We are making Earth spineless

We are making Earth spineless

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 November 2018

702 words

Humans are primates, part of the great class of animals known as mammals. Mammals in turn are part of the vertebrate subphylum, along with birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians; animals with spines. As a species, we are nearing the end of a population explosion that has seen us grow from about 1.8 billion a century ago to 3.5 billion 50 years ago and 7.6 billion today; we are expected to peak at about 9 – 10 billion in a few decades.

Our domesticated species have undergone a similar growth. In a 2010 article Philip Thornton of the International Livestock Research Institute indicated that between 1960 and 2008 chicken numbers had increased about five-fold, goats nearly tripled, pigs more than doubled and cattle and buffalo numbers were up by about half. TheEconomist estimated in 2011 that the world has almost 19 billion chickens,  1.4 billion cattle and about 1 billion each of sheep and pigs.

But our expansion has come at a terrible price, as is made clear in the latest edition of the Living Planet Report from the WorldWide Fund for Nature (WWF); we are wiping out other vertbrates. Every two years, the WWF compiles the Living Planet Index (LPI), a count of  global wild vertebrate populations. This year the data comes from the monitoring over time of 16,704 populations of 4,005 different species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians. Note that these are not species extinctions (although that is happening too), but represents “the average change in population abundance”.

Between 1970 and 2014, there was “an overall decline of 60% in the population sizes of vertebrates . . . in other words, an average drop of well over half in less than 50 years”. But this decline was not equally distributed. In South and Central America and the Caribbean, the LPI has declined a staggering 89 percent, and there has been a 64 percent decline in the Indo-Pacific region.

There have also been “catastrophic declines in freshwater biodiversity”, with the LPI falling by 83 percent  – and 94 percent in South and Central America and the Caribbean. These ecosystems have been harmed by “habitat modification, fragmentation and destruction; invasive species; overfishing; pollution; forestry practices; disease; and climate change”, all factors that apply to our own ecosystems here in Canada.

WWF Canada produced its own Living Planet Report for Canada in 2017, and we have no room for complacency. The report was based on 3,689 populations of 903 monitored vertebrate species in Canada between 1970 and 2014. The good news is that for half the species, populations are either “stable or faring well”. But “half of our monitored species (451 of 903) are in decline. And of those, the index shows an average decline of 83 per cent”.

Overall, the report found a 43 percent decline in mammal populations, while “grassland birds suffered 69 per cent loss; reptile and amphibian populations dropped almost 34 per cent, and fish populations declined by 20 per cent”. And we are doing a lousy job of protecting species at-risk, despite the Species at Risk Act. The study looked at 64 species listed under the Act and found that between 2002, when the Act was passed, and 2014 “these populations declined, on average, by 28 per cent — with an average annual decline of 2.7 per cent”; this was higher than the rate of decline in those populations prior to the Act’s passage.

So why does this matter? Well, at a philosphical level, by what right are we destroying ecosystems and other species that have as much right to exist as we do? But in addition to these important philosophical objections, there are clear pragmatic reasons why humans should care. Because as the WWF report puts it, “Everything that has built modern human society is provided by nature and, increasingly, research demonstrates the natural world’s incalculable importance to our health, wealth, food and security”. Biodiversity, the report states. “is, simply, a prerequisite for our modern, prosperous human society to exist, and to continue to thrive”.

It is a catastrophic failing that our political and economic system does not understand or act on this; future generations will pay a heavy price for our neglect of this simple fact.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

 

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The Sidney Summit and the One Planet Region

The Sidney Summit and the One Planet Region

Dr. Trevor Hancock

30 October 2018

698 words

We may be at an important turning point, at least locally. We have just seen a municipal election in which many young, progressive, environmentally conscious candidates have been elected, forming a potential majority on such issues in Victoria and Saanich, which between them are half the population of the CRD. Whether formally endorsing it or not – and some of them were involved in creating it – they are likely to support many of the policy ideas found in the Common Vision Common Action solutions document, which is based on the principles of ecological and social justice.

