Pandora’s box and the Canada Pension Plan

Pandora’s box and the Canada Pension Plan

Dr. Trevor Hancock

21 January 2018

703 words

The World Economic Forum (WEF) released its 2018 Global Risks report last week. One business reporter dubbed it ‘the Pandora report’, and that is a pretty fair assessment. If you have an interest in the welfare of future generations – or for that matter, young people alive today – it makes for sober reading.

In their preface Klaus Schwab, the founder of the WEF, and Borge Brende, the President, write: “Globally, people are enjoying the highest standards of living in human history. And yet acceleration and interconnectedness in every field of human activity are pushing the absorptive capacities of institutions, communities and individuals to their limits. This is putting future human development at risk”.

To this, they might have added the absorptive capacities of the over-stretched natural systems that provide the basis for our life and wellbeing, and that underpin our society and economy. Because when you look at the risks the report considers to be most likely and to have the greatest impact, as assessed by about 1,000 of their multi-stakeholder communities, almost all the greatest threats are environmental.

In terms of impact, only weapons of mass destruction are seen as having a greater impact than extreme weather events, followed by natural disasters, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, and water crises. Overall, when likelihood and impact are combined, these last four are the top global risks, followed by cyber-attacks, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, large-scale involuntary migration and man made environmental disasters

In short, as the Executive Summary bluntly states: “We have been pushing our planet to the brink and the damage is becoming increasingly clear. Biodiversity is being lost at mass-extinction rates, agricultural systems are under strain and pollution of the air and sea has become an increasingly pressing threat to human health”.

So while Prime Minister Trudeau is in Davos, Switzerland, this week for the meeting of the WEF, let us hope he pays more attention to the environmental consequences of our current economic system, and their implications for human health. If he were to do so, perhaps he would eschew the narrow, short-term economic gains that have guided his choices on the Kinder Morgan pipeline and other short-sighted and harmful decisions that further encourage the fossil fuel industry.

Since climate change lies behind most of the leading global risks we face, the last thing we should be doing is supporting the further growth and development of this industry. Instead we should be divesting from fossil fuels, transferring all the many subsidies they enjoy to the conservation, renewable and clean energy sector, and setting up transition support programs for the workers that will be displaced.

In thinking about this, Mr. Trudeau and his Finance Minister, Mr Morneau, might be helped by these nuggets from the WEF report: the World Bank announced in December 2017 that it was placing a moratorium on financing upstream oil and gas-related investments after 2019, while Norway’s Wealth Fund announced in November that it was divesting from oil and gas shares. Indeed, the time is swiftly coming, if it is not already here, when it will be fiscally negligent for pension-fund managers to invest in fossil fuels.

With more than $300 billion in investments, the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) is one of the largest state-owned investment funds in the world. Its Investment Board is accountable to the government and reports to Parliament through the Finance Minister. But in a 2015 report, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) estimated that about 22 percent of the CPP’s Canadian investments are in fossil fuel producers or pipeline companies.

This is considerably higher than the 4–9% of funds the CCPA estimates are invested in fossil fuel stock by the 20 largest public pension funds, meaning “the CPP is more exposed to climate policy risk”. For example, the BC Investment Management Corporation, which manages the BC public sector’s pension funds, was estimated to have about 8 percent of its holdings in fossil fuels.

For the sake of the environment, our health and the security of our pensions, it is time the CPP and other public pension funds followed the lead of Norway and a growing number of investors, disclosed their fossil fuel holdings and started to divest from fossil fuels.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018




Misery and health: The diseases of despair

Misery and health: The diseases of despair

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 January 2018

702 words

Last week I wrote about happiness and health. Interestingly, we live next door to a nation that has put the pursuit of happiness into its founding document as a central purpose – and is spectacularly failing to achieve its aim.

The 2012 World Happiness Report noted that “the U.S. has experienced no rise of life satisfaction for half a century”, while the 2017 version of the Report found happiness in the USA has actually been declining for most of the past decade. The opposite of happiness is misery, which seems to be where the US is headed, and that shows up, in health terms, in what have become known as the ‘diseases of despair’ – alcohol, drugs and suicide.

A November 2017 report – Pain in the Nation – released by the Trust for America’s Health and the Well Being Trust, notes that “Drug-related deaths have tripled since 2000 . . . Alcohol-induced deaths grew by 37 percent from 2000 to 2014 [and] . . Suicides increased by 28 percent from 2000 to 2015”. The combined effect has been to actually lower life expectancy in the USA in the past two years – the first time in 60 years that has happened.

