At last – a Wellbeing Budget

At last – a Wellbeing Budget

Published as ‘New Zealand leads the way by focusing on quality of life’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

5 June 2019

701 words

One of the central themes in my columns, and in my academic and professional writing and presentations, is that as a society we have got our priorities wrong. We have focused on economic growth and increase in material wealth rather than on increased human and social development and the quality of life. So it is heartening to see that at least one government is making the shift to these broader objectives.

Don’t get too excited – it’s not happening here in Canada, more’s the pity. But in New Zealand, they have a different outlook. On May 30th the New Zealand Government delivered what is surely the world’s first Wellbeing Budget. But what exactly is a Wellbeing Budget and what makes it different?

In her Budget message Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern commented “while economic growth is important – and something we will continue to pursue – it alone does not guarantee improvements to our living standards”. She went on to note “Nor does it measure the quality of economic activity or take into account who benefits and who is left out or left behind”.

So here we have a government that understands that not all growth is good, and even more important, that the purpose of the economy is not simply to grow, but to improve our living standards, without leaving people out or leaving them behind.

According to Grant Robertson, the Minister of Finance, the approach the government is taking “signals a new approach to how government works, by placing the wellbeing of New Zealanders at the heart of what we do”. Instead of focusing on “a limited set of economic data”, with success defined by “a narrow range of indicators, like GDP growth”, this new approach measures success in line with New Zealanders’ values – “fairness, the protection of the environment, the strength of our communities”.

To do so, the government has built on 30 years of work in New Zealand and internationally to create a Living Standards Framework that considers “the intergenerational wellbeing impacts of policies and proposals”. Importantly, it recognizes four forms of capital – natural, human, social and the combination of financial and physical capital.

These are then linked to twelve domains of wellbeing that include civic engagement, cultural identity, safety and security and subjective wellbeing. These are similar to the domains in the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, which was initiated by the Atkinson Foundation in 1999 and has been housed at the University of Waterloo since 2010. But to my knowledge, regrettably, no federal or provincial government has yet adopted it.

The Wellbeing Budget “focuses on five priority areas where evidence tells us there are the greatest opportunities to make real differences to the lives of New Zealanders”: Support mental wellbeing, especially for those under 24; improve child wellbeing and reduce child poverty; increase incomes, skills and opportunities for Maori and Pacific Islanders; support a thriving digital age economy, and create opportunities for organisations and communities to transition to a sustainable and low-emissions economy.

Just as interesting as the Budget is the process used to create it. Rather than the usual silo’ed approach, where each Ministry just considers its own issues and concerns, “Ministers had to show how their bids would achieve the wellbeing priorities”. Cabinet Committees then worked to create collaborative approaches across Ministries, supporting collective approaches to the Wellbeing priorities.

New Zealand is very similar in many ways to BC – nearly 5 million people, a resource-rich country with a long coast line, a significant and increasingly assertive Indigenous population and a British colonial history. But it also has a history of democratic innovation; in 1867 it created four Parliamentary seats for Maori and in 1893 it became the first country in the world to give women – including Maori women – the right to vote in Parliamentary elections.

It is also noteworthy that New Zealand has had proportional representation since 1996, which resulted in no party having a clear majority in the 2017 election; as a result, the government that introduced the Wellbeing Budget is a Coalition led by the Labour party. Clearly Coalition governments can take bold initiatives.

If they can do it in New Zealand, there is no reason why we cannot have a Wellbeing Budget in BC.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019


This is what hope looks like

This is what hope looks like

(Published as ‘Green New Deal a pact for the future’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

28 May 2019

702 words

A remarkable event happened in Victoria ten days ago. At short notice some 300 people crowded into the gym of the Fernwood Community Centre to discuss the Green New Deal (which I wrote about in my 30 December 2018 column). They came from all walks of life: Indigenous leaders, farmers from Sooke, social justice activists, high school student leaders of the climate strikes, local clean energy pioneers, retired government lawyers, urban development experts, union leaders, local politicians and many others.

