Let’s get serious about (Un)Sustainability (Or is it already too late?)

Rees, William E.
Natural Resources & Environmental Studies Institute Occasional Paper No. 2, March 2008, University of Northern Prince George, B.C., Canada

The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) issued a “stark warning” to world leaders – indeed, to all of us: “Human activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” In this paper I examine the biological, cultural and biophysical factors that have driven modern society to the point where such “stark warnings” have become necessary. I then show why concepts and policies currently advanced under the rubric of “sustainable development” are so generally ineffective. Finally, consistent with biophysical and human behavioural reality, I outline a minimal set of ecological and socio-political conditions that would have to be met for true sustainability.

Further Problems with Neoclassical Environmental Economics

Gowdy, John M.; Olsen, Peg R.
Environmental Ethics Vol. 16/2 (1994), pages 161-171

We examine the merits of neoclassical environmental economics and discuss alternative approaches to it. We argue that the basic assumptions of the neoclassical approach, embodied in the indifference curve, make that model inappropriate for environmental analysis. We begin by assuming that the basic postulates of the neoclassical model hold and then argue that even this ideal state is incompatible with environmental sustainability. We discuss the role of the discount rate, the exclusive emphasis on marginal choices, and the assumption of perfect information.

Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change Discourse

Crist, Eileen
Telos 141 (Winter 2007), pages 29–55

Much climate-change discourse is framing climate change as “the most urgent problem of our day.” This frame is criticized for encouraging the narrow quest for technological fixes, and for implicitly suggesting that other dimensions of the ecological crisis are secondary or more forgiving. The biodiversity crisis, including anthropogenic mass extinction, is at least as serious a problem as climate change. While climate change will exacerbate biodiversity losses, the latter have also been occurring independently of the climate crisis; thus a technological fix of climate change will not end biodepletion. This paper considers the relationship between climate change and the biodiversity crisis; instead of focusing on shifting climate conditions’ well-documented detrimental impact on species and ecosystems, it examines how the wounds already inflicted on wild nature are greasing the wheels of climate-change damage. It is argued that framing climate change as “the most urgent problem,” and the related discursive portrayal of climate change as impending apocalypse, divert us from confronting the real problem: the industrial-consumer civilization that underlies the ecological crisis as a whole. The paper ends by considering how this civilization is driven toward the endpoint of colonizing the biosphere, and thereby inaugurating the Era of Man – now being called “the Anthropocene”: instead of yielding to this historical course as the biosphere’s inevitable fate, we need to oppose it through radical action and critique.

Globalization and Sustainability: Conflict or Convergence?

Rees, William E.
Draft. Final version in: Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society, 22/4 (2002), pages 249-268

Unsustainability is an old problem – human societies have collapsed with disturbing regularity throughout history. I argue that a genetic predisposition for unsustainability is encoded in certain human physiological, social and behavioural traits that once conferred survival value but are now maladaptive. A uniquely human capacity – indeed, necessity – for elaborate cultural myth-making reinforces these negative biological tendencies. Our contemporary, increasingly global myth, promotes a vision of world development centred on unlimited economic expansion fuelled by more liberalized trade. This myth is not only failing on its own terms but places humanity on a collision course with biophysical reality – our ecological footprint already exceeds the human carrying capacity of Earth. Sustainability requires that we acknowledge the primitive origins of human ecological dysfunction and seize conscious control of our collective destiny. The final triumph of enlightened reason and mutual compassion over scripted determinism would herald a whole new phase in human evolution.

The Transformation from a Land Based to a Fossil Fuel Based Energy System. The Case of Austria 1800-2000.

Krausmann, Fridolin
Presentation at the Gordon Research Conference on Industrial Ecology. 01-06 August 2004, Oxford, UK.

This contribution provides a socio-ecological and empirically founded perspective on the period of industrialization, focussing on the biophysical characteristics of this process. The paper explores the physical limits of growth under the conditions of the agrarian socio-ecological regime where the availability of energy was based on biomass and land, and explores the mechanisms and strategies which allowed overcoming these limits during two centuries of industrialization. In this perspective, industrialization appears as a process of a stepwise decoupling of energy provision from the use of land and labour, based on a gradual shift towards the exploitation of natural stocks rather than tapping renewable energy flows. Austria, one of the European late comers, serves as empirical case study for an analysis of changes in the socio-economic use of energy, materials and land since the early 19th century. This analysis provides insights into the characteristics of the transformation of the agrarian socio-ecological regime and the fundamental changes in social metabolism and human interference with natural systems triggered by this process.