Achieving high human potential is true prosperity

3 February 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

Last week I suggested that true prosperity is doughnut-shaped, but I did not define what I mean by ‘true prosperity’, nor what Doughnut Economics means for this region. I will explore the first of these topics this week and the second next week.

One understanding of true prosperity can be found in many faiths, where it is not primarily about material wealth but about mental, social and spiritual wealth. For example, Paramhansa Yogananda, the first Indian yoga master to live and teach permanently in the West, wrote in 1939 that true prosperity is “being able to supply your mental and spiritual needs, as well as the physical”, and that it involves having “at your command the things that are necessary for your existence”.

The things that are necessary for your existence are the basic human needs of clean air and water, shelter, sufficient food that is safe and nutritious, education, good basic health care, an adequate income to ensure these and a safe and supportive community. These and other ‘social determinants of health’ are what Kate Raworth means by the social foundation in her model of Doughnut Economics.

In the mid-20th century the social psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs: First people must satisfy such basic physiological needs as hunger, thirst and bodily comforts (being warm and dry, for example), then ensure their safety and security. The third and fourth sets of needs are a sense of acceptance, belonging and being loved, followed by a sense of self-esteem – feeling competent, gaining respect and recognition.

But beyond these foundational needs, Maslow suggested that people have a need for what he called self-actualisation. There are several aspects to this, including being knowledgeable and curious, having an appreciation of beauty, finding self-fulfillment and realizing one’s potential, and finally what he called transcendence – helping others to achieve their own self-actualisation.

These concepts are very much how I understand health, as indeed does the World Health Organisation: “A state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing” (to which some would add spiritual wellbeing), or the achievement by everyone of the highest human potential of which they are capable. Clearly, while it takes a certain amount of wealth to ensure the social foundation, it is not necessary to accumulate vast amounts of ‘stuff’, of bling, to achieve this state, as it is largely non-material.

But the other key element of Raworth’s Doughnut model is the ecological ceiling. We cannot meet human needs for all in ways that undermine the ecological systems that are the ultimate determinants of our health.  As the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey in England puts it: “Our guiding vision for sustainable prosperity is one in which people everywhere have the capability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological and resource constraints of a finite planet”.

Those constraints are very real and increasingly apparent. We see it in the changing climate and the decaying oceans, in the depletion of key resources and the pollution of ecosystems and food chains, and in the loss of natural habitat and the extinction of species. Already we exceed the planet’s limits, and yet we have more people wanting more stuff and an economic system demanding more growth.

Which of course takes us to Gandhi, who said “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Or as Herman Daly, one of the key thinkers in the area of ecological economics, puts it in his foreword to the 2017 book Enough Is Enough: “Enough should be the central concept in economics. Enough means ‘sufficient for a good life’” And he added “this raises the perennial philosophical question, ‘What is a good life?’” – a question I have tried to answer above.

So what would it mean to redesign our economy and society to ensure human flourishing for all within the ecological and resource constraints of the Earth? That is the question that the Green New Deal and similar proposals for a sustainable, just and healthy post-Covid recovery seek to answer. It is the central question of our time, including right here in the Greater Victoria Region, and the topic for next week.

© 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.

True prosperity is doughnut-shaped

Dr Trevor Hancock

26 January  2021

701 words

It will come as no surprise to fans of the British satirical fantasy writer Tom Holt that economics has something to do with doughnuts. In his YouSpace series, a doughnut is the wormhole to an alternate reality, a parallel universe inhabited by elves, goblins, gnomes, dwarves and other fairytale characters who are ripe for exploitation.

In The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice, for example, entrepreneurs discover they can outsource work to these folks and pay them next to nothing, buy property very cheaply and generally make a pile of money on the backs of the powerless and economically uninformed. Sound familiar?

But back here in the real world (where economics can seem just as mystical, magical and nonsensical as over there), we have our own very different version: Doughnut Economics. What’s more, it is being applied locally, in Nanaimo – so why not here?