Inspired by the Green New Deal proposal in the USA and Le Pacte in Quebec, the Pact for a Green New Deal for Canada “rests on two fundamental principles: 1. It must meet the demands of Indigenous knowledge and science and cut Canada’s [carbon dioxide] emissions in half in 11 years while protecting cultural and biological diversity, and 2. It must leave no one behind and build a better present and future for all of us” (see

Nationally, as of 5th May 2019, the Pact is endorsed by some 70 organizations from different sectors across the country – with at least 9 in BC, including the Union of BC Indian Chiefs – and many individuals, a high proportion of whom, interestingly, are leading musicians and actors.

The Victoria event was put together by a group of remarkable young leaders, mostly in their twenties, and it filled me with hope in these challenging times. The local sponsoring organisations included Rise and Resist, the Social Environmental Alliance, Canadian Union of Postal Workers 850, First Metropolitan United Church, Rethinking Economics Victoria and the Women’s March – Victoria Chapter.

Even more remarkable, this is one of some 200 public meetings taking place across Canada between late May and late June, all put together in just a couple of months. In this region alone there are townhalls planned or already taken place in Brentwood Bay, Surrey, Coquitlam, Nanaimo, Burnaby, Vancouver, New Westminster and Ganges.

The Green New Deal addresses both the need for what, many years ago, I called ecological sanity and also the need for social justice. Thus the Pact notes: “Many of us are struggling to find an affordable place to live, or a decent job to support our families. Hate crimes and racism are on the rise. And promises to Indigenous peoples have yet to be implemented.” And it goes on to say “We need an ambitious plan to deal with multiple crises at the same time.”

This is one of the keys to understanding our present situation; we must recognise both that these ecological and social crises are happening simultaneously and that they are interlinked. We have lost our sense of connection to nature, rooted in Indigenous and long-neglected European and other systems of knowledge and belief. As a result we treat the Earth as separate from us, something to be exploited to meet people’s needs and make them rich, regardless of the consequences.

But as William Leiss noted in his 1972 book The Domination of Nature: “If the idea of domination of nature has any meaning at all, it is that by such means . . . some men attempt to dominate and control other men (sic)”. The underlying values of acquisitiveness, enrichment, greed and domination that lead to ecological insanity also lead to social injustice. We cannot solve one without solving the other. This is what the Green New Deal recognises and seeks to address.

It is hard to tell where this will go, it’s all very new – although there are some clear parallels to the Green Party’s approach. The Party’s recent successes in the Nanaimo by-election, in PEI – where the Greens form the Official Opposition, and – last week – in the European elections, suggest the mainstream parties should be concerned. People – especially young people – do not believe these mainstream parties either understand the problems nor have the solutions. This is clear when one considers the ongoing support for further expanding fossil fuel exploitation from the federal Liberals and Conservatives, the NDP in BC and Conservative governments in many provinces.

So stay tuned. The next local meeting of the Green New Deal will be Wednesday June 19, 6.30 PM, at the First Metropolitan United Church, 932 Balmoral Road in Victoria.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

Why is boxing still not banned?

Why is boxing still not banned?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

20 May 2019

702 words

Well at least WBC Heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder is honest – brutally honest, in fact. In an interview on TSN on May 15th he states “This is the only sport where you can kill a man and get paid for it at the same time . . . It’s legal”. If he had stopped there, that would have been bad enough, but he went on to say “I am still trying to get me a body on my record”, which clearly takes him from being a candid observer of and participant in a brutal activity to being a man hoping to commit murder.

According to a list available on Wikipedia there have been 21 deaths in the 21st century (up to 5th November 2018), including 2 Canadians, both in Canada in 2017. In fact, there are more deaths than the list shows; in researching this column I came across two deaths in Australia in 2015 that were not included, so there may be more.

On top of that are the deaths from the newly emerged and equally nasty mixed martial arts (MMA). A Wikipedia article states “there have been seven recorded deaths resulting from sanctioned contests and nine from unregulated bouts” between 2001, when MMA was sanctioned in New Jersey and Nevada and April 2019, – so 16 in all. Altogether, then, about 2 deaths a year across boxing and MMA.

