Building healthy communities – The social dimension

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 November 2020

701 words

Last week I suggested our region would be well served by a centre focused on how to create healthy, just and sustainable ‘One Planet’ communities and that it should pay attention to building community in the social sense and not just the physical design of the community.

My late friend Len Duhl, Professor of Public Health and Urban Planning at Berkeley, liked to point out that in addition to the ‘hard’ physical infrastructure, communities have a ‘soft’ social infrastructure that is every bit as important for the health and wellbeing of the people in the community.

Sometimes referred to as social capital, a community’s soft infrastructure is about the strength and density of both informal and formal relationships between people. One of the lessons we should have learned from Covid is that valuing and caring for each other is important.

But the neglect of the social side of community building is apparent if you look at planning departments in municipal governments; lots of land use planners of various sorts, hardly any social planners. Moreover, while the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing has infrastructure grants, they are for the hard, not the soft infrastructure.  

As a result, the work of creating community, of building social capital, while just as important as creating the ‘built capital’, has been largely left to the voluntary sector. I suggest we re-think the whole business of community building, making it a central rather than a peripheral concern of municipal government. What might that look like?

Some twenty-five years ago, I was part of a team that entered an Ontario government competition to design a new community on government land northeast of Toronto; we came third. Unfortunately, Seaton was not developed for another 20 years, so these ideas were not put into practice. However, I think they are important and worth re-visiting.

Our design was radically different in several respects. First, it was deeply ecological, based on the carrying capacity of the land, a strong emphasis on energy and resource conservation and the use of renewable energy supplies. It was also based on a ‘bottom-up’ design approach, starting with the household and working up to the final design, rather than the other way around.

But we also focused on ‘social sustainability’, reflecting our concerns with social equity, livability and human and social development. The social design sub-team developed a comprehensive human development strategy for the community with three key elements, the first of which was to build community. The next priority was to promote wellbeing and prevent problems, while meeting needs and providing services was the final priority.

By‘build community’ we meanta strong, supportive, tolerant community committed to the welfare of all its members – present and future – and the protection and enhancement of its environment. Using a bottom-up approach, we began by asking what capacities for human development exists and what needs can be met at the household level, then at the block level, the neighbourhood, the ‘village’, the town and then the city or the region.

On the design side, the implications included providing common space at the local level where people can come together in their daily lives; making contact and interaction with nature an integral part of the experience of living in the community; and designing neighbourhoods and ‘villages’ that function as real communities in which people can live, shop, work and play.

But the implications for governance are even more interesting. We recommended creating forums for governance at the block, neighbourhood, village and town levels in which people can come together to address their common interests and concerns; promoting and facilitating co-design, co-management and co-ownership of residential areas, community facilities and human services; and developing volunteer and community service programs from elementary school onwards.

If we are to create healthy One Planet communities, local governments should be mandated to develop and implement comprehensive human development strategies based on these ideas. Because ‘growing people and community’ is really the business that all governments should be in, especially municipal governments. They should have a ‘Community Building Department’ charged with creating both formal and informal connections between diverse people and organisations at the neighbourhood level and between neighbourhoods and the municipal government.

© 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

UVic and the Anthropocene

  • Published as ‘We need a centre focused on creating healthy, just, sustainable communities’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

27 October 2020

699 words

Today the University of Victoria welcomes a new President. Professor Kevin Hall is a civil engineer who comes from the University of Newcastle in Australia, where he was the vice-president and senior deputy vice chancellor of global engagement and partnerships. Previously at Queen’s University in Kingston and Guelph University, he has focused on water and health, especially in marginalized communities in south-east Asia. This makes him, like so many civil engineers, at heart a fellow public health professional.

Prof. Hall is described as having a deep commitment to environmental sustainability and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). He says he is excited to be joining a university that “strives to be a global exemplar in vital causes that hold the key to our future” and, among other things, “engages deeply with communities locally and around the world to drive social, environmental and economic change”.

I welcome a leader with such values and grounded experience – and have a challenge for him: Make UVic a global leader in addressing the society-wide challenges posed by the Anthropocene and the growing movement to create One Planet communities and societies. In particular this will mean working in partnership with the many people, groups and organisations already engaged in this work in this region.

