New articles

I have authored or co-authored several articles in 2017 that mainly focus on healthy cities/communities,

2017   Hancock, Trevor; Capon, Anthony; Dooris, Mark and Patrick, Rebecca (2017) One planet regions: planetary health at the local level Lancet Planetary Health 1: e92 – 3

Open Access at

Hancock, Trevor (2017)  Equity, sustainability and governance: key challenges facing 21st century cities (Part 1), Cities & Health, DOI: 10.1080/23748834.2017.1326232

To link to this article:

2017   Marcus Grant, Caroline Brown, Waleska T. Caiaffa, Anthony Capon, Jason Corburn, Chris Coutts, Carlos J. Crespo, Geraint Ellis, George Ferguson, Colin Fudge, Trevor Hancock, Roderick J. Lawrence, Mark J. Nieuwenhuijsen, Tolu Oni, Susan Thompson, Cor Wagenaar & Catharine Ward Thompson (2017) Cities and health: an evolving global conversation, Cities & Health

DOI: 10.1080/23748834.2017.1316025

2017   Guyon, Ak’ingabe; Hancock, Trevor; Kirk, Megan; MacDonald, Marjorie; Neudorf, Cory; Sutcliffe, Penny; Talbot, James and Watson-Creed, Gaynor (2017) The weakening of public health: A threat to population health and health care system sustainability (Editorial) Can J Public Health 108(1): e1 – 7

doi: 10.17269/CJPH.108.6143



My life in the Anthropocene

28 June 2017

699 words

Leading Earth scientists suggest that human activity is having such a large impact on the planet that our presence will show up permanently in the geologic record.  The International Commission on Stratigraphy is giving serious consideration to the idea that we are entering a new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene. In a 2016 article in Scientific American Jan Zalasiewicz, Chair of the Anthropocene Working Group, identified a number of human-created materials that would make distinctive geologic markers of the Anthropocene.

They include concrete, plastic, glass and pure aluminum, as well as chemical signatures such as increased levels of CO2 and nitrogen. One of the most compelling, for me – and one of the saddest – is the change in fossil assemblages. Zalasiewicz points out that humans now make up about one-third by weight of all large land vertebrates, while our domesticated animals make up almost all the rest; wild animals are less than 5 percent. Future palaeontologists will be able to quite clearly mark our presence and impact.

One of the key questions to be settled is when the Anthropocene began. A variety of dates have been suggested, but 1950 is gaining favour, and has been dubbed by some Earth scientists as the start of the Great Acceleration. This got me thinking, because I was born in 1948, so the major changes that constitute the Anthropocene have occurred in my lifetime. So what has happened in my lifetime?

In a 2017 article in The Anthropocene Review, Gaffney and Steffen summarised the rate of change for a number of key Earth systems since the 1950s, usually in comparison with the rate of change in the Holocene – the period since the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago, until recently.

They reported the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the key driver of global warming, increased between 1970 and 2015 about 550 times faster than during the Holocene baseline, and “100 times faster than the most rapid rise during the last glacial termination”, when the glaciers were melting and the Ice Age was ending.

They also found that methane levels (another key greenhouse gas) were rising almost 300 times faster than the Holocene baseline, while global surface temperature is increasing 170 times faster. Between 1993 and 2010, sea levels were rising at about 3 mm per year (more than an inch a decade, about a foot per century) compared to zero from 3,000 years ago until the start of the industrial era; sea level is now higher than at any time in the past 115,000 years, and will continue to rise.

Other changes are equally alarming. The species extinction rate is estimated to be between 10 and 100 times the rate in the Holocene, while the rate of ocean acidification is estimated to be “70 times faster than during a deglaciation” and the “highest in possibly 300 million years”, and

humans “now fix as much nitrogen as all natural processes combined . . . possibly the largest and most rapid change to the global nitrogen cycle in 2.5 billion years”. A statistic I find quite compelling is that our mining activities now displace nearly three times more materials than do the Earth’s rivers.

All of these changes have taken place within a single human lifespan. What is driving them is an increase in human population and economic activity. Since my birth in 1948, according to data available through the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, the world’s population has increased about three-fold to 7 billion people, while the urban population has increased almost five-fold. Meanwhile, the world’s real GDP (in 2005 US dollars) has exploded 11-fold, from $4.5 trillion to more than $50 trillion in 2010.

Our primary energy use has increased 5-fold, as have the number of large dams, while water use has increased more than 3-fold. We catch more fish (4.6-times), lose more forest (1.7-times), consume more fertilizer (14-times) and produce more paper (5 times since 1961) than when I was born; the number of vehicles has increased 7-fold just since 1963 and international tourism arrivals have gone up 37 times.

This has been my life in the Anthropocene. Does anyone seriously think we can or should continue in this way?

