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In 1992, 1,700 of the world’s top scientists issued a public statement titled The World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. They reported that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” More than a decade later, the authors of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment were moved to echo the scientists’ warning asserting that “[h]uman 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.” Ours is allegedly a science-based culture. For decades, our best science has suggested that staying on our present growth-based path to global development implies catastrophe for billions of people and undermines the possibility of maintaining a complex global civilization. Yet there is scant evidence that national governments, the United Nations, or other official international organizations have begun seriously to contemplate the implications for humanity of the scientists’ warnings, let alone articulate the kind of policy responses the science evokes. The modern world remains mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance and collective denial seemingly dedicated to maintaining the status quo. We appear, in philosopher Martin Heidegger’s words, to be “in flight from thinking.” Just what is going on here? I attempt to answer this question by exploring the distal, biosocial causes of human economic behavior. My working hypothesis is that modern H. sapiens is unsustainable by nature—unsustainability is an inevitable emergent property of the systemic interaction between contemporary technoindustrial society and the ecosphere. I trace this conundrum to humanity’s once-adaptive, subconscious, genetic predisposition to expand (shared with all other species), a tendency reinforced by the socially constructed economic narrative of continuous material growth. Unfortunately, these qualities have become maladaptive. The current coevolutionary pathway of the human enterprise and the ecosphere therefore puts civilization at risk—both defective genes and malicious “memes” can be “selected out” by a changing physical environment. To achieve sustainability, the world community must write a new cultural narrative that is explicitly designed for living on a finite planet, a narrative that overrides humanity’s outdated innate expansionist tendencies.
Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy
© 2010 Rees Fall 2010 | Volume 6 | Issue 2
What’s blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and
William Rees
School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia, 6333 Memorial Road, Vancouver, British Columbia
V6T 1Z2 Canada (
In 1992, 1,700 of the world’s top scientists issued a public statement titled The World Scientists’ Warning to Human-
ity. They reported that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required if vast human mi-
sery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.” More than a decade
later, the authors of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment were moved to echo the scientists’ warning asserting that
“[h]uman activity is putting such a strain on the natural functions of the Earth that the ability of the planet’s ecosys-
tems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted.” Ours is allegedly a science-based culture. For
decades, our best science has suggested that staying on our present growth-based path to global development im-
plies catastrophe for billions of people and undermines the possibility of maintaining a complex global civilization. Yet
there is scant evidence that national governments, the United Nations, or other official international organizations
have begun seriously to contemplate the implications for humanity of the scientists’ warnings, let alone articulate the
kind of policy responses the science evokes. The modern world remains mired in a swamp of cognitive dissonance
and collective denial seemingly dedicated to maintaining the status quo. We appear, in philosopher Martin
Heidegger’s words, to be “in flight from thinking.” Just what is going on here? I attempt to answer this question by
exploring the distal, biosocial causes of human economic behavior. My working hypothesis is that modern H. sapiens
is unsustainable by natureunsustainability is an inevitable emergent property of the systemic interaction between
contemporary technoindustrial society and the ecosphere. I trace this conundrum to humanity’s once-adaptive, sub-
conscious, genetic predisposition to expand (shared with all other species), a tendency reinforced by the socially
constructed economic narrative of continuous material growth. Unfortunately, these qualities have become maladap-
tive. The current coevolutionary pathway of the human enterprise and the ecosphere therefore puts civilization at
riskboth defective genes and malicious “memes” can be “selected out” by a changing physical environment. To
achieve sustainability, the world community must write a new cultural narrative that is explicitly designed for living on
a finite planet, a narrative that overrides humanity’s outdated innate expansionist tendencies.
KEYWORDS: human behavior, ecosystem stability, survival value, world economy, cultural values, social organization
The (Un)sustainability Conundrum
In his review of Tim Flannery’s book The
Weather Makers, Andrew Nikiforuk (2006) drew a
graphic verbal sketch of modern humans’ ecological
behavior (i.e., our economic behavior):
Let’s face it: Homo economicus is one hell
of an over-achiever. He has invaded more
than three-quarters of the globe’s surface
and monopolized nearly half of all plant life
to help make dinner. He has netted most of
the ocean’s fish and will soon eat his way
through the world’s last great apes. For good
measure, he has fouled most of the world’s
rivers. And his gluttonous appetites have
started a wave of extinctions that could trig-
ger the demise of 25 percent of the world’s
creatures within 50 years. The more godlike
he becomes the less godly Homo economi-
cus behaves.
This is the same enigmatic behavior that in 1992
inspired the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to
abandon the usual skeptically reserved language of
science and to issue the following strident assess-
ment: “We the undersigned, senior members of the
world’s scientific community, hereby warn all hu-
manity of what lies ahead. A great change in our
stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required
if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global
home on this planet is not to be irretrievably muti-
lated” (UCS, 1992).What could be clearer? Some of
the best minds on Earth were warning that without
dramatic changes in humanity’s relationship with the
ecosphere, the lives of our descendents might well
revert to being a Hobbesian “nasty, brutish, and
short.” But there is little evidence that the world
Rees: What’s Blocking Sustainability?
community has paid any heed to UCS’s ecological
call-to-arms. Thirteen years later the Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), the most comprehen-
sive assessment of the state of the ecosphere ever
undertaken, was moved to echo UCS: “At the heart
of this assessment is a stark warning. 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” (MEA, 2005).
Just what is going on here? Humans are the self-
proclaimed “best evidence for intelligent life on
Earth.” Yet when the world’s top physicists, ecolo-
gists, and climatologists warn repeatedly that current
development strategies are undermining global life
support systems and risking catastrophe for billions,
the responses range from negligible to ineffective.
True, “triple bottom-line” corporate planning is now
fairly commonplace; various protocols for “green-
building” compete to influence building codes; “new
urbanism,” “smart growth,” and the ecocities move-
ment are gaining ground everywhere; hybrid and
electric vehicles are increasing their market share;
and green consumerism is becoming mainstream in
many developed countries—but none of this activity
has made much difference (apart from fostering the
illusion of progress) (Rees, 2009a). Almost all main-
stream sustainability measures implicitly assume that
the problem can be solved through greater material
and economic efficiency and technological “fixes,”
ignoring the evidence that, to date, such strategies
have actually increased the human ecofootprint.1
Few challenge the fundamental beliefs, values, and
assumptions underpinning market-based consumer
societies or examine the hidden motivators of human
individual or group behavior. On the contrary, all
major governments and international development
agencies are committed to maintaining the growth in
per capita income that has characterized industrial
countries for more than a century and to extending
consumer culture to the three-quarters of the world’s
people who have yet to join the party (see Stutz, 2010
in this issue).2 Efficiency gains are thus overwhelmed
by a combination of material growth and the rebound
1 This counterintuitive result is known as the Jevons or “rebound”
effect. Consider that efficient or technologically advanced firms
are able to lower prices, gain market share, and increase wages and
salaries to employees. As this phenomenon propagates through the
economy, more money chasing cheaper goods and services results
in increased consumption/pollution (back to where it would have
been, or close, had the technological innovation not happened).
2 Presently, the richest 20% of the world’s population take home
76.6% of global income; the poorest 20% subsist on 1.5% (UNDP,
2007; Shah, 2010). As China and India move toward “developed”
lifestyles, their environmental impact will become even more
unsustainable than that of the West due to the huge numbers of
people involved.
effect in even the world’s most efficient economies
(Layke et al. 2000). With no government or main-
stream international agency willing openly to con-
template, let alone articulate in public, the revolu-
tionary policy responses evoked by our best science,
the modern world remains mired in a swamp of cog-
nitive dissonance and collective denial (Pratarelli,
2008; Pratarelli & Aragon, 2008; Rees, 2009a).