Saanich in particular can and should set a new course, as one of five communities around the world selected to work with the UK-based organisation Bioregional to support the development by a variety of community stakeholders of One Planet Action Plans. Hopefully the new Council can swiftly move beyond a Climate Action Plan to officially proclaim a municipal goal to become a One Planet community in the next couple of decades. But it may not be alone.

The Sidney Summit on Habitat and Environment, to give it its full title, will be held on Saturday November 10that the Mary Winspear Centre (http://www.SidneySummit.ca). Like many such events, it is organised with the support of a large number of local people and organisations, ranging from local community associations and environmental groups to the business sector and local governments and politicians; for the record, I have not been involved in organising this event.

Focused on preserving, restoring and enhancing the natural habitat and environment of the Saanich Peninsula, the Summit has succeeded in attracting a stellar cast of local speakers – and all for the very modest price for participants of $25 for the day. Green Party MLA Adam Olsen and guests will open the summit, rooting it in a time when First Peoples were the only inhabitants of the Peninsula.

They will be followed by Elizabeth May MP, who will bring her own energy and passion for a sustainable and just future to the event, by Robert Bateman with his great artistic and personal commitment to the beauty of nature, and by CBC Quirks and Quarks host Bob MacDonald with a multi-media planetary journey.

But it’s not just local big-name speakers. A couple of the most interesting parts of the Summit actually occur before the event. First, local Conversations to discuss some of the issues have been happening at small community venues around the area during October. Second, on the day before the Summit, Parkland High School is hosting an interactive gathering called The Summit@School, with live broadcasting by Radio Sidney.

Local organisations involved in the Summit will make presentations and engage with students, whose habitat and environmental concerns will be captured in print, as video clips and radio interviews, to be shared the next day at the Mary Winspear Centre. Hopefully this will be the start – or perhaps the continuation – of the intergenerational collaboration we need; it is, after all, these young people’s future that will be discussed, a future that my generation and the generation after mine have jeopardised, and it is our problematic legacy that they will have to deal with.

Hopefully the Summit will recognise that its laudable goals cannot be achieved with our current economic and social approach, and that a new One Planet approach is needed there too. Finding how we can all live well within the physical and ecological constraints of this one small planet is THE challenge of the 21stcentury. We already have the Conversations for a One Planet Region I have been coordinating for the past 2 years. The Sidney Summit shows that similar concerns are being voiced across the region, and helps broaden and deepen this important conversation.

With our wealth of environmentally and socially conscious people and organisations, with a set of newly-minted local politicians who share those same concerns, with emerging businesses and social enterprises that want to do well while doing good, this region can be among the pioneers, certainly in North America, in addressing that challenge. Events like the Sidney Summit are to be applauded and celebrated for helping move us towards the goal of a One Planet Region.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

 

What about the right to live in a quiet community?

What about the right to live in a quiet community?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

23 October 2018

703 words

I recently went with friends for a meal at a downtown pub. We got a table on the streetside patio, where we found ourselves under two speakers blasting music onto the sidewalk, making conversation nearly impossible. When we asked them to turn the noise down so we could talk to each other, we were told they couldn’t, or only a bit, because management liked a loud vibe on the street.

Far too many businesses seem to have decided they have a right to create noise pollution not only in their stores, bars and restaurants but out on the street. But the street is a public space, so what right do they have to do this? Why, more to the point, does the municipal government permit it? Why is there a deafening silence on noise pollution?

It’s not only out on the street, it’s also inside those stores and restaurants – and in movie theatres, fitness classes and other recreational events where the noise levels are literally deafening. It’s increasingly hard to find a place where you can have a drink or a meal with family or friends and actually have a conversation with them, or go to a movie. I have lost count of the number of places I have walked out of because of the noise pollution; in effect, I am being excluded from those places by the noise. Add to that the reversing beepers and the boom box cars and life becomes unhealthily cacophonous.

