UBC professor Bill Rees calls de-growth “the major issue”

The UBC professor who pioneered ecological-footprint analysis says he helped plan the upcoming De-Growth Vancouver conference because reversing economic growth is the only option for saving the planet.

“De-growth is going to be the major issue of the century,” Bill Rees, who’s with the school of community and regional planning, told the Straight by phone.

Rees will be out of town and won’t be able to attend the event, but De-Growth Vancouver cofounder Conrad Schmidt, founder of the Work Less Party, told the Straight that both B.C. Green party leader Jane Sterk and developer Richard Wozny are on one of the panels. The two will speak about how a de-growth city would look.

“Everyone is starting to realize you cannot have continued exponential economic growth,” Schmidt said by phone. “Even the developers are getting it. The question now is what do we do about it.”

The conference will take place from next Thursday (April 29) to May 2, with most sessions happening at W2 Storyeum (151 West Cordova Street). According to Schmidt, it costs $30 to attend the whole conference, though admission to individual sessions is a suggested donation of between $3 and $13. Schmidt said similar conferences have already been held in Spain, France, and England, starting about three years ago.

Rees urged people to make an effort to attend. “We live in abysmal ignorance of the reality, and we keep doing stupid things like developing our oil sands and Site C [dam] and so forth, all of which are attempts to keep this train on the track and going in exactly the same direction at an accelerating pace,” he said. “So, if you go to this conference, you’ll learn why that’s probably not such a great idea.”

Rees said rich countries must accept that their consumption levels are far too high and that they have to work toward a “stable, equitable economy”.

South Granville resident Vanessa Timmer, cofounder of the One Earth Initiative, told the Straight one of the biggest challenges will be to show how this can be a positive option.

“So One Earth spends a lot of time thinking about how do we create a vision of an attractive, sustainable future, particularly in North America,” Timmer said by phone. “Traditionally, environmentalists have told the story and really talked about scarcity—have less stuff. Everything is about less. What One Earth is passionate about, and what we think needs to happen, is that we paint vivid pictures of the future that portray what we will be gaining.”

{poll node='319507'}{/poll}

Comments

We're now using Facebook for comments.

14 Comments

RodSmelser

Apr 22, 2010 at 9:41am

If Bill Rees is saying that particular projects must be rejected, that's one thing. Improved evaluation of major projects, and equitable compensation of affected groups and individuals, is something that should have underway 50 years ago, but unfortunately governments and taxpayers tend to like the cheap and primitive approach, and to deny any claims for compensation the lawyers say they can overlook.

But if Rees is suggesting that economic growth in general must or should be reduced, and replaced with economic contraction, he is simply doing the traditional B.C. "wildman in the wilderness" thing.

No serious economist in the US, Europe, or anywhere else would ever suggest that world GDP, and world GDP/capita, 50 or 100 years from now will not be substantially larger than today's. That was the view taken by the Stern Review, and by economists who were critical of Stern, such as Nordhaus.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stern_Review

Rod Smelser

Unwashed

Apr 22, 2010 at 11:27am

Do you think we need to reverse economic growth to save the planet?

Let's see, after I've retired, sold my over-valued Vancouver house, moved to the Okanagan to live near a winery and golf course, and I've enjoyed that lifestyle for, say, 10 years (minimum), then it's a great idea. You know, for the grand kids and all that.

Sandwichman

Apr 22, 2010 at 1:32pm

Rod Smelser: "No serious economist in the US, Europe, or anywhere else would ever suggest ..."

Which is why people need to think for themselves. No "serious economist" predicted the housing bubble and financial collapse, either. As that "unserious" economist (who did call the housing bubble), Dean Baker has pointed out, "Economists think they're doing their job if they are saying the same thing everyone else is saying."

So, who are you going to believe? The serious economists or your lying eyes?

degrowth has merit

Apr 22, 2010 at 2:21pm

It's quite amazing how powerful the myths in our society are. Growth theory and government measurement of growth has only been around since the 1950s, a very short period in humanity's history. Now we take it as the Gospel. Thanks to Victor Lebow the decade also birthed the destructive ideas of planned obsolescence and consumption as key to our reason for living:

"Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption. The measure of social status, of social acceptance, of prestige, is now to be found in our consumptive patterns. The very meaning and significance of our lives today expressed in consumptive terms." (http://www.scribd.com/doc/965920/LebowArticle)

That idea may have worked for the 1950s postwar economy in the US but at that time the world's population was 2.5 billion. Today we are at 6.7 billion and reportedly headed to somewhere around 9 billion by mid-century. If the planet were growing at the same rate we would be okay but it's not. It hasn't grown one bit. In this context, long term growth on a finite and crowded planet is pure fiction. The short 'Impossible Hamster' video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sqwd_u6HkMo) very effectively demonstrates this.

Greater efficiency isn't a way out either because of Jevon's Paradox, which is basically states that while we may be able to use resources more efficiently through technological advances in the end it results in us consuming more resources, not less (http://goo.gl/FJAC). As such, we're depleting the earth's renewable life-supporting ecosystem goods (e.g. oil, clean air, arable land, fish stocks) and services (e.g. waste assimilation, recreation, stable climate) aka natural capital at an annual rate of 31% (http://goo.gl/nq3u). Our energy consumption rates are particularly amazing. This paragraph from an article profiling a Calgary coal geologist is particularly telling:

"Ninety percent of all the oil humanity has ever burned has turned to ash and greenhouse gases since 1959 — half since 1986. Ninety percent of all the natural gas ever burned set aflame since 1964. Half of humanity’s cumulative coal tally up in smoke since 1972. “When I was born, back in 1950” — this is Dave, summarizing in his flat, slightly clipped deadpan — “the world had 95 percent of ultimate recoverable hydrocarbons remaining. Today we’ve consumed about 40 percent of ultimate recoverable hydrocarbons. If we keep consuming them as fast as we can produce them, 80 percent will be gone by 2050. And that’s a huge concern for future generations.” This presumes, of course, that what remains after we reach 50 percent — the global hydrocarbon peak — can even continue to be extracted at speeds and volumes that make any kind of economic sense" (http://goo.gl/tzTH).

