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IS HUMANITY FATALLY SUCCESSFUL?
William E. Rees
Former Director, School of Community and Regional Planning
University of British Columbia
A framing premise of this paper is that the sustainability dilemma is
not merely an ecological or technical or economic crisis as is usually
assumed, but rather it is a crisis rooted in fundamental human nature.
More specifi cally, it is a crisis of human evolutionary success – indeed,
we have reached the point where our success is killing us!
This interpretation is not part of the conventional sustainability
debate for a very simple reason. We human beings – for all that we
suppose ourselves to be evidence of intelligent life on earth – really
fail to understand who we are. We have a very limited understanding
of what motivates us, why it is we do certain things that we do. Little
wonder that human nature is hardly on the sustainability radar.
At the heart of this problem is the fact that people today rarely
think of themselves as biological beings. It comes to mind from time
to time if one has heart palpitations or some other illness but, on the
whole, we moderns don’t like to think of ourselves as biological
entities. But indeed we are – we are products of evolution, and our
behaviour both as individuals and as society represents a delicate
dialectic between self-conscious reasoning and deeper and sometimes
darker unconscious urges and predispositions.
The fact is that we humans have a long evolutionary history and
many of the traits that we’ve acquired along the way, traits that were
adaptive 50,000 years ago, are with us still. But now some of these
once-desirable qualities may threaten humanity’s future prospects.
That is, some characteristic human qualities and behaviours may well
now be maladaptive. I will try to make the case that these ancient
traits are such that techno-industrial society in particular is inher-
ently unsustainable. The world is ecologically full – but evolution
has not provided us with inhibitions against extinguishing other spe-
cies, against eliminating competing human groups or, indeed, against
destroying our earthly habitat(s).
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In these circumstances, prospects for building civil society, and
maintaining the conditions necessary for civilized existence on Earth
depend mainly on our capacity to devise mutually benefi cial cultural
constraints on social behaviour that has become maladaptive on a
crowded planet. Of course, if we’re going to “fi x” ourselves in this
way, we need to know more about ourselves.
The notion that we are not suffi ciently conscious of our own na-
ture has been a persistent theme in the literature of many countries.
Listen to Anton Chekhov: “Man will become better only when you
make him see what he is like.” Or perhaps you prefer W.H . Auden:
“We are lived by forces we can scarcely understand.” I believe that
coming to understand these forces will give us a chance to take a
great evolutionary step forward to the point where sound intelligence
incorporated into our cultural “programming” holds sway over more
well-tested, biologically-determined, but increasingly dangerous
behavioural patterns.
My second major premise should already be obvious, namely that
if humans are the product of evolution, we are also the product of
Darwinian natural selection. Uniquely, however, human evolution is
as much determined by socio-cultural as by biological factors. This
means, of course, that both cultural and biological “mutations” are
subject to natural selection. Everyone recognizes that maladaptive
physical mutations will be “selected out” in an environment for which
they are unsuitable. It is less well appreciated that, like biological mu-
tations, ill-suited socio-cultural patterns can also be selected out. To
reiterate this central idea, culture now as much determines the human
future as biology but, like disadvantageous physical characteristics,
unfi t cultural traits will be eliminated by evolutionary forces.
We can fi nd support for this assertion in both ancient and more
recent history. One of the most interesting cases – one that even makes
the popular press from time to time – is the story of Easter Island,
a small button of land of about 165 square kilometres (65 square
miles) in the South Pacifi c 2,250 kilometres (1400 miles) from the
nearest land mass, another smallish Island, Pitcairn. Easter was a
verdant subtropical island, heavily forested with at least two very
important tree species and many plant and animal species useful to
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humans. It was fi rst inhabited only around the year 450 or 500 A.D
when probably no more than two or three canoe-loads of Polynesian
explorer-sailors landed on its shores. The new colony took hold and
grew over the next 10 centuries into a kind of microcosmic culture.
Over that period, the Easter Islanders developed class structure, di-
vision of labour, a priesthood and religion, agriculture, science and
art , including some of the fi nest stonework – both fi tted stones for
buildings and platforms, and carvings - known to preindustrial times.
In short, Easter Island society had most of the basic manifestations
and characteristics of the much grander and earlier human cultures
of Europe, Africa, Asia and even the Americas (Incas and Aztecs),
with which most people are more familiar.
The population fl ourished, growing to around 10,000 (perhaps as
few or as 7000 or many as 20,000) people by A.D. 1400-1500. But
then something rather mystifying happened. Easter Islanders cut
down the last palm tree growing on their isolated rock. Easter Island
was a culture entirely dependent on the forest for their buildings, for
log rollers to move their massive carvings, and, most important, for
the dugout canoes by which they obtained most of their animal pro-
tein. Easter Islanders ate porpoises and fi sh that could be obtained
only by active pursuit in boats.
How could this have happened? Whatever were they thinking?
Easter Island’s population was small enough that everyone must have
at least recognized just about everyone else. One could walk around
the island in about two days, so presumably everyone was aware that
the forest was disappearing and that a crisis was upon them. There
was probably much discussion of what might happen if the forest
disappeared and maybe even heated political debates about what to
do. And yet, for whatever reason, any effort to change the established
pattern of resource exploitation, any move toward a conservation plan,
clearly failed – in the end the last tree was felled.
When Europeans (the Dutch explorer Roggeveen) discovered
Easter Island in A.D 1722, the population had fallen to something
like 2,000 sorry souls. These people were living in rude reed huts and
caves —houses had been destroyed, and art and science abandoned.
The human dregs of the Easter Island culture that had been thriving
William E. Rees
70
just 200 years earlier now survived, in part, on cannibalistic raids on
each others’ encampments.
The secret of Easter Island’s implosion has slowly been revealed
by mud core samples taken from the swamps in the interior of the
island. Paleobotanists have examined the pollen profi le laid down
through the island’s entire 1500-year post-discovery history. What
they learned is that, one by one, the important species of resource
plants disappeared. The pollen record suggests that the last specimens
of the critical palm tree came down around 1400. Meanwhile, Eas-
ter Island’s midden heaps tell a similar story. Here we can trace the
dietary history of Easter Island society, including the disappearance,
one after another, of valuable food species. Most critically, around
1500, fi sh bones and porpoise bones disappear from the record to be
replaced a few years or decades later by human bones.
