We’re spending our kids’ inheritance

We’re spending our kids’ inheritance

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 December 2019

701 words

No doubt you have seen – perhaps you even have – a licence plate holder or bumper sticker that proclaims ‘we’re spending our kids’ inheritance’. While that may be a somewhat amusing idea to some, when elevated to the level of national and global policy, as we have just seen in the failed climate change summit in Madrid, there is absolutely nothing funny about it.

In reporting on a UN climate change report last month, the CBC quoted Jennifer Francis – a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center – as noting: “it’s important for people to realize the end of the century isn’t really that far away. It is just one lifetime: a mere 80 years from now”.

Globally, average life expectancy is now more than 70 years, and the UN Development Program reported this month that 34 countries had life expectancies of 80 years or more in 2018 (82.3 years in Canada). In those countries, an infant born today would live to see the end of the 21st century – or they would if life expectancy were actually a prediction, which it is not.

At its heart, life expectancy is a sophisticated way of measuring what amounts to the average age of death for people dying this year. So it can only predict the length of life of a child born this year if she or he experiences EXACTLY the same set of life circumstances as was experienced by those dying this year.

But one thing of which we can be certain is that children born today will not have the same life experience. The future will be nothing like the past. Go back to 1940 and think about just how different today’s world is from what it was then – and since then, the pace of change has dramatically increased. We have seen massive and rapid increases in a range of socio-economic factors that in turn have driven massive and rapid changes in the natural systems that are the ultimate determinants of our health and wellbeing and the stability of our societies.

The global ecological change that is most apparent and of greatest concern right now is climate change. The UN Environment Program described the findings in its Emissions Gap Report, released in late November, as “bleak”, noting “countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions”. As a result the world is on track for as much as 3 – 50C warming, as predicted by Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, in November 2018.

A temperature increase of 40C would be devastating, the World Bank’s President warned in a 2012 report, listing a variety of serious consequences, and concluding: “A 40C world can, and must, be avoided”. It is a simple point that seems to have eluded many of the key players in Madrid – the US, Brazil, India, China, Saudi Arabia and Australia were especially mentioned. They were far too busy squabbling over money and past wrongs, real or imagined, to spare much thought for future generations.

The collapse of the Madrid climate change summit is something of which the world’s government and corporate leaders should be deeply ashamed. When push comes to shove, they are perfectly prepared to sacrifice the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people, as well as their own children, grandchildren and subsequent generations – not to mention many of the other species with whom we share the Earth – on the altar of greed and self-interest.

The BBC quoted Adam Currie, with youth climate organisation Generation Zero, saying “We are tired of governments siding with the polluters. We are tired of our lives being negotiated away for money. The people are tired of being ignored while a handful of wreckers and bullies negotiate in bad faith. We know that until we get them out of power they will continue to sabotage our future.”

The level of greed and selfishness on display in Madrid these past couple of weeks is shocking. This is the legacy of our government and corporate leaders, their bequest to future generations – we don’t care if we are blighting your future, we are only interested in making money today, so we are spending your inheritance. Nothing funny in that at all.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019


Awe and peace: The spiritual value of nature

Awe and peace: The spiritual value of nature

Dr. Trevor Hancock

10 December 2019

698 words

The Midwinter Solstice is nearly upon us, and it is a powerful time of the year. For our ancestors, the shortening days and the growing cold must have been a source of concern every year; would the sun come back, would winter end? So the point at which the sun stopped moving north and the days stopped growing shorter was a vitally important time of the year. The Midwinter Solstice was a time to celebrate, and of course our various midwinter festivals – Christmas, Hannukah, Diwali and others – are rooted in that time of year.

Recognising and celebrating the Solstice is an important way of re-connecting us to the seasons and great cycles of nature. But in the past century or more we have become increasingly disconnected from nature. On average, in Canada, we spend only about one hour a day outdoors, and since we are 80 percent urbanised, most of that outdoor time is spent in an urban environment, with little nature contact.

