Is this too much to ask for in 2021?

22 December 2020

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

It’s the time of year when we think about the New Year’s resolutions we will make, and how long it will be before we break them. It is also the time of year when columnists turn to wish lists. So in that noble tradition, here is my list for 2021 and beyond.

First, and very obviously, a wish that might actually come true in 2021: That Covid be over. If the vaccines are as good as promised, and if we can vaccinate around 60 – 70 percent of the population there is a good chance we can return to something like normal.

With any luck we can start to dance again and go to the pub – something very important for the wellbeing of the amazing 70- and 80-year-olds I dance with every week – perform in public and congregate at festivals. But until then, we need to do as Dr. Henry says – be kind, be calm, be careful, be safe.

Second, and following on from the first, I hope Canadians keep on being Canadians. By that I mean being generally low key, polite and compliant with the public health orders that protect us. We seem to have been particularly good at that here on the Island. Let’s keep on apologising to anyone who treads on our foot, and fulfilling the pleasing image that the way you get a hundred Canadians out of the swimming pool is to blow the whistle and ask them to please get out.

We certainly don’t need the kind of anarchic libertarianism we have been seeing in the USA and elsewhere, where ‘give me liberty or give me death’ has become ‘I take the liberty to be maskless, gather in large crowds and travel around, and I give you death’.

My third wish is that we not forget some of the lessons we have learned from Covid – what I call the Covid Reveal. One of those is the one implied by my second wish; there is such a thing as society and community, from which we can take great comfort, and that we have responsibilities and obligations as well as rights. Another thing we have learned is that many of our most essential workers are undervalued, underpaid and have poor job security, issues we need to remedy.

Fourth, in 2021 we need to start the Great Reconnect, a term inspired by the recent showing of the Canadian documentary ‘The Great Disconnect” by the Neighbourhoods section of the City of Victoria. Our awareness of the importance of social connections has been heightened by their absence or weakening due to Covid, so we need to make a conscious attempt to rebuild and strengthen our social connections with each other and with our community.

Fifth, and perhaps most ambitious – but also most important – that we choose the right recovery. And here I have to take issue with my fellow columnist Laurie McFarlane, although he is far from alone in his opinions. In his December 13th column he wrote “we sure as hell can’t afford greening the economy. For a country reliant on the export of resource-based products, that is the equivalent of suicide”. And he went on to say “What we need now is a resolve to get on with rebuilding the economy. Nothing else matters. . . . Just hard, unrelenting work to recover from the worst natural disaster of our time”.

The problem is that pursuing a rapid recovery by bouncing back to what we had before is to create a far larger disaster, one that far from from being natural would be entirely human made – and largely by high-income countries such as Canada. If we don’t ‘green’ the economy – that is, create an economy that lives within the natural limits of the Earth’s ecosystems – then we will be moving inexorably towards the collapse of those vital life support systems. That really would be suicidal. We need what many health, environmental and social justice organisations have called for: A green, healthy and just recovery.

So getting over Covid, keeping on being Canadian, valuing our undervalued workers, reconnecting with our community and each other and choosing the right recovery: Is that too much too ask for in 2021?

© 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.


Tomorrow is Winter Solstice – Happy Solstice!

Dr Trevor Hancock

20 December 2020

(Published as ‘Solstice a chance to reconnect with nature, the cycle of the seasons)

699 words

I recently did a presentation for inVIVO, a fascinating international conference series about human and planetary wellbeing. The organisers asked me to talk about the importance of connections, based on a column I wrote earlier this year.

So I talked about how connected we all are through our DNA to each other and all forms of life; through the very atoms we breathe, eat and drink to all the other plants and animals, going back millions of years, who incorporated those same atoms in their own bodies, and how those atoms also connect us to the stars in which they were created – we truly are star stuff. 

I also talked about how we are part of and wholly dependent upon a global living system that both the Ancient Greeks and  – 2,000 years later – the planetary scientist James Lovelock called Gaia; other cultures have their own names for what Indigenous people all over the world call Mother Earth. And I stressed how much we have become disconnected from nature (and from each other, but that is another story, for another column), and how important it is to re-establish a strong sense of connection to nature, to other living things and to our Mother Earth.