But boxing also causes significant brain injuries that do not result in death. According to a website about health research funding maintained by the National Health Council in the USA, 90 percent of boxers will experience at least one brain injury during their career, 15-40 percent of ex-boxers at any given time have been found to have symptoms of chronic brain injury, 17 percent of retired professional boxers exhibit chronic traumatic brain injury symptoms and up to 20 percent of professional boxers develop neuropsychiatric symptoms.

Additionally, a study by researchers at the University of Toronto published in 2014 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found about one third of MMA bouts led to “match-ending head trauma”.

We need to remember that unlike sporting or other activities in which people are injured or killed unintentionally, boxing’s “basic intent is to produce bodily harm by specifically targeting the head”, as the World Medical Association’s 1983 Statement on Boxing puts it. The Statement, re-confirmed in 2005 and 2017, calls for a ban on boxing, a call taken up by many national medical associations, including the Canadian Medical Association, which re-confirmed its opinion in 2001.

We should be clear; boxing and MMA are actually aggravated assault, and can on occasion become manslaughter. So why do we allow this brutal activity – I won‘t call it a sport, it is no more a sport than were the Roman gladiators – to continue?

First, let’s not blame the victims. As Simon Barnes, chief sports writer at the Times, put it in the Spectator in April 2016, “across history, boxers have been expendable. It’s always been easy to sell the spectacle of two fine athletes inflicting potentially lethal damage on each other. It’s the people who pay and the people who profit who must carry the responsibility for what happens to boxers.”

Troublingly, there is a very disturbed bunch of people out there who glorify violence and take pleasure in watching two people try to beat each other unconscious, with perhaps the added thrill of seeing one of them batter the other to death. They are no better than the Roman mob baying for blood in the arenas.

Equally troubling are the media companies that broadcast this disgusting spectacle, and the companies that sponsor it either directly or by buying advertising. But appeals to stop this sickening activity have fallen on deaf ears for years. Perhaps it is time to try a couple of new approaches.

First, we should insist that our legislatures pass laws to make it clear that there are no exceptions to the rule of law – aggravated assault is aggravated assault, while intending to ‘get me a body’ is intention to commit murder. Second, we should learn from other campaigns against companies that behave badly and institute a boycott of all companies that support boxing and MMA.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019


Why don’t governments care about public health?

Why don’t governments care about public health?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 May 2019

697 words

Once upon a time there was a small town at the base of a set of cliffs. People visited the cliffs to enjoy the view, but the cliffs were dangerous and from time to time people would fall from them. This became such a big problem that the town decided to build a trauma centre to treat the victims. But they were all so busy looking after the victims, and it was so expensive, they never had enough time or money to build a fence at the top of the cliffs to stop people falling.

Sadly, this parable reflects the state of thinking about public health in governments across Canada. The most recent and egregious example is Ontario, where the Doug Ford government has announced in the same breath a $200 million annual cut to public health budgets and a $2.7 billion annual increase in hospital spending. In effect, they are demolishing the fence while growing the trauma centre.

But Premier Ford is not alone in his short-sighted and narrow view of public health. He is just the latest of a string of political leaders who have taken an axe to public health in the last few years. In 2015, for example, Quebec instituted a one third cut to regional public health services resulting in a $24 million reduction in budget and a loss of public health expertise, while in 2017 New Brunswick dismembered the Office of the Provincial Health Officer (PHO), having previously fired its PHO without cause.

This Canada-wide phenomenon is a triumph of short-term thinking – there are votes to be had in increasing health care spending – over long-term investment in prevention, creating long-term pain for short-term gain. Investing in public health – and in a range of upstream social, environmental and economic improvements – would reduce not only costs but, more importantly, premature deaths and much unnecessary pain and suffering.

So why don’t governments care about or choose to invest in public health? There are several factors at play, one of which may be that public health does not generate headlines, whereas dramatic life-saving interventions do. When public health is effective, nothing happens; nobody writes headlines about the hundreds of cancers that did not happen, only about the latest hi-tech drug or intervention that reduced the death rate from cancer.

