William Rees has taught at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) since 1969-70. He founded SCARP’s ‘Environment and Resource Planning’ concentration and from 1994 to 1999 served as director of the School. Prof Rees’ teaching and research focus on the public policy and planning implications of global environmental trends and the necessary ecological conditions for sustainable socioeconomic development. Much of this work is in the realm of human ecology and ecological economics where Prof Rees is best known as the originator of ‘ecological footprint analysis.’ Dr Rees’ book on this method, Our Ecological Footprint (1996, co-authored with then PhD student Mathis Wackernagel) is now available in English, Chinese, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Latvian and Spanish. He is presently supervising several eco-footprint projects ranging from the sustainability implications of globalization to getting serious about urban sustainability.
Prof Rees is also a founding member and recent past-President of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics; a co-investigator in the ‘Global Integrity Project,’ aimed at defining the ecological and political requirements for biodiversity preservation; a Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute and a Founding Fellow of the One Earth Initiative. Drawing parts of his answer from various disciplines, Prof Rees’ current book project asks: “Is Humanity Inherently Unsustainable?” A dynamic speaker, Prof Rees has been invited to lecture on areas of his expertise across Canada and the US, as well as in Australia, Austria, Belgium, China, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, the former Soviet Union, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden and the UK. In 1997, UBC awarded William Rees a Senior Killam Research Prize in acknowledgment of his research achievements and in 2000 The Vancouver Sun recognized him as one of British Columbia’s top “public intellectuals.” In 2006 Prof Rees was elected to the Royal Society of Canada and in 2007 he was awarded a prestigious 3-year Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation Fellowship.
Major Areas of Expertise in Sustainability Planning
1) Human bio-ecology and the ecological basis of civilization
Modern techno-industrial society is a product of the ‘enlightenment project’ and is deeply rooted in what philosophers refer to as ‘Cartesian dualism.’ This perspective sees humans as somehow separate from the biophysical world, assumes we are masters of nature and enables us to act as if society is not subject to serious ecological constraints. Dualism, and its companion expansionary-materialist worldview, are arguably the major source of many of the so-called ‘environmental problems’ confronting humankind today. Much of my work, by contrast, adopts a bio-ecological perspective that recognizes that humans are part of nature (in fact, we are the dominant consumer organism in all major ecosystems on the planet), that we cannot assert effective control over critical ecosystems and that the future development of civilization is seriously constrained by natural limits. My research on the means for achieving sustainability therefore leads to policies and planning that is cognitive of potentially dangerous biophysical trends. My approach argues for managing human demand rather than resources.
2) Ecological economics: Biophysical realities in resource allocation and distribution
Mainstream neo-liberal economic theory is rooted in concepts borrowed from Newtonian analytic mechanics. This paradigm fosters the development of simple, reductionist, linear, deterministic, single equilibrium-oriented models that are highly abstracted from biophysical reality. Conventional economists also tend to see the human economy as a distinctly separate system, all but independent of the ecosphere. This frees the discipline to emphasize efficiency and continuous economic growth. By contrast, the emerging ecological economic perspective is derived from political science, ecology, far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics and complex systems theory. Its models are characterized by real-world complexity, including non-linear behaviour (surprise) and multiple equilibria. From their more holistic perspective, ecological economists see the economy as a dependent, growing, fully-contained sub-system of a non-growing finite ecosphere. Ecological economics therefore emphasizes steady state dynamics, biophysical limits and social equity. My major contribution in this domain is the development of ‘ecological footprint analysis’ (EFA), a quantitative tool based on energy and material flows that estimates the area of productive ecosystems required to sustain any specified human population or economic activity. EFA has done much to re-open the debate on human carrying capacity—we’d need four additional Earth-like planets to raise just the present world population to North American levels of consumption—and suggests novel interpretations of key planning ideas such as what constitutes ‘urban’ land.
3) Global change and the dynamics of societal collapse
In 1995, anthropologist Joseph Tainter wrote: “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…” Ominously, modern, complex global techno-industrial society exhibits many symptoms similar to those that heralded previous societal collapses. More ominous still, contemporary decision-making processes seem incapable of responding creatively to the gathering evidence of potential crisis. While science is advancing a coherent understanding of the proximal conditions and mechanisms that precipitate collapse, I am most interested in the ‘distal’ factors that drive human societies to expand and complexify to the point where implosion seems inevitable. Is the cycle of human society similar to the “never-ending adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring [collapse] and renewal” that we find in nature? Most important, is our more knowledge-intensive modern society capable of breaking free of the cycle of collapse that characterized earlier civilizations?