A pale blue dot tells us we need to get over our obsession with the economy

(Published as “We need to get over our obsession with the economy”)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

18 April 2023

700 words

I recently came across an eloquent and powerful passage by Carl Sagan, the famed cosmologist, written in response to an image of Earth taken by Voyager 1 in 1990, from beyond the planet Neptune. The Earth was just a pale blue dot (which inspired the title of his 1994 book from which this passage is quoted). Sagan wrote “you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. . . . The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena . . . Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”

And he ended with this powerful statement: “To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

This was in my mind as I considered the issues of population and economic growth that I have discussed in the last couple of columns. This week I turn to one of the key drivers of the global ecological crisis we are creating: our focus on the economy. This is often to the exclusion of the natural world and social conditions – especially for people who are disadvantaged and vulnerable. Here and in my next column I explore the problems that result from our focus on the economy and – next week – the problem of growth and the inequity that results.

We see our pre-occupation with the economy in the focus on economic reports in the news, whole sections of newspapers devoted to business, the centrality of the Department of Finance and the Minister of Finance in government, the almost fetishistic attention paid to the Budget. It is particularly well illustrated by the slogan in Bill Clinton’s campaign office: “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Yet the economy is – or should be – a tool used to achieve the things that really matter. It should not be the central focus of government, of public policy and public discussion. As the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) observed in its 2014 ‘Living Planet’ report, “Ecosystems sustain societies that create economies. It does not work the other way round”. And yet we act as if it did, by making the economy the central focus.

We need to flip this around. It’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the people and the planet! The central focus of government should be to ensure the highest possible level of human and social development for everyone – not just some, or many, or most, but all – within the ecological limits of the one small planet that is our home. Then we need to design an economy that delivers that outcome.

So the most important people in government after the First Minister should be the Ministers of Sustainable Development, Human Development and Social Development, while the Minister of Finance should be in service to them, not the other way around.

Yet a quick Google search finds only one Ministry of Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management, in the Central American country of Belize, while in Canada Québec has a Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, Wildlife, and Parks.

Similarly, I can find only one Ministry of Human Development, Families & Indigenous People’s Affairs, also  in Belize – maybe we should take a few lessons from Belize? – although South Africa has a Minister of Social Development.

In Canada, the federal government has a Minister of Employment and Social Development, making social development a secondary concern, with the focus on employment, which is just one part of social development.  Here in B.C. we do have a Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction. Yet clearly, they are not the most important Ministries in government, although they should be.

We need governments and economies that are strongly focused, as Sagan wrote, on how we can “deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and . . . preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” That should be the business of government, with the economy as servant, not master.

© Trevor Hancock, 2023


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


Population growth is only part of the problem

We need to slow growth in our overall consumption, especially in the high-income countries and populations where it is highest and most damaging

Dr. Trevor Hancock

11 April 2023

698 words

In last week’s column I discussed the findings of the recent report from Earth4All concerning population growth. Judging by several thoughtful and concerned responses from readers, I fear I did not do a great job, so I will re-visit the report’s ideas and, I hope, somewhat clarify what is a complex issue and argument.

It probably didn’t help that my original title – “Has the population bomb bombed?” – was changed to read “It’s not population growth but inequality that’s the problem”. The new title is not the same as the conclusion that I quoted at the end, which came from the Earth4All report: “population size is not the prime driver of exceeding planetary boundaries . . . Rather, it is extremely high material footprint levels among the world’s richest 10 percent that is destabilising the planet”.

The key point here is that the report was not saying population growth is not a problem, but that it is not the main driver of ecological overshoot, although it certainly still is an important factor. The Earth4All report projects the Earth’s population will stabilise within  the next couple of decades (around 8.5 or 8.6 billion by about 2040 or 2050, from 8 billion now) and then decline to 6 or 7 billion by 2100. (UN projections also see stabilisation and decline, although with larger projected populations and somewhat longer time lines.)

But according to Our World in Data, while population has grown 3.2-fold, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 8 billion in 2022, GDP per person (in constant dollars) grew 4.5 times between 1950 and 2018, meaning overall the economy grew more than 14-fold.

