In June 2010, I attended ‘The Opportunity of Limits’, a forum convened by the Global Footprint Network and its partners in Italy. Here is a quick snapshot/refresher of what this event was about:
‘From resource scarcity to the economic crisis, the world is ready for systemic change, Footprint Forum 2010 will be the first gathering of its kind centered on the issue of ecological limits and how they will influence the future, from the global economy and the marketplace of tomorrow to our ability to achieve our most vital human development goals.’
There was a wonderful range of speakers and participants, all with their energies turned to addressing the sustainability challenge – captured magnificently by my Post Growth colleague Scott’s ‘Stuck on the Bus’ analogy.
The stories shared and questions raised included:
- Ecuador’s Advisor, National Planning and Development Secretariat, Dania Quirola Suárez, spoke about how rights for nature have been written into the country’s constitution, and how Ecuador has committed to keeping 846 million barrels of oil in the ground, despite the fact that the country’s economy is dependent on oil. Ecuador now believes that the value of its biodiversity will offer a longer term benefit to the country than liquidating it to sell a finite resource.
- Razan Al Mubarak, Director of the Emirates Wildlife Society, told of how the review of National Footprint Accounts for the United Arab Emirates has contributed to the establishment of a national statistics agency in that country – an important milestone in a nation that has experienced incredible growth within a generation.
- Peter Victor, Professor in Environmental Studies at Canada’s York University, and author of ‘Managing Without Growth’, highlighted an issue of major concern to governments which is a barrier to acceptance of a no growth or steady state economy – that pensions and superannuation funds are COWS (Claims On Wealth) in the future, and asked how do we design a structure of claims on the economy in a steady state economy if we eschew a growth economy?
- Alessandro Galli, Global Footprint Network, Senior Scientist, asked whether in a resource constrained world, will countries rich in biocapacity be willing to sell their resources to countries who are ecologically poor, although economically rich?
- Robert Rapier, Chief Technology Officer with Merica International, gave an impassioned, informative and entertaining presentation on Peak Oil, and drew laughs with his analogy of the climate change conundrum (ie. everyone wants action, but no one wants higher energy costs) ‘Its like saying we’re all too fat, and hamburgers are too expensive’.
- The World Business Council for Sustainable Development presented their Vision 2050: ‘9 billion live well within the limits of one planet’ – a ‘north star’ goal that can be owned by civil society, policymakers and business.
- Martha Campbell, President/CEO, Venture Strategies for Health and Development, and lecturer in the School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, presented research which demonstrates that education of women is not the main barrier to slowing population growth as often cited. Access to family planning is the key, and women will make choices to have smaller families when they have the means to do so (physical, financial and cultural access to family planning choices), regardless of their level of education.
- Susan Burns, Global Footprint Network CEO, offered a positive way to talk about limits by observing that limits are ‘like an artist’s frame, bringing forth creativity’; and that metrics are what reveal the speed and scale of change.
- And Hannes Kunz, President of Switzerland’s Institute for Integrated Economic Research, is concerned that humanity may not have enough room left on the runway for a painless descent. Perspectives like his are important – that is, based on our efforts thus far with climate change, ending extreme poverty and arresting biodiversity loss, there is a good chance that, despite all our efforts to be upbeat and can-do, we won’t get our collective act together in time. And what are we going to do to prepare? Hannes and his organisation are the Plan-Bers, talking about how to deal with the consequences of when limits start to bite.
But what particularly captured my attention was a conversation I had with Professor William Rees of the University of British Columbia, who also delivered a keynote presentation at the Forum.
Rees, whom I call ‘The Godfather of Footprint’ co-created the Ecological Footprint concept with Global Footprint Network founder and President, Mathis Wackernagel, when Mathis was studying at UBC.
Rees’s line of research is focused on the underlying causes of humanity’s current conundrum – not just what is going wrong, but why we are persisting with behaviours that are unsustainable? Are we as a species somehow hard-wired to be unsustainable? If so, can we override our programming?
This issue is deserving of its own post – so watch this space for a subsequent article!