As I noted in a March 2016 column, and as this report confirms, these diseases of despair are found particularly among White middle-aged Americans with less than a college education. Among this group, life expectancy has declined 20 percent, while deaths from drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, liver disease and suicide all tripled.

“These trends are a wake-up call that there is a serious crisis in this country”, states Pain in the Nation. The report went on: “They are signals of grave underlying concerns facing too many Americans – about pain, despair, disconnection and lack of opportunity – and the urgent need to address them”.

Not coincidentally, in December 2016 the Washington Post reported a study by Penn State University professor Shannon Monnat that found Donald Trump performed better “in the counties with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates” than had the Republican nominee in 2012. This was particularly so in the Rust Belt states of the (de-industrialising) Midwest, as well as in New England.

The authors of Pain in the Nation propose to address these issues is through a ‘national resilience strategy’ that focuses largely upon individual and to some extent collective interventions intended to enhance resilience among people and communities and to identify problems early and intervene. While these are useful and important strategies, in my view they do not go far enough, because they do not address the upstream causes that lie behind the dramatic increase in the ‘diseases of despair’ they document.

The 2012 World Happiness Report noted that in the five decades during which there has been no increase in happiness, “inequality has soared, social trust has declined, and the public has lost faith in its government.” Moreover, this occurred while at the same time “income per person has increased roughly three times”; clearly, money is not buying happiness.

Indeed, the noted economist Jeffrey Sachs points out in the 2017 World Happiness Report, in a chapter on ‘Restoring American happiness’, that “the situation has gotten worse in recent years: per capita GDP is still rising, but happiness is now actually falling.” Sachs writes that about half the decline in happiness can be related to four social factors: “less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations, and more perceived corruption of government and business”.

Here in Canada, we cannot afford to be smug. We too have an opioid addictions crisis and a lot of alcohol-related deaths; a 2015 OECD report shows that US and Canadian alcohol consumption per person and the proportion of deaths attributable to alcohol are similar, while our rates of suicide are not that dissimilar from the US (13.5 in the USA v 12 in Canada per 100,000 in 2014).

Nationally, the latest life expectancy data only goes to 2014, but here in BC, life expectancy peaked at 82.9 years in 2014 and declined by about 2 months to 82.74 years in 2015 and 2016. We need to learn from the USA that the pursuit of happiness is more than just the pursuit of money.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Society’s happiness is a serious business

Society’s happiness is a serious business

Dr. Trevor Hancock

8 January 2018

699 words

Happiness is in vogue. It was the cover story in the November 2017 National Geographic. We have the annual World Happiness Report (launched on the International Day of Happiness, March 20th), a Happy Cities initiative, an Economics of Happiness initiative, a country – Bhutan – that measures its Gross National Happiness, even World Happiness Summits and a Happy Planet Index. Indeed, we have one of the world’s leading experts on happiness right here in BC – John Helliwell, Professor Emeritus of Economics at UBC and one of the co-editors of the World Happiness Report since its inception in 2012.

Clearly happiness is serious business. But what does it have to do with health? Well, not surprisingly, quite a lot – in fact, the two are in many ways almost the same thing, and each helps to predict the other. Happier people live longer lives in good health, while good health is a key factor contributing to happiness; what makes us happy makes us healthy, and vice versa.

So what exactly is meant by ‘happiness’? Interestingly, that first Report didn’t define it – after all, it is a subjective phenomenon, we each have our own idea of what it means to be happy. But it did note there are “two broad measurements of happiness: the ups and downs of daily emotions, and an individual’s overall evaluation of life”, how you feel about your place in society. The former is known as ‘affective happiness’ while the latter – evaluative happiness – is the more important from a public policy perspective.

But while to some extent happiness is built into us – the 2012 report noted that it “depends crucially on personality, [which is] strongly affected by your genetic make-up” – the 2017 edition notes that “Happiness is increasingly considered the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy”. Indeed, the OECD committed itself in 2016 “to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the centre of governments’ efforts”.

This, of course, is precisely what public health has been advocating for many years. So what areas should a government focus on if happiness (and thus, health) were the goal of public policy and the measure of social progress?

The 2017 report identifies six factors that between them explain three-quarters of the variability in happiness between countries: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (measured in absence of perceived corruption), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity. In addition, having positive emotions – which as noted may be partly genetic, but can also be learned – and having a sense of life purpose are important.

