Decline and collapse: Unpalatable, but not implausible

Dr. Trevor Hancock

23 Aug 2022

701 words

One of my professional roles throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s was that of a health futurist. Often that involved working with scenarios of plausible alternative futures. In addition to helping people understand the implications of past, current and future actions, these scenarios are useful in exploring their values with respect to the future and helping them identify a preferred future they would want to create.

Among the range of scenarios we always included one or more that dealt with societal decline or collapse. It was, of course, nobody’s preferred future, but that did not make it implausible, in fact it was often rated among the more plausible futures. It was, however, the future that people were least interested in understanding or exploring – and that is a problem.

As I noted last week, “a number of recent reports give added credence to the notion that we are in deeper trouble than we have yet recognised.” But while I focused on the possibility of a cascade of climate tipping points leading to catastrophic climate change, I also noted that climate change is but one of the many human-induced challenges we face.

A paper published last month by the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University (for transparency, I am a member of the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board) lists the following global systemic risks we face: “climate heating, biodiversity loss, pandemics, widening economic inequalities, financial system instability, ideological extremism, pernicious social impacts of digitalization, cyber attacks, mounting social and political unrest, large-scale forced migrations, and an escalating danger of nuclear war.”

The problem is that these systemic risks – threats “emerging within one natural, technological, or social system with impacts extending beyond that system to endanger the functionality of one or more other systems” – not only “appear to be increasing in severity . . . [and] at a faster rate”, they also seem to be happening simultaneously, the report noted.

The Institute calls this combination of interacting risks and the crises they engender a polycrisis. While this might be regional or continental in scale, a global polycrisis might result in “runaway failures of Earth’s vital natural and social systems that irreversibly degrades humanity’s prospects”.

Given that polycrises are increasingly plausible and the consequences are so severe, says the Institute, we need to pay more attention to them. However, the report notes, while our management of individual crises has often been weak and inadequate, our management – or even our consideration – of a polycrisis is “nonexistent” because we operate in silos and manage crises one at a time, in isolation.

The Institute is not alone in its concerns; similar concerns are raised by Earth4All, “an international initiative to accelerate the systems-change we need for an equitable future on a finite planet”, Led by an impressive international Transformational Economics Commission and motivated by the 1972 Club of Rome report, ‘The Limits to Growth’, (which I discussed in June), Earth4All is particularly focused on the need for economic transformation.

Concerned that “the world has ignored the risk of system collapse”, Earth4All will publish its findings in a book due out next month, which it promises will be “a survival guide to help steer humanity away from ecological and social catastrophe.”

While we don’t like to contemplate catastrophe, if we don’t, we can’t hope to avoid it. But as the case of climate change illustrated, our social, scientific and political judgements tend to be conservative. However, in downplaying the entirely plausible ‘bad news’ scenario and opting for a variant of business as usual, we avoid having to face and deal with the difficult choices and decisions that are needed.

As both the ‘Climate Endgame’ work I highlighted last week and the reports noted here make clear, we need our governments and international agencies to take seriously the plausibility of polycrises and the ensuing decline or collapse that would result. Both the ‘Climate Endgame’ group and the Cascade Institute want serious study of these situations, while Earth4All says “we need fresh conversations in every home, every school, every university, every city, every parliament. What is the future we want? How can our operating system get us there?” 

I think we need to do both, as a matter of urgency.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy


The world is not ending, but humanity has a problem

Dr. Trevor Hancock

16 Aug 2022

699 words

A recent letter to the editor (July 30) began: “Another opinion from Trevor Hancock about the upcoming end of the world”. Well actually, that is not what I said or what my columns are about. If by ‘the end of the world’ he means the planet, it is not ending any time soon. It has been around 4 billion years and will doubtless continue for billions more. Nor is life on Earth too likely to end; it has survived 5 previous ‘great extinction’ events, and will probably survive the sixth great extinction that we have initiated, although a great many species will not survive.

Even the human species is probably not at risk – although we should remember that over time, pretty much all species go extinct. But we are a highly adaptable and tough species, able to survive and indeed usually thrive in habitats as diverse as the Arctic, equatorial jungles, deserts and high altitudes. We will likely survive (in some form) anything less than the sort of major extinctions caused by an asteroid strike or massive volcanic eruptions.