One of the main arguments for economic growth is that it leads to a higher quality of life. This is true to a point. The question is for who? Today global and Canadian income gaps are increasing, not declining (http://www.straight.com/article-167071/canada%3F%3Fs-income-gap-rapidly-...). The world's richest 20% consume 76% of the world's natural capital. This fits well with the Straight's other article this week that the richest BCers also have the largest carbon footprints. So, if that argument of less inequality is bunk and we are using up the goods and services that are needed to sustain future generations where exactly is "progress" happening? The other question is are we any happier? Studies looking at quality of life indicate that we are less happy than we were in the 1950s (http://goo.gl/QQg3) before marketing turned consumption into one of life's key motivations. Hmm... something smells mighty fishy in here.

RodSmelser

Apr 22, 2010 at 2:47pm

I know it's stupid to respond to anonymous comments, but I did want to point out two fallacies.

First, there were economists who worried about over heated housing markets, not just in the US, but in other countries as well. However, there is serious pressure from the homeowning and mortgage-paying public not to suggest that housing prices need to go down, so discussion of this kind of thing tends to be rather muted. Nowhere is that more true than in Vancouver, arguably the world's most over priced market and still going up.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_housing_bubble

Secondly, the statement "Today we’ve consumed about 40 percent of ultimate recoverable hydrocarbons" is one of the most ridiculous and misleading assertions imaginable. There is no practical limit to hydrocarbons in the next two millenia if you include coal.

I agree with the notion that people really do need to think about what they are saying.

Rod Smelser

degrowth has merit

Apr 23, 2010 at 12:43pm

@ Rod Smelser: Do you have any evidence, a link or something to demonstrate two millenia worth of coal? An analysis here of remaining hydrocarbons suggests a high probability of a permanent global supply shortfall for coal by 2030 (http://goo.gl/MXQ0). Another suggests that assuming coal consumption rates remain constant that there are 146 years worth of the resource left in the US, which reportedly has 28.3% worth of the global supply (http://goo.gl/Qdns). Now, certainly there isn't millenia worth of oil left. The US military is signaling the potential for massive production shortages sometime between 2012 and 2015 with obvious implications for economic growth (http://goo.gl/uokv). How is that going to impact coal consumption rates? More troubling are some of the changes it will mean in terms of quality of life, cost of living, how we get around and produce our food (http://goo.gl/vs5K). Former CIBC World Markets chief economist Jeff Rubin argues it will end globalization (http://goo.gl/8JRL). The Urban Land Institute and Price Waterhouse Coopers are recommending that investors should "avoid the exurbs and places with long car commutes or where getting a quart of milk takes a 15-minute drive" (http://goo.gl/8AxT). Changes are afoot.

In closing, I guess I'm trying to say three things:

1) It increasingly seems we have been sold a bill of goods and governments with the supposed ultimate responsibility of providing security to citizens are fixated on endless growth which is a mathematical and physical impossibility. This dynamic was recently demonstrated when the federal government dismissed the idea of slightly lower growth rates to take meaningful actions to decarbonize our economy in the interest of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change (http://goo.gl/DAqH).
2) There's a saying about "righting the ship". Given our depleting energy and natural capital supplies and warming climate isn't this a time when we should take stock and start trying to right the ship and not sail blindly into the storm? Or are we stuck on another dangerous 'March of Folly' (http://goo.gl/9Dx9)?
3) We need to wake up to the dynamics at play and think critically about how we as a species and civilization should approach the next couple of decades instead of blindly committing ourselves to ultimately self-defeating idea that has a very real expiry date.

RodSmelser

Apr 27, 2010 at 9:17am

degrowth has merit

@ Rod Smelser: Do you have any evidence, a link or something to demonstrate two millenia worth of coal?
=====================================

See slide # 22 in this intellectually enlightening presentation by world famous SFU Professor Mark Jaccard!

https://www.neb.gc.ca/clf-nsi/rnrgynfmtn/nrgyrprt/nrgyftr/cnslttnrnd1/pr...

Rod Smelser

degrowth has merit

Apr 28, 2010 at 5:14pm

@ Rod Smelser: Thanks for the link! I'll give it a good read.

IreneStupka

Apr 28, 2010 at 8:48pm

We're not really sure why Mark Jaccard does what he does, maybe so he can be world famous, but that doesn't necessarily make it the best choice. Lots of opportunity to discuss this at the event, I guess.

Diane Culling

Apr 29, 2010 at 12:18pm

I am always amused by those that believe that the human species is somehow immune to the laws of nature. When a population outstrips its carrying capacity, it inevitably crashes and stabilizes at a lower level that can be supported by the available resources. Whether you are talking mule deer or humans, such corrections are never pretty. While our own species is among the fortunate few that have the capability of self-regulation, we don't seem inclined to take advantage of the opportunity to avoid some of the more painful results of the long-term policy of living beyond our means. Our collective hubris that tells us we are too technologically sophisticated to suffer such a crash flies in the face of the precedents set by all the advanced civilizations that have disappeared throughout history. All the arguments against even attempting to initiate a conversation about developing a more sustainable economic model will be meaningless when Mother Nature reminds us, once again, that rules are rules.