Cultural evolution and value shift: Towards a sustainable, just and healthy future

(Published as ‘What if we base decisions on what’s good for nature and community?’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

25 November 2020

700 words

We created Conversations for a One Planet Region with one simple mission: To establish and maintain community-wide conversations on One Planet living and a One Planet Region. Our concern is likewise very simple: We may be talking about and even acting on climate change – even though our actions usually fall short of our words – but we are not yet talking seriously about the far greater challenge of living as if we have 4 or 5 planets when in reality we only have one, never mind the implications of that realisation.

This is both a practical and a profound ethical challenge. In practical terms, we need to reduce our ecological footprint by 75 – 80 percent, because we are taking far more than our fair share of the Earth’s limited biocapacity and resources. This is where the ethical challenge comes in: In taking more than our fair share, we are inflicting an injustice on others around the world who get far less than their fair share; on future generations whose ‘inheritance’ we are consuming, and on other species whose habitats and means of life we destroy.

Over time, we have come to see these ethical challenges as rooted in a wider frame of societal values that are best described as toxic: They are incompatible with sustaining life, health, society and nature over the long haul. So we need to change our core value set.

Among the toxic values we need to change are the excessive valuing of individualism to the neglect or even denial of the collective and our responsibilities towards the community; greed and materialism, so that success is measured solely in terms of how much wealth and stuff you have rather than the quality of life you lead; and seeing nature as apart from us and simply there for our use and profit, rather than something in which we are deeply embedded, a life support system we share with all other life forms.

These are the three forms of disconnection that Jeremy Lent identifies in his 2017 book The Patterning Instinct. He suggests they lie at the heart of the global challenges we are creating and are “inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster”. So we have been exploring these ideas in our Fall online Conversations series; what are the implications for our actions and policies if we place the valuing of nature, community and quality of life at the heart of our thinking and decisions? (We explore the final one, valuing qulaity of life, on December 10th.)

We see all this in a wider frame of cultural evolution, a concept we take from Joe Brewer and the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution. They define cultural evolution as simply the extension of Darwin’s concept of evolution “to the domains of social behaviors, practices, tools, and structures”. So how do we evolve to a culture that is fit for purpose in the 21st century, faced with the realities of ecological limits and social inequity?

Thus our task, which turns out to be Herculean, is to evolve a local culture and set of values here in the Greater Victoria Region that shifts our community – all its people, organisations and institutions, including of course its economy – to one that has an ecological footprint equivalent to One Planet (our fair share) while ensuring a good quality of life for all – all – who live here.

Of course, we can’t to that alone, as a small amd almost penniless organisation. But then, we aren’t trying to. We want to work with any and all who share some or all of our hopes (and fears), we want to stimulate discussion and put this issue on the social and political agenda as the greatest challenge we face today – but one with many opportunities for a richer and better life.

This is in many ways similar to the challenges faced as we evolved from agrarian and aristocratic societies to industrialised and democatic societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This has led us to the concept of ‘bildung’ – personal and cultural/societal maturation – and its application in the Nordic countries through ‘folk’ or adult public education. I will discuss this, and its relevance to today, in the coming weeks.

 © Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Learning from Scotland about our Common Home and our wellbeing

(Published as ‘B.C. should follow the lead of Scotland and bring in a well-being budget’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 November 2020

699 words

Anyone watching the Knowledge Network these days will be aware it’s all about Scotland, from clan wars to wildlife to railways. Good things come from Scotland, from Scottish ales and whisky to haggis and Robbie Burns – well, OK, not everything is wonderful, although haggis is way better than it sounds. So here are a couple of other good things from Scotland: The Common Home Plan, and the Scottish Government’s creation of the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) group.

Why talk about Scotland? Because with a population of 5.5 million it is about the same size as BC (5 million people), with a similar sized economy. So what applies there could well apply here.

The Common Home Plan – a comprehensive Green New Deal for Scotland – was prepared by Common Weal, which describes itself as “a Scottish think and do tank”. The authors take the view that while there is growing support for the concept of a Green New Deal, “there really aren’t any comprehensive or detailed plans for people to get behind”. We need to deal with all the challenges we face in a strategic manner, rather than through a piecemeal approach.