What could possibly be going on if virtually every member of
a society is aware of their society’s dependence on limited local
resources, of their utter isolation from any other sources of supply,
and yet the people do nothing to prevent the destruction of their own
prospects. Many articles have been written about Easter Island. Brit-
ish public servant and historian Clive Ponting (1990) was mystifi ed
that the Easter Islanders seemed “…unable to devise a system that
would allow them to fi nd the right balance with their environment.”
Most relevant to the present discussion, Jared Diamond’s (1995)
asks “Are we about to follow their lead?” Think about it. Virtually
everyone on Earth is aware that we have an ecological crisis and a
population problem, and now there is fear of increasing geopoliti-
cal strife. We are utterly dependent on the resources of a tiny planet
isolated in space with no hope of fi nding alternative supplies, and,
yet, we too seem unable to devise a system that will allow us to fi nd
the right balance with our environment.
Ominously, Easter Island is no exception. Joseph Tainter (author
of “The Collapse of Complex Societies,” 1988) has observed that
“what is perhaps most intriguing in the evolution of human societies
is the regularity with which the pattern of increasing complexity is
interrupted by collapse…” (Tainter 1995). Perhaps, then, ignomini-
ous collapse is the norm for complex societies.
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But, surely, you protest, modern society is different. We know
better. Our technological prowess and mastery over nature distinguish
us from more primitive cultures. We can avoid crises by reading the
warnings, by responding positively to data and analysis. Well, this
sounds good – certainly one of our most cherished contemporary
beliefs is that is that we are a science-based culture. But what’s the de
facto modern record? In a controversial paper reviewing the recent
record of human exploitation of natural resources, some of my UBC
colleagues (Ludwig et al. 1993) concluded that: “Although there is
a considerable variation in detail, there is remarkable consistency in
the history of resource exploitation. Resources are invariably or in-
evitably overexploited, often to the point of collapse or extinction.”
Another UBC colleague, Daniel Pauly, has conducted path-break-
ing research on the current state of the world’s fi sheries. Something
like 75% of the world’s fi sh stocks have been overexploited by hu-
mans. Pauly has demonstrated that although the FAO-measured fi sh
catches each year remain relatively constant, it’s not because we’re
managing well, but rather because we eliminate one species or one
stock and simply move on to another. We are literally “fi shing down
the food web,” sweeping up the ocean’s bounty as we go
(Pauly et al.
1998, Pauly and MacLean 2003). More recently, Myers and Worm
(2003) and Christensen et al. (2003) report that only 10 percent of the
original biomass of predatory fi sh remain in the world’s oceans after
just 50 years of industrial fi shing and that remaining specimens are
a fraction of the size of their forebears a few decades ago.
The list goes on. A recent article in the Globe & Mail described
the threat to certain orchids because of human over-harvesting. In
some African countries, orchid tubers are a favoured food, and easier
trade has opened up wider markets for these tubers. This situation
is fairly typical. When any valuable species – particularly rare ones
like these orchids – is exposed to a globalizing marketplace, there
will always be people willing to pay top dollar to have it, down to the
last remaining specimen. And so we see growing international trade
in rare and endangered plants and animals (or their parts). Global-
ization is a major threat to their survival because humans have little
inhibition against destroying non-human species if they profi t in the
William E. Rees
72
short term from doing so.
To summarize, there is evidence enough in both the historical
record and present trends to support the assertion that H. sapiens is
inherently biased against sustainability by nature. This socio-be-
havioural bias has led to frequent societal collapses in the past and
modern society is far from being invulnerable. Modern society is far
from being invulnerable. Indeed, I would argue that unsustainability
is an inevitable emergent property of the interaction of growth-bound,
techno-industrial society and the ecosphere. By this I mean that it
doesn’t much matter how one reconfi gures the system at the margins,
it won’t make much difference. Industrial society is being propelled
to the precipice by certain deep-seated (genetically-based) behavioural
tendencies that are actually being reinforced by contemporary values
and beliefs.
What can we do about our situation? As I stated at the outset,
we should begin by coming to know ourselves better. So, with that
in mind, let’s look at the bio-behavioural factor fi rst.
On one level, our dilemma is by no means unique to humans. All
species have an inherent capacity to expand into all the ecological
space available to them. Unless there are other constraints on that
expansion – negative feedback of one kind or another – all popula-
tions grow to the point that they destroy some critical resource and
then they collapse. (This was Reverend Malthus’ great insight about
humans.)
Figure 1 illustrates a famous ecological example involving
reindeer. A few of these animals were introduced to islands in the
Pribilof chain which had previously not had reindeer populations.
The islands were therefore free of reindeer parasites and predators
and, in each case (although with rather different temporal profi les),
the reindeer populations rose exponentially to a peak which was fol-
lowed by a more rapid collapse. If we relabelled the “y” axis “Hu-
man Population” and extended the “x” axis out a thousand years or
so, the graph would effectively trace replicate the history of Easter
Island’s population. The rise and subsequent collapse of the deer
populations is fundamentally no different from the rise and fall of
the human populations of Easter Island. Even the “experimental”
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circumstances are similar: the invader species (reindeer or human)
occupies a new, rich environment with no natural or cultural checks on
population growth. In each case, the introduced organism inevitably
overwhelms its new habitat, destroying its food sources. Subsequent
starvation and disease (and a little cannibalism in the human case)
leads to population collapse. The main point is that on a very basic
level – having an innate propensity to expand into new habitat – hu-
mans are no different from any other species.
William E. Rees
On another level, humans differ greatly from other species. One
key to understanding this difference was brought to light in the early
part of the last century by Ludwig Boltzman, a physicist and one
of the fathers of thermodynamic theory. Familiar with Darwinian
natural selection, Boltzman recognized the central role played by
energy as an evolutionary driver. Boltzman argued that the struggle
for life is really a struggle for free energy available to do work. All
FIGURE 1: The Rise and fall of reindeer populations on the
Pribilof Islands
74
species have evolved in competition – and cooperation – with each
other in ways that tend to maximize their appropriations of the energy
and material resources they need survive and reproduce.
1
By the
1920s, Alfred Lotka, one of the great ecologists of the 20
th
century,
recognized that successful species (and whole systems) are those
that maximize their appropriations of energy from their environ-
ment and then secondarily maximize the effi ciency with which they
convert that energy into offspring. In the case of humans, we use
the energy/matter we appropriate from our ecosystems not only to
maintain and reproduce ourselves, but also to create and sustain all
our so-called economic capital. Humans have both a biological and
an industrial metabolism.