Regular readers of my column will know that the broad societal implications of the Anthropocene and the need for a local response by becoming a One Planet region has become a primary focus for my work. This approach integrates the concepts of both healthy communities and sustainable communities, with an important focus on social equity and a just transition to a One Planet society.

In fact, the work of Conversations for a One Planet Region, the NGO I have founded, has its roots in a campus working group I helped set up at UVic before my retirement. UVic in the Anthropocene “aims to engage the University and the wider community in addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene in new, creative and effective ways”. The Conversations began as a series of preparatory public discussions as part of anIdeafest event put on by the group in 2017.

But in addition to working in and with the community – an approach in which Prof. Hall has considerable experience – this calls for a major re-orientation of UVic’s own education, research and community service work. So broad are the issues and challenges of the Anthropocene that I cannot think of a single faculty or discipline that should not make a contribution.

But one important element is missing: there is no School or Faculty that focuses on the built environment (civil engineering notwithstanding). Yet we are highly urbanized and the Greater Victoria Region is a major urban centre in BC. The region would be well served by a centre focused on how to create healthy, just and sustainable ‘One Planet’ communities.

But in addition to focusing on the built environment (architecture, urban planning, civil engineering, transportation, parks and ecological restoration) such a centre should consider how we build community in the social sense, how we transform social norms, cultural values and practices and create a ‘green’ local economy.

In approaching this challenging task, Prof. Hall may want to read a recent article – “Unlearning human-centrism” by four Belgian graduate students. “What does it take”, they ask, “for young people to become ecologically aware citizens?” The answer, they suggest, is not simply learning facts and figures but, they say, “changing your outlook on life . . . And that is not what you learn in the groves of academe.”

Instead, they write, “the university still treats sustainability as a separate discipline or as an ‘add-on’ to the standard package meant to sustain our competitiveness by advancing green technologies”. As UVic in the Anthropocene shows, there is a clear understanding of the importance of this challenge among at least some faculty. But at UVic, too, it remains a bit peripheral.

So broad are the issues inherent in becoming a One Planet community and society, involving every faculty and discipline, that we really need UVic to become a ‘University of the Anthropocene’. In doing so, it would become “a global exemplar in vital causes that hold the key to our future”.

© 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

Our fisheries are as badly managed as our forests

Dr. Trevor Hancock

20 October 2020

702 words

Here is an astounding statistic: Of the roughly 196,000 tonnes of wild seafood harvested by BC fishers in 2018, worth about $476 million, around 85 percent is exported, reported Marc Fawcett-Atkinson in an article in The National Observer in September. Meanwhile, “like most of Canada, [BC] imports between 70 and 90 per cent of the seafood British Columbians eat, according to federal data”. That seems to me more than a bit crazy; it may make some sort of weird economic sense, but does it strike you as common sense?

This and much else herein about the BC fishery came from what I think of as ‘the other Suzuki Foundation’ – the T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation. (Actually, for historical accuracy, they were the original Suzuki Foundation, and the better-known David Suzuki Foundation had to get permission to use the name.)

Tatsuro “Buck” Suzuki was born on the Fraser River to a family of Japanese-Canadian fishermen in 1915. While initially interred along with other Japanese-Canadians in 1941, he was later recruited as as an intelligence officer by the British Army. He helped to investigate war crimes in India and Singapore, before returning to B.C. in 1947. Once home, he played a major role in reconciling Japanese-Canadian fishermen with the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union (UFAWU). He remained an activist in the Union and worked to protect fish habitat until he died in 1977. The Foundation was set up by members of the UFAWU in 1981 to continue his legacy.

The Foundation is committed not only to protecting the fish and their habitat, but the fish harvesters and their communities. Their vision is “a future of abundant, sustainable fisheries and healthy ecosystems that support thriving coastal communities in BC”. Many of those communities, of course, are First Nations communities, with generations of experience in managing and harvesting the ocean’s bounty.

In a presentation to Conversations for a One Planet region in February 2019, Jim McIsaac, the Executive Director of the Foundation noted “Fisheries are arguably the most sustainable food source on our planet – we don’t have to water or feed them, weed or till the soil, add fertilizer or pesticides, we just have to harvest sustainably”. And wild fish, the Foundation points out on its website, “is local, sustainable, and healthy food”. But oddly “this is often overlooked in the creation of fisheries and food policy, in marine governance processes, and in environmental activism”.