Moreover, they don’t hold out much hope for global level solutions; they see the call for multilateral approaches as simply a political device to put off making the national decisions that are needed now. Also, as seen with Canada’s consistent failure to meet its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, multilateral commitments are largely toothless.

Instead, they argue, while “the impacts of human action are global . . . the vast majority of those actions are local”. So the solutions have to be local too. In fact, they add, “very little of what a Green New Deal requires is contingent on international agreement”. Nor is it contingent on new technology; all the solutions they propose rely on existing technology.

The plan itself has ten sections: Buildings, heating, electricity, transport, food, land, resources, trade, learning and ‘us’ (about our lifestyle and culture). They estimate that it will take 25 years to implement fully – so we had better get started now – and cost 170 billion pounds. That may sound a lot, but it’s the equivalent of Scotland’s annual GDP, so spread out over 25 years it’s not too bad. In fact, because the plan creates 100,000 new jobs and has a number of economic benefits arising from new industries, greater efficiency and public ownership, “it more than pays for itself”.

Scotland’s establishment of the WEGo group was drawn to my attention by Catriona Little, the Head of Scottish Affairs for Canada, an office of the Scottish Government housed at the British High Commission in Ottawa.Based on “the recognition that ‘development’ in the 21st century entails delivering human and ecological wellbeing”, the WEGo group currently consists of Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, and Wales – all small countries, it should be noted, with three of them (not Iceland) having populations in the same range as BC.

At their first policy lab in Edinburgh in May 2019 – fittingly at the home of Adam Smith, the 18th century author of “The Wealth of Nations” – Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister noted not only that “growth is not the only measure of a successful economy”, but that “we must give much greater priority to the wellbeing – and the quality of life – of people living in a country”.

She reported that Scotland adopted a National Performance Framework in 2007 that included indicators “on issues as varied as income inequality; the wellbeing and happiness of children; people’s access to green and blue spaces; and their satisfaction with housing”. Since then, Scotland has “made ‘wellbeing’ explicitly a core part of the Scottish Government’s purpose”, while its Economic Strategy “places equal importance on addressing inequality, as it does on increasing competitiveness of the economy”.

Other members of the WEGo group have been equally innovative. Wales, of course, adopted a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in 2015, while New Zealand brought in a Wellbeing budget last year. BC should join the WEGo group and learn from its members, including producing a ‘Common Home’ plan, bringing in a wellbeing budget and a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Zero Waste means not expanding Hartland Landfill

Dr. Trevor Hancock

11 November 2020

700 words

While often described as a consumer society, it would be equally true to describe us as a waster society; they are two sides of the same coin. A lot of what we acquire – all that ‘stuff’’ – ends up as solid waste, while inefficient energy use leads to high levels of energy waste. Not only does this contribute to excessive use of resources – with all the pollution and energy use associated with their extraction, processing and distribution – but it fills our landfills and pollutes our local environment or – if we export it – other people’s environment.

So unsurprisingly, consumables – at 9 percent – are an important part of the region’s overall ecological footprint. The 2018 BC Institute of Technology report on Saanich’s footprint found that almost all of the footprint of consumables was due to “upstream impacts” – all the materials and energy that go into producing and distributing the products. Thus, the report concludes, we need to “prioritize reduction in overall consumption, instead of focusing on end-of-stream waste management”,

The report found that almost half the ecological impact of consumables is due to wood, textiles and rubber, almost a third is paper and plastics comprise 11 percent. So it suggests Saanich residents, businesses and organisations should reduce paper consumption by half, textile consumption by 40 percent and plastics consumption 30 percent. Given the large amount of food waste, the report also suggests reducing food purchasing by a quarter.

We produce a lot of solid waste in this region: 382 kg per person in 2019, according to a CRD staff report in September this year; for a family of four, this is more than 1,500 kg or 1.5 tonnes per year, although it is not all produced directly. We are a long way from the CRD’s target of 250 kg per person per year by 2030 (and an aspirational target of 125 kg, still being discussed), and a vast distance from zero waste.

But zero waste is where we need to be, and is one of Bioregional’s ten principles of One Planet living. In a ‘Sustainability Scan’ for the One Planet Saanich Initiative, the goals for this principle are “to reduce wasteful consumption, maximise upcycling, re-use and recycling, and aim for zero waste to landfill.”