The concept is the brainchild of Kate Raworth, who describes herself as a ‘renegade economist’. With a Masters in Economics for Development from Oxford, she spent a couple of decades working in international development, including 10 years as a Senior Researcher at Oxfam.

However, as she comments in a recent interview with Time Magazine, she was frustrated by conventional economics, which “emerged from an era in which humanity saw itself as separated from the web of life” and harm to that web of life is seen as an ‘externality’, something she calls the “ultimate absurdity”. In reality, as she realised from a 2010 report on planetary boundaries, we are exceeding what she calls the environmental ceiling

But she also knew from her work in development that a certain level of economic activity is need to ensure basic human needs – shelter, clean water, sanitation, food, education, good basic health care and so on – are met. She calls this the social foundation.

So she drew two circles and thus the Doughnut was born. Inside the inner circle is the social foundation, and that circle has to be large enough to meet everyone’s basic needs. The outer circle defines the environmental ceiling; exceeding that puts us into an unsustainable ecological overshoot.

Between the two – in the body of the doughnut – is what she calls the “sweet spot”; an economy which is neither too big (as it is in high-income countries) nor too small, as it is in low-income countries. This is an economy fit for the 21st century, one that will “meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet”.

While originally published in a 2012 paper, the concept really took off when her book was published in 2017. Now a Senior Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, she has created the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) to turn “Doughnut Economics from a radical idea into transformative action”. 

One of the five core themes for DEAL’s work is ‘Cities and Places’, and in 2019 DEAL collaborated with the C40, a network of 97 of the world’s largest cities  that is focused on climate action, and Circle Economy to launch the Thriving Cities Initiative and apply the Doughnut Economics framework at a city level.

The process begins with a single core question that is essentially the same as the focus of our One Planet Region work: “How can our city be a home to thriving people, in a thriving place, whilst respecting the wellbeing of all people, and the health of the whole planet”? This is explored in more detail in four areas – social and ecological requirements at the local and global scale – and results in the creation of a ‘City Portrait’ that “invites a city to create and pursue a more holistic vision of what it means to thrive”.

The City of Amsterdam has really taken this on, adopting the Doughnut Economy framework as the basis for its post-Covid recovery, Meanwhile closer to home, on 14th December 2020 the City of Nanaimo adopted the framework as “a cohesive vision for all city initiatives and planning processes”, the first Canadian city to do so.

So next week, I will explore in more depth what this might mean for this region and what we can learn from Amsterdam, Nanaimo and other cities that are starting to adopt this approach.

© 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.

The Great Reconnect – to people and to nature

18 January 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

701 words

Thirty-five years ago I co-authored with Len Duhl the foundational paper for the World Health Organisation’s new Healthy Cities project. In it we identified 11 key factors that contribute to the health and wellbeing of people who live in cities and other communities.

One of those factors is “Access to a wide variety of experiences and resources with the possibility of multiple contacts, interaction and communication”. Fast-forward 35 years and we find isolation and loneliness have become a significant social and health problem, even before the Covid pandemic made the creation of these important connections much more difficult.

So I was happy to be involved in an online event put on recently by the City of Victoria’s Neighbourhood Team. They showed ‘The Great Disconnect’, a one-hour documentary made by Tamer Soliman, an Ottawa-based health practitioner, and released in 2018. I was one of the experts featured in the film, which I am happy to say recently won the ‘Best Feature’ Award at the Better Cities Film Festival. The City invited Tamer, his partner Sarah (who was the writer and editor) and me to discuss the film after it was shown.

The film is about loneliness – which has been described as being as harmful to health as smoking –  and the importance of connections. The film’s website asks “is it possible to overcome our modern culture of disconnectedness and rediscover how truly essential we are to one other?”.  In the discussion that followed the film I suggested that after Covid we need the Great Reconnect, and suggested a couple of ways we might do that; I am sure many readers will have their own ideas – we need them all.

