Cultural evolution and value shift: Towards a sustainable, just and healthy future

(Published as ‘What if we base decisions on what’s good for nature and community?’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

25 November 2020

700 words

We created Conversations for a One Planet Region with one simple mission: To establish and maintain community-wide conversations on One Planet living and a One Planet Region. Our concern is likewise very simple: We may be talking about and even acting on climate change – even though our actions usually fall short of our words – but we are not yet talking seriously about the far greater challenge of living as if we have 4 or 5 planets when in reality we only have one, never mind the implications of that realisation.

This is both a practical and a profound ethical challenge. In practical terms, we need to reduce our ecological footprint by 75 – 80 percent, because we are taking far more than our fair share of the Earth’s limited biocapacity and resources. This is where the ethical challenge comes in: In taking more than our fair share, we are inflicting an injustice on others around the world who get far less than their fair share; on future generations whose ‘inheritance’ we are consuming, and on other species whose habitats and means of life we destroy.

Over time, we have come to see these ethical challenges as rooted in a wider frame of societal values that are best described as toxic: They are incompatible with sustaining life, health, society and nature over the long haul. So we need to change our core value set.

Among the toxic values we need to change are the excessive valuing of individualism to the neglect or even denial of the collective and our responsibilities towards the community; greed and materialism, so that success is measured solely in terms of how much wealth and stuff you have rather than the quality of life you lead; and seeing nature as apart from us and simply there for our use and profit, rather than something in which we are deeply embedded, a life support system we share with all other life forms.

These are the three forms of disconnection that Jeremy Lent identifies in his 2017 book The Patterning Instinct. He suggests they lie at the heart of the global challenges we are creating and are “inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster”. So we have been exploring these ideas in our Fall online Conversations series; what are the implications for our actions and policies if we place the valuing of nature, community and quality of life at the heart of our thinking and decisions? (We explore the final one, valuing qulaity of life, on December 10th.)

We see all this in a wider frame of cultural evolution, a concept we take from Joe Brewer and the Center for Applied Cultural Evolution. They define cultural evolution as simply the extension of Darwin’s concept of evolution “to the domains of social behaviors, practices, tools, and structures”. So how do we evolve to a culture that is fit for purpose in the 21st century, faced with the realities of ecological limits and social inequity?

Thus our task, which turns out to be Herculean, is to evolve a local culture and set of values here in the Greater Victoria Region that shifts our community – all its people, organisations and institutions, including of course its economy – to one that has an ecological footprint equivalent to One Planet (our fair share) while ensuring a good quality of life for all – all – who live here.

Of course, we can’t to that alone, as a small amd almost penniless organisation. But then, we aren’t trying to. We want to work with any and all who share some or all of our hopes (and fears), we want to stimulate discussion and put this issue on the social and political agenda as the greatest challenge we face today – but one with many opportunities for a richer and better life.

This is in many ways similar to the challenges faced as we evolved from agrarian and aristocratic societies to industrialised and democatic societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This has led us to the concept of ‘bildung’ – personal and cultural/societal maturation – and its application in the Nordic countries through ‘folk’ or adult public education. I will discuss this, and its relevance to today, in the coming weeks.

 © Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.


Learning from Scotland about our Common Home and our wellbeing

(Published as ‘B.C. should follow the lead of Scotland and bring in a well-being budget’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 November 2020

699 words

Anyone watching the Knowledge Network these days will be aware it’s all about Scotland, from clan wars to wildlife to railways. Good things come from Scotland, from Scottish ales and whisky to haggis and Robbie Burns – well, OK, not everything is wonderful, although haggis is way better than it sounds. So here are a couple of other good things from Scotland: The Common Home Plan, and the Scottish Government’s creation of the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) group.

Why talk about Scotland? Because with a population of 5.5 million it is about the same size as BC (5 million people), with a similar sized economy. So what applies there could well apply here.

