You are hereProfile of Ecological Footprint inventor William Rees

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Profile of Ecological Footprint inventor William Rees

By RA - Posted on 27 October 2006

As a boy working on his grandparents' farm in eastern Ontario, William Rees found his vocation in life. Rees, a professor at the UBC's School of Community and Regional Planning, calls it his epiphany. It was also the root of his now famous "ecological footprint" that has been adopted by individuals, organizations and policy makers across the globe as a tool for understanding the impact we as humans are having on our environment.

It was a hot July day in the early Fifties. He and his gang of cousins had been labouring in the fields all morning and they were sitting on his grandmother's country porch for lunch. Piled on his plate was beef, chicken, new potatoes, spinach, baby carrots, a large leafy salad and other food produced on the farm.

"Everything on the plate, I'd had a hand in growing," he tells me, sitting on his back deck in Dunbar in the afternoon sun. "And as I stared at that plate just waiting for grandpa to say grace, I felt as if I was in an elevator in freefall... It was such an overwhelming experience of connectedness to the earth." Rees stops short of calling it a religious experience, but that powerful realization-that he describes as being "so upsetting" because he had never experienced anything like it before-set his course in life. "It made me convinced, more than any other method could possibly have done, that we are firmly a part of the ecosystem, that we are absolutely connected to the planet."

When it came to choose what to study at university 10 years later, that memory came back to him. "It was just as if it was a message: 'This is what you must do. Explore the human relationship to the rest of nature.'"

This isn't the kind of talk you expect from a high-brow intellectual, but Rees has never followed a conventional path. That intuitive sense of belonging to nature has guided him throughout his career, against a prevailing and often hostile current of opinion that views humankind as somehow separate, above, and in control of nature. It nourished him intellectually through years of professional doubt as a "na‹ve," young academic when his ideas about sustainability were slapped down. It seeded a concept-Ecological Footprint Analysis (EFA)-that has taken on a meme life and is flashing warning lights about the dangers our lifestyles pose to our future and to life on Earth. Intuitively, intellectually, passionately, Rees believes we must overcome our alienation from nature and reconnect with it for the survival of our species-before it is too late.

Rees discovered early on that studying humanity's relationship with nature was not easy. "I was frustrated in university, and subsequently in trying to get a job, in that nobody considered humans as a species of organism," he says. "I wound up studying birds, because in a department of zoology you don't study people."

In 1969, having gained a PhD from the University of Toronto in population ecology, Rees was fortunate that a unique interdisciplinary position came up at UBC. The School of Planning was looking for someone with a background not in economics, sociology or the traditional planning disciplines, but in biological sciences. "I was well primed to get it because I was about the only one on the continent at the time who was really moving in this direction," says Rees.

Feeling the isolation of being the lone ecologist in the department, he started "messing around" with a concept that had always interested him-carrying capacity. Traditionally, carrying capacity is defined as the number of organisms of any species that can be continuously supported in a given habitat without those organisms destroying the habitat (for example, through over-grazing). Rees developed "a simple little model" showing that the human carrying capacity of the Lower Mainland was less than half of the population of the time. He presented it to colleagues.

One of them, a prominent Canadian resource economist, took him to lunch and with genuine concern told him that if he continued to pursue his research interests as expressed in that little paper, his career at UBC would be "nasty, brutish and short." Didn't he know? Carrying capacity as a concept had been demolished long since-trade, technology and human ingenuity could make up for any regional resource shortfalls.

Rees, whose formal training had not extended much beyond biology, had no response for his economist colleague. He left that meeting, he says, "tail lodged firmly between my legs." But he didn't give up on the idea of carrying capacity and it bothered him that traditional measurements of human development, such as gross domestic product (GDP), took no account of man's impact on nature. Rather, as natural resources are depleted, GDP continued to go up in the opposite direction. Something didn't feel right. "I was probably thinking this through every night when I was sleeping," he says. After several years and much reading and rumination, he had his eureka moment while lying in bed one night.