My first thought was to organise street or block parties all over the region as soon as we are able to, to bring neighbours together. It probably can’t be done on a single day, but a series of events over a few weekends would do the trick. It seems most municipalities have a permitting system for block parties, which requires getting permission weeks in advance – so plan ahead. Some municipalities offer Block Party kits to help you plan the event; Esquimalt even has an Event Trailer, available to rent, that includes tables and chairs, a tent shelter, barricades, traffic cones, signage for the road closure and games to encourage participation. They also encourage you to make it a ‘green’ event.

My second thought was to organise a human chain to symbolically link people in neighbourhoods and municipalities throughout the region. While I doubt we could pull it off across the entire region – it’s a long way from Deep Cove to Sooke and beyond! – it could be done in individual municipalities and perhaps across the more urban core municipalities. I did wonder about a world record, but a quick check with the Guinness Book of Records revealed that in 2004 over 5 million people formed a chain over 1,000 km long in Bangladesh (although it was a political protest, so  not quite the same thing).

It also occurred to me that there is another important reconnection we need to make, and that is between people and nature. So maybe we can combine these ideas in events that bring us together to celebrate nature. How about a set of seasonal events to celebrate the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes, which would re-connect us to the cycle of the seasons. Many different cultures have traditions that celebrate the seasons, so we can celebrate in many diverse ways all over the region.

A spring festival around March 21st would roughly coincide with the peak of the cherry blossoms – so a cherry blossom festival. The summer solstice is now Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, so we would not want to compete with or detract from that, but it could be a time to celebrate the land and waters of the region in company with Indigenous people. Then of course the fall equinox could be a harvest festival and the winter solstice could build on the Lights on the Gorge event and similar local events.

Many of you, I am sure, will have other ideas. But whatever we do, let’s reconnect with each other and with 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.

Indigenous people and the stewardship of nature

12 January 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

As noted last week, the 2019 Human Development Report – which was focused on inequalities in the Human Development Index (HDI) – did not look at an inequality that is particularly important in Canada: The HDI of Indigenous people. Happily, Indigenous Services Canada has done this, at the request of the Assembly of First Nations – although only for “Registered Indians”, which misses Inuit and Métis people. 

Shockingly, the report notes that while Canada ranked 12th on the HDI internationally in 2016, the Registered Indian population as a whole would have ranked 52nd out of 189 countries (the same as Bulgaria, Montenegro and Romania that year), while the on-reserve population ranked 78th, the same as Grenada and about the same as Thailand, Brazil or Colombia. 

So it is more than a bit ironic that in his December 2nd 2020 speech on the state of the planet, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres discussed the important role of Indigenous people in protecting nature and helping us move towards a healthy, just and sustainable future.

He noted that “Indigenous peoples make up less than 6 per cent of the world’s population yet are stewards of 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity on land”. Moreover “we know that nature managed by indigenous peoples is declining less rapidly than elsewhere”, even though their land “is among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation”. We need, he said to “heed their voices, reward their knowledge and respect their rights”.

His words were in part inspired, it seems, by the 2020 Human Development Report, which focuses on the Anthropocene and discusses the important contribution of Indigenous people to achieving sustainable development. A section in the report on Indigenous peoples as shapers and defenders of nature, for example, refers to their contributions through agroforestry, protection of coastal ecosystems and sustainable land use management.But the report also addresses issues of the rights of Indigenous people, including their right to land, and the importance of Indigenous knowledge about land management and our relationship with nature.

Indigenous knowledge, which Mr. Guterres noted has been “distilled over millennia of close and direct contact with nature”, is receiving increasing attention. It is also emphasized in the 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (the ecosystems equivalent of the better known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and recognized in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which was recently passed into law in BC.

Here in BC we are learning from First Nations about clam gardens and other marine management practices, while there is growing interest in learning how Indigenous people in the Americas used fire in managing their lands.  More broadly, the 2020 HDR emphasises that “indigenous peoples’ knowledge systems reflect sophisticated governance practices that advance human wellbeing while maintaining bi­ocultural diversity”.