Along with Ecotrust Canada and others, the Foundation is one of the key players in the Fisheries for Communities network, which brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous fish harvesters, small businesses, fishmongers, chefs, restaurateurs, fishing families, community organizations and citizens. Collectively, the website states, they have “grown tired and frustrated watching the many social, cultural, and economic benefits of our fisheries increasingly flowing to outside investors and large scale global corporations at the cost of local fishing families and communities”.

According to a 2018 report by the Foundation and Ecotrust Canada, this is the result of “a conscious policy choice to corporatize and consolidate  . . . (which) has concentrated econom­ic gains in the hands of a few investors” – and they don’t even need to be in the fishing business. The federal policy, the report says, is the antithesis of factors found in the world’s most successful fisheries, including requiring that licences or quotas be held by owner-operators; preventing processing or non-fishing companies from owning licences or quotas; not allowing the leasing, trading or sale of quota to non-harvesters, and managing the fishery with harvesters (who must be members of a cooperative or fish harvester organization) and their community.

The neglect of BC’s coastal fishing communities is not confined to the federal government, although it is the principal player. In speaking with The National Observer, Jim McIsaac noted  “The pre-election Stronger BC report didn’t mention fisheries, seafood, ocean, marine or coastal. It could have been written for Saskatchewan. Very surprising for a coastal province.” 

So if like me you think we need a vibrant and sustainable local fishery and that it should priorise providing healthy wild seafood for local consumption, you may want to check out and support the work of the T.Buck Suzuki Foundation and the Fisheries for Communities network.

© 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

Our forests are more than mere resources

Our forests are more than mere resources

Dr. Trevor Hancock

13 October 2020

701 words

Last week I explored how poorly governments of all stripes have been, at all levels, in protecting nature – and thus in protecting us. British Columbia is renowned for its forests, Pacific coast and mountains and is often portrayed as a resource-rich province. So one of the tests of any government, you would think, is how well it stewards those resources.

On that basis, every government the province has ever had, as well as every government Canada has ever had (since to some extent the jurisdiction over these resources is shared), has been a miserable failure, if not a downright disaster. In general, they are more interested in protecting industry and the current economic system than in protecting nature and people. This week and next I will explore two examples that exemplify that failure in BC: The management of our forests and our fisheries.

In July 2019 the BC government appointed a 2-person panel to do a strategic review of the management of BC’s old-growth forests. Their report – sent to the Minister on April 30th but only released September 11th – is damning. They note that an Old Growth Strategy was published by the Ministry of Forests in 1992, but that “many critical aspects of the strategy laid out in that report were either discarded or only partly implemented”.

As a result of those repeated failures, the panel reported, we now face three key challenges, the first of which is the “high risk to loss of biodiversity in many ecosystems”. Forest values, they remind us, “go far beyond just the trees, as forests also contain other plants, insects and animals, many of which require old forest to survive”. Yet they note projections that show “almost all of the province will be in high biodiversity risk once our current management approach harvests most of the available old forest”.

While the panel notes that ‘old growth’ is officially defined in BC “by the age of trees in a forest using specific thresholds (often over 250 years on the coast and 140 years in the Interior)”, that is a timber management definition they did not adopt. Instead, they note that in their discussions with stakeholders “a common description was that old growth is original forest in its natural state, not altered by human activity”. And of course, for many, ‘old growth’ means big trees.

These are important distinctions. Based on its forest management definition, the Ministry says that 23 percent of BC’s forests are old trees. But as the panel states, “old does not necessarily mean big trees”, noting that “as much as 80 percent of the area of old forests consists of relatively small trees growing on lower productivity sites, such as Black Spruce bogs in the North” – forests that are “not likely to be extensively logged in the foreseeable future”.

Large tree old-growth forest ecosystems, “sites with the potential to grow very large trees cover less than 3 percent of the province”, says an independent report released by the Sierra Club of BC in April. But those sites have been intensively harvested, so these ecosystems “are almost extinguished and will not recover from logging”.  And, added the Sierra Club, of what remains “most are on the chopping block” as “every day more than 500 soccer fields of old-growth forest are clearcut in BC”.

