Small is beautiful – and essential

Small is beautiful – and essential

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 January 2020

701 words

Some readers will doubtless recognize the reference to E.F. Schumacher’s classic 1973 book ‘Small is Beautiful’, in which he introduced the world to the concept of ‘Buddhist economics’. The book’s sub-title was ‘Economics as if people mattered’, which today we might amend to read ‘Economics as if people and the planet mattered’.

But my purpose is not to review Buddhist economics, tempting though that is, but to pick up on the theme of ‘small is beautiful’. That idea is also reflected in the slogan ‘Think globally, act locally’, and both – as well as the notion of Buddhist economics -are central to the work I am doing with friends and colleagues in the Conversations for a One Planet Region.

We believe that the best way to address the global challenges of massive and rapid ecological changes – and the necessary economic, social, cultural and ultimately ethical transformation that is required – is through local action, which requires that we have a community-wide conversation about the challenges we face and the solutions we need.

Small actions make a difference, and small groups of people make a difference, as the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead observed many years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. In that sense, small is not only beautiful, it is necessary if we want to change things.

So I was pleased to see a recent article in the journal Sustainability Science that supported this contention. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, a researcher at the McGill School of Environment, and her international colleagues – many of them associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre – set out to establish a set of ‘good Anthropocene’ scenarios for Northern Europe. There are some terms and concepts here that need some explanation.

First of all, what on Earth is a ‘good Anthropocene’? The Anthropocene is convenient shorthand for the set of massive and rapid global ecological changes that we have initiated. By ‘we’, I mean primarily the people living in high-income countries and their corporations and governments – hence their interest in Northern Europe.

A ‘good’ Anthropocene is one in which we manage to address the challenge of the Anthropocene successfully and create “a more just, prosperous, and ecologically diverse world”, as a related article from much the same team puts it. I would add that such a world, or such a community, would also be a more healthy place to live.

This group of researchers recognize that such a future “will, by necessity, build on the present, and is likely to be composed of many elements already in existence, albeit reconfigured and combined with new participants, ideas, infrastructure, and technologies”. So part of their work has been to identify and document these elements of such a desirable future that already exist, which they call the ‘seeds of a good Anthropocene’ – check out their website, or read next week’s column for more on these seeds.

Another part of their work has been to create scenarios – coherent depictions of, in this case, a positive future, based on the growth of those seeds. They then examine how such a positive future comes about. It is this work that brings me back to the importance of ‘small’.

Because what they found was that “decentralization of power” featured in all four of the ‘good Anthropocene’ futures for Northern Europe they explored: “All scenarios imagined a decline in the power of the nation-state and multi-national companies, in which capitalism and national state power were no longer dominant, but power rested in decentralized communities, networks, and cooperatives”.

Of course, the transition they describe was not easy, requiring as it did the downgrading of “corporate greed, malignant governance, and the treadmill of competition and ever-increasing work.” and needed to include “a shift in mainstream values away from consumption, individualism [and] ownership” as well as “some sort of crisis”.

But “the empowerment of local communities was a crucial leverage point in all scenarios” in bringing about the transition. In other words, it seems that any route to a ‘good Anthropocene’ – healthier, more just and sustainable – requires local action and a decentralization of power. Small, it seems, is not only beautiful but essential.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

 

 

The deepest health challenge of the 2020s

The deepest health challenge of the 2020s

Dr. Trevor Hancock

8 January 2020

702 words

Regular readers of this column will know that my main concern is with the deeper factors that underlie our state of health and that my main focus is on three inter-related sets of issues: Human-created ecological changes that undermine our health, social injustice that leads to large inequalities in health, and an economic system that is not fit for purpose in the 21st century.

But what underpins them – and what is therefore the most profound challenge to the health of the population both locally and globally – is a morally bankrupt corporate, commercial and political system of governance. The focus of the system is on the pursuit of growth and profit and the accumulation of obscene amounts of wealth, regardless of the health, social and ecological consequences for others.

The marketing of tobacco remains the poster child for this – a product that when used as intended is guaranteed to kill and sicken millions of people, and exert its malign influence for decades. Yet the industry continues to sell its products around the world, immorally using marketing practices elsewhere that are not allowed in high-income countries.

It exemplifies how corporations are prepared to distort and obfuscate the evidence and hide what they know, and how political leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to the evidence as long as possible and generally have to be dragged kicking and screaming into taking effective action.