© Trevor Hancock, 2017


Canada 15,000/150: Wellbeing for the seventh generation

21 June 2017

700 words

This is National Aboriginal Day (June 21st) and we are just 10 days away from Canada Day. So it is a suitable time to reflect on Canada 150, or – as Inuk film-maker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril rightly pointed out in one of the recent Walrus Talks – Canada 15,000. After all, before the two ‘founding nations’ of Canada appeared on the scene back in the 16th century, the real founding nations had been here some 14,000 years.

Just as Indigenous people were not celebrating in 1992 the 500th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of the Americas by Columbus, I can’t imagine there will be many celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday. And who can blame them? The harm inflicted on the Indigenous people of the Americas in the past 500 years has been devastating, as has been the history of the relationship between Canada and its Indigenous people since 1867, as demonstrated in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

While we can’t undo that history – and indeed need to face it and accept it – we can create a different story for the next 150 years, and there is no better time to be thinking about this than right now. Moreover, in doing so, we can acknowledge an approach credited to Indigenous ways of thinking, namely to plan for the 7th generation. Since a generation is roughly 20 – 25 years, 7 generations takes us out about 150 years.

As a long-time planner and futurist, I am well aware of the difficulty of planning for a time horizon of 150 years, or even 50 years. Sadly, our political cycles do not reflect the reality of the seventh generation viewpoint, indeed they barely reflect the next generation. But here are some ways to think about what connects the present to the next 100 years or more, and why today’s decisions are so important for the long term.

First, consider that the buildings and infrastructure we create are with us for 50 – 100 years or more. The suburban sprawl we have created since the 1950s still shapes our way of life, our transportation systems, our energy use and our impacts on human and ecosystem health, and will do so for decades to come.

Next, recognize that a female foetus in her mother’s womb today contains within her developing ovaries the eggs that one day, some 20 years hence, will be her children. If those infants live to be 80 – our current life expectancy, although by no means predictive – then the mother of that yet-to-be-born infant carries within her the eggs that will be her elderly grandchildren some 100 years ahead.

Some of our most toxic pollutants are called persistent organic pollutants because they were designed to be persistent; unfortunately, this means that we and our descendants will carry body burdens of them throughout our lives.

The carbon dioxide we are spewing out – and that Donald Trump wants to increase – has an atmospheric lifetime of up to 200 years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and will thus continue to overheat the planet. And the species extinctions we are creating at 10 – 100 times the base rate over the past 10,000 years, are forever.

But perhaps the new BC government – more attuned as it is to environmental sustainability and social justice – could use the opportunity afforded by Canada 15,000/150 to initiate a conversation – in partnership with Indigenous people in particular – about our long-term responsibilities and our duty to future generations.

Fundamentally, it is unethical for us to consume the resources and harm the natural systems that our descendants will depend upon for their own wellbeing; this is the ethical principle of intergenerational justice. Arguably, it is also unethical for us to appropriate ecosystems and resources that other species require for their own survival; the Earth is not ‘ours’ alone, we share it with many other species, many of which we depend upon for our own survival.

So – much as we are doing here in Victoria with our ‘Conversations for a One Planet Region’ – as we mark Canada 15,000/150, lets think about the next 150 years, the next seven generations, and how we ensure a more healthy just and sustainable life for them.

© Trevor Hancock, 2017


BC should protect future wellbeing

Dr. Trevor Hancock

10 June 2017

701 words

The new BC government – assuming things work out as expected – will mark a significant departure from any previous government we have seen in Canada. The presence of the Greens as partners with a minority NDP government should lead to a significant re-thinking of the direction of society and the role of government.

This is because the Greens mark a real break with the economic and social consensus that has dominated politics on both left and right for the past century or more. This consensus has been that we need to exploit the Earth’s resources to fuel economic growth, which in turn will fuel human development and progress, without any serious consideration of the long-term implications of this.

While there are important social policy distinctions between left and right, until recently there have not been important differences from the Earth’s point of view. Both socialist and conservative governments in Canada and around the world have been keen to industrialise and to exploit the Earth, with differences more in the realm of how equitably the benefits and costs are distributed, and how much or how little environmental protection is offered. We only have to look at the current positions on the Kinder Morgan pipeline to see this; it is supported by the right wing ‘Liberals’ in BC, the federal Liberals and the Alberta NDP.

But now we have both the BC NDP and the BC Greens opposing it. This is promising, but that approach has to become broader and deeper if we are to make the transition we need to make from an economic system that increasingly does more harm than good to a system that improves human and ecosystem health at the same time.

This is what really makes the Greens different; they are, as an old German Green Party slogan put it, ‘neither left nor right, but ahead’. The focus of Green politics and economics is on ecologically sustainable human and social development rather than economic growth, and on such ideas as a steady state economy (my topic last week) and alternate measures of progress to GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Index.