In other words, since 1950 growth in goods and services per person has had a greater impact than population growth. Of course it is the combination of both population growth and growth in wealth and consumption that matters, although recently the rate of population growth has been slowing down. But that will not help if our already high ecological footprint remains high or even increases.

So we need to slow and in fact reverse the growth in our overall consumption, and especially in the high-income countries and populations where it is highest and most damaging. Because there is a strong relationship between wealth and the ecological footprint; wealthy countries and wealthy people have larger footprints, making them the main threat to the natural systems that support us and all the other species with which we share the Earth.  

There are two main reasons to focus on high-income countries and people. First, quite reasonably, low-income people and countries look at places like Canada and in many (but not all) cases, want what we have. But if all the world lived the way we do, we would need another four planets. Clearly, that is not possible,  but we can’t simply say to middle and low-income countries and people – sorry, we got ours, you are out of luck!

Not only will that not be accepted, it would be counter-productive, since the evidence is clear – as the Earth4All report points out – that the way to limit family size is through social and economic development that educates and empowers women in particular, and society in general.

Second, high income people and countries already have a disproportionate impact on the Earth, and if we continue our current form of economic growth, we will have a far greater impact over the course of our lives than people in low and middle income countries.

So if we are to ensure everyone a decent life, we who live in high-income countries need to lead in figuring out how to reduce our impact  on the Earth to a sustainable level while maintaining a decent quality of life and good health for all. In doing so, incidentally, we can probably learn a lot from some of the low and middle-income countries that are closer to this state than we are.

The Earth4All report proposes several key transformations that will get us there, including major shifts in both food and energy systems and a significant redistribution of resources within and between all countries. There is, as Gandhi remarked, enough for each person’s need, but not for each person’s greed.

© Trevor Hancock, 2023


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

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

Has the population bomb bombed?

(Published as ‘It’s not population growth but inequality that’s the problem’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 April 2023

702 words

Whenever I write about the problems of economic growth and our ecological footprint I get e-mails asking me why I don’t also address population growth. The short answer is that I have, on several occasions. The longer answer, as I wrote in a July 2018 column on this topic, is that the issue is complex, and the solution not just a matter of family planning.

According to UN data, as reported by ‘Our World in Data’, the rate of increase of the global population had dropped from around 2 percent per year 50 years ago to a bit under 1 percent now. Global population, the UN reports, “is expected to reach 9.7 billion in 2050 and could peak at nearly 10.4 billion in the mid-2080s.” (Canada’s population grew by 2.7 percent in 2022, mostly due to immigration, Statistics Canada recently reported, and would double in 26 years if that rate continues.)

However, a new report for the Club of Rome from Earth4All casts doubt on this. Guided by a Transformational Economics Commission,  Earth4All is “a platform to connect and amplify the voices that want to upgrade our economies.” By ‘upgrade’, they mean transforming our economies so that people everywhere can thrive within the limits of our one planet.

Their new report links population size, human development, social justice and ecological sustainability. It is a response to five questions posed by the Global Challenges Foundation, a Swedish organization founded in 2012 to “raise awareness of global catastrophic risks and to strengthen global governance to handle them.”

First, they looked at how large the world’s population would grow, and the result was somewhat surprising. If the world continues its present economic course, they found the population would peak at 8.6 billion in 2050 (we just passed 8 billion) before declining to 7 billion in 2100. Moreover, if the policies discussed below were enacted, says the report, population would peak at 8.5 billion around 2040 and decline to 6 billion by 2100. This is considerably less than the 10 billion or more people by 2060 or so that UN and many other models project.

The reason, the authors explain, is that their model pays more attention to the effects of rapid economic development, which “has a huge impact on fertility rates”, said Per Espen Stoknes, Earth4All project lead and director of the Centre for Sustainability at the Norwegian Business School. Fertility rates fall, he explained, “as girls get access to education and women are economically empowered and have access to better healthcare.”

The report then addresses the Foundation’s five questions, which in essence asked how many people could be supported if everyone could achieve the minimal conditions needed to meet the  requirements of Article 25.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and how many could be supported at a standard of living up to 30 percent higher.

Article 25.1 states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family (sic), including food, clothing, housing and medical
 care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

The research team translated this into threshold levels of food, energy, disposable income and social spending as a proportion of GDP needed to achieve this minimal standard of living. The resulting standard of living would be quite like South-east Asia today, but with six times as much energy and 50 percent more social spending. Thus they concluded that “socio-economic and natural resources are sufficient to ensure a dignified existence for the projected global population.”

However, they add, getting there would require achieving “an equal distribution of resources.” This would involve “unprecedented investment in poverty alleviation – particularly investment in education and health – along with extraordinary policy turnarounds on food and energy security, inequality and gender equity.”

Importantly, they conclude that “contrary to public popular myths, . . .  population size is not the prime driver of exceeding planetary boundaries . . . Rather, it is extremely high material footprint levels among the world’s richest 10 percent that is destabilising the planet” – my topic for next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2023


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

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

B.C. and Canada are sucking and blowing on fossil fuels

B.C. government continues to support new fossil fuel infrastructure, while vainly proclaimimg it can meet its emissions targets

Dr. Trevor Hancock

28 March 2023

698 words 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just released its synthesis report, summarising the three volumes of its 6th Assessment Report. It found, with very high confidence, that:

  • Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health.
  • There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.
  • Risks and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages from climate change escalate with every increment of global warming.
  • Deep, rapid and sustained mitigation and accelerated implementation of adaptation actions in this decade would reduce projected losses and damages for humans and ecosystems.

So what does the B.C. government do in response? It continues to support new fossil fuel infrastructure, while still vainly proclaimimg it can meet its emissions targets. It has just approved the Cedar LNG plant, while at the same time announcing plans to reduce emissions from the fossil fuel sector.

Yet in May 2021 the International Energy Agency stated “the global journey to net zero by 2050 . . . includes, from today, no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects”, while in April 2022 UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said “Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness”

Or as Martyn Brown, former chief of staff toLiberal Premier Gordon Campbell, put it during CBC Radio‘s ‘On The Island’ political panel on March 17th, “This is the government sucking and blowing at the same time on climate action.”

After all, it was David Eby himself who stated in the weeks before he was sworn in as B.C.s’ new Premier  that “we cannot continue to expand fossil-fuel infrastructure and hit our climate goals.” So as Green Party MLA Adam Olsen pointed out: “Announcing a plan to reduce climate pollution from LNG facilities on the same day as approving another LNG project doesn’t make sense.”

The Cedar plant will not only increase emissions in B.C., it will also benefit from the incentives offered to the LNG industry by the BC government.  As tallied by Marc Lee, Senior Economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in July 2018, these include “eliminating the LNG income tax, a lower price for BC Hydro electricity, exemption of the provincial sales tax on construction materials and a rebate on new carbon taxes.”

Another reason for concern was touched on by Mr.Olsen, in noting that the Cedar LNG plant is a partnership with the Haisla Nation. While agreeing that it is “a significant opportunity for economic reconciliation”, he added “it is concerning that the BC NDP is using that opportunity to disguise the fact that they are creating new fossil fuel projects.”

Indeed, far from welcoming the announcement, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs issued a press release expressing concern. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, the UBCIC President, called the announcement of “the expansion of the LNG industry and associated fracking . . . frightening”.

B.C. is not alone in this behaviour.The federal government has a long history of sucking and blowing on fossil fuels. In June 2018 Parliament passed a resolution declaring a climate emergency, and the very next day approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion (TMX), which ships bitumen from the Alberta tarsands for export to Asia.

When it became clear the private sector was not dumb enough to continue investing in the TMX, the federal government went ahead and purchased it. Initially priced by Justin Trudeau at $7.4 billion to complete, it is now up to $30.9 billion.

Back in October 2022, when the price tag was only $21.4 billion, Robyn Allan, a former CEO of ICBC, in a report for West Coast Environmental Law, found oil producers would be paying tolls well below the true cost and that “the federal government will forgive $17 billion in debt Trans Mountain owes to Canadians.”

So we are subsidising LNG and are stuck with a pipeline that will never make a profit. Andrew Nikiforuk, a seasoned environmental reporter, summed it up well in the Tyee this month; this amounts to “the transfer of billions of dollars from ordinary Canadians to wealthy oil companies”  – while expanding fossil fuel production that results in climate chaos. Moral and economic madness indeed!

© Trevor Hancock, 2023


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

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