Meanwhile, the loss of ecosystem integrity acceler-
ates around the world.
Looking Ourselves in the Eye
This article’s overall purpose is to advance a rel-
atively novel partial explanation for humanity’s self-
destructive behavior. The framing questions are:
What are the “drivers” that have created our present
(un)sustainability impasse? How can we explain the
gap between people’s knowledge of ecological deg-
radation and their actual behavior toward the envi-
ronment (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002)? Why is the
global community so far unable to respond propor-
tionately to the scale of the crisis? How do the an-
swers to the foregoing affect both individual respon-
sibility and prospects for a genuine social transfor-
mation toward achieving sustainability?
Most analysts approach the sustainability conun-
drum by addressing proximal causes and obvious
solutions. For example, the ecological crisis is said to
stem from excessive energy and material consump-
tion and ineffective regulation (with resultant high
pollution loads) on the one hand, or from chronic
poverty and primitive technology on the other (poor
people are more concerned with basic survival and
cannot afford to pay for a “clean environment”). Oc-
casionally, population growth is identified as a driver,
but only by special interest groups not concerned
about political correctness. And, as noted above,
greater material efficiency, more ecologically benign
technologies, and continued growth (to relieve pov-
erty and generate the resources necessary to “clean
up” the “environment”) remain the only politically
acceptable solutions.3 The lack of support for more
determined policy is generally blamed on popular
ignorance, the lack of caring, or apparent disbelief
(Norgaard, 2009).
This article takes a different tack. I look more for
the root or distal causes of unsustainable behavior
and corresponding transformative solutions. In this
context, the immediate questions become: Why,
3 This rationale is based on naïve interpretations of the so-called
“environmental Kuznets curve”—proponents allege that environ-
mental quality first deteriorates and then improves with rising in-
comes (see Stern, 2004; Richmond & Zencey, 2007), but they
often fail to distinguish among pollutants or account for the off-
shore migration of dirty industries from rich to poorer countries.
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Rees: What’s Blocking Sustainability?
given the opportunity, do humans tend to overcon-
sume? How, in this age of plenty, can we explain the
persistence of poverty? What drives the continuing
growth of the human enterprise? I argue that we can
answer these questions, and come to a fuller under-
standing of the modern sustainability conundrum,
only if we examine them through the lens of human
evolutionary biology.
The Human Nature of Unsustainability
This perspective owes much to the Russian-born
geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1964) who fa-
mously asserted that “nothing in biology makes sense
except in the light of evolution.” If we accept that H.
sapiens is a product of evolution and that both the
human brain and gene-based elements of
individual/social behavior have been as much ex-
posed to Darwinian selective pressure as any other
genetically influenced human qualities, it is really not
much of a leap to assert that nothing in human
affairs—including much of economic and socio-
political behavior—makes sense except in the light of
evolution (Rees, 2009b).
Let me be clear. I am not arguing “genetic de-
terminism” or that other factors do not contribute to
humanity’s unsustainability dilemma. Rather, I am
asserting that our perception of the problem will re-
main unintelligibly incomplete, and our capacity to
“deal” with it will be severely constrained, unless we
factor in the bioevolutionary contribution.4 If innate
tendencies, including denial (Pratarelli & Aragon,
2008), play a significant role in human eco-economic
behavior and we do not acknowledge their existence,
we will not be able successfully to manage them. As
cyberneticist Stafford Beer (1981) observed, “We
cannot regulate our interaction with any aspect of
reality that our model of reality does not include.”5
It is also important to underscore that an inher-
ited tendency or genetic predisposition is, by defini-
tion, not an inevitability. Rather, it is a propensity
that is likely to play out in the absence of counter-
vailing circumstances such as moral codes, cultural
taboos, legal prohibitions, or other social inhibitors.
For example, humans are not naturally monogamous.
Many cultures have therefore invented both social
and material signals (e.g., elaborate ceremonies and
wedding rings) to advertise marital unions and inhibit
extramarital sexual activity for the sake of commu-
nity stability. The point is that even partial control of
4 For similar arguments in the context of reforming economics, see
Gual & Norgaard (2010) and Waring (2010).
5 Beer’s observation recalls Ashby’s (1957) law of requisite va-
riety, which can be stated as follows: The variety (number of
possible system states) of an effective regulatory system must be
equivalent to the variety of the system it regulates.
innate behaviors requires, first, that we acknowledge
and raise them to consciousness so that they can, in
fact, be included in “our model of reality” for “regu-
latory” purposes.
Hypothesis: Humans are Unsustainable by
Ecologists sometimes describe nonhuman spe-
cies in terms of their reproductive strategies in differ-
ent types of environments (e.g., Pianka, 1970;
Matthews & Kitching, 1984). Unpredictable or un-
stable environments select for relatively short-lived
organisms with small body size, early maturity, high
fecundity (capability of producing numerous
offspring), and good dispersal abilities. As might be
expected, such species are characterized by high ju-
venile mortality rates and widely fluctuating popula-
tions. Because their evolutionary success is depen-
dent on high potential population growth rates, such
organisms are called r-strategists. Among mammals,
small rodents are typically r-selected.
At the other end of the spectrum are so-called K-
strategists, organisms usually associated with rela-
tively predictable or stable ecosystems. K-strategists
are typically large-bodied, long-lived and late-
maturing. They generally have low reproductive and
dispersal rates, but also extended parental care and
thus high survival rates to maturity. The populations
of K-strategists are therefore relatively stable and
tend to press up against the fluctuating carrying ca-
pacities (K) of their ecosystems. Indeed, they are said
to be K-selected, because their individual survival
and overall evolutionary success depend on competi-
tive superiority at high population densities under
conditions of resource scarcity. Humans are clearly
K-strategists, a distinction we share with other large
mammals ranging from tapirs through elephants to
blue whales.
What has all this to do with consumption, sus-
tainability, and social transformation? I suggest that
the failure of the sustainability project to date has
much to do with the modern world’s failure to face
up to basic facts of human nature. My working hy-
pothesis is that because of certain evolutionary traits,
many associated with K selection, modern H. sapiens
is biased against sustainability. Moreover, humanity’s
technological prowess and society’s addiction to
continuous material growth reinforce the biological
drivers, making the problem particularly intractable.
More specifically, I hypothesize that unsustainability
is an inevitable emergent property of the systemic
interaction between contemporary technoindustrial
society and the ecosphere. Both genetic and socio-
cultural factors contribute to the conundrum (Rees,
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Rees: What’s Blocking Sustainability?
The Biological “Presets”
As an evolved species, H. sapiens shares basic
reproductive and survival traits with all other species.
Most importantly, experiments with organisms rang-
ing from bacteria cultured in Petri dishes to reindeer
introduced to previously uninhabited islands reveal
the following universal properties of life: unless or
until constrained by negative feedback (e.g., disease,
starvation, self-pollution), all species’ populations
expand into all accessible habitats and use all avail-
able resources (where, in the case of humans, “avail-
able” is determined by the state of technology).6
Moreover, in the competition for habitat and re-
sources characteristic of K-selected species, natural
selection favors those individuals who are most adept
at satisfying their short-term selfish needs whether by
strictly competitive or through in-group cooperative
means (see Pratarelli, 2008).7 That is, individuals
strongly predisposed to “instant gratification” may
enjoy a selective advantage over individuals who are
less aggressive in expressing their material demands.
Humanity’s well-known tendency to discount the
future—as incorporated into most economic planning
models—has almost certainly evolved by natural se-
In the course of evolution, humans have had to
compete, not only with other people, but also with
other consumer species for food and habitat. And
who can doubt that humans have prevailed in the
competition? H. sapiens’ capacity for growth and
domination “vastly outstrip those of all other species”
(Waring, 2010). Is there any sizable patch of habit-
able landscape on Earth that has not been claimed
and occupied by H. sapiens? Our species has the
greatest geographic range of any ecologically compa-
rable species—we have occupied the entire planet.
And imagine the territorial dispute that would ensue
if, miraculously, we were to discover some resource-
rich continent long lost in the vastness of the Pacific
Ocean. It is a safe bet that the conflict would not be
over how best to conserve and protect the new find in
its pristine state. Consider the international response
to disappearing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. A fully
rational species might react with alarm and redoubled
efforts to negotiate a climate change-mitigation
treaty. Instead, circumpolar nations trip over each
other as they compete to claim the newly exposed
resource endowment of the ocean floor, including
6 Deep sea drilling for petroleum is an example of a technology in
pursuit of the last deposits of “available” resources. The 2010
blowout at BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico underscores the in-
creasing risk associated with exploitation at the technological
7 Within-group (e.g., family, tribe, or nation) cooperative behavior
can increase between-group competitive success.
more of the petroleum and natural gas that are the
source of the problem in the first place! (Gamble,
This is actually the typical human response to
any resource trove. Fowler & Hobbs (2003) show
that in terms of energy use (and therefore carbon-
dioxide emissions), biomass consumption, and vari-
ous other ecologically significant indicators, human
demands on their ecosystems dwarf those of similar
species by ten or a hundredfold. Human consumption
of biomass, for example, exceeds the upper 95% con-
fidence limits for biomass ingestion by 95 other non-
human mammal species by two orders of magnitude.
These and related data show that H. sapiens has be-
come, directly or indirectly, the dominant macrocon-
sumer in all major terrestrial and accessible marine
ecosystems on the planet.8 Indeed, our species may
well be the most voraciously successful predatory
and herbivorous vertebrate ever to walk the Earth
(Rees, 2009b).
There is, however, a compound problem. First,
despite material abundance, humans’ innate competi-
tive drive as K-strategists seems relentless. We do not
have a built-in “off” switch that is tripped by suffi-
ciency (see Princen, 2010 in this issue).9 Indeed, we
habituate to any level of consumption (once a given
level is attained, satisfaction quickly diminishes) so
the tendency to consume and accumulate ratchets up.
This is particularly so if we perceive that another
social group—or country—is “getting ahead” faster
than we are. Even within wealthy societies, widening
income gaps lead to personal frustration and declin-
ing population health (Wilkinson, 1996), so efforts to
“keep up with the Joneses” continue unabated.
Second, humanity’s technological capacity to
exploit nature now exceeds nature’s regenerative ca-
pacity. Even as fish stocks decline, we both invent
new fish-finding technologies to chase remaining
schools further and deeper and switch to alternative
prey species lower in the food web. To reiterate: like
other species, humans tend to use up available re-
sources, a trait that is constantly enhanced by evolv-
ing technology.
The combined result of these forces is a defining
feature of much so-called resource management, par-
ticularly common pool assets: “While there is consi-
derable variation in detail, there is remarkable con-
sistency in the history of resource exploitation: re-
sources are inevitably overexploited, often to the
8 Ironically, economists and other technological optimists argue
falsely from monetary analyses that the human enterprise is “de-
materializing” or “decoupling” from nature.
9 It does not help matters that we have “socially constructed”
consumerism as our preferred way of life.
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point of collapse or extinction” (Ludwig et al.
Sociocultural Reinforcement
Humans are not only biological entities, but also
social and cultural beings. Much of the basis for hu-
man evolutionary success is thus derived from spe-
cies attributes that are largely sociocultural in origin.
The major means by which the products of “nurture”
accumulate include written language and humans’
unmatched capacity for social learning.
It is appropriate at this point to evoke the concept
of the “meme” as first introduced by evolutionary
biologist Richard Dawkins (1976). A meme is a unit
of cultural information that, like a gene, can be
passed between generations and that influences the
“phenotype”—the outward appearance or expres-
sion—of the society concerned. Memes are the basis
of cultural inheritance and include persistent beliefs,
entrenched assumptions, and prevailing values, as
well as scientific concepts and working technologies.
Memes have a significant “evolutionary” advan-
tage over genes in that they can spread horizontally
among living individuals in the same generation or
population. Cultural evolution is therefore much
faster than genetic evolution and is actually acceler-
ating (as evidenced by humanity’s ever-accumulating
technological toolkit). Clearly, adaptive memes or
meme complexes endow H. sapiens with a powerful
“leg up” in the Darwinian struggle for existence.11
Note that people acquire much of their memetic
endowment passively, simply by growing up in a
particular culture and being exposed to various social
contexts, including school, religious institutions,
workplaces, and the family home. The key point is
that, once acquired, such “cultural programming”
(like genetic programming), asserts considerable, of-
ten subconscious, influence over both individual and
group behavior (Wexler, 2006).
With this in mind, let us consider a particularly
powerful “meme complex” whose effect is to rein-
force humanity’s K-selected expansionist tendencies.
I submit that most of the world today is in the thrall
of a grand, socially constructed vision of global de-
velopment and poverty alleviation centered on un-
limited economic expansion fueled by open markets
and more liberalized trade (Rees, 2002). This mythic
construct springs from the demonstrably flawed as-
sumption that human well-being derives from per-
10 Not only do people deplete real natural resources, they create
virtual resources—bank loans and credit cards for example—and
use these to capacity as well.
11 A “meme complex” is an internally consistent set of concep-
tually related, mutually reinforcing memes.
petual income growth, yet it has shaped and distorted
the lives of more people than any other cultural nar-
rative in all of history.12 It has also lodged itself in
the heart of the (un)sustainability conundrum.
Allegiance to perpetual growth has actually
taken hold in a remarkably short period of time and is
still propagating into the developing world. It is true
that previous cultures experienced slow growth and
development (ultimately followed by collapse)
(Tainter, 1988). But only eight or ten generations of
people have experienced sufficient economic growth
or related technological change in their lifetimes to
notice it, and certainly the fourfold increase in human
numbers to six billion in the twentieth century is
completely unprecedented. In effect, 99.9% of human
history has been no-growth history (see Stutz, 2010
in this issue).
As an influential memetic construct, the growth
imperative is actually only two generations old. It
was only in the 1950s that economic growth emerged
from nowhere to become the “supreme overriding
objective of policy” in many countries around the
world (Arndt, 1978).
Again, the problem for sustainability is that the
perpetual growth myth knows no ecological bounds.
Mainstream academic models of the economy make
no functional reference to the ecosystems that contain
it. Collateral damage to “the environment” is consid-
ered to be a mere “negative externality” that can be
corrected by appropriate pricing (e.g., pollution
charges or taxes). Resource shortages? No matter—
we can relieve local shortages through trade, and
should the problem be more widespread, we play the
technology card—the expansionist myth asserts that
human ingenuity will find a substitute for any dep-
leting resource. As the late Julian Simon (1995) was
fond of stating:
Technology exists now to produce in vir-
tually inexhaustible quantities just about all
the products made by nature…We have in
our hands now…the technology to feed,
clothe and supply energy to an ever-growing
population for the next seven billion years.
Simon’s assertion is so arithmetically challenged
that it should be dismissed out of hand.13 Neverthe-
12 There is actually a second layer of nature-nurture interaction at
play here. Humans are genetically predisposed to storytelling. The
social construction of (perceived) reality, including disciplinary
paradigms, political ideologies, and cultural myths is a universal
property of human societies (Grant, 1998). While the tendency to
mythmaking is yet another vessel cast from our genes, what we put
into it is determined by sociocultural context.
13 When challenged on this statement, Simon backed down, stating
that the text should have read “for the next seven million years,” a
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less, true believers in the expansionist myth have
helped boost the human enterprise beyond long-term
global carrying capacity.
Beyond Carrying Capacity: The Ecofootprints
of Technoexuberance
Evidence for humanity’s culturally amplified
success as a K-strategist is clearly revealed by eco-
logical footprint analysis (EFA) (Wackernagel &
Rees, 1996; Rees, 2006; 2008; WWF, 2008). The
EFA is based on material consumption and waste
production. For any specified population, EFA esti-
mates the exclusive area of productive land and water
ecosystems required to produce the resources that the
population consumes and to assimilate some of its
Since consumption reflects income, national per
capita ecofootprints are strongly correlated with gross
domestic product (GDP) per capita. Thus, the citizens
of rich countries need in the range of four to ten
global average hectares (gha) (10 to 25 acres) per
capita to support their lifestyles while the poor get by
on less than half a hectare (one acre). The EFA thus
graphically translates socioeconomic inequity into
biophysical terms.
Ecofootprinting is a uniquely powerful sustain-
ability indicator. Unlike monetary measures such as
GDP per capita that have no theoretical limits, eco-
footprints can be compared to finite supplies. For
example, EFA shows that densely-populated rich
countries such as the UK, the Netherlands, Germany,
and Japan have ecofootprints several times larger
than their domestic productive land-water areas. Even
the much more sparsely populated United States is
living beyond its ecological means (see WWF, 2008).
All such countries have long exceeded their domestic
carrying capacities and are running ecological defi-
cits with the rest of the world—poor countries, rela-
tively low-density countries like Canada, and the
global commons.
Most critically, the global average citizen has an
ecofootprint of about 2.7 gha, while there are only
about two hectares of bioproductive land/water per
capita on Earth (WWF, 2008). In other words, the
total human ecofootprint already exceeds global hu-
man carrying capacity by over 30%. Humanity is in a
state of “overshoot” living, in part, by depleting ac-
major concession indeed. Even so, physicist Albert Bartlett (1998)
showed that, starting from the 1995 population of 5.7 billion
people, growing at just 1% per year, the human population after
“only” seven million years would be 2.3 x 1030410. This is an un-
imaginably large number, something like “thirty-thousand orders
of magnitude larger than the number of atoms estimated to be in
the known universe!”
cumulated stocks of “natural capital” (e.g., fish, fo-
rests, and soil) and degrading critical ecosystems.14
These data reveal the dangerous futility of the
world’s present growth-based approach to global
“development,” especially poverty alleviation. The
consumer lifestyles of the wealthy cannot be ex-
tended sustainably to the poor using currently avail-
able technologies (see Stutz, 2010 in this issue). To
sustain just the present world population at North
American, material standards (EF = 9.2 gha) would
require the equivalent of three to four additional
Earth-like planets (and we have yet to account for the
additional 2.5 billion people expected by midcen-
tury). By depleting natural capital and eroding life-
support systems, continued material growth under-
mines the future of global civilization.
Reason, Emotion, and Instinct: Understanding
the Triune Brain
So far, I have argued that human behavior is in-
fluenced by subconscious predispositions. However,
this does not explain why H. sapiens’ defining intel-
ligence (i.e., the capacity for abstract reasoning, for
logical thought processes) seems to play so small a
role in our collective response to escalating global
change. Here, I suggest that at least part of the reason
resides in the incomplete evolution of human con-
sciousness—H. sapiens is very much a work in
Consider an evolutionary vector that begins with
totally subconscious, autonomic, or instinctive behav-
ior and leads ultimately to actions based all but en-
tirely on conscious awareness, logical analysis, and
free will. Humans like to think that we have arrived
at the free will end of this spectrum, but much of
modern cognitive science suggests that this is largely
illusion. Psychologist Robert Povine argues from the
available evidence that the starting assumption in
behavioral psychology should be “that consciousness
doesn’t play a role in human behavior. This is the
conservative position that makes the fewest assump-
tions” (cited in Buchanan, 2007).
The material basis for the gradient of conscious-
ness is that most complex of evolved organs, the hu-
man brain. Neurologist Paul MacLean (1990) argues
that the human brain has actually evolved in at least
three broadly overlapping phases, each with its own
anatomical subcomponent having distinct functions,
memory, and “intelligence.” MacLean refers to the
three quasi-independent structures of the human brain
as the reptilian or R-complex (the brainstem and ce-
14 Eventually, of course, remaining biocapacity will be insufficient
to support prevailing population and consumption levels, so the
entire system must decline or crash.
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rebellum); the limbic or paleomammalian system;
and the neocortex or neomammalian brain. These
three sub-brains are concerned with basic survival
instincts, emotions/value judgments, and conscious
logical reasoning respectively (see Box 1). While
some critics argue that MacLean’s model oversimpli-
fies the evolution and anatomy of the human brain,
neurological research supports his general theory
(Panksepp, 1998; Ellis et al. 2009).
Whatever the human brain’s evolutionary details,
and however localized its macrofunctions might be,
the healthy brain generally acts as an integrated
whole—the various components that express instinct,
emotion, and reason are intricately interconnected,
each continuously influencing the others (e.g., emo-
tion stimulates thought and thinking may trigger
emotion). This means that the individual’s emergent
behavior and overall personality is the blended prod-
uct of diverse thoughts, emotions, and instincts.
Critically, however, there will periodically be cir-
cumstances in which one of the sub-brains, with its
distinct capacities and limitations, assumes domin-
ance—and the individual involved may not be fully
aware of what part of the brain is in control.
This last point is particularly important in the
context of (un)sustainability. Humans think of them-
selves as exemplars of conscious self-awareness—
after all, we “live” in consciousness conferred by the
human neocortex. It seems, however, that we greatly
overestimate the role of mindful intelligence while
remaining paradoxically unaware of unconscious
influences over individual and group behavior that
spring from the lower brain centers. Intelligence and
reason may not be the primary determinants of hu-
man behavior at any social scale. Indeed, the cir-
cumstances in which reason and logic dominate our
actions may actually be quite limited and their effect
relatively trivial in the grand evolutionary context.
Box 1 Elements and functions of the “Triune Brain”
(MacLean, 1990).
The reptilian complex is concerned with autonomic
functions associated with the body’s physical survival
(e.g., circulation and breathing). It also influences
instinctive social behavior (e.g., pertaining to
territoriality, social stature, mating and dominance, and
other qualities subject to K-selection), executes the fight
or flight response, and controls other mainly hard-wired
ritualistic or instinctive behaviors.
The limbic system is the primary seat of emotions (e.g.,
happiness, sorrow, pleasure, pain), personal identity
and related behavioral responses (e.g., sexual behavior,
play, emotional bonding, separation calls, fighting,
fleeing). It also houses our affective (emotion-charged)
memories and seems to be the seat of value judgments
and informed intuition.
The neocortex, or “rational brain,” is the most
evolutionarily recent, but occupies over two-thirds of the
human brain by volume. The neocortex is responsible
for the higher cognitive functions that distinguish
humans from other mammals; it is the seat of
consciousness and the locus of abstract thought,
reason, and logic. It makes us uniquely capable of moral
judgment and forward planning. The neocortex also
facilitates language, speech, and writing and, with
these, the very possibility of civilization.
The situation implies that much of expressed
human behavior, from routine one-on-one social
interaction to international political posturing, is
shaped, at least in part, by subconscious mental
processes and their associated chemical/hormonal
agents. These subconscious processes include the
innate propensities that qualify H. sapiens as a
dogged K-strategist in the competition for resources
and habitat. The problem for sustainability is that
“[b]iological drives…can be pernicious to rational
decision-making in certain circumstances by creating
an overriding bias against objective facts” (Damasio,
Everyone is aware from personal experience that
passion will trump reason in shaping one’s responses
to emotionally charged or life-threatening encounters.
Indeed, we often do foolish or regrettable things
simply to enhance our social status or maintain our
self-esteem. Most importantly, in situations of con-
flict or resource scarcity—situations that will become
increasingly frequent and severe in the international
arena—basic survival-oriented bio-behavioral predis-
positions that operate beneath consciousness (i.e., in
the limbic system and reptilian brain stem) may well
override rational thought processes. This tendency
may be particularly evident among political leaders.
In addition to being innately loyal to their tribes and
psychologically hard-wired to their political ideolo-
gies, politicians may be more than usually enslaved
to brainstem-based survival instincts, particularly the
deep-seated need to retain their wealth, prestige, and
political power.
The key point is that humanity is a deeply con-
flicted species. We are torn, on the one hand, between
what reason and moral judgment say we should do
and what pure emotion and baser instincts compel us
to do, particularly in stressful circumstances. As
Damasio (1994) explains, “There are indeed potions
in our own bodies and brains capable of forcing on us
behaviors that we may or may not be able to suppress
by strong resolution.” The neocortex, the seat of rea-
son and logic, is a relatively late arrival on the evolu-
tionary stage and does not always play a command-
ing role. In this light, it would be folly to assume that
either individuals or society, especially global
society, will necessarily deal rationally with evidence
for accelerating global ecological change.
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Toward Resolution: Can Humanity Become
[For humanity to survive the sustainability
crisis] we must rely on highly-evolved
genetically-based biological mechanisms, as
well as on suprainstinctual survival strate-
gies that have developed in society, are
transmitted by culture, and require for their
application, consciousness, reasoned delib-
eration and willpower (Damasio, 1994).
H. sapiens is clearly the highly successful prod-
uct of millions of years of K-selection, but evidence
is mounting that something has gone awry. Ironically,
it is precisely humanity’s evolutionary success that
has generated our current unsustainable state. The
innate behavioral traits that assured the competitive
supremacy and long-term survival of primitive
peoples—e.g., the tendency to act on short-term indi-
vidual (and tribal) self-interest, to discount the future,
and to adhere to successful mythic constructs—have
become maladaptive on a finite planet in the much
changed circumstances created by the expanding
human enterprise itself. Matters are complicated by
the fact that our dominant cultural narrative, the
growth-based progress myth, reinforces our now dis-
advantageous behavioral predispositions.
Human societies have always coexisted, indeed,
coevolved with the ecosystems that sustain them
(Gual & Norgaard, 2010). But human population
growth, increasing material demands, and negative
technological impacts are now conspiring in ways
that reduce the “fitness” of industrialized countries
and, indeed, of our increasingly integrated global
socioecosystem. A concise Darwinian portent of the
potential outcome is that both bad genes and inap-
propriate memes may well be “selected out” by the
rapidly changing ecosphere.
Many thoughtful people do understand our bio-
physical circumstances, appreciate the ravages of
inequity, acknowledge wealthy countries’ ethical re-
sponsibility to the poor, and agree that the problem
cannot be solved through material growth. However,
humanity’s collective response is not consistent with
either our best science or the moral imperative. As
noted at the outset, most sustainability campaigns,
corporate responses, and government policies em-
phasize “simple and painless” (read “marginal and
ineffective”) actions that require only modest adjust-
ments to personal lifestyles and none at all to the
economic growth ethic or other key beliefs, values,
and assumptions of technoindustrial society
(Thøgersen & Crompton, 2009). Green consumerism
may make people feel good, but it is still consumer-
ism and its modest gains are nullified by the Jevons
effect. Meanwhile, the world community is doing
nothing significant to address inequity directly. Ac-
cording to Pratarelli & Aragon (2008), whenever
there is clear acknowledgment of a dire problem, yet
no volition to address it, we witness a “form of uni-
versal human behavior we will label denial or self-
The inevitable result in the present context is an
accelerating global growth dynamic whose benefits
and costs are grossly inequitably distributed. The rich
get predictably richer while billions of people—half
the human family—remain malnourished and mate-
rially deprived. Meanwhile, resource consumption
and waste production per capita are still rising (even
in the richest and most efficient wealthy economies),
ecosystems are collapsing, and the income gap is still
widening. It is increasingly plausible that the total
social costs of growth (many of which go unac-
counted) now exceed the measurable benefits. If so,
the world has entered an era of uneconomic growth,
growth that impoverishes (see Daly, 1999; Siegel,
Can We Reframe the Future?
[M]an today is in flight from thinking.
—Martin Heidegger, 2003 [1955]
The much-hyped quest for sustainability has
failed to date in part because the global community is
in collective denial of reality.15 Assuming our best
science is correct, the only certain way to address
poverty while avoiding irreversible overshoot and
“irretrievably mutilating” our planetary home is to
rejig the growth machine and to implement a world
program for income/wealth redistribution. Some
movement toward income equalization is necessary
because, apart from being morally reprehensible,
gross income disparity will eventually lead to social
unrest—possibly geopolitical chaos—thus making
the achievement of ecosustainability impossible.
This is not entirely a novel proposal. As early as
1993, a workshop report by the Business Council for
Sustainable Development (now the World Business
Council for Sustainable Development) concluded that
“[i]ndustrialised world reductions in material
throughput, energy use, and environmental degrada-
tion of over 90% will be required by 2040 to meet the
needs of a growing world population fairly within the
planet’s ecological means” (BCSD, 1993) (note the
15 Hundreds of well-funded “climate-change denial” and other
contrarian organizations and websites have emerged in recent
years, swelling the ranks of those unwilling to accept the basic
science. However, this is only part of the denial—even those who
accept climate change resist making necessary changes.
Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy | Fall 2010 | Volume 6 | Issue 2
Rees: What’s Blocking Sustainability?
concessions to both gross carrying capacity and
global equity). Similarly, mainstream climate scien-
tists agree that the world should be aiming for a 50%-
80% reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions below
1990 levels by 2050 to avoid dangerous climate
change. One recent study specifically argues that to
avoid reaching a catastrophic greenhouse-gas level of
650 parts per million by volume of carbon-dioxide
equivalents (ppmv CO2e), the affluent nations will
soon have to begin decarbonizing at the “draconian”
rate of 6% per year, likely requiring a “planned eco-
nomic recession” (Anderson & Bows, 2008). Finally,
ecological footprint studies suggest that if North
Americans were serious about achieving global sus-
tainability they would be planning to reduce their
ecological footprints by 77% (from 9.2 gha to their
equitable Earth share of 2.1 gha). All such measures
would ease pressures on the ecosphere while creating
the “ecological space” required for justifiable growth
in the developing world (Rees, 2008).
Fortunately, tools are available to ease the tran-
sition should we muster the will to attempt it. For
example, with the right incentives, available technol-
ogy could enable an 80% reduction in energy and
(some) forms of material consumption without sub-
stantially affecting standards of living (von
Weizsäcker et al. 2010). Even more important, it is
increasingly clear that the present material standards
of high-income countries may actually not be worth
defending. Evidence is growing that greater in-
come/consumption no longer contributes to objective
indicators of population health or to subjective well-
being in affluent countries (Myers & Diener, 1995;
Lane, 2000; Siegel, 2006). Indeed, with the right
policies, wealthy countries could make the necessary
deep cuts in material and energy use in ways that
would actually enhance their citizens’ quality of life
(Siegel, 2006; Victor, 2008; Jackson 2009).16 Exist-
ing policies that privilege the wealthy and increase
inequity, even in rich countries, actually undermine
population health and felt well-being (Wilkinson,
1996; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009).
It is commonly argued that in every crisis is op-
portunity. The (un)sustainability crisis thus provides
the world community with the unique privilege of
intentionally scripting a new, ecologically adaptive,
economically viable, and socially equitable cultural
16 We need comprehensive programs involving tax and related
fiscal incentives to induce the development and use of more effi-
cient technologies and encourage greater investment in public
infrastructure. These measures would be combined with social
programs for greater income equity, shared work, shorter work
weeks, enhanced leisure, and investment in social capital (as a sub-
stitute for personal consumption). The overall goal would be both
to increase economic security and to create greater ecological
narrative (see Wilk, 2010 in this issue). The rate of
biological evolution may be fixed, but there is noth-
ing to prevent us from assuming conscious control
over the pace—and content—of cultural evolution.
Certainly, we have reached a crucial juncture in
human evolutionary history. On a crowded planet
facing an ecological crisis and overstocked with
nuclear weapons, short-term individual and “tribal”
interests have all but converged with humanity’s
long-term collective interests. Ecological and social
selection pressures have thus dramatically shifted. In
today’s tinderbox world, genes and ideology that ef-
fectively urge “every man for himself!” might well
mean destruction for all. In these circumstances,
long-term selective advantage may well have shifted
to genes and memes that reinforce cooperative beha-
vior, even mutual altruism.17
Fortuitously (and although they are completely
ignored by mainstream economic theory), other-
regarding emotions such as compassion, empathy,
love, and altruism are key components of the human
behavioral repertoire (Manner & Gowdy, 2010). The
central question is whether we can muster the na-
tional and international political will required pur-
posefully to create a set of “memetic mutations” that
reinforce these natural “other-regarding” feelings
(both for other people and other species). A useful
analogy underscores the potential here. The field of
“epigenetics” recognizes that particular qualities of
the biophysical environment can enhance or suppress
the phenotypic expression of various gene functions
without affecting the underlying DNA sequencing
(see Qiu, 2006; Talbott, 2010). Similarly, qualities of
the sociocultural environment (e.g., various forms of
peer pressure) can encourage the expression of desir-
able social behaviors and suppress those that have
become situationally maladaptive. In present cir-
cumstances, the global community should therefore
consciously exploit the potential of social epigenetics
as a tool in the quest for sustainability. It is time to
create or reinforce cultural memes that can put the
potential of social engineering to beneficial use.18
17 There is a counter view. It holds that some people—most likely
among the rich and militarily powerful—would survive any
human-induced apocalypse. Should this argument prevail, ancient
self-interested intelligence of the reptilian complex and limbic
system will have won out (but it will not be a pretty sight).
18 A program of planned social engineering will seem repugnant to
some people. However, we should recognize that all forms of
socialization are, in effect, “social engineering,” including today’s
misplaced affection for the market as the primary instrument of
social and economic policy. Note, too, that for several decades the
fields of public relations and advertising have deliberately used
“the social construction of reality” to create the consumer culture,
to convert active citizens into passive consuming cogs that serve
the industrial machine. In short, the present generation represents
the largest and arguably most successful experiment in social
engineering ever conducted.
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Survival 2100
In a more rational world, political leaders faced
with today’s problems would probably assemble in a
special forum specifically to renounce the failing
global growth paradigm and to formally declare the
need for a worldwide “Survival 2100” project. They
might even acknowledge the complex origins of mal-
adaptive intergroup behaviors that have long been the
bane of civilization (the twentieth century was the
bloodiest in history). Humanity must specifically
confront once-adaptive genetic predispositions that
have become hazardous on a crowded planet and
abandon the socially constructed memes that rein-
force them.
It is true that people can be individualistic, un-
feeling, and selfish. But, as noted above, they are also
capable of social engagement, compassion, and gen-
erosity of spirit. While the former qualities reflect the
dumber instincts of primitive K-strategists, the latter
must come to prevail in support of collective survival
in an ecologically full world. Again, the key is to
recognize that while all these colors can be found in
the full spectrum of human behavior, society can
make deliberate choices about which tints and shad-
ings to emphasize in the creation of its cultural narra-
Certainly, achieving ecological stability and eco-
nomic security for all will require unprecedented
heights of international cooperation in service of the
common good. To reduce the human ecofootprint, the
fetishistic emphasis in free-market capitalist societies
on individualism, competition, greed, and accumula-
tion must be replaced by a renewed sense of commu-
nity, cooperative relationships, generosity, and a
sense of sufficiency; short-term material wants must
give way to long-term basic needs.
“Survival 2100” would thus explicitly acknowl-
edge the myopic futility of a global “development”
model based on perpetual growth on a finite planet.
We need an economy oriented toward greater ma-
terial equity and true development (getting qualita-
tively better) rather than efficiency and mere untar-
geted growth (getting quantitatively bigger). The ul-
timate goal would be the creation of a dynamic, more
equitable steady-state economy serving the entire
human family within the means of nature.19
The absolute reduction of material and energy
consumption globally would obviously be a critical
material objective of “Survival 2100.” (As noted
19 “Steady-state” implies a more or less constant rate of energy
and material throughput compatible with the productive and as-
similative capacities of the ecosphere (Daly, 1991). However, this
does not imply stagnation. Scientific progress and artistic endea-
vors would be unaffected and some economic sectors would be
growing and developing even as obsolete “sunset” industries are
being phased out.
above, this will involve “contraction” by the wealthy
to free up the biocapacity—resource stocks and waste
sinks—required to support morally justifiable ma-
terial growth in poor countries.) However, reduced
gross energy and material throughput is, in itself, in-
sufficient for sustainability. “Survival 2100” would
also emphasize global population reduction. No other
action program would generate higher returns for the
planet per dollar invested. The ecosphere simply
could not sustain increasing material standards for the
poor if world population continues to increase.
How would the program be implemented? It
should already be obvious that “Survival 2100”
would require a variety of new transnational institu-
tions, including treaties and accords designed to re-
duce the population, reverse ecological decline, re-
store essential natural capital stocks, regulate trade,
and generally create the framework for a global
steady-state economy. It will also need new agencies
to implement, monitor, and enforce these yet to be
written treaties.
Success in “Survival 2100” could put the human
enterprise and nature—the global socioecosystem—
on a new, adaptive, mutually beneficial coevolution-
ary path. However, there are plenty of thorns and
potholes along the way. The required unprecedented
level of mutual trust among nations and the loss of
some national sovereignty represents two such major
stumbling blocks.20 Consider, too, the difficulty asso-
ciated with just one probably necessary sustainability
tool—a global system of ecological tax reform (e.g.,
global carbon taxation or “cap-and-trade” scheme for
various critical resources) designed to ensure the true
cost pricing of ecologically significant goods and
services. Unsustainability may be the greatest exam-
ple of market failure, but corrective measures that
involve significant government intervention in the
economy would undoubtedly provoke strident resist-
ance from a world “socially engineered” to worship
the market god and to view government—particularly
international government—as the devil incarnate.
Inevitable Pushback
Indeed, it would be naïve to think that any at-
tempt to articulate a new sustainability-oriented cul-
tural narrative would not be met by strenuous push-
back. We have already shown how reluctant society
is to respond consistently to evidence that the world
is on a collision course with biophysical reality. Few
people opt for “voluntarily simplicity” or decline un-
necessary salary increases; unions rarely bargain for
decreased wages and benefits. “Contraction” is
20 Conceivably, global goals and national targets could be set by
transnational accord but implemented by individual nation states.
This might overcome some of the objection to loss of sovereignty.
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Rees: What’s Blocking Sustainability?
simply not a narrative that resonates with the times.
On the contrary, most people are psychologically
committed to continuous economic growth, the illu-
sion of ever-increasing material prosperity, and the
myth of progress (see Princen, 2010 in this issue).
Powerful and privileged elites, those with the greatest
personal stake in the status quo, control the policy
levers that are steering us onto the ecological rocks.
The means by which people become so deeply
committed to particular beliefs has only recently been
revealed. Neurobiologists and cognitive scientists are
showing that cultural norms, beliefs, and values can
effectively be imprinted on the human brain (Wexler,
2006). (A mechanism for social epigenetics?) In the
normal course of individual development and matu-
ration, repeated social, cultural, and sensory “inputs”
actually help to imprint the individual’s synaptic cir-
cuitry in neural images of those experiences. Once
entrenched, these neural structures alter the individ-
ual’s perception of subsequent experiences and in-
formation. People tend to seek out experiences that
reinforce their preset neural circuitry and to select
information from their environment that matches
these structures. Conversely, “when faced with in-
formation that does not agree with their internal
structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret, or forget
that information” (Wexler, 2006) (i.e., denial has a
neurological basis).
Clearly, then, restructuring the world will not be
a simple matter of applied logic. We witnessed Presi-
dent Barack Obama’s “cap-and-trade” approach to
climate change be whittled to ineffectiveness by vari-
ous special interests in its passage through Congress
and then ultimately defeated. The oil industry openly
supported “public” protests of the legislation that
would limit emissions and require permits to pollute
(Krauss & Mouawad, 2009). Worse, some public
meetings on healthcare reform in the United States
attracted angry opponents openly carrying weapons.
Such belligerent and intimidating displays of emotion
abolish all logic, destroying the opportunity for the
necessary informed discourse on critical social
The lesson here is that any attempt to engineer a
social transition must confront the fact that humans
are naturally behaviorally conservative. We are in-
deed creatures of habit. Once an individual’s synaptic
pathways and associated behaviors are well en-
trenched, it is difficult for that person to adapt to sig-
21 In August, 2009, a colleague informed me that during his
presentation to a healthcare forum in the United States “a local
contractor shouted his readiness to shoot the President. He threat-
ened to beat me. No one recoiled in horror. Another defeated
political candidate instructed me that this was ‘free speech.’ These
symptoms are being manifest everywhere in the country”
(Mikulecky, 2009).
nificant changes in either the sociocultural or bio-
physical environments. To re-establish cognitive con-
sonance between programmed perceptions and new
environmental realities requires that the affected par-
ties engage in the willful restructuring of their own
neural pathways and associated belief systems. This
requires conscious effort and will not always be suc-
cessful. Even when people accept that such “repro-
gramming” is necessary, the process can be lengthy,
difficult, and unpredictable (Wexler, 2006). That
said, the human brain, even when damaged, has
proved to be remarkably plastic and responsive to
determined effort (e.g., Doidge, 2007).
It seems to boil down to this: Modern society has
been paralyzed by deep-seated cognitive dissonance,
collective denial, and political inertia in dealing with
the unsustainability conundrum. The problem has
roots in both innate behaviors and socially con-
structed beliefs that seem literally to program the
brain. What individuals hear and pay attention to (or
ignore) can thus be understood only within the con-
text of both social norms and the broader political-
economic environment (Norgaard, 2009).
Mere information, including scientific analysis
of a problem, is generally not enough to stimulate
policy reform or effective action. However, assuming
a sufficient level of fear, international agreement on
the nature of the problem, general commitment to a
collective solution, unprecedented political will, and
the creative engagement of modern communication
technologies, the world community could theoreti-
cally choose to educate the next generation from
scratch in a whole new sociocultural paradigm for
survival. This new narrative is essential to override
humanity’s now maladaptive expansionist tendencies
and to enhance other behaviors and predispositions
regarding our present cultural fitness. It is even con-
ceivable that cooperative action at the highest levels
through something like the “Survival 2100” project
would inscribe the new narrative on the resistant
psyches of the present generation. Arguably, success
in this endeavor is the only way to bring global sus-
tainability within our grasp.
Of course, for the many reasons presented earlier
in this article, there is only an infinitesimal probabil-
ity that anything like “Survival 2100” will actually be
initiated. Nevertheless, the effort to bring it forth is
worth the potential reward. By achieving a planned
sustainability, humanity, that wondrous “work in
progress,” would gain an opportunity to pull itself up
another rung on the bioevolutionary ladder, one in
which collaborative, reasoned intelligence plays a
larger role in moderating maladaptive emotion and
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Rees: What’s Blocking Sustainability?
I am grateful for a grant in support of this project from the
University of British Columbia’s Hampton Fund Program
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... Homo sapiens are innately driven as a species to populate; modern Homo sapiens are driven toward unsustainability due to our innate tendency to expand and consume (Rees, 2010). ...
... Each ecosystem from which we extract has finite resources, but we extract as if it's infinite. Rees (2010) urges that we should treat nature as 'sacred' and work in harmony with it. ...
... Articulately said, "Almost all mainstream sustainability measures implicitly assume that the problem can be solved through greater material and economic efficiency and tech 'fixes', ignoring the evidence that, to date, such strategies have actually increased the human ecofootprint" (Rees, 2010). ...
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Humanities resource use, energy consumption, economic systems, social structures and overall relationship with the environment is putting our ability to prosper in the future at risk. Humans are innately driven to expand into all accessible habitats and use all available resources. This biological drive has led to overconsumption and overpopulation patterns causing us to exceed four of nine planetary boundaries related to key ecosystem processes that we rely on for a healthy life. Much of the literature places overconsumption and overpopulation as root causes of unsustainability, but the systemic framework centered around endless growth and profit is the true driving force of all ecological and social problems. This capitalistic framework has widened the global income and wealth inequality gap. The top 1% are getting richer as the bottom 50% are getting poorer. This paper discusses systemic solutions to these systemic problems. To address population growth, nine ethical recommendations by Robert Engleman are presented. In order to evolve towards ecological and social justice, democratic-eco socialism is proposed.
... Most people don't realize that the world to which they wish to return was not normal (usual or typical) for our species. More importantly, it was not remotely sustainable , even perhaps inevitably unsustainable (Rees 2010). Indeed, it is relatively difficult to define in detail what normal behavior is for Homo sapiens as an entity, in part because of the largely blank pages of prehistory. ...
... Establishing a flexible, fair, and evidence-based system of governance for the world is, we believe, the greatest challenge facing modern Homo sapiens, the sine qua non of its survival in the new abnormal (Rees 2010). What's also clearly needed are much stronger constraints on rentier or surveillance capitalism, better judgment on technologies to deploy, avoidance of remaining stuck in a system of financial hierarchy such as has been clearly warned against (Graeber and Wengrow 2021), and a comprehensive plan of action for civilization to shrink its scale. ...
... The massive production of waste is one of the most pressing problems faced by society today [1,2]. In this regard, human consumption and production practices are having a detrimental effect on environmental quality, social equity and long-term economic stability [3][4][5]. In response to this issue, governments currently focus their policies on the circular economy [6,7], which has been proposed as an effective model through which to decrease the generation of waste and minimize the use of raw material, thereby achieving sustainable development [8]. ...
... Sustainability, for example, is "often treated as something to be attained simply by quantitative assessments, technological improvements, plus whatever behavioural adjustments are needed to 'bring us back to sustainability'", stopping our current 'misbehaviour' (Clark, 1994). "Modern H. sapiens is unsustainable by nature-unsustainability is an inevitable emergent property of the systemic interaction between contemporary techno-industrial society and the ecosphere", according to Rees (2010), explaining that what is blocking sustainability is 'human nature, cognition, and denial'. This narrative places too great an emphasis on our misbehaviour and results in interventions directed at changing it, while ignoring the reasons behind it. ...
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The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted as reference and universal guidepost for transitioning to Sustainable Development by the United Nations in 2015 as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, are intended to be used as a set of interconnected goals and global targets for ‘Transforming our world’, as the 2030 Agenda is titled. This is a far more challenging task than business as usual; it requires systems thinking for understanding the conditions that generate and propagate sustainability challenges, moving away from the reductionist and anthropocentric thinking that created them in the first place. Taking a systems approach to addressing these challenges has been gaining currency with academics and policymakers alike, and here we make the case for holistic, integrated, and interdisciplinary thinking that challenges assumptions and worldviews, crucially based on public participation and engagement, to create the enabling conditions for sustainability to emerge. System transformations require interconnected changes to technologies, social practices, business models, regulations and societal norms, an intentional process designed to fundamentally alter the components and structures that cause the system to behave in its current unsustainable ways, a paradigm shift enabling the transition to sustainability.
... Although it is 30 years old, neither the Asilomar declaration nor the 29 year-old Union of Concerned Scientists (1992) "strident assessment" (Rees 2010) about stewardship, human misery and irretrievable mutilation have not been a major concerns within the agricultural community. Their scientific and political acceptability are unknown. ...
... Although it is 30 years old, neither the Asilomar declaration nor the 29 year-old Union of Concerned Scientists (1992) "strident assessment" (Rees 2010) about stewardship, human misery and irretrievable mutilation have not been a major concerns within the agricultural community. Their scientific and political acceptability are unknown. ...
Conference Paper
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With infrastructure services demand rising, a significant contributor to sustainable development goals, infrastructure systems have to evolve and adapt effectively, efficiently, and sustainably. The broad set of decision variables coupled with the trade-off among the economic, social, and environmental aspects complicate sustainability assessment and optimization during the design stage. Thus, this paper presents a Building Information Modeling (BIM)-based automated framework for real-time evaluation and optimization of sustainability in infrastructure projects. The proposed framework benefits from infrastructure sustainability rating systems that provide a systemic and balanced set of indicators for careful consideration of sustainability. On the other hand, to automate the process, BIM, with its 3D shared environment, is used as an integrated platform for dynamic sustainability analysis. The proposed framework integrates both novelties in real-time during the early design stages, which helps designers to select the most sustainable alternative. A prototype and a hypothetical case study are conducted to validate the framework's applicability through Infraworks 360 as the operating BIM platform and Envision as the baseline rating system. The results confirm that adopting the suggested method simplifies the inclusion of sustainability into design decisions while facilitating documentation of compliance with credit assessment for both project teams and verification agencies.
The chemical era of agriculture began after 1945, when chemical fertilizers and pesticides were discovered and became widely available. Increases in crop yield and labor productivity were a result of mechanization. Further increases were the result of increased education of farmers, improved crop varieties, and improved farming practices. In 1960 there were a few people who questioned the advantages of chemical weed control. There was progress toward reduced labor for weed control and increased agricultural productivity and a quest for the development and use of herbicides in agriculture. There was no compelling reason even to consider the possible disadvantages of herbicides or other pesticides and those who mentioned such thoughts were dismissed because they did not understand agriculture and the obligation to increase food production for a growing population. This book attempts to demonstrate that underlying each set of views on important societal and agricultural issues is an unexamined ethical position. Knowing the ethical foundation for any position on an issue is an important step toward resolving the issue.
There are three primary goals of sustainable agriculture: profit over the long term, stewardship of our nation’s land, air, and water, and quality of life for farmers and ranchers and their communities. However, there is a disorienting array of interpretations of sustainability and how to achieve it. Prominent questions are presented. They include: Is achieving food sufficiency possible if population continues to grow? How long can modern agriculture’s production techniques be sustained? What must be done to achieve sustainability? And who must act to achieve sustainability? The chapter suggests that we must transform ourselves from a species that has believed it was not only possible but desirable to continue to exploit the planet for our personal gain.
À l’heure présente, la communauté scientifique des sciences de la Terre, dont les travaux permettent de définir cet âge de l’Anthropocène dans lequel nous prendrions désormais pied, se voit rejointe dans sa démarche par des intellectuels, des artistes, des architectes et/ou des activistes. Beaucoup se distinguent par leur intérêt pour l’expérience, par leur goût pour l’instrumentation, les unités de mesure, les observables, les données, les capteurs… En d’autres termes, ils font leur la nécessité de se doter d’un appareil sensible, quel qu’il soit, afin de requalifier la notion de nature. Un « art comme expérience » se présente alors en tant que connaissance par expérimentation d’une situation où l’ontologie de la relation à la nature est perturbée, altérée sinon bouleversée par l’intrusion de nouveaux êtres et par la modification conséquente de l’échelle de perception et d’action des humains. Du fait des distorsions d’échelles et de temporalités impliquées dans la notion d’Anthropocène, cette connaissance ne peut qu’être enquête. Enquête dessinant de nouveaux cosmogrammes… Si le paradigme d’un art d’investigation au sein d’écologies anthropisées prend consistance, alors il nous faudra tout réévaluer de notre approche esthétique et sensible des tremblements du monde…
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Personality Theories: Critical Perspectives is the groundbreaking, final text written by Albert Ellis long considered the founder of cognitive behavioral therapies and Mike Abrams. The book provides students with supporting and contradictory evidence for the development of personality theories through time. Without condemning the founding theorists who came before him, Ellis builds on more than a century of psychological research to re-examine the theories of Freud, Jung, and Adler while taking an equally critical look at modern, research-based theories, including an expanded version of Albert Ellis's own theory.