The Strategic review panel recommends a shift from a timber-based focus with ecological health as a constraint” to “an ecologically-based focus with timber as one of many benefits”. To accomplish this they recommend the province “Declare the conservation and management of ecosystem health and biodiversity of British Columbia’s forests as an overarching priority”. They also recommend the province “defer development in old forests where ecosystems are at very high and near-term risk of irreversible biodiversity loss”.  

But while the Sierra Club welcomed the panel’s report, especially its recommendation to defer development, the Club notes “the B.C. Government has not committed to implementing nor funding the Panel’s recommendations and . . . only identified 9 areas for immediate deferral”.

It is shameful that it has come to this point, as successive governments have failed to adequately protect our forests. The next government must commit to fully implementing and funding the panel’s report.

© 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

In failing nature, governments fail us

Dr. Trevor Hancock

7 October 2020

700 words

There is a wonderful scene in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance that brings to mind our governments’ approach to protecting nature. The pompous police sergeant and his timid and fearful constables are marching up and down declaring they are off to fight the pirates. But as an exasperated Major General bursts out “Yes, but you don’t go!”

Too often, governments say “We’re going to act, we’re going to act” – but then they don’t act! For all their protestations, they still treat nature as if it were a collection of resources put there for us to exploit, rather than the vital underpinnings of our health and wellbeing, indeed our very existence, as well as that of all the other species with which we share the Earth.

The vital importance of nature for health is recognised by the World Health Organization in its recent “Manifesto for a healthy and green COVID-19 recovery”. The first of its six ‘prescriptions’ is to “protect and preserve the source of human health: Nature”. But two important global reports at the end of September make it abundantly clear we are failing to do so.

The first was Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, published by the UN’s Montreal-based Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The report is blunt: “Biodiversity is declining at an unprecedented rate, and the pressures driving this decline are intensifying. None of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be fully met”.

The second is the bi-annual Living Planet Report, published by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). The WWF’s Living Planet Index monitors the abundance of almost 21,000 populations of 4,392 vertbrate species. Between 1970 and 2016 it declined worldwide by a profoundly disturbing 68 percent – and an horrific 94 percent in central and south America. And this was the status 4 years ago, I shudder to think what it is today.

So it was good news that on the eve of the UN’s Summit on Biodiversity last month, leaders from 76 countries – including Justin Trudeau – signed the WWF’s Leaders’ Pledge for Nature. There are fine words in the Pledge, beginning with this: “We are in a state of planetary emergency: the interdependent crises of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and climate change – driven in large part by unsustainable production and consumption – require urgent and immediate global action”.

The Pledge includes ten commitments by which countries “will achieve the vision of Living in Harmony with Nature by 2050” Moreover, alone among the world’s ten largest countries, Canada has committed to WWF’s “30 by 30” High Ambition Coalition to “raise the government’s already announced intention to protect 25 per cent of Canada’s lands and waters by 2025 to now reach 30 per cent protected areas by 2030”.

Which sounds impressive, but it is actions that count, not words. So while WWF Canada’s separately published Living Planet Report Canada 2020 shows an overall increase of 6 percent since 1970 for the 883 native vertebrate species it monitors, that is not the case for species assessed as at risk of extinction. The populations of these species, which include all animals (so invertebrates are counted) and plants, “have plunged by an average of 59 per cent and species assessed as globally at risk have seen their Canadian populations fall by an average of 42 per cent” – and again, this is only to 2016.

The situation in BC is also grim. In an August 2020 article in The Narwhal, Susan Cox reported: “Almost 1,340 species are now on B.C.’s red and blue lists of species at risk of extinction. Another 1,037 species meet the provincial status requirements for red and blue listings but have not yet been added”.

But worryingly there is no Species at Risk Act (SARA) in BC, in spite of Auditor-General reports in 1993 and 2013 pointing out the problems. Moreover, Cox stated: “Although the governing NDP made an election promise to enact endangered species legislation — a pledge upheld in Premier John Horgan’s mandate letter for Environment Minister George Heyman — it subsequently reneged on its commitment”.

In failing to bring in SARA, and more generally to protect nature, BC’s governments, including this one, have repeatedly failed us. Remember that when you vote on October 24th.

