Resilience means bouncing forward, not back to the way we were before

Resilience means bouncing forward, not back to the way we were before

Dr. Trevor Hancock

25 March 2020

701 words

The Times Colonist Editorial Board, in a March 25th editorial on the Covid-19 pandemic, states “worldwide, the economic impact will be devastating. We’re talking a re-run of the Dirty ‘30s and damage that lasts for years”. Elsewhere they refer to “killing the economy” and “measures that of a certainty will wreck the world economy for many years to come”.

This concern with the need to protect and restore the economy plays into a narrative about resilience, usually framed as the ability of people and communities to recover, to bounce back to where they were before the event ever happened. But there are obvious flaws in that approach. For example, if your community is built in a flood plain, and climate change results in more frequent and more severe flooding, does it really make sense to re-build in the same place, to bounce back to the previous situation?

Much the same can be said about the current economic slowdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is actually helping us see just how much harm our current economic system causes, both to the environment and to people and communities. So if the current economic system is devastating the planet and harming health, as it is, do we really want to bounce back to the way things were before: Revving up the economy to speed up global warming, increase air pollution and the associated diseases and deaths, hasten resource depletion and species extinctions.

To re-phrase the Times Colonist editorial, “worldwide, the environmental and health impact will be devastating. We’re talking a re-run of the Booming mid-20th and early 21st centuries and damage that lasts for years” – except that this is damage that lasts for decades, even centuries.

This is where a different understanding of resilience may be helpful: Not bouncing back to the past way of doing things, but bouncing forward to a new way of doing things, out of the situation that is causing the stresses and into a new, better alternative future. The last thing we should be striving for is a return to the bad old days, re-building on the floodplain, so to speak.

In an article in the Globe and Mail recently, Thomas Homer-Dixon described our response to the Covid-19 pandemic as “a vivid example of a global ‘tipping event,’ in which multiple social systems flip simultaneously to a distinctly new state”. Interestingly, this is the same as the concept of resilience in ecological systems. As far back as 1973 C. S. Hollings showed that one way natural systems handle changes and disturbance is that they can flip into a new and different stable state.

Such a tipping point can be very harmful, at least in the short term, and Homer-Dixon argues that “two key factors – high connectivity and high uniformity . . . leave us increasingly vulnerable to global tipping events” such as we are seeing. But he also suggests “cascading changes in our global social systems don’t always have to be so pernicious. Some might be virtuous” and he goes on to suggest “Today’s emerging pandemic could help catalyze an urgently needed tipping event in humanity’s collective moral values, priorities and sense of self and community”.

So we need to take the opportunity of this pause to begin to re-think what business we are in as a society, how we get the economy to serve people instead of people serving the economy, to decide how much is enough. Even if we have to go back to the old ways for the short term, because it is how we make a living today, will we have seen the potential benefits of a different way of living and realised that is what we want? Will we have reached a virtuous tipping point in the underlying social values that drive the present system? As one of my neighbours said the other day – across the six or more feet of physical distance we were keeping: “Its so quiet – I could get used to this”.

Eventually, the Covid-19 pandemic will come to an end, but it may leave an important legacy – a chance for us to choose a new way of life and a new economy that is healthy, just, convivial and sustainable.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


A different perspective on Covid 19

A different perspective on Covid 19

Dr. Trevor Hancock

20 March 2020

702 words

There is no question Covid-19 is a serious issue. If we did nothing, hundreds of thousands of Canadians, especially older people, might die and the health care system would be overwhelmed, jeopardising the health of many other people with other health problems. Flattening the curve will reduce the peak of the epidemic, spreading it out over a longer period of time. This also buys us time to find treatment or a vaccine.

So around the world today and across Canada borders are closed, as are schools, universities, libraries, rec centres, cafés, pubs and many businesses, large and small. Our communities and societies have been brought to a halt, or at least to a dramatic slowdown, and our economies are in a tailspin.

