By Deborah Jones
VANCOUVER, Canada 2005

The epiphany that has driven William Rees’ life, and led to the creation of a scientific term that would make him famous, struck him at age 8. As Rees tucked into a hearty lunch on the family farm in southern Ontario, “I realized that I had a hand in growing every single thing on my plate,” he says. “I had an overwhelming sense of being connected to the earth, that we are, literally, what we eat.” That meal of roast beef, chicken, vegetables and apple pie launched Rees, now 61, on his life’s mission: to study humans as integral parts of the natural environment.

Rees, an ecological economist at the University of B.C., is acclaimed as the inventor of the Ecological Footprint, a tool used by the United Nations, the European Parliament, the World Wildlife Fund and countless urban planners to assess the environmental impact of human communities.

It seems perfectly logical, but in the 1970s, when he began to research human-population ecology, Rees’ ideas were perceived as odd. “Humans were not considered part of the ecosystem,” he says. Rees believed it was false to view people separately from nature and has long argued that environmental problems, such as the collapse of fish stocks and climate change, are man-made. “Because we act as if we are not intimately connected to nature, we screw up,” he says, munching a chicken sandwich at a university restaurant.

Rees wanted to answer a deceptively simple question: How much land is needed to sustain each person? He developed a system to calculate flows of energy and matter to and from any defined community, then converted the data to the volume of land, water and air required to support those flows. The total area of the earth needed to provide food, fuel, goods and waste disposal for an average person in Vancouver, for example, is 7 hectares, while a resident of a less developed country might use 0.5 hectares.

Today there is a growing consensus among scientists that people are exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity by about 20%, through resource extraction such as mining and oil drilling and in fouling the planet with garbage and other pollution. Rees says Ecological Footprint analysis can make sense of the debate about development vs. environmental sustainability. It’s not about how bad things are, he says. “It is about humanity’s continuing dependence on nature and what we can do to secure earth’s capacity to support a humane existence for all in the future.”

People can continue to ignore the data, Rees warns, but they will not be able to ignore what he believes would be the consequences: a future marked by mass starvation and global warfare.

Copyright © 2005 Deborah Jones

Originally published in Time magazine, , October 10, 2005

 

References and further reading:
     William Rees’s faculty page, University of British Columbia
Global Footprint Network

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