Beginnings, endings and connections

Beginnings, endings and connections

  • (Published as Humans are deeply connected with each other, and other life forms)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

25 August 2020

701 words

Following my reflections last week on Jeremy Lent’s ideas about connections, I found myself musing about beginnings and endings – my own, life on Earth and the universe – and the connections they imply. I thought about and partly wrote this column while sitting under the great trees in Heritage Grove in Francis-King Park, feeling both connected to and in awe of nature.

In a narrow sense I began, as we all did, with the fusion of an ovum and a sperm. But I am descended from a very long line of Homo sapiens, going back to the so-called ‘genetic Adam and Eve’ some 135,000 years ago, from whom it seems we are all descended.

According to the National Human Genome Project Research Institute in the USA, I share 99.9 percent of my DNA with every other human being on Earth. In other words, what connects us, genetically speaking, is one thousand times greater than what makes us distinct. So much for the idiocies of racism.

But we are also connected to all other life forms – we share 99 percent of our DNA with chimps and bonobos and 98 percent with gorillas. Going further afield, we share 84 percent of our DNA with dogs and 60 percent with the chickens we eat. We even share 60 percent of our DNA with fruit flies, 50 percent with bananas, 26 percent with yeast and 15 percent with mustard grass.

Once, on a walk in the East African savannah with Park Rangers, as we came across the bones of various prey animals, I suddenly realised that the soil I was walking on and the plant and animal life it supported was made up of the decomposed and recycled bones of all those animals – and the plants around them – dating back over millions of years.

Plants, of course, are the base of the food chain, but they also produce the oxygen we all need to survive. Moreover, every time we breathe, we are breathing in a few atoms of nitrogen, oxygen or carbon that all the people who came before us breathed, millennia ago.

And every time we eat, we are probably eating atoms that once made up the bodies of previous generations of humans – and for that matter, of dinosaurs! In short, we are all deeply connected to and entirely dependent upon the great web of life which sustains us in so many ways.

I have an abiding faith that nature – life – will go on, with or more likely without us. Life has continued through five previous Great Extinctions and will doubtless survive the Sixth that we are creating – although we may not.

Another profound experience of connection with nature came when, as a 15 year old lying down in a dark spot at night and gazing up at the stars, I suddenly became aware of – and overwhelmed by – the immensity of the universe. I don’t pretend to comprehend the immense scale of the universe, or to understand the mysteries of dark matter, dark energy and the origins of the universe in the Big Bang, never mind what came before, if there was a before, and what will happen to it at the end – if there is one. I won’t be around, nor will humans, nor even the Earth or solar system, so it doesn’t really matter, except as something to be curious about.

This leads, of course, to the ultimate connection: As Carl Sagan (and many others before him, it turns out) observed, we are all star stuff. I am hugely comforted by this idea, that the atoms of which I and everything I see around me are composed were forged in the heart of collapsing and dying stars and then exploded out into the universe to make – among other things – us.

I find comfort in all this because it puts into perspective our own small ways, our own small lives, our own small struggles. I am not going to stop doing what I do in my own small way, nor am I going to give up hope, but it is wonderful how much comfort and how many interesting thoughts come from walking in the woods or contemplating the night sky.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Making connections, finding balance

Making connections, finding balance

Dr. Trevor Hancock

18 August 2020

699 words

In his 2017 book The Patterning Instinct Jeremy Lent suggests there are three forms of disconnection that lie at the heart of the global challenges we are creating and that are “inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster”. Those disconnections are within ourselves, between us and other people and between people and nature. Lent wrote: “Our minds and bodies, reason and emotion are seen as split parts within ourselves. Human beings are understood as individuals separated from each other, and humanity as a whole is perceived as separate from nature”.

Lent’s three disconnects brought to mind one of my favourite framings of the principles that should guide us going forward. Forty years ago, in his book The Sane Alternative, the English alternative futurist and economist James Robertson described the SHE future.

SHE stands for sane, humane and ecological, he wrote, where sanity is about balance within ourselves, humanity is about balance between ourselves and other people, and ecology is about the balance between humankind and nature.

Robertson is suggesting here not only that mind and body, reason and emotion should be connected, but that they should be balanced. Similarly, it is not an either/or proposition between ‘I’ and ‘we’, it is both/and; we cannot ignore individuals and their needs and wishes, but that has to be balanced with the needs and wishes of the group, as the Covid pandemic so powerfully reminds us. And we cannot place the needs of humans above the needs of nature, since we depend upon nature for all that makes life and health possible.

A powerful personal example of the failure to balance both reason and emotion and the wellbeing of people and nature came 30 or so years ago. We were on holiday on Vancouver Island (we lived then in Toronto) and drove through a clear-cut on the way to Tofino. It was truly horrible, disgusting, it wrenched at my heart to see such devastation.

So I wrote a letter to the Times Colonist in which I suggested that this was ecocide, every bit as appalling as genocide, and I wondered how we had raised a generation of people who thought this was OK. (I have not changed my opinion in the intervening years.)

A few months later, back home in Toronto, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons (the licensing body for physicians) forwarded to me – without comment – a letter from a professional forester in BC who not only objected to my views but asked the College to suspend my medical licence. I clearly was not fit to be a physician because I had let emotion cloud my judgement and ignored the good science behind clear-cuts.

Setting aside the bizarre idea that you would want a physician devoid of emotion, I felt saddened by this forester. He could not connect and balance reason and emotion and could not feel the devastation he and his industry were wreaking on the forest. But what was sad for him was a tragedy for the forest and all the life it contains, a tragedy that has grown far greater in the intervening years.

Right now, the Sierra Club of BC tells us, “only three percent of old-growth forests with huge, old trees are still standing across BC—and most are on the chopping block”. In fact, they add, “every day more than 500 soccer fields of old-growth forest are clearcut in BC”. (You can find their campaign to stop this on their website.)

As if that were not bad enough – and not unrelated to this massive forest destruction, BC is the province with “with the highest number of species at risk of extinction” –more than 2,000 – noted Sarah Cox in The Narwhal earlier this month. And yet “B.C. still has no endangered species law, despite the NDP’s election promise to introduce one”.

If the challenge we face, as Jeremy Lent and James Robertson propose, is to re-establish connections and balance within ourselves, between ourselves and the community of which we are a part, and between ourselves and nature, then clearly the BC government is miserably failing to understand these vital connections and get the balance right, to the detriment of future generations and other species.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Conversations about values for a One Planet Region

Conversations about values for a One Planet Region

Dr. Trevor Hancock

11 August 2020

699 words

Tip O’Neill, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in the 1980s, famously remarked “all politics is local”. Significant change rarely starts at the top and moves down, mainly because the powerful do very well out of the current situation and seldom have any incentive to change it. Instead, change usually comes from the bottom up.

Occasionally – when faced with intransigence – that change has to come through violence and revolution, but more often it happens relatively peacefully and in an evolutionary manner, although not without the need for anger, determination and confrontation on occasion – witness the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA. Other recent examples include the growing acceptance of gay marriage and the youth climate strikes.

The concept of Conversations for a One Planet Region – a non-profit community organisation we established in November 2019 after almost 3 years of working as a loose network – is rooted in this understanding that all politics is local. We believe that before we can take effective action we need to learn about, discuss and understand both the global and – importantly – the local level implications of the massive and rapid global ecological changes we have created.

The word ‘conversation’ is key: We believe our discussions about these issues must be local and in person, face-to-face to the extent that is possible in the present circumstances. A second important reason for keeping the conversations local is that it is an important form of community building. Thus we use only local speakers/conversation leaders, because we believe we have more than enough knowledge, expertise and experience right here in the Greater Victoria Region to create a One Planet region.

Local change and local action are important, indeed vital, but they need to be rooted in a very different set of values to those that drive decision-making today, not just in our own Western democratic society but globally. In our work, we have come to see what we are doing as encouraging a form of cultural evolution, looking for ways to accelerate the change in the deep cultural values that lie at the heart of our problems.

In his recent book, The Patterning Instinct, which explores “the deep historical foundations of our modern worldview”, Jeremy Lent identifies what he calls root metaphors. They include the notion of “nature as machine” and our belief in “conquering nature”; the idea that indefinite growth is both possible and desirable, and the idea that it is normal to be selfish and pursue our own self-interest rather than the welfare of the group or community.

Lent is clear that if we are to achieve the deep transformation of civilization that is needed, we must change these root metaphors and establish new core values. He has identified three sets of values as “foundational principles for our major decisions”: an emphasis on quality of life rather than just how much wealth and ‘stuff’ we have; a sense of shared humanity where we are part of and have responsibilities to other people; and a commitment to environmental sustainability rooted in a sense of connection to nature and other species.

So in our next series of monthly Conversations starting in September – necessarily online at present – we will begin by exploring how values shift, how we can identify or stimulate key social tipping points and accelerate social and cultural evolution locally towards a commitment to becoming a One Planet Region. Then in the following three months up to the end of the year, we will explore in turn each of the three core values that Jeremy Lent has identified.

Clearly, understanding our situation and recognising the values shift that is necessary has to be widespread, and not confined to a small group who get it already. So we are committed to both broadening and deepening the rather narrow base of those who have been engaged in the Conversations we have been having. We urgently need a region-wide Conversation about the core values that are required and their implications for the individual and collective decisions we must make if we are to successfully make the transition to a healthier, more just and sustainable future for our children and the generations beyond them.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Shouldn’t we be talking about this?

Shouldn’t we be talking about this?

(Published as ‘Governments ignore urgent issues’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 August 2020

700 words

Last week I suggested that a major obstacle to achieving a more ecologically sane, socially just and healthy future is that we lack both a clear understanding of the scale and significance of the global ecological crisis we face and its social and economic implications, and an appropriate set of values to guide our response.

An understanding of our situation must come from a combination of increased awareness, knowledge and discussion. One impact of the Covid crisis is that many people are looking for an alternative way forward, as Guardian columnist George Monbiot noted in his July 25th column reporting on recent UK polls. But as a society or community we are not even talking about what we are facing, except in the rather narrow sense of climate change.

But while there is some evidence that we are slowly coming to grips with the reality of climate change, there are large and powerful pockets of resistance everywhere. Largely that resistance is rooted in and propagated by the fossil fuel industry and its ancillary industries such as the automobile industry. It is then supported by the right wing ideologues who are in thrall to corporate capitalism in general and the fossil fuel industry in particular.

Even when the situation is understood, there is still a vast gulf between our understanding and our intentions, and then between our intentions and our actions. Governments continue to support the fossil fuel industry, providing a wide range of subsidies. Globally, this amounted to about $320 billion in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency.

Here in Canada, subsidies totalled at least $600 million in direct support from the federal government in 2019, according to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, and a lot more in unquantified tax breaks and incentives and in provincial subsidies. Clearly, the message on climate change is not getting through. Small wonder we are on track to miss not only the ambitious 1.50 C target for global warming but the 20C target of the Paris Accords.

But there is far less understanding that climate change is but one of a number of massive and rapid global Earth system changes that we have created – all of them happening at the same time. On top of climate change we continue to deplete natural resources such as ocean and freshwater fisheries, forests, fresh water, farmland and topsoils. We continue to produce vast quantities of solid waste, especially plastics and paper, as well as liquid and gaseous wastes, leading to high levels of air and water pollution.

We continue to produce and widely disperse a vast array of pesticides and other toxic chemicals, many of them persistent, resulting in the contamination of soils and food chains. Perhaps most seriously, we have triggered a sixth Great Extinction, with plummeting population counts in many species and growing rates of extinctions.

But since we depend on the Earth’s natural systems for the very basis of life and health, we are in the process endangering ourselves as well as a myriad other species. If those natural systems start to collapse, or change rapidly, the social and economic implications are profoundly troubling.

Yet governments everywhere are not truly understanding the situation. They don’t act as if this were the case, that we face a potential, indeed an actual existential crisis. In fact, we are barely even talking about it, as a community or a society. We – or at least our governments – continue to pine for business as usual and plan for economic growth; they can’t wait for us to go roaring back – in Justin Trudeau’s unfortunate but accurate phrase – to how we were before Covid.

The urgent need to have widespread community conversations about what it means to be a Region with a markedly reduced ecological footprint is why we recently registered Conversations for a One Planet Region as a non-profit organisation in BC. The lack of an appropriate set of values is why our Fall series will focus on what our guiding values should be and how we shift community and societal values. I will discuss both our plans for expanding and deepening the understanding of our situation and the discussion of appropriate guiding values next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

A new ecological civilization: How do we get there?

A new ecological civilization: How do we get there?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

28 July 2020

701 words

Last week I explored Guy Dauncey’s ideas for a ‘New Ecological Civilisation’ based on an ‘economics of kindness’, which he describes as “a cultural system of compassionate values expressed in the economy through the use of democracy”. But as one of my readers wrote to me in response to that column, this is all very well, but “How do we get to . . . the economics of kindness? Alternative economics is fine, but how do we sway society away from profits and environmental degradation?”

A raft of proposals to do this are to be found in a recent brief on ‘Rebuilding BC’ (for which Guy was a lead author) from the Vancouver-based Green Technology Education Centre (GTEC) on how to guide economic recovery to create a just, sustainable and resilient society. Importantly, many of the recommendations have already been adopted in other industrialised countries and been shown to work.

At its root, the key to all their proposals is a re-focusing of the business we are in, as a society, as communities and as an economy, to “prioritize the public good” rather than private gain. Elsewhere, Guy has called this “changing the social DNA of business”.

A particularly important set of proposals are concerned with encouraging “a province-wide transition to purpose-driven business”, as suggested by BC’s United Way Social Purpose Institute. In practice, this means businesses would adopt Social Purpose charters that clarify that they have a “fiduciary duty to include the pursuit of social and ecological as well as financial purpose”. Globally there are already 3,300 certified B-Corporations, as these are known, of which 70 are in BC, they report.

Some of the key proposals are focused on significant reforms to the present financial system. BC should establish a Green Investment Bank of BC that would “be used to finance recovery investments that support BC’s climate action targets and other goals”. This would be a public bank, such as exist in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Spain and France.

It would use public funds to leverage private funds for investments in green infrastructure projects, as the Connecticut Green Bank has done, “attracting $5 private-sector dollars for every government dollar”. Such funding could support an aggressive program of neighbourhood-scale building retrofits, investments in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, acceleration of the electrification of transportation or support for non-profit societies to accelerate the construction of affordable housing.

Another important proposed business innovation is to help companies avoid bankruptcy by transitioning to employee or community ownership, with support from a suitable agency and some transition funding.

Bankruptcy is also an issue at the household level, the report notes: “BC’s average household debt is the 2nd highest in Canada, at $155,500 per household”. This “poses a huge obstacle to the recovery of consumer confidence, and risks pushing households into bankruptcy”. To address this, the report suggests supporting “the Credit Counselling Society to expand the reach of its services” and using “the government’s ability to borrow at very low rates to establish a large pool of funds for household debt consolidation and repayment”.

Another important approach, which I touched on a couple of weeks ago, is social procurement. The BC government should create Community Benefit Clauses for all government purchases (as has been done in Scotland), requiring all contracting authorities to consider how the funding can be used to “improve the social, environmental and economic wellbeing of the area in which it operates”.

There is much more to this report than I can cover in one short column, including proposals for establishing a Crown Corporation to kick-start an Advanced Green Manufacturing sector in BC and establishing a Community Mutual Support Fund to support community organisations to support and develop mutual aid initiatives.

But the challenge of dramatically reforming our economy to put people and planet first requires two changes that I see as the far larger challenges we face and that I will address in the next two columns: How do we arrive at a shared understanding of the challenges we face and what to do about them, and how do we establish a very different set of values to those that have guided our societal and community decision-making over the past couple of hundred years?

© Trevor Hancock, 2020