The Common Home Plan – a comprehensive Green New Deal for Scotland – was prepared by Common Weal, which describes itself as “a Scottish think and do tank”. The authors take the view that while there is growing support for the concept of a Green New Deal, “there really aren’t any comprehensive or detailed plans for people to get behind”. We need to deal with all the challenges we face in a strategic manner, rather than through a piecemeal approach.

Moreover, they don’t hold out much hope for global level solutions; they see the call for multilateral approaches as simply a political device to put off making the national decisions that are needed now. Also, as seen with Canada’s consistent failure to meet its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, multilateral commitments are largely toothless.

Instead, they argue, while “the impacts of human action are global . . . the vast majority of those actions are local”. So the solutions have to be local too. In fact, they add, “very little of what a Green New Deal requires is contingent on international agreement”. Nor is it contingent on new technology; all the solutions they propose rely on existing technology.

The plan itself has ten sections: Buildings, heating, electricity, transport, food, land, resources, trade, learning and ‘us’ (about our lifestyle and culture). They estimate that it will take 25 years to implement fully – so we had better get started now – and cost 170 billion pounds. That may sound a lot, but it’s the equivalent of Scotland’s annual GDP, so spread out over 25 years it’s not too bad. In fact, because the plan creates 100,000 new jobs and has a number of economic benefits arising from new industries, greater efficiency and public ownership, “it more than pays for itself”.

Scotland’s establishment of the WEGo group was drawn to my attention by Catriona Little, the Head of Scottish Affairs for Canada, an office of the Scottish Government housed at the British High Commission in Ottawa.Based on “the recognition that ‘development’ in the 21st century entails delivering human and ecological wellbeing”, the WEGo group currently consists of Scotland, New Zealand, Iceland, and Wales – all small countries, it should be noted, with three of them (not Iceland) having populations in the same range as BC.

At their first policy lab in Edinburgh in May 2019 – fittingly at the home of Adam Smith, the 18th century author of “The Wealth of Nations” – Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister noted not only that “growth is not the only measure of a successful economy”, but that “we must give much greater priority to the wellbeing – and the quality of life – of people living in a country”.

She reported that Scotland adopted a National Performance Framework in 2007 that included indicators “on issues as varied as income inequality; the wellbeing and happiness of children; people’s access to green and blue spaces; and their satisfaction with housing”. Since then, Scotland has “made ‘wellbeing’ explicitly a core part of the Scottish Government’s purpose”, while its Economic Strategy “places equal importance on addressing inequality, as it does on increasing competitiveness of the economy”.

Other members of the WEGo group have been equally innovative. Wales, of course, adopted a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act in 2015, while New Zealand brought in a Wellbeing budget last year. BC should join the WEGo group and learn from its members, including producing a ‘Common Home’ plan, bringing in a wellbeing budget and a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Zero Waste means not expanding Hartland Landfill

Dr. Trevor Hancock

11 November 2020

700 words

While often described as a consumer society, it would be equally true to describe us as a waster society; they are two sides of the same coin. A lot of what we acquire – all that ‘stuff’’ – ends up as solid waste, while inefficient energy use leads to high levels of energy waste. Not only does this contribute to excessive use of resources – with all the pollution and energy use associated with their extraction, processing and distribution – but it fills our landfills and pollutes our local environment or – if we export it – other people’s environment.

So unsurprisingly, consumables – at 9 percent – are an important part of the region’s overall ecological footprint. The 2018 BC Institute of Technology report on Saanich’s footprint found that almost all of the footprint of consumables was due to “upstream impacts” – all the materials and energy that go into producing and distributing the products. Thus, the report concludes, we need to “prioritize reduction in overall consumption, instead of focusing on end-of-stream waste management”,

The report found that almost half the ecological impact of consumables is due to wood, textiles and rubber, almost a third is paper and plastics comprise 11 percent. So it suggests Saanich residents, businesses and organisations should reduce paper consumption by half, textile consumption by 40 percent and plastics consumption 30 percent. Given the large amount of food waste, the report also suggests reducing food purchasing by a quarter.