The title of this paper asks whether humans are fatally successful.
There can be little question about the “successful” part and if one
accepts that we’re engaged in a competitive struggle for energy, it’s
not hard to derive from the literature a lengthy list of those things
about human beings that give us an advantage in acquiring energy.
I’ve boiled these down to four that make particular sense to me.
The fi rst is access to food – don’t forget our fi rst source of en-
ergy is the basic bio-energy we need to grow and reproduce. Here
the advantage is straight-forward – humans have uniquely broad or
catholic feeding habits. We can eat just about anything. We’re om-
nivorous in the extreme, and this enables us to tap into more sources
of bio-energy than virtually any other large mammal of comparable
size. Moreover, if we cannot eat something, we’ll domesticate an
animal that can, and then we will eat the animal or its products such
as milk or blood.
This takes us to the second point: Humans are uniquely adaptive,
and this enables us to exploit virtually all ecosystems and habitats
on the planet. We can live in the Arctic or the desert. We may not
be able to eat desert plants, but goats will, so we’ll take goats with
us into the dry-lands. There is no habitat type on Planet Earth that
is not now occupied to some degree (or at least heavily exploited in
the case of the sea) by human beings. Since we exploit all major
ecosystem types, we have access to the multiple food classes we can
digest wherever on Earth they occur. Even in pre-agricultural times,
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this gave humans an advantage far beyond the capacities of any other
vertebrate species.
It is interesting that in modern times, many people who are mes-
merized by our economic and technological progress see humans as
becoming increasingly independent of nature, as moving ever further
away from our biological roots. Yet if you look at food sourcing from
an ecological perspective, it becomes clear that we have become in-
creasingly embedded in the ecosystems that sustain us over time. For
example, what is the most ecologically signifi cant marine mammal?
The answer is H. sapiens. As the dominant macro-consumer species
in the marine food-web, humans appropriate a larger share of the fi nal
products of photosynthesis from the world’s oceans than any other
marine mammal, probably more than all the others combined. We
don’t tend to think of ourselves as marine mammals because we don’t
live in the sea like whales or even seals.
2
But in trophic (food-web)
terms, abetted by increasingly sophisticated fi shing technology, we
are by far the dominant marine carnivore (see the fi ndings of Myers
and Worm, 2003, and Christensen et al., 2003).
The same argument can be made about humanity’s place in terres-
trial ecosystems. Humans are by far the most ecologically signifi cant
herbivore on the plains and grasslands of the world. We are the major
exploiter of the productivity of the world’s forests. Again, because
of our unique capacity to exploit multiple environments and tap into
all available sources of energy/matter, no other species comes close
to dominating the planet and its eco-processes as do human beings.
However, more important to human success than any of the
above is the evolution of intelligence and our acquisition of language,
particularly written language. This great leap forward – our third
unique quality – made possible the fourth advantage of humans over
the competition, the fact that human knowledge is cumulative. Not
only do we have unique capacities to exploit every nook and cranny
of the planet but, because of our ability to communicate within and
between generations, we get better and better at doing it. Technologi-
cal advance piles on technological advance.
Again, it is worth emphasizing that the main ecological effect of
technology has not been to disconnect humankind from nature, but
William E. Rees
76
rather to extend the scope and the intensity with which we exploit
the ecosphere. This is how we have become the dominant consumer
organism. The common belief that because of urbanization and tech-
nology we have effectively become independent of nature, is one of
the great perceptual disconnects of modern times. (As we shall see, it
is a fi ne example of a modern myth.) In reality, we are more in nature
and as dependent on nature as ever we have been.
So far I have emphasized the role of energy in evolutionary suc-
cess and the special capacities that humans have evolved to acquire
it. I want now to underscore the importance of energy by reference
to two particularly signifi cant energy-related advances in the human
dominance of the earth. The fi rst is the (possibly forced) adoption
of agriculture. The estimated average rate of population growth in
the 10,000 years since the agricultural revolution has been about 13
times greater than during the previous of 10,000 year period. Ag-
riculture involves a shift from simple hunting-gathering, which had
major effects on ecosystems but didn’t destroy them, to processes that
modify entire landscapes in order to redirect the bio-energy fl ows from
photosynthesis to a single species, namely ourselves. Little wonder
there was a 13-fold leap in population growth.
The second great surge in energy availability began only a century
and a half ago with the explosive increase in the use of fossil fuels.
The signifi cance of this to human “success” is readily apparent from
a look at the human population growth curve over past last two mil-
lennia [Figure 2]. Here we can see a parallel explosion, the fourfold
increase in human numbers from about 1.5 billion in 1850 to the pres-
ent population of over 6 billion, over the same century and a half.
Let’s consider the relationship to fossil energy more closely.
Figure 3 illustrates the displacement of human and animal labour by
fossil energy in the last century and a half. What it shows is that we
are now utterly dependent for most of the work done in our society on
a single source of energy. It has truly been said that no resource has
changed the structure of our economies, the nature of technology, or
the balance of geopolitics more than fossil energy. Indeed, the average
citizen today in the wealthy industrial countries has between 100 to
200 energy slaves working for him or her. In this sense, each of us is
the equivalent of 100 to 200 pre-industrial humans.
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77
FIGURE 2: Human population growth over the past two millen-
nia (Cohen 1995)
William E. Rees
FIGURE 3: The Fossil Fuel Subsidy (Gever et al., 1991, p. 79)
78
Keep in mind that a major human use of energy is to increase our
rate of exploitation of everything else. We could not have fi shed down
the seas or deforested the planet without the huge extra-somatic energy
“subsidy” from fossil fuels. It follows that from the perspective of
sustainability, human success imposes enormous costs on the rest of
the system. The human enterprise is an open, growing sub-system
expanding within a materially closed, non-growing ecosphere (Daly
1992, Rees 1995). Thus, the extent to which human beings appropriate
energy and material from the total fl ows through ecosystems reduces
the quantity of resources available for other consumer species. In
short, the growth and maintenance of the human enterprise is neces-
sarily at the expense of biodiversity.
Humans use three main strategies to appropriate the bio-energy
that would otherwise be available to other species. The fi rst is simply
to displace other species from their natural ecological niches. For
example, up to sixty million bison used to migrate annually North
and South through the great plains of North America. But humans
ploughed under the native prairie and replanted it to wheat, oats,
barely, rye, etc., which we now consume directly or feed to cattle.
If one performs an energy accounting of the former bison habitat
and adjusts for the increased production due to artifi cial fertilizer,
irrigation, etc., the biomass of human beings and domestic livestock
currently supported by prairie agriculture is the energetic equivalent
of the biomass of the bison and other species (pronghorns, grizzlies,
etc.) that once occupied this formerly native grassland. Humans have
largely taken over the vertebrate herbivore and carnivore niches of
the great plains.
Secondly, we are inclined to eliminate any residual non-hu-
man competition. Right now in British Columbia we’re debating
whether we ought declare open season on wolves – again! Why are
we interested in killing wolves? Because they eat our deer, moose
and caribou (and possibly domestic stock from time to time). We
blame wolves for declining wild ungulate numbers in seeming denial
that we are often the main predators on these species. If we really
want to increase moose populations, we might decide to cut back on
hunting licences, but we’d rather blame and eliminate competitors
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such as wolves. It’s also legal for salmon “farmers” to shoot seals
and sea-lions that might steal from their fl oating salmon net-pens.
Finally, humans are unique in that we poison our own food supply
with massive applications of pesticides to eliminate insects that would
otherwise claim some of our food crops.
The third way in which humans grow at the expense of nature
is through sheer over-exploitation – we deplete the earth’s fi nites
stocks of both self-producing (i.e., renewable) and non-renewable
resources. Overfi shing, deforestation, falling water-tables, erosion
and other forms of soil degradation, etc., are the symptoms of this
malaise. The growth of the human enterprise is very much a thermo-
dynamic process by which we convert non-human biomass and other
resources into human biomass and the material infrastructure of our
industrial economy at a great increase in global entropy (pollution
and disorder). In the process, we destroy other species populations
(e.g., the North Atlantic cod), deforest the landscape, draw down
ancient aquifers, deplete our oil and gas reserves, and so on. It bears
repeating that this pattern is an unavoidable consequence of our be-
ing a growing component of a fi nite non-growing system. We are
but one species out of 10 to 30 million – we don’t really know how
many species there are – and not only is our population growing by
80 million per year but, because of our fossil energy subsidy, our per
capita impact is also increasing (in effect, we are getting bigger as
well as more numerous). The consequences for the long-term stabil-
ity of the ecosphere are increasingly ominous.
Resource over-exploitation by humans is an ancient story. We
now have a fairly good record of the consequences of the spread of
human beings over the planet from Africa through Europe, Asia,
and ultimately Australasia, North America and South America. In
every area where the picture is coming into focus, we see that the
dispersal of humans over the earth in the last 50,000 years has led
to mass extinctions. Large fl ightless birds, relatively slow-moving,
easily-hunted mammals, and other so-called “low hanging fruit”
often disappear completely in the decades or centuries following hu-
man invasion of their ecosystems. For example, New Zealand was
populated by several endemic species of Moa, large meaty fl ightless
William E. Rees
80
birds that had had no exposure to predators before humans arrived.
All were extirpated within a few decades by the ancestors of today’s
Maori. In short, even in pre-agricultural times, when humans inserted
themselves into new habitats and ecosystems, there was a massive
shift in the energy and material fl ows through those systems and in
the subsequent distribution of biomass among species, resulting in
the extinction of the most vulnerable.
Human displacement of competing species is a variation of
what ecologists call the Competitive Exclusion Principle. If there is
a limited supply of some critical resource required by two or more
species, then species “a” might abolish species “b” from the habitat
altogether if “a” is competitively superior. Humans are clearly su-
perior competitors and bio-energy appropriated by humans from the
global total is irreversibly unavailable to competing species – what
we get, they don’t. Population growth and the massive fossil-energy
subsidy has greatly increased the rate of human resource use and
expropriation of wildlife habitats and their conversion to production
for our use. As a result, the estimated current rate of species extinc-
tion (global competitive exclusion) varies from 100 to 10,000 times
– the consensus is settling at about 1,000 times – higher than in pre-
industrial times.
A corollary: If we are interested in conserving in non-human life
on Earth, it might just be that the greatest disaster that could befall
the ecosphere is for humans to discover another cheap, super-abun-
dant source of energy to replace fossil fuels. If there’s no change in
the consumer values and behavioural characteristic of high-income
countries – in other words, no change in the ways in which we use
energy to exploit nature – then the present pattern of biodiversity loss
and ecosystem degradation will continue on an even grander scale.
This would spell calamity for the non-human world, whatever short-
term good it might be for humans.
I have tried to make the case that human beings have an innate
propensity to over-exploit their habitats. We are large, warm-blooded
social mammals with correspondingly large demands and an inherent
tendency to expand. The latter is part of our basic biology but, with
the evolution of culture and the cumulative effects of technology, we
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81
simply got better and better at doing whatever is necessary to extend
our range over the entire earth. I’ve also made the point in passing that
humans have no built-in inhibition against destroying their habitats.
It’s not hard to imagine why this is so. In pre-culture pre-technol-
ogy times, humans were simply not capable of destroying whole
ecosystems and would simply move on once favoured sites had been
hunted out or picked over. In the absence of massive habitat destruc-
tion, there was no selection pressure for more moderate behaviour,
so modern humans still lack instinctive restraints against doing the
massive damage made possible by technology. With the evolution of
intelligence and the subsequent rapid development of culture in the
last 10,000 years, humans have therefore come to dominate (if not
control) the ecosphere, uninhibited by natural constraints.
There is a second factor behind contemporary expansionism that
has to do with perception and knowing (epistemology), and their
relationship to prevailing cultural values and belief. To understand
this factor it helps to recognize that the human brain is fundamentally
an “illusion organ” (Regal 1990). For example, although we are a
visual animal – in other words, our sight is our most important sense
– and our vision is our most direct contact with reality, the fact is that
what we “see” (our perception of reality) is really a multifaceted yet
limited and neurologically altered model of the seen object that the
brain constructs for our convenience.
Indeed, all perception is a combination of biophysical or social
construction. If you can accept the argument that you don’t “see”
actual physical objects but rather you perceive reconstructed images
in the brain, it is no great leap to accept that most of the fundamen-
tal beliefs, values and assumptions - the very underpinnings of our
culture - are social constructions derived from shared perceptions,
experiences and deliberate indoctrination.
A major element in the construction of social belief systems has to
do with myth-making, a universal property of human societies which
plays a vital role in every culture including our own. Nevertheless,
most people today are biased against the concept of myth. We tend
to think of myths as fanciful stories or primitive superstitions char-
acteristic of the belief systems of relatively primitive peoples. By
William E. Rees
82
contrast, we see ourselves as a science-based, fact-based society that
has long-since abandoned its need for mythic constructs.
My argument here is that this is, itself, our greatest social myth.
The common belief that techno-industrial society generally makes
its major decisions based on scientifi c knowledge, fact and analy-
sis, is simply wrong. We can fi nd myriad examples where factual
scientifi c knowledge has almost no impact on how people think, on
popular (group) behaviour, or on the political process. In short, like
every culture that has preceded us, we moderns are so embedded in
our myths that we don’t recognize them as such. Colin Grant, in his
book Myths We Live By (1998), makes much the same point, that we
delude ourselves if we think we are myth-free. He argues the case
that even in the modern world, myths play a key role and, therefore,
“Myths should be seen not as mistaken beliefs but as comprehensive
visions that give shape and direction to life.”
Like our expansionist tendencies, humanity’s myth-making
tendency also has a biological basis. The capacity for mass self-
delusion, the creation of mutually satisfying stories, was a neces-
sary quality for an intelligent species evolving in a world fi lled with
mysterious and sometimes frightening phenomena. To make sense
of their environment, to provide social cohesion and common refer-
ence-points, human beings created elaborate cultural myths. These
became indispensable elements of people’s understanding of their
place in nature and of their relationships to each other. As Grant
argues, myths then are essential categories of belief that “give shape
and direction to life.”
For all its positive functions, the human capacity for self delu-
sion does have a perverse side. As Derek Jensen (2000) has argued,
there are times such that for us to maintain our way of living, “…we
must tell lies to each other and especially to ourselves. These lies act
as barriers to truth [and] the barriers are necessary because, without
them, many deplorable acts would become impossibilities.” In these
circumstances, the power of the myth disallows consideration of
contrary evidence, including the best of scientifi c data.
What I am leading to here is an argument that, fi rst, contemporary
global culture is as susceptible to comfortable myths as any other and,
JBAPA, Vol. 30-31, 2002-03
83
second, that today’s unwavering commitment to sustained economic
growth is the broadest and most widely held cultural mythic story in
the history of humankind. In the last 25 years virtually all offi cial
international agencies and national governments have come to share
a comprehensive vision of global development centred on unlimited
economic expansion fuelled by more liberalized trade. At the heart
of this vision is a singular belief that has now been raised to primacy
in socio-economic policy circles everywhere: that human welfare,
or human well-being, can be all but equated with a single variable:
indefi nitely rising per capita income (increasing GDP per capita). A
corollary to the central myth asserts that, because humans can substi-
tute other factors for natural resources and the life-support functions
of ecosystems, contemporary species loss and resource depletion is
merely of passing interest. As a result, even in already rich countries,
we are sacrifi cing, through globalization, an inordinate array of other
values in the name of the growth-inducing properties of economic
effi ciency and specialization. There is little question that this contem-
porary myth has been the principal force giving shape and direction to
political and civil life in both high income and developing countries
on every continent for at least the past quarter century.
There is also little question that this myth has armed the thinking
of many against the hard scientifi c evidence. In fact, today’s favoured
development model is not even good theory. Sound economic theory
recognizes that we ought to maximize human well-being, but also
recognizes that many variables and values contribute to this goal. If
society wants safe communities, good public education and health
care systems, safe cities, etc., and people are willing to pay taxes (or
forego the next increment of income) in exchange for more of these
social goods, then well-being would increase despite people’s reduced
capacity to consume.
With this in mind, consider the argument that globally, with each
increase in Gross World Product (GWP), we may well be destroying
more value in the form of social and ecological damage than the world
is gaining in income. Unfortunately, while we do measure the dollar
value of GWP, the damage costs of growth go largely unmonitored
because of our inability to measure them (and our lack of interest in
William E. Rees
84
doing so). We may well have unwittingly already reached the point
in global development where the marginal costs exceed the marginal
benefi ts of further increases in GWP. If so, our modern scientifi c
society is actually guilty of promoting uneconomic growth, growth
that impoverishes (Daly 1999).
3
Unfortunately the problem is even worse than this because of the
grossly inequitable distribution of benefi ts and costs. The benefi ts ow
mainly to the already rich while the world’s poor suffer the largely
unaccounted negative consequences. And because this distributional
inequity is not generally considered in mainstream economic models
– it doesn’t show up in the GDP/GWP accounts, for example – it is
easy for the benefi ciaries to continue perpetuating the growth myth
from which they benefi t.
Science provides plenty of empirical evidence of other fl aws in
our prevailing economic myth. Data for most of the world’s countries
show that once a certain level of income is achieved – about 7,500
or 8,000 U.S. dollars per capita per year – there’s no further posi-
tive correlation between various objective indicators of population
health and income growth. Moreover, in many rich countries today
we can fi nd no subjective improvement in well-being as incomes in-
crease. Robert Lane’s recent book, The Loss of Happiness in Market
Democracies (2000), actually documents a negative correlation in
the United States between rising per capita income and the average
numbers of people reporting themselves as happy or very happy in
a standardized survey conducted annually over a period of some 50
years. [See Figure 4] And this American experience is not unique
among rich market economies.
In summary, both theory and data reveal a serious disconnect be-
tween scientifi c knowledge and the global growth myth. The popular
model represents bad economics to begin with, and the data show
it is not achieving its stated goals, yet the delusional power of the
myth overwhelms all the contrary evidence to keep us on our present
destructive path.
There is yet another problem. The economic models we use to run
the planet are structurally incompatible with any complex real world
system. Most importantly, neo-liberal models do not incorporate any
JBAPA, Vol. 30-31, 2002-03
85
information about actual ecosystem structure or function. Economist
Paul Christensen (1991) is more specifi c, arguing that economic
theory lacks any representation of the time and space-dependent be-
haviours of real-word ecosystems. Accordingly, the simple reversible
mechanistic behaviour of many economic models is inconsistent with
the connectivity, irreversibility and complex feedback mechanisms
characteristic of ecosystems.
These conceptual fl aws imply that the world is currently relying
on economic management models whose behaviour is inconsistent
at virtually every level with the behaviour of the systems we are try-
ing to control. Of course, our mythic model is working at one very
basic level – Gross World Product, the mesmerizing single variable
on which we’ve focused is, indeed, growing. The economy has
increased 40-fold in the last 150 years, 3-fold in the last 23 years or
William E. Rees
FIGURE 4: Money doesn’t buy happiness (Lane, 2000)
86
so, and we anticipate an additional 5-fold expansion of Gross World
Output in the next half century. Meanwhile, the population has in-
creased by 30% since 1980, is still growing at 80 million per year.
We expect three billion additions to the human family by the middle
of this century.
Little wonder that humanity becomes ever more dominant – half
the world’s forests have been logged, half the land on earth has been
modifi ed for human use, 70% of the fi sh stocks are in jeopardy, carbon
dioxide levels are up by 30% in this century, and biodiversity loss
is accelerating. These are remarkably massive impacts considering
they are caused by a species whose mental constructs consider it to
be essentially decoupled from “the environment” and unaffected by
the consequences of ecological change. This is no minor cognitive
lapse. Once we’ve separated ourselves mentally from “the other,”
then it doesn’t much matter to us what happens to the other. But if
the separation is only myth (and the empirical data show that the
human enterprise is a fully embedded –subsystem of the ecosphere)
then what happens to “the other” becomes absolutely critical to our
own future survival.
I want now to examine our predicament using a tool I invented
some years ago called “ecological footprint analysis” (EFA). I de-
vised EFA explicitly to counter the argument that, because of trade
and technology, the concept of carrying capacity is irrelevant to
modern humans (Rees 2001, 2002). EFA estimates the proportion
of the earth’s surface dedicated to supporting any defi ned human
population. Thus, the ecological footprint of a specifi ed population
is the area of land and water ecosystems required in continuous pro-
duction to produce the resources that the population consumes and
to assimilate the wastes that the population produces, wherever on
Earth the relevant land and water is located. We can now estimate
the ecological footprint of any human population for which data are
available – an individual, a city, a country, or the whole human family.
The method is fairly conservative and is more likely to under-estimate
than over-estimate the human “load” on the planet (Wackernagel and
Rees 1996).
EFA is now widely used in studies to assess sustainability by, for
JBAPA, Vol. 30-31, 2002-03
87
example, comparing the eco-footprint of a study population against
the area of its productive domestic territory. Most recently, the In-
ternational Union for the Conservation of Nature (the World Wide
Fund for Nature), which publishes a biannual report called “The
Living Planet Report,” has begun to apply eco-footprint analysis in
its assessments of the state of the planet. Figure 5 presents WWF’s
plot of the increase in the human ecological footprint over the past
40 years or so. Compare this with Figure 6 which shows the steady
decline in the WWF’s own Living Planet Index, a measure of spe-
cies diversity and biomass. These data support my earlier assertion
that the steady increase in human appropriations from the ecosphere
(the growing human eco-footprint) is driving the steady decline in
non-human biodiversity. The WWF’s and other eco-footprint studies
suggest that humanity has already overshot the long-term carrying
capacity of the earth.
Eco-footprint studies raise a new concern about the nature of
sustainability. People are no longer merely displacing other species
from their habitats; it can be argued that unnecessary consumption
by the already rich is already beginning inadvertently to deny other
humans the basic requirements for survival (Rees and Westra 2003).
If critical resources (water, petroleum, arable land) become even
William E. Rees
FIGURE 5: World Ecological Footprint, 1961-97 (WWF, 2002)
88
JBAPA, Vol. 30-31, 2002-03
scarcer, will we extend competitive exclusion to other human groups
with intent? We may soon have to confront an unprecedented moral
and ethical crisis brought on by blind subscription to the global growth
myth on a fi nite planet characterized by an increasing population and
a declining resource base.
Certainly, world events in the recent past suggest we may well
be entering an era of increasing geopolitical instability, of resource
wars that pit the rich against the poor. There should be no surprise
here. Political scientist Ted Gurr (1985), found as far back as 1985
that: “So long as ecological decline is temporary, advantaged groups
are likely to accept policies of relief and redistribution as the price of
order and the resumption of growth. But once we accept decline as
a persistent condition, people will do almost anything to regain their
economic and political power and thereby maintain their absolute
and relative advantages.”
Such overt dominance behaviour may seem abominable to the
educated mind. However, as previously suggested, it is arguably a
natural human response to scarcity. Human individuals and groups
have always competed with each other for the dominance and power
FIGURE 6: Living Planet Index, 1970-99 (WWF, 2002)
89
that ensure survival in a resource crisis, for example. Such aggressive
behaviours are apparently primarily rooted in the limbic system, the
older parts of the human brain in evolutionary terms. (Obviously it
served our mammalian forebears well.) The more recently-evolved,
unique components of the brain - the thinking part, the imaginative
part, the creative components such as the neocortex - were added later
as a kind of overlay on top of the older mammalian and so-called
“reptilian” brainstem that are central to the limbic system.
All human reasoning, emotions and behaviour result from an
exquisitely complicated interplay of infl uences from all parts of our
brain/nervous system and body, but it could be argued that when push
comes to shove, the more primitive basic emotions and behaviours
tend to often trump the higher rational/contemplative functions. Cer-
tainly the innate behavioural repertoire pertaining to dominance and
aggression seem to hold sway in the political arena. Politics is all about
status, prestige and power which goes a long way toward explaining
why the political system seems incapable of responding to real data
if necessary actions would challenge vested interests or jeopardize
the power or position of the decision-maker. In short, politics is not
primarily a rational thinking system oriented to determining the best
way to serve the public good. It is mainly an instinctive/emotive
system responding to – well, political pressures. Politicians tend to
act in ways that enable them to maintain their positions of power
and infl uence within their own group and, if necessary, to ensure that
their group (corporation, tribe, nation) is able to assert control and
dominance over other groups and communities.
Now, let’s try to tie the above to ecological footprint analyses. It
turns out that the average eco-footprints of residents of high income
countries vary between 4 and 10 hectares (10 and 22 acres). We can
then show by simple multiplication that many densely-populated,
high-income countries today effectively “occupy” more productive
land outside their own boundaries than is contained within them. The
basis for resource competition and future confl ict is thus revealed.