The National Zero Waste Council brings together “governments, businesses and non-government organizations to advance waste prevention in Canada and the transition to a circular economy”. The latter “is based on the idea that there is no such thing as waste”. Among its features: “products are designed to last and optimized for a cycle of disassembly and reuse that makes it easier to handle and transform or renew them”.

Unfortunately the CRD is not a member; the only municipal member from this region is the City of Victoria. The City initiated its Zero Waste Victoria strategy in March 2019 and is due to consider its adoption next month. The strategy focuses on eliminating the unnecessary through reducing our consumption and making reuse, recycling and repair the norm: “The least desirable outcome is disposal of an item in the landfill”

Which brings me to the proposal currently being considered by the CRD to expand the Hartland Landfill and extend its life from 2045 (25 years from now, when it is expected to be full) to 2100, 80 years from now, an additional 55 years of landfilling of waste. Of particular concern is the comment in the September CRD staff report about the need to “ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the waste system by stopping waste and associated tipping fees from leaving the region”.

So we need to keep landfilling in order to keep the revenues here. This is the same predicament as an ‘energy from waste’ plant; you need to ensure you have a steady supply of waste, which removes the incentive to reduce it.

If we are to get to zero waste, expanding the landfill is entirely the wrong approach, in effect accepting  – even supporting – us in continuing to over-consume and use resources wastefully. Instead, the CRD should take a leaf from Victoria’s book; set a target of zero waste, refuse to expand the landfill and set about creating a circular economy.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

We are an ocean province, let’s act like one

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 November 2020

698 words

What do people think of when they think of British Columbia? Chances are they think of the mountains, the forests, the coast with its salmon and orca, and Indigenous people and cultures. Indeed we are an ocean province with a 25,000 km long coastline – for comparison, Newfoundland and Labrador’s coastline is around 18,000 km, while Nova Scotia’s is 13,000km; New Brunswick and PEI have 5,500 km and 1,800 km respectively. But it seems that simple fact has eluded successive BC governments.

As Blueprint for the Coast, a collaboration founded by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society BC (CPAWS) and West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), notes: “BC is one of the only coastal jurisdictions in North America without a united plan and law to protect it”. And yet both the Blueprint and Fisheries for Communities – a network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous fish harvesters, First Nations fisheries representatives, small businesses, fishing families, and leaders in coastal communities – have identified a plethora of environmental, social, economic and cultural challenges.

So the Blueprint collaboration is proposing a BC coastal strategy and a BC Coastal Protection Act, while Fisheries for Communities wrote to John Horgan on October 30th asking him to establish a Ministry for fisheries, coastal communities and the marine environment. Because unlike the four Atlantic Provinces, we do not have such a ministry. It’s a bit like Saskatchewan not having a ministry of agriculture, or Alberta not having a ministry of energy.

The BC government’s blind spot with respect to our coast and ocean is startling. The words ‘ocean’, ‘coast’, ‘fish’, ‘fisher’ or ‘fishery’ and ‘aquaculture’ do not even appear in the Ministry of Agriculture’s service plan, although ‘seafood’ appears 18 times! Clearly the commercial fisheries, aquaculture and seafood are only seen as an industry with career and economic issues, but their natural resource base – the ocean – is absent.

Just as troubling, the words ‘ocean’, ‘sea’ or ‘marine’ do not appear in the service plan for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, while fish appears only 3 times, two of them in connection with fish passage on the Fraser River. The only 4 references to ‘coast’ are all in connection with coastal forests and logging. Clearly, the ocean is not seen as a natural resource

And if you think the environment includes the ocean and coast, think again; those words, as well as ‘sea’ and ‘marine’ are absent from the service plan for the Ministry of Environment. Nor can it be argued that this is because the ocean lies within federal jurisdiction. Blueprint for the Coast  points out that large amounts of our coasts and ocean – mainly the Salish Sea and Queen Charlotte Strait – “have been interpreted to be “inland waters” within the Province of BC by the Supreme Court of Canada . . . in 1984”.

In a January 2020 report, WCEL examined coastal strategies and laws from around the world and suggested six key issues that “a coastal strategy and law could address in BC: 1) implementing coastal and marine plans, 2) rules to direct climate adaptation, 3) reducing shoreline hardening, 4) prevention of coastal habitat loss, 5) intergovernmental coordination, and 6) maintaining public access”.

In a July 2020 report looking at the experience in Nova Scotia and Washington, WCEL noted: “the coastal framework has recognized and empowered local governments, demonstrating that a state or province-wide coastal framework need not require consolidating power in a central government”. Such an approach, they noted in an earlier blog, could also help implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, given that “Provincial coastal and marine management does not currently recognize Indigenous law and/or provide adequate space for Indigenous nations to articulate their coastal governance laws”.

WCEL’s January 2020 report on coastal management plans and laws concluded: “Without such a strategy and law, BC puts the ecological integrity of the coast as well as the economic and cultural future of coastal communities in jeopardy”. Is that what we want? Isn’t it time BC acted like the coastal province that it so clearly is? The new BC government should create a Ministry and bring forward – and quickly – a strategy and a Coastal Protection Act.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Building healthy communities – The social dimension

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 November 2020

701 words

Last week I suggested our region would be well served by a centre focused on how to create healthy, just and sustainable ‘One Planet’ communities and that it should pay attention to building community in the social sense and not just the physical design of the community.

My late friend Len Duhl, Professor of Public Health and Urban Planning at Berkeley, liked to point out that in addition to the ‘hard’ physical infrastructure, communities have a ‘soft’ social infrastructure that is every bit as important for the health and wellbeing of the people in the community.

Sometimes referred to as social capital, a community’s soft infrastructure is about the strength and density of both informal and formal relationships between people. One of the lessons we should have learned from Covid is that valuing and caring for each other is important.

But the neglect of the social side of community building is apparent if you look at planning departments in municipal governments; lots of land use planners of various sorts, hardly any social planners. Moreover, while the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has infrastructure grants, they are for the hard, not the soft infrastructure.  

As a result, the work of creating community, of building social capital, while just as important as creating the ‘built capital’, has been largely left to the voluntary sector. I suggest we re-think the whole business of community building, making it a central rather than a peripheral concern of municipal government. What might that look like?

Some twenty-five years ago, I was part of a team that entered an Ontario government competition to design a new community on government land northeast of Toronto; we came third. Unfortunately, Seaton was not developed for another 20 years, so these ideas were not put into practice. However, I think they are important and worth re-visiting.

Our design was radically different in several respects. First, it was deeply ecological, based on the carrying capacity of the land, a strong emphasis on energy and resource conservation and the use of renewable energy supplies. It was also based on a ‘bottom-up’ design approach, starting with the household and working up to the final design, rather than the other way around.

But we also focused on ‘social sustainability’, reflecting our concerns with social equity, livability and human and social development. The social design sub-team developed a comprehensive human development strategy for the community with three key elements, the first of which was to build community. The next priority was to promote wellbeing and prevent problems, while meeting needs and providing services was the final priority.

By‘build community’ we meanta strong, supportive, tolerant community committed to the welfare of all its members – present and future – and the protection and enhancement of its environment. Using a bottom-up approach, we began by asking what capacities for human development exists and what needs can be met at the household level, then at the block level, the neighbourhood, the ‘village’, the town and then the city or the region.

On the design side, the implications included providing common space at the local level where people can come together in their daily lives; making contact and interaction with nature an integral part of the experience of living in the community; and designing neighbourhoods and ‘villages’ that function as real communities in which people can live, shop, work and play.

But the implications for governance are even more interesting. We recommended creating forums for governance at the block, neighbourhood, village and town levels in which people can come together to address their common interests and concerns; promoting and facilitating co-design, co-management and co-ownership of residential areas, community facilities and human services; and developing volunteer and community service programs from elementary school onwards.

If we are to create healthy One Planet communities, local governments should be mandated to develop and implement comprehensive human development strategies based on these ideas. Because ‘growing people and community’ is really the business that all governments should be in, especially municipal governments. They should have a ‘Community Building Department’ charged with creating both formal and informal connections between diverse people and organisations at the neighbourhood level and between neighbourhoods and the municipal government.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

UVic and the Anthropocene

  • Published as ‘We need a centre focused on creating healthy, just, sustainable communities’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

27 October 2020

699 words

Today the University of Victoria welcomes a new President. Professor Kevin Hall is a civil engineer who comes from the University of Newcastle in Australia, where he was the vice-president and senior deputy vice chancellor of global engagement and partnerships. Previously at Queen’s University in Kingston and Guelph University, he has focused on water and health, especially in marginalized communities in south-east Asia. This makes him, like so many civil engineers, at heart a fellow public health professional.

Prof. Hall is described as having a deep commitment to environmental sustainability and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). He says he is excited to be joining a university that “strives to be a global exemplar in vital causes that hold the key to our future” and, among other things, “engages deeply with communities locally and around the world to drive social, environmental and economic change”.

I welcome a leader with such values and grounded experience – and have a challenge for him: Make UVic a global leader in addressing the society-wide challenges posed by the Anthropocene and the growing movement to create One Planet communities and societies. In particular this will mean working in partnership with the many people, groups and organisations already engaged in this work in this region.

Regular readers of my column will know that the broad societal implications of the Anthropocene and the need for a local response by becoming a One Planet region has become a primary focus for my work. This approach integrates the concepts of both healthy communities and sustainable communities, with an important focus on social equity and a just transition to a One Planet society.

In fact, the work of Conversations for a One Planet Region, the NGO I have founded, has its roots in a campus working group I helped set up at UVic before my retirement. UVic in the Anthropocene “aims to engage the University and the wider community in addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene in new, creative and effective ways”. The Conversations began as a series of preparatory public discussions as part of anIdeafest event put on by the group in 2017.

But in addition to working in and with the community – an approach in which Prof. Hall has considerable experience – this calls for a major re-orientation of UVic’s own education, research and community service work. So broad are the issues and challenges of the Anthropocene that I cannot think of a single faculty or discipline that should not make a contribution.

But one important element is missing: there is no School or Faculty that focuses on the built environment (civil engineering notwithstanding). Yet we are highly urbanized and the Greater Victoria Region is a major urban centre in BC. The region would be well served by a centre focused on how to create healthy, just and sustainable ‘One Planet’ communities.

But in addition to focusing on the built environment (architecture, urban planning, civil engineering, transportation, parks and ecological restoration) such a centre should consider how we build community in the social sense, how we transform social norms, cultural values and practices and create a ‘green’ local economy.

In approaching this challenging task, Prof. Hall may want to read a recent article – “Unlearning human-centrism” by four Belgian graduate students. “What does it take”, they ask, “for young people to become ecologically aware citizens?” The answer, they suggest, is not simply learning facts and figures but, they say, “changing your outlook on life . . . And that is not what you learn in the groves of academe.”

Instead, they write, “the university still treats sustainability as a separate discipline or as an ‘add-on’ to the standard package meant to sustain our competitiveness by advancing green technologies”. As UVic in the Anthropocene shows, there is a clear understanding of the importance of this challenge among at least some faculty. But at UVic, too, it remains a bit peripheral.

So broad are the issues inherent in becoming a One Planet community and society, involving every faculty and discipline, that we really need UVic to become a ‘University of the Anthropocene’. In doing so, it would become “a global exemplar in vital causes that hold the key to our future”.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Our fisheries are as badly managed as our forests

Dr. Trevor Hancock

20 October 2020

702 words

Here is an astounding statistic: Of the roughly 196,000 tonnes of wild seafood harvested by BC fishers in 2018, worth about $476 million, around 85 percent is exported, reported Marc Fawcett-Atkinson in an article in The National Observer in September. Meanwhile, “like most of Canada, [BC] imports between 70 and 90 per cent of the seafood British Columbians eat, according to federal data”. That seems to me more than a bit crazy; it may make some sort of weird economic sense, but does it strike you as common sense?

This and much else herein about the BC fishery came from what I think of as ‘the other Suzuki Foundation’ – the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation. (Actually, for historical accuracy, they were the original Suzuki Foundation, and the better-known David Suzuki Foundation had to get permission to use the name.)

Tatsuro “Buck” Suzuki was born on the Fraser River to a family of Japanese-Canadian fishermen in 1915. While initially interred along with other Japanese-Canadians in 1941, he was later recruited as as an intelligence officer by the British Army. He helped to investigate war crimes in India and Singapore, before returning to B.C. in 1947. Once home, he played a major role in reconciling Japanese-Canadian fishermen with the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU). He remained an activist in the Union and worked to protect fish habitat until he died in 1977. The Foundation was set up by members of the UFAWU in 1981 to continue his legacy.

The Foundation is committed not only to protecting the fish and their habitat, but the fish harvesters and their communities. Their vision is “a future of abundant, sustainable fisheries and healthy ecosystems that support thriving coastal communities in BC”. Many of those communities, of course, are First Nations communities, with generations of experience in managing and harvesting the ocean’s bounty.

In a presentation to Conversations for a One Planet region in February 2019, Jim McIsaac, the Executive Director of the Foundation noted “Fisheries are arguably the most sustainable food source on our planet – we don’t have to water or feed them, weed or till the soil, add fertilizer or pesticides, we just have to harvest sustainably”. And wild fish, the Foundation points out on its website, “is local, sustainable, and healthy food”. But oddly “this is often overlooked in the creation of fisheries and food policy, in marine governance processes, and in environmental activism”.

Along with Ecotrust Canada and others, the Foundation is one of the key players in the Fisheries for Communities network, which brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous fish harvesters, small businesses, fishmongers, chefs, restaurateurs, fishing families, community organizations and citizens. Collectively, the website states, they have “grown tired and frustrated watching the many social, cultural, and economic benefits of our fisheries increasingly flowing to outside investors and large scale global corporations at the cost of local fishing families and communities”.

According to a 2018 report by the Foundation and Ecotrust Canada, this is the result of “a conscious policy choice to corporatize and consolidate  . . . (which) has concentrated econom­ic gains in the hands of a few investors” – and they don’t even need to be in the fishing business. The federal policy, the report says, is the antithesis of factors found in the world’s most successful fisheries, including requiring that licences or quotas be held by owner-operators; preventing processing or non-fishing companies from owning licences or quotas; not allowing the leasing, trading or sale of quota to non-harvesters, and managing the fishery with harvesters (who must be members of a cooperative or fish harvester organization) and their community.

The neglect of BC’s coastal fishing communities is not confined to the federal government, although it is the principal player. In speaking with The National Observer, Jim McIsaac noted  “The pre-election Stronger BC report didn’t mention fisheries, seafood, ocean, marine or coastal. It could have been written for Saskatchewan. Very surprising for a coastal province.” 

So if like me you think we need a vibrant and sustainable local fishery and that it should priorise providing healthy wild seafood for local consumption, you may want to check out and support the work of the T.Buck Suzuki Foundation and the Fisheries for Communities network.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Our forests are more than mere resources

Our forests are more than mere resources

Dr. Trevor Hancock

13 October 2020

701 words

Last week I explored how poorly governments of all stripes have been, at all levels, in protecting nature – and thus in protecting us. British Columbia is renowned for its forests, Pacific coast and mountains and is often portrayed as a resource-rich province. So one of the tests of any government, you would think, is how well it stewards those resources.

On that basis, every government the province has ever had, as well as every government Canada has ever had (since to some extent the jurisdiction over these resources is shared), has been a miserable failure, if not a downright disaster. In general, they are more interested in protecting industry and the current economic system than in protecting nature and people. This week and next I will explore two examples that exemplify that failure in BC: The management of our forests and our fisheries.

In July 2019 the BC government appointed a 2-person panel to do a strategic review of the management of BC’s old-growth forests. Their report – sent to the Minister on April 30th but only released September 11th – is damning. They note that an Old Growth Strategy was published by the Ministry of Forests in 1992, but that “many critical aspects of the strategy laid out in that report were either discarded or only partly implemented”.

As a result of those repeated failures, the panel reported, we now face three key challenges, the first of which is the “high risk to loss of biodiversity in many ecosystems”. Forest values, they remind us, “go far beyond just the trees, as forests also contain other plants, insects and animals, many of which require old forest to survive”. Yet they note projections that show “almost all of the province will be in high biodiversity risk once our current management approach harvests most of the available old forest”.