Which brings me to the Winter Solstice, which this year in the northern hemisphere is at 2.02 AM tomorrow – Monday December 21st (of course, it’s Summer Solstice at the same time in the southern hemisphere). But how many people even recognise this, never mind celebrate it? Yet it used to be an enormously important event for our ancestors all over the world – and for  many it still is.

It is one of the important ways we can connect – or re-connect – to nature and to the great cycle of seasons and the Earth’s passage around the sun. It marks the turning point of the year, when the nights stop getting shorter and the days start getting longer. And at a time when food would be getting scarce and it seemed winter would never end, it held out the promise of the warmer, sweeter days of spring and summer, of fertile animals and crops, of the coming of the light and the birth of a new year. So our ancestors celebrated with food and drink, with song and dance and plays, and above all with lights to welcome the new year.

Of course, many faiths have incorporated the winter solstice in their own festivals of light and birth or re-birth – Hannukah, Christmas, Diwali and many others. But I think we need to mark and celebrate the Winter Solstice itself, not in some disguised form but for what it is and what it represents. Which is why I give or return seasonal greetings with “Happy Solstice”. The initial response is often a combination of surprise and then ‘Oh, yes’ as it sinks in.

But I do more than that to recognise Solstice. There is an old English tradition called the Mummers Play which takes place around midwinter. While every village had its own version of the play and there are strong elements of pantomime, at the heart of every play is a fight, a death and then a quack doctor who brings the victim back to life: It is really about the death of the old year and the birth of the new.

We have performed our own Mummers Play locally for a number of years and one place we do it is the annual Lights on the Gorge, a small local event to mark the Solstice. So while we can’t put it on in public this year, I am making several brief online apppearances , including at the online Lights on the Gorge this afternoon. But I believe we need a much larger event – or series of events – across the region to mark and celebrate both the Winter and Summer Solstices, bringing many cultures together to re-forge our connection to nature and the great cycle of the seasons.

I end with some of the words with which I close our Play: “Our purpose is to celebrate the turning of the year, so I wish you joy and happiness, great mirth and great good cheer”. Happy Solstice!

© 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.

The cult of individualism is toxic

Dr. Trevor Hancock

10 December 2020

698 words

I suggested last week that our society is remarkably immature in its approach to life. Central to this is an exaggerated form of individualism that has achieved a cult-like status. With that comes an acquisitive, greedy and selfish culture that really doesn’t care about other people or about nature. Why should I wear a mask, which inconveniences me, just to protect others – they should just protect themselves by staying out of my way! It’s their responsibility, not mine.

These values extend to how we then treat disadvantaged and vulnerable people: They are not my responsibility, so why should we have minimum wages or social support systems that I have to pay for through more expensive goods and services or higher taxes.

Of course, this ignores the fact that people usually get rich by exploiting the poor, the environment or both. Industrialists have fought against unions, preferring to keep their workers low-paid, working part-time, with few or no benefits; the resulting insecurity makes them desperate to hold on to what the British call ‘shit work’.

In recent decades this has also meant shifting jobs to low-wage countries with weaker social, occupational and environmental protections. Buying cheap goods from these companies today is really not very different from buying goods made by slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries – indeed, in some cases their workers are in effect slaves, or work in slave-like conditions.

In addition, the cult of individualism, combined with a cult of greed and instant gratification, leads to a disregard for nature and future generations. I want my stuff, I want it now and I want it cheap. So what if that means the environment is harmed and both current and future generations and other species lack what they need for their survival and quality of life – not my problem!

The modern-day roots of this cult of individualism, selfishness and greed can be traced back to the neoliberal economists and libertarian advocates of the mid-20th century, best personified by Ayn Rand. Her writings on what she called ‘Objectivism’ from the 1940s through the 1970s helped put greed and selfishness on a pedestal; one of her essay collections was titled The Virtue of Selfishness.

All progress, she argued, depended on the rich and successful, and a person’s worth was only to be measured by their income. So taking money from the rich, in the form of taxes, to assist and support disadvantaged people, was an exploitation of the rich and thus wrong.

In a lengthy 2009 essay/book review Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic, summarised Objectivism as “premised on the absolute centrality of logic to all human endeavours. Emotion and taste had no place.” This ideology, he argued, not only glorifies selfishness but “holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure”, which leads to the conclusion that “when government helps the disadvantaged it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth”.

This is a fundamentally anti-human and anti-community ideology, dismissing emotion and trust as illogical and unworthy, while compassion for others is weakness. It is also, as I noted above, an anti-nature philosophy which sees nature as simply there to be exploited for the wealth it can create.

This cult of individualism, greed and selfishness is, of course, the ideology underlying neoliberal economics which, as Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, puts it, “has helped to push many societies towards social and ecological collapse”. Thus individualism and neoliberal economics are toxic and unfit for purpose in the 21st century

Sometimes, faced with the selfishness and greed that are part and parcel of the cult of individualism, you just want to say “Grow up and accept responsibility”. But it is hard to be responsible in a culture, society and economy that so often shows that it does not care, that short term gain is worth someone else’s long-term pain.

It is time we grew up as a society, discarded rampant individualism and neoliberal economics and accepted reponsibility for each other, other species and the Earth itself. We need a new, more mature, ecologically and socially aware and responsible ideology to guide society if we are to successfully make the transition to becoming a One Planet Region.

© 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.

Education for life: Creating a more mature society in the 21st century

2 December 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

Last week I ended with a reference to the concepts of ‘bildung’ and ‘folk-bildung’. For those interested in how we evolve our culture to a more mature one, better suited to live in a socially just way within the limits of the one small planet that is our home, these interesting concepts are worth pursuing.

In exploring the German concept of bildung and the Danish – and more broadly Nordic – experience of folk-bildung I am indebted to a lengthy 2018 overview by Jonathan Reams of the 2017 book The Nordic Secret by Lene Andersen and Tomas Björkman. They trace the roots of the concept of bildung back to the Enlightenment in the 18th century, and to a small group of intellectuals that included Goethe.

A key point was when Wilhelm von Humboldt undertook a complete reform of the Prussian education system in 1809. Andersen and Björkman tell us that it was based on the principle that education “must be personal development, moral development and a deep engagement with the academic endeavors. It must be a path to finding one’s true personality. . .”.

These ideas were later picked up in Denmark by  Nikolaj Grundtvig, a pastor, teacher and politician who, Reams tells us, wrote in 1836 about the need for ‘education for life’, by which he meant “a school where the peasants of Danish society can be ‘bilded’ or shaped into responsible citizens who can participate in and contribute to the betterment of their society”. His ideas were taken up and implemented by Christen Kold in the 1860s, who founded the ‘folk high schools’ – a 19th century cross between a community college and adult education.

These ideas then spread to Norway and Sweden, and both Reams and the authors of the Nordic Secret believe it is the implementation of these ideas of folk bildung – “the intentional cultivation of moral, emotional and cognitive development” and of “a sense of responsibility towards self and society” – that were key to the success of the Nordic countries in the 20th century. That success, Reams suggests, is founded on three “key principles evident in Nordic society; humanism, trust and responsibility”.

And how is this relevant today, and here? Well, we are at a transition point not all that different from the scale and significance of the transition “from poor agricultural to rich industrialized countries” that the Nordic countries successful achieved. Our transition, however, has to be from a rich and materialistic but often unjust consumer society to one that is more ecologically and socially responsible, more mature in its relationships with the Earth and with other people, what we and others call a One Planet society.

This transition requires the development of new core values to drive our societal and personal decision-making, as well as the knowledge and skills needed to live a socially just One Planet way of life. We think one way to successfully navigate this transition, beyond the Conversations we currently organise on what it means to be a One Planet region, will be to create a 21st century version of ‘folk bildung’ and ‘folk high schools’ here in this region.

This is in accord with a column by George Monbiot in The Guardian a year ago in which he wrote of the need for “the reclamation of a culture of public learning” and the restoration of  “a rich public culture of intellectual self-improvement”. This will mean re-acquiring “the habit of rigorous learning in adulthood” that we have lost.

Monbiot points to the workers education movement of the early to mid-20th century as an example. Inspired by the UK model set up in 1903, the Workers Education Asssociation of Canada was set up in Toronto in 1917, and while now much reduced, until the advent of community colleges in the 1960s was the primary provider of adult education in Canada, according to its website.

Now we cannot simply take the 19th century concepts of bildung and folk high schools, or 20th century models of worker education, or even the small modern folk school movement in North America and apply them today. But the social transformation we need will require something along those lines; what would a 21st century version of this look like?

© 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.