The midwinter solstice and other turning points

14 December 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

This evening I will gather with others in our neighbourhood at Lights on the Gorge, our annual event to mark the midwinter solstice. We will light some of the trees along Gorge Road, sing songs appropriate to midwinter and the solstice and have a lantern parade for the kids. It’s not a major event in itself, but it certainly marks a major event, a key turning point each year.

Its importance, for me, is not only that the sun has ceased its retreat and now the days start getting longer, although that is certainly part of it. But more than that, it is a way of connecting ourselves to nature and the great annual cycles that mark our year. 

My recent columns, as you will have seen, have been based around the theme of ceasing our war on nature and instead making peace with nature, as the UN Secretary General has urged. But as with all peace initiatives, this means coming to know your ‘enemy’ – and as the recent extreme weather events have shown, nature can at times seem like an enemy, even though these events are at least to some extent caused or exacerbated by humanity.

So getting to know and respect nature, to treat nature as an ally and partner, not a foe and competitior, begins with increasing our contact with nature. Recognising the winter and summer solstices is part of that process.

The solstice is also a time when my mind turns to other turning points. One of those has to do with the set of human-induced global ecological changes that we are witnessing, most obviously climate change. Unfortunately, the decision-making systems in our societies and economies are not set up to deal well with changes in complex dynamic systems such as ecosystems (and our societal systems, for that matter). We assume a degree of stability and slow, fairly smooth and linear change.

But that is not how complex systems change; they can both resist pressures and maintain stability and then, when the right trigger happens or the pressure becomes too much, they can flip quite suddenly to a new state. “Sometimes”, notes the recently-established Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University (I am on the Institute’s Science Advisory Board) “a small change in one component of a complex system causes an enormous shift in the system’s overall behavior; but other times, even large changes in multiple components produce little effect.”

The timing of non-linear change in a system, adds the Institute, is hard to predict, and such shifts to a new stable state “are usually extremely difficult to reverse”. That is a problem, because we face “the real possibility that . . . [our planetary socio-ecological] system is close to an irreversible shift to a new pathway that would radically degrade human well-being and civilization’s long-term prospects.” This is a turning point we really don’t want to bring about.

On the other hand, there are turning points we do want to trigger. As leading Earth scientist Will Steffen noted a couple of years ago, in contemplating the possibility of rapid and irreversible shifts in the planetary Earth systems that are our life support: “We need to reach a social tipping point, before we reach a planetary one.” It is not yet clear we have reached a social tipping point for climate change, but after the extreme weather events of 2021, we may be getting closer.

Societal systems also maintain stability in the face of pressures (which is one of the unstated purposes of a bureaucracy), but if they reach a tipping point they too can flip. We have seen this with respect to the shift in the social acceptability of smoking a few decades ago or the fairly sudden acceptance of gay marriage in many countries in recent years. Now we need some fairly rapid societal shifts with respect to our overall relationship with – and dependence upon – nature.

That is the central focus of the work of the Cascade Institute; to try to figure out how we might intervene to “produce a virtuous cascade of change that helps flip humanity onto a far more positive path”. So Happy Solstice, I wish all of us a positive turning point soon.

© 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


Black Friday is bad for the planet and our wellbeing

7 December 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

We have just witnessed another Black Friday and Cyber Monday, an orgy of consumerism that kicks off the Christmas shopping binge. Every year it seems the consumption-fest gets worse, hyped by a marketplace that encourages greed and over-consumption because it desperately wants us to purchase more and more stuff.

But while this consumer-fest may seem to be good for the economy, it’s bad for the planet, as the retail market supercharges our environmental impact, and bad for us.

First there is the amount of materials that have to be mined, harvested or otherwise extracted to make the products and their packaging, as well as the pollutants created in those processes. Then there is all the energy used in manufacturing, distributing and delivering them, again with associated pollution, and finally the mountains of waste that result.

A 2018 CBC report noted several ways in which on-line shopping – which can have a lower carbon footprint than in-store shopping – can end up being worse: Selecting rush-shipping, over-ordering and doing product returns, doing international online shopping, and not having an alternate delivery option when you are not home, requiring re-delivery. The problem is that the system is set up to make these unsustainable choices easy.

Then there is the waste, including all the packaging waste. I have a classic example of this. Last year I was sent a thank-you gift by an organization in Ontario whose event I had spoken at (via Zoom). The gift, which was shipped from Vancouver, was a small green plant in a huge cardboard box. The thought was good, but the environmental impact was excessive.

But what makes all this even worse is that the materialistic values that underpin and drive consumerism make us feel worse, not better. In his 2002 book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, Illinois, showed that “materialistic values go hand in hand with low quality of life and psychological health”.

In a 2013 article, he and his co-authors noted there is “empirical evidence . . . that the more that people prioritized values and goals for money and possessions, relative to other aims in life, the lower they scored on outcomes such as life satisfaction, happiness, vitality, and self-actualization.” And a 2014 article that Kasser co-authored noted “a growing body of evidence suggests that materialistic values may be negatively associated with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.”

