Why Homo sapiens Is Inherently
(and what to do about it)
Faculty Seminar Series
William E. Rees, PhD
UBC School of Community and Regional Planning
Do We Understand the Problem?
“….no amount of ethical axiology, or
legal, policy, and technological
engineering, is going to solve
problems that are misunderstood”
Premise: Humans now partially direct
their own evolution
Human evolution is now as much determined by
socio-cultural factors as by biological factors.
The dividing line between „nature‟ and „culture‟
is not always clear. For example, human social
behaviour has a biological basis. Moreover…
Both cultural and biological„mutations‟ are
subject to natural selection. That is…
Maladaptive cultural traits and cultures can be
Hypothesis: Industrial society is
„Unsustainability‟ is an emergent property of the
systemic interaction between techno-industrial
society and the ecosphere.
The seeds of this ecological and social
unsustainability spring from the very nature of
Homo sapiens. That is…
A predisposition for unsustainability is encoded
in human physiology, social organization and
Homo sapiens, heal thyself
“Man will become better only when you
make him see what he is like.”
Coming to Know Who We Are
Like other species, H. sapiens is endowed with specific
attributes, predispositions, and abilities. We have used
these to our competitive advantage in the evolutionary in
ways that were conducive to our own sustenance,
reproduction and survival. With industrial society an
historically adaptive strategy has become dysfunctional,
“Unless we confront the idea, however dangerous, of our
human nature and species being and get some
understanding of them, we cannot know what it is we
might be alienated from or what emancipation might
mean” (Harvey 2000).
The Behavioural Factor: Our
Capacity for Self-Delusion
“The human mind evolved to
believe in gods… Acceptance of the
supernatural conveyed a great
advantage throughout history, when
the brain was evolving” (E. O.
The Benign Side: Necessary
Myths should be seen “…not as mistaken
views but as comprehensive visions that
give shape and direction to life”. [So
interpreted, myths “move from being
dispensable misunderstandings to essential
categories that we all take for granted”
Science as Plastic Myth
“Scientific theories are
distinguished from myths merely
in being criticizable, and in being
open to modifications in the light
(Sir Karl Popper).
The Perverse Side: Deep Denial
in the Service of Evil
“For us to maintain our way of living, we
must… tell lies to each other, and
especially to ourselves… the lies act as
barriers to truth. These barriers… are
necessary because without them many
deplorable acts would become
impossibilities” (D. Jensen 2000).
“We have all by out actions or lack of
them—in particular over the last quarter-
century—agreed to deny reality.”
“If we are unable to identify reality and
therefore unable to act upon what we see,
then we are not simply childish but have
reduced ourselves to figures of fun—
ridiculous figures of our unconscious”
(J. Ralston Saul 1995).
Our (Unsustainable) Contemporary
Virtually all international agencies and national
governments share a comprehensive vision of global
development centered on unlimited economic expansion,
fuelled by more liberalized trade.
At the heart of this vision is the belief that human welfare
can be all but equated with ever-expanding material well-
This contemporary myth has been the principal force
giving shape and direction to political and civil life in
both high-income and so-called developing countries on
every continent since the late1970s.
(Today‟s dominant cultural myth sees economy and
„environment‟ as all but separate systems.)
Growing Energy and Infinite
Economy Resources “Environment”
• Separate from • Source of resources
• Free of biophysical Wastes • Sink for wastes
Expansionists treat the economy as an open, growing, independent system lacking any
fundamentally important “connectedness” to an infinite environment.
The Expansionist Vision
(weak sustainability through techno-substitution)
“If it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural
resources, then… the world can, in effect, get along
without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an
event, not a catastrophe”
(R. Solow 1973).
“Technology exists now to produce in virtually
inexhaustible quantities just about all the products
made by nature…”, and: “We have in our hands
now… the technology to feed, clothe, and supply
energy to an ever-growing population for the next
seven billion years…” (J. Simon 1995).
The Blindness of the Self-Deceived
“[Like] other social value programs, the doctrine of „the
global free market‟ itself does not recognize its ideology
as ideology, but rather conceives of its prescriptions as
„post-ideological‟ recognition of law-like truth (original
The truth of the global market order is believed to be final
and eternal, „the end of history.‟ Its rule is declared
„inevitable.‟ Its axioms are conceived as „iron laws.‟
Societies that dare to evade its stern requirements are
threatened with „harsh punishments‟ and „shock
Flawed Assumptions of General
“Today the general equilibrium model is …a basic part of the professional economist‟s tool
bag, and one that is increasingly used.”
A free-market competitive equilibrium is efficient - i.e., demand
equals supply in every market; all resources are fully utilized.
No individual or firm can be made better off by altering the
allocation of resources in any way, without making someone
worse off (Pareto optimality). I.e, government intervention in the
public interest is inefficient. But all this depends on:
Diminishing marginal returns in consumption and production;
Perfect competition among a hyper-infinite continuum of traders, all
with perfect knowledge of all present and future markets;
An infinite number of future markets;
…and all these additional assumptions are clearly false.
Too Frail a Vessel in which to Float the
“New World Order”?
“…there appear to be so many violations of
the conditions under which competitive
equilibrium exists that it is hard to see why
the concept survives, except for the vested
interests of the economics profession and
the link between prevailing political
ideology and the conclusions which the
theory of general equilibrium provides.”
(Ormorod, P. 1994. The Death of Economics)
The State of Economics in the U.S. (1)
(James K. Galbraith on the year 2000 meeting of the AEA)
The great issues of economic policy -- inflation
and unemployment, growth and stabilization, the
government‟s budget, inequalities of income and
wealth -- were missing.
In short, what was most conspicuously missing
… was any actual discussion of economic ideas.
(Galbraith, J.K. How the Economists Got it Wrong.
The American Prospect 11, No.7, Feb. 2000)
The State of Economics in the U.S. (2)
So what is modern economics about? It seems to
be mainly about itself. The AEA meets to
celebrate the importance of its members, their
presence in high positions,… (etc.)
But self-absorption and consistent policy error are
just two of the endemic problems… The deeper
problem is the nearly complete collapse of
prevailing economic theory… so complete, so
pervasive, that the profession can only deny it by
refusing to discuss theoretical questions…
(Galbraith, J.K. How the Economists Got it Wrong.
The American Prospect 11, No.7, Feb. 2000)
Economism Perverts Sound Economics
and Undermines Sustainability
Globally, the marginal (ecological and social) costs
of growth may already exceed the marginal benefits.
If so, the world is currently promoting uneconomic
growth - growth that impoverishes.
In many rich countries today, there is no objective
or felt improvement in well-being associated with
rising GDP/incomes per capita.
Money Doesn‟t Buy Happiness
In many rich countries
today, there is no objective
or felt improvement in well-
being associated with rising
GDP/incomes per capita.
Here we see “…the strange,
pattern in the United States
of rising real income and a
falling index of subjective
well-being (people report-
ing themselves as „very
happy‟) (Lane 2000).
The Bain of Eco-Sustainability
“Neoclassical models do not incorporate any information about
actual ecosystems structure” (R. U. Ayres, et al.).
Neoclassical economics (e.g., the circular flows
model) lacks any representation of the material,
energy sources, physical structures, and time-
dependent processes that are basic to ecosystems.
The implied simple, reversible, mechanistic behavior
of the economy is inconsistent with the connectivity,
irreversibility, and positive feedback dynamics of
complex energy, information, and eco-systems, the
systems with which the economy interacts in the real
world (P.Christenson 1991).
Living the Myth: The Economy Grows
Economy triples in size since 1980;
Additional five-fold expansion of GWP
anticipated by 2050;
The human population has increased by
30% since 1980 and is growing at 80
million per year;
Three to four billion more people will be
added by 2050.
The Ecosphere Implodes
Half the world‟s forests have been logged or
converted and half the world‟s wetlands lost;
Half the land on earth modified for human use;
70% of major fish-stocks in jeopardy;
Carbon dioxide up by 30% in a century;
Biodiversity loss accelerating, now1000 times the
„background‟ rate. (Twenty-four percent of
mammals, 30% of fish, 25% of reptiles, 12% of
birds are at risk of extinction).
Solar Energy Non-Growing Heat Loss
Energy and Subsystem Waste Energy
Matter and Matter
Ecologists see the economy is an open, growing, wholly dependent
subsystem of a materially-closed, non-growing, finite, ecosphere (Daly 1992).
Nested Dissipative Structures
Both the ecosphere and the economy are „self-
producing, far-from-equilibrium dissipative
structures. However, the economy is a wholly-
contained subsystem of the ecosphere.
The ecosphere evolves and maintains itself by dissipating
exogenous solar energy.
The economy grows and maintains itself by dissipating
the ecosphere. In short,…
The human enterprise is thermodynamically positioned to
consume the ecosphere from within.
An Evolutionary Driver:
The „Maximum Power Principle‟
“…the struggle for life is a struggle for free
energy available for work” (Bolzman 1905)
“Systems that prevail (i.e., successful
systems) are systems that evolve to
maximize their use of the energy [and
material] resources available to them”
The Human System “Prevails”
Human appropriations from the ecosphere
must satisfy both their bio-metabolism and
their expanding industrial metabolism.
Modern high-income consumers are the
entropic equivalent of 100-200 pre-
The human enterprise has expanded
relentlessly because of competitive superiority
Humans display a uniquely broad and ever-
widening food niche which extends from nearly
pure carnivory to obligate herbivory.
Humans are uniquely adaptive which enables our
species to exploit virtually all the ecosystems and
„environments‟ on Earth.
Humans have complex language. Therefore…
Human knowledge and technology are
The human enterprise expands by…
Displacing other species from their niches
(bison in North America; thousands of species in
Indonesia‟s recent forest fires).
Eliminating the competition
(seals from fisheries; wolves from ungulates;
insects from crops).
Depleting both self-producing and non-
renewable „natural capital‟ stocks
(other species populations; forests; ground
The expansion of the human
…necessarily depletes nature
The Competitive Exclusion
In accord with „maximum power‟, human evolutionary
„success‟ is associated with ever-growing appropriations
of energy and low-entropy material flows from nature.
Energy and material appropriated from global totals for
consumption/dissipation by humans are irreversibly
unavailable to other consumer species. Or…
„What we get, they don‟t.‟
With increasing resource scarcity, global change, and the
morals of the „new world order‟, the rich will also
increasingly exclude the poor.
The Hidden Agenda:
Defending the Indefensible
“We have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6% of its
population... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of
envy and resentment. Our real task is to maintain this position
of disparity without detriment to our national security (emphasis
added). To do so, we will have to dispense with all
sentimentality and daydreaming. We should cease to talk about
vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of
living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off
when we are going to have to deal in straight power
concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the
(Cold War global strategist and Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor, George F.
Kennan, Presidential Policy Statement 23 TOP SECRET )
The Visible Program
Economist J.W. Smith observes that the terms of
trade and of the structural adjustment programs
forced upon Third World countries, are exactly
opposite to the policies under which the wealthy
This tells us that the power brokers of the
developed countries know exactly what they are
doing. “Their grand strategy is to impose unequal
trades upon the world so as to lay claim to the
natural wealth and the labors of the weak nations”
(J.W. Smith.Economic Democracy: The Political Struggle of the 21 st
Century, Chap. 10 ).
Who is Financing Whose Development?
While developed countries claim to be financing
the developing countries, the poor countries are
actually financing the rich through low pay for
equally productive labor, investment in
commodity production for the wealthy world, and
other dimensions of unequal trade.
In the 1960s „only‟ three dollars flowed North for
every dollar flowing South; by the late 1990s, the
ratio was seven to one.
Wealth Distribution Today
In 1970 the richest 10% of the worlds citizens
earned 19 times as much as the poorest 10%.
By 1997, the ratio had increased to 27:1.
In 1997, the wealthiest 1% of the world‟s
people commanded the same income as the
Just 25 million rich Americans (.4% of the
world‟s people) had a combined income
greater than that of the poorest 2 billion
people (43% of the world population).
(Income ratios reflect purchasing power parity [data from UNDP 2001])
Yet the Media Play the Myth
These protesters… have no coherent idea of what they
are after… there is talk of a better shake for the world‟s
poor, yet the demonstrators appear to be against the only
thing giving the world‟s poorest nations any hope at all:
continued economic growth, led by import-happy
Americans whose purchases help put food on the table
from Bolivia to Bangladesh.
That is why, young and handsome as these protesters so
often are, it is important to crush them—figuratively of
course—if they won‟t go home and find some other
means of exorcising their great guilt at their own good
(Daniel Akst, NY times, 8/5/01)
The Challenge: Is Homo sapiens Really
a Rational Species?
“The rise and fall of cultures… has always been
primarily determined by the tides of human passion, not
by the ebb and flow of reason.”
“…only a small fraction of the population is consistently
capable of applying the most basic rules of evidence to
emotionally-derived or emotionally-loaded
“…[people‟s] widespread tendency to suspend disbelief
ensures that those who covet leadership and political
prestige… will act as if unaware of the avalanche of data
signaling ecospheric distress (Morrison, 1999).
Is there a solution?
The solution to (un)sustainability lies in exercising a
quality that, more than any other, distinguishes Homo
sapiens from other species, the capacity for self-
awareness and for rational thought.
To survive, humans must consciously override now
maladaptive genetically-based behavioural tendencies
(e.g., competitive individualism and tribalism) that can
lead only to civil strife, war and ecological destruction in
favour of adaptive predispositions (e.g., international
cooperation) that might ensure mutual survival.
We must seize control of our destiny. Success in this
endeavour would herald the next stage in human
evolution, the dominance of the intellect over both genetic
predisposition and cultural myth.
Ecological (Maximum) Power Politics
“...so long as [ecological] decline is seen as
temporary, advantaged groups are likely to accept
policies of relief and redistribution as the price of
order and the resumption of growth. Once it is
accepted as a persisting condition, however, they
will increasingly exert economic and political
power to regain their absolute and relative
(Ted Gurr 1985).