Those of us who are veterans of the war against tobacco will find a resonance here. There was a time when it was fine to smoke everywhere – at work, in restaurants, bars and movie theatres, even on planes – and we non-smokers were effectively excluded from being there. But the growing evidence of the health effects of second-hand smoke on non-smokers spurred creation of the non-smokers rights movement. Your right to smoke, it was argued, stops at my nose.

Well, maybe it is time to recognise that your right to make noise stops at my ear. In fact, some anti-noise (or more positively, pro-quiet) activists have adopted the concept of second-hand noise.  A 2005 article in Environmental Health Perspectives quoted Les Blomberg, then executive director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse: “Secondhand noise is really a civil rights issue . . . like secondhand smoke, it’s put into the environment without people’s consent and then has effects on them that they don’t have any control over.”

So far we have framed noise largely as a physical hazard that can damage hearing. But noise can also cause stress, annoyance and sleep disturbance and in addition there are the social effects.I would argue that any noise that is loud enough to stop two or more people having a conversation in a place where it is reasonable to do so is harmful and should be banned. Surely we have the right to a quiet community where we can have a quiet meal and a conversation – or sit out on the street, or in the park, or in the garden – without being driven away or indoors by noise.

If these and other problems with noise are of concern, you may want to come to a free public forum I have organised on Creating Quieter Communities on Wednesday 7thNovember, 7 – 9 PM in the main lecture theatre in the Human and Social Development building (HSD A240) at UVic. The event takes advantage of the presence in town of the Canadian and American Acoustical Societies for a conference. One of the attendees – and our leading speaker – is Professor Antonella Radicchi from Germany.

Dr. Radicchi’s expertise encompasses urban design and planning for health and well-being, soundscape research, quiet areas, and citizen science mobile toolssuch as the Hush City app, and she is editing a special section of the journal Cities and Health on ‘Sound and the Healthy City’. The Hush City app displays the worldwide map of the quiet areas crowdsourced by the app’s users; expect to see that app and other useful tools demonstrated at this event.  Her ultimate goal is to make our cities quieter and healthier places to live, something we all need and indeed should have a right to.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Political heads stuck in the (tar)sand

Political heads stuck in the (tar)sand

Dr. Trevor Hancock

2 October 2018

699 words

Two weeks ago, I wrote about successive Canadian governments systematically ignoring for the past 45 years the evidence that poverty and other social, economic and environmental factors were much more important determinants of the health of Canadians than health care. As a result, we have more ill health and premature death than would have been the case if they had paid attention to and acted upon the evidence. I think this was largely due to the fact that taking the issue seriously would have been way too threatening to neoliberalism and the laissez faire capitalism it has spawned.

Now I turn to a second major threat to the health of Canadians – and people around the world – that governments are systematically ignoring because to take it seriously would mean questioniog our entire way of life and economic system: Climate change. While we may not have active denial by Canadian political leaders that humans are having a significant impact on the Earth’s climate (unlike Donald Trump and those around and behind him), we do have a signficant failure to recognise and take seriously the potential – and increasingly likely – severe adverse impacts of climate change on our wellbeing and our entire society.

In recent weeks we have seen several reports highlighting the likelihood that our current path is much more dangerous than we have assumed. The National Centre for Climate Restoration in Australia, an independent think tank, issued a report on the scientific approach to assessing climate change risk. The lead author is a former senior executive in the fossil fuel industry. The report suggests we are seriously underestimating the risk of climate change because of a combination of “scientific reticence – a reluctance to spell out the full risk implications of climate science in the absence of perfect information” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s tendency to “least drama” conservative projections as it seeks consensus among all its member scientists and countries.

Also in August, an article from some of the leading experts on global ecological change based largely out of the Stockholm Resilience Centre reached a worrying conclusion: “Our analysis suggests that the Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much hotter conditionsHothouse Earth . . . a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed”. They suggested the threshold could be “within the range of the Paris Accord temperature targets” and that Hothouse Earth’s impacts on “human societies would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt, and undoubtedly disruptive”.

Then there is a July 2018 paper from Professor Jem Bendell, Director of the Institute of Leadership and Sustainability at the UK’s University of Cumbria. With 25 years of experience in sustainability management, he has concluded that climate change cannot be averted and that we face “an inevitable near term social collapse due to climate change”.

In his foreword to the Australian report Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a noted German climate scientist, ominously concludes “climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.”

These and other dire warnings are beginning to mount, and you would think we would take them seriously. But the current energy policy priorities of the Canadian, Alberta and BC governments ignore them. Instead of doing all they can to move us away from fossil fuels, they are committed to expanding production and export of the Alberta tarsands through the Trudeau-Morneau pipeline and creating a large LNG industry in BC, thus further increasing Canada’s contribution to global climate change.

The prudent thing today right now is to stop expanding production of fossil fuels and switch as rapidly as possible to a policy of energy conservation and a zero-carbon economy. This is also economically prudent, because fossil fuels could well become ‘stranded assets’ – resources that can’t be extracted and burned, and therefore are worth very little, while a zero-carbon energy system will create many new jobs. Common sense advice when you are in a hole is to stop digging! But it seems nobody is listening, they have their heads stuck deep in the tarsands.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

 

One Planet Questions for Candidates

One Planet Questions for Candidates

Dr. Trevor Hancock

24 September 2018

699 words

During the 1993 election that led to her ouster, Prime Minister Kim Campbell reportedly commented that “an election is no time to discuss serious issues” – although she disputes that that is what she said or meant. Be that as it may, it seems to me an election is exactly the right time to discuss serious issues.

So as the October 20thmunicipal elections loom, I suggest we should be asking all candidates about a very serious issue – in fact, in my view, the most serious challenge we face in the 21stcentury, both globally and locally: How do we make the changes that move us towards being a One Planet Region?

By that, I mean a region with an ecological footprint per person equivalent to one planet’s worth of biocapacity and resources – our fair share – while maintaining a high quality of life and a high level of human and social development and wellbeing for all. No mean feat, when you consider this means a 70 – 80 percent reduction in our footprint, but essential if we are to enable the coming generations to enjoy anything like the quality of life we enjoy.

As I have noted before, Dr. Jennie Moore at BCIT, working with Cora Hallsworth in Victoria, recently estimated the ecological footprint of Victoria and Saanich and found it is about 2 – 3 planet’s worth, which is probably true of the region as a whole. Clearly this cannot continue for very much longer.So my overall question would be “What are your plans to reduce our ecological footprint, and how will you do so in a way that maintains a good quality of life for all?”

That is a pretty broad question, but it’s a place to start. When Moore and Hallsworth measured our footprint, they found the largest components were food production and consumption, our  transportation system and the energy we use for heating, cooling and electrical supply in our buildings. So I asked local experts in these three areas what they would want to ask our candidates across the Greater Victoria region.

Our food consumption is responsible for about half of our footprint, so I turned to Linda Geggie, who is with the Good Food Network and is the Executive Director of the Capital Region Food and Agriculture Initiatives Roundtable. Her question is rooted in the fact that each of the municipalities has a food sustainability policy of some sort, while the Capital Regional District recently adopted a regional food and agriculture strategy. She asks: “If elected, what will you do to create more healthy, equitable and sustainable food systems in your municipality and in the region?”

Given that almost three-quarters of our food footprint is due to our consumption of animal products (fish, eggs and dairy and – especially – meat), I would also want  to know how candidates think municipalities can support the shift to a low-meat diet, perhaps though their purchasing policies.

Just over a quarter of our footprint is due to transportation, with about two-thirds of that attributable to private vehicle use. So I asked Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute what he would ask and he said “What will you do to ensure anyone that wants to, regardless of income or ability, should be able to find suitable housing in a walkable neighbourhood?” This is because solid research indicates that people living in such neighbourhoods spend less money on transportation and are more active and healthier – and in addition, our ecological footprint will be markedly reduced.

The third major component of our footprint, about one-sixth, is the energy we use for operating our buildings. For a question on this topic I sought out Tom Hackney, Policy Advisor for the BC Sustainable Energy Association. He would ask candidates “whether they agree it should be a priority to achieve a zero greenhouse gas emissions standard for buildings, and if so, what steps would they take in the next four years to further that goal for both existing and new buildings?”

These are broad, wide-ranging questions, but given the significance of the challenges we face, they are the sort of issues we should expect our future municipal leaders to be paying attention to.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

 

Systematic denial harms our health

Systematic denial harms our health

Dr. Trevor Hancock

18 September 2018

698 words

Two of my recent readings from very different fields have each in their own way underlined how we have failed to come to grips with fundamental challenges that have significant health impacts today, and will have profound impacts for the next generations. We – and by ‘we’ I mean mainly the powerful who run our major public and private institutions – have ignored and denied the evidence for decades, choosing short term economic gain and not caring about long-term human pain.

The two areas are the social determinants of health  – mainly poverty, inequality and social injustice  – and climate change, which I will discuss next week. In each case, the authors make it clear that we have known all along that our current policies are harmful and that better options exist – but governments and their corporate partners have failed to act, or have even actively obstructed action.

The first example is the rather depressing summary of the history of our inaction on the social determinants of health, dating back to at least 1974. This story is told in Andrew MacLeod’s new and very welcome book All Together Healthy. MacLeod is the legislative bureau chief for The Tyeehere in BC and his book is about all the things beyond the health care system that make us healthy; in other words, the subject of my columns.

He recounts a story only too familiar to those of us who work in population and public health. In 1974 the federal Department of Health and Welfare (as it then was) published a short but powerful policy framework; A New Perspective on the Health of Canadians. I have a particular attachment to this report, because it was published just before I moved to Canada to be a family doctor in rural New Brunswick. I read it soon after and it helped change my life and move me towards a career in public health.

Named for the then Minister, Marc Lalonde, the Lalonde Report suggested there are four ‘health fields’: Human biology, lifestyle, the environment and health care. Importantly, the report stated “there is little doubt that future improvements in the level of health of Canadians lie mainly in improving the environment, moderating self-imposed risks and adding to our knowledge of human biology.”

While this approach paid a bit too much attention to lifestyle as personal choices and behaviours, failing to acknowledge the powerful forces in the social and commercial environments that shape choices, such as income and marketing, it nonethelessmarked a crucial turning point by questioning the impact of health care on health. In fact, as MacLeod points out, the report stated the federal government would pay as much attention to these other three fields as it then did to the financing of health care.

Really? Did I miss something? As MacLeod drily remarks, “action did not tend to match the rhetoric” And he goes on to recount the other national reports since then that have also been largely ignored, among them the 1986 Epp report (named for another federal minister), which highlighted among other things the need to address health inequality related to income and a 1990s report from the National Health Forum that repeated the same messages.

The reasons behind this neglect and denial, if not outright suppression, are apparent in the 1974 Lalonde report, which states “ominous counter-forces have been at work to undo progress in raising the health status of Canadians. These counter-forces constitute the dark side of economic progress”. And there you have it in a nutshell; a lot of people make a lot of money by making people sick.

Hence MacLeod’s closing observation that “the federal government under both major parties has known for decades that poor health is closely tied to social inequity”. And yet, he concludes, it as done nothing and in fact “in many cases has taken policy choices that have made matters worse”

If we really want to improve the health of the population, we have to tackle poverty, inequality, and unhealthy business practices. In short, we have to change society and the economy, which is clearly too big a step  – and too threatening – for these who hold power in Canada today.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Change the values that shape our systems

Change the values that shape our systems

Dr. Trevor Hancock

10 Sept 2018

701 words

Two weeks I argued that the immense challenge of climate change and other global ecological changes that threaten our health, as well as the high levels of inequality experienced world-wide, are the inevitable result of the societal systems we have created. If “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”, as the Institute for Healthcare Improvement puts it, then to get different results, we need a different system.

Last week I suggested that our economic system is not fit for purpose in the 21stcentury. The new mantra that we can have both a strong economy and a healthy environment is simply not true if the strong economy is based on harming the environment. So the Trudeau and Notley argument that we need the pipeline in order to get the oil from the Alberta tarsands to foreign markets is nonsensical when we consider both the global climate change impact of the tarsands, and the local devastation they create. Their arguments are rooted in a world view, modernism, and an underlying set of values that are also not fit for purpose in the 21stcentury.

Modernism, the dominant world view or paradigm within which we operate, is rooted in two 16thcentury transformations in thought, according to Krishan Kumar, Professor of Social and Political Thought at the University of Kent,  The first was a religious transformation, the Protestant Reformation, with its attendant values relating to work (the Puritan work ethic), which led to modern capitalism. This was accompanied by a Scientific revolution that was based on rationalist thought and the scientific method.

Kumar identifies a number of  elements that comprise ‘modernism’, but states “fundamentally, it is the economic changes that most dramatically affect industrial society.” Those economic changes include “economic growth as the central defining feature of an industrial . . . economy”. These transformations, and the growth in wealth, resources and power for the nations of the West that resulted led to a belief in the inevitability of progress.

But progress has been confused with economic growth, and two key values that relate to that; acquisitiveness and greed. We want more stuff, and we can never have enough. If you are a billionaire, you still aren’t a multi-billionaire. And if the acquisition of all that wealth (and the power that goes with it) impoverishes others and harms the planet – well, that is just the cost of progress.

The fact that economic growth now threatens the stability of the ecosystems and the sustainability of the natural resources upon which we depend somehow is ignored. This is linked to another key attribute of modernism that Kumar mentions, and which stems from the scientific revolution; “a sense of being superior to and/or apart from nature”. We do not fully understand or accept that the environment is not some ‘nice to have’ fringe benefit of being wealthy, not something that must be sacrificed in the name of progress.

At the heart of our challenges, then, lie two sets of values that we have to change; acquisitiveness, greed and economic growth on the one hand, and our separation from nature on the other. With respect to the first, we need to replace growth with the concepts of adequacy or sufficiency as a guiding principle. In the foreword to the book “Enough is Enough” by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill, Herman Daly – the ‘elder statesman’ of steady state economics – suggests that ‘enough’, which means “sufficient for a good life”, “should be the central concept in economics”, while “the current answer of ‘having ever more’ is wrong”. Or as Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s need, but not every person’s greed”.

Dietz and O’Neill propose a number of policies that together “form an agenda for transforming the economic goal from more to enough”. These include limiting the use of materials and energy to sustainable levels, stabilizing population through compassionate and non-coercive means, achieving a fair distribution of income and wealth, and changing the way we measure progress.

Add to that a recognition that we are part of, not apart from, nature and must act accordingly, and we might have a fighting chance of getting to a society based on enough for all.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

 

We don’t pay the full cost of goods and services

We don’t pay the full cost of goods and services

or

Redesigning our systems to help people and the planet

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 Sept 2018

700 words

Last week I discussed the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s key principle – that every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets – and suggested we apply it to society as a whole. Which begs the question: What results do we want? I suggested that we need to create a societal system that is perfectly designed to enable all the people of the world to live good quality lives within the bounds of the Earth and its ecological systems. What might such a system look like?

A good place to start is to change the entire focus of public discourse and public policy from economic development to human and social development. We have come to believe that progress and success means being wealthy and accumulating more stuff – regardless of who gets less while we get more, and regardless of any harm that we do to the Earth and its living systems.

But economic development must be the means, not the end; it must support the goal of maximising human and social capital in an ecologically sustainable and socially just way. A key question, then, is what sort of economic system would do that and how do we get such a system? We need to examine all public and private sector policy decisions, especially economic policies, and ask ‘do they move us towards or away from this goal’?

One key instrument of public policy is taxation. The fundamental principle here is to tax the things society doesn’t want, and not tax the things we do want. Hence the carbon tax, tobacco taxes and so on. In the energy sector, this would mean taxing fossil fuels based on their environmental and human health impact, with the highest taxes going on coal, dirty oil (e.g. the Alberta tarsands) and dirty (fracked) gas.

Cleaner fossil fuels such as non-fracked gas would get lower taxes, and there would be no taxes at all on energy conservation goods and services and clean, green, renewable energy sources. The increased taxes raised from the fossil fuel sector would help drive down demand. Until those taxes dried up, they could be used to support the energy system workforce to transition to the  growing conservation and renewables sector and to fund research on green technologies.

Such an approach could also be used in the area of consumables. We should reward products that have a long life and are designed to be recyclable or repairable, while heavily taxing (or banning) single-use, disposable products. We should give tax breaks for car sharing programs, bikes and public transit, and put higher taxes on larger vehicles. We can also extend this approach to our diets, with higher taxes on unhealthy foods high in sugar, salt and fat and on meat, especially beef, which has a large environmental impact. This would both improve health and protect the environment.

Then there are the perverse incentives in the system, which may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but now take us in the wrong direction, such as tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. These would need to be removed and transferred to the clean energy industry.

Another set of perverse incentives are associated with suburban sprawl; a 2013 report from the University of Ottawa’s Sustainable Prosperity project notes that “current price structures encourage sprawl while obscuring significant costs”.In Halifax, for example, the true costs to the city for the higher infrastructure needs of suburban living were roughly 2.5 times greater per person than for urban living. Other hidden costs include the much higher energy consumption of an auto-dependent community and associated poor air quality, congestion and long commutes. Clearly, we can’t afford suburban sprawl – and yet we keep building it.

No doubt people will object that all this will make the cost of living higher. It probably will, so we must also use the taxation system to ensure that life does not become unaffordable for people living on lower incomes. But we need to stop living in a fool’s paradise where everything is cheap and disposable, because we are not in fact paying the true costs of our goods and services.

I will return to this topic next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

 

A system perfectly designed to harm the planet

A system perfectly designed to harm the planet

Dr. Trevor Hancock

28 August 2018

700 words

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) in the USA is a leader in improving the quality of care and the effectiveness of the health care system and its approaches are also widely used in Canada. The guiding principle underlying all that IHI does is that “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”.

The principle comes to us from systems and management science and organisational development. When applied to health care, it is used to try to understand what leads to poor quality and ineffective care and medical error. Then it is used to figure out what changes in the system are needed to prevent those problems and to ensure quality care. It is a principle that we should apply more broadly to our society and the global ecological changes we are creating, especially climate change.

There is mounting evidence that the planet is heating up – and quicker than expected. In fact there have been a number of worrying observations and studies about climate change in just the past month. One study in Nature Communications projects temperatures in the North China Plain within the next few decades that “may limit habitability in the most populous region, of the most populous country on Earth”.

Other reports have documented the unprecedented break up of Arctic ice and glaciers and the melting of permafrost in Siberia and Alaska. The latter could release not only vast quantities of carbon dioxide but also methane, a greenhouse gas that is some 25 times more potent that CO2, creating a worrying self-reinforcing cycle; more warming releases more methane and CO2, which creates more warming.

Loss of Arctic sea ice and permafrost thawingare two of the 15 ‘tipping elements’ scientists from the Stockholm Resilience Centre discuss in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.  These ‘tipping elements’, which also include Amazon and Boreal forest dieback, may combine to create what they call a ‘tipping cascade’, a “domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures”. They caution that this could lead to “conditions that would be inhospitable to current human societies and to many other contemporary species”.

Moreover, a report from the Breakthrough Institute in Melbourne suggests the scientific community has been overly conservative in its approach: “the bulk of climate research has tended to underplay these risks, and exhibited a preference for conservative projections and scholarly reticence”. However, the report states, such an approach “is now becoming dangerously misleading with the acceleration of climate impacts globally . . . [because] what were lower probability, higher-impact events are now becoming more likely”.

So if we apply the IHI principle, we must conclude that our current social, economic, political and cultural system is perfectly designed to bring us not only the economic growth and increasing wealth we seek (mostly for the select few, with increasing inequality for many), but the global ecological consequences: Climate change, resource depletion, pollution, species extinction and other global ecological changes.

Moreover, it seems our political system is perfectly designed to fail to come to grips with these problems. We have seen the USA pull out of the Paris Accord and actually work to promote coal use. In Canada Justin Trudeau’s government has taken over the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which will support expanded production of Alberta’s dirty tarsands oil, while Ontario’s new government and other provinces fight back against the carbon tax. Sadly, our political system consistently favours short-term economic and political gains over long-term human and ecological wellbeing.

This cannot continue; we should not undertake what amounts to an experiment to see what might trigger disastrous tipping cascades – but that is exactly what we are doing. We need to step back and understand what aspects of the current system lead us to make the wrong long-term decisions. Then we need to figure out what it would take to create a societal system that is perfectly designed to enable all the people of the world to live good quality lives within the boundaries of the Earth’s ecological systems.

This is the most important challenge we face in the 21stcentury. Next week, I will delve into some of the key aspects of this challenge.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Better living through green chemistry

Better living through green chemistry

Dr. Trevor Hancock

20 August 2018

696 words

“Better things for better living…through chemistry” was a bold and optimistic Dupont advertising slogan that ran from 1935 until 1982. The phrase – often shortened to ‘Better living through chemistry’ – has lodged in the public mind as an unintentionally ironic comment on the sometimes dubious benefits of the chemical industry. This industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the world, according to GreenCentre Canada, which claims that “chemistry makes everything we do possible”.

While in many respects that may be true, we all know that not all chemistry has brought us better living. The recent Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health reminded us that “chemicals and pesticides whose effects on human health and the environment were never examined have repeatedly been responsible for episodes of disease, death, and environmental degradation” and that “newer synthetic chemicals that have entered world markets in the past2–3 decades and that, like their predecessors, have undergone little pre-market evaluation threaten to repeat this history”.

Troublingly, we have known about these problems for decades, but have been glacially slow in addressing them. Rachel Carson warned of the environmental and health impacts of pesticides almost 60 years ago in her 1962 book Silent Spring, but we are still fighting against pesticides such as Roundup and the newer neonicotinoid pesticides, in spite of considerable evidence of their harm. That is hardly surprising when we are fighting against the largest manufacturing sector in the world.

But amidst all that bad news, here is some good news: ‘Green chemistry’ is gaining strength. So what is green chemistry? It is chemistry that is “focused on the design and implementation of chemical technologies, processes, and services that are safe, energy efficient, and environmentally sustainable”, according to GreenCentre Canada – a company funded in part by the Federal and Ontario governments and with links to Queen’s University in Kingston – that is in the business of “commercializing emerging Green Chemistry innovations originating from academia and the entrepreneurial community”.

GreenCentre Canada also points to a set of 12 principles, derived from a 1998 book by Paul Anastas and John Warner. These include prevention (“it is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it has been created”); safer chemicals (“designed to affect their desired function while minimizing their toxicity”