Then there is the fact that public health is not simply about biomedical interventions at the individual level, but about the environmental, social and economic conditions that shape people’s health. This leads some politicians, especially those more wedded to an individualistic and neo-liberal ideology, to criticize public health for not ‘staying in its lane’ – that lane, often being seen as concerned only with infectious disease control. But the reality is that while infectious diseases remain a public concern the major killers are chronic diseases, many of which are caused at least to some extent by large industries, and can be worsened by public policies.

That may be another factor in the political disdain for public health, because in doing its job of preventing disease, injury and premature deaths, public health finds itself opposing some of the country’s major corporations – the tobacco, alcohol, fast food, fossil fuel and other industries that are also important political party funders and supporters.

Public health doesn’t just oppose industries that make money by harming health, it also critiques public policies that harm health, which doubtless irritates governments too. Yet we know that poverty, hunger, homelessness and a range of other social conditions worsen health and that public policy can either improve or worsen the health of the public, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

More recently, given the growing recognition of the potentially massive health impacts of climate change, public health has been active in opposing the expansion of the fossil fuel industry and has intervened in support of the federal carbon tax in provincial lawsuits opposing it.

But governments need to understand both the role of public health in society and the public good that can flow from an effective and well-funded public health sector. Funding the expansion of health care while cutting public health is a triumph of ideology over common sense and the public interest.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019


Move from denial to protest to building better mousetraps

Move from denial to protest to building better mousetraps

Dr. Trevor Hancock

29 April 2019

702 words

“Stop denying our Earth is dying” read a poster held by a young woman taking part in a protest by the Extinction Rebellion group outside the BBC headquarters in London recently. Young people can see what is coming, and they are becoming mad as hell and are not going to take it any more! Greta Thunberg, the remarkable young Swedish woman who routinely talks sense to the world’s leaders, has ignited a series of protests over climate change by young people all over the world.

Here in Victoria we have not only seen high school, college and university students organizing ‘climate strikes’, but Extinction Rebellion taking to the streets to protest against the banks that invest in industries that harm the Earth and undermine the future for young people.

Young people are right to be mad as hell because while the planet as a whole is not literally dying, significant parts of the biosphere are. We are losing coral reefs, forests, insects and many species of vertebrates at an alarming rate. In fact we have triggered a sixth, human-induced ‘Great Extinction’ of species and we are changing key natural Earth systems – our life support systems – in ways that threaten the wellbeing of myriad species, including ourselves.

But while the evidence is clear – and increasing on an almost daily basis – much of our political and corporate leadership in BC, Canada and around the world is in denial. It was to them that this young woman’s appeal was directed. Troublingly, significant segments of the electorate are also in denial, and are being whipped up by ‘the Resistance’; Conservative leaders in Canada and around the world and their fossil fuel and other corporate allies who do very well out of the present arrangements and don’t want to see the system changed.

Unlike the older generation that currently make decisions affecting the future, young people have a real stake in that future; after all, they will be there, whereas my generation will not. In fact, arguably, they – not the generation now in power – should be making decisions that will have an impact on their future; they should certainly be fully, meaningfully and consistently engaged in making those decisions.

But young people can see, I think, that what we face – climate change and more – changes everything, as Naomi Klein’s book title noted a few years ago. And if everything has to change – our values, the economy, our social arrangements, our whole way of life – then there are not only great challenges ahead, but great opportunities.

So they are not only protesting, they are taking action. One obvious way is in what they eat; there is a growing shift towards a more vegetarian and even vegan diet. Then there is the sharing economy, with not only cars but much else being shared. A couple of months ago I spoke at a forum on co-living organized by the Firelight Initiative, a group of young women interested in exploring alternative, healthier and more sustainable ways of living.

These days, when I talk to audiences about the global ecological crisis and its health impacts, I make a point of also talking about the exciting opportunities I see ahead, especially for young people. When everything has to change, we are going to need not just scientific and technological inventors and innovators, but social, cultural and economic inventors and innovators.

While we are still going to need activists who can take it to the streets and keep the movement alive, we need spiritual leaders and philosophers who can help reset our moral compasses and artists who can get the message out in ways that transform our culture. And we need the new breed of green and social entrepreneurs who will re-make the economy, doing well while doing good.

Perhaps the most effective way to counter denial is simply to show that there is an alternative, it works and it’s better than what we have now; build a better mousetrap, in other words. In the years ahead, we need to encourage and support young people in re-inventing our communities and societies, and in building that better mousetrap, be it for healthy and sustainable food, housing, transportation or other goods and services.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019





Time to think beyond the next election

Time to think beyond the next election

Dr. Trevor Hancock

24 April 2019

701 words

The BBC has started a project called BBC Future “which aims to stand back from the daily news cycle . . . (and) explore what really matters in the broader arc of human history and what it means for our descendants”. The first article is by the managing editor, Richard Fisher. Prompted by the realisation that his daughter, born in 2013, could well be alive in 2100, he explores the challenge posed by our short-term thinking, suggesting that ‘short-termism’ is “civilisation’s greatest threat”

Such thinking is problematic when we face what may be described as a long, slow crisis. While the massive human-induced global ecological changes we face – climate change, resource depletion, ocean acidification, pollution and species extinction – are occurring rapidly in geological and ecological terms, they are slow in human terms.

Which is presumably what led Andrew Wheeler, Administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency, to state recently that “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out”. On that basis – and no doubt influenced by his background as a coal industry lobbyist (talk about the fox guarding the hen coop) – he suggested we should focus on the issues currently killing people, such as a lack of safe, clean water supply.

Well, at least he got it half correct. Yes, of course we should address the drinking water problem, but there is no reason why we cannot address the issue of climate change as well, we are capable of doing more than one thing at once. Because while the threats from climate change, which at least he acknowledges, may lie far in the future (and even that is not true, effects are being felt today around the world), their cause is in our actions today.

Carbon emissions today will continue to affect the climate for many decades, even centuries into the future. We have already locked in climate change and its health and societal impacts for our children and grandchildren; failing to act now makes it worse for them and extends the impacts into additional generations. So shrugging your shoulders and saying, in effect, ‘not our problem, they will need to deal with it then’, is both scientifically ignorant and ethically unacceptable.

Which brings me to our current crop of political leaders, and particularly what McLean’s dubbed ‘The Resistance’ in their November 2018 cover story. These are national Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer and the conservative premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario, who are opposed to the federal carbon tax, are fighting it in court and have not imposed or have repealed a carbon tax in their provinces.

What part of ‘carbon taxes work to reduce fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions’ do they not get? Why are they fighting against one of the most effective tools we have to reduce global warming, one that if done properly is revenue neutral and socially just. It’s easy and cheap to oppose taxes , but that in itself is a foolish short-term approach, because as US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes noted a century ago, “taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society”.

More importantly, why are they not thinking beyond the next election and considering the future for our children and grandchildren on a rapidly heating planet? Good leaders – those with honour, ethics and a will to serve rather than a will to power – do not encourage and support the electorate in pursuing short-term benefits that constitute long-term folly, nor do they pursue policies that create short-term gain for long-term pain.

What ‘the Resistance’ is really resisting is evidence, common sense, their duty to future generations and an acceptance of responsibility for their wellbeing and that of the Earth itself. Far from being the resistance, they are the obstructors, or perhaps the ecological radicals, content to radically alter our ecosystems for the sake of making money today, while undermining the wellbeing of future generations.

If they are not prepared to think beyond the election, to be true leaders rather than short-term profiteers, they should get out of the way and let others lead who are prepared to do the hard work of creating a healthier, more just and more sustainable future.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019


Neros are fiddling while the planet burns

Neros are fiddling while the planet burns

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 April 2019

701 words

The Roman Emperor Nero famously fiddled while Rome burned. Our current Emperors, the political and corporate elite who run Canada, are imitating Nero – but with far greater consequences. Our children and grandchildren are likely to remember them the way we remember Nero, equally infamous for caring little for their fellow citizens or the place – this time, the whole planet – where they live. If that sounds a little extreme, consider the facts.

While it is true that the planet is not literally burning, parts of it are, the result of climate change resulting mainly from human-created greenhouse gas emissions. We have seen unprecedented forest fires in Western Canada and the USA, Europe and elsewhere. And if it’s not burning, parts of the planet are drying up, overheating, storming, flooding, melting ice and raising sea levels in a way not seen in the 5-6,000 years of recorded human civilisations, and at a scale and rate not previously experienced by humans.

Our elites can’t say they weren’t warned. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been issuing increasingly dire warnings for years. Their 2018 report on the impacts of 1.50C warming above pre-industrial levels (well below the 20C target set out in the Paris Agreement) notes we are likely to reach that amount of warming “between 2030 and 2052 . . . at the current rate”. Then in early April the Canadian government released its own assessment: “Both past and future warming in Canada is, on average, about double the magnitude of global warming . . . Northern Canada . . . will continue to warm at even more than double the global rate”.

The IPCC notes human-induced warming “will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system”, and this will result in increased “climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth”; these risks are even greater at 20C of warming.

But limiting warming to 1.50C – something the Liberal government supported in Paris – “would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems” and – importantly – will require “deep emissions reductions in all sectors”, noted the IPCC. In Canada, Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change, acknowledged that Canadians face “serious risks to our health, security and economy” and that “the science is clear, we need to take action now”.

So how do our modern-day Neros respond to this bad news. They largely ignore it, or mouth the appropriate platitudes and then apply spin while carrying on regardless. Their policies will further boost our already excessive greenhouse gas emissions by expanding the exploitation of dirty oil in Alberta’s tarsands and liquified natural gas (LNG) in BC, Alberta, New Brunswick and elsewhere.

And to do so, they chuck great wads of our cash at the fossil fuel industry. First, the federal government spends billions to buy the Trans Mountain (TM) pipeline so it can expand tarsands oil exports, while putting itself in a conflict of interest as the body tasked with assessing and approving its own pipeline. BC’s NDP government is hardly a paragon of virtue either. While it has been strong in opposing the TM pipeline expansion, it has just combined with the opposition Liberals to bring in billions of dollars in subsidies for LNG. Meanwhile, both the old and the new Alberta governments continue to assert the province’s right to pollute the planet and threaten BC’s lands, rivers and coastal waters, all in the name of profit.

But anyone with half a brain knows that when you are in a hole, the first rule is to stop digging! And in this case that means, for starters, no more support, subsidies or tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry. Instead, those subsidies should be completely dedicated to supporting conservation and clean, renewable energy systems. More dramatically, it means recognising that most of Canada’s coal, oil and gas has to stay in the ground if we are to have any hope of keeping global warming below 20C, never mind the far more ambitious target of 1.50C.

So why are our modern-day Neros still digging, drilling and pumping?

© Trevor Hancock, 2019


‘Anticipatory democracy’ for a healthier future for all

‘Anticipatory democracy’ for a healthier future for all

Dr. Trevor Hancock

9 April 2019

702 words

Last week, I discussed some of the possible and plausible futures we face. This week, I will focus on the importance of thinking about and then working to create the future we prefer, and the need for ‘anticipatory democracy’.

Good thinking about the future begins with the recognition that the future is not fixed, but is ‘plastic’, it can be shaped. So even if we think the future looks grim, that does not mean it will happen; more to the point, it suggests that we can change that future to one we prefer.

Clem Bezold, founder in 1977 of the Institute for Alternative Futures, has spent more than 40 years helping people to think about the future they may face and the future they prefer, and I have been privileged to work with him over the years on health futures. We use scenarios to explore the future of health and health care, and we find the future people think we face and the future they would prefer are often very different.

People tend to think we face a ‘business as usual’ (BaU) future, more of the same but bigger and more high-tech. However, ‘business as usual’ is also beginning to look quite grim, as we witness extraordinary levels of inequality and learn ever more about the emerging global ecological crises of climate change, pollution, resource depletion and species extinctions.

In health care, a BaU future is often seen as more technology, more pills, more machines, but also more impersonal and less caring; such a future is often unappealing not only to the public but to health care providers themselves.

So while people may see such a future as likely it is not necessarily desirable; other alternatives may appear less likely but more desirable and thus preferable. In particular, many tend to prefer scenarios that depict a ‘green’ or transformative future, still high-tech, but using technology in a more humane, and environmentally and socially beneficial way.

To describe a preferable future, we use visioning. Clem Bezold summarises the benefits of visioning succinctly: “Vision is values projected into the future”. Such a future is not about what we think or fear will happen, but what we wish to have happen. In the vision workshops I conduct, I take people through a guided imagery journey through their community at some point in the future when it is healthy.

The images that emerge and the communities they depict are more like the ‘green’/transformative’ scenarios that Clem and I work with. So what does it mean if our minds tell us that the future we face is not all that desirable, while our hearts tell us we want a very different future?


In psychological terms, this is known as cognitive dissonance; our current collective behavior, which is delivering our ‘BaU’ future, is at odds with our values and with our mental map of what we want. Cognitive dissonance can be an important trigger for change. In this case, do we continue to work towards the future we don’t want, or try to move towards the future we prefer?

The Institute for Alternative Futures was established with the encouragement and support of Alvin Toffler, whose 1970 book “Future Shock” popularized futures thinking. One of Toffler’s ideas was what he called ‘anticipatory democracy’ – engaging people in thinking about and choosing the future they prefer in a participatory democratic manner.

One of my former students, Ottilia Berze, has just completed her PhD on foresight at UVic. One of her key findings is that “foresight literacy, communication and education around foresight and the facilitation of a culture of foresight are critical” if we are to meet the challenges of the 21st century. She suggests “developing foresight literacy for school-aged children” and recommends that we “embed foresight literacy into the grade school curriculum nationwide”.

Through their strikes against anthropogenic climate change and other activities, young people are expressing their alarm at the future they fear. Now we need to engage them – and their families and communities – in imagining and working to create a just, healthy and sustainable future for themselves. We need a more participatory and anticipatory democracy so that with foresight we can create the future our young people deserve.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019


We face alternative health futures

We face alternative health futures

Dr Trevor Hancock

2 April 2019

700 words

Last week I referred to Norman Henchey’s categorisation of four sorts of future: Probable, possible, plausible and preferable. This week I explore the latter three, especially in the context of the future of health and the health care system.

But first, an important distinction. Many of those who describe themselves as health futurists are really health care system futurists. They are focused on the future of the health care system, rather than on health itself.

But if you want to think about the future of health, you have to think about much more than just the health care system; you have to think about the future of society as a whole and the state of our environment, since they are what largely determine the health of the population.

In fact, our society also determines what kind of health care system we have, because that system will reflect the values and social norms of the society of which it is a part – not the other way around. So with that in mind, what can we say about the possible, plausible and preferable futures of health and health care?

The possible future encompasses all the things we can imagine happening, which can take it into the realm of science fiction. This is not to disparage science fiction; at its best, it can illuminate our present world and its values, and imagine and test out ideas most of us have never considered.

But the possible can also get pretty wild, both scientifically and socially, which can make it implausible. The transporter beam of Star Trek is a case in point, as perhaps are its instant diagnostic scanners, or the extreme genetic manipulations in the novels of William Gibson or Iain M Banks. I would put the visions of limitless free energy and hopes for instant cures for cancer and other diseases in the implausible zone.

The plausible future is a narrower band within the wide range of possible futures. It can be best explored by the use of scenarios – narratives of alternative futures based on what we know and can reasonably anticipate. In scenarios work, we not only explore the ‘business as usual’ scenario, but a plausible future in which many things go wrong, which can be described as decline or collapse.

This is definitely not a preferable future, and people don’t like to explore it, but if asked, they find it plausible, even quite likely. By exploring such a future we can hopefully both recognise what we need to do to avoid it and/or to cope with and manage it.

Other plausible scenarios include some form of eco-social, economic and to some extent spiritual transformation, a sort of ‘green’ future that sees us move away from the more high-tech ‘business as usual’ or the conditions that lead to decline or collapse. Not surprisingly, such a future, while not necessarily seen as all that plausible or feasible, is often seen as quite healthy and thus desirable, especially when allied with the appropriate use of high-tech.

