Neoliberalism is a major threat to wellbeing

Neoliberalism is a major threat to wellbeing

Dr Trevor Hancock

24 June 2020

701 words

One of the beneficial side-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it might spur us to rethink the fundamental systems that constitute our society, and the deep values that underpin them. One of those systems is neoliberal economics, which has become the predominant, even orthodox economic model since the Second World War.

This model – or to be more precise, as Guy Dauncey among others points out, this ideology – was championed by a small group of economists in the years immediately following the Second World War. Starting in 1947 this group, who called themselves the Mont Pelerin Society – Milton Friedman being one of them – developed and implemented a deliberate strategy to make neoliberalism the core of economic ideology and policy in the West, and ultimately globally.

Its mantras of privatisation, austerity, tax breaks for the wealthy and the corporations, de-regulation and small governments have been great for the one percent and large corporations and hugely problematic for the exploited bottom 50 percent or more. Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, writes “its narrative about the efficiency of the market, the incompetence of the state, the domesticity of the household and the tragedy of the commons, has helped to push many societies towards social and ecological collapse”.

At the heart of neoliberalism, it seems to me, lies a fundamental meanness, an inherent nastiness, in the way it puts money and profit first and people, community and the environment last. It is in essence an ideology of individualism – ‘there is no such thing as society’, Maggie Thatcher famously said – and selfishness; ‘I’ve got mine, the heck with you’. It results in an erosion of society – which seems to be exactly what neoliberals ultimately seek. In that sense it is in essence an anarchic view of the world.

Along the way it turns engaged citizens into grumpy taxpayers and customers into consumers, leaving us all to focus on paying as little as possible in taxes or at the till, and damn the consequences. It results in underfunded public services and underpaid workers. People who, we now realise, are essential to our wellbeing, are driven down by low wages and insecure employment, in order to enrich corporations.

So unsurprisingly, but sadly for millions of people, neoliberalism has left countries such as the USA, perhaps the poster child for neoliberalism, unable to respond effectively either to the short-term crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic or the longer, slower and more dangerous crisis of climate change and the other massive and rapid global ecological changes that we have come to call the Anthropocene.

A disturbing example of the moral vacuity of neoliberal economics is provided by William Rees, writing in The Tyee in May 2018. He quoted Lawrence Summers, writing in 1991 when he was the chief economist at the World Bank (he went on to become President of Harvard), that “a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable.” This approach, which quite coldly and viciously attacks the health of both poor people and their ecosystems at the same time, is a disgraceful example of the fatal ethical flaw in standard neoliberal economics.

It drew this response from Jose Lutzenberger, then Secretary of the Environment for Brazil: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane. . . Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in”.

As George Monbiot – one of our most perceptive and powerful social critics – wrote in The Guardian on 1st April this year, “You can watch neoliberalism collapsing in real time. Governments whose mission was to shrink the state, to cut taxes and borrowing and dismantle public services, are discovering that the market forces they fetishised cannot defend us from this crisis. The theory has been tested, and almost everywhere abandoned.”

It’s time we got rid of neoliberalism and created a new economics of social and ecological wellbeing, fit for purpose in the 21st century.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019


We need a One Planet Region strategy

We need a One Planet Region strategy

Dr. Trevor Hancock

16 June 2020

701 words

As we plan for the economic recovery from Covid, many are pointing to the need for a green, just and healthy economic recovery. Mostly those calls have been directed to the global, national and provincial levels. But what would that mean in the Greater Victoria region? More specifically, what would it take to be a One Planet Region? Because the simple fact that seems to elude not only our political and corporate leaders but most of the rest of us is that we only have one Earth.

The2019 report from the Global Footprint Network, which had data to 2016, found that Canada’s ecological footprint (EF) was equivalent to consuming 4.7 Earth’s worth of annual biocapacity, with 65 percent of that being our carbon footprint – meaning one third is not our carbon footprint.

Things may be a bit better in this region, where we benefit from a milder climate and an almost fossil-fuel free electricity supply. Nonetheless, the footprint of Victoria and Saanich is estimated to be at least 3 planets, according to a 2018 estimate by Dr. Jennie Moore at BCIT and Cora Hallsworth, a local environmental consultant.

Among the top five suggestions to create a One Planet Saanich are reducing our purchases of non-food consumables (‘stuff’, in other words) by almost one-third while increasing recycling, and reducing both our meat and dairy consumption and our total food purchasing by a quarter. The latter helps to deal with the massive problem of food waste.

Together with the top two recommendations – eliminate fossil fuel emissions in buildings and convert half of gasoline private vehicles to electric while reducing the number of vehicles on the road – these five actions will take us a long way towards the target of being a One Planet Region.

They will also have significant health co-benefits, some of which we have seen during the ‘Covid pause’: Cleaner air, reduced carbon emissions, fewer motor vehicle crashes. We can also expect longer and healthier lives due to a healthier diet and reduced obesity as well as increased activity associated with active transportation.

So we should use the opportunity of the ‘pandemic pause’ to plot a course to becoming a region with a One Planet footprint and a high quality of life for all. The good news is that most municipalities already have a climate action plan and many – including the CRD – have declared a climate emergency. But while carbon emissions are a large part of the footprint, such plans do not go far enough. We need to move beyond climate action plans to develop a One Planet strategy for the region.

Many of these ideas are part of an approach that was approved in principle on May 14th by the City of Victoria. Moving Forward, Not Backward is based on the 2018 Common Vision, Common Action Solutions Statement, which created a regional agenda for social and ecological justice. Intended to guide action to create caring, low-carbon communities in the post-Covid-19 world, Moving Forward, Not Backward goes further than One Planet Saanich in also addressing the social aspects of a One Planet Region.

The Covid pause has highlighted and worsened the social injustices inherent in our society, from homelessness and unaffordable housing to undervalued and underpaid service workers. In the transition to a One Planet Region, we can expect to see additional social strains as the economy shifts in new directions. So it calls for a raft of policies intended to “ensure every person can live with security and dignity with access to the basic necessities of life”

But it also recognizes that local action depends in part on the provincial and federal government putting supportive policies and programs in place. Among other things it calls for a fairer tax system, a robust non-market housing system and a Living Wage (estimated to be $19.39 in Victoria in 2019), as well as divesting from fossil fuels and ensuring a just transition for energy and other workers.

If the region as a whole and its individual municipalities, the business community and leading institutions and community organisations were to adopt a One Planet Region strategy, it would put us at the forefront of the growing global movement to create One Planet communities.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Just which predator needs to be controlled?

Just which predator needs to be controlled?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

9 June 2020

700 words

An opinion piece in this newspaper on June 4th from the BC Chamber of Commerce and the Thriving Orcas Thriving Communities Coalition (composed of a number of coastal communities’ Chambers of Commerce) warned that coastal communities are on the brink of extinction because they rely on recreational fishing, which is in jeopardy. Part of their proposed strategy to protect the orca and the Chinook salmon – and their livelihoods – is “predator control”.

But just which predator is it that needs to be controlled? Ironically, two other reports released the same day made it clear; the chief predator is us. The first was a report from NatureServe Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada on the crisis facing endemic species – species that are found only in Canada. The second, released by the Sierra Club of BC, was a report from three independent scientists on the state of BC’s old growth forests.

The endemic species report identified 308 of them, most being vascular plants and invertebrates (bugs and slugs, if you like). In BC we have 105 of these endemic species, 76 of which are unique to BC (the rest overlap with other provinces or the USA), with many found only on Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and other islands. Ten of them are Critically Imperilled and 13 are Imperilled. But this is only a small part of the picture.

There are over 50,000 species of plants and animals in BC according to the Royal BC Museum – more than in any other province. Of them, 1,807 species are at risk of extinction, according to an opinion piece in The Narwhal last year by a group of prominent academics, most from BC, who conduct research on endangered species. Overall, 784 species present in BC are Red-listed, meaning they are Extirpated, Endangered, or Threatened in BC.

The lead researcher on the third report, on old growth forests, was Dr. Rachel Holt, a conservation biologist and the principal of Veridian Ecological Consulting, based in Nelson. In the past she has served as Vice-Chair of the BC Forest Practices Board.

Shockingly, she and her colleagues found that “many old-growth management areas, created to protect old-growth forests, do not actually contain old forest”, but that “government information was either misleading or not making it out to the public”; hence their independent report. They agree with the information on the website of BC’s Old Growth Strategic Review (due to report about now) that old-growth forests comprise about 23% of forested areas in BC.

But the bulk of this old growth forest, they write, is not the iconic old growth with big trees that we think of when we hear the term ‘old growth’. Instead, they report, “the vast majority of this forest (80%) consists of small trees”, including “black spruce bog forests in the northeast, subalpine forests at high elevation, and low productivity western red cedar forests on the outer coast”.

In fact, they note, “Sites with the potential to grow very large trees cover less than 3% of the province”, and of this small amount, only about 3 percent is old forest. Large tree old-growth forest ecosystems, they say, “are almost extinguished and will not recover from logging”.

And yet, they note “little human effort is tasked with protecting old forest values, while much is focused on harvesting”. Similarly, the endangered species researchers note “B.C. is still one of the only provinces in Canada without legislation dedicated to protecting and recovering species at risk”.

The harsh reality is that communities that rely on the over-exploitation of natural systems such as old growth forests or salmon fisheries, or that are affected by the actions of others that have seriously damaged those ecosystems, are indeed threatened with extinction, because their natural resources base is heading for extinction.

So when we talk about predator control, let’s be clear what predator we are talking about. We are the planet’s apex predator and so the predator we need to control is us. Because as the 19th century Duwamish elder, Chief Seattle, is recorded saying, “we are part of the web of life, and whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves”. We forget that wisdom at our peril.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


Towards a healthy economic recovery

Towards a healthy economic recovery

Dr. Trevor Hancock

2 June 2020

700 words

That there will be some sort of economic recovery from the Covid pandemic is not in doubt. But the fight that is shaping up is between those who want to go roaring back to the past by promoting fossil fuels and ditching environmental protections and those who want to use this opportunity to bounce forward instead to a green, just and healthy recovery.

So what would the economic recovery look like if health mattered? The Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, has some ideas. In an address to the World Health Assembly in mid-May, he discussed the need for a healthy and green recovery, noting that “going back to ‘normal’ is not good enough”.

Governments are committing trillions of dollars to support people during the pandemic, he said, and to “eventually resuscitate economy activity”. The ways in which these vast sums are allocated “have the potential to shape the way we live our lives, work and consume for years to come”. But there is a danger we will “lock in economic development patterns that will do permanent and escalating damage to the ecological systems that sustain all human health”.

So he called on governments to instead “promote a healthier, fairer, and greener world” and identified a six-part prescription for a healthy, green recovery. The first is to protect and preserve nature, which is “the source of human health”. Second, governments need to invest in essential services, in particular water and sanitation.

Third, he said, we need to ensure a quick transition to a healthy energy system, not only because fossil fuel combustion causes climate change, but because it also causes two-thirds of outdoor air pollution. Around the world, “over 90% of people breathe outdoor air with pollution levels exceeding WHO air quality guideline values”. The transition to a clean energy system would “improve air quality to such an extent that the resulting health gains would repay the cost of the investment twice over”.

Linked to this is the sixth element of the prescription;“stop using taxpayers money to fund pollution”. He is referring here to the amount spent subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, about US$400 billion every year. But added to that are the costs of the harm to health and the environment caused by fossil fuel use, which he pegs at more than US$ 5 trillion every year. These costs are not included in the price of fossil fuels, amounting to a hidden subsidy greater than the amount all governments in the world spend on health care.

Rounding off the prescription for a healthy and green future are recommendations to promote healthy, sustainable food systems and build healthy, liveable cities. Transitioning to a diet that meets the WHO healthy diet guidelines “would save millions of lives, reduce disease risks, and bring major reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions”, while cities need to be designed for public transport, walking and cycling, rather than the private car.

Dr. Ghebreyesus is not alone in his views. Last week a letter went to the G20 leaders calling for a healthy recovery very much in line with his prescription. The letter came from over 350 organisations representing over 40 million health professionals and over 4,500 individual health professionals from 90 different countries. It stated “a truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation”. In addition, the letter added, we must look after the vulnerable and ensure workers are well paid.

Among the 18 organisations in Canada that signed the letter are the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as organisations one would expect such as Canadian Nurses for the Environment and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. The latter has also sent a petition to Prime Minister Trudeau calling for a healthy recovery in Canada.

We need to push our elected leaders to pay heed to this health advice, ensuring that the recovery from the recession induced by our response to Covid-19 is a healthy, green and just recovery.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


Coming apart or coming together?

Coming apart or coming together?

(Published as ‘How the U.S. lost touch with its founders’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

27 May 2020

702 words

Several years ago two American economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton – the latter a Nobel Prize winner – made a startling observation; the overall death rate among middle-aged American whites had been increasing in recent years. This ran counter to the general trend of decreasing death rates in America in the 20th century and was opposite to the trend for middle-aged African Americans.

As they dug into the data, they found the increase in deaths was almost entirely found among those without a bachelor’s degree and was mostly due to three factors: suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholic liver disease. They labelled these the ‘deaths of despair’, a label that stuck. Clearly, something was going badly wrong among working class white Americans.

In their new book “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism” they provide an in-depth analysis of these diseases of despair. It is a story, they write, “of lives that have come apart and have lost their structure and significance”. It is a story “of worse jobs with lower wages; of declining marriage; and of declining religion”.

While they recognise there have been changes in values and social norms that have contributed to the breakdown, they focus on the “external forces that have eaten away the foundations that characterised working-class life as it was half a century ago.” These include declining wages – down 13 percent betweeen 1979 and 2017, while increasing overall nationally by 85 percent; low rates of job creation for those without a degree and “worse jobs” – part-time, out-sourced, insecure, with no sense of belonging or pride.

The creation of worse jobs is made possible in part by the low level of unionisation in the USA. The Bureau of Labour Statistics reported 10.3 percent of wage and salary workers were union members in 2019, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. For comparison, OECD data for 2018 show rates for the five Nordic countries highlighted below ranged from 92 percent in Iceland to 49 percent in Norway; it is 26 percent in Canada.

Case and Deaton note, “deterioration in job quality and detachment from the labour force bring miseries over and above the loss of earnings”. For one thing, “men without prospects do not make good marriage partners”. Moreover, they note, communities deteriorate; as wages decline, jobs are lost and businesses close, the revenues needed to provide services such as schools, parks and libraries decline. Add to that “ the loss of meaning, of dignity and of self-respect that come with the loss of marriage and of community” and you have a recipe for disaster.

Behind all this, I think, run two broad themes: The cult of individualism in the USA that downplays the importance of community and the collective, and neo-liberal economics, rooted in individualism and in a cynical disregard for people, prioritising profits and the enriching of the wealthy.

Contrast this with the five Nordic countries, which ranked in the top ten in the World Happiness Report every year since 2013, occupying the top three spots for 3 of the last 4 years. America, in comparison, ranked 18th in 2019. A chapter in the 2020 report is devoted to what makes the Nordic countries exceptional.

In essence, it’s a story of coming together, not coming apart. In general the Nordic countries provide “easy access to relatively generous welfare benefits”, while “the labor market is regulated to avoid employee exploitation”. They also have high quality governments and public institutions, with, in particular, a high quality of democracy, and as a result governments are trusted. Other factors include low levels of inequality, a high sense of autonomy and freedom, and high levels of social trust and cohesion. In short, the Nordic countries have found a recipe for success, and it shows in the fact that on average they have four years more healthy life expectancy than the USA.

America, it seems, has lost touch with the philosophy of one of its founders, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1809 “The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” Creating despair among the poor while enriching the elites is utterly inconsistent with this view. Time for a re-think.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020