But perhaps the most important thing to learn from Indigenous people is to be found in an entire section of the 2020 HDR devoted to instilling a sense of stewardship of nature. “Recognizing our humanity as part of a larger net­work of connections that include all living things”, the report notes, is an important part of many philosophical and religious traditions. For many Indigenous peoples, it adds, “wellbeing and devel­opment begin where our lives with each other and with the natural environment meet”.

For me, this was beautifully summed up in “Waiora: The Indigenous Peoples’ Statement for Planetary Health and Sustainable Development”, which resulted from a global conference on health promotion held in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2019. Strongly influenced by Maori traditions (‘Waiora’ being a Maori word for health that is derived from the words for water and life), the statement noted:

“Core features of Indigenous worldviews are the interactive relationship between spiritual and material realms, intergenerational and collective orientations, that Mother Earth is a living being – a ‘person’ with whom we have special relationships that are a foundation for identity, and the interconnectedness and interdependence between all that exists, which locates humanity as part of Mother Earth’s ecosystems alongside our relations in the natural world.”

This is the worldview we need if we are to achieve high levels of human development while remaining within the Earth’s ecological limits.

© 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.

Human development as if the planet mattered

(Published as ‘Canada’s heavy ecological footprint hurts its human-development ranking’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 January 2021

699 words

Last week I quoted from the December 2nd speech by Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, on the state of the planet. It made for grim reading, but it is the reality we need to face. But Mr Guterres did not end on a pessimistic note; instead he pointed to many indications of opportunity and hope. He concluded: “We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth. Instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path. . . . Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world – and with each other”.

One recent UN report helps us chart this new course, in part by addressing one of the challenges Mr. Guterres noted: “More and more people are recognizing the limits of conventional yardsticks such as Gross Domestic Product, in which environmentally damaging activities count as economic positives”.

The UN Development Programs’s Human Development Report began in 1990 “precisely as a counterpoint to myopic definitions of development”, as the 2020 report puts it. Specifically it offers the Human Development Index (HDI) as an alternative to the GDP, one grounded in human rather than economic development, reminding us that “economic growth is more means than end”. Human de­velopment, says the 2020 report, “is about empowering people to identify and pursue their own paths for a meaningful life, one anchored in expanding freedoms.”

The HDI has 3 main components: education, health and income per person. The first two represent basic capabilities that are key to people enjoying a high level of human development, while the income component is intended to reflect “command over resources to enjoy a decent standard of living” by acquiring other key requirements such as shelter and food.

The income component of the HDI has been particularly problematic from a sustainable development perspective.  Having more income is very important in low-income countries, where a bit more income can ‘buy’ a lot more human development, both at a personal level and in terms of the country being able to afford universal education and basic health care and meet other basic needs. But that is not the case in high income countries, where having more income not only may not increase human development much but – because they have high ecological footprints – may actually harm human development by increasing ecological harm.

Over time the HDI has been revised to include measurements of inequality and gender disparity, and indeed the 2019 report focused on inequalities in the HDI.  Troublingly, perhaps because it is focused on nation states, the report did not look at an inequality that is particularly important in Canada: The HDI of Indigenous people. This – and the important role of Indigenous people in protecting nature around the world – are issues I will return to in my next column.

But I want to focus on the 2020 Human Development Report, entitled “Human development and the Anthropocene”. Not only are we “destabilizing the planetary systems we rely on for survival”, the report notes, but the combination of social strains due to inequality and the strain on our planet “reinforce each other, amplifying the challenges”.

For the first time, the HDI is adjusted for ‘planetary pressures’ – the impact that countries make on Earth’s biocapacity and resources. Specifically, the Index is adjusted to take into account both a country’s carbon emissions and ‘material footprint’ per person, the latter reflecting the use of materials (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metal ores) for domestic consumption. 

So where is Canada on this scale? Well, in 2019 we ranked 16th in the world for the HDI. But once our HDI is adjusted for the planetary pressures we create, it declines 22 percent and we fall to 56th place, which is a poor performance compared to most of the 66 countries in the ‘Very high HDI’ group. While a bit better than the USA and quite a bit better than Australia, we are way behind the countries of Western Europe, which with New Zealand occupy the top ten positions.

The challenge we face is to become a ‘One Planet country’, with a high HDI and a low ecological footprint – and 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

“Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century” – UN Secretary General

29 December 2020

Dr Trevor Hancock

697 words

(Published as ‘To heal the planet, we need to embrace solutions that are already here’)

On 2nd December 2020 the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, gave an important if somewhat overlooked speech on “The State of the Planet” at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum. Mr Guterres was blunt: “To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken”, he said; “humanity is waging war on nature” – and that “is suicidal”.

It’s worth quoting in full the litany of problems he laid out, because this is THE challenge we face throughout the 21st century, and especially in the 2020s: “Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes. Deserts are spreading. Wetlands are being lost. Every year, we lose 10 million hectares of forests. Oceans are overfished — and choking with plastic waste. The carbon dioxide they absorb is acidifying the seas. Coral reefs are bleached and dying. Air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually – more than six times the current toll of the pandemic. And with people and livestock encroaching further into animal habitats and disrupting wild spaces, we could see more viruses and other disease-causing agents jump from animals to humans.”

Mr. Guterres then turned his attention specifically to climate change, noting “two new authoritative reports from the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme [that] spell out how close we are to climate catastrophe. . . . The past decade was the hottest in human history. Ocean heat is at record levels. . . . Arctic sea ice in October was the lowest on record – and now re-freezing has been the slowest on record. Greenland ice has continued its long-term decline, . . . Permafrost is melting and so releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly the new normal. . . . carbon dioxide levels are still at record highs – and rising. . . .  In 2020, the upward trend has continued despite the pandemic. Methane [a potent greenhouse gas] soared even higher – to 260 per cent” of pre-industrial levels.

Today, he added, “we are at 1.2 degrees of warming and already witnessing unprecedented climate extremes and volatility in every region and on every continent.  We are headed for a thundering temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century. The science is crystal clear: to limit temperature rise to 1.5-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent every year between now and 2030. Instead, the world is going in the opposite direction — planning an annual increase of 2 per cent.”

But Mr. Guterres did not give way to despair. Instead he said “Let’s be clear: human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos. But that means human action can help solve it. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.”

Our work must begin with facing the facts and acknowledging the challenges we face. As Mr. Guterres makes clear, this litany of challenges calls for resolve; we must – and we can – turn this around. The good news is that in many cases we have long understood the solutions we need to implement. Indeed, they largely exist already, and in many cases are being applied in some places around the world.

So my resolve in 2021 is to focus as much as I can on the solutions – and not the solutions that are ‘out there’, but the solutions that are right here. Inspired by the McGill University-based project ‘Seeds of Good Anthropocenes’, which documents examples of existing initiatives that hold the potential to shape “a more just, prosperous, and ecologically diverse world”, the Conversations for a One Planet initiative I founded will spend 2021 focusing on the Seed of a One Planet Region to be found right here in the Greater Victoria Region.

We will bring stories of hope and practical application to our monthly Conversations, and we are also planning to create a ‘Seeds Catalogue’ – an online resource that will help people connect to, learn from and be inspired by what I am calling the One Planeteers. Stay tuned. 

© 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.

Is this too much to ask for in 2021?

22 December 2020

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

It’s the time of year when we think about the New Year’s resolutions we will make, and how long it will be before we break them. It is also the time of year when columnists turn to wish lists. So in that noble tradition, here is my list for 2021 and beyond.

First, and very obviously, a wish that might actually come true in 2021: That Covid be over. If the vaccines are as good as promised, and if we can vaccinate around 60 – 70 percent of the population there is a good chance we can return to something like normal.

With any luck we can start to dance again and go to the pub – something very important for the wellbeing of the amazing 70- and 80-year-olds I dance with every week – perform in public and congregate at festivals. But until then, we need to do as Dr. Henry says – be kind, be calm, be careful, be safe.

Second, and following on from the first, I hope Canadians keep on being Canadians. By that I mean being generally low key, polite and compliant with the public health orders that protect us. We seem to have been particularly good at that here on the Island. Let’s keep on apologising to anyone who treads on our foot, and fulfilling the pleasing image that the way you get a hundred Canadians out of the swimming pool is to blow the whistle and ask them to please get out.

We certainly don’t need the kind of anarchic libertarianism we have been seeing in the USA and elsewhere, where ‘give me liberty or give me death’ has become ‘I take the liberty to be maskless, gather in large crowds and travel around, and I give you death’.

My third wish is that we not forget some of the lessons we have learned from Covid – what I call the Covid Reveal. One of those is the one implied by my second wish; there is such a thing as society and community, from which we can take great comfort, and that we have responsibilities and obligations as well as rights. Another thing we have learned is that many of our most essential workers are undervalued, underpaid and have poor job security, issues we need to remedy.

Fourth, in 2021 we need to start the Great Reconnect, a term inspired by the recent showing of the Canadian documentary ‘The Great Disconnect” by the Neighbourhoods section of the City of Victoria. Our awareness of the importance of social connections has been heightened by their absence or weakening due to Covid, so we need to make a conscious attempt to rebuild and strengthen our social connections with each other and with our community.

Fifth, and perhaps most ambitious – but also most important – that we choose the right recovery. And here I have to take issue with my fellow columnist Laurie McFarlane, although he is far from alone in his opinions. In his December 13th column he wrote “we sure as hell can’t afford greening the economy. For a country reliant on the export of resource-based products, that is the equivalent of suicide”. And he went on to say “What we need now is a resolve to get on with rebuilding the economy. Nothing else matters. . . . Just hard, unrelenting work to recover from the worst natural disaster of our time”.

The problem is that pursuing a rapid recovery by bouncing back to what we had before is to create a far larger disaster, one that far from from being natural would be entirely human made – and largely by high-income countries such as Canada. If we don’t ‘green’ the economy – that is, create an economy that lives within the natural limits of the Earth’s ecosystems – then we will be moving inexorably towards the collapse of those vital life support systems. That really would be suicidal. We need what many health, environmental and social justice organisations have called for: A green, healthy and just recovery.

So getting over Covid, keeping on being Canadian, valuing our undervalued workers, reconnecting with our community and each other and choosing the right recovery: Is that too much too ask for in 2021?

© 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.

Tomorrow is Winter Solstice – Happy Solstice!

Dr Trevor Hancock

20 December 2020

(Published as ‘Solstice a chance to reconnect with nature, the cycle of the seasons)

699 words

I recently did a presentation for inVIVO, a fascinating international conference series about human and planetary wellbeing. The organisers asked me to talk about the importance of connections, based on a column I wrote earlier this year.

So I talked about how connected we all are through our DNA to each other and all forms of life; through the very atoms we breathe, eat and drink to all the other plants and animals, going back millions of years, who incorporated those same atoms in their own bodies, and how those atoms also connect us to the stars in which they were created – we truly are star stuff. 

I also talked about how we are part of and wholly dependent upon a global living system that both the Ancient Greeks and  – 2,000 years later – the planetary scientist James Lovelock called Gaia; other cultures have their own names for what Indigenous people all over the world call Mother Earth. And I stressed how much we have become disconnected from nature (and from each other, but that is another story, for another column), and how important it is to re-establish a strong sense of connection to nature, to other living things and to our Mother Earth.

Which brings me to the Winter Solstice, which this year in the northern hemisphere is at 2.02 AM tomorrow – Monday December 21st (of course, it’s Summer Solstice at the same time in the southern hemisphere). But how many people even recognise this, never mind celebrate it? Yet it used to be an enormously important event for our ancestors all over the world – and for  many it still is.

It is one of the important ways we can connect – or re-connect – to nature and to the great cycle of seasons and the Earth’s passage around the sun. It marks the turning point of the year, when the nights stop getting shorter and the days start getting longer. And at a time when food would be getting scarce and it seemed winter would never end, it held out the promise of the warmer, sweeter days of spring and summer, of fertile animals and crops, of the coming of the light and the birth of a new year. So our ancestors celebrated with food and drink, with song and dance and plays, and above all with lights to welcome the new year.

Of course, many faiths have incorporated the winter solstice in their own festivals of light and birth or re-birth – Hannukah, Christmas, Diwali and many others. But I think we need to mark and celebrate the Winter Solstice itself, not in some disguised form but for what it is and what it represents. Which is why I give or return seasonal greetings with “Happy Solstice”. The initial response is often a combination of surprise and then ‘Oh, yes’ as it sinks in.

But I do more than that to recognise Solstice. There is an old English tradition called the Mummers Play which takes place around midwinter. While every village had its own version of the play and there are strong elements of pantomime, at the heart of every play is a fight, a death and then a quack doctor who brings the victim back to life: It is really about the death of the old year and the birth of the new.

We have performed our own Mummers Play locally for a number of years and one place we do it is the annual Lights on the Gorge, a small local event to mark the Solstice. So while we can’t put it on in public this year, I am making several brief online apppearances , including at the online Lights on the Gorge this afternoon. But I believe we need a much larger event – or series of events – across the region to mark and celebrate both the Winter and Summer Solstices, bringing many cultures together to re-forge our connection to nature and the great cycle of the seasons.

I end with some of the words with which I close our Play: “Our purpose is to celebrate the turning of the year, so I wish you joy and happiness, great mirth and great good cheer”. Happy Solstice!

© 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.

The cult of individualism is toxic

Dr. Trevor Hancock

10 December 2020

698 words

I suggested last week that our society is remarkably immature in its approach to life. Central to this is an exaggerated form of individualism that has achieved a cult-like status. With that comes an acquisitive, greedy and selfish culture that really doesn’t care about other people or about nature. Why should I wear a mask, which inconveniences me, just to protect others – they should just protect themselves by staying out of my way! It’s their responsibility, not mine.

These values extend to how we then treat disadvantaged and vulnerable people: They are not my responsibility, so why should we have minimum wages or social support systems that I have to pay for through more expensive goods and services or higher taxes.

Of course, this ignores the fact that people usually get rich by exploiting the poor, the environment or both. Industrialists have fought against unions, preferring to keep their workers low-paid, working part-time, with few or no benefits; the resulting insecurity makes them desperate to hold on to what the British call ‘shit work’.

In recent decades this has also meant shifting jobs to low-wage countries with weaker social, occupational and environmental protections. Buying cheap goods from these companies today is really not very different from buying goods made by slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries – indeed, in some cases their workers are in effect slaves, or work in slave-like conditions.

In addition, the cult of individualism, combined with a cult of greed and instant gratification, leads to a disregard for nature and future generations. I want my stuff, I want it now and I want it cheap. So what if that means the environment is harmed and both current and future generations and other species lack what they need for their survival and quality of life – not my problem!

The modern-day roots of this cult of individualism, selfishness and greed can be traced back to the neoliberal economists and libertarian advocates of the mid-20th century, best personified by Ayn Rand. Her writings on what she called ‘Objectivism’ from the 1940s through the 1970s helped put greed and selfishness on a pedestal; one of her essay collections was titled The Virtue of Selfishness.

All progress, she argued, depended on the rich and successful, and a person’s worth was only to be measured by their income. So taking money from the rich, in the form of taxes, to assist and support disadvantaged people, was an exploitation of the rich and thus wrong.

In a lengthy 2009 essay/book review Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic, summarised Objectivism as “premised on the absolute centrality of logic to all human endeavours. Emotion and taste had no place.” This ideology, he argued, not only glorifies selfishness but “holds people completely responsible for their own success or failure”, which leads to the conclusion that “when government helps the disadvantaged it consequently punishes virtue and rewards sloth”.

This is a fundamentally anti-human and anti-community ideology, dismissing emotion and trust as illogical and unworthy, while compassion for others is weakness. It is also, as I noted above, an anti-nature philosophy which sees nature as simply there to be exploited for the wealth it can create.

This cult of individualism, greed and selfishness is, of course, the ideology underlying neoliberal economics which, as Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, puts it, “has helped to push many societies towards social and ecological collapse”. Thus individualism and neoliberal economics are toxic and unfit for purpose in the 21st century

Sometimes, faced with the selfishness and greed that are part and parcel of the cult of individualism, you just want to say “Grow up and accept responsibility”. But it is hard to be responsible in a culture, society and economy that so often shows that it does not care, that short term gain is worth someone else’s long-term pain.

It is time we grew up as a society, discarded rampant individualism and neoliberal economics and accepted reponsibility for each other, other species and the Earth itself. We need a new, more mature, ecologically and socially aware and responsible ideology to guide society if we are to successfully make the transition to becoming a One Planet Region.

© 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.

Education for life: Creating a more mature society in the 21st century

2 December 2020

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

Last week I ended with a reference to the concepts of ‘bildung’ and ‘folk-bildung’. For those interested in how we evolve our culture to a more mature one, better suited to live in a socially just way within the limits of the one small planet that is our home, these interesting concepts are worth pursuing.

In exploring the German concept of bildung and the Danish – and more broadly Nordic – experience of folk-bildung I am indebted to a lengthy 2018 overview by Jonathan Reams of the 2017 book The Nordic Secret by Lene Andersen and Tomas Björkman. They trace the roots of the concept of bildung back to the Enlightenment in the 18th century, and to a small group of intellectuals that included Goethe.

A key point was when Wilhelm von Humboldt undertook a complete reform of the Prussian education system in 1809. Andersen and Björkman tell us that it was based on the principle that education “must be personal development, moral development and a deep engagement with the academic endeavors. It must be a path to finding one’s true personality. . .”.

These ideas were later picked up in Denmark by  Nikolaj Grundtvig, a pastor, teacher and politician who, Reams tells us, wrote in 1836 about the need for ‘education for life’, by which he meant “a school where the peasants of Danish society can be ‘bilded’ or shaped into responsible citizens who can participate in and contribute to the betterment of their society”. His ideas were taken up and implemented by Christen Kold in the 1860s, who founded the ‘folk high schools’ – a 19th century cross between a community college and adult education.

These ideas then spread to Norway and Sweden, and both Reams and the authors of the Nordic Secret believe it is the implementation of these ideas of folk bildung – “the intentional cultivation of moral, emotional and cognitive development” and of “a sense of responsibility towards self and society” – that were key to the success of the Nordic countries in the 20th century. That success, Reams suggests, is founded on three “key principles evident in Nordic society; humanism, trust and responsibility”.

And how is this relevant today, and here? Well, we are at a transition point not all that different from the scale and significance of the transition “from poor agricultural to rich industrialized countries” that the Nordic countries successful achieved. Our transition, however, has to be from a rich and materialistic but often unjust consumer society to one that is more ecologically and socially responsible, more mature in its relationships with the Earth and with other people, what we and others call a One Planet society.

This transition requires the development of new core values to drive our societal and personal decision-making, as well as the knowledge and skills needed to live a socially just One Planet way of life. We think one way to successfully navigate this transition, beyond the Conversations we currently organise on what it means to be a One Planet region, will be to create a 21st century version of ‘folk bildung’ and ‘folk high schools’ here in this region.

This is in accord with a column by George Monbiot in The Guardian a year ago in which he wrote of the need for “the reclamation of a culture of public learning” and the restoration of  “a rich public culture of intellectual self-improvement”. This will mean re-acquiring “the habit of rigorous learning in adulthood” that we have lost.

Monbiot points to the workers education movement of the early to mid-20th century as an example. Inspired by the UK model set up in 1903, the Workers Education Asssociation of Canada was set up in Toronto in 1917, and while now much reduced, until the advent of community colleges in the 1960s was the primary provider of adult education in Canada, according to its website.

Now we cannot simply take the 19th century concepts of bildung and folk high schools, or 20th century models of worker education, or even the small modern folk school movement in North America and apply them today. But the social transformation we need will require something along those lines; what would a 21st century version of this look like?

© 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.