We produce a lot of solid waste in this region: 382 kg per person in 2019, according to a CRD staff report in September this year; for a family of four, this is more than 1,500 kg or 1.5 tonnes per year, although it is not all produced directly. We are a long way from the CRD’s target of 250 kg per person per year by 2030 (and an aspirational target of 125 kg, still being discussed), and a vast distance from zero waste.

But zero waste is where we need to be, and is one of Bioregional’s ten principles of One Planet living. In a ‘Sustainability Scan’ for the One Planet Saanich Initiative, the goals for this principle are “to reduce wasteful consumption, maximise upcycling, re-use and recycling, and aim for zero waste to landfill.”

The National Zero Waste Council brings together “governments, businesses and non-government organizations to advance waste prevention in Canada and the transition to a circular economy”. The latter “is based on the idea that there is no such thing as waste”. Among its features: “products are designed to last and optimized for a cycle of disassembly and reuse that makes it easier to handle and transform or renew them”.

Unfortunately the CRD is not a member; the only municipal member from this region is the City of Victoria. The City initiated its Zero Waste Victoria strategy in March 2019 and is due to consider its adoption next month. The strategy focuses on eliminating the unnecessary through reducing our consumption and making reuse, recycling and repair the norm: “The least desirable outcome is disposal of an item in the landfill”

Which brings me to the proposal currently being considered by the CRD to expand the Hartland Landfill and extend its life from 2045 (25 years from now, when it is expected to be full) to 2100, 80 years from now, an additional 55 years of landfilling of waste. Of particular concern is the comment in the September CRD staff report about the need to “ensure the long-term financial sustainability of the waste system by stopping waste and associated tipping fees from leaving the region”.

So we need to keep landfilling in order to keep the revenues here. This is the same predicament as an ‘energy from waste’ plant; you need to ensure you have a steady supply of waste, which removes the incentive to reduce it.

If we are to get to zero waste, expanding the landfill is entirely the wrong approach, in effect accepting  – even supporting – us in continuing to over-consume and use resources wastefully. Instead, the CRD should take a leaf from Victoria’s book; set a target of zero waste, refuse to expand the landfill and set about creating a circular economy.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

We are an ocean province, let’s act like one

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 November 2020

698 words

What do people think of when they think of British Columbia? Chances are they think of the mountains, the forests, the coast with its salmon and orca, and Indigenous people and cultures. Indeed we are an ocean province with a 25,000 km long coastline – for comparison, Newfoundland and Labrador’s coastline is around 18,000 km, while Nova Scotia’s is 13,000km; New Brunswick and PEI have 5,500 km and 1,800 km respectively. But it seems that simple fact has eluded successive BC governments.

As Blueprint for the Coast, a collaboration founded by Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society BC (CPAWS) and West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), notes: “BC is one of the only coastal jurisdictions in North America without a united plan and law to protect it”. And yet both the Blueprint and Fisheries for Communities – a network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous fish harvesters, First Nations fisheries representatives, small businesses, fishing families, and leaders in coastal communities – have identified a plethora of environmental, social, economic and cultural challenges.

So the Blueprint collaboration is proposing a BC coastal strategy and a BC Coastal Protection Act, while Fisheries for Communities wrote to John Horgan on October 30th asking him to establish a Ministry for fisheries, coastal communities and the marine environment. Because unlike the four Atlantic Provinces, we do not have such a ministry. It’s a bit like Saskatchewan not having a ministry of agriculture, or Alberta not having a ministry of energy.

The BC government’s blind spot with respect to our coast and ocean is startling. The words ‘ocean’, ‘coast’, ‘fish’, ‘fisher’ or ‘fishery’ and ‘aquaculture’ do not even appear in the Ministry of Agriculture’s service plan, although ‘seafood’ appears 18 times! Clearly the commercial fisheries, aquaculture and seafood are only seen as an industry with career and economic issues, but their natural resource base – the ocean – is absent.

Just as troubling, the words ‘ocean’, ‘sea’ or ‘marine’ do not appear in the service plan for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development, while fish appears only 3 times, two of them in connection with fish passage on the Fraser River. The only 4 references to ‘coast’ are all in connection with coastal forests and logging. Clearly, the ocean is not seen as a natural resource

And if you think the environment includes the ocean and coast, think again; those words, as well as ‘sea’ and ‘marine’ are absent from the service plan for the Ministry of Environment. Nor can it be argued that this is because the ocean lies within federal jurisdiction. Blueprint for the Coast  points out that large amounts of our coasts and ocean – mainly the Salish Sea and Queen Charlotte Strait – “have been interpreted to be “inland waters” within the Province of BC by the Supreme Court of Canada . . . in 1984”.

In a January 2020 report, WCEL examined coastal strategies and laws from around the world and suggested six key issues that “a coastal strategy and law could address in BC: 1) implementing coastal and marine plans, 2) rules to direct climate adaptation, 3) reducing shoreline hardening, 4) prevention of coastal habitat loss, 5) intergovernmental coordination, and 6) maintaining public access”.

In a July 2020 report looking at the experience in Nova Scotia and Washington, WCEL noted: “the coastal framework has recognized and empowered local governments, demonstrating that a state or province-wide coastal framework need not require consolidating power in a central government”. Such an approach, they noted in an earlier blog, could also help implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, given that “Provincial coastal and marine management does not currently recognize Indigenous law and/or provide adequate space for Indigenous nations to articulate their coastal governance laws”.

WCEL’s January 2020 report on coastal management plans and laws concluded: “Without such a strategy and law, BC puts the ecological integrity of the coast as well as the economic and cultural future of coastal communities in jeopardy”. Is that what we want? Isn’t it time BC acted like the coastal province that it so clearly is? The new BC government should create a Ministry and bring forward – and quickly – a strategy and a Coastal Protection Act.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Building healthy communities – The social dimension

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 November 2020

701 words

Last week I suggested our region would be well served by a centre focused on how to create healthy, just and sustainable ‘One Planet’ communities and that it should pay attention to building community in the social sense and not just the physical design of the community.

My late friend Len Duhl, Professor of Public Health and Urban Planning at Berkeley, liked to point out that in addition to the ‘hard’ physical infrastructure, communities have a ‘soft’ social infrastructure that is every bit as important for the health and wellbeing of the people in the community.

Sometimes referred to as social capital, a community’s soft infrastructure is about the strength and density of both informal and formal relationships between people. One of the lessons we should have learned from Covid is that valuing and caring for each other is important.

But the neglect of the social side of community building is apparent if you look at planning departments in municipal governments; lots of land use planners of various sorts, hardly any social planners. Moreover, while the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has infrastructure grants, they are for the hard, not the soft infrastructure.  

As a result, the work of creating community, of building social capital, while just as important as creating the ‘built capital’, has been largely left to the voluntary sector. I suggest we re-think the whole business of community building, making it a central rather than a peripheral concern of municipal government. What might that look like?

Some twenty-five years ago, I was part of a team that entered an Ontario government competition to design a new community on government land northeast of Toronto; we came third. Unfortunately, Seaton was not developed for another 20 years, so these ideas were not put into practice. However, I think they are important and worth re-visiting.

Our design was radically different in several respects. First, it was deeply ecological, based on the carrying capacity of the land, a strong emphasis on energy and resource conservation and the use of renewable energy supplies. It was also based on a ‘bottom-up’ design approach, starting with the household and working up to the final design, rather than the other way around.

But we also focused on ‘social sustainability’, reflecting our concerns with social equity, livability and human and social development. The social design sub-team developed a comprehensive human development strategy for the community with three key elements, the first of which was to build community. The next priority was to promote wellbeing and prevent problems, while meeting needs and providing services was the final priority.

By‘build community’ we meanta strong, supportive, tolerant community committed to the welfare of all its members – present and future – and the protection and enhancement of its environment. Using a bottom-up approach, we began by asking what capacities for human development exists and what needs can be met at the household level, then at the block level, the neighbourhood, the ‘village’, the town and then the city or the region.

On the design side, the implications included providing common space at the local level where people can come together in their daily lives; making contact and interaction with nature an integral part of the experience of living in the community; and designing neighbourhoods and ‘villages’ that function as real communities in which people can live, shop, work and play.

