If you’re puzzled as to why my most frequent blog entry is a copy of a message to my elected representatives calling for macroeconomic reforms designed to protect our environmental commons, such as establishing a greenhouse gas emissions cap & emissions trading market (another entry coming soon!), I implore you to listen to this lecture by William Rees, the father of the concept of the ecological footprint, aired on TV Ontario’s Big Ideas program. I find Rees’s systems analysis of the sustainability of our modern city-centered societies compelling & troubling. I’m an optimist regarding our ability to meet the environmental issues that face us, but I believe that as much as individual sentiment & cultural norms will be important in shifting our path, achieving sustainability will equally require structural changes in our economy & society as well as radical technological innovations and adoption of “greener” nonpolluting energy sources and more efficient production, as outlined in Hawken & Lovins’ Natural Capitalism.
However, on that last point, Rees’s boat-loading metaphor is well taken: efficiently overloading a boat ends as or even more poorly as inefficiently overloading a boat. For that reason, we must have economic systems that tell the ecological truth so that the incentives that drive individual behavior align with the protection of the global commons instead of working toward its degradation. While I disagree with his emphasis on government subsidies because I see them as both cybernetically inappropriate and dangerously autopoietic, I find compelling along these macro-economic lines Lester Brown’s presentation of environmental tax shifting in both Eco-Economy & Plan B 2.0. Similar points are made well in The Atlantic Monthly article “Can Seflishness Save the Environment?“
Regardless of the complex combination of strategies it will take to lead us to a sustainable civilization, we should be all humbled by the recognition that our individual wellbeing is inextricably linked to that of the planet. As Rees points out in this Big Ideas lecture, “Mother Earth” is not just a metaphor, it’s an objective fact. At birth, we trade the life-sustaining umbilical cord, which for 9 months of gestation provided us with food & removed our wastes through intimate, physical connection with our biological mother, for the no less real food, material, and energy flows which continue to provide us with the same life-sustaining functions and define our individual & collective ecological footprints, through our various, equally critical, umbilical connections with our Mother Earth.