"It was a light bulb turning on," he says emphatically. "Ask the question inverted! If you have a certain population: how much area is required to support it? So instead of asking how many animals per unit area, ask how much area per unit animal. That's the ecological footprint."

Initially, as he developed the concept with his students, he called it the less catchy "regional capsule concept." The expression came from an exercise where he asked students to imagine how long the city would last if it was enclosed in a massive bell jar (the answer: two days). Then in 1990, he was writing his first formal paper on the regional capsule concept when a colleague interrupted him to see his new computer. Rees remarked on how he liked the smaller footprint of the mini-tower on his desk when suddenly he had the name: ecological footprint.

Ten years have passed since Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, who developed EFA with Rees for his PhD thesis, published their book Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. EFA has entered the mainstream. Many of us are now familiar with the idea that if everybody in the world were to live like we do in Vancouver, we would need four Earths to sustain us. The eco-footprint of the average Vancouverite is six to eight hectares of the Earth's productive ecosystem per person. It takes six to eight hectares to continuously sustain our lifestyles-well over the equitable Earth-share of 1.8 hectares per person.

Low consumption in the poorest nations (Somalia, for example, is only 0.4 hectares per person) reduces the overall eco-footprint of humanity on our finite planet, but our species as a whole is using up nature's productive capacity faster than it can replenish it. "Overshoot," is what Rees has called it. "We are using the planet as if it were 20 per cent bigger than it is." That figure doesn't account for those creatures, such as seals that hunt fish, that compete with us for resources. Otherwise the overshoot figure would be higher.

We can eat into nature's vast capital for some time without noticing anything is wrong but all the time shrinking the carrying capacity of the planet. The ecological damage is out of sight of the biggest consumers in wealthy cities such as Vancouver, because we trade. "We don't live here. We happen to have our bodies here. But the stuff that keeps us going is all over the rest of the planet," says Rees. "We're exploiting two things in Asia-cheap labour and the environment." He was appalled by the air pollution on a recent visit to the city of Suzhou, China. He suggests that the litany of ecological disasters in the daily news, depleted fisheries, disappearing forests, species extinction, are clear signals that levels of consumption are leading toward a global ecological crash.

Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan has been a long-time admirer of Rees's work. He admits the challenges he faces as a policy maker are daunting. "It will require us to change our lifestyles or behaviour," Sullivan says during an interview at city hall, before going into the first council meeting of the fall. "All we can do is start making changes, be as aggressive as we can within the limits of our political system."

Sullivan believes that the eco-footprint concept is a simple, clear way of communicating the problem as he embarks on his EcoDensity initiative, announced in June, to "reduce the city's ecological footprint and make home ownership more affordable." Dense, well-planned urban neighbourhoods where people walk, bike or take transit to work, and use less energy in compact, energy-efficient apartments have significantly smaller eco-footprints than sprawling suburbia. Sullivan hopes through public consultation that people will reach the same conclusion that he has, that you can have increased density and a high quality of life while reducing our impact on the global commons. "When people face that stark decision-which generation do I want to doom to extinction?-maybe that will help us make the decision that we need to make," he says.

Rees, who provided a brief for the mayor's initiative, is cheered by Sullivan's decision to pursue urban densification, but he doubts whether cities alone can make us sustainable. Densification may reduce reliance on private automobiles-one of the biggest contributors to our eco-footprint-but if we use money that would have been spent on gas to fly across the world, the consumption has merely been displaced. Rees wants the federal government to introduce tax shifting initiatives, such as big hikes in fuel taxes to reflect the social and environmental costs of our purchasing decisions.

"Here's how to get sustainable on this planet," he says, leaning forward in his chair, his eyes intent. "Reduce. That's all it takes. If what we are actually doing isn't reducing the amount of energy and material consumption, we're not getting sustainable... the language sounds good, but it's not achieving any purpose."

EFA is a relatively young tool, but it's catching on fast both at the grass roots level and with policy makers. The expression "ecological footprint" entered the Oxford English Dictionary two years ago, along with, ironically, "astrobiology" (the branch of biology concerned with the discovery of life on other planets or in space), Taikonaut (a Chinese astronaut) and the more down-to-earth "congestion charge."

Eco-footprint co-developer Wackernagel has gone on to set up the Global Footprint Network ( in 2003, which now has over 70 international partners, including government agencies and non-governmental organizations. It has set itself the ambitious goal of ending global overshoot, with an initial target of having 10 nations adopt EFA alongside GDP as a metric for national development by 2015. "It's not just a moral battle, it's become a battle of self-interest," says Wackernagel on the phone from Oakland, Calif. Canada is among those potential top 10, although it's difficult to see how the federal government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, still choking on the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, will take to the idea of ecological footprints and overshoot.

While the popularization of EFA reflects its strengths as a communication tool, critics in the scientific community have pointed to its shortcomings as an analytical tool. For example, EFA assumes that productive land is being used sustainably (in fact, much of it may be degraded). EFA also must introduce a workaround solution to incorporate nuclear power in its calculations. Rees agrees there are imperfections, but says EFA gives us a sufficiently accurate snapshot which governments can act on.

Those in the ethical investment industry are still grappling with EFA and its findings. Bob Walker, vice-president sustainability at Ethical Funds, a "socially responsible" mutual funds company based in Vancouver, says that while his company uses similar aspects of analysis as EFA to rate companies on their social and environmental records, it could be three to five years before Ethical Funds seriously adopts the tool. One of the problems, he says, is getting all the necessary data from companies.

Data is all-important and in the interests of maintaining consistency between government agencies, organizations, corporations and communities, the Ecological Footprint Network recently announced its first Ecological Footprint Standards (the same day Sullivan announced his EcoDensity initiative). The WWF produces a Living Planet Report (download available from with eco-footprints for the countries around the world. It uses up to 4,000 data points to analyze a country's demands on nature and biological capacity. The analysis has become increasingly refined, but not everybody is paying attention.

Walker says most investment analysts are oblivious to the debate about ecological overshoot. "They'd be very much of the view that technology and the laws of supply and demand will work this through," he says. "The mindset seems to be that if these issues were important, we'd know about them. Since we don't know about them, they cannot be important."

Rees is keenly aware of the problems posed by ideology and mindsets. He has written extensively about the dangers posed by the developed world's comforting but "dysfunctional myth" that sustainable economic growth is possible. He sees this as a convenient invention used to paper over the reality of the planet's inequitable distribution of global resources and disappearing natural capital.

Rees, who did a brief stint as a Liberal advisor on environmental policy in the '70s, writes regularly to energy ministers about his fears concerning peak oil, which he anticipates to occur within a decade, ongoing subsidies for the oil industry, and alternative energies such as ethanol and bio-fuels, which he argues will have an even bigger eco-footprint than the fossil fuels they are replacing. "Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!" he says.

He writes these letters in his own time, as a concerned citizen, often including a detailed brief. The response has become discouragingly predictable.

"The letters I get back, often signed by the minister... say, 'Look, we're confident the market will take care of everything, that we're doing just the right thing. There's no fear of running out of oil or gas,'" he says.

The subject of his next book, due in a few years, attempts to explain why in his view "humanity is inherently unsustainable." While he vacillates between optimism and pessimism about our ability to control our destiny, his commitment remains an inspiration to others. Wackernagel believes Rees's interdisciplinary approach and low tolerance for paradigms and dogma have given him staying power where others would have been beaten down long ago. That, and his deeply held belief that we are primarily biological beings with biological impulses and needs. "He has not given up on that message and has tried all kinds of different ways of explaining that to people," says Wackernagel.

Jennie Moore, director of Sustainable Development and Environmental Stewardship at BCIT, is just starting her PhD on the "restorative footprint" of cities with Rees. She is investigating how closely the region can go toward achieving our "Earth Share" (the 1.8 hectares per capita). Moore, whose expertise is in the social and political barriers to sustainability, knew all along she wanted to work with Rees. "I really enjoyed doing my masters with Bill-the level of intellectual challenge and personal commitment. He's a fabulous human being in many regards."

There's no doubt that his continuing efforts and passion have contributed to the eco-footprint's success. "He's been incredibly supportive," says Dagmar Timmer, who helped organize an early morning event at the World Urban Forum in June where Rees gave a presentation. She was particularly impressed at how receptive he was to highly critical questions and his willingness to share his intellectual property. At the end of his presentation, Rees told people to email his Powerpoint around to everybody. "There's a real sense of building a movement together as opposed to being a personality and I like that."

There's a long way to go. Even for someone as committed as he is, Rees concedes that getting your eco-footprint down to 1.8 hectares is not easy in a typical North American city. "I am not sustainable," he admits. He says he should be living in a house built to R-2000 or better standard, which implements water and energy conservation practices from efficient appliances and uses recycled and sustainable building materials. Instead he lives on a spacious lot in a single family house. In his defence, he's a single father with two sons, 20 and 16 years old, and while others would have knocked the old building down, he's upgraded it to reduce his eco-footprint, adding insulation and converting to fluorescent light bulbs that are four times as energy efficient as incandescent bulbs.

He grows green beans, tomatoes, red chard, zucchini, turnip, and rhubarb in his backyard. Sprouting straight out of the grass on his lawn, where he has been experimenting with eco-friendly, zero tillage growing, are rows of corn and squash. The corn plants at six feet tall are a little stunted and the squash spindly due to a huge wall of foliage that blocks out the sunlight. He plans on cutting it back next year to help his crops grow better.

Rees eats meat two or three times a week, even though vegetarian diets have a significantly reduced eco-footprint. He argues that humans are biologically evolved as carnivores and he always tries to eat small amounts of local, organic meat.

He struggles to buy local simply because it's not there. He is in an ongoing battle with the manager of his neighbourhood grocery store to stock more local B.C. produce. "They have eight bins of different kinds of potatoes, all from the States, except for one-they have nugget potatoes from B.C. So we grow some greenhouse tomatoes and lettuce. Big deal!"

Rees argues that we should be growing much more of our city's food locally, for several reasons including nurturing a responsibility for the land that feeds us. He's distressed we are paving over the most productive farmland in the Lower Mainland for urban development and roads.

He has two small cars. One is on its last legs and the replacement car, a fuel-efficient Toyota Echo, was purchased before it went out of production. "The Echo will probably last longer than me at my current rate of deterioration," he says. He rarely drives in town-only usually for emergencies or for carrying heavy loads. He prefers travelling on one of his three bicycles or transit (options, he acknowledges, many suburbanites do not have). He's put more mileage in town on his bike than his car, having cycled to work every day for the last 35 years of his career.

How often does he fly? "Don't ask me that," he smiles. Being in demand as an eloquent speaker, means many air trips across the planet (half a dozen work trips over this summer alone). He sees it as a necessary evil to get the word out. "You do the cost-benefit analysis," he says, with a shrug.

Faced with the suggestion that EFA paints a depressing picture, Rees will have none of it. "No, it's not. It's hugely optimistic," he says, his voice rising with excitement. "We're on the Titanic... Remember the movie? The movie was a wonderful analogy." He talks faster. "There was a big debate over whether they could make a record crossing across the Atlantic and everybody's gung-ho to test the technology and prove we're the fastest, biggest, bestest... so they fired up the sixth boiler and went ramming straight ahead through an iceberg field for God's sake!"

His eyes are wide.

"We're on the Titanic and we're going full steam ahead. So the question is, 'Do you want radar or not?' And eco-footprinting is the radar. And what it has said is, look, there are icebergs out there."

Originally published in the Vancouver Courier, 27 September, 2006