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Originator of the ecological footprint to lecture at Memorial

Dr. William Rees to deliver first Trudeau Lecture

By Kelly Foss

Are humans unsustainable by nature? That’s the question Dr. William Rees plans to answer when he becomes Memorial University’s first Trudeau Lecturer later this month.

Dr. Rees, a distinguished professor with the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) at the University of British Columbia, is a human ecologist and ecological economist. He is best known as the originator of “ecological footprint” analysis, a sustainability assessment tool now used around the world.

A 2007 Trudeau Fellow, Dr. Rees is participating in the Trudeau Lectures, a series launched in 2008 by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation to promote its fellowships and disseminate key ideas through social debates on major issues of public policy.

Dr. Rees describes his ecological footprint analysis as a quantitative measure of the impact of any population on the earth.

“It’s measured in terms of the area of productive ecosystem needed to produce the resources that a population consumes and assimilate the waste they produce,” he said. “If you want to think of it in simple terms, supposing you could scale down the entire planet so it was big enough to support just you. The surface of that planet would be your ecological footprint. That’s the actual amount of land area on the earth that you need to sustain yourself.”

The theory was born back in the 1970s, following a lecture where Dr. Rees spoke about a concept called carrying capacity. This concept attempted to determine how many people could actually be supported on earth, particularly at the standard of living being enjoyed in North America.

“I was severely upbraided by an economist after that talk,” explained Dr. Rees. “He said carrying capacity didn’t have any meaning applied to human beings because we were infinitely resourceful. Our technology could overcome any limits to growth. If we run out of one resource we will simply find a substitute, so there was no need to be concerned.

“What he was saying was that we don’t really need the resources of the planet,” added Dr. Rees. “I didn’t believe it, but I thought it was a testable hypothesis. So I started to look for ways of measuring the extent to which people are still connected to the planet. That is where ecological footprint came from.”

Dr. Rees said someone in a developing country can get everything they need from less than a third of a hectare per person. But rich countries like Canada and the U.S. have such huge demands that the number rises to about eight to ten hectares per person.

“Contrary to what my economist friend was arguing with me, we are making greater and greater demands, and we are becoming more and more dependant, in effect, on an ever growing ecological footprint to sustain us,” said Dr. Rees. “So the more technologically oriented we become, the more productive we become and the more energy and resources we consume. Basically, the per capita demand on earth increases, it does not decrease with growth.”

Mr. Rees said it’s a dangerous path since the rest of the globe is trying to achieve the same level of consumption as North America.

“The world is in a state of overshoot – we’re already dumping more waste than the system can assimilate, and we’re consuming more resources than the world can produce on a sustainable basis,” he said. “That is with 6.7 billion people on the planet, most of who live in poverty. In fact, the richest 20 per cent of the population consumes 75-80 per cent of all the world’s resources on earth and have already used up all of the global carrying capacity. If we were to try to bring all of those people up to the North American materials standard, we would need four additional Earth-like planets to do it sustainably.

“Unfortunately, we have this economic mythology that tells us we don’t really need nature, even as we exploit more and more of it,” he added. “What we’re doing with eco-footprinting is raising the warning signals. We should surely recognize that this can’t go on indefinitely. If we do carry along this path and ignore the science then we get exactly what we deserve.”

Although individuals are becoming more interested in global sustainability and what role they can play in change, Dr. Rees said it’s an error to lay the problem on individuals.

“No matter what I do, I cannot, as an individual make the world more sustainable,” he said. “So asking individuals to solve this problem is an abdication of our collective responsibility. This is a collective problem that cannot be solved by individuals alone. It is a collective problem that requires collective solutions such as a high and rising carbon tax and government intervention in the economy so that the price of goods and services reflects the real ecological cost of producing them.

“That said, individuals can make major changes,” he added. “We need simpler lifestyles. Right now we’re in competition to consume ourselves into the ground. Not only is this lifestyle not bringing greater happiness, but it’s destroying the fundamental basis of our own existence, not to mention that of future generations. People should start by getting rid of their car, and perhaps international travel isn’t such a great idea in a time of climate change. We also need to eat an organic and local low meat diet. Basically, we need to become more politically engaged to get our governments to do the right thing in terms of policy and look at our own lifestyles in ways that would help us to reduce our ecological footprint.”

Dr. Rees’ lecture will take place Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m. in the Inco Innovation Centre (IIC-2001). It will also be webcast with more information available at