© 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

Counting down the Climate Clock

Counting down the Climate Clock

Dr. Trevor Hancock

29 September 2020

700 words

Climate Clocks are now appearing around the world in cities such as Berlin, New York and Oslo. Based on data from Germany’s Mercator Institute, they display two numbers: One counts down “how long it will take, at current rates of emissions, to burn through our “carbon budget” — the amount of CO2 that can still be released into the atmosphere while limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” The second number tracks growth in the share of global energy supplies that come from renewable energy.

Bear with me, there are plenty of numbers here, but they are vitally important and in essence quite simple, with profound implications for our climate and energy policies, and I have not seen the implications for Canada presented as I do here.

The concept of the carbon budget comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In its October 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, the IPCC found “the atmosphere can absorb . . . no more than 420 gigatonnes (Gt or billion tonnes) of CO2 if we are to stay below the 1.5°C threshold”, and about 1,170 Gt to stay below the 2°C threshold.

But that was from the end of 2017, almost three years ago. When I checked the Mercator Institute’s Climate Clock on September 27th, the allowable global emissions are down to 305 Gt for the 1.5°C threshold and 1,055 Gt for 2°C, giving us just 7 years 3 months and 25 years 1 month respectively at current rates of burning.

Canada is just one-200th of the global population, which means our fair share of the global carbon budget is about 1.5 and 5.25 Gt if we want to stay below 1.50C  or 20C warming respectively. The Canadian Government reports that “Canada’s total GHG emissions in 2018 were 729 megatonnes [0.73 Gt] of carbon dioxide equivalent”. Although this includes non-CO2 emissions such as methane and nitrous oxides, 80 percent of this – 587 megatonnes – is carbon dioxide itself.

At current rates, to stay below 1.50C warming, we have only 2.6 years before exceeding our fair share of CO2 emissions (and 2.1 years if we include all GHG emissions), while we have 9 years (or 7.2 years with all GHG emissions) to stay below 20C warming. The only way we can keep on as we are is if we continue to take way more than our fair share of the global carbon budget.

So forget all the cosy words from politicians of almost all stripes (but not those with green stripes) about how well we are doing and why we should embrace fracking and coal exports for LNG in BC and the tarsands in Alberta. This is a climate emergency and we are on course for disaster unless we rapidly phase out fossil fuels.

Which is why the global Countdown initiative is so important, especially here in Canada. Countdown is “a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis, turning ideas into action. The goal: To build a better future by cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030”. Specifically it is counting down to the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), to be held in Edinburgh in October 2021.

Led by TED (the folks who bring you Ted Talks) and Future Stewards, with Christiana Figueres and Tom Carnac, the architects of the Paris Climate Agreement, playing a leading role, Countdown launches with a large global TED event on Saturday October 10th. You will hear from a wide range of global leaders about what a healthy, abundant, zero-emission future can look like.

In the week following the launch, there will be a series of Countdown TED events around the world to highlight local action. One of those will be here in BC, organised by BC Drawdown, the BC ‘chapter’ of Project Drawdown, which has identified “the 80 most substantive, existing solutions to address climate change, as well as 20 coming solutions”. Here in Victoria, Creatively United is a key partner along with Conversations for a One Planet Region in presenting local leaders and stories. will feature an online preview on Wed., Oct. 7th, from 11- noon, prior to the BC Countdown event, 7-9 pm Wednesday, Oct. 14th.

© 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

Social, not ecological factors control our population

Social, not ecological factors control our population

Dr. Trevor Hancock

23 September 2020

699 words

In his 2016 book “The Serengeti Rules”, Sean Carroll tells us Charles Elton, the 1920s pioneering ecologist, identified four factors that  control animal numbers: predators, pathogens, parasites and food supply. Two weeks ago I likened these to the Bible’s four horsemen of the apocalypse.

Elton’s regulators are very effective. In one astonishing passage, Carroll notes that if a single E. Coli bacterium were to double every 20 minutes – the rate found in optimum conditions – it would take only two days for the weight of E.Coli to exceed the weight of the Earth – yes, just two days! Clearly, and happily for us, that does not happen, nor does it happen for all the other species – including us.

In the case of vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles), it seems humans are the chief cause of population reduction. Through a combination of habitat destruction, hunting or other interventions, deliberate or otherwise, we have reduced the Living Planet Index (a count of thousands of vertebrate populations around the world) by 60 percent between1970 and 2016 (the latest data available).

At the same time, we have vastly increased some vertebrates – our herds of livestock. Oxford University’s ‘Our World in Data’ reports there were almost 4 times as many pigs and goats in 2014 as there were in 1950 and more than twice as many cattle. But the 1.5 billion cattle and around 1 billion each of sheep, goats and pigs were dwarfed by the 21.4 billion chickens. Clearly, we have controlled the four horsemen for these animals, although of course we end up eating many of them.

At the same time, we have also controlled the four horsemen for ourselves. Our own population has roughly tripled, from 2.5 billion in 1950  to 7.4 billion in 2016; we are not suffering the same fate as most of our fellow vertebrates. In my previous column I explored the first three ‘horsemen’ and suggested that unless there is a major plague like the Black Death, they were unlikely to control the human population today. So how effective will be the last of Elton’s four ‘horsemen’ – food supply – in controlling the human population?

So far, food supply has more than kept pace with population growth. A 2019 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that there has been more than a 30 percent increase in the amount of food per person since 1961. But in spite of this, “an estimated 821 million people are currently undernourished”, while “2 billion adults are overweight or obese”. Clearly, we have a distribution problem, not a supply problem. But will we continue to have enough food for all? Well, it depends on whom you ask and how far out you look.

The latest 10-year outlook from the OECD and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, looking out to 2029, expects food production will grow 1.4 percent annually, outpacing growth in demand, and food commodity prices will drop. This in spite of a growth in global population and growing demand for animal products in middle-income countries. The latter is offset by “a transition from animal-based protein towards alternative sources” in high-income countries, something the new Canada Food Guide supports.

But looking further out, the 2019 IPCC report has high confidence that by 2050 climate change will result in up to a 29 percent increase in cereal prices, up to “183 million additional people at risk of hunger” and growing food system disruptions.

Even so, this does not seem likely to put a major dent in human population growth. While world population continues to increase – the UN projects it will reach 11 billion in 2100 – the rate of increase has dropped “from 2.2% per year 50 years ago to 1.05% per year”, reports Max Roser in ‘Our World in Data’. Roser notes “The three major reasons are the empowerment of women (increasing access to education and increasing labour market participation), declining child mortality, and a rising cost of bringing up children (to which the decline of child labor contributed)”.

So for humans today, it is not natural factors that control our population. Instead, it seems, social factors are at work; we are limiting our population ourselves.

© 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

And still the sheep look up

And still the sheep look up

Dr. Trevor Hancock

15 September 2020

701 words

Contemplating an orange-red noon-day sun almost obscured by the smoke clouds roiling in from America, burning to the south, brought vividly to mind The Sheep Look Up by British author John Brunner, an eerily prescient science fiction novel I read almost 50 years ago. (As I no longer can find my copy, I had to turn to Wikipedia for a refresher; fortunately it has a long and quite thorough summary.)

The ending is chilling. America has descended into environmental, social and economic chaos. And over in Ireland a woman, seeing the clouds of smoke, suggests to a visitor that they call the fire department. They would have a long way to go, he replies, “it’s from America. The wind’s blowing that way”.

The book ends with these lines from John Milton’s poem Lycidas: “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, But swollen with wind and the rank mist they draw, Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread.” Brunner’s sheep, like Milton’s, are the poor, neglected by those in power and condemned to starve. But I also think an element of indifference is implied here as well as helplessness– the sheep look up, but it is not their problem – they just want to get fed, the rest does not concern them.

Well before we get to that point, Brunner – writing 50 years ago – has come uncannily close to describing current politics in America. For example, the Wikipedia entry summarises, “The right wing government is indifferent to these problems. The President, known as Prexy, can only offer snappy quotes in response to various disasters. When poisonings and famine become rampant, the government scapegoats Honduran communist rebels and puts the country under martial law. They resort to violence and oppression to silence their critics.” And there is much more in this vein.

So here are the Americans, living out many elements of John Brunner’s dystopian future. But the fires are what grab our attention right now. What is going on there? Why is America burning? In brief – climate change and, underlying that, good old-fashioned American thirst for economic growth, as well as neglect of poverty and racism; the perfect storm that Brunner foresaw, and one to which we are not immune here in Canada.

