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Humans destroying basis of our existence, ‘ecological footprint’ expert warns

Canada’s Prof. William Rees tells Israeli confab we are extracting resources as if Earth were 73% bigger, deluding ourselves that economic growth, consumption, can go on

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

In this photo taken May 19, 2011, a miner works at an illegal mining process in Delta Uno, Madre de Dios, Peru. Mercury released by the mining is slowly poisoning people, plants, animals and fish, scientific studies show (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)
In this photo taken May 19, 2011, a miner works at an illegal mining process in Delta Uno, Madre de Dios, Peru. Mercury released by the mining is slowly poisoning people, plants, animals and fish, scientific studies show (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

The man who invented the term “ecological footprint” treated an Israeli audience on Thursday to a blistering attack on neo-liberalism and human self-delusion that he said was destroying the biological basis of human existence.

“Climate change isn’t the problem,” said William Rees, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “It’s just one symptom out of many of ecological overshoot, which exists when the human enterprise is consuming more of the goods and services of natural systems than those systems can regenerate.”

Not only can nature not absorb all the carbon dioxide that fossil fuels are emitting into the atmosphere, he said, “We see the oceans acidifying, fresh water toxifying, eroding soils, income gaps widening and the poor getting poorer, even in the US,” Rees told a conference of social science and humanities academics, held via video conference.

He said that while the Earth provides an average of 1.6 hectares (four acres) of productive land per capita, each human is extracting on average what 2.8 hectares (seven acres) could sustainably provide, “behaving as if the planet is 73 times bigger than it is. Technology is helping to perpetuate the delusion that humans can constantly increase the capacity of Earth.”

Rees is best known for having co-developed, along with his then PhD student Mathis Wackernagel, a method called ecological footprint analysis. This measures human consumption and lifestyles against nature’s ability to provide what this consumption demands — its biocapacity.

Prof William Rees. (Nick Wiebe, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

“Humans have been around for 250,000 to 350,000 years,” said Rees. “By the early 19th century, we’d reached just one billion people. Since then, we’ve grown to 7.8 billion, production has increased 100 fold, per capita incomes have gone up 13 to 30 times and consumption has grown, but the Earth hasn’t gotten any bigger.”

All this growth was powered entirely by fossil fuels, he went on. Ninety percent of all fossil fuels used since the beginning of time had been consumed since 1943, one half of them over just the past 30 years.

To illustrate the way humans have come to dominate the planet, he explained that during the neolithic age, when farming began, humans comprised less than one percent of the biomass of all vertebrates, with wild animals accounting for 99%. Just 10,000 years later, mainly as the result of human activity over the past two centuries, humans now comprise 32% of this biomass, while wild animals account for just one to five percent. The rest is made up of livestock that serve humans. Poultry, for example, now accounts for 70% of all birds on Earth.

Cattle graze in a burnt forest near Novo Progresso in the northern state of Para, Brazil, on September 15, 2009. The Brazilian Amazon is arguably the world’s biggest natural defense against global warming, acting as a “sink,” or absorber, of carbon dioxide. But it is also a great contributor to warming. About 75 percent of Brazil’s emissions come from rainforest clearing, as vegetation burns and felled trees rot. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

Rees slammed neo-liberalism, “underpinned by the notion that material economic growth is unlimited and [solvable] by technological innovation,” noting that researchers no longer talked about controlling population growth, but about letting technology feed a growing population.

Half of all fossil fuels consumed since the beginning of time were used in the past 30 years

“Politicians around the world, including in Israel, are under the illusion that there’s no conflict between growth of the human enterprise and protection and conservation of the environment,” he said. “My own prime minister [Justin Trudeau] keeps saying that we can move forward with gas and oil because we can do it safely and cleanly and there’s no conflict between the Canadian economy and conservation. This is utter nonsense.”

In this May 19, 2020, file photo, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during his daily news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic outside his residence at Rideau Cottage in Ottawa, Ontario. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

He noted that the politically acceptable solutions to the crisis were not to limit population increase and consumption but to introduce technologies such as renewable energy that would maintain the existing growth-based economic order. “We are willing to go to any length to save the economy, even at the expense of the environment,” Rees charged.

He noted that since scientists had started warning about environmental damage in the 1970s, there had been 34 climate conferences, a half dozen major international climate agreements and plenty of scientists’ warnings, but “not a dimple” of change to rising carbon dioxide levels.

“Modern humans are destroying the biophysical basis of their own existence,” he said.

A coal-fired power plant and steam from a refinery next to a wind generator in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, on January 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

He said the COVID-19 pandemic was showing, however, that when confronted with a crisis, governments could act when they choose to. “Usually they make excuses,” Reese stated, for example that they could not fund a particular reform of benefit to the environment because of fiscal policy. “But today governments are printing money, spending billions of dollars that apparently didn’t exist before.”

Rees cited a phenomenon in which an animal species invades a location and eats everything in its path, undergoing dramatic growth before falling into rapid decline as the food runs out. Unless it came to its senses, humanity, he warned, was on “a trajectory for a global population implosion.”

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