A Better Future for the Planet Earth

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William E. Rees & Mathis Wackernagel

William E. Rees & Mathis Wackernagel
Interview Summary

Overview/ Profile

TV Program

Professor William E. Rees :

Lecture document


Dr. Mathis Wackernagel :

Lecture document


An ecological footprint is the impact of a person or community on the environment expressed as the amount of land required to sustain their use of natural resources. By means of ecological footprint analysis, it became possible for the first time to discuss sustainability systematically. This analysis was jointly developed by Professor William E. Rees at the University of British Columbia and Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, President of the Global Footprint Network.

I. Professor William E. Rees

1. Personal History – From childhood to professorship at the University of British Colombia

Childhood (1943 - )

I was born in Manitoba, Canada on December 18, 1943. Looking back on my childhood, I feel very fortunate to have been able to live in Montreal. It was a big city, with all the benefits of city life, plus, I had the chance at Christmas, New Year's Day, and summer holidays to visit my maternal grandparents on their farm in Ontario, a wonderful place surrounded by nature. As a result I have been very interested in nature, in plants and animals since childhood. Even though my parents were not strongly religious-minded, I felt something like the grace of God in nature.

During summer vacations, I worked on my grandparents' farm every weekend with my seven cousins. We were a kind of cheap labor force, and although we were small, we worked hard and did many chores. In those days, unlike today, farmers made their living on diversified agriculture. We weeded the fields, collected eggs, picked vegetables, milked cows, and, in short, we did all kinds of farming duties. After working a whole day, my grandmother served us her homemade dishes. As many as fourteen to fifteen people sometimes sat at the table, and we had great times eating meals together.

For my life, I'll never forget an experience I had while working at the farm when I was about 10 years old. On one hot day in July, after finishing our morning work, we sat down for lunch. On the table was spread roast beef, roast chicken, and fresh vegetables we had just picked. While waiting for my grandfather to pray before eating, I looked at my dish. Then, suddenly my heart raced. I realised that I had helped to grow these carrots and raise all the other food on the table. As a small child, this insight and the emotion accompanying it was so strong, I felt giddy, like I was in free-fall down a long elevator shaft from the top to the bottom.

Most children living in a big city simply see their food neatly packaged on retail store shelves. They don't think about where those foods, the vegetables and fruits and meats, came from. However, at that moment at the table, I realized clearly that all foods were the fruit of the earth brought forth by human labor. I realized that we were all rooted deeply in the earth and connected strongly to it. We are made out of what we eat, and what we eat comes from the ground. This insight was a marvelous experience…a feeling of profound connection to nature. I don't know why I was so strongly moved by it, but this insight led me to my life work.

Even at a very young age, I couldn't understand why humans, who are part of nature, would destroy it and contaminate the air and water, which of course comes back to us in the form of health problems. I felt a strong emotional attachment to nature, and this was strengthened by an active lifestyle exercising, bike riding, and walking long distances. I was outdoors a great deal.

School Days (1962 - )

My childhood experience led me to consider zoology as a major at the University of Toronto after graduating from high school. However, since my family was not well off, I had just about given up on further studies, when, because I had high grades, I was offered a scholarship. Since there were many subjects I wanted to study, it was hard to choose a major. One night, when I was still struggling to determine my course, I vividly recalled my farm experiences, and this awoke me to what I was most interested in. I wanted to study the relationship between humans and the earth as well as between humans and other living things, so I finally decided on biology and ecology.

I studied life science and ecology as an undergraduate, and population ecology in my doctoral program. What I was most interested in was how human beings conform to the ecosystem, and how they link to other organisms. However, I could not study anthropology in the department of ecology because that subject was only available through economics, ethnology and sociology. In the end, I decided to study ornithology.

My other interests at university included photography and motorcycling with my friends. I rode for about 20 years, but finally stopped after a bad accident that almost killed me.

At the University of British Colombia (1969 – Present)

After obtaining a Ph.D. in ecology and ethology, I was offered a unique interdisciplinary job at the University of British Colombia. The Faculty of Regional Planning was looking for a teacher specialized in biological science, rather than economics or sociology.

In the 1960s, ecology was not offered as an academic discipline in the fields of civil engineering and regional planning. As a result, the way the environment and its complex systems functioned in the domain of regional planning had never been researched. Therefore, the university hammered out a policy of teaching human ecology to students studying regional planning, which I think was the first attempt at such an approach in America, and I was probably the only American academic studying this field seriously at that time.

I was asked to establish a course on regional planning with the goal of creating both a better environment and a better future. It was for graduate-level students in the master's and doctoral programs.