But many may be concerned that the public health and societal effort to contain Covid-19 comes at a huge cost to society, that it is triggering a global recession, that it might even lead to a depression. Could it even be the case that the social and economic disruption we create will kill or sicken more people than does the disease?

After all, the Great Depression in North America and Europe was a time of great misery and despair. Surely that was bad for health. Surprisingly, it seems that was not the case; in fact, the opposite was true.

A 2009 paper co-authored by a leading American social epidemiologist, Ana Diez Roux at the University of Michigan, examined life and death during the Great Depression. They found “population health did not decline and indeed improved during the Great Depression of 1930–1933” and that death rates “decreased for almost all ages, and gains of several years in life expectancy were observed for males, females, whites and non-whites—with the latter group being the group that most benefited.”

This is not to say there are no ill-effects of a recession or depression. They note that among the six main causes of death, accounting for around about two-thirds of all deaths in the 1930s, “only suicides increased during the Great Depression”. Today, at a time of industrial decay in some parts of the USA, we have seen an increase in deaths from the ‘diseases of despair” – alcohol and drug use (especially opioids) and suicide – among lower-middle income middle-aged men.

But contrary to our expectations, they note, “years of strong economic growth are associated with either worsening health or with a slowing of secular improvements in health”. Moreover, they added, this “was first noted decades ago, but was largely ignored until recently”.

The reasons for increased deaths during economic expansions, they report, include “increases in smoking and alcohol consumption, reductions in sleep and increases in work stress” as well as increases in “traffic or industrial injuries . . . [and] atmospheric pollution”.

As I have noted before, there are many businesses and many ways of making a profit that can harm health. Just recently I reported that a joint WHO-Unicef-Lancet Commission had identified commercial activities as one of the three greatest threats to children’s health, along with climate change and poverty; all are influenced by this Covid-19 recession.

Environmental scientists have already noted a dramatic reduction in air pollution and carbon emissions in China and Italy, and this will soon become world-wide. Indeed, Stanford University environmental resource economist Marshall Burke suggested in early March that the reduction in air pollution in China might have already saved more lives than the Covid-19 epidemic had cost.

We can already see the reductions in traffic on our local roads, which will not only reduce air pollution and carbon emissions but crashes and injuries.

If this goes on for months, as it might, we will likely see increasing need for government support for laid-off workers, strengthening support for some form of guaranteed income and/or ensuring people’s right to access food and shelter – basic requirements for health – is met. Coupled with that we can expect reduced demand for more ‘stuff’, as people adjust to lower incomes.

It may be that with this combination of reduced consumption and reduced environmental harm, coupled with societal commitment to ensuring the meeting of basic needs for all, we will find ourselves unintentionally creating the wellbeing economy we need in the 21st century.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020





The wellbeing of the municipality

The wellbeing of the municipality

  • (Published as ‘Global woes affect local municipalities’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

9 March 2020

701 words

Based on the letters to the Editor in recent months , it seems there is a new sport in town – ‘piling on to Council’. There are of course the ‘Grumpy Taxpayer$’ – note their dollar sign – whom I might respect if they positioned themselves as citizens rather than taxpayers (a narrow and purely economic view of oneself), and as contributing rather than complaining. Then there are others who call for Councils to ‘stay in their lane’, stay out of the climate change, energy policy, transportation, biking, plastic bag, homelessness, mental health, social justice and other issues they are addressing.

This is based on a very narrow view of muncipalities’ role as fixing the potholes (a common reference point) and not much else. But one letter writer (“Victoria Council should think local”, Feb 1st) perhaps inadvertently put her finger on the real scope of municipal government’s role. In an attempt to prove her point she urges Council to examine BC’s Community Charter which states, she notes, that every council member has a responsibility “to consider the wellbeing and interests of the municipality and its community” (Section 115).

Interestingly, ‘well-being’ is not defined in the Act, although it does state (Section 7) that “The purposes of a municipality include . . . fostering the economic, social and environmental well-being of its community”. Please note, Grumpy Taxpayer$ and others, that this is not just about economics, but includes social and environmental wellbeing. One would hardly call it municipal wellbeing if the municipal government and the economy was doing well while inequality increased, its environment deteriorated and its citizens sickened and died.

In fact, a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing is the World Health Organization’s definition of health. So in the absence of a definition in the Act, we should understand the purpose of a municipality is to foster the health of its residents, including their economic and environmental wellbeing. This is of course precisely why I have spent much of the past 35 years promoting the concept of Healthy Communities, and linking it to the concept of Sustainable Communities.

All this raises the interesting question of what determines the wellbeing of the people of the municipality – all the people, not just the taxpayers. Some of the key determinants of health for which local governments have been responsible for decades, if not centuries, are clean water, sewers and drainage, waste management, safe and healthy housing, fire safety, safe streets and neighbourhoods, parks and clean air and generally, good urban and community planning.

But in recent decades we have developed a much better understanding of the determinants of health. In my last two columns I reviewed a recent report from a WHO/Unicef/Lancet Commission on the future wellbeing of children. They identified three major factors that adversely affect the health of children, now and in the future: Poverty and inequality, climate change (and I would add, more broadly, global ecological change) and commercial pressures to adopt unhealthy ways of living. These are as important or more important than health care in determining the health of the population.

So it seems clear to me that the municipal government and indeed every Councillor needs to – in fact, is obliged to – address these issues. Failure to do so would be a breach of the Act.

There is another thread in the criticism, implied in the exhortation to ‘think local’, that is also unfounded. It never was the case that municipalities existed separately from their national and global context, but today, while we need to act locally, we really do need to think globally. Global problems affect local municipalities, from higher temperatures to rising sea levels and severe weather, from depletion of resources needed for food to international trade agreements, and from unemployment and poverty to the emerging challenges of AI and robotics.

Moreover, and importantly, higher orders of government, although more powerful, are not necessarily smarter or wiser. In fact, municipal governments are closer to the community and more nimble. Time and again – from smoking to climate change, from AIDS to recycling – they have done a better job of looking after the wellbeing of the municipality, as the Community Charter requires them to do.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


Standing up to help secure our children’s futures

Standing up to help secure our children’s futures

Dr. Trevor Hancock

3 March 2020

700 words

Last week I discussed the health impacts of climate change and ecological damage, one of three main threats to the health of children identified in “A future for the world’s children?”, the February 2020 report of a World Health Organisation-UNICEF-Lancet Commission. This week I turn to the other two threats: The health impacts of poverty and inequality, and commercial activities that harm children.

With respect to poverty, the Commission states: “The evidence is clear: early investments in children’s health, education, and development have benefits that compound throughout the child’s lifetime”. But they note that many children live in poverty and there is a gap between what we know children need and what they get. Closing that gap will not only be good for those children and their families, but “for their future children, and society as a whole”. Investing in children’s health, education and development is “the most powerful investments a society can make”.

So it is beyond shameful that in one of the richest countries in the world, the unanimous commitment by the House of Commons in 1989 to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000 has been utterly betrayed by successive governments. Campaign 2000, which was formed in response to that resolution, reported last month that there are “over 1.35 million children [under 18] living in poverty with their families in Canada today and income inequality, the gap between the rich and poor, has grown to unjustifiable heights”

In 2017, the latest data available, almost one in five children (18.6 percent) in Canada (and 19.1 percent in BC, or 163,730 children) lived in families with an after-tax income below the Census Family Low Income Measure. (The new Market Basket Measure used by the federal government gives a rate of 9 percent, or 622,000 children – still a lot of kids – but it underestimates poverty in a number of ways.) Noted Campaign 2000: “We have missed the opportunity to end poverty for a whole generation of children”.

But that investment has to go beyond the three areas of health, education and development to create healthy living conditions for all children. This requires policy coordination across many sectors, including housing and urban development, food and agriculture, energy and transportation. In the Commission’s words, this requires political commitment at the highest level with “cabinet-level coordination across ministries”. Heads of state or prime ministers (and in our case, premiers), the Commission states, “must designate a cross-cutting government ministry or equivalent to ensure joined-up action and budgeting for pro-child policies”.

Is it too much to ask, 30 years later, that we get our act together and demand that our governments establish Cabinet Committees and societal roundtables and, as a first step, eliminate child poverty and then go on to create environments in which children can thrive?

With respect to commercial activities, the Commission is blunt in its assessment that this “sector’s profit motive poses many threats to child health and wellbeing”. This includes not only “the environmental damage unleashed by unregulated industry”, the Commission notes, but “advertising from business, whose marketing techniques exploit their developmental vulnerability and whose products can harm their health and wellbeing”. The list of industries is long, and includes fast foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, alcohol and tobacco, while the internet and social media also “exposes them to exploitation, as well as to bullying, gambling, and grooming by criminals and sexual abusers”.

The Commission is equally blunt in stating “Industry self-regulation does not work”, calling instead for a new protocol to be added to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect children from marketing. Canada is a signatory to this Convention, which all nations (except, astonishingly – or maybe not – the USA), have signed. The disgraceful failure of the Senate to pass the Bill to protect children from food and beverage marketing shows why that is needed.

The Commission recommends “Governments must harness coalitions across sectors to overcome ecological and commercial pressures to ensure children receive their rights and entitlements now and a liveable planet in the years to come”. There is no more important task than working to secure our children’s future, and standing up to those in the corporate and government worlds that threaten it.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020






Ethics for a One Planet Region

Ethics for a One Planet Region

Dr. Trevor Hancock

18 February 2020

701 words

Many of the great societal changes we have seen are rooted in an ethical stance based on concern for human rights and social justice. The abolition of slavery is an obvious example, while more recent examples include the move towards reconciliation with Indigenous people, not only here but around the world, or the growth in recognition and acceptance of the rights of gay people, including the right to marriage.

In my own world of public health, the major shift in our approach to tobacco use, in which we switched from tobacco use being the social norm to non-smoking becoming the norm, was propelled in large part by a recognition of the rights of non-smokers to breathe air uncontaminated with tobacco smoke.

Oddly, though, we have not yet recognised the right of people to live in an environment free of other forms of pollution. While we have many laws and regulations that protect us from air and water pollution or the contamination of our food chain, we do not recognise the right to a healthy environment in Canada.

I think the great new frontier for a transformation in our societal rights – and with that our duties – is rooted in our relationship with our natural environment, other species and future generations. These great ethical issues are made urgent by the Anthropocene; the massive and rapid human-created changes in the Earth’s natural systems that threaten the viability of our society in the not too distant future.

We have to transition to a world of One Planet communities, where we live in good health and with a good quality of life within the biophysical and ecological constraints of this one small planet. To do so successfully, I believe we have to come to grips with four aspects of our reponsibility for and duty towards the rights of others.

First, we have an ethical duty to people in our own community, today and in the immediate future, who might be harmed by the transition to a ‘green’ economy. The concept of a just transition can be traced back to a Canadian union activist, Brian Kohler, in 1998. It has been taken up by the International Labour Organisation and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), among others, and is referenced in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

For the ITUC, the just transition is about “investment in new green jobs, skills, income protection and other necessary measures implemented with adequate funding for transforming local economies, and securing support for the poorest and most vulnerable nations”.

But beyond protecting workers and their families it must be applied more broadly to include vulnerable and disadvantaged people in our communities who may be harmed by higher prices for new technologies and services and other economic shocks that may company the transition.

Second, as the ITUC noted, we have an ethical duty to people in other parts of the world who do not have the capacity and resources needed for a decent life. We take far more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources, which means there will be far less available to them, now and in the future. So we have a responsibility to reduce our share so that those who have too little may have their fair share. This is exactly what is meant by becoming a One Planet Region.

Third, we have an ethical duty to future generations, both here and around the world, a concept known as inter-generational justice. When we take more than our fair share of the finite resources of the Earth today, or damage the ability of the Earth to indefinitely sustain renewable resources in the future, we are guaranteeing that future generations will not have enough. The Rockefeller-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health said it well in 2015: “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present”.

Finally, we have an ethical duty to other species, who have just as much right to exist as humans. By taking more than our fair and indefinitely sustainable share, we are driving into extinction other species that depend on the same biocapacity and resources for their existence.

These duties form the ethical basis for One Planet Region.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


Creating a livable future for our kids

Creating a livable future for our kids

Dr. Trevor Hancock

25 February 2020

699 words

The Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical journals, has been making an important pivot towards health in recent years. Under the inspiring leadership of its long-time Editor-in Chief, Dr. Richard Horton, it has championed the concept of planetary health, which is “the health of human civilisation and the state of the natural systems on which it depends”.

Now comes the latest in a series of Commissions on various aspects of planetary health. This one, published February 22nd and co-sponsored with the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, is on the health of children in the future. The Commission’s report places children “at the centre of the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]: at the heart of the concept of sustainability and our shared human endeavor”.

It has three main foci: the health impacts of poverty and inequality, climate change and ecological damage, and commercial activities that harm children. I will deal with the first and third of the Commission’s concerns next week, but this week I want to focus more on the second, given the state of the debate on climate change and energy policy in Canada today.

The Commission is clear: “The ecological damage unleashed today endangers the future of children’s lives on our planet, their only home”. And the report points to the fact that while high income countries do well with respect to ‘child flourishing’, as one would expect, “wealthier countries threaten the future of all children through carbon pollution”.

Canada exemplifies that point. With a score of 90 percent, we rank 21st on an index of child flourishing, where the top 33 spots, with a range from 85 to 95 percent, are held by high income countries in Europe, as well as Australia, New Zealand and the USA. However, in terms of the threat to the future health of children resulting from CO2 emissions in excess of internationally agreed 2030 targets, Canada ranks 170th out of 180 countries. This puts us “on course to cause runaway climate change and environmental disaster”.

That concern is reflected in two other recent reports, from very different sectors, that underline the urgency of the climate crisis we have created.

The first is an extract last week in the British daily The Guardian from a new book by Christiana Figueres – an experienced Costa Rican diplomat and from 2010 – 2016 the Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – and her then Senior Adviser, Tom Rivett-Carnac. Their book, The Future We Choose, includes a ‘worst case’ scenario, set in 2050, in which no real action on climate change has been taken since 2015.

It is a grim picture of a world headed towards more than 3 degrees of warming by 2100: “No one knows what the future holds for their children and grandchildren: tipping point after tipping point is being reached, casting doubt on the form of future civilisation”. (To be fair, the book has a positive bent, looking at how we can avoid this scenario.)

The second is a leaked report – also in The Guardian last week – from JP Morgan, one of the world’s leading investment banks. The Guardian reported that JP Morgan alone provided $75 billion to the fossil fuel sector since the Paris Accord on Climate Change.

According to The Guardian, the report by two JP Morgan economists warns that if we don’t change direction, but carry on as we are, this “would likely push the earth to a place that we haven’t seen for many millions of years”. The consequences would be dire: “We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened,” they wrote, noting also that we have considerably understated the health and economic costs.

Clearly, further investment in fossil fuels is unethical, and is fast becoming a risky investment; the withdrawal by Teck Resources of its proposal for a vast tarsands mine has to be seen in this light. So why would so many of Canada’s federal and provincial governments continue to support expansion of the extraction and export of fossil fuels? Instead of defending a dying industry, they need to be working to secure our children’s future by hastening the transition to a zero net carbon economy.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020