But the implications for governance are even more interesting. We recommended creating forums for governance at the block, neighbourhood, village and town levels in which people can come together to address their common interests and concerns; promoting and facilitating co-design, co-management and co-ownership of residential areas, community facilities and human services; and developing volunteer and community service programs from elementary school onwards.

If we are to create healthy One Planet communities, local governments should be mandated to develop and implement comprehensive human development strategies based on these ideas. Because ‘growing people and community’ is really the business that all governments should be in, especially municipal governments. They should have a ‘Community Building Department’ charged with creating both formal and informal connections between diverse people and organisations at the neighbourhood level and between neighbourhoods and the municipal government.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

UVic and the Anthropocene

  • Published as ‘We need a centre focused on creating healthy, just, sustainable communities’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

27 October 2020

699 words

Today the University of Victoria welcomes a new President. Professor Kevin Hall is a civil engineer who comes from the University of Newcastle in Australia, where he was the vice-president and senior deputy vice chancellor of global engagement and partnerships. Previously at Queen’s University in Kingston and Guelph University, he has focused on water and health, especially in marginalized communities in south-east Asia. This makes him, like so many civil engineers, at heart a fellow public health professional.

Prof. Hall is described as having a deep commitment to environmental sustainability and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). He says he is excited to be joining a university that “strives to be a global exemplar in vital causes that hold the key to our future” and, among other things, “engages deeply with communities locally and around the world to drive social, environmental and economic change”.

I welcome a leader with such values and grounded experience – and have a challenge for him: Make UVic a global leader in addressing the society-wide challenges posed by the Anthropocene and the growing movement to create One Planet communities and societies. In particular this will mean working in partnership with the many people, groups and organisations already engaged in this work in this region.

Regular readers of my column will know that the broad societal implications of the Anthropocene and the need for a local response by becoming a One Planet region has become a primary focus for my work. This approach integrates the concepts of both healthy communities and sustainable communities, with an important focus on social equity and a just transition to a One Planet society.

In fact, the work of Conversations for a One Planet Region, the NGO I have founded, has its roots in a campus working group I helped set up at UVic before my retirement. UVic in the Anthropocene “aims to engage the University and the wider community in addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene in new, creative and effective ways”. The Conversations began as a series of preparatory public discussions as part of anIdeafest event put on by the group in 2017.

But in addition to working in and with the community – an approach in which Prof. Hall has considerable experience – this calls for a major re-orientation of UVic’s own education, research and community service work. So broad are the issues and challenges of the Anthropocene that I cannot think of a single faculty or discipline that should not make a contribution.

But one important element is missing: there is no School or Faculty that focuses on the built environment (civil engineering notwithstanding). Yet we are highly urbanized and the Greater Victoria Region is a major urban centre in BC. The region would be well served by a centre focused on how to create healthy, just and sustainable ‘One Planet’ communities.

But in addition to focusing on the built environment (architecture, urban planning, civil engineering, transportation, parks and ecological restoration) such a centre should consider how we build community in the social sense, how we transform social norms, cultural values and practices and create a ‘green’ local economy.

In approaching this challenging task, Prof. Hall may want to read a recent article – “Unlearning human-centrism” by four Belgian graduate students. “What does it take”, they ask, “for young people to become ecologically aware citizens?” The answer, they suggest, is not simply learning facts and figures but, they say, “changing your outlook on life . . . And that is not what you learn in the groves of academe.”

Instead, they write, “the university still treats sustainability as a separate discipline or as an ‘add-on’ to the standard package meant to sustain our competitiveness by advancing green technologies”. As UVic in the Anthropocene shows, there is a clear understanding of the importance of this challenge among at least some faculty. But at UVic, too, it remains a bit peripheral.

So broad are the issues inherent in becoming a One Planet community and society, involving every faculty and discipline, that we really need UVic to become a ‘University of the Anthropocene’. In doing so, it would become “a global exemplar in vital causes that hold the key to our future”.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy