiterate, I have only just found this ‘rebuttal’ of the Basic Income asa component in the answer to theproblem this list is grappling with.
        It may be that it is I who dotesn’t undeerstand Killian O’Brien, but here is the logic as I see it:
        We have to start from here
        To do any of the essentials set out in the original, and subsequent comments stream, everyone must be offered security

        • Killian O’Brien

          Perhaps. Or maybe we just start making gardens, capturing water and claiming our local Commonses. Follow Via Capesina, e.g.

  • melharte

    Universal regulation of population levels is so culturally and politically inaccessible in the near or midterm future that it is not a plausible solution. A better approach? Create a program to eliminate unintended pregnancies, a concept everyone can agree on, and start with the richest state in the highest consuming nation, California, USA.

    Approximately 40% of all US pregnancies are unintended. Besides poor and unwed mothers, communities also suffer the economic effects of the resulting increased resource burden. As the highest consumers on Earth, these new, unintended consumers also impact climate. Preventing unintended pregnancies is one of the “lowest hanging fruits” on the sustainable population tree.

    The development of long term active contraceptives, with players such as Medicines360, The National Campaign To Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy (UP), as well as a few state initiatives to reduce UPs (Colorado and Iowa* – see esp ) and offering IUDs to women post birth in hospitals ( ) are increasing outreach, and producing real change (US UPs have reduced a few percent over the past 5 years or so, in teenagers driven by improved contraceptives even as they demonstrate savings at all social levels (eg, ), and reduce abortions. Another potential player is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is finally taking an interest in family planning overseas (see Family Planning in, and could, with proper encouragement, help here.

    This whole process needs to be turbo-charged to end US UPs, and CA could become a BIG role model for the nation to start the process, and bypass Congress to do so. Accomplishing the ultimate goal of ending US unintended pregnancies, alone, would SIGNIFICANTLY: 1. cut future climate changing consumption globally; 2. increase US prosperity and sustainability; 3. start changing peoples’ attitudes about shrinking populations; 4. provide a model for the rest of the world to follow: cutting UPs worldwide would significantly up human sustainability and slow climate change, and expand peoples’ attitudes on self-regulating our population levels humanely.

    How? Leverage private donors (the Iowa program started via a single privately donation*), from individuals to foundations, to jumpstart the process in CA, and involve more partners in improving the model (eg, Population Media Center to increase outreach efficiency, Planned Parenthood, Medicines360 and The National Campaign – see above). The first step is to have a meeting of reps from such organizations and the CO and Iowa programs to share information and lessons learned, synthesize the vision of this, then thrash out a strategy to form a funding network, and ultimately find and hire people who will head and implement the effort. Next, get Tom Steyer, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and other important women and men involved to network and help leverage big money for the effort.

    Then market the economic advantages to local and state level decision makers to leverage further support.

    Done correctly, I believe we could start seeing real results within five years. And other states would sit up and take notice, because when CA succeeds, all other US states take notice. This could jump-start a national movement, without Congress initially, and possibly with Congress ultimately, as people recognize the huge economic benefits to their communities.

    The resulting outcomes would be REAL AND TIMELY changes in consumption, poverty, sustainability, and in peoples’ attitudes towards self-regulating our populations, using the US as a role model.