One of the key problems that we have to overcome if we are to successfully move to a sustainable system of social and economic development is the short-term thinking that dominates in both government and business. Too often, government policy is dictated by the need for quick (and thus often ‘dirty’) fixes before the next election, with scant regard for long-term impact, while business too is often focused on the short-term bottom line.

So if I have one key wish for this new government, it is that they take a leaf from the Welsh Assembly and pass a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (see for a succinct and accessible overview). The Act was passed in 2015 and it is intended to “improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales” so as to “give future generations a good quality of life”.

The Act requires governments to think about the long-term impacts of their actions. Crucially, it requires all Ministers, as well as local authorities, health boards and a number of other public bodies, to “carry out sustainable development” and establishes a ‘sustainable development principle’ that they must follow; they “must act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

There are seven ‘Wellbeing Goals’ (a Wales that is prosperous, resilient, healthier, more equal, globally responsible, with cohesive communities and a vibrant culture) and the Act “makes it clear the listed public bodies must work to achieve all of the goals, not just one or two”.

The Act also requires transparency and accountability; the Ministers and others must “set and publish well-being objectives” for all seven goals and must publish an annual report on their progress. They are also subject to review by the Future Generations Commissioner (who is “a guardian for the interests of future generations in Wales”) as well as the Auditor General.

What’s not to like in this? If Wales can do it, there is no reason BC cannot; future generations will be very grateful.

© Trevor Hancock, 2017


From endless growth to a steady state

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 May 2017

696 words

Kenneth Boulding was one of the founders of General Systems Theory and at various times was President of the American Economic Association, the Society for General Systems Research, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. So when he wrote that “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist”, he knew what he was talking about.

Not so our political and corporate leaders and the bulk of the economic profession, who are still wedded to the pursuit of economic growth as their foundational approach to life, public policy and corporate profit. So let’s see just how mad the pursuit of economic growth is.

In our report for the Canadian Public Health Association on the public health implications of global ecological change, my colleagues and I did a simple extrapolation of two of the three key forces driving global ecological change; population growth and economic growth. We asked, what would be the impact on the Earth’s resources and natural systems of current levels of population growth combined with 3 percent economic growth (a seemingly common target) over the lifetime of someone born this year?

In an 80-year lifespan (roughly the average today in Canada and other high income countries), one percent annual population growth would mean a 2.2-fold increase in impact, while a three percent annual increase in real GDP would result in a 10.6-fold increase. Multiply them together and we are looking at a 23-fold increase in impact by the end of the century.

But already humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planet’s worth of biocapacity (the Earth’s ability to produce renewable resources on an on-going basis and to absorb wastes) and we are disrupting major Earth systems; the prospect of increasing that impact 23 times is untenable.

Now admittedly, not all that economic growth translates into growth in material consumption, hence the suggestion that we can ‘de-couple’ economic growth from growth in uses of energy and other resources and production of wastes. But even if our technology becomes 5 times more efficient, as some suggest it can, we are still looking at a more than 4-fold increase.

We in high-income countries have a 3 or 4-planet ecological footprint. So even if we can be more efficient through technology, does anyone in their right mind imagine that we can or should increase that to more than 12 – 16 planet’s worth by the end of the century?

Hence the interest in a long-neglected but important economic approach: a steady-state economy. Dan O’Neill, an ecological economist at the University of Leeds, UK – but a Victoria native – has focused his work on this concept. At its simplest, O’Neill argues, “it is an economy where resource use is stabilized within environmental limits, and the goal of increasing GDP is replaced by the goal of improving human well-being. It’s an economy where the goal is better lives, not more stuff.”

A number of changes are needed to achieve such an economy, he notes, including policies to conserve natural resources, stabilize population, reduce inequality, fix the financial system, create jobs, and change the way we measure progress. These ideas are explored in the book Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources, which he co-authored with Rob Dietz, and which was recently made into a short documentary film.

O’Neill also co-leads a major European project on ‘Living Well Within Limits’, which is part of the European Union Environment Action Programme to 2020. The Programme’s long-term vision is that “in 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits”. His project will analyse and model the energy requirements of well-being, an important contribution to understanding how to reduce resource use to be within critical planetary boundaries, while improving human well-being.

These ideas are extremely relevant to the topic of Victoria as a One Planet Region, which we have been exploring in a series of ‘Conversations’ since January. Happily, Dan O’Neill is currently at UVic on sabbatical, and will be presenting his ideas and his latest work on June 12th, 5 – 7 PM, in the Auditorium (A240) of the HSD Building at UVic. All are welcome.

© Trevor Hancock, 2017