But embedded within and underlying each scenario are sets of values that guide the scenario, such as the value placed on health and how health is understood in that society – which in turn shapes that future’s health care system. For example, is health just about physical wellbeing and length of life, or mental wellbeing and quality of life, or balance and harmony within society and nature?

In the first option, we might expect a more high-tech, biomedical system, but in the other two, a system more focused on achieving mental wellbeing or ecological wellbeing, while in a decline or collapse scenario we can imagine there would be a quite minimal, survival-oriented health care system, and mainly for the rich and powerful.

But beyond imagining a range of plausible futures we face, the key question is what sort of healthy future we want for our kids and grand-kids. As I said in last week’s column, thinking about the future should help us decide what we do and how we live today. Rather than just adapting to whatever happens, how do we help to shape and create the future we prefer? That will be the topic of next week’s column.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019




Futures thinking can pay off

Futures thinking can pay off

Dr Trevor Hancock

26 March 2019

698 words

I am often accused, not unjustly, of being a ‘doom and gloom’ merchant when it comes to the state of the planet and of our society. While there are good reasons to hold that view, it is not the only way of looking at the future. Part of my professional work has been as a futurist, specifically a health futurist. That is to say, I have worked with people to help them think more effectively and creatively about the future of health and health care.

Futurists often get a bad rap, accused of being too visionary, even dreamy, by some, while others think futurists have done a poor job of predicting the future. Both those views, however, miss the point of good futures thinking.

Many years ago I worked with James Robertson, a British futurist and author of an infuential 1978 book, ‘The Sane Alternative’. In 1984 I brought him to Toronto to speak at a conference I was organising, and one of the things he said captured for me the very essence of good futures work. “Thinking about the future”, he said,”is only useful and interesting if it affects what we do and how we live today”.

So good futures work is very practical, because it helps us make better choices and decisions today that will shape our future. Of course, there is no guarantee that we will do so; witness the litany of failed opportunities over the past 50 years to avoid the environmental crisis that was predicted then and that we now face.

Which points to the other sort of problem; futurists may help us understand and anticipate future events, but there is no guarantee their ideas will be understood, taken to heart and acted upon. Moreover, prediction is a bit of a mug’s game; as another colleague, and one of the world’s leading futurists, Jim Dator, used to say, the probable future is the least likely future.

By that he meant that predicting the future as a form of ‘business as usual’, especially based on past trends and performances, is inherently wrong, because it assumes that things will continue much as they are, when in fact the only thing that is constant is change. The future, as futurists like to remark, is plastic, it can and will be shaped, often in ways we don’t anticipate – witness the way the internet has changed our world.

Moreover, as we have come to understand complex adaptive systems better – systems such as the human body, the economy or the Earth’s natural systems – we have come to understand two important things about them that make prediction hard, if not impossible.

First, within such systems, small changes can perturb the system in ways that result in massive change, the so-called butterfly effect. (The analogy is that the beat of a butterfly’s wings in China today can spawn a tornado days later in America.) The opposite is also true; large changes in input can have little or no effect, as the system adapts to them and smoothes out or absorbs their impacts.

The second realisation is that there can be sudden, non-linear state-shifts in such systems. These systems are dynamic, but stable, though when enough strain builds up, or just the right small nudge occurs and they cross a threshold – which we may not know about in advance – they can shift suddenly to a different state. Some climate models, for example, suggest the Earth’s climate can be stable in its present configuration or two much different states; ‘snowball Earth’ or ‘ice-free Earth’; at present, we are pushing the Earth towards the latter.

All of this suggests that there is no such thing as THE future, but rather we face many different futures. The Canadian futurist Norman Henchey put it well many years ago when he described four categories of future: Probable, possible, plausible and preferable. The probable, as we have already seen, while interesting, may be neither likely nor preferable; the other three are more interesting, and I will describe them next week, particlularly in the context of the future of health and health care, before turning to thinking positively about creating a preferred future in a third column.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019