Human Ecology, Material Consumption, and the Sea: Indices of Human Ecological Dysfunction

  • William E. Rees


This paper recognizes declines in fisheries and the biodiversity of the world’s oceans as symptomatic of human ecological dysfunction. The ultimate cause of the problem are the dominant values of modern society combined with basic facts of human ecology that are little-appreciated by either policy makers or the public. Humans are big social mammals with correspondingly large natural metabolic energy and material demands. This alone is sufficient to qualify humans as a “patch disturbance” species. With technological “advances” and rising incomes, average per capita resource use has greatly increased in modern times. This, together with continuing population growth, has vastly increased global gross consumption. As a result, humans are now the major macro-consumer in all the Earth’s major ecosystem types, including the oceans. Indeed, trophic analysis shows that humanity’s appropriations of biomass from the seas exceeds that of any other macro-consumer organism feeding at the same average trophic level in the marine food web. In effect, in terms of energy and material flows, modern energy-subsidized harvesting technologies have enabled humans to become the dominant marine mammal. Depleted fish stocks and evidence that commercial fleets are “fishing down” the marine food web to maintain total catch, show that this dominance is already systemically dysfunctional. With the continuing expansion of human numbers, rising material expectations, and increasing gross world product, human appropriations from marine ecosystems can be expected to increase for the foreseeable future. Without a dramatic change in the prevailing values and behaviour of an increasingly westernized global industrial society, the further expansion of the human “ecological footprint” on the world’s ecosystems bodes ill for marine biodiversity conservation and ecosystems integrity.


Ecological Footprint Natural Capital Killer Whale Coral Bleaching Kelp Forest 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • William E. Rees
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Community and Regional PlanningUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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