So there are no technological fixes [to the environmental problem caused by increasing consumption] in sight?
I’ve gone on from the basic footprint concept to demonstrate a couple of other interesting spin-offs. The assumption seems to be, in the mainstream, that improved technology, improved material and energy efficiency will help to solve this problem. In other words, we can continue to grow to the extent required to satisfy the needs of everyone if we simply get more efficient use of energy material.
You can buy a book today called Factor 4, which says that with off-the-shelf technology we could produce twice as much with half as much input. There’s a four-fold increase in productivity right there. The problem is that technology alone and market alone won’t solve the problem. And, we can show that, in fact, in the world’s most technological economically efficient countries such as Japan, the United States, West Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, as their technologies have improved, as efficiencies have steadily increased over the last couple of decades, so has per capita consumption.
Incidentally, you can now get off the Internet, the latest study by the World Resource Institute in Washington, it’s called The Weight of Nations. They’ve compared just that list of countries I’ve given you. It shows that over the last fifteen years, despite increasing efficiencies, despite a slight de-coupling of GDP per capita from energy use per capita and material use per capita, per capita consumption of materials and per capita production of wastes are increasing. And therefore, of course, gross consumption and gross waste production are also increasing. I would even argue that this is a result of increased efficiencies.
I found that an interesting twist in your papers, that we’re more efficient, yet we’re less sustainable.
In effect, if we want efficiency gains to work, we have to somehow prevent what we might call the rebound effect. We have to prevent the savings that we make from efficiencies from becoming somehow appropriated. We need to tax the savings away before they rebound within the economy by generating more consumption.
We need a strong state and a tax system that understands sustainability.
Oh, absolutely. You know, one of the great ironies is that, clearly, first of all we should acknowledge that sustainability or sustainable development is a collective enterprise. We have to realize that we can’t achieve this as individuals. I cannot use, for example, rapid transit if none is available. We have to recognize that many of the policies that need to be put in place are policies that respond to the public good, the common interest. Sustainability is clearly the largest of the common interest efficiencies that we have to deal with. Thinking that the market alone is going to function to achieve sustainability, I think, is a bit naïve, particularly when you think that the market treats each individual, to use the economist’s phrase, as self-interested utility maximizers with fixed preferences and unlimited material demands. Well, if everyone on the planet acts like that, then clearly we’re on a path of total destruction.
William Rees is Professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia. His best-known book (co-authored with Mathis Wackernagel) is Our Ecological Footprint (1996). Michael Gismondi is Director of the Master of Arts in Integrated Studies and Professor of Sociology in the Centre for Integrated Studies at Athabasca University — Canada’s Open University. The text above is an excerpt from “Dr. William Rees Interviewed by Dr. Michael Gismondi” (Aurora Online, 2000); it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.