Decoupling economic growth from environmental impacts is purely NONSENSE — insights from the first Dresden Nexus Conference

photo credit: María Elena Zegada

The last few days I was attend­ing the first Dres­den Nexus Con­fer­ence. The event, co-organized by Leib­niz Insti­tute of Eco­log­i­cal Urban and Regional Devel­op­ment (my insti­tute), United Nations Uni­ver­sity and Tech­nis­che Uni­ver­sität Dres­den (our local uni­ver­sity), uni­fied the catch words Global Change, Sus­tain­able Devel­op­ment Goals and the Nexus Approach and cov­ered a vast spec­trum of top­ics related to water, soil and waste, but also the broader social, envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic context.

The first day was ded­i­cated to cli­mate change, the sec­ond day to urban­iza­tion and the third day to pop­u­la­tion growth and the increas­ing demand for envi­ron­men­tal resources.

There were some insight­ful keynotes in the ple­nary (e.g. Joseph Alcamo, Cen­ter for Envi­ron­men­tal Sys­tems Research spoke on “Sys­tems think­ing for advanc­ing a nexus approach to water, soil and waste” and Michael Her­mann, United Nations Pop­u­la­tion Fund, high­lighted “Three pol­icy pri­or­i­ties for a sus­tain­able nexus”), a vast and diverse poster exhi­bi­tion and in-depth par­al­lel sessions.

Find more infor­ma­tion on the con­fer­ence at

My per­sonal favourites…

… were the ses­sions on “Inclu­sive and Sus­tain­able Indus­trial Devel­op­ment for Resources Effi­cient Indus­tries”, “Urban Ecosys­tem Ser­vices and Bio­log­i­cal Diver­sity” and “The Poten­tials of Inte­grated Land-Use Plan­ning and Ecosys­tem Ser­vices to Enhance the Sus­tain­able Pro­vi­sion of Nat­ural Resources”.

There were some ref­er­ences to the rela­tion of eco­nomic and eco­logic resources, nat­ural cap­i­tal and pay­ments for ecosys­tem ser­vices (e.g. in Mex­ico) being made, but noth­ing explic­itly related to bio­di­ver­sity offsets.

How­ever, my per­sonal high­light was the keynote of the sec­ond day (“Urban­iza­tion”) by Prof. em. William Rees from the Uni­ver­sity of British Colum­bia. He was recently elected a full mem­ber of the Club of Rome (and you could see that in his pre­sen­ta­tion — I have to admit I am a huge fan of the Club of Rome, Lim­its to growth etc.). His eye-opening and hon­est talk was enti­tled “Is urban sus­tain­abil­ity pos­si­ble? Bio­phys­i­cal and polit­i­cal considerations”.

How often do you hear words like “non­sense” in the mostly very coop­er­a­tive and pos­i­tive con­text of con­fer­ences? Well, I don’t. So his pre­sen­ta­tion was quite refresh­ing (in the spirit of “an incon­ve­nient truth”). He clearly stated that we will need more than one earth if we con­tinue this way (I know, that is not so new, but still worth say­ing it). His clauses must have seemed rude, but hon­est (see for exam­ple the slide in the pic­ture below: “MODERN CITIES ARE ALL ECO-DEFICIT”).

This cumu­lated at the point (at least for me) when he said that it is purely NONSENSE if we pur­sue eco­nomic growth on the premise that it can be decou­pled from the nat­ural envi­ron­ment and envi­ron­men­tal impacts (some­thing that I have heard a few times on the con­fer­ence, though)!

For me, these are wise words, because we should always keep in mind the start­ing point (and here I come back to bio­di­ver­sity off­sets), i.e. be aware that all mech­a­nisms that we apply to tackle our envi­ron­men­tal foot­print, like bio­di­ver­sity off­sets, are ulti­mately only tools (or “cos­met­ics”) that should be used as rarely as pos­si­ble. In fact, we need to change our atti­tude and way of liv­ing (and con­sump­tion) first…

DNC_William Rees

photo credit: María Elena Zegada


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