A Brandon-born scientist behind the famous ecological footprint concept has been given international acclaim — but he would rather see international accountability.
Dr. William Rees from the University of British Columbia and colleague Mathis Wackernagel recently won the prestigious Blue Planet Award for sustainability at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil.
“It’s a terrific award. It came out of the blue,” Rees said of the C$645,000 prize.
Past recitements include the UN’s special envoy on climate change, former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and Canadian activist Maurice Strong.
While Rees is “deeply honoured” by the peer-determined award, which he and Wackernagel received out of 98 nominees from 24 countries, it is bittersweet as a key audience was missing in Brazil.
“Our governments still aren’t paying attention,” he said about Rio+20.
“Here is the single most important issue facing our world and major world leaders decline to attend.”
Rees said Canada has “nothing to be proud of” in its current environmental state.
“Canadians are just as responsible for the decline of the ecosphere as everyone else,” he said.
Each year humans consume more biocapacity than the Earth can sustain. And the consumption varies between the countries that can afford the resources and those that can’t.
The premise behind the ecological footprint is the question of how much area is needed to support a population, from a country to a person.
For example, someone driving a gas-guzzler has a larger ecological footprint than one who cycles.
“If Canada imports, we’re depleting another’s resources,” he said. “We shuffle the planet’s capacity, but it doesn’t increase.”
Rees’ concern with the Earth’s sustainability is deeply rooted in his rural Manitoba background.
During the Second World War, Rees’ father was stationed in Carberry. They came to Brandon for his birth and less than a year later moved to Montreal and finally, Toronto. It was during a large meal at his grandparents farm in Ontario, where Rees worked most of his summers, that his global consciousness first manifested.
“It just suddenly hit me, that everything on that plate I had a part in growing,” Rees recalled. He was only 10 years old at the time, but Rees never forgot the feeling that he was “a part of the Earth.”
In the 1970s, Rees became particularly interested in the idea of carrying capacity, the traditional notion of which focuses on how many individuals an area can support.
“How many people could Manitoba support? How many can the farm support?” Rees said.
After presenting what he believed to be a confident paper on the reality of the Earth’s carrying capacity in the early part of his career, Rees was pulled aside by an economist who called the scientist’s argument “completely irrelevant” in the advent of trade and technology.
“Our populations can grow far beyond our carrying capacity,” Rees explained. “So I thought about it for a long time and then flipped the ratio on its head — how much area is needed to support a given individual?”
For more than 30 years, Rees worked on his concept. It was his student, Mathis Wackernagel, who performed the first regional scale study of the ecological footprint in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia for his PhD.
A Swiss national, Wackernagel now heads the Global Footprint Network, a sustainability think-tank with offices in the U.S. and Europe.
While the ecological footprint concept is widely acknowledged in educational institutions, the two scientists know there’s still “some way to go” before governments give it the same weight as other, more economic measures for national well-being.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 30, 2012