Symbolic of our disconnect from nature is a wonderful but disturbing book that was published in the UK last year – The Lost Words. The lost words in question were words related to nature which had disappeared from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. They included words related to common plants and animals in Britain (and for that matter, here in Canada) such as acorn, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter and willow.

In their place were new words such as attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste and voice-mail. As the publishers noted, this shows “the outdoor and natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual”, something that was seen by many as “a powerful sign of the growing gulf between childhood and the natural world”.

Yet over the past couple of decades there has been a growing body of work showing a wide variety of mental, physical, emotional and social benefits of nature contact. This in turn has given rise to a growing interest in issues such as outdoor play, nature kindergartens and ‘forest bathing’.

But it is deeper than that. Surely we have never known a time when we more desperately needed a strong connection between humans and nature. We face not only a climate emergency but a wide range of other troubling human-induced global ecological changes that threaten present and future generations. I firmly believe that what we face is not a science and technology problem – we have known at least in broad terms the science of global change and the technologies we need to address the problems we have created for at least 50 years. It is instead a social, economic, legal, political, cultural and ultimately ethical and spiritual problem.

Which is why faith communities are such an important part of the conversation, because we need not only to understand nature in an intellectual way, as the source of all that we need for life and health and for our material prosperity, but to feel a real emotional and spiritual connection to nature.

The need for that spiritual connection, and also a concern with ethical matters related to our relationship with the Earth, seems to be of growing importance for some faith communities here in Victoria and, for that matter around the world. In the past month or so I have spoken on the issue of becoming a One Planet Region, and the ethical and spiritual aspects of that, with three congregations.

Many who experience nature would agree there is a spiritual quality to that experience. Nature can be beautiful, a source of peace and tranquility, of reflection and contemplation; it can also be awe-inspiring and humbling as we see the power of a river, a storm or a volcano, or the immensity of a forest, a canyon, a desert, the ocean or the sky.

Re-discovering the spirit in nature, experiencing both the awe and the peace that nature can provide, may be one of the more important ways for us to address the massive ecological, social and economic challenges we face. Because ultimately, saving us from ourselves is not a technological but a spiritual quest to live in harmony with and as part of – not separate from – nature.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

First they came for the whales

First they came for the whales

Dr. Trevor Hancock

2 December 2019

701 words

While there has been an increasing public focus on climate change in the last few years, and a slow awakening to the threat it poses, we have yet to wake up fully to an even bigger problem. I noted in a September 2019 column that we face not only a climate emergency but an extinction emergency.

A 2018 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on this. It reported on a census of the biomass of the Earth – the weight (measured as carbon) of all living things. Just over 80 percent is plants, while another 12 percent or so is bacteria; fungi make up about 2 percent and the entire animal kingdom makes up less than 0.4 percent of the Earth’s biomass.

Within the miniscule fraction that is the animal kingdom, about half the biomass is marine arthropods, with most of that being crustacea (e.g. crabs, shrimps, lobsters and Antarctic krill) and another 35 percent is fish. Land vertebrates are only about 0.03 percent (three ten-thousandths) of the weight of all living things, with humans making up about one third of that (0.01 percent). We are outweighed by our livestock, and roughly matched by both Antarctic krill and termites. That should make us feel small and humble!

But while small, we are also mighty. The article notes it has been estimated that “the present-day biomass of wild land mammals is approximately sevenfold lower” than it was 50,000 years ago, before we started wiping out the large land mammals. As a result we now outweigh wild animals ten-fold. They also report that our hunting of whales and other marine mammals has led to a roughly five-fold decrease in their biomass, while we have roughly halved total fish biomass.

It’s not just animals that we have harmed; the authors point to evidence suggesting “the total plant biomass (and, by proxy, the total biomass on Earth) has declined approximately two-fold relative to its value before the start of human civilization”. Given that plants make up roughly 80 percent of the total biomass, that is an astonishing level of impact, one that is not compensated for by our crops, which, they report, account for only about 2 percent of total plant biomass.

Small wonder, then, that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports there are more than 28,000 species threatened with extinction, which is 27 percent of all the species they have assessed. This includes four in ten assessed amphibian species, one quarter of all mammals, almost a third of the sharks and rays and in the plant kingdom, a third of conifers and more than half Europe’s endemic trees.

Contemplating what amounts to a holocaust in the animal and plant kingdoms, the famous 1946 confession of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller came to mind: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

In the face of this sixth Great Extinction of life that humanity has initiated, I think we need an updated version, a lament for the web of life:

“First they came for the whales and the sharks, the salmon and the cod and I did not speak out – because they were but sea creatures. Then they came for the elephants and the tigers, the rhinos and the bears, and I did not speak out – because they were only animals. Then they came for the birds and the insects, the reptiles and the frogs, and I did not speak out – because they were small and unimportant. Then they came for the trees and the grasslands, the ferns and mosses, and I did not speak out – because they are just plants. Then they came for me – because we had so damaged the great web of life that everything I depended upon for life was gone.”

© Trevor Hancock, 2019



Poverty and the Olympian fallacy

Poverty and the Olympian fallacy

Dr. Trevor Hancock

26 November 2019

699 words

I was not surprised to receive feedback from a couple of readers objecting to the conclusion of my column last week. In it I explained that economic growth was not the solution for poverty, partly because it does not work very well and partly because further growth of our existing economy is not possible in a finite world where ecosystems are already becoming overwhelmed. Instead, I wrote, we need redistribution of income – and, I should have added, power and resources – from rich countries to poor countries and within countries, from rich people to poor people.

Both readers wrote that they had worked hard and got a university education. One noted “People have to have the desire, focus, and strength to change. Changing social standing, from my experience, is a personal choice”, while the other wrote “I remember well talking to my parents when I was a kid growing up, it was made clear to me that if any wealth was going to be distributed it should be up to the individual, certainly not the state”.

Both of these responses have aspects of what I call the Olympian fallacy, something we sometimes hear from Olympic athletes and other high achievers: I worked hard and was very successful, so you can do the same. The implication, of course, is that we all have an equal chance and if you don’t succeed it’s your own fault.

But the argument is fallacious for two major reasons. First, we are not born equal because we differ genetically. Some people are bigger, faster or stronger than others because they got the right genes. Of course training helps, as does dedication to that training, but having the right genes also helps. And its not just genes for physical attributes but also for psychological traits, which are defined in the American Psychological Association’s dictionary as “an enduring personality characteristic that describes or determines an individual’s behavior across a range of situations”.

Thomas Bouchard, a psychologist, geneticist and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, is known for his studies of twins who are separated and grow up in different environments, but with essentially the same genetic makeup. In a 2008 book chapter he noted that “genetic variation is an important feature of virtually every human psychological trait and must be taken into account in any comprehensive explanation (theory) of human behaviour”.

In a 2004 article he reported the genetic influence on personality – including such traits as extraversion, agreeableness or aggression, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, positive or negative emotionality and constraint – is about 40 to 50 percent, while it is about 36 percent for vocational or occupational interest. Genetic factors also play a significant role in mental ability and social attitudes. You can see how this might affect your ability to succeed.

Interestingly, he reports that the genetic influence on some traits vary with age, with genetic influences on mental ability and social attitudes such as conservatism and religiousness being low in young people, but increasing with age – meaning that socio-environmental influences on young people can counteract a genetic predisposition.

This points to a second major problem with the Olympian fallacy; it’s not just nature, it’s also nurture – our environment matters. We all experience different cultural, socio-economic and physical environments growing up, and these conditions influence the choices available to us.

Add to that mix factors such as colonisation, dispossession and racism, or on the other hand inherited wealth, and the scales are tipped further, one way or the other. Then add in slum housing, oppressive governments or employers, resource depletion and an economic system that, left to its own devices, leads to wealth moving up, and you can see why we don’t all have an equal chance.

This is not to deny the role of the individual who is determined and works hard – although remembering that there is a significant genetic influence on personality at work. But it depends also on where you start from and the opportunities you have, it’s not all down to the individual.

Which is why a fair, just and compassionate society will try to level the playing field by redistributing wealth, power and resources to those most in need.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019