Creating communities fit for the 21st century

22 March 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

Last week I noted three ways proposed by Professor Graham Smith to reform our democracy to safeguard the future and dealt with two of them; re-shaping legislatures and constitutions and bringing an independent voice to decision-making. This week I turn to his third proposal; futures-oriented participatory democracy.

My interest in futures thinking began when I read Alvin Toffler’s book ‘Future Shock’ in the early 1970s. In it he proposed the concept of ‘anticipatory democracy’, which my close friend and colleague Clem Bezold – one of the world’s leading futurists and founder with Toffler of the Institute for Alternative Futures – defines as involving “enhanced participation in shaping the future.”

While the first two of Smith’s proposals are essentially high-level interventions at the national and provincial levels, participatory democracy needs to be bottom-up, which makes it particularly relevant to the municipal and neighbourhood levels.

It is thus of considerable interest to Conversations for a One Planet Region, the NGO I have founded to establish and maintain conversations about what it means to become a region with a markedly reduced ecological footprint yet with a high quality of life.

Participatory democracy can be related to the concept of community architecture, which is based on the simple principle that the environment works best when those who live and work in it are involved in its design. It is an approach that is central to the concept of Healthy Communities, my main area of work.

Our challenge, then, is to engage people in the Greater Victoria Region in conversations about designing a community fit for the 21st century; one with a high quality of life and good health for all while taking only our fair share of the Earth’s biocapacity and resources.

But ideally anticipatory democracy would mean engaging people who will live in the future in its design. Obviously we need to engage young people in the process, since it’s their future we are designing. Clearly schools can and should play an important role, as they do as part of One Planet Saanich.

But we also we need to get today’s adults to raise their focus from what affects them today and take into account the needs of future generations, including those not yet born, recognizing that their situation and needs will be very different from our own.

This is where the provincial Commissioner for the Wellbeing of Future Generations that I suggested last week could play a role. The Commissioner should appoint regional Commissioners to ensure that regional and municipal governments are taking future generations into account, and to facilitate the engagement of young people.

Another idea we might try was described in a recent article in The Alternative UK, which reports on Roman Krznaric’s description of Japan’s Future Design movement in his book ‘The Good Ancestor’. Their approach might be used as part of the One Planet Neighbourhood co-design charettes that we hope to develop as part of our Conversations.

A group of local residents would be brought together to discuss how to improve the design and functioning of their neighbourhood as it is and they are today. But then they are asked to take the “imaginative step of picturing themselves living – at their current age – several decades into the future”. As they start to imagine how their decisions will affect the lives of their children and grandchildren, Krznaric writes, “they systematically favour much more transformative plans, whether discussing issues such as health care, the future impacts of AI or ecological threats.”

Another model worth considering is the Lüneburg 2030 ‘City of the Future’ project, which developed and used sustainability visions in 25 different thematic fields. Jointly developed in this German city of 75,000 people by the local university, city government, local NGOs, businesses and citizens, it is clearly an approach that could work here.

I am convinced that involving people in designing and creating a community fit for the 21st century is a very important and indeed urgent issue. Perhaps we should establish a Regional Commission for the Future to take on this work, supported by regional and municipal governments, school boards, colleges and universities, the business sector and community organisations such as the Victoria Foundation and the Community Social Planning Council.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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


Practising democracy as if the future mattered

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 March 2021

698 words

Too often, politics is focused on the short-term. We see it everywhere: Support for clearcutting the last stands of old growth forest, fishing to the last fish, maintaining and even expanding the fossil fuel industry – the list goes on. Only when it is almost too late do we act – and not always even then.

The reason is not hard to find: The future doesn’t vote, nor does it fund campaigns or provide jobs for today’s voters. So we discount the future, ignore the needs of the next generations, and largely carry on with an occasionally modified form of ‘business as usual’.  

But in a world where our ecological systems are under threat by a combination of population and economic growth, rising expectations and the widespread deployment of our powerful technologies, such an approach is a threat to our entire society and especially to our descendants.

We should recall that sustainable development was defined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

So we need to change the way democracy and governance works. At the very least we need to value future generations as much as we do the current generations, and perhaps even more, since they are not here to speak for themselves. And we certainly should pay attention to young people, whose future we are deciding upon.

Enter Graham Smith, Professor of Politics at the University of Westminster in Britain, where he is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy; he also is Chair of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development. So these are issues he thinks about a lot, and writes about in his book “Can Democracy Safeguard the Future?”, released this month.

He looks at three areas that we would be wise to consider. First, he argues for re-shaping legislatures and constitutions; second, he proposes bringing an independent voice to decision-making by “strengthening independent offices whose overarching goals do not change at every election”; third, he focuses on participatory democracy, an area of particular interest for him. What might all this mean here?

Well, one place to start would be to change the Canadian Constitution both to recognise that people have a right to a healthy environment and that Nature has rights. Achieving the first is the target of the David Suzuki Foundation’s ‘Blue Dot’ campaign. As to the second, we can look to Aotearoa New Zealand, where both a river and a region have been recognized as having rights. Both these areas are also the focus of the work of Dr. David Boyd, the BC-based UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, another source of knowledge and inspiration.

Turning to independent officers, this is not a new model. We have had Auditors General for decades, whose reports on the government’s finances are tabled with the Legislature.  Here in BC we also have the Representative for Children and Youth and the BC Seniors Advocate, while federally there is a Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, although appointed, oddly, by the Auditor General.

But why is independent reporting on public finances more important than independent reporting on what should be our main concern – the achievement of high levels of health, wellbeing and human development in a way that is socially just and ecologically sustainable. It’s time for a separate and equal-ranking Wellbeing Auditor General, both at the federal and provincial levels.

Such a position could well incorporate a related function, for which a model already exists in Wales: The Wellbeing for Future Generations Commissioner. Backed by the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, the Commissioner’s duties are “to promote the sustainable development principle, and act as a guardian of the ability for future generations in Wales to meet their needs, encouraging public bodies to think about the long-term impact of what they do.”

The third part of Graham Smith’s proposed approach is a futures-oriented participatory democracy. It too is not a new idea; Alvin Toffler discussed ‘anticipatory democracy’ in his 1970 book ‘Future Shock’. I believe it is well suited to local action, and I will address it in my next column.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

A Doughnut economy for Victoria

Published as ‘Doughnut economy means not spending $100M on interchange’

Dr Trevor Hancock

10 March 2021

700 words

Our most important task in the 21st century is to transform our society and economy so we live within the “safe and just space for humanity”, as Kate Raworth describes it in her Doughnut Economics model. This means an economy large enough and fair enough that we can meet everyone’s needs (the ‘social foundation’) but small enough that we can live within the limits of the Earth (the ‘ecological ceiling’).

In thinking about what a Doughnut economy means at the local level, the Doughnut Economy Action Lab suggests we ask “how can our city be a home to thriving people, in a thriving place, whilst respecting the wellbeing of all people, and the health of the whole planet?”

This means, they say, asking what it would mean for the people – ALL the people – of this region to thrive and for the region to thrive within its natural habitat. But, they add, it also means asking what would it mean for this region to respect the wellbeing of people worldwide and to respect the health of the whole planet. In other words, think globally and act locally.

To date, only a few cities have begun to ask these questions, foremost of which is Amsterdam, closely followed by Copenhagen, the Brussels region, Dunedin in Aotearoa New Zealand and Nanaimo. According to an article in Time magazine in January about Amsterdam’s adoption of Doughnut Economics, policies based on this model “aim to protect the environment and natural resources, reduce social exclusion and guarantee good living standards for all.”

What might that mean here. Well, let’s look at the thorny problem of affordable housing. In Brussels, the Community Land Trust acquires land that it holds in trust for the community. Low-income families can buy and sell a house, but the land remains community-owned in perpetuity. Moreover, the Trust involves the residents in the design and management of the housing, and the homes they build are environmentally friendly passive houses, re-using construction material where possible.

How about transportation? Well, we wouldn’t waste $100 million on a pointless highway interchange at McKenzie that just encourages urban sprawl and commuting. First, we would moderately intensify housing fairly, using the 1.5 percent principle proposed by Todd Litman of Cities for Everyone; since the region’s population grows by 1.5 percent annually, each municipality and neighbourhood should grow that much.

This should be achieved not by building high-rise condo towers downtown but by sensitive in-filling to create “moderate-priced housing in walkable neighbourhoods”, says Litman, with traditional-looking but more dense homes. Look at the recently approved ASH (affordable, sustainable housing) project on Richardson St in Victoria and similar innovative proposals for what has been called ‘gentle densification’.

Then we could take that $100 million and invest it in decentralised work spaces and telecommute centres in the western and northern suburbs and better transit.

Amsterdam is also pushing the denim clothing industry to include 20 percent recycled material in its products by 2023 and is encouraging the development of more repair shops where people can get their clothing fixed rather than just throwing it out.

Philadelphia is also looking at the Doughnut economy, according to a recent article in Yes! Magazine. While Covid has set them back, it has also been a spur to action: we need “a green and just recovery”, said the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability. One approach they are looking at is to replace school meals made in Brooklyn and sent to the city with lunches that are made locally using locally grown food, creating local employment.

Finally, how about paying the full cost of our products and services by paying local workers a living wage and including the full cost of the environmental and social impacts in the price we pay. The Time magazine article on Amsterdam provides an example: Zucchini would cost an extra 15¢ per kilo  – 6¢ for the carbon footprint, 5¢ for the impact of farming on the land, and 4¢ for fair pay.

Yes, it will be more expensive, but if we don’t pay the full cost, our descendants will pay the price in ecological decline, social conflict and poor health. Is that the legacy we want to leave?

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

Circles and Doughnuts: The local economy we need

Published as ‘Circular economy doesn’t go far enough’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

3 March 2021

700 words

Something good is happening: We are finally starting to question the economy and the way it works – or fails to work – for us and for nature, which sustains us.  A month ago I wrote a couple of columns about Doughnut economics, then took a bit of a diversion to explore the Dasgupta report on including in the economy the costs we impose on nature and – last week – the UN Secretary General’s observation that in waging war on nature we are suffering “towering economic losses”.

So what does this economic re-thinking mean at a local level, in the place where we live, learn, work, shop and play? How should we re-think and re-make our economy? Happily, various people and organisations are starting to think about this. Last week there was a front-page article in this newspaper by Lindsay Kines about the work of Project Zero to create a circular economy, with supportive resolutions adopted by both Victoria and Nanaimo councils.

A circular economy stands in contrast to our current linear ‘take-make-waste’ economy, in which we obtain resources, process and use them, then send the waste away, out there somewhere. Think of disposable plastic bags or coffee cups, or any number of other disposable products, up to and including your car and house. There are two big problems with this model, and both relate to nature, and the way nature works.

First, there is no ‘away’ in nature, our wastes end up somewhere and do harm to plants, animals and entire ecosystems. Moreover, only too often our wastes come back to haunt and harm us. Second, nature never discards anything, it all gets decomposed, recycled and re-used in some way, whereas we waste a lot of energy and resources by failing to close the loop.

A circular economy seeks to avoid these problems – greatly reducing both our wasteful use of scarce resources and our excessive production of wastes – by closing the loop. The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading advocate for the circular economy, proposes three key principles: Design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. This is underpinned by “designing products that can be ‘made to be made again’ and powering the system with renewable energy.”

It is a concept that has a lot of powerful support, including the World Economic Forum, which notes that businesses using this model gain a competitive edge because they “create more value from each unit of resource”, as Paul Shorthouse from Canada’s Circular Economy Leadership Coalition noted in a recent presentation to the Climate Caucus (a Canadian network of municipal leaders). The Coalition includes a number of large corporations, including Canadian Tire, Ikea, Loblaws, Unilever and Walmart.

But while the concept of the circular economy is undoubtedly useful and important, for me it does not go far enough. I find the Doughnut economy a more comprehensive and valuable model, for two reasons that are core to that model: First, it recognizes the ‘ecological ceiling’, the limits to growth imposed by the finite nature of the Earth.

Thus in an April 2019 essay in the Steady State Herald Herman Daly, the elder statesman of ecological economics, noted the circular economy is really a “recycling economy” and that it can only work if the economy “does not grow in scale beyond the regenerative and absorptive capacities of the containing biosphere” – the Earth.

A second reason is quite neatly summed up in a couple of pithy summaries of the two models. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the circular economy as one “that is restorative and regenerative by design”, while Kate Raworth describes her Doughnut economics model as “distributive and regenerative”.

In other words, the Doughnut model recognizes that the implication of the ecological ceiling is that if the economy can’t grow beyond a certain size in terms of its impact on the Earth, then we can only meet everyone’s needs through redistribution. Thus it links the economy centrally to the social purpose of ensuring an equitable distribution of the goods and services that provide a social foundation for all.

Next week – finally, I hear you say – I will look at what a Doughnut Economy might mean at the local level.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

War and peace with nature

23 February 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

Our relationship with the Earth has long been troubled. Thanks largely to two key developments – the adoption of Judeo-Christian beliefs and the philosophy of the Enlightenment – the Western worldview has been that we are separate from and superior to nature, leading us to horribly mistreat nature.

Prior to the emergence of Judeo-Christian thought there were multiple gods and nature spirits; between them, they embodied nature, for which there was a reverence. Writing in The Conversation in September 2019, University of Nottingham lecturer Heather Alberro noted people “generally considered the sacred to be found throughout nature, and humanity as thoroughly enmeshed within it.”

But then along came the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity and, wrote Alberro, “their sole god – as well as sacredness and salvation – were re-positioned outside of nature.” Not just outside of, but actually superior to nature.

The roots of our current crisis can be seen clearly in Genesis, Chapter 1, where “God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

So there we have it, not just the exhortation to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing, but to multiply the human population. Added to that was the Enlightenment view, first championed by René Descartes, not only that mind and body are separate but that humans, as the only rational beings, were separate from both inanimate nature and mindless animals, which are ours to exploit.

Hence nature is excluded from our thinking and from our economic models, as my two recent columns on the Dasgupta Review have discussed. And hence what the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has called our suicidal war on nature.

The ‘war’ metaphor with respect to our relationship with nature is not new, but is getting a new prominence these days. Here in Canada Seth Klein, long the Director of the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has written a book titled “A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency”. In it, he argues that we need to adopt an approach to the climate crisis based on lessons to be learned from our mobilization in the Second World War.

But as my friend and colleague Thom Heyd, an Adjunct Professor in Environmental Studies at UVic, noted, “Are there ever “good wars” in this world? . . . What’s wrong with “A Good Peace” instead?” So I imagine Thom will be very pleased with the major new report from the UN Environment Program, released February 18th, entitled “Making Peace with Nature”.

In his foreword to the report, the UN Secretary General notes the triple human-created threat we face: “the climate emergency, the biodiversity crisis and the pollution that kills millions of people every year.”

In the face of this challenge, he writes, “making peace with nature is the defining task of the coming decades”, adding that we need “a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme.” The report provides these.

Making peace with nature, writes Guterres, will mean “transforming how we view nature”, so that “we can recognize its true value”, and then “ reflecting this value in policies, plans and economic systems”. The report calls for a transformation of our societal and economic systems, including our energy and food production systems, the way we treat the land, waters and oceans and the way we treat our wastes.

Such transformations, the report says, are key to addressing major social concerns such as “poverty elimination, equity, health, economic development, peace, food, water, sanitation, safe cities and settlements”; what Kate Raworth, in her Doughnut Economics model calls the social foundation of society.

In short, we must heed the wise words attributed to the 19th century Dwamish Chief, Seattle: “We are part of the great web of life, and whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves”. So when we wage war on nature, we are really waging war on ourselves at the same time, which as Guterres notes, is “senseless and suicidal” – and I would say, insane. It’s time to make peace.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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