Climate change is the most prominent factor, and speaking about the massive fires in California this past week Governor Newsom is clear: “The debate is over, around climate change . . . This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening.” What’s more, it’s happening a lot more quickly and severely than was foreseen only a few years ago.“In the last few weeks alone,” said Governor Newsome, “we’ve experienced the hottest August ever . . . arguably the hottest temperature ever worldwide, record-breaking temperature in Los Angeles”

But underlying climate change are two other key factors: Fire suppression largely to preserve valuable timber, but increasingly to protect communities as  – the second factor – people have increasingly moved into the wildland-urban interface, butting up against forests, scrub and grasslands. And underlying all that is the single-minded pursuit of short-term gain while ignoring long-term pain.

“By grazing livestock, logging the trees for timber and systematically fighting fires before they can run their course”, wrote BBC Earth reporter Claire Asher in 2016, “humans have changed the structure of the ecosystem and encouraged a build-up of forest-floor vegetation”. Then along comes climate change, which heats and dries out the air, the land and the vegetation and – bingo!

Secondly, the New York Times reported in November 2018 that “there were 12.7 million more houses and 25 million more people living in the [wildland-urban interface] zone in 2010 than in 1990” in the USA, including around one million in California. Moreover, when they burn down, they are for the most part rebuilt in the same place.

 “Crime and racial and civil unrest is growing”, wrote Brunner. “ Travel abroad is discouraged because of terrorist attacks on planes . . . The number of poor people is growing while the shrinking number of the wealthy enclose themselves in walled communities guarded by armed mercenaries.” Oh, and “and infectious disease is rampant”. And still the sheep look up, hoping for salvation.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

The four horsemen of ecology

The four horsemen of ecology

Dr. Trevor Hancock

9 September 2020

702 words

According to the Book of Revelations in the New Testament the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are conquest, war, famine and death, while in the Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel they are sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence or plague. (Sometimes, apparently, conquest is interpreted as pestilence or plague.)

But whatever we call them, they are remarkably close to what we might call the four horsemen of ecology, which regulate population size in nature. In his 2016 book “The Serengeti Rules”, Sean Carroll discusses the work of the pioneering ecologist Charles Elton in the 1920s. In thinking about how animal numbers are regulated to avoid over-population, “Elton suggested that, in general, increases in numbers were held in check by predators, pathogens, parasites and food supply”.

We, of course, are animals, and we are suffering a population explosion, just as lemmings and other species do. But like other animals, we are held in check – or will be – by the same four horsemen of ecology – and some others of our own making, as I will discuss next week. So let’s see how Elton’s four ecological horsemen are working out for humans on Earth today. Why are we not controlled, and what might control us?

The first control is predators, and in “The Serengeti Rules” Sean Carroll  writes: “Kill the predators and the prey run amok”. But we humans are apex predators, there is very little that preys on us, if by ‘predator’ we mean animals that hunt us to eat us. Our main predators are crocodiles (about a thousand deaths a year, according to the online World Atlas), lions (about 100), tigers and other big cats, and occasionally wolves, some sharks (about 10 each annually), and a few other species such as bears.

Animals that kill us somewhat incidentally (they are not preying on us, just protecting themselves) are much more dangerous; snakes kill about 50,000 people each year, scorpions about 3,000. Dogs are not human predators, but are important incidental killers, because in some parts of the world where rabies is widespread they bite and infect us, killing an estimated 25,000 humans annually. But true predators are hardly threats to our numbers today, and anyway – sadly – we have dramatically reduced them. 

The most important large animal that kills humans, however, is us, largely through homicide and war, although we are not truly predators. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in 2014 that almost half a million people died from homicide in 2012, and another 200,000 or so directly from war in 2014, with many more dying because of the hunger and diseases that result from war.

So let’s turn to Elton’s second and third categories of pathogens and parasites. It turns out the most dangerous animals to humans are insects, and top of the list is the mosquito, which WHO reports “causes millions of deaths every year” by spreading malaria (435,000 deaths in 2015) and many other diseases.  Altogether, WHO estimates that vector-borne diseases (chiefly via insects) caused by either parasites, bacteria or viruses kill about 700,000 people  a year, and sicken hundreds of millions more.

But these are diseases that we don’t spread directly to each other, they require an intermediary. So it may be useful to distinguish diseases spread to us by other animals, (which might be considered ‘pestilence’ – diseases spread by pests) from what the Old and New Testaments call ‘plague’, by which I mean the infections we pass on to each other (even though many of them, such as Covid -19, originate in other animals).

‘Plagues’ have been and are the really big killers in the realm of pathogens. The WHO reports that 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018, while 690,000 people died from HIV-related causes in 2019. The annual influenza epidemics cause 290,000 to 650,000 respiratory deaths, while in 2018, there were more than 140,000 measles deaths globally. But nonetheless, it seems unlikely plagues will control our population, unless we get a pandemic as lethal as the Black Death.

So next week I will deal with the fourth of Elton’s controls – food supply – and the global ecological changes we are creating, as well as the social – rather than ecological – controls we have created for ourselves.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Stop using taxpayers’ money to fund pollution

Stop using taxpayers’ money to fund pollution

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 September 2020

699 words

In May, The World Health Organisation (WHO) released its “Manifesto for a healthy and green COVID-19 recovery”. It is in many ways an astonishing document, because it speaks briefly and plainly to the many global problems we face and how we need to respond. But perhaps the most astonishing and heartening part is the last of its six-point prescription: “Stop using taxpayers money to fund pollution”, by which is meant “subsidizing the fossil fuels that are driving climate change and causing air pollution”

Globally, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports, fossil fuel subsidies vary widely each year, largely based on the price of fossil fuels, reaching a peak of almost US440 billion in 2018, which was “more than double the estimated subsidies to renewables”.

In 2019 they were almost US$320 billion, with the decline “related in large part to lower average fuel prices over the course of the year”. In 2020, because of the economic impact of Covid on prices, they may fall as low as US$180 billion.

In 2019 the largest component of direct subsidies were to the oil industry (USD 150 billion), followed by electricity (USD 115 billion), natural gas (USD 50 billion) and coal (USD 2.5 billion). As a result, noted the IEA, “consumers receiving these subsidies paid on average around 85% of the competitive market reference prices for the energy products concerned”.

However, these are only direct costs. What gets overlooked – deliberately, one has to assume, since it is so obvious – are the “costs generated by health and other impacts from such pollution”. These amount to indirect or hidden subsidies, since the fossil fuel industry – like so many industries – does not carry the cost of the health, environmental and social impacts of their activities.

These costs are enormous: The WHO states: “Including the damage to health and the environment that [fossil fuels] cause brings the real value of the subsidy to over US$5 trillion per year”. The $5 trillion estimate (which amounts to about 6 percent of global GDP) comes from the International Monetary Fund. In fact, the IMF finds, “under-charging for domestic air pollution (accounted) for about half of the total subsidy and global warming about a quarter”.

These and other indirect or hidden subsidies are not reflected in the price. If they were, the IMF reported “Efficient fossil fuel pricing in 2015 would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28 percent and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46 percent, and increased government revenue by 3.8 percent of GDP”.

Canada is not innocent of these outrageous fossil fuel subsidies. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) in Winnipeg, federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry were at least $600 million in 2019, but that “does not include tax provisions, subsidies for the Trans Mountain project, or subsidies resulting from credit support to fossil fuel producers”. Nor does it include provincial subsidies, which “also account for billions each year and, on the whole, outpace federal subsidies”.

An August 12th article in the National Observer by Barry Saxifrage & Chris Hatchused the Energy Policy Tracker developed by the IISD and its partners to examine Canada’s fossil fuel subsidies. They found that “Canada has committed nearly ten times the G20 average per capita — for a total of $12 billion so far this year in new fossil fuel support”.  They also point out that Canadian governments have only committed one-tenth as much to supporting clean energy.

Small wonder we are on track to miss not only the ambitious 1.50 C target for global warming but the 20C target of the Paris Accords. Clearly governments everywhere are either not truly understanding the situation or – since that seems unlikely – ignoring it. In doing so, they are ignoring the suffering of millions of people exposed to air pollution, and the millions more that will be harmed by climate change in the coming decades.

Clearly there is an urgent need for full cost accounting and pricing, both for the fossil fuels industry and for all other health–damaging industries. And if we are going to subsidise energy at all, let’s switch all the subsidies to clean and renewable energy and conservation, rather than continuing to pay for pollution.

© 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