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.

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.