What are at risk are societies and communities and our present form of ‘civilisation’, which will decline or collapse if the natural systems upon which we depend decline or collapse. If societies and communities do collapse, the health consequences will be severe, with high mortality rates, especially among the most vulnerable and marginalised.

My thoughts are occasioned not simply by the comments of one letter writer, however, but by a number of recent reports that give added credence to the notion that we are in deeper trouble than we have yet recognised.

The first is an August 1st article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) titled “Climate Endgame: Exploring catastrophic climate change scenarios”. Authored by a distinguished group of earth, climate and system scientists, the article notes that far from exaggerating the rate, severity and impacts of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has a natural tendency to underestimate these factors.

The authors note four reasons for such a tendency, the result of which is that when a range of plausible models and scenarios are considered, we tend to stick with the ‘Goldilocks’ scenario – not too optimistic, but not too pessimistic. Yet, note the authors, “There is ample evidence that climate change could become catastrophic. We could enter such “endgames” at even modest levels of warming”.

Second, a recent report from Carbon Brief compiled attribution studies looking at more than 500 extreme weather events around the world. They noted “71 percent of the 504 extreme weather events and trends . . . were found to be made more likely or more severe by human-caused climate change”, including 93 percent of extreme heat events. Overall, they found a number of severe heat extremes that “would have been impossible or virtually impossible without human influence on the climate”.  

One of those was the heat dome we experienced here last year. In fact, the rapid assessment study on that event, done by World Weather Attribution – a collaboration of climate scientists in several leading institutions – found “the observed temperatures were so extreme that they lie far outside the range of historically observed temperatures”.

An article on the Carbon Brief study in the Guardian (August 4th) quotes Professor Bill McGuire of University College London as saying “What is astonishing is the speed with which global heating is translating into a hike in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather when the average temperature of the planet is up by just a little more than 1 °C.” Moreover, note the authors of the PNAS article, we are on track for “a temperature rise between 2.1 °C and 3.9 °C by 2100”.

But it’s not just climate change; the UN refers to a ‘triple crisis’ of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, and that is just on the environmental front. Add to that Covid-19 and other emerging or potential pandemics, high levels of inequality, war in Ukraine and elsewhere and political instability in many places, and the potential for all of these to interact, and we face what is being called a polycrisis, which I will discuss next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

For a livable region, we must minimise building waste, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions

(Published as ‘For a livable region, we must minimize building waste and energy consumption)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

9 August  2022

699 words

I come now to the fifth and final ‘Big Idea’ from Livable Victoria, a group of which I am a member. As a group we are passionate about what it takes to create a more sustainable, vibrant, healthy, and equitable place to live. The first four ‘Big Ideas’ have dealt with broad issues of socially just housing policy, fair and ecologically sustainable urban and neighbourhood design, and active transportation. This fifth one deals with the design, construction and operation of the buildings themselves.

In North America we spend on average 90 percent of our time indoors. So the design and operation of the immediate built environment where we spend the vast majority of our time is of great importance for our wellbeing.

That of course is why we have building codes; it’s all about safety and health. The BC Building Code establishes “minimum requirements for safety, health, accessibility, fire and structural protection of buildings, and energy and water efficiency”.

The built environment not only affects our wellbeing directly, because we live within it, but indirectly, by impacting on the wider environment, which in turns affects us. Energy use in buildings is particularly important because buildings have a large ecological footprint, with carbon emissions forming a large part of the footprint, and we need to reduce both materials use and fossil fuel energy use. 

City of Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps pointed out in a statement this week that “buildings account for nearly half of all greenhouse gas pollution generated in the city”.  When the One Planet Saanich team estimated the overall ecological footprint of Saanich they noted  that for the built environment, “nearly three quarters of footprint impacts are due to operating energy (electricity and fuel used for heating)”, while “the remaining quarter is due to the energy and materials . . . used to construct the buildings”.

So our fifth ‘Big Idea’ is to minimise building waste, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Accordingly, we recommend not just requiring that buildings be energy efficient, but actually incentivizing building designs that reduce energy consumption and embodied carbon. For example, municipalities and the province should provide incentives for high-performance walls, renewable energy production (e.g., solar panels), low-carbon concrete, and bio-based construction materials.

To support this shift in construction practices, which is already under way, we recommend a collaboration between industry, academic and government partners to build local knowledge and capacity on sustainable building practices such as working with low-embodied carbon materials, and zero waste practices. Could this be a role for the recently announced continuing education campus in Langford?

In addition, we recommend that households should be incentivized to upgrade fossil fuel heating and hot water systems with energy-efficient electric systems. In fact, just this week, the City of Victoria has done just that, requiring almost all new buildings constructed after 2025 be ‘zero-carbon’, which rules out fossil fuels for heating and cooking. The rest of the region should follow their lead, indeed Saanich and Central Saanich are reportedly considering this.

Another key recommendation is to implement strict requirements to minimize landfill waste from building demolitions and construction while incentivizing material reclamation whenever possible. This is because “material from the construction sector represents more than one-third of Victoria’s landfilled waste”, states the City of Victoria.

Hence the City’s new demolition waste and deconstruction bylaw, passed in June. In an interview with the local CTV News, Adam Corneil, founder and CEO of Unbuilders Deconstruction, noted “90 per cent of the materials salvaged from a construction site are either resold, donated or recycled, keeping them out of the landfill”. Other municipalities should follow suit.

The ‘5 Big Ideas’ from Livable Victoria that I have presented in these five columns “aim to create a city that respects our planet’s ecological limits while promoting human health and wellbeing.” They are meant to be implemented as a whole, as they reinforce each other, and are “intentionally designed to be flexible and not overly prescriptive”, so that creativity and innovation can flourish.

We hope they will become a central part of the discussions in the coming municipal elections about how to create a more livable region not only for today’s residents, but future generations who make Greater Victoria their home.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

For a more livable city, invest in cycling, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure

Dr. Trevor Hancock

2 August 2022

703 words

This is the fourth in the series of columns where I present the recommendations of Livable Victoria, an informal and non-partisan group of which I am a member. We share a commitment to making our region a more sustainable, vibrant, healthy, and inclusive place to live.

Our fourth recommendation is to invest in cycling, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure. This form of mobility is also known as active transportation, for the obvious reason that people getting around on foot, by bike or transit are more physically active. It makes a great deal of sense in a region with a temperate climate, and one that on the whole is not very hilly.

Active transportation is a major focus of public health action, and has been for some decades. The health benefits include increased physical activity (in turn linked to reduced obesity and improved heart health), improved air quality (linked to improved heart and lung health), and reductions in injuries, noise and greenhouse gas emissions.

On the down side, noted Canada’s National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health in 2010, people using active transport modes “face an increased risk of injury from collisions, [and] may also be exposed to elevated levels of air pollution”. Those risks can be reduced by safely separating cyclists and pedestrians from vehicles, reducing vehicle traffic, controlling exhaust pollution and speeding the transition to electric vehicles.

Our first recommendation is to improve sidewalks, crosswalks, and multi-use paths to ensure that every household has safe walking routes to local schools, parks, urban villages, and community centres. This of course fits well with and complements one of the key Livable Victoria recommendations I mentioned last week, namely to create ‘15 minute neighbourhoods’ where people can meet most of their daily needs locally.

Of course, not everyone can walk, bike or take transit, so a second key recommendation is to apply universal design principles so that streets, sidewalks, and roads accommodate all users, including people with mobility impairments and other special needs. 

This fits well with the focus of our third recommendation, which is to expand the All-Ages-and-Abilities (AAA) cycling network to ensure all residences have convenient and safe access to the network. People with mobility and other impairments must be able to access all the services and amenities they need, hence the importance of allowing electric-powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters to use the network.

Our final two recommendations are for the region to accelerate the implementation of the Victoria Transit Future Plan, creating a comprehensive and integrated transit network, and to place a moratorium on future highway expansions, reallocating funding to traffic reduction strategies. On a regional scale, we can’t build a good transit system and get people out of cars if we continue to sprawl and build highways. So stopping further urban sprawl – another recommendation highlighted last week – is key.

So too is a re-allocation of public and private investment. In a July 6th  Planetizen blog posting Todd Litman, a member of Livable Victoria and founder of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, whose  research is used worldwide in transport planning and policy analysis, points out that “In a typical community, 20 to 40 percent of residents will rely on non-auto travel options if they are available”.

Yet, he adds, “about 85 percent of spending by departments of transportation is devoted to roadways”. He suggests that we should be allocating 20 to 40 percent of transportation dollars and road space to walking, bicycling, and public transit, or “even more to make up for a century of car-centric planning.”

One final point: It may seem cheaper to live further away from downtown, but that is an illusion, as a 2020 CRD report found. Total average annual household housing and transportation costs in the core municipalities were lower than in the Saanich Peninsula and the West Shore. Much of that was because “transportation costs tend to be higher in car dependent areas with limited access to services and employment centres”.

Add the social costs of long commutes to that, as well as the related greenhouse gas and other pollutants generated by all that traffic, and it is clear where the benefits lie. Investing in cycling, transit, and pedestrian infrastructure has important health, environmental, social and economic benefits.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

Creating a more livable Victoria: Plan neighbourhoods for sustainability and human wellbeing

Published as ‘Urban sprawl not just bad for nature but for health

Dr. Trevor Hancock

26 July 2022

701 words

Back in the 1980s I worked for the Department of Public Health in the City of Toronto.  We were developing and implementing the ideas that contributed to what became a world-wide healthy city movement. One of those key ideas was that the design of the built environment was a fundamental determinant of the health of the population of the city.

Not exactly rocket science, one would think. After all, we are 80 percent urbanised in North America and spend 90 percent of our time indoors. (We also spend 5 percent of our time – half the reamining 10 percent – in vehicles!) If that sounds like a lot, try keeping a time diary for a week and see where you spend your time.

But I was surprised to find, in talking to urban planners, that urban design at that time was not strongly linked to what, to me, was the obvious point of the whole exercise: That people’s health, wellbeing and quality of life is  – or should be – what it’s all about. Surely the success of urban design should be measured in those terms. Which is why a lot of our work on creating healthy cities was and is done in conjunction with urban planners.

A second important urban focus in the 1980s, one that in fact achieved more prominence than healthy cities, was the concept of sustainable communities. From my point of view, they always were two sides of the same coin – a healthy city must be a sustainable city, because while we may spend most of our time in built environments, we spend 100 percent of our time within natural ecosystems that are the ultimate determinant of our health. All of which goes to explain why the third Big Idea from Livable Victoria – a group of which I am a member – is that we must plan neighbourhoods for sustainability and human wellbeing.

Our first recommendation under that heading is to concentrate future population growth within existing urban and suburban areas, while protecting natural habitats from future development. That also leads naturally to our second recommendation, which is to identify, restore, and protect areas of ecological and cultural significance, working with local First Nation communities, ecologists, and other professionals.

In other words, we can’t keep on creating urban sprawl, which is both ecologically harmful and also harms health. It is a very energy and resource inefficient form of development, car-dependant, and one that eats up large natural areas that we and other species depend upon. It also often consumes prime agricultural land, because cities tend to be located where there is good agricultural land to support the population.

The health impacts of urban sprawl have been understood for decades now. In their 2004 book ‘Urban Sprawl and Public Health’, Frumkin, Frank and Jackson identified the main impacts as diseases related to increased air pollution, reduced physical activity and increased obesity, injuries and deaths related to traffic, and impacts on mental wellbeing and social capital. To this we should add the health impacts of climate change, which sprawl exacerbates.

So as a region, we need to concentrate future population growth within existing urban and suburban areas through infill, ‘gentle’ densification, building ‘missing middle’ housing and ‘mainstreeting’ our urban corridors, creating more dense mixed residential and commercial developments along our main transit corridors.

Our next set of recommendations are concerned with smaller-scale urban design issues, based on the concept of a 15-minute neighbourhood.  Melbourne made this the basis of their new official plan in 2017, although they called them 20-minute neighbourhoods. The idea is very simple: “giving people the ability to meet most of their daily needs within a 20-minute walk from home, with safe cycling and local transport options”.

This means, we recommend, developing a network of commercial village centres, but it also means expanding all forms of public amenities and social gathering places (such as parks, plazas, and libraries) with an emphasis on incorporating natural ecosystems and habitats and creating safe places.

Because of course neighbourhoods are not just physical places, they are also social spaces. Good urban design makes community possible by creating places for people to connect – that is an important part of what makes a community healthy.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy