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What I Learned in School (in only 15,695 days) William E. Rees, PhD, FRSC UBC School of Community and Regional Planning Putting Wisdom to Work: Sustainable.

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Presentation on theme: "What I Learned in School (in only 15,695 days) William E. Rees, PhD, FRSC UBC School of Community and Regional Planning Putting Wisdom to Work: Sustainable."— Presentation transcript:

1 What I Learned in School (in only 15,695 days) William E. Rees, PhD, FRSC UBC School of Community and Regional Planning Putting Wisdom to Work: Sustainable Future? Building Sustainable Communities: Change at the Speed of Imagination Kelowna, BC (25-28 Nov 2013)

2 Summary of Major Lessons Despite what I was taught as a “scientist in training”:  H. sapiens is not primarily a “rational” species, especially in respect to longer term trends or distant events;  Individuals and institutions readily accept new information only if it reinforces the status quo; otherwise it is rejected or denied;  “Reality” is socially constructed—we make it up, partially in our own image—and it is almost never as it seems;  We exist as interdependent, cooperative, social entities (individuals and institutions) within a fully integrated ecosphere of interdependent ecosystems and yet we are taught (e.g., in economics) to act as if the world were a set of isolated, independent, competing or non-interacting atoms;  The current generation(s) of people are the most successfully socially-engineered generations ever to walk the face of Earth;  We have all the intelligence and resources necessary for a smooth transition to sustainability, yet prospects for success are grim.

3 Overshoot – Human demand now outstrips ecosystems supply. It takes more than 1.5 years for the earth to regenerate the renewable resources humans consume in a year. Human Demand: Our Global ecological Footprint Nature’s Supply: Global Biocapacity This is a World in Overshoot

4 ffads global biocapacity: 12.0 billion hectares current human eco-footprint: 19.0 billion hectares The Global Picture OVERSHOOT: Economic and material growth today is being financed, in part, by the liquidation of essential, non- substitutable self- producing natural capital and at the expense of global life support systems.

5 Proximal driver: The Anomalous, Unsustainable Oil-Based Expansion of the Human Enterprise The serious use of fossil fuel beginning in the 19 th Century allowed the explosive growth of the human enterprise Continuous growth—population and economic—is an anomaly. The growth spurt that recent generations take to be normal is the single most abnormal period of human history Population: 7.1 billion

6 Symptom: A 40% increase in atmospheric CO 2 in the past century Rate of increase (ppm/year) : : : 2.3 (accelerating!) 400 ppm May 2013

7 Result? Mean global Temp Up 0.8 C° in 125 yrs Green bars show 95% confidence intervals The upward trend continues: we’re 0.8°C above average, 0.5°C since and 2010 are tied for the warmest years on record.

8 Recent findings turn up the heat “Reframing the climate change challenge in light of post-2000 emission trends”  To stabilize GHGs at even [a catastrophic] 650 ppmv CO 2 e, the majority of OECD nations must begin to make draconian emission reductions within a decade.  Unless we can reconcile economic growth with unprecedented rates of decarbonization (in excess of 6% per year), this will require a planned economic recession. (Anderson and Bows Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A doi: /rsta ) (NB: 650 ppm CO 2 e implies a 50% probability of a 4C degree or higher mean global temperature increase by the end of the century.)


10 In general, developing countries may be hit hardest by global change  5% or more of the world’s people (350,000,000) are likely to be displaced from their settlements by sea- level rise (Stern report 2006).  This could be 2 billion or more with 4 C degrees warming. In any case:  Up to two billion people worldwide will face water shortages and up to 30 per cent of plant and animal species would be put at risk of extinction if the average rise in temperature stabilises at 1.5C to 2.5C (IPCC, Sept 2007)

11 Geo-Security Implications The Age of Consequences (November 2007). Washington, Center for Strategic and International Studies  “We predict an [inevitable] scenario in which people and nations are threatened by massive food and water shortages, devastating natural disasters and deadly disease outbreaks” (John Podesta, contributing author).  Rich countries could “go through a 30-year process of kicking people away from the lifeboat as the world’s poorest face the worst environmental consequences” (Leon Fuerth, contributing author). Global Trends 2025 – A Transformed World Washington, US National Intelligence Council (NIC)  Global demand for energy, food and water could easily outstrip available supplies over the next decade or so, thus triggering trade-disrupting international conflicts.

12 When growth is uneconomic Adapted from Daly (2005) The optimum level of consumption is reached when marginal gains equal marginal losses. Any further increase in consumption (economic scale) implies uneconomic growth (growth that makes us poorer rather than richer).