Let me illustrate. I was at a meeting in Europe not long ago
where an economist described the miraculous effi ciency of Dutch
agriculture and held it up as an example for the developing world to
William E. Rees
90
follow. The Netherlands is Europe’s most densely populated country,
with about 450 people per square kilometre, and yet the country has
an agricultural surplus. What the economist really should have said
is that the monetary value of Dutch agricultural exports exceeds the
trade value of Dutch imports. The counter-fact is that the Dutch
need to import fodder for their domestic livestock and this fodder is
grown on an area several times larger than the productive land base
of the country. Dutch “agriculture” converts that fodder into high
value-added cheeses, meats, and other processed goods for export.
So Holland may they have a dollar trade surplus in food products, but
even when trade-corrected (exported food is not part of the domestic
eco-footprint), this economic surplus turns out to be supported by a
massive ecological defi cit. In other words, the ecological footprint
of Dutch agriculture occurs largely outside the country. And it’s not
just the agricultural sector. Total consumption of all goods and ser-
vices by the Dutch increases the nation’s overall demand to six times
the domestic land base of the country. Clearly not all countries can
follow this model!
What eco-footprinting shows is that, in ecological terms, the
Dutch don’t live in Holland. Similarly, urban dwellers don’t “live”
in their cities; urbanization simply separates us from the productive
ecosystems that sustain us but lie far beyond the urban boundary. An
apt analogy is “the city as human feedlot.” Like the city, a livestock
feedlot is an area with an extraordinarily high density of consumer
animals and a corresponding major waste management problem.
Cities and feedlots are incomplete ecosystems – the productive land
component is some distance away. Incidentally, Holland is both a
human and a livestock feedlot where the biggest waste management
problem is animal manure!
Figure 7 provides a multi-national comparison of ecological
footprints (1999 data from WWF 2003). Note how ecological in-
equity parallels the pattern of economic inequity among nations.
In the poorest countries in the developing world – Ethiopia, India,
Pakistan, Bangladesh and Mozambique, for example – people have
eco-footprints as little as half a hectare per capita, or one twentieth
of the average North American eco-footprint.
JBAPA, Vol. 30-31, 2002-03
91
In 1999 the global average person required the bioproductivity
of almost 2.3 hectares of land and water ecosystems to produce ev-
erything he/she consumed and to assimilate/recycle selected wastes.
The diffi culty is that there were only about 1.9 hectares of productive
land- and water-scape per capita on the planet. Multiplying the then
human population of six billion by the average human footprint gives
a global ecological footprint in excess of 13.7 billion hectares, but
there are only about 11.4 billion hectares of productive ecosystem
on earth. It seems that we actually exceed long-term global human
carrying capacity by about 20 percent. [Figure 8]
To recap, high-end consumers “occupy” ecologically up to 10
hectares each but there are only 1.9 hectares of productive land
per capita on the planet. Arguably the two hectares represents our
“fair earth-share” (Rees 1996). Where do we get the rest? We get
William E. Rees
0
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92
it through so-called trade liberalization. In ecological terms, we can
interpret globalization as the socio-cultural process by which wealthy
and powerful people and nations extend their ever-expanding eco-
footprints into the “surplus” lands of weaker relatively impoverished
countries through trade and into the global commons. In effect, the
dominant powers now achieve globally through commerce what used
to require territorial occupation.
JBAPA, Vol. 30-31, 2002-03
0
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Such fi ndings merely confi rm a major stated benefi t of globaliza-
tion from the perspective of wealthy consumers – access to cheap
resources and commodities from the developing world. However,
the dramatic graphics of eco-footprinting sometimes stir political
sensitivities. Several years ago the Department of Environment in
Britain commissioned the International Institute for Environment and
Development to undertake an ecological footprint of Britain (IIED
FIGURE 8: Global carrying capacity
93
1995). Among other things, the IIED study examined signifi cant
trade fl ows and converted them into the area of land in other countries
dedicated to sustaining the British population’s consumer lifestyle.
Almost as soon as it appeared, the study was removed from circula-
tion, apparently because of political uneasiness associated with high-
lighting the extent to which Britain relies on the rest of the world for
critical resources.
To get some measure of that dependence, consider the following:
One section of the IIED document showed that to sustain consumption
by Londoners alone required an area of bio-productive land equiva-
lent to the entire land-base of the United Kingdom. In other words,
were Britain forced to rely on its own bioproductivity – assuming we
could convert forest to agriculture and vice versa in the proportions
needed – it could barely sustain the population of London at 1995
levels of material consumption. This means, in effect, that most of
the UK population is living on carrying capacity imported from other
countries and the global commons.
The eco-footprint results for the Netherlands and the UK cited
above underscore how, as always, money wealth confers the power to
live high on the ecological hog even long after a country’s domestic
land-base has been over-taxed or even depleted. In these circum-
stances, it seems fair to ask whether under the present globalization
paradigm the poor can claim any part of the hog. Or is the competitive
exclusion of the poor by the rich already irreversibly underway?
In 1970 the richest 10% of the world’s citizens earned 19 times
as much as the poorest 10%. After a quarter century of accelerated
global integration under the expansionist paradigm, with its emphasis
on wider markets, trade and effi ciency to stimulate growth in GWP,
this ratio had actually increased to 27:1. In other words the very
rich are getting rapidly relatively richer leaving the poor even further
behind. In many African countries, people are actually worse off in
both relative and absolute terms. GDP per capita is actually falling.
The bottom line is that global inequity is steadily increasing. By
1977 the wealthiest 1% of the world’s people commanded the same
income as the poorest 57%. Twenty-fi ve million rich Americans
– that’s 0.4% of the world’s population and less than 10% of the U.S.
William E. Rees
94
population – had a combined income greater than the poorest 2 billion
people, or 43% of the world’s population (UNDP 2001).
Consider this in the context of international trade and eco-footprint
analysis. The United States with less than 5% of the world’s popula-
tion consumes a vastly disproportionate share of the world’s resources,
including 25% of the world’s energy, most of which is imported. The
United States may be the world’s mightiest military power and most
powerful economy, but the country would be paralysed were it not
able to extend its eco-footprint into the rest of the world. The same
is true of many other densely-populated high-income countries.
This brings us full circle. What is the future for geopolitics if the
global development scenario is characterized by growing demand,
accelerating eco-degradation, resource scarcities and rapid climate
change? Will we on this small blue Earth island descend like the Easter
Islanders from civilization’s peak into the valley of chaos, of tribal
factions driven by sheer survival instinct and warring over the last
remaining pockets of viable land and resources; or will reason prevail
so that we, all members of the human family together, can plan an
equitable way to fi nd “the right balance with our environment.” The
contemporary dilemma is that the world is ecologically full – in fact
it’s full to overfl owing. But so far the benefi ts of the growth that got
us to this point are grotesquely inequitably distributed. We cannot
grow our way to sustainability, but must instead come to share the
world’s economic and ecological output.
How we approach this problem will necessarily represent a dia-
lectic between self-conscious reason and unconscious predisposition.
It’s well known that humans are disinclined to share with strang-
ers, particularly in times of crisis or scarcity. We’re not inherently
altruistic, except to kin and to people with whom we’ve developed a
reciprocally benefi cial relationship. But if we don’t learn to distribute
the world’s economic and ecological output more equitably, even
as resource supplies are increasingly strained, we may have to face
truly dire consequences. The question is: “is H. sapiens capable of
achieving a justly equitable global stability based on a new variant
of enlightened self-interest?”
It is often said that those who do not know their history are con-
JBAPA, Vol. 30-31, 2002-03
95
demned to repeat it. In present circumstances I would argue that,
even if we know our history, we are condemned to repeat it if we are
unable to rise above certain primitive forms of survival behaviour.
Instead, we must use our much vaunted intelligence and awareness
of our predicament collectively to override our baser instincts. The
question is: can humanity create the required new forms of social and
cultural inhibitions, and will we be able to erect the international legal-
institutional framework necessary to constrain the “rogue within”?
We can obtain some measure of the challenge by reference to
the 20
th
century. The last century may have been technically and
scientifi cally dazzling but it was also the most, destructively bloody
century in human history. We may be the most intelligent species on
Earth, we may be capable of astonishing feats of reason and analysis,
but our own history reveals that “The rise and fall of cultures… has
always been primarily determined by the tides of human passion not
by the ebb and fl ow of reason” (Morrison 1999).
The primary goal of all life is to survive, but the self-oriented
aggressive-defensive behaviours that served so well for that purpose
early in our evolution are maladaptive in the ecologically full world
today.
4
The challenge of the 21
st
Century is to rise above individual
and tribal interests and recognize that our best chance for survival lies
in collective self-restraint and mutual commitment to the common
good. This is an unaccustomed mode of human political behaviour.
As American political scientist, Linton Caldwell, wrote in 1990: “The
prospect for worldwide cooperation to forestall a disaster seems far
less likely where deeply entrenched economic and political interests
are involved…. Many contemporary values, attitudes, and institu-
tions militate against international altruism. As widely interpreted
today, human rights, economic interests, and national sovereignty
would be factors in opposition. The cooperative task would require
behaviour that humans fi nd most diffi cult: collective self-discipline
in a common effort.”
One well-tested and very powerful tool is available to us. We must
make deliberate, creative use of humanity’s myth-making capacity,
our inherent need for unifying stories. Let’s frankly acknowledge
the weaknesses in the expansionist global development model with
William E. Rees
96
its emphasis on effi ciency, competition and survival of the few and
replace it with a new myth that fosters equity, cooperation and mutual
sustainability. The choice is between allowing all our various human
“tribes” to assert their independent self-interests in a global free-for-
all, or rising to the challenge of fully exercising the singular human
quality that sets us apart from other advanced species, the capacity
for rational thought. If enlightened reason does not triumph over
violence and aggression as the means of settling our affairs, then we
will almost certainly fall back into the ancient patterns that so darkly
stained the 20
th
Century.
At a minimum, and for purely practical reasons, the required new
myth must acknowledge the precarious state of both the ecosphere
and geopolitics and set as its goal the stabilization of both. But surely
we can do better than the bare minimum. The enlightened rationality
I am invoking is different from hard, cold, calculating enlightenment
rationality. Enlightened rationality incorporates passion for life and
compassion for both other humans and non-human nature.
As noted earlier, our evolutionary history has provided us with no
inhibitions against destroying our habitats, other species or other hu-
man beings, and no such inhibitions will come to us from our biology.
We have reached the stage in human evolution where the products
of the uniquely human mind, including socially constructed cultural
factors, must assume the dominant role. The creation of a grand myth
for global survival is a purposeful act of social engineering. And
while this might seem a daunting task, is it really that qualitatively
different from the social engineering that so effectively entrenched
the expansionist globalization model around the world? Once again
we must shift our values consciously, but this time away from the nar-
row focus on individualism, self-interest, competitive relationships,
toward a greater emphasis on community/societal values, cooperative
institutions, and a sense of participating consciousness in nature.
Certainly humans have all of the qualities necessary in their be-
havioural kitbag – we can love, we are compassionate, we can show
empathy for other people and even other species. Of course, some
people are better at these things than others, but these are the human
qualities that we must draw out in our schools and universities, in
JBAPA, Vol. 30-31, 2002-03
97
government and the private sector. It is a matter of deliberate social
choice whether we stress in all our cultural institutions the darker
colours of the human behavioural spectrum or emphasize the brighter
shades. The point is that the sustainability crisis may be humanity’s
nal opportunity to rise above mere animal instincts. Can we not
elevate the qualities that make H. sapiens truly unique to a primary
place in determining our species’ future? If we succeed, the victory
will mark the next great adaptive leap forward in human evolution.
FOOTNOTES
1. There’s a corollary here related to our increasingly competitive
global environment: the dynamics of unfettered competition among
individuals, corporations, and economies in a fi nite, unregulated
environment, will tend to eliminate any restraints on destructive
behaviour affecting the global commons that individuals or single
entities might have exercised were they the sole exploiters. We call
this the (somewhat mistakenly) the “common property problem” or,
more accurately, the “Open Access Problem.”
2. Neither do most sea birds live in the sea – like people, they nest
on land and go fi shing for food.
3. This is in net terms. Growth is justifi ed in poor countries where
the benefi ts are positive, but not in the rich countries (where most of
it is occurring).
4. It is possible that global confl ict could leave the most powerful
and ruthless to inherit what would be left of the earth thus satisfying
the ancient mission of the genes in a minimalist way. However, the
costs in lives and destruction are unfathomable to the civilized mind.
Hence the option suggested here.
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98
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ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
This paper is based on a lecture delivered by the author to The Van-
couver Institute on March 15, 2003.
JBAPA, Vol. 30-31, 2002-03
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