And who does this best? Well, no surprises there: The 2012 report noted “the happiest countries in the world tend to be high-income countries that also have a high degree of social equality, trust, and quality of governance”. Based on data from 2014-16, the top six are Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland and The Netherlands; Canada ranks 7th, the USA is 14th, the UK 19th.

Internationally, GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy explains about half the difference between countries, which is hardly surprising. We know that up to about $20,000 per capita, growth in GDP and increased life expectancy are closely linked; you need a certain level of wealth to fund clean water, sanitation universal education and so on.

But much of the remainder flows from the other four social factors; of these, it seems, increased social support is almost as important as GDP per capita. Indeed, the report finds that on average, if a country were to increase the proportion of its population that had just one person to count on by just 10 percent, it would be “equivalent to that from a doubling of GDP per capita”.

Good mental health also has a significant impact. In examining the US, Australia and Britain, the 2017 report also found that “diagnosed mental illness emerges as more important than income, employment or physical illness” in explaining the difference in happiness among individuals.

So once we have enough wealth, it seems we should focus more on building social support and mental health if we want to improve happiness and health.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018



Connecting to our past and to nature

Connecting to our past and to nature

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 January 2018

702 words

Thirty years ago, in the background paper for the World Health Organisation’s new Healthy Cities program in Europe, Len Duhl and I identified eleven evidence-informed characteristics of a Healthy City. One of them was “connection to biological and cultural heritage”, and was particularly influenced by an interesting review of the literature on environments, people and health by Ros Lindheim, an architect, and Len Syme, a noted social epidemiologist.

They identified three major aspects of urbanization that are important for the health of urban populations, one of which was this connection, which they saw as helping to “define a person’s sense of self, a person’s place in the world”. They saw it as “important to health that natural (circadian, seasonal etc.) rhythms be respected, that our hunger for nature and variety be satisfied”. There has been a good deal of evidence developed since then that suggests they were right.

While I am always somewhat conscious of these connections, they are much in my mind at the winter solstice. This is the time of the year when I perform the Green Man in our Mummers Play and at a couple of Wassails. So at this point, you are probably wondering what all these strange ideas are – Green Man, Mummers Play, Wassail, – and what does this have to do with health.

I have been a Morris dancer – an ancient English folk tradition – for the past 40 years. Long-time readers of my column may recall I wrote about the health benefits of dancing back in June 2015. A related part of English folk tradition is the Mummers Play; both the Morris and the Mummers Play have their roots in village life and are connected with nature.

The Morris dance was performed in the spring – especially May Day – and on into the summer and is believed by many to be, in part, a fertility ritual, while the Mummers plays – which have elements of pantomime within them – were performed around mid-winter. While every village that did this had its own version, at the heart of every Mummers play there is a fight, a death, and a quack doctor who brings the victim back to life. Many believe this is an invocation of a much deeper tradition concerning the death of the old year and the birth of the new. I see it as a way of reminding us of – and celebrating – the solstice, of re-connecting with the cycles of nature.

As to the Green Man, that is an even older tradition. Thousand-year old carvings of ‘green men’ (the technical term is foliate faces) can be found in the churches of England and other northern European regions. While nobody is quite sure why they are there, they are widely assumed to represent some sort of forest spirit – perhaps a forest guardian – at a time when forests were dark and dangerous places.

For me, the Green Man and similar traditions – the Wild Men that can still be found in villages across Europe, and the festivals associated with them – are an important way of reminding us, at a deep level, of our vital connection to and roots in nature – a lesson we desperately need to re-learn these days, not just intellectually, but emotionally.

The Wassail is another ancient tradition; the word itself comes from the Middle English wæs hæil – ‘be healthy! (Haeil is also the root word for hello, hail, whole, hale, health and holy). Villagers went around to the ‘great houses’ and cider orchards in mid-winter singing wassails (many may know the Christmas carol ‘Here we come a-wassailing’), blessing the apple trees (“we hope that your apple trees blossom and bear, that we may have cider when we call next year”) and seeking food and liquid refreshment. (I wrote about the health benefits of singing together in one of my first columns, in December 2014.)

For those who are interested, our final public performance of the Mummers Play this season is at the Sea Cider Wassail on Sunday January 21st. So Waes Haeil in 2018! I hope you find your own ways of connecting with nature and your cultural heritage – its good for your health, especially when combined with singing and dancing together.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018