Bill Rees: The Vulnerability and Resilience of Cities

A week or so ago, I came across a podcast of a keynote that Bill Rees gave at the Resilient Cities conference in Vancouver last month.  Bill Rees is a significant figure in the world of ecology not least because he originated the term ‘ecological footprint’ and co-invented the method by which it’s calculated.

It’s not often that I hear a presentation, keynote or talk that I’d want to share with people as widely as possible, but in this case I do. I think it will appeal to anyone concerned about climate change or peak oil, but I think it will (should?!) interest those of us who have a particular interest in technology as a solution to a problem. The problem in this case is catastrophic climate change and how cities both reflect and encapsulate the unsustainable societies we have created.  He discusses the self-reinforcing myths about technology that we perpetuate and the parasitic nature of cities and by extension, the developed world.

After listening to the podcast, I contacted Prof. Rees to ask him for the slides of his presentation. I then created the ‘slidecast’ below by syncing the audio with the slides. He appreciated this and is happy for it to be publicly available.

Throughout his keynote, he’s blunt about the state we’re in, (assuming the science is generally correct – and it has been so far). There are a few points he makes which I want to repeat here, for discussion, if nothing else.

  1. Climate change is a global problem (i.e. ultimately it can’t be traded away to other nations without still affecting us) and requires us to reduce carbon emissions in absolute terms by at least 80% before 2050. The reduction must be absolute. “Growing more efficiently does not address the problem. It merely makes us more efficiently unsustainable… If your ‘solution’ does not result in an absolute reduction  in energy and material consumption and waste production, then it is part of the problem.” (slide six)
  2. Modern cities are unsustainable, incomplete ecosystems. They are parasitic on the environment around them. The example he gives is Tokyo, which has an ecological footprint 4.3x greater than Japan. (slide 22)
  3. To stabilise temperatures at +4c by 2100, “the majority of OECD nations must begin to make draconian emission reductions soon (within a decade)… this will require a planned economic recession. (slide 28)
  4. However, a +4c rise in global temperatures will be catastrophic for much of the world (see map on slide 29).
  5. “Sustainability means giving up material growth in rich countries… There will be lifestyle changes. Get used to it.” (slide 31)

The last 20 minutes of the slidecast is an interview with Bill Rees where he discusses some of these issues in more detail.

Bill Rees isn’t alone in this view of the next few decades. There was a recent conference at Oxford University on the implications of +4c global temperatures and the MET office recently published a +4c climate map. If you follow developments closely, it does look like +4c is fast becoming the new +2c.

My interest here, in my work, is what the implications of a zero growth economy which requires draconian reductions in energy consumption and consequent emissions, means for the modern university.  Along the same lines of the unsustainable city, is the university in its current form unsustainable, too? What would a sustainable university, in absolute terms, look like? I’ll be thinking about this more over the next few months and writing down my ideas here. I welcome your thoughts and comments.