While the panel notes that ‘old growth’ is officially defined in BC “by the age of trees in a forest using specific thresholds (often over 250 years on the coast and 140 years in the Interior)”, that is a timber management definition they did not adopt. Instead, they note that in their discussions with stakeholders “a common description was that old growth is original forest in its natural state, not altered by human activity”. And of course, for many, ‘old growth’ means big trees.

These are important distinctions. Based on its forest management definition, the Ministry says that 23 percent of BC’s forests are old trees. But as the panel states, “old does not necessarily mean big trees”, noting that “as much as 80 percent of the area of old forests consists of relatively small trees growing on lower productivity sites, such as Black Spruce bogs in the North” – forests that are “not likely to be extensively logged in the foreseeable future”.

Large tree old-growth forest ecosystems, “sites with the potential to grow very large trees cover less than 3 percent of the province”, says an independent report released by the Sierra Club of BC in April. But those sites have been intensively harvested, so these ecosystems “are almost extinguished and will not recover from logging”.  And, added the Sierra Club, of what remains “most are on the chopping block” as “every day more than 500 soccer fields of old-growth forest are clearcut in BC”.

The Strategic review panel recommends a shift from a timber-based focus with ecological health as a constraint” to “an ecologically-based focus with timber as one of many benefits”. To accomplish this they recommend the province “Declare the conservation and management of ecosystem health and biodiversity of British Columbia’s forests as an overarching priority”. They also recommend the province “defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss”.  

But while the Sierra Club welcomed the panel’s report, especially its recommendation to defer development, the Club notes “the B.C. Government has not committed to implementing nor funding the Panel’s recommendations and . . . only identified 9 areas for immediate deferral”.

It is shameful that it has come to this point, as successive governments have failed to adequately protect our forests. The next government must commit to fully implementing and funding the panel’s report.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

In failing nature, governments fail us

Dr. Trevor Hancock

7 October 2020

700 words

There is a wonderful scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance that brings to mind our governments’ approach to protecting nature. The pompous police sergeant and his timid and fearful constables are marching up and down declaring they are off to fight the pirates. But as an exasperated Major General bursts out “Yes, but you don’t go!”

Too often, governments say “We’re going to act, we’re going to act” – but then they don’t act! For all their protestations, they still treat nature as if it were a collection of resources put there for us to exploit, rather than the vital underpinnings of our health and wellbeing, indeed our very existence, as well as that of all the other species with which we share the Earth.

The vital importance of nature for health is recognised by the World Health Organization in its recent “Manifesto for a healthy and green COVID-19 recovery”. The first of its six ‘prescriptions’ is to “protect and preserve the source of human health: Nature”. But two important global reports at the end of September make it abundantly clear we are failing to do so.

The first was Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, published by the UN’s Montreal-based Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The report is blunt: “Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, and the pressures driving this decline are intensifying. None of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be fully met”.

The second is the bi-annual Living Planet Report, published by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). The WWF’s Living Planet Index monitors the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of 4,392 vertbrate species. Between 1970 and 2016 it declined worldwide by a profoundly disturbing 68 percent – and an horrific 94 percent in central and south America. And this was the status 4 years ago, I shudder to think what it is today.

So it was good news that on the eve of the UN’s Summit on Biodiversity last month, leaders from 76 countries – including Justin Trudeau – signed the WWF’s Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. There are fine words in the Pledge, beginning with this: “We are in a state of planetary emergency: the interdependent crises of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and climate change – driven in large part by unsustainable production and consumption – require urgent and immediate global action”.

The Pledge includes ten commitments by which countries “will achieve the vision of Living in Harmony with Nature by 2050” Moreover, alone among the world’s ten largest countries, Canada has committed to WWF’s “30 by 30” High Ambition Coalition to “raise the government’s already announced intention to protect 25 per cent of Canada’s lands and waters by 2025 to now reach 30 per cent protected areas by 2030”.

Which sounds impressive, but it is actions that count, not words. So while WWF Canada’s separately published Living Planet Report Canada 2020 shows an overall increase of 6 percent since 1970 for the 883 native vertebrate species it monitors, that is not the case for species assessed as at risk of extinction. The populations of these species, which include all animals (so invertebrates are counted) and plants, “have plunged by an average of 59 per cent and species assessed as globally at risk have seen their Canadian populations fall by an average of 42 per cent” – and again, this is only to 2016.

The situation in BC is also grim. In an August 2020 article in The Narwhal, Susan Cox reported: “Almost 1,340 species are now on B.C.’s red and blue lists of species at risk of extinction. Another 1,037 species meet the provincial status requirements for red and blue listings but have not yet been added”.

But worryingly there is no Species at Risk Act (SARA) in BC, in spite of Auditor-General reports in 1993 and 2013 pointing out the problems. Moreover, Cox stated: “Although the governing NDP made an election promise to enact endangered species legislation — a pledge upheld in Premier John Horgan’s mandate letter for Environment Minister George Heyman — it subsequently reneged on its commitment”.

In failing to bring in SARA, and more generally to protect nature, BC’s governments, including this one, have repeatedly failed us. Remember that when you vote on October 24th.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Counting down the Climate Clock

Counting down the Climate Clock

Dr. Trevor Hancock

29 September 2020

700 words

Climate Clocks are now appearing around the world in cities such as Berlin, New York and Oslo. Based on data from Germany’s Mercator Institute, they display two numbers: One counts down “how long it will take, at current rates of emissions, to burn through our “carbon budget” — the amount of CO2 that can still be released into the atmosphere while limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” The second number tracks growth in the share of global energy supplies that come from renewable energy.

Bear with me, there are plenty of numbers here, but they are vitally important and in essence quite simple, with profound implications for our climate and energy policies, and I have not seen the implications for Canada presented as I do here.

The concept of the carbon budget comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In its October 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, the IPCC found “the atmosphere can absorb . . . no more than 420 gigatonnes (Gt or billion tonnes) of CO2 if we are to stay below the 1.5°C threshold”, and about 1,170 Gt to stay below the 2°C threshold.

But that was from the end of 2017, almost three years ago. When I checked the Mercator Institute’s Climate Clock on September 27th, the allowable global emissions are down to 305 Gt for the 1.5°C threshold and 1,055 Gt for 2°C, giving us just 7 years 3 months and 25 years 1 month respectively at current rates of burning.

Canada is just one-200th of the global population, which means our fair share of the global carbon budget is about 1.5 and 5.25 Gt if we want to stay below 1.50C  or 20C warming respectively. The Canadian Government reports that “Canada’s total GHG emissions in 2018 were 729 megatonnes [0.73 Gt] of carbon dioxide equivalent”. Although this includes non-CO2 emissions such as methane and nitrous oxides, 80 percent of this – 587 megatonnes – is carbon dioxide itself.

At current rates, to stay below 1.50C warming, we have only 2.6 years before exceeding our fair share of CO2 emissions (and 2.1 years if we include all GHG emissions), while we have 9 years (or 7.2 years with all GHG emissions) to stay below 20C warming. The only way we can keep on as we are is if we continue to take way more than our fair share of the global carbon budget.

So forget all the cosy words from politicians of almost all stripes (but not those with green stripes) about how well we are doing and why we should embrace fracking and coal exports for LNG in BC and the tarsands in Alberta. This is a climate emergency and we are on course for disaster unless we rapidly phase out fossil fuels.

Which is why the global Countdown initiative is so important, especially here in Canada. Countdown is “a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, turning ideas into action. The goal: To build a better future by cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030”. Specifically it is counting down to the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), to be held in Edinburgh in October 2021.

Led by TED (the folks who bring you Ted Talks) and Future Stewards, with Christiana Figueres and Tom Carnac, the architects of the Paris Climate Agreement, playing a leading role, Countdown launches with a large global TED event on Saturday October 10th. You will hear from a wide range of global leaders about what a healthy, abundant, zero-emission future can look like.

In the week following the launch, there will be a series of Countdown TED events around the world to highlight local action. One of those will be here in BC, organised by BC Drawdown, the BC ‘chapter’ of Project Drawdown, which has identified “the 80 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change, as well as 20 coming solutions”. Here in Victoria, Creatively United is a key partner along with Conversations for a One Planet Region in presenting local leaders and stories. will feature an online preview on Wed., Oct. 7th, from 11- noon, prior to the BC Countdown event, 7-9 pm Wednesday, Oct. 14th.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy