Coming apart or coming together?

Coming apart or coming together?

(Published as ‘How the U.S. lost touch with its founders’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

27 May 2020

702 words

Several years ago two American economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton – the latter a Nobel Prize winner – made a startling observation; the overall death rate among middle-aged American whites had been increasing in recent years. This ran counter to the general trend of decreasing death rates in America in the 20th century and was opposite to the trend for middle-aged African Americans.

As they dug into the data, they found the increase in deaths was almost entirely found among those without a bachelor’s degree and was mostly due to three factors: suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholic liver disease. They labelled these the ‘deaths of despair’, a label that stuck. Clearly, something was going badly wrong among working class white Americans.

In their new book “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism” they provide an in-depth analysis of these diseases of despair. It is a story, they write, “of lives that have come apart and have lost their structure and significance”. It is a story “of worse jobs with lower wages; of declining marriage; and of declining religion”.

While they recognise there have been changes in values and social norms that have contributed to the breakdown, they focus on the “external forces that have eaten away the foundations that characterised working-class life as it was half a century ago.” These include declining wages – down 13 percent betweeen 1979 and 2017, while increasing overall nationally by 85 percent; low rates of job creation for those without a degree and “worse jobs” – part-time, out-sourced, insecure, with no sense of belonging or pride.

The creation of worse jobs is made possible in part by the low level of unionisation in the USA. The Bureau of Labour Statistics reported 10.3 percent of wage and salary workers were union members in 2019, down from 20.1 percent in 1983. For comparison, OECD data for 2018 show rates for the five Nordic countries highlighted below ranged from 92 percent in Iceland to 49 percent in Norway; it is 26 percent in Canada.

Case and Deaton note, “deterioration in job quality and detachment from the labour force bring miseries over and above the loss of earnings”. For one thing, “men without prospects do not make good marriage partners”. Moreover, they note, communities deteriorate; as wages decline, jobs are lost and businesses close, the revenues needed to provide services such as schools, parks and libraries decline. Add to that “ the loss of meaning, of dignity and of self-respect that come with the loss of marriage and of community” and you have a recipe for disaster.

Behind all this, I think, run two broad themes: The cult of individualism in the USA that downplays the importance of community and the collective, and neo-liberal economics, rooted in individualism and in a cynical disregard for people, prioritising profits and the enriching of the wealthy.

Contrast this with the five Nordic countries, which ranked in the top ten in the World Happiness Report every year since 2013, occupying the top three spots for 3 of the last 4 years. America, in comparison, ranked 18th in 2019. A chapter in the 2020 report is devoted to what makes the Nordic countries exceptional.

In essence, it’s a story of coming together, not coming apart. In general the Nordic countries provide “easy access to relatively generous welfare benefits”, while “the labor market is regulated to avoid employee exploitation”. They also have high quality governments and public institutions, with, in particular, a high quality of democracy, and as a result governments are trusted. Other factors include low levels of inequality, a high sense of autonomy and freedom, and high levels of social trust and cohesion. In short, the Nordic countries have found a recipe for success, and it shows in the fact that on average they have four years more healthy life expectancy than the USA.

America, it seems, has lost touch with the philosophy of one of its founders, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1809 “The care of human life and happiness and not their destruction is the first and only legitimate object of good government.” Creating despair among the poor while enriching the elites is utterly inconsistent with this view. Time for a re-think.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


How to flatten the other curves

How to flatten the other curves

Dr. Trevor Hancock

19 May 2020

701 words

Everyone by now should be familiar with the graph that Dr. Bonnie Henry and others use to explain what ‘flattening the curve’ means in the Covid-19 pandemic. On the left we see a short but high peak of infections, well exceeding the capacity of the health care system to manage it, resulting in the breakdown of the system.

The lower but longer curve going off to the right shows what happens if we manage the pandemic well and spread out the impact of the disease over a longer period of time. We may get as many cases overall – although fewer, ideally – but by spreading out the impact, we can remain within the health care system’s capacity and avoid a crisis.

That same chart can also be applied to the two greatest challenges we face today. The first is an ecologically unsustainable economy and way of life that threatens to overwhelm Earth’s natural systems, leading to their collapse. The second is the obscene levels of inequality we are experiencing, which threatens to lead to social unrest, perhaps even to social collapse.

It was Bill Rees, emeritus professor of human ecology and ecological economics at UBC, who alerted us to the sustainability application of the Covid chart. In an article last month in the Tyee he used his own version of the chart to show how our present way of life might lead to societal and population collapse. The brief high peak represents the rapid increase in our collective impact on the Earth in the past 70 years or so, something that Earth system scientists have called ‘The Great Acceleration’.

As with Covid, this demand far exceeds the system’s capacity – only this time, we are talking about the Earth’s biocapacity. So far, we have only seen the ascending part of this chart. But as with any species that exceeds the carrying capacity of its ecological niche, at some point the curve reaches a peak and starts to decline; we might call it ‘The Great Deccelaration’.

As Earth systems fail and the ‘ecosystem goods and services’ that we depend upon decline, so too will societies and populations; some may even collapse. So we need to transition rapidly to the second curve, flattening our demand to fit within the Earth’s capacity to sustain us – and all other species too.

However, while I have descibed ‘our’ impact on the Earth, that impact is far from equal. High-income countries such as Canda, and rich people everywhere, take far more than our fair share of the Earth’s resources. Meanwhile, low-income countries and people living in poverty – especially in low and middle-income countries – take far less than their fair share. As a result, they lack the wealth needed to meet even their basic needs, which include clean water, sanitation, adequate food, decent shelter, basic education and health care.

Which takes me to the second challenge: Extreme inequality and poverty. I am grateful to my friend Robert Oppenheimer for suggesting that this inequality curve also needs flattening, leading to a more equitable distribution of wealth, power and resources.

The obscene level of inequality is highlighted in the annual Oxfam reports on poverty. Their 2020 report stated “the world’s 2,153 billionaires have more wealth than the 4.6 billion people who make up 60 percent of the planet’s population”.

Moreover, the gap is rapidly increasing, the 2019 report noted: “Billionaire fortunes increased by 12 percent last year – or $2.5 billion a day – while the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity saw their wealth decline by 11 percent”.

In this case, we can think of the ‘Covid curve’ as representing the concentration of wealth among the wealthy on the left of the curve, with very little left over for the vast bulk of people to the right of that peak. Flattening the curve means spreading the wealth out more evenly; a small wealth tax would help do that.

The wonder is that the level of inequality we observe today has not caused more social unrest than it has. Don’t count on that lasting, especially if we also fail to flatten the unsustainability curve. ‘Flattening the curve’ needs to be a key focus for society today.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Making a just transition to ‘One Planet’

Making a just transition to ‘One Planet’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

13 May 2020

701 words

In my last column I discussed the need “to build more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies”, as UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote in an April 28th editorial in the New York Times. Note he links sustainability to inclusiveness – the better world we seek to build, he added, is not “one that is good for only a minority of its citizens”. Because globally and in Canada we face both the massive challenge of rapid human-created changes in global ecological systems and the concurrent, and related challenge of rising inequality.

As Heather Scoffield pointed out in this newspaper on May 12th, “the pandemic economy has shown us how steadfastly the deck is stacked against low-income and precarious workers”. Hourly-paid workers – who generally have low pay, few benefits and not much job security – are now almost two-thirds of the workforce. But while low-wage employment is down 30 percent compared to a year ago, she adds, it is only down 1.3 percent among high wage earners.

This is ironic, because it turns out that many of our most essential workers are among our lowest paid. Recognising this, the federal and provincial governments have given them a pay increase. But if their work is that essential, then the pay raise cannot just be a temporary bonus for the duration of the crisis. Their work does not cease being essential when the crisis has passed.

The more general point here is that we vastly overvalue the worth of some people – e.g. sports and entertainment stars, major corporate leaders – while undervaluing the essential work of cleaners, sanitation workers, care aides and the like. There is a principle in environmental economics that could be adapted and applied here: Full cost accounting.

So what about ‘full value accounting’? We should pay people their true worth to society. At the very least, that would mean that everyone gets not just a minimum wage, which barely keeps your head above water, but a living wage. That should be accompanied by mandating a comprehensive set of pension, sick pay, vacation and other benefits, and an end to ‘McJobs’ that lead to perpetual economic insecurity.

These reforms should be a central plank in the post-Covid recovery plans for the federal and provincial governments, along with a rigorous examination of the concept of a Basic Income for everyone, something we have in effect implemented during the pandemic. This would be simpler and cheaper to administer than the complex set of social support programs we have now, and the evidence from a 1970s trial in Dauphine MB is that it improves health while not replacing the commitment to work.

A second important point is that in making the transition to a ‘One Planet’ society, some sectors of the economy will have to shrink, while others will grow; the transition from fossil fuels to a clean energy system is the most obvious but far from the only example. We know that people working in a whole range of industries will be affected, just as they have been by the pandemic.

Hence the call for a just transition; we need to support workers and industries as they change. In the case of fossil fuels, we should stop all subsidies and tax breaks – amounting to at least $600 million federally in 2019 and $830 million in BC in 2017–2018, according to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development. That money should go to supporting the clean energy sector and the just transition for fossil fuel workers.

So how can we afford all this? Well, Henry Ford recognised that if he did not pay his workers enough to buy his cars, he was not going to sell many. The same principle applies here. Yes, prices will rise if wages rise, but we should pay the full cost of our society, not take a cheap ride on the backs of the poor.

We need to become a more just society, where people earn a fair wage and the rich pay their fair share – which means higher taxes and, especially, a wealth tax. The wealthy can easily afford it, and after all, as has been remarked, ‘taxes are the price we pay for a civilised society’.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020



BC needs a green, just and healthy recovery

BC needs a green, just and healthy recovery

Dr. Trevor Hancock

11 May 2020

701 words

The BC government has done a great job so far in managing the Covid-19 outbreak. Now it needs to do an equally great job in managing the post-Covid-19 recovery. Governments everywhere must use the ‘Covid-pause’ to re-focus their policies and address the other great global crises we face: Global ecological changes – climate change in particular – that threaten the very underpinnings of society, life and health, and obscenely high levels of inequality. (I will address the latter in my next column.)

In a New York Times editorial on April 28th, UN Secretary General António Guterres wrote: “Human conduct is . . . distorting ecosystem processes that regulate our planetary health and control many services that humans depend on”. Scientists are warning us, he added, “we are close to running out of time — approaching a point of no return for human health, which depends on planetary health”.

Guterres urged governments around the world to take up his 6-point plan for re-building their economies, societies and communities after Covid-19. He was clear that “a recovery from the coronavirus crisis must not take us just back to where we were last summer. It is an opportunity to build more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies — a more resilient and prosperous world”.

But the early signs in BC are not encouraging; the approach appears to be focused on returning to business as usual. The Economic Recovery Task Force Premier Horgan announced in early April has an alarmingly narrow base: The Premier and several of his staff, the Ministers and deputy ministers of Finance and of Jobs, Economic Development and Competitiveness, and the deputy Minister of Labour. On the non-governmental side, five conventional business organisations, the BC Federation of Labour, a couple of social service organisations and a national First Nations group focused on major projects.

Nobody from the green/sustainable business or clean energy sectors, no Minister of Environment and Climate Change or of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources. Indeed, Andrew MacLeod, The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria, wrote last week that in a phone call with some leading BC environmental organisations, Premier Horgan said “many British Columbians just want the sense of security that comes with returning to how things were”.

But that is not good enough. The BC government must commit not simply to economic recovery, going back to how things were, but to creating a sustainable, just and healthy society. This includes bringing in a budget focused on Wellbeing, as New Zealand did last year. Additionally, the government should revive the seemingly abandoned task force established as part of the NDP/Green Party Accord to propose alternatives to the GDP for measuring progress.

Another important step would be to add appropriate environmental and population health expertise to the Economic Recovery Task Force, adjusting its mandate, if need be, as part of this broader societal purpose.

Since much of the ecological footprint is due to carbon emissions, we need an economic strategy that moves us swiftly to a low-carbon future. The good news is that the government is apparently committed to making its CleanBC initiative part of the economic recovery, MacLeod reported. But we need more than just a clean energy strategy.

The economic recovery must also focus on reducing our overall footprint, moving us towards being a ‘One Planet’ society. This includes reducing consumption, conserving and recycling all forms of resources; increasing environmental protection and ecological restoration; preventing pollution and strictly implementing the ‘polluter pays’ principle (so no public funding for cleaning up the mess left by the fossil fuel and other sectors) and full-cost accounting of all products and services.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that in the face of a major societal crisis governments can act quickly and decisively and people can rapidly change their values, expectations and way of life. Now we need to apply at least the same level of effort to addressing the much larger societal crisis of our unsustainable ceonomy and way of life. We need to make a just transition not just to a low-carbon future, but a green, just and healthy future. Any economic or other policy change that does not take us in that direction must be rejected.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

The other pandemics: The health costs of business as usual

The other pandemics: The health costs of business as usual

Dr. Trevor Hancock

5 May 2020

701 words

A couple of weeks ago I noted that in addition to Covid-19, other major infectious diseases kill millions of people annually, mostly children, and mostly in low-income countries. But globally, and certainly in high-income countries, infectious diseases are not our major causes of death, disease and injury.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that of the 57 million deaths worldwide in 2016, more than a quarter were due to heart disease and stroke, almost one in six were caused by cancer and one in ten were due to a combination of chronic obstructive lung disease (5 percent) and pneumonia and bronchitis (another 5 percent). The only other infectious diseases in the top 10 killers were diarrhoeal disease and tuberculosis, but dementia, diabetes and road crashes claimed more victims than either.

Moreover, these chronic diseases sicken and disable many more people than they kill, often for years, if not decades, imposing a heavy burden on patients, families, communities and the health care system. So we should think of them as pandemics, which, after all, are simply large epidemics, ones that are found “over a very wide area and usually affecting a large proportion of the population”, according to the Dictionary of Epidemiology.

But as always in public health, we need to look behind the causes of death and look for the causes of the causes. The WHO reports the following factors that contribute to this annual death toll: Tobacco (8 million deaths), outdoor air pollution (4.2 million), indoor air pollution (3.8 million), insufficient physical activity (3.2 million) and alcohol use (3 million).

Meanwhile, the Global Burden of Disease Study (based at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington) reported last year that in 2017 eleven million deaths were attributable to dietary risk factors, including high salt intake (3 million), low intake of whole grains (3 million) and low intake of fruits (2 million).

What distinguishes these chronic disease and injury pandemics, and the risk conditions that lie behind them, is that they are largely caused by our industrial society and way of life. While often called “non-communicable” diseases, that is not exactly the case; many are literally communicated, through deliberate marketing intended to increase sales of unhealthy products. Others are the by-products of our industrial society and way of life, which we have transmitted globally along with its accompanying cultural changes.

So I prefer to call them industrial society disease and injury pandemics. Taken together, their death toll is not far off the worst-case scenario for Covid-19, occurs every single year, and in many cases the toll is increasing.

But these risk conditions have become so much part of our way of life that we barely register them and simply accept or at least tolerate them as the way the world is; the price of growth and progress. However, in reality, while it is largely rich nations and rich people that reap the benefits in higher standards of living, it is the poor nations – and poor people in rich nations – who actually pay the price of our ‘progress’.

That price, ironically, has been partially revealed by the Covid-19 pandemic. By shutting down large parts of the economy and dramatically changing our way of life, we have seen air pollution fall dramatically, and with it we know that pollution-related deaths will have declined.

Meanwhile, Agence France Presse recently reported that both road accidents and related deaths were down about 40 percent in March compared to 2019; similar impacts have been reported in some states in the USA.

So let’s consider the moral equivalency here. Why is it OK to take a massive economic hit to save lives from Covid-19, but not OK to take the much smaller economic hit to save lives from these other pandemics by changing our practices?

Why is it not considered unethical to swiftly re-boot the current death-dealing economy, going back to the bad old ways as fast as possible, knowing full well we will once again increase these deaths, diseases and injuries?

Surely it is a bad idea to address the consequence of one pandemic by worsening the impact of other pandemics? These are key questions we should ask in our post-Covid-19 world.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Social tipping points and virtuous cascades

Social tipping points and virtuous cascades

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 April 2020

700 words

In a December 2019 interview Will Steffen, a leading Earth systems scientist and member of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said “we need to reach a social tipping point, before we reach a planetary one.” By ‘a planetary tipping point’, he was referring in particular to climate change, but more generally to the wide variety of massive and rapid global ecological changes we have created, conveniently referred to as the Anthtropocene.

So what are tipping points and why do they matter? Tipping points are characteristic of complex dynamic systems such as our own bodies, financial markets, societal or climate systems. To paraphrase Timothy Lenton, Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, you can hit a tipping point if you get a positive feedback loop going (e.g. if global heating melts Arctic permafrost which releases methane which further accelerates global heating and away it goes).

Through this amplified feedback, small changes can trigger a big change, sending the system “into a qualitatively different future state”, Lenton writes. This shift from one stable state to another can occur quite suddenly and is known as non-linear change, or a discontinuity. Climate systems, like other Earth systems we depend upon for our lives and our health, can tip into a different state. And like the peak of a pandemic, you don’t know you are at a tipping point until you are past it.

But it’s not just a single tipping point we need to be concerned about. In a 2018 article Steffen and his colleagues identified fifteen different ‘climate tipping elements’ – the Arctic methane example above is one of them – which might then trigger another element to tip. This could result in “a domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures”, pushing it “irreversibly onto a “Hothouse Earth” pathway”, an alternative stable climate system that would be very dangerous for us.

So much for the negative planetary tipping points and cascades in the Earth’s natural systems that are the focus of Steffen’s concern. But he is also pointing to the need to reach social tipping points – changes in our social and economic systems that can prevent us continuing on our present dangerous path. This will require “activating contagious and fast-spreading processes of social and technological change within the next few years”, noted a recent paper on stabilizing Earth’s climate in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The idea of social tipping points has been around since the 1960s, but was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book ‘The Tipping Point’. We can see recent examples of social tipping points in the fairly rapid shift in the 1980s from a smoking to a non-smoking culture, and in this century the quite rapid and widespread acceptance of gay rights and gay marriage after decades, indeed centuries of resistance.

While social tipping points have become a hot topic because of the link to climate change, we face multiple “severe global stresses—environmental, demographic, economic, political, and technological” in the decades to come, according to the newly launched Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. (In the interests of transparency, I am a member of the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board.)

There is a danger that “these stresses will disrupt vital natural systems, cripple economies, deepen social divisions, and ultimately generate widespread violence and societal breakdown”. So the Institute will study these complex social, economic and ecological systems, looking to identify “a series of precisely targeted and timed interventions [that] could plausibly produce a “virtuous cascade” of change”. The Institute’s ambitious goal is “to trigger a fundamental, positive, and rapid change in humanity’s trajectory”.

Headed up by Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon, as Jack Knox reported in his column on Tuesday, the new Cascade Institute puts Canada at the forefront of a fast-breaking global research program that includes major research centres in Potsdam, Germany and Oxford University, as well as Stockholm.

It is my hope that we will be able to apply the learnings from the Institute right here, looking for ways to trigger such positive changes locally as we pursue the urgent work of becoming a One Planet Region, putting not only Royal Roads but the Capital Region on the map.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Trump’s crime against humanity

Trump’s crime against humanity

Dr. Trevor Hancock

20 April 2020

699 words

In cutting funding to the WHO in the midst of a pandemic, Donald Trump may think he is attacking a bunch of faceless bureaucrats in Geneva and WHO’s regional offices around the world. But in reality he is attacking millions of impoverished people in dozens of countries whose health, indeed whose lives depend directly or indirectly on WHO’s expertise and support. Small wonder that Richard Horton, the esteemed editor-in-chief of one of the world’s leading medical journals, The Lancet, described Trump’s actions as “a crime against humanity.

Not only are these people facing the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, but other pandemic infectious diseases that kill, sicken and impoverish millions annually, largely in low-income countries, while dragging down their families, communities and countries. It’s important to pay attention to these other pandemics, because they will still be with us after Covid-19 is gone, unless we focus on controlling and eliminating them – an important part of WHO’s work that Trump is undermining.

Imperial College’s Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, which has been doing the disease modelling for the UK Government, issued a report on March 26th on the likely global health impact of Covid-19. Their best case scenario, assuming a high level of effective suppression (what we are doing now in Canada) is that there will be between 1.85 and 9.3 million deaths before the pandemic is over. The worst case scenario is 40 million deaths, with many of them occurring in lower income countries with much less capacity to deal with it.

To put that in perspective, there are normally about 56 million deaths annually world-wide, so at worst Covid-19 could almost double the usual death rate, at least for a while. But the good news, in a sense, is that this is likely a one-time event, unless the virus mutates to the point that any vaccine becomes partly or completely ineffective – which is unlikely in this sort of virus, we are told.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 1.5 million people, mainly children, die annually from vaccine-preventable disease such as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), influenza and measles. In fact this is World Immunization Week, an opportunity, says the WHO, to focus on the “still nearly 20 million children in the world today who are not getting the vaccines they need”.

In addition, WHO reports that 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018, while malaria caused 405,000 deaths and HIV/AIDS was estimated to result in 770,000 deaths. WHO also reported that diarrhoea – caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses when water supply is contaminated and sanitation is poor – killed around 525,000 children under five in 2017.

Together, these infectious diseases kill almost 5 million people annually, about the middle of the range for the best case scenario for Covid-19. But they do so year in and year out. At their current rate, in the next decade they will kill more than the worst case projected for Covid-19.

All these diseases are largely preventable at relatively low cost. The Global Fund, which “pools the world’s resources to invest in ending AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria as epidemics”, has a budget of just $4 billion a year, while the Global Vaccine Action Plan – endorsed by the 194 Member States of the World Health Assembly in May 2012 – required a mere $40 billion of donor assistance by 2020.

So if we are prepared to reduce our economies significantly for Covid-19, while spending trillions of dollars to support people and businesses, why would we not invest just a small fraction of that amount in preventing these deaths and the associated illness and disability? The economic benefits of increased wellbeing, reduced health and social costs and increased economic activity would more than repay the investment.

When the dust settles on Covid-19, as it will, we need to resolve to take action on these other infectious disease pandemics with at least as much commitment as we are giving to Covid-19. In the long run, we will save far more lives, at a fraction of the cost.

Cutting funding to WHO, endangering all the work this important organisation does to reduce this huge toll, is indeed a crime against humanity.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Roar radically forward, not back to a pathological system

Roar radically forward, not back to a pathological system

Dr. Trevor Hancock

16 April 2020

699 words

In his daily briefing on April 9th, Justin Trudeau said “Our country will come roaring back”. I understand why he might want to reassure people that everything would be fine, that this is just a temporary if large disruption to business-as-usual. But it’s much more than that. The Covid-19 pandemic has been likened to a combination of the Great Depression and a world war, giving a rude shock to our social and economic system.

But it has also laid bare some of the price we and others around the world pay for our way of life. It has given us an opportunity to stop and think – one we should seize. An April 3rd editorial in the Financial Times noted “The leaders who won the [Second World War] did not wait for victory to plan for what would follow . . . That same kind of foresight is needed today. Beyond the public health war, true leaders will mobilise now to win the peace.” What might that post-Covid ‘peace’ look like?

Clearly it should not be ‘back to normal’ if “normal is the pathology”, as Bill Rees, professor emeritus of human ecology and ecological economics at UBC, wrote in The Tyee on April 6th. By this he meant that our present way of life, and the neoliberal economy that supports it, is in many ways pathological. It does a great deal of harm to a great many people and to the Earth, our life support system.

So rather than adopting an approach I call stupid resilience – ‘roaring back’ to a dysfunctional economic system and way of life –we need smart resilience, ‘roaring forward’ to something very different. We need to transition to a system that repairs the social and ecological harm the current system creates.

The same editorial in the Financial Times suggests ways to repair the social harm that some may find surprising, coming from a source that is hardly a bastion of radical anti-establishment thought. The editorial board wrote:

“Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.”

In calling for radical reforms that reverse the policy directions of the past 40 years, they are in effect saying ‘toss neoliberalism on the scrap heap of history’. They suggest instead new directions that are actually not all that radical, but in many respects a return to policies from the mid-20th century. This would include a larger and more activist government, a fairer tax system, an end to part-time ‘McJobs’ and much enhanced economic and social security.

Undoing ecological harm was not addressed in their approach, but it has to be the second arm of this radical reform. Fortunately, we have a model in the concept of the Green New Deal. Indeed Peter Julian, the NDP MP for New Westminster-Burnaby, tabled a motion in the House of Commons in December calling on the House to support a Green New Deal for Canada. It envisages investing in Canada’s infrastructure and industry to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century, including achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. This would create millions of good, high-wage jobs while managing a fair and just transition for all communities and workers, ensuring prosperity and economic security for all Canadians.

We can’t afford a short-sighted, knee-jerk response to the post-Covid world that will have us roaring back to the same pathological society and economy that causes such widespread ecological and social harm. We need a new, smart way forward, using the substantial body of work that has been done in the field of ecological economics to develop alternative economic and social models. Justin Trudeau and other world leaders must seize this opportunity and show the true, far-sighted leadership the Financial Times and the Green New Deal calls for.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

A tale of two futures: Lets choose the right one this time

A tale of two futures: Lets choose the right one this time

Dr Trevor Hancock

6 April 2020

701 words

Because of Covid-19 we stand yet again at a crossroads of history. Too often in my lifetime we have stood at this same crossroads, and each time we have taken the wrong path. Will we get it right this time?

The crossroads I refer to is, at its simplest, the choice between what James Robertson, a British alternative futurist, called the HE and SHE futures, in his infuential 1978 book, ‘The Sane Alternative’. HE stands for hyper-expansion, a high growth, high tech future, business as usual on steroids. SHE stands for sane, humane and ecological, where sanity is about balance within ourselves, humanity is about balance between ourselves and the rest of humanity, while ecology is about balance between humanity and the Earth and all its species.

The HE future is the path we have been following since at least the end of the Second World War. The SHE future is the path we have consistently avoided, but is our only real choice if we and the rest of humanity are to live good quality lives within the limits of the Earth.

One opportunity where we had this choice was in 1972, at the time of the First UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm. It was a time of globally significant books and reports such as Only One Earth, The Limits to Growth and Blueprint for Survival.

The Stockholm Declaration stated: “Through ignorance or indifference we can do massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment on which our life and well-being depend. Conversely, through fuller knowledge and wiser action, we can achieve for ourselves and our posterity a better life in an environment more in keeping with human needs and hopes.”

Following the conference, sadly, we opted for massive and irreversible harm to the earthly environment. The failure to make the choice to deal with climate change in the decade from 1979 to 1989 was documented in a lengthy article by Nathaniel Rich in the New York Times Magazine in August 2018. As the Magazine’s Editor noted, “It will come as a revelation to many readers — an agonizing revelation — to understand how thoroughly they grasped the problem and how close they came to solving it”.

That pattern of grasping the problem but failing to make the right decisions continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and into the new millennium. The 1987 report of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development, “Our Common Future”, identified our responsibility to future generations and noted that humanity’s activities are “changing planetary systems, fundamentally. Many such changes are accompanied by life-threatening hazards. This new reality, from which there is no escape, must be recognized – and managed.”

This led to the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro; the Declaration stated: “Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development. They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature”, adding that “The right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations”.

In 1989, midway between these two events, in its annual report on the state of the world, the Worldwatch Institute dubbed the 1990s “the turn-around decade”, the decade when we really needed to change: We did not turn.

As I have noted in recent columns, the enforced pause in our social and economic lives due to the Covid-19 pandemic gives us the space and time to consider whether we want to go back to the bad old ways, or choose a different path, one that holds out the hope of creating a sane, humane and ecological future.

I am not alone in seeing the opportunity we now have to make the right choice. Writing in the Guardian on April 1st, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said “We simply cannot return to where we were before Covid-19 struck . . . Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and other global challenges. The recovery must lead to a different economy”.

This time, will we choose the right path? Our descendants certainly hope so.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

Vital lessons from the pandemic for the future

Vital lessons from the pandemic for the future

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 March 2020

699 words

I suggested in recent columns we should use the pause in our society and economy resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic to re-evaluate what we want and how we want to live. Here are eight important lessons we might learn if we pay attention to what is happening.

First, having less and being less busy may not be so bad, maybe we can have a better quality of life – as long as we can meet our basic needs, of course. Normally we are too embedded in our way of life, and too busy leading that life, to step outside of it and reflect upon it. As a former student of my friend and colleague Rick Kool at Royal Roads University wrote from Kathmandu, Nepal: “The air quality is SO much better here (it is usually the WORST!) and I can hear so many more songbirds in the morning. I’m loving it”.

Second, there is the high price we pay for our way of life. The BBC reported this week that as a result of the pandemic air pollution emissions fell 25 percent overall in China. Meanwhile “levels of pollution in New York have reduced by nearly 50 percent” compared to the same time last year, and cleaner air has also been reported in Italy, Spain and the UK.

So it was timely that in a March 3rd press release the European Society of Cardiology, pointing to a new study, declared “The world faces an air pollution ‘pandemic’”. The study found outdoor human-made air pollution, mainly from fossil fuel use, caused massive health problems, estimating that “five and a half million deaths worldwide a year are potentially avoidable”.

This vast toll of death and disease – and there are many other forms of death and disease that can be attributed to our economic and societal systems – is just shrugged off as the cost of doing business. But is that acceptable?

Third, we are seeing very clearly that social solidarity matters, that we are all in it together, while the neoliberal cult of individualism, the notion that ‘you are on your own’, is toxic. You can’t face this all on your own, it takes a whole village, a whole society and a whole global community working together to manage this. Fourth, a related lesson, is that local matters a lot, whether it be local community organisations, businesses or governments.

Fifth, we are learning that Government matters, and that the Canadian notion of ‘peace, order and good government’ completely out-performs the US model, which some, such as Derek Thompson, writing in The Atlantic on March 14, are likening to a failed state.

Sixth, exponential growth – whether it be Covid-19 cases or carbon dioxide levels – is a really bad idea. As Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of the think tank Climate Interactive, puts it in an article in Yale Environment 360 by Beth Morgan last week, “if you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.”

Seventh, nature bats last, and we should not rely upon outwitting and out-performing nature. A Chicago Tribune Editorial (excerpted last week in the Times Colonist) noted: “We learn anew that in nature we’re but temporary components of perpetual systems much bigger than ourselves”.

Finally, hopefully we are learning that if we can act swiftly and massively on Covid-19, we could act just as massively, but with a bit more time for thought and planning, on the even greater but slower crisis of human-induced global ecological change, including climate change. As Eric Doherty, a local transportation and land use planner, writes in the Canadian independent online news outlet Ricochet, “if we can change everything for one kind of emergency, why not do it for another?”

I am not saying all these shifts in perspective will happen, but they might happen. And if realisations of this sort come together, they could create a social tipping point, perhaps even set off the sort of ‘virtuous cascade’ of change that the new Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University has been set up to study and understand. That same process at a local level might lead to the creation of the ‘One Planet Region’ that we need.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020