I went with the basic concepts of resource planning and ecology. Based on these, I developed a new program which, by way of efficient land use and reducing the resources needed to sustain the environment, allowed the creation of cities without degrading the environment.

I considered that the causes of the environmental deterioration that has occurred in many cities around the world were triggered by irresponsible development that neglected scientific viewpoints. However, over the past 20 years, ecological economics, a new area of specialty combining ecology, engineering and economics, has attracted significant attention.

As for the background of this increasing interest, I would surmise that global environmental deterioration, such as reduction of fishing grounds, soil erosion, and climate change, has become too obvious to ignore. In short, the adverse effects of regional planning with no consideration of the environment have become manifest.

I call this phenomenon "human ecological dysfunction," and have been seeking a way to ameliorate it. I am also involved in editing the university journal, Journal of Ecological Economics, which is now recognized as one of the top journals in this field worldwide.

Between 1994 and 1999, I assumed the post of Director of the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Colombia. During my tenure I revised the educational policies and curriculum of the School to comply with sustainable planning.

The results of our research were incorporated into local government policies. I am currently advancing regional planning for the Greenest City Initiative with graduate students. Our Mayor is environmentally extremely aware, and he has set the goal of developing his city into the most sustainable city on earth. A student who took the doctoral program after working for 15 years, developed a new model for the ecological footprint of Vancouver City, which was adopted by the city's regional planners. The faculty I teach in is highly regarded in the United States, having a cutting-edge program which brings biology into the regional program.

2. Ecological Footprint – The Concept Germinates

When I assumed the post of Assistant Professor at the University of British Colombia in 1969, I focused on the concept of carrying capacity, which I had been interested in for such a long time. Or, I might say that I couldn't help but notice this concept. This was because students in doctoral programs wanted to study regional planning from the perspective of economics and sociology, which were not my specialties. Moreover, they were totally indifferent about learning ecology, which I could teach them with confidence.

Therefore, I explored ways to teach students utilizing my knowledge of ecology, and this led me to approach the issue from the standpoint of carrying capacity for human beings, which was derived by applying environmental carrying capacity to people.

I started by quickly researching several questions which could answer the question of how many people are required to support the functions of this specific community; things like productivity of land, consumption of resources such as food and wood, and the total amount of waste. As a result, I developed a model which could identify the number of people who could survive depending only on local community production.

I presented my research findings at a small council. An economist at the meeting who was strongly against the concept of carrying capacity vehemently opposed my theory. His view was that the concept was irrelevant, totally off point in fact. "We can trade!" he said. "Why should you limit to one specific region? We can import our food and lumber from somewhere else, and we can discard our waste out of our region. We can continue growing forever because we could expect to develop greater technology in the future." He even advised me that "if I continued to pursue this study, my future as an academic would be bleak indeed." Events of course have proven him wrong.

But the session was very useful pedagogically. After this sharp rejection of my theory, I began to understand why my students were having trouble understanding my lectures. Accordingly, I decided to discuss with them the definition of "city" one more time.

After fully exploring definitions of the "city" reflecting their individual fields including economics, engineering, sociology, and geography, we summarized them into one definition and enquired as to whether there were any other important elements that we had missed. Once we all agreed that everything had been covered, I put this question to them: "since a city is a collective entity of residents as well as living system, what would happen if we wholly enclosed the city you are living under a glass bell jar?"

One student ventured, "residents would probably starve to death since the city would not be able to produce enough food to support them." I pushed the question further. "Okay, now if we think of this as a region and not as a city, how much would you have to expand the area to support life for all residents?" This was a new concept of a Regional Capsule that I developed from my original idea, which no one had yet propounded. It took me decades to formulate the concept. It is not too much to say that I spent the majority of my tenure working on improving and applying this theory.

Then, a series of groundbreaking developments occurred one after another that finally enabled me to perfect the concept of carrying capacity, some of them coming from wholly unexpected directions. One day in 1992, I was in my office writing a paper about the Regional Capsule model using a new computer, when a colleague poked his head around the door and asked me how I liked the new computer. Instead of the grey metal box, I had a thin, flat screen monitor with a small tower on the desk. I thought a moment and told him that since this type of computer needed a smaller footprint it gave me more space to spread out documents. It was one of those insights that seems trivial, yet proved seminal. Because the new computer has a smaller "footprint," the term "ecological footprint" popped into my head.

I went through the paper I was writing then and replaced all the occurrences of Regional Capsule with Ecological Footprint within seconds and confirmed that all the arguments in the paper made sense with the new term. Everyone had difficulty understanding my concept with the term regional capsule. But with the visually appealing term footprint, understanding of the concept rose dramatically.

Another important insight came a little later while I was working late at night. I was lying in bed turning over a question I had been wrestling with a long time when the notion hit me that it might work if I reversed my approach. Instead of asking how many people this area could support, I asked how much area would be needed to support these people. It was a eureka moment.

Despite that economist telling me that carrying capacity was not important, I never let go of that theme. This new insight re-engaged me in tackling the concept of carrying capacity with new vigor.

This work was picked up by my student, Dr. Mathis Wackernagel who collaborated with me in formalizing the ecological footprint concept theoretically and systematically, developing a resource accounting method to measure sustainability, and validating the theory through application to actual regions.

II. Dr. Mathis Wackernagel

Childhood (1962 - )

I was born in Basel, Switzerland on November 10, 1962 a middle child between two sisters. We spent a lot of summers on a farm near my house and had the chance to help the farmer milk his cows. I think this sparked my interest in nature. I became very curious about where food came from and I wondered how long it took to produce enough to support the people living in the area.

Since I was born just 17 years after the end of the Second World War, I learned about the hardships Switzerland had endured during the war from my grandfather and my parents, including rations. When Switzerland, with too little land to support its high population density, was surrounded by fascist forces, it had only seven months' supply of food.

One critical event I will never forget was the oil crisis of 1973 when I was 11 years old. When it hit Switzerland, the government decided to have three car-free Sundays in each month to save fuel. For us as children, it was exciting because suddenly the streets were free of cars. My grandfather kept saying, "It's not a problem at all. We will always be able to find more petroleum," but even as a child I felt uneasy about the future. It seemed to me that if we kept using oil, there would be less and less of it and it would have to run out. In the previous year, 1972, a report entitled Limits to Growth was published. My father showed me the report's graphs, and explained how people used resources. It occurred to me that, perhaps, within 10 years, the world would have to shift to a totally different economic system.

My concern missed the point in terms of the time involved, since the status quo lasted much longer than I had anticipated. However, as it was, the state of things was becoming more serious. In the 1970s, the U.S. Government published the very influential report, Global 2000, commissioned by the Carter Administration. If the United States had implemented measures based on Carter's policies, we would have addressed the energy issues we faced much more wisely. Unfortunately, President Carter lost the next election and U.S. energy policy went backwards.

When I was small, I was interested in nature and good at math. I also loved listening to my grandfather's war stories. Despite Switzerland's neutrality in WWII, the situation was extremely tough because the country had few resources. Under these circumstances, I formed a strong interest in pursuing the theme of how Switzerland could survive based on a self-sufficient economy. I decided to study engineering at the university because I was convinced that we would not be able to survive with the existing system, and had to transform to a totally different approach to energy policy.

School Days ( - 1994)

I majored in mechanical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. I chose this field of study because I wanted to transform the energy system completely, by measures such as renovating houses with a view to energy efficiency or drastically changing transportation methods. Some of the reasons I became interested in energy were the fact that energy problems could be addressed with an eye to actual benefits rather than theory, while at the same time, solving energy problems could be steps in solving other related problems. At present, every function of society depends ultimately upon energy. As suggested by President Carter in the Whole Earth Catalogue, I believed that society could function with minimal energy consumption.

I liked mathematics, especially geometry. In all areas, I always wondered how I could make changes that might drive major reforms in the future. At the university, I studied nuclear power, renewable energy, and waste management. I also studied new energy systems, implemented a project to measure the effectiveness of wind power, and worked with a small company in France to develop solar cookers for low-income people. In the end though, I was disappointed in my classes at the university. Most teachers lectured on large-scale machines that required fossil fuel. There were no professors who were seriously working on the development of new energy systems.

I was not interested in traditional sociology, but I knew that it was important to consider the situation from a social perspective, which was why I chose social engineering. Social engineering is not theoretical, but provides concrete solutions to social issues, solutions that make social changes possible. This was about the time that the Soviet Union collapsed. Community, regional, and urban planning were well developed in the West but far behind in the East.

After graduating, I wanted to study social engineering further. I applied for a scholarship at the University of British Colombia, which had excellent programs. At the same time I wanted to study in Japan, where urban transportation systems, infrastructure and public property were highly developed and the study of social engineering was traditionally excellent.

In 1987, I received the scholarship and entered a masters program at the University of British Colombia. In the beginning, studying unknown subjects in a foreign language was extremely difficult, but I gradually fitted in with study and life in an extremely friendly environment. Vancouver was a beautiful town. My time as a student was fulfilling, studying life, bike riding and hiking.

III. Interviews with Both Professors

1. Ecological Footprint – Establishment, Application, and Improvement of the Concept & Development of an Analytical Method

In 1987, I entered the masters program in regional planning at the University of British Columbia to study ecology and the environment under Dr. Rees. I was very interested in this new research field and was also inspired by his enthusiastic and open personality. I was deeply impressed by his teaching method with its strong commitment to students and emphasis on active discussions, a stark contrast to the classes I had taken in Europe.

At that time, Dr. Rees was in the process of establishing the Regional Capsule concept and also engaged in other projects. Because I was good at statistics and data discovery, Dr. Rees asked me to participate in a joint research on the formalization, application and improvement of the concept as well as development of analytical methods.

I was, however, not so interested in Dr. Rees' s offer at the time because I wanted to improve the design of the solar cooker that I had worked on before and planned to market in Africa and South America. Dr. Rees worked hard to convince me to join in the project by showing how important and interesting the work on Regional Capsule concept modeling and development of analytical methods was. He also tried to persuade me to work on this project in his doctoral program, extending my study period for two years.

A year later, I accepted the offer both because I became strongly interested in the project and highly valued the mentoring relationship with Dr. Rees. This was how the joint research on Ecological Footprint started. Dr. Rees' contribution was theory based on biology, while mine drew on my skills in engineering and statistical analysis.

At that time, Dr. Rees played the role of joint research leader of the Task Force on a Healthy and Sustainable Community established at the University. Its purpose was to carry out a cross-disciplinarily study of the sustainability of regions by a group of specialists and researchers in the areas of epidemiology, medicine, and city planning. Dr. Rees invited me to conduct a case study he guided and funded which applied the analysis of Ecological Footprint to a region of Vancouver. This was the first case study where the analysis was applied to a specific region.

In order to analyze the Ecological Footprint of the Vancouver region, I collected extensive data on a wide range of items consumed in Canada, items like newspapers, oranges, and bus trips, along with data from The Canadian Statistics, including Vancouver's balance of payments and land productivity. I also calculated the annual purchase value of all sorts of items consumed by typical households, such as shoes, shirts, and sweaters, and compared the ratio of total consumption with the production of the region.

Dr. Rees and I finally developed a method of converting all global resources into a single area of productive land that we designated a Global Hectare. We then calculated the area of biologically productive land and the water required to support consumption per person permanently on the basis of a global population of 6.6 million. The answer was 1.8 global hectares per person. However, the average area used by one person on this earth worked out as 2.7 global hectares, which showed that areas of demand significantly exceeded areas of supply. It appeared that the earth was in a state of overuse. We noted too that the Japanese and American individual footprints significantly exceeded the average at 3.4 and 9.5 hectares, respectively. If everyone lived like the Japanese and Americans, more than one earth would be required to meet their demands. Dr. Rees and I calculated the demand and supply of natural resources in each country and the entire world, and confirmed that most countries' consumption of natural resources was excessive.

In 1994, I finally established the footprint analysis method of resource accounting after completing the five-year research program. I received a doctorate in Community Regional Planning on this study. Two years later, Dr. Rees and I published the Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth, and released the universal resource accounting method, providing for the first time an accurate way to calculate and visualize the resources required to maintain nations, regions, and individuals. This book has been translated into nine languages: English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Latvian, Japanese, and Chinese. This analytical method allowed us to consolidate a tremendous amount of data that had a great impact on the land and enabled us to compare supply and demand regarding bio-productivity.

Most environmental specialists understood that the Ecological Footprint indicated land areas, and recognized the analytical method as an inspired idea which could be a powerful tool. On the other hand, there was a group of people, mainly economists, who criticized the analytical method. What Dr. Rees kept in mind in forming the concept was the impact of human demand on the ecosystem and, therefore, the concept excluded the depletion of the ozone layer and contaminants that could not be converted into land areas.

The critics asserted that the data used in Ecological Footprint analysis was not comprehensive. However, Dr. Rees and I disagreed with this opinion on the grounds that their argument was based on differences in ideology and not defects in our methodology.

We admitted the limitations of our method, but pointed out that it would be impossible to take in all indicators, and therefore, not being comprehensive should not be a fatal defect. We insisted that Ecological Footprint analysis enabled us for the first time to clarify the earth as in a state of "overshoot," which enabled us to lead environmental policy in the right direction. Thus, we believed the admitted limitations of this analysis method shouldn't be regarded as a fatal defect.

2. Establishment of the Global Footprint Network

After receiving my doctorate in 1994, I joined the Earth Council established by Dr. Maurice Strong (a 1995 Blue Planet Prize laureate) in Costa Rica. A year later, I received a grant from the Earth Council and moved to Xalapa, Mexico, to research on a freelance basis. I continued to study Ecological Footprint while attached to the Center for Sustainability Studies at Anahuac University.

In 1997, I calculated the footprint and biological capacity of 52 countries based on data provided by the United Nations. By collecting data on 6,000 items in 800 categories of each country, such as the production, import and export of potatoes, I analyzed national per-capita supply and demand. I published the results of this research at the Rio+5 held in 1997 and attracted global attention.

Since 1999, I have led the team in the Indicator Program at the Redefining Progress Program of an economic think-tank in California. I released Tracking the Ecological Overshoot of the Human Economy, leading an international team, in 2002, which quantified the impact of human activities on nature for the first time.

In 2003, along with Ms. Susan Burns (currently Mrs. Wackernagel), I established the Global Footprint Network (GFN), a nonprofit think-tank, inviting Dr. Rees as counselor of policies and science.

The GFN set the goals of establishing a sustainable society within the earth's limited resources, and raising awareness of the importance of establishing a sustainable society among policy decision makers in politics, industry and NGOs. The network implemented a program to review risks of excessive consumption and pull them back to a well-balanced economy. For example, in 2005, they initiated the Ten to Ten Program aiming to promote adoption of the footprint by 10 countries within 10 years. The GFN has already proposed to 60 countries that they adopt the footprint, and has explained the program to the cabinet members of 20 countries. In adopting the footprint analysis, a country follows three procedures: verification of numerical data provided by the United Nations, assessment of analysis and judgment for adoption as a policy decision. The GFN makes proposals based on strategic analysis, but does not participate in decision-making.

Six countries, the United Arab Emirates, Ecuador, Switzerland, Japan, Indonesia and Latvia, have already implemented the footprint assessment as part of their policy. The Japanese Ministry of the Environment released the results of research on the Ecological Footprint and policy agreement in its White Paper on the Environment (General Overview Section) in 1996, 1999, 2001, and 2002. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government also referred to the Ecological Footprint in its White Paper on the Environment.

The GFN has also provided environmental education targeting students and the general public. Many books for citizens and high school textbooks devote a chapter or provide commentaries on the Ecological Footprint analysis.

At present, the GFN has been conducting Ecological Footprint analysis for 150 countries around the world based on data provided by the United Nations. The GFN has also analyzed the footprint of 4,000 items for each country around the world for the past 10 years, releasing the results in The Living Planet Report, which is published bi-annually by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The GFN has its head office in California and owns operation bases in Brussels (Belgium) and Geneva (Switzerland). In 2012, it was also selected as one of the world's top 100 NGOs.

3. To Realize a Sustainable Society – Dissemination and Utilization of Ecological Footprint Analysis

The term Ecological Footprint has spread rapidly through society. In 2004, the Oxford English Dictionary included the term in their lexicon.

Over several years, Dr. Rees discussed the intellectual property rights of the Ecological Footprint concept with his colleagues. Some recommended registering the concept as intellectual property to earn royalties. Dr. Rees, however, decided not to register it because, he said, he had developed, modified and applied the concept for the public good, and since he had worked for public university, all the costs for research had been paid by taxes. So long as Dr. Rees works at the university, the intellectual property rights are owned by it.

Dr. Rees believes that the general public has the right to use the research results freely. He considers that if he had registered the method, users would be obliged to pay license fees, and, thus, the Ecological Footprint analysis would not have developed to the degree that it did. The footprint concept is now seen in various areas such as the carbon footprint, agriculture footprint, food footprint, and clothes footprint. On the other hand, users do have to pay for my data given the tremendous amount of time and effort I invested in collecting it.

Both Dr. Rees and I have actively promoted recognition and wide adoption of the Ecological Footprint analysis. Dr. Rees has lectured in more than 30 countries around the world and written articles for newspapers and journals to spread the concept to the general public. I have been doing the same. I have been teaching at Cornell University as an invited professor since 2011, and have lectured at more than 100 schools, including New York University.

Ecological Footprint analysis has become the most well-known and commonly used scale in the world to measure sustainability and has contributed significantly to confirmation of the risk of excessive consumption. The future dream of both Dr. Rees and I is that Ecological Footprint analysis will be adopted by all countries as a standard measurement of development, like GDP. We hope to actively work with policy decision makers throughout the world.

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