The Dark Side of an Enviro Superstar's Vision for the Future

Ecologist Bill Rees' vision for human society is cynical, authoritarian and disempowering.

To save humanity from general screwedness, ecologist Bill Rees believes we require 're-education' by a 'World Assembly for Mutual Survival.'
Photo Credit: The Tyee

[Editor's note: The Tyee's sustainability reporter Geoff Dembicki is on a months-long journalistic quest to answer the big question of his millennial generation: Are We Screwed? Find a complete list of his dispatches as they appear here.]

Let's get something clear. Bill Rees has studied sustainability longer than I've been alive. Over a 40-year teaching career at the University of British Columbia, his concept of an "ecological footprint" was recognized across the planet. Famed biologist E.O. Wilson called it "one of the most important environmental concepts in currency today." Compared to Rees, I'm an intellectual pipsqueak. Yet after reading his latest paper, outlining steps he thinks humans must take to avert extinction, this pipsqueak felt compelled to weigh in.

Why, you ask? Because Rees is 70 years old, and I'm only 28. By the time he's long gone from this world, I'll have to live in some version of the society he describes in "Avoiding Collapse: An agenda for sustainable degrowth and relocalizing the economy." And frankly, I find Rees' vision for the future to be cynical, authoritarian and disempowering.

It's not his basic premise I disagree with: that the voracious resource demands of our human species far exceed Earth's ability to meet them. Nor do I take issue with Rees' ultimate objective: a diverse, resilient and sustainable network of local economies linked in pursuit of human equity. It's the pathway Rees thinks necessary to achieve this future, as well as the assumptions behind it, that gives me shivers. In his belief that us ordinary people are so brainwashed by monied elites that we require "re-education" by a "World Assembly for Mutual Survival," I sense a worldview every bit as troubling as the current one Rees seeks to replace.

Neoliberal humans

Every worldview is founded on some claim about human nature. What dismays Rees most about the reigning neoliberal worldview is the "shriveled representation of the human character" it portrays. In our globalized economic era, the individual gets conceived as "an atomistic self-interested utility maximizer devoid of family, community, place and any meaningful relationship with nature," Rees laments. "This creature defines 'rational' strictly in terms of maximizing personal consumption."

Just watch a few videos of Black Friday shopping stampedes to see what he means. Since the notion of rationalized self-interest is so central to mainstream economic thought, Rees believes our transition to a more sustainable existence first requires "a dramatic shift in social-cultural norms." That's pretty much been a mainstay of environmental thinking for decades. Same with his contention that the shift must emphasize "co-operation, community and people's common interest in survival."

Rees loses me in his unrelenting cynicism about the barriers to achieving it. Us ordinary folks, he argues, are so brainwashed by neoliberal elites we've become "a deluded public [which] generally cheers approvingly from the bleachers" each time we're fed new lies. Which for Rees isn't too surprising. In a society whose morality all but sanctions corruption and greed, "we generally react emotionally/instinctively to things that threaten our social status or political/economic power," he writes.

Social engineering

The danger of such cynicism is for me revealed in the steps Rees thinks necessary to undo our brainwashing. He subscribes to the post-modernist view that much of human meaning is socially constructed. For Rees, humans are capable of both greed and selflessness, but our culture of neoliberalism rewards the former. Because those "malignant" incentives are so entrenched in society, he thinks the world community must as one create a "worldwide social marketing program" to counteract them.

Such an act of "public re-education," Rees writes, "is necessary to inform ordinary citizens of the severity of [our ecological] crisis and to animate values and behaviours compatible" with a more sustainable future. Let's for now overlook the daunting logistics of this vision. What he's proposing is supremely authoritarian, a world body tasked with manipulating and controlling human behaviour. "There will," he admits, "undoubtedly be objections to any such global social learning exercise."

But not to worry, Rees assures us. "Let's remember that the denizens of today's self-destructive consumer society are already the most thoroughly socially engineered generation of humans ever to walk the planet," he writes. So this is what Rees has assumed about our nature: that us humans may not be inherently greedy, but we're too susceptible to neoliberal brainwashing to think independently. And thus the majority of us must be socially engineered to care about our ecological footprint.

'Orderly contraction'

That's step one. The same "World Assembly for Mutual Survival" that re-educates us would then begin a process of taxation and intervention sustained enough to force an "orderly contraction" of the global economy. I have no wish to cheerlead for neoliberalism, but the system of global trade, competition and mass production Rees wishes to dismantle is also making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the world. Would such economic activity be exempt from his contraction?

Rees doesn't say. Nor does he give ordinary people reason to believe they can play any sort of role in fixing our planet. "No individual can implement the policies necessary (e.g. carbon taxes, resource quotas) to significantly reduce their ecological footprint," Rees writes. He casually dismisses protest as well. "Despite considerable grassroots activity and the proliferation of sustainability-oriented NGOs, preferred lies and shared illusions may hold sway over discomforting facts," he argues.

What then are we to do? Presumably wait until "the rising cost of global change or some major catastrophe precipitates a great awakening" among world leaders, Rees argues, then passively absorb the "values and behaviours" they tell us are necessary to build a more sustainable society. "So where does this leave us?" Rees finally asks. If such a cynical, authoritarian and disempowering response to our planet's ills is all one of Canada's most influential ecologists can muster, I'm not so sure myself.

Geoff Dembicki is an Alberta-born journalist who reports on energy and climate change. Dembicki's work has appeared in The Tyee, Toronto Star, Salon.com and Walrus Magazine.