Sustainable Degrowth and Relocalizing our Economies: An Interview with William Rees

This blog is part of the ‘Voices of New Economies‘ series within Cities for People – an experiment in advancing the movement toward urban resilience and livability through connecting innovation networks.
The Voices of New Economies series is collectively curated by One Earth and The Canadian CED Network.
This series is an exploration of what it takes to build the economies we need – ones that work for people, places, and the planet. We are connecting key actors, finding patterns, noting interesting differences, and highlighting key concepts and initiatives. Together, this series offers insights into the new economies movement as it develops.
By Jane Zhang*WmRees

  1. In your view, what are three key elements of “new economies”?
  • Recognizing natural limits
    The overarching problem is one that the mainstream has yet to acknowledge: on a planet already in overshoot, there is no possibility of raising even the present world population to developed country material standards sustainably with known technologies and available resources. By 2008, the world population had reached 6.7 billion—it’s 7.3 billion today—while there were only about 12 billion productive hectares on Earth, or just 1.8 average hectares per capita. We can refer to “1.8 average hectares per capita” as one’s equitable “Earth share.” It represents the biocapacity available to support each person, assuming the world’s productive ecosystems were distributed equally among the entire human population. The problem is, it currently takes 4-7 global average productive hectares to provide ‘natural income’ (resources) and life-support services to the average European or North American. How many more planets do we need for sustainability? You do the math!
  • Societal cooperation
    (Un)sustainability is a collective problem. No individual can implement the policies necessary (e.g. carbon taxes, resource quotas) to significantly reduce his/her ecological footprint or revamp the social programs needed for social stability. No country, however virtuous, can be sustainable on its own or remain insulated from global turmoil. Thus, the so-called developed world, long steeped in the rhetoric of competitive individualism, must now grapple with the notion that individual and national interests have all but converged with humanity’s common interests. Working co-operatively for the common good will require the ardent exercise of several intellectual and behavioural qualities that are unique (or nearly so) to our species, such as high intelligence, the ability to plan ahead, socio-behavioural means for cooperation, moral judgment, and empathy. The question is, are we up to the task or will we succumb to primitive combative tribalism?
  • Planned economic degrowth
    Renegrade economist Kenneth Boulding once said, “Anyone who believes in indefinite growth in anything physical, on a physically finite planet, is either mad or an economist.” The contemporary growth economy is a malignant social construct. We need to replace it with an ecologically benign and socially equitable no-growth variant. This idea is not new— in the mid-18th Century, Adam Smith predicted the slowing of growth as inevitable. Almost a century later, John Stuart Mill argued that society would reach a “stationery state”, but he hoped people would plan a deliberate transition to this steady state before nature imposed it upon them.

2. Why degrowth, and what does steady-state sustainability with justice look like?
First of all, remember that continuous growth of anything in a finite space is anomalous and ultimately self-correcting. For 99.9% of human history, local populations rarely grew for extended periods but rather fluctuated near carrying capacity as a function of food supplies, disease, etc. The recent 200 years of continuous growth that we consider the norm is actually the single most abnormal period in human history.
Keep in mind that economic production is actually mostly a consumptive process. Manufacturing, for example, immediately irreversibly transforms large quantities of useful energy and material into an equivalent mass of useless waste (and even the smaller quantity of useful product eventually joins the waste stream). Humans are literally converting the both the non-renewable and self-producing ‘resources’ of Earth into more human bodies, toys and furniture, and the infrastructure needed to maintain civilization. The present scale of economic activity depletes essential ecosystems faster than they can regenerate.
Remember too that beyond a certain income level (long passed in high-income countries), there is no further positive correlation between GDP per capita and objective indicators of either population health or perceived well-being. Indeed, growth can become destructive. Once basic material needs are met, it is not rich countries but rather countries with greater income equality that perform better on standard quality-of-life indicators. Greater social equity is “better for everyone.”
With integrated fiscal, tax, employment and population policies and the like, it should be possible to create an ecologically viable, more equitable, economically stable, no-growth economy with minimal unemployment and poverty. It is important to emphasize that such a ‘steady-state’ economy need not be a stagnant economy. It can be dynamic, evolving, constantly improving. For example, as we phase out obsolete industries, new technologies and the service sector will actually expand. The idea is to maintain energy and material consumption at constant sustainable levels while creating the conditions necessary for greater personal development and improved quality of life. Society needs to get better, not bigger.
3. How does this relate to cities?
Urban designers and planners should begin now to rethink cities—or rather urban regions—so they function as complete quasi-independent human ecosystems. The least vulnerable and most resilient urban system might be a new form of urban-centered bioregion, or eco-city state, in which a densely built-up core is surrounded by essential supportive ecosystems. The goal is to consolidate as much as possible of the human community’s productive hinterland in close proximity to its consumptive centre. Organic “wastes” and nutrients could then be economically recycled back to farms and forests. Such a bioregionalized city would reconnect its human population to “the land.” Citizens would see themselves to be directly dependent on local ecosystems and thus have a strong incentive to manage them sustainably. Ideally, regional eco-cities would develop economic and social planning policies to maintain sustainable populations and to facilitate reducing their residents’ ecological footprints to a globally equitable 1.8 gha per capita.
4. What does real wealth mean to you?
Real wealth is the contentment that comes from a sense of self-worth and belonging. Real wealth derives more from intangibles than from material goods. It is rooted in community, rich personal relationships, success in the achievement of one’s potential and the opportunity to contribute to the betterment of one’s society. It is dependent on the security of person that can come only from supportive family and friendships and a society characterized by well-developed social infrastructure (e.g., public education, health care) and governed for economic and ecological stability.
*Mostly adapted from “Avoiding Collapse: An agenda for sustainable degrowth and relocalizing the economy”

William Rees is an ecological economist Professor Emeritus and former director of the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning. The originator of eco-footprint analysis, he has an extensive opus of peer-reviewed articles on the biophysical prerequisites for sustainability in an era of accelerating ecological change. Dr. Rees was a founding director and past-president of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics, a founding director of the One Earth Initiative and, a Fellow of the Post-Carbon Institute and the winner of several major international awards.