How to flatten the other curves

How to flatten the other curves

Dr. Trevor Hancock

19 May 2020

701 words

Everyone by now should be familiar with the graph that Dr. Bonnie Henry and others use to explain what ‘flattening the curve’ means in the Covid-19 pandemic. On the left we see a short but high peak of infections, well exceeding the capacity of the health care system to manage it, resulting in the breakdown of the system.

The lower but longer curve going off to the right shows what happens if we manage the pandemic well and spread out the impact of the disease over a longer period of time. We may get as many cases overall – although fewer, ideally – but by spreading out the impact, we can remain within the health care system’s capacity and avoid a crisis.

That same chart can also be applied to the two greatest challenges we face today. The first is an ecologically unsustainable economy and way of life that threatens to overwhelm Earth’s natural systems, leading to their collapse. The second is the obscene levels of inequality we are experiencing, which threatens to lead to social unrest, perhaps even to social collapse.

It was Bill Rees, emeritus professor of human ecology and ecological economics at UBC, who alerted us to the sustainability application of the Covid chart. In an article last month in the Tyee he used his own version of the chart to show how our present way of life might lead to societal and population collapse. The brief high peak represents the rapid increase in our collective impact on the Earth in the past 70 years or so, something that Earth system scientists have called ‘The Great Acceleration’.

As with Covid, this demand far exceeds the system’s capacity – only this time, we are talking about the Earth’s biocapacity. So far, we have only seen the ascending part of this chart. But as with any species that exceeds the carrying capacity of its ecological niche, at some point the curve reaches a peak and starts to decline; we might call it ‘The Great Deccelaration’.

As Earth systems fail and the ‘ecosystem goods and services’ that we depend upon decline, so too will societies and populations; some may even collapse. So we need to transition rapidly to the second curve, flattening our demand to fit within the Earth’s capacity to sustain us – and all other species too.

However, while I have descibed ‘our’ impact on the Earth, that impact is far from equal. High-income countries such as Canda, and rich people everywhere, take far more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources. Meanwhile, low-income countries and people living in poverty – especially in low and middle-income countries – take far less than their fair share. As a result, they lack the wealth needed to meet even their basic needs, which include clean water, sanitation, adequate food, decent shelter, basic education and health care.

Which takes me to the second challenge: Extreme inequality and poverty. I am grateful to my friend Robert Oppenheimer for suggesting that this inequality curve also needs flattening, leading to a more equitable distribution of wealth, power and resources.

The obscene level of inequality is highlighted in the annual Oxfam reports on poverty. Their 2020 report stated “the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population”.

Moreover, the gap is rapidly increasing, the 2019 report noted: “Billionaire fortunes increased by 12 percent last year – or $2.5 billion a day – while the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth decline by 11 percent”.

In this case, we can think of the ‘Covid curve’ as representing the concentration of wealth among the wealthy on the left of the curve, with very little left over for the vast bulk of people to the right of that peak. Flattening the curve means spreading the wealth out more evenly; a small wealth tax would help do that.

The wonder is that the level of inequality we observe today has not caused more social unrest than it has. Don’t count on that lasting, especially if we also fail to flatten the unsustainability curve. ‘Flattening the curve’ needs to be a key focus for society today.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


Making a just transition to ‘One Planet’

Making a just transition to ‘One Planet’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

13 May 2020

701 words

In my last column I discussed the need “to build more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies”, as UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote in an April 28th editorial in the New York Times. Note he links sustainability to inclusiveness – the better world we seek to build, he added, is not “one that is good for only a minority of its citizens”. Because globally and in Canada we face both the massive challenge of rapid human-created changes in global ecological systems and the concurrent, and related challenge of rising inequality.

As Heather Scoffield pointed out in this newspaper on May 12th, “the pandemic economy has shown us how steadfastly the deck is stacked against low-income and precarious workers”. Hourly-paid workers – who generally have low pay, few benefits and not much job security – are now almost two-thirds of the workforce. But while low-wage employment is down 30 percent compared to a year ago, she adds, it is only down 1.3 percent among high wage earners.

This is ironic, because it turns out that many of our most essential workers are among our lowest paid. Recognising this, the federal and provincial governments have given them a pay increase. But if their work is that essential, then the pay raise cannot just be a temporary bonus for the duration of the crisis. Their work does not cease being essential when the crisis has passed.

The more general point here is that we vastly overvalue the worth of some people – e.g. sports and entertainment stars, major corporate leaders – while undervaluing the essential work of cleaners, sanitation workers, care aides and the like. There is a principle in environmental economics that could be adapted and applied here: Full cost accounting.

So what about ‘full value accounting’? We should pay people their true worth to society. At the very least, that would mean that everyone gets not just a minimum wage, which barely keeps your head above water, but a living wage. That should be accompanied by mandating a comprehensive set of pension, sick pay, vacation and other benefits, and an end to ‘McJobs’ that lead to perpetual economic insecurity.

These reforms should be a central plank in the post-Covid recovery plans for the federal and provincial governments, along with a rigorous examination of the concept of a Basic Income for everyone, something we have in effect implemented during the pandemic. This would be simpler and cheaper to administer than the complex set of social support programs we have now, and the evidence from a 1970s trial in Dauphine MB is that it improves health while not replacing the commitment to work.

A second important point is that in making the transition to a ‘One Planet’ society, some sectors of the economy will have to shrink, while others will grow; the transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy system is the most obvious but far from the only example. We know that people working in a whole range of industries will be affected, just as they have been by the pandemic.

Hence the call for a just transition; we need to support workers and industries as they change. In the case of fossil fuels, we should stop all subsidies and tax breaks – amounting to at least $600 million federally in 2019 and $830 million in BC in 2017–2018, according to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. That money should go to supporting the clean energy sector and the just transition for fossil fuel workers.

So how can we afford all this? Well, Henry Ford recognised that if he did not pay his workers enough to buy his cars, he was not going to sell many. The same principle applies here. Yes, prices will rise if wages rise, but we should pay the full cost of our society, not take a cheap ride on the backs of the poor.

We need to become a more just society, where people earn a fair wage and the rich pay their fair share – which means higher taxes and, especially, a wealth tax. The wealthy can easily afford it, and after all, as has been remarked, ‘taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society’.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020



BC needs a green, just and healthy recovery

BC needs a green, just and healthy recovery

Dr. Trevor Hancock

11 May 2020

701 words

The BC government has done a great job so far in managing the Covid-19 outbreak. Now it needs to do an equally great job in managing the post-Covid-19 recovery. Governments everywhere must use the ‘Covid-pause’ to re-focus their policies and address the other great global crises we face: Global ecological changes – climate change in particular – that threaten the very underpinnings of society, life and health, and obscenely high levels of inequality. (I will address the latter in my next column.)

In a New York Times editorial on April 28th, UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote: “Human conduct is . . . distorting ecosystem processes that regulate our planetary health and control many services that humans depend on”. Scientists are warning us, he added, “we are close to running out of time — approaching a point of no return for human health, which depends on planetary health”.

Guterres urged governments around the world to take up his 6-point plan for re-building their economies, societies and communities after Covid-19. He was clear that “a recovery from the coronavirus crisis must not take us just back to where we were last summer. It is an opportunity to build more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies — a more resilient and prosperous world”.

But the early signs in BC are not encouraging; the approach appears to be focused on returning to business as usual. The Economic Recovery Task Force Premier Horgan announced in early April has an alarmingly narrow base: The Premier and several of his staff, the Ministers and deputy ministers of Finance and of Jobs, Economic Development and Competitiveness, and the deputy Minister of Labour. On the non-governmental side, five conventional business organisations, the BC Federation of Labour, a couple of social service organisations and a national First Nations group focused on major projects.

Nobody from the green/sustainable business or clean energy sectors, no Minister of Environment and Climate Change or of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. Indeed, Andrew MacLeod, The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria, wrote last week that in a phone call with some leading BC environmental organisations, Premier Horgan said “many British Columbians just want the sense of security that comes with returning to how things were”.

But that is not good enough. The BC government must commit not simply to economic recovery, going back to how things were, but to creating a sustainable, just and healthy society. This includes bringing in a budget focused on Wellbeing, as New Zealand did last year. Additionally, the government should revive the seemingly abandoned task force established as part of the NDP/Green Party Accord to propose alternatives to the GDP for measuring progress.

Another important step would be to add appropriate environmental and population health expertise to the Economic Recovery Task Force, adjusting its mandate, if need be, as part of this broader societal purpose.

Since much of the ecological footprint is due to carbon emissions, we need an economic strategy that moves us swiftly to a low-carbon future. The good news is that the government is apparently committed to making its CleanBC initiative part of the economic recovery, MacLeod reported. But we need more than just a clean energy strategy.

The economic recovery must also focus on reducing our overall footprint, moving us towards being a ‘One Planet’ society. This includes reducing consumption, conserving and recycling all forms of resources; increasing environmental protection and ecological restoration; preventing pollution and strictly implementing the ‘polluter pays’ principle (so no public funding for cleaning up the mess left by the fossil fuel and other sectors) and full-cost accounting of all products and services.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that in the face of a major societal crisis governments can act quickly and decisively and people can rapidly change their values, expectations and way of life. Now we need to apply at least the same level of effort to addressing the much larger societal crisis of our unsustainable ceonomy and way of life. We need to make a just transition not just to a low-carbon future, but a green, just and healthy future. Any economic or other policy change that does not take us in that direction must be rejected.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

The other pandemics: The health costs of business as usual

The other pandemics: The health costs of business as usual

Dr. Trevor Hancock

5 May 2020

701 words

A couple of weeks ago I noted that in addition to Covid-19, other major infectious diseases kill millions of people annually, mostly children, and mostly in low-income countries. But globally, and certainly in high-income countries, infectious diseases are not our major causes of death, disease and injury.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that of the 57 million deaths worldwide in 2016, more than a quarter were due to heart disease and stroke, almost one in six were caused by cancer and one in ten were due to a combination of chronic obstructive lung disease (5 percent) and pneumonia and bronchitis (another 5 percent). The only other infectious diseases in the top 10 killers were diarrhoeal disease and tuberculosis, but dementia, diabetes and road crashes claimed more victims than either.

Moreover, these chronic diseases sicken and disable many more people than they kill, often for years, if not decades, imposing a heavy burden on patients, families, communities and the health care system. So we should think of them as pandemics, which, after all, are simply large epidemics, ones that are found “over a very wide area and usually affecting a large proportion of the population”, according to the Dictionary of Epidemiology.

But as always in public health, we need to look behind the causes of death and look for the causes of the causes. The WHO reports the following factors that contribute to this annual death toll: Tobacco (8 million deaths), outdoor air pollution (4.2 million), indoor air pollution (3.8 million), insufficient physical activity (3.2 million) and alcohol use (3 million).

Meanwhile, the Global Burden of Disease Study (based at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington) reported last year that in 2017 eleven million deaths were attributable to dietary risk factors, including high salt intake (3 million), low intake of whole grains (3 million) and low intake of fruits (2 million).

What distinguishes these chronic disease and injury pandemics, and the risk conditions that lie behind them, is that they are largely caused by our industrial society and way of life. While often called “non-communicable” diseases, that is not exactly the case; many are literally communicated, through deliberate marketing intended to increase sales of unhealthy products. Others are the by-products of our industrial society and way of life, which we have transmitted globally along with its accompanying cultural changes.

So I prefer to call them industrial society disease and injury pandemics. Taken together, their death toll is not far off the worst-case scenario for Covid-19, occurs every single year, and in many cases the toll is increasing.

But these risk conditions have become so much part of our way of life that we barely register them and simply accept or at least tolerate them as the way the world is; the price of growth and progress. However, in reality, while it is largely rich nations and rich people that reap the benefits in higher standards of living, it is the poor nations – and poor people in rich nations – who actually pay the price of our ‘progress’.

That price, ironically, has been partially revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic. By shutting down large parts of the economy and dramatically changing our way of life, we have seen air pollution fall dramatically, and with it we know that pollution-related deaths will have declined.

Meanwhile, Agence France Presse recently reported that both road accidents and related deaths were down about 40 percent in March compared to 2019; similar impacts have been reported in some states in the USA.

So let’s consider the moral equivalency here. Why is it OK to take a massive economic hit to save lives from Covid-19, but not OK to take the much smaller economic hit to save lives from these other pandemics by changing our practices?

Why is it not considered unethical to swiftly re-boot the current death-dealing economy, going back to the bad old ways as fast as possible, knowing full well we will once again increase these deaths, diseases and injuries?

Surely it is a bad idea to address the consequence of one pandemic by worsening the impact of other pandemics? These are key questions we should ask in our post-Covid-19 world.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Social tipping points and virtuous cascades

Social tipping points and virtuous cascades

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 April 2020

700 words

In a December 2019 interview Will Steffen, a leading Earth systems scientist and member of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said “we need to reach a social tipping point, before we reach a planetary one.” By ‘a planetary tipping point’, he was referring in particular to climate change, but more generally to the wide variety of massive and rapid global ecological changes we have created, conveniently referred to as the Anthtropocene.

So what are tipping points and why do they matter? Tipping points are characteristic of complex dynamic systems such as our own bodies, financial markets, societal or climate systems. To paraphrase Timothy Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, you can hit a tipping point if you get a positive feedback loop going (e.g. if global heating melts Arctic permafrost which releases methane which further accelerates global heating and away it goes).

Through this amplified feedback, small changes can trigger a big change, sending the system “into a qualitatively different future state”, Lenton writes. This shift from one stable state to another can occur quite suddenly and is known as non-linear change, or a discontinuity. Climate systems, like other Earth systems we depend upon for our lives and our health, can tip into a different state. And like the peak of a pandemic, you don’t know you are at a tipping point until you are past it.

But it’s not just a single tipping point we need to be concerned about. In a 2018 article Steffen and his colleagues identified fifteen different ‘climate tipping elements’ – the Arctic methane example above is one of them – which might then trigger another element to tip. This could result in “a domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures”, pushing it “irreversibly onto a “Hothouse Earth” pathway”, an alternative stable climate system that would be very dangerous for us.

So much for the negative planetary tipping points and cascades in the Earth’s natural systems that are the focus of Steffen’s concern. But he is also pointing to the need to reach social tipping points – changes in our social and economic systems that can prevent us continuing on our present dangerous path. This will require “activating contagious and fast-spreading processes of social and technological change within the next few years”, noted a recent paper on stabilizing Earth’s climate in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The idea of social tipping points has been around since the 1960s, but was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book ‘The Tipping Point’. We can see recent examples of social tipping points in the fairly rapid shift in the 1980s from a smoking to a non-smoking culture, and in this century the quite rapid and widespread acceptance of gay rights and gay marriage after decades, indeed centuries of resistance.

While social tipping points have become a hot topic because of the link to climate change, we face multiple “severe global stresses—environmental, demographic, economic, political, and technological” in the decades to come, according to the newly launched Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. (In the interests of transparency, I am a member of the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board.)

There is a danger that “these stresses will disrupt vital natural systems, cripple economies, deepen social divisions, and ultimately generate widespread violence and societal breakdown”. So the Institute will study these complex social, economic and ecological systems, looking to identify “a series of precisely targeted and timed interventions [that] could plausibly produce a “virtuous cascade” of change”. The Institute’s ambitious goal is “to trigger a fundamental, positive, and rapid change in humanity’s trajectory”.

Headed up by Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon, as Jack Knox reported in his column on Tuesday, the new Cascade Institute puts Canada at the forefront of a fast-breaking global research program that includes major research centres in Potsdam, Germany and Oxford University, as well as Stockholm.

It is my hope that we will be able to apply the learnings from the Institute right here, looking for ways to trigger such positive changes locally as we pursue the urgent work of becoming a One Planet Region, putting not only Royal Roads but the Capital Region on the map.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020