13 Even the World Bank is waking up to reality  “The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down. Only early, cooperative, international actions can make that happen” (World Bank °-Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided)

14 Why I started out as an optimist: H. Sapiens has unique potential to resolve our ecological predicament  Unparalleled capacity for evidence-based reasoning and logical analysis;  Unique ability to plan ahead;  The capacity to exercise moral judgment;  Unique diversity of mechanisms for cooperative engagement;  Compassion for other individuals and other species.

15 But is there evidence of intelligent life on Earth?  Despite decades of hardening evidence and rising rhetoric on the risks of global change, no national government, no prominent international agency, no corporate leader anywhere has begun to advocate in public let alone implement the kind of policy responses that are called forth by the best science available today.  E.g., COP19 (and all the other COPs) have been dismal failures from the perspective of our collective human interest in long-term survival.  I.e., our greatest ‘environmental problem’ is actually relatively primitive human nature—we are temporal and spatial discounters by nature.

16 Canada’s Complicity  Short-term opportunistic economic thinking and market values (sustained growth and market ‘efficiency’) have become virtually the sole drivers of economic policy at the expense of most other values.  The Harper government’s economic development strategy and BC’s economic development plan, both based on fossil fuel exports to the US and Asia will make Canada one of the world’s largest exporters of climate change that will visit eco-violence on hundreds of millions of people.  Both governments are in denial about climate change and its impacts. (Does this constitute moral negligence?) (BTW both economic strategies reaffirm Canada’s 19 th Century economic structure and role the world economy.)

17 How can this be? Are we Trapped by our ‘triune brains’? Cerebrum (Neo cortex or ‘new brain’) - logic and reason; forward thinking and planning; language and speech; Limbic System: (Mammalian or mid-brain) - Emotions, feelings; responses to food and sex; bonding and attachment; memory Reptilian Complex (Old brain) - physical survival; reproduction; social stature; fight or flight; hard-wired ritual and instinct Brain stem (RC) Cerebellum (RC) Corpus callosum

18 On Human Nature: Tension in the Integrated Mind  We think we are rational organisms. We ‘live’ in cerebral consciousness. However:  Circumstances in which reason predominates are limited to relatively trivial circumstances.  When safety or ‘survival’ (including personal prestige, socio-economic status) are threatened, innate behavioural propensities that operate beneath consciousness (in the mid-brain and reptilian brain- stem) will override rational behaviour. That is:  Passion or instinct (including greed, short-term opportunism and selfishness) often trump reason.

19 Shared Illusions: A collective shield against the harsh barbs of reality  “The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error…” (Gustave le Bon 1896).  “For us to maintain our way of living, we must… tell lies to each other, and especially to ourselves… [the lies] are necessary because without them many deplorable acts would become impossibilities” (Jensen 2000).

20 Further complications pertaining to ‘reality’ – we make it up as we go!  The ‘social construction of reality’ is a universal phenomenon within and across cultures.  Every religious doctrine, political ideology, scientific theory, academic paradigm, mythic worldview, social norm and cultural narrative is a ‘social construct’.  Each such construct is first birthed in language as an uneasy blend of facts and beliefs, values and assumptions; the whole is massaged and polished by social discourse and frequent repetition  A particular construct eventually becomes elevated to the status of ‘received wisdom’ by tacit agreement among members of the social group creating the construct.

21 Alternative constructs compete for dominance  Not all constructs are equally valid.  “You may say, if you wish, that all reality is a social construction, but you cannot deny that some constructions are ‘truer’ than others.  They are not ‘truer’ because they are privileged, they [become] privileged because they are ‘truer’” (Postman 1999).

22 Popper put it this way  “What the scientist’s and the lunatic’s theories have in common is that both belong to conjectural knowledge. But some conjectures are much better than others…” (Karl Popper, The Problem of Induction)

23 Even ‘hard science’ is afflicted  “… a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” (Max Planck, 1949)

24 The problem is universal and persistent (i.e., it’s part of fundamental human nature)  “Not truth, but error has always been the chief factor in the evolution of nations…” (Le Bon 1895).  “Wooden-headedness, the source of self deception...plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions [i.e., ideology] while ignoring any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts” (Tuchman 1984).

25 Why is this relevant?  See the Lewis Powell Memo (or Powell Manifesto) of 23 August, 1971 at:  Read at least: a) Lewis Lapham’s analysis (Tentacles of Rage: The Republican Propaganda Mill, a Brief History) Harpers, 1 Sept 2004) Propaganda1sep04.htm b) this excerpt from Winner Take-All-Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class (J.S Hacker and P. Pierson) at: call-to-arms-for-corporations/ c) Bill Moyers’ analysis at: launderers-in-the-trafficking-of-power-and-policy-2 Propaganda1sep04.htm call-to-arms-for-corporations/http://www.truth- launderers-in-the-trafficking-of-power-and-policy-2

26 The Powell Memo galvanized business circles in reframing popular political discourse Powell asserted that:  the “American economic system is under broad attack.”  “Business must learn the lesson... that political power is necessary; that such power must be assiduously cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination—without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.”  “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”  The latter was to include the financing of neoliberal economics departments, new think-tanks, and other front groups of many kinds.

27 Result? A dramatic, rapid mobilization of corporate resources in the mid-1970s (which persists to this day)  The number of corporations with public affairs offices in Washington grew from 100 in 1968 to over 500 in In 1971, only 175 firms had registered lobbyists in Washington, but by 1982, nearly 2,500 did.  The number of corporate PACs increased from under 300 in 1976 to over 1,200 by the middle of  Powell’s impetus inspired the Business Roundtable, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy (precursor to Americans for Prosperity) and other organizations united in pushing back against political equality and shared prosperity.

28 One Example of Corporate ‘Engagement’  The Center for American Progress Action fund identified at least $85 million the Koch brothers have given to 85 right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups in the decade and a half up to  GreenPeace claims that from 1997 to 2011, the Koch Brothers alone funneled over $67 million to climate-denial think tanks and other front groups, I.e., organizations who are working in lockstep with the Kochs’ ideological agenda while presenting themselves as experts.

29  Politicians often show willful ignorance; blindness to scientific data and analysis (deep denial);  Governments reject planning in favour of short-term market indicators;  Society has abandoned moral and ethical concerns in favour of self-serving short-term opportunism;  We promote crass individualism at the expense of the common good (including our collective interest in survival);  Competitive belligerence dominates cooperation (in both markets and international affairs). The power of neo-liberal constructs over biophysical data and reason

30 Once entrenched, a popular narrative is difficult to contradict or dislodge  During individual development, repeated sensory experiences and cultural norms literally shape the human brain’s synaptic circuitry in patterns that reflect and embed those experiences. Socially constructed patterned thinking acquires a physical presence in the brain.  Subsequently, people seek out compatible experiences and, “when faced with information that does not agree with their [preformed] internal structures, they deny, discredit, reinterpret or forget that information” (Wexler, 2006).

31 We have been socially engineered to ignore reality

32 Result: This is a new age of unreason, the 21 st Century Endarkenment

33 SO, THE QUESTION OF THE DAY: Granted that passion, instinct and neural programming often trump reason, we can still ask what an intelligent, forward- thinking, compassionate species might do in light of available data, the historical record and on-going trends, to enhance survival prospects for contemporary society?

34 The Obvious Answer  We have to re-engineer society to be more ecologically sensitive, socially responsible and community oriented:  The global community needs to focus on the design of cooperative institutions and mechanisms to reflect humanity’s collective interest in survival.  All we need is a few hundred million dollars and several decades—social learning, particularly the deliberate construction of an entire cultural paradigm, can be enormously expensive and a gluttonous time vampire (Just ask the Koch Brothers).

35 Society must consciously construct and propagate a new cultural narrative ( i.e, when one model fails, construct a new one)  For sustainability, we must learn to override innate expansionist tendencies and abandon our socially constructed perpetual growth myth.  We need a new global cultural narrative that shifts the values of society from competitive individualism, greed, and narrow self-interest, toward community, cooperation and our collective interest in repairing the earth for survival.  The world should be working to establish a smaller steady-state economy that enables the human family to live more securely and equitably within the means of nature.

36 Motivation and Rationale? It in everyone’s long-term best interest  Individual and national interests have converged with humanity’s common interests. That is;  Sustainability is a collective problem that demands collective solutions (no country can become sustainable on its own);  Failure to act for the common good will ultimately lead to civil insurrection, geopolitical chaos, resource wars and ecological destruction.

37 Bottom Line: Let’s get real! In coming years, the human enterprise will likely contract. As an intelligent, forward- looking moral species we can choose between:  Business as usual – risking a chaotic implosion imposed by nature followed by geopolitical turmoil and resource wars or:  A well-planned, orderly and cooperative descent toward a socially just sustainability for all. The world community has no real choice but tolearn to live more equitably within nature’s budget.


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