Solstice a timely reminder of our place in the universe

Solstice a timely reminder of our place in the universe

Dr. Trevor Hancock

10 December 2018

702 words

I have never lost the sense of awe I experienced one night as a teenager as I lay down in a dark spot and really looked at the Milky Way. It was overwhelming and humbling to realize what a small part of the galaxy our own seemingly vast solar system is, and what a tiny part of all that I am. But it also gave me a strong sense of my connectedness to the universe, a sense that has never left me. I can get much the same sense of awe and connection by looking at the immensity of the ocean or a mountain, or the beauty of a butterfly or a flower.

But many people, perhaps most of us these days, have lost that connection – or at least experience it too infrequently. A vivid illustration of our loss of connection comes fron Los Angeles, where in 1994 an earthquake knocked out power. According to a subsequent report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives “many anxious residents called local emergency centers to report seeing a strange ‘giant, silvery cloud’ in the dark sky. What they were really seeing—for the first time—was the Milky Way, long obliterated by the urban sky glow.”

Sadly, this loss of any awareness of the night sky is hardly surprising. The first World Atlas of the artificial night sky brightness tells us, “two-thirds of the U.S. population and more than one-half of the European population have already lost the ability to see the Milky Way with the naked eye”. But if we can’t see the stars, how do we know our connection to and place in the universe?

At a somewhat smaller scale, how many people realise that we are almost at the midwinter solstice? For that matter, how many pay attention to the midsummer solstice, the spring and fall equinoxes and the phases of the moon. But for most of our history, these have been of immense signficance to humans, helping to connect us with the great cycles of nature.

We often forget – or perhaps choose to ignore – that many of our various faith-based celebrations have been superimposed on these much older traditions. Christmas itself is about the birth of a child, the “light of the world”, just as the winter solstice marks the return of the sun and the birth of the new year, while Hanukkah is also a festival of the light. Indeed, the later Romans celebrated Sol Invictus, the birth of the invincible sun, on December 25th, thought to be grafted on to an older cult of the sun.

Many of the aspects of our modern celebration of Christmas – bringing green boughs and trees into the house, lighting fires and candles, hanging mistletoe – have their roots in pagan traditions such as Yule, and it seems fires and lights were an important part of the celebration of the winter solstice in many cultures.

Other celebrations are related to the lunar calendar; Easter and Passover are tied to the full moon around the time of the spring equinox, while Sukkot (a Jewish harvest festival) and the Christian tradition of harvest festivals are also around the time of the fall equinox. They are reminders that we were once deeply connected to the seasons and the Earth.

But too many people, indeed much of society, have lost touch with nature, which is part of the reason why we are in such environmental trouble. Yet while we may imagine that our technology and our cleverness have made us separate from – and even superior to – nature, that is far from the truth. We are as dependent upon nature as we ever were – it is still where all our food, water, air, fuels and materials come from.

If we could but experience that sense of wonder, awe and connection that our ancestors felt – and perhaps some of the fear too, for nature’s power remains immense – we might treat the Earth with more respect. So take a few moments this week to contemplate the turning of the year. Go out and look at the night sky, admire the ocean and the flowers, because we need more than ever to re-establish our connection with nature. Happy Solstice.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018


Charity is big – but is that a good thing?

Charity is big – but is that a good thing?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 December 2018

699 words

A front-page article in the Business section of the Times Colonist (Nov 28) caught my eye: “Charitable sector generates $4 billion in economic impact”. The story was about a report from the Victoria Foundation and the University of Victoria on the economic and social impact of registered charitable organizations in the capital region.

The report estimates this level of economic activity translates into the equivalent of 63,000 full time jobs, which in turn support over $300 million in municipal taxes. The article also notes that this puts the impact of the charitable sector close to the $5.2 billion economic impact of the high-tech sector. So charity is big – but is it a good thing?

Now don’t get me wrong: I am not opposed to or seeking to undermine the charitable sector. I have worked in and with numerous NGOs and charities and have seen our work benefit from the funding and other support of numerous foundations. I have a lot of respect for charitable organizations, including the Victoria Foundation, which does great work.

Thus I strongly agree with their opening comment: “Civil society, also known as the charitable sector, is vital to both Canada’s economy and the well-being of its citizens. Indeed, each of us is regularly enriched by the work of civil society organizations, whether we recognize it or not”.

My concern is at a wider level: Is it really such a good idea that civil society shoulder the reponsibility of meeting people’s basic needs? In doing so, are we not enabling an abdication of responsibility by both our federal and provincial governments and by the business sector – especially large corporations – that avoid paying their fair share of the taxes that should support the meeting of basic needs for all?

This report comes hard on the heels of three recent reports that show how poorly we are doing in meeting basic needs. The annual report card on child poverty from First Call and SPARC BC finds that one in five children in BC live in poverty, which is the same as it was in 1996. New this year was a report from SPARC BC and the United Way of the Lower Mainland that found BC has the highest seniors’ poverty rate in Canada; 8 percent in BC compared to 6 per cent on average across Canada.

Meanwhile, a report from the BC Centre for Disease Control (BC CDC) found the average cost of a nutritionally adequate, balanced diet in 2017 for a family of four was $1,019 per month, or more than $12,000 annually. In an accompanying infographic, the BC CDC notes that this healthy diet would take 44 percent of the family’s income if they were on social assistance and 24 percent if both parents were earning minimum wage.

The infographic also notes “household food insecurity takes a major toll on our health and health care system”, with health care costs in food insecure households (who also are likely to be suffering other deprivations) twice as high as households that are food secure. Noting “the root cause of household food insecurity isn’t the price of food – it’s lack of income”, the BC CDC concludes “policies to improve household income are the most effective way to lower food insecurity”.

We should also conclude that such policies will address homelessness. Shelters, tent cities and trailer housing should not become normalised, any more than food banks and community meals. Instead, we need to raise the minimum wage and social assistance levels, both to restore humaneness and dignity, and to improve health.

So if business sincerely wants to help the poor and disadvantaged in society, there are two things they could do that would be more effective, and more fair (because all would contribute, not just those with a social conscience) than donating to charity.

First, pay a living wage, so people are not living in poverty. Second, they and the wealthiest members of society could stop avoiding their social responsibility by moving their money and profits off shore and othwerwise evading taxes. This would take the burden of meeting basic needs off the shoulders of charities, enabling them to focus on other ways to enrich life in our communities.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018




Don’t overlook the tobacco addiction epidemic

Don’t overlook the tobacco addiction epidemic

Dr. Trevor Hancock

28 November 2018

699 words

While the opioid overdose epidemic is a major focus of concern, it is worth recalling that it is not the most important cause of addiction-related deaths in Canada or even in BC, the epicentre of the opioids epidemic. There were almost 4,000 opioid-related deaths in Canada in 2017 but tobacco, which is also addictive, kills eleven times as many Canadians every year as opioids – yes, eleven times as many!

The latest data from Statstics Canada shows that in 2017 more than 16 percent of Canadians 12 and over – 5 million people – smoked. Smoking is more common in low-income populations; more than one in five low-income Canadians smoked, compared to less than one in ten of high-income people. Clearly we are still a long way from eliminating this scourge.

Shockingly, the most recent information on tobacco-related deaths available from Health Canada is from 2011, and is based on what is now 16 year-old data. In 2002, about 17% of the 230,00 deaths that year were due to smoking – more than 39,000 deaths. In the absence of any apparent Federal interest in the issue, it was left to the Conference Board of Canada to bring us up to date. In a 2017 report based on 2012 data, they estimated that smoking caused more than 45,000 deaths, more than 18 percent of all deaths.

In BC, the Vital Statistics Agency’s reported that in 2015 there were 6,582 deaths attributable to smoking. This compares to more than 1,400 unintentional ilicit overdose deaths in BC in 2017 and 742 in the first 6 months of 2018, according to the Coroners Service and the BC CDC.

So while I recognise that there are good reasons for the widespread concern with opioid addiction and deaths in Canada, we are largely ignoring what is still the largest cause of addiction-related deaths in Canada and BC – tobacco use. You can almost hear the sighs of relief in the executive offices of the tobacco industry as attention shifts away from their products, enabling them to go on making money while killing and sickening people.

In fact, there was a concerted attempt by the Harper government to undermine the tobacco control movement. In an opinion piece in the Montreal Gazette in May of this year, two of Canada’s most respected and distinguished tobacco control experts, Gar Mahood and Neil Collishaw, laid out the ravages of the Harper government and the inadequate response of the Trudeau government.

They note that “When the initial Federal Tobacco Control Strategy was launched in the early 2000s, it was promised funding of $100 million a year. Yet over time, governments cut this fund — to about $35 million in health spending last year”. In particular, they note that the grants and contributions program, which was an important source of funding for major tobacco control organisations, was cut from $22 million in 2006 to a paltry $2 million today, leading to “the major loss of valuable capacity and experience in the tobacco control movement”.

Regrettably, there is not much evidence that the Trudeau government is reversing that neglect. It is indicative of the way that pressure has been taken off this issue that Health Canada is still using data from 16 years ago, and Mahood and Collishaw commented that the “inadequate funding” and “timid language” in the government’s plans “seems to presage another pie-in-the-sky tobacco reduction program”.

Meanwhile, the tobacco industry continues to prey on people in Canada and around the world, still peddling a product that, as they well know, if used as intended will kill and sicken millions and cost nations billions of dollars in health costs. The World Health Organisation reports “tobacco kills more than 7 million people each year”, with 80 percent of the victims living in low and middle-income countries, where tobacco controls are weaker.

The tobacco industry is the world’s most successful drug pusher, and governments need to deal with it vigorously and harshly. We need a tobacco control effort commensurate with the scale of the harms this addictive substance causes, at least 10 times the share committed to prevention and control in the $231.4 million over five years that the Canadian government has committed to address the opioids epidemic.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018