All these factors – immoral marketing, distortion of the science and political ignore-ance of the evidence – have been adopted by the fossil fuel industry and were on display at the recent failed UN COP-25 climate change summit in Madrid. In fact, noted Canadian energy expert Martin Bush, while the World Health Organisation had in recent years banned the tobacco industry and its lobbyists from the process of establishing rules to govern the industry, that was not the case in Madrid, where “The fossil-fuel backed contingent was huge, well-funded, and hosted non-stop social events”.

The only crumb of comfort was that for the first time – yes, you read that correctly, for the first time – the conference statement actually referred to fossil fuels. Astonishingly, noted Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada and Jamie Henn, strategic communications director of 350.org, “The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement ran 16 pages, but didn’t mention the words ‘fossil fuels’ ‘coal,’ ‘oil,’ or ‘gas’ once”.

When it comes to political ignore-ance, the obstructionist practices of the USA, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia, India, China and others were clear. But no better example is on display than Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister of Australia, who continues to plan for and celebrate increased fossil fuel exports even as his country burns and its Barrier Reef decays.

Of course this has nothing to do with the fact that “the corporate and fossil fuel industry’s powerful trade associations” in the USA spent well over $1 billion between 2008 and 2017 “to convince the American public that its products are beneficial and necessary”, according to a report from the Climate Investigations Centre. In Europe, the Guardian reported recently, “The five biggest oil and gas companies, and their industry groups, have spent at least €251m ($363m) lobbying the European Union over climate policies since 2010”.

Meanwhile here in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported in November 2019 that in the seven years between January 2011 and January 2018, “the fossil fuel industry in Canada recorded 11,452 lobbying contacts with government officials”. This was far more than the forestry, automotive and renewable energy industries and five times more than environmental NGOs. Moreover, under Trudeau, the lobbying has shifted from a focus on politicians to senior government bureaucrats so that “key government institutions and actors become integrated with private firms and interest groups that together co-produce regulation and policy”. The danger of this shift in focus is that “the influence of industry actors—like those in the fossil fuel sector—are likely to far outlast election cycles”.

If the health of Canadians and the rest of the world’s population is to be protected and indeed improved in the 21st century, we have to replace this morally bankrupt system with one founded on ethical principles of social justice, ecological sustainability and human wellbeing.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Key public health issues for the 2020s

Key public health issues for the 2020s

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 January 2020

701 words

I was prompted to write this column by an article in The Tyee (a Vancouver-based on-line news service) about public health issues in 2020. It’s not often people write about public health, as opposed to health care, so the attention is welcome. However, I found the column heavily focused on infectious diseases and newsworthy items such as the opioid epidemic, dementia, brain injury and air pollution. But while not unimportant – Alzheimers disease and opioid overdose were seventh and eighth in the list of causes of death in 2018 – these are not the biggest public health problems we face over the next decade.

The major causes of death in Canada are chronic diseases, with cancer and cardio-vascular disease (CVD) causing more than half of all deaths. The good news is that overall mortality rates for these and two other major forms of chronic disease (chronic lung diseases and diabetes), age-adjusted to allow for the aging of the population “has decreased by a third over an 18-year period” (from 1998 to 2015), according to a 2018 update from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). Even better, the death rate for cardio-vascular disease declined 50 percent.

On the other hand, the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability found “an estimated one in five Canadians (or 6.2 million) aged 15 years and over had one or more disabilities that limited them in their daily activities”. The leading causes of disability were pain-related problems (15 percent), flexibility and mobility problems (10 percent each), and problems related to mental health (7 percent).

Tobacco use continues to be the most important behavioural risk factor contributing to death and disease, a recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) noted, even though smoking has dramatically declined (only 13 percent of the population 15 and over report they are current smokers), thus markedly reducing tobacco-related illnesses. This is because the damage it has inflicted lasts for decades. Other good news is that better medical and lifestyle management of high blood pressure and high blood lipid levels has significantly reduced their contribution to premature death and disability since 1990.

Meanwhile, growing impacts on death and disability are being seen from physical inactivity (nearly two-thirds of children and youth and more than four in five adults do not get adequate exercise), unhealthy eating (7 out of 10 Canadians aged 12 and over) and harmful use of alcohol (more than 1 in 6 Canadians aged 15 and over) and drugs.

In addition, the PHAC update reports that 13 percent of children and youth aged 5 to 17 years and 28 percent of adults were found to be obese in 2014/15 – and many more were overweight. Because having a high BMI contributes to diabetes and muskulo-skeletal disorders, the major diseases causing disability, a high BMI is “the top risk factor contributing to years lived with disability in Canada”, according to the CMAJ study.

Since the major causes of death and disease in Canada are chronic diseases that last for years and are rooted in a life-time of exposure to unhealthy living, rates do not change very swiftly. As the CMAJ study noted, “risk factors can influence the population for a substantial length of time and . . . decreasing [the] health burden for Canadians requires a long-term commitment to risk reduction”.

Looking to the 2020s, I do not expect to see major changes in this pattern, with perhaps one exception; a growing recognition of the increasing burden of disease related to poor mental health. So the critical issues in public health in the 2020s will be much the same as today: Continuing the fight against tobacco (and now vaping, which may become an entry-level drug for smoking); working to reduce the impact of increasing behavioural risk factors related to diet, physical inactivity and alcohol and drug use; and improving the management of chronic diseases.

However, the real fight will be against the commercial, social, economic and environmental conditions that encourage and support these risk behaviours, the complex social factors leading to increasing mental health problems, and the broader ecological changes and underlying cultural values that threaten our health for the rest of the century and beyond. More on all that next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

 

 

 

 

We need faith in a sustainable future

We need faith in a sustainable future

Dr. Trevor Hancock

24 December 2019

700 words

I recently touched on the interest among local faith communities in the challenge of becoming a One Planet region. But that local interest is part of a wider national and global movement across many faiths that links concern with ecological change – especially but not exclusively climate change – and social justice.

Faith communities are important holders of values in our communities, and in society at large. If they can bring their moral and spiritual weight to the discussion about how we can address the massive social and economic challenges we face as a result of human-induced global ecological changes, that is a very helpful contribution.

Here in the West we are perhaps more familiar with Christian statements, such as the Pope’s 2015 Encyclical on Care for Our Common Home, the World Council of Churches’ Statement prior to the 2015 Paris climate change summit or the Canadian Council of Churches’ 2015 statement “On Promoting Climate Justice and Ending Poverty in Canada”, which was also signed by Buddhist and Sikh leaders. This statement identifies “a spiritual, moral and ethical human crisis that can be expressed in this question: how will Canadians act as a good neighbour in both the natural and human communities since in the long run the health of one depends on the health of the other?”

But the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University lists statements on climate change from fourteen of the world’s major religions, from Baha’i to Judaism, Buddhism to Shinto. For example, a Hindu Declaration on Climate Change was adopted by spiritual leaders at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne in 2009, and recently updated. The Declaration calls on all Hindus to “consider the effects of our actions not just on ourselves and those humans around us, but also on all beings. We have a dharmic duty for each of us to do our part in ensuring that we have a functioning, abundant, and bountiful planet”.

Similarly, an Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change was issued at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in August 2015. The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, a UK-based organisation that championed the Declaration, notes that “The Qur’an is inherently conservationist and much of it has to do with how human beings relate to the natural world and the benefits that accrue from protecting it”.

At a global interfaith level, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which seeks “a more just, peaceful and sustainable world”, held its seventh global Parliament in Toronto in 2018, with more than 8,300 people from 118 spiritual and secular traditions and 81 countries in attendance. The Parliament’s Declaration on Climate Change states “As members of religious and spiritual communities, we affirm these values and principles, which are taught by all our traditions”. The principles relate to humanity’s profound interconnection with nature, the need to respect and care for nature and all life, and our duties to future generations, “who will bear the consequences of our action or inaction”.

The United Religions Initiative (URI), a global grassroots interfaith network, has identified the environment as one of fourteen global challenges it is addressing. URI seeks common ground among all faiths because “every member of every faith tradition depends on necessities like clean water and access to natural resources to survive”.

URI has over 1,000 Cooperation Circles (CCs) world-wide, of which over 300 identify the environment as a focus. It is noteworthy that of the seven CCs in Canada that identify the environment as a focus, the five which are clearly locally based are all in BC: Squamish, White Rock, Surrey and two in Vancouver.

The importance of faith communities in the fight against climate change was underscored by the UN’s Climate Change Program back in 2015, at the time of the Paris Summit. They referred to a study from the Pew Research Centre that reported that “around 84 percent of the world’s population are religiously affiliated”. Imagine the impact if the world’s religions can engage those 6.8 billion people in the fight against climate change and other important global ecological changes.

Imagine the impact locally if our many faith communities could come together to protect the Earth and our local part of it.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019