It seems we – and the planet upon which we depend – would be better off without Black Friday and Cyber Monday. So it is important to know that there is some good news. For example, an August 2020 report from the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at Cardiff University found that during Covid there had been “reductions in waste, travel and consumption [and a] rise in low-carbon recreation such as virtual and outdoor exercise, gardening and creative hobbies”, although they expressed concern that with the lifting of lockdown there could be a return to pre-existing habits.

Closer to home, Teghan Acres, Communications Coordinator at Canada’s National Zero Waste Council, recently noted pioneering work in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal to use cargo electric bikes and electric vehicles to lower the environmental impact of online deliveries.

Even closer to home, she reported that several eco-conscious small businesses in Victoria launched Blue Friday in 2019. The stores pledge to donate a large portion of Black Friday sales to support ocean conservation initiatives. Of course, it is still about selling stuff, but at least it is local. The Blue Friday revenue in past years has helped purchase Seabins for North Saanich Marina and this year will replace the foam dock at First Street Marina in Tofino.

But beyond these small steps, important though they may be, we need a transformation in our core values away from materialism to other, more pro-health, pro-social and pro-planet values.  As the recent report from the UN Environment Program, ‘Making Peace with Nature’, noted: “With successful transformative change, the consumption of resources would decrease in wealthy contexts and increase sustainably elsewhere.” In such a future, we would not see the good life being “centred around high levels of material consumption, but around rich relationships involving people and nature.”

© 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

Mother Nature has shown us that ‘business as usual’ is a disaster

1 December 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 December 2021

701 words

Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has told us “humanity is waging war on nature.” The problem is that wars have winners and losers. But as the events this year have surely shown us, Mother Nature is more powerful than us, and bats last. We are going to lose this war, which is why Mr. Guterres added: “This is suicidal.”

We need to give up the belief that humanity is more powerful than nature, that we can manage and control and defeat nature. Instead, we need to understand that we have to work with and make peace with nature, as Mr. Guterres urges us to do. Because Mother Nature has been showing us that ‘business as usual’ is a recipe for disaster, one for which we seem almost entirely unprepared.

We have become the victims of a self-imposed ‘perfect storm’, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a critical or disastrous situation created by a powerful concurrence of factors”. Here in BC we have experienced the heat dome, disastrous forest fires and now horrendous floods. What drives all these events is climate change, to which BC is a significant contributor, combined with poor planning and bad practices that create vulnerable conditions.

What we have heard described as ‘atmospheric rivers’ are better described as vapor storms. In an article in the November edition of Scientific American, Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Centre notes that global warming leads to higher levels of water vapor in the air. This fuels “’vapor storms’  that are unleashing more rain and snow than storms did only a few decades ago.”

Then we have increased our vulnerability to fire and flood and storm over the decades of ‘business as usual’ practices, and compounded that by a failure to adequately take into account the changing climate. We drained Sumas Lake for farming, but then failed to protect and enhance the dykes that should protect it. We built on floodplains: An entire suburb of Vancouver is called Delta – surely that should tell us something – while a November 28th article in the Times Colonist noted that 85 percent of the community of Pitt Meadows is built on floodplain.

We have clearcut forests as if there were no tomorrow, even though “clearcutting increases the frequency and intensity of forest fires” and also increases “the risk of flooding at peak periods” and “the likelihood of landslides”, according to a report prepared this year for the Sierra Club by Dr. Peter Wood, a forester with over 20 years experience in the area of forests and climate change in Canada and internationally.

We built the Coquihalla Highway very rapidly, just 18 months, ready for Expo 86, but are we now paying the penalty for a rushed job? Have we failed to improve and protect the highway in light of predicted climate changes?

None of the events of 2021 should have come as a surprise, although they clearly have. Previous heat events should have warned us of the potential health effects, yet 595 people died in the heat dome and Lytton burned to the ground. A 2015 report commissioned by the BC government found that the dike that protected the Sumas Prairie was “substandard,” “too low” and “need[ed] to be updated” and more generally that “none of the 74 dikes examined in the Lower Mainland fully met the province’s standards”, CBC News reported last week. On top of that, a report by Ebbwater Consultants earlier this year warned that “the current model for flood risk governance in B.C. is broken”, and yet governments were taken by surprise.

As environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk said on CBC’s The Fifth Estate on November 26th: “For governments, experience has become making the same mistake over and over again, but with greater confidence.” 

What Mother Nature is telling us, fairly clearly, is that we can’t go on with business as usual. We have created climate change, and now we are beginning to see its implications. We have to change, we have to take all possible measures to slow and then halt human-induced climate change, and we have to learn to live with and adapt to the changes that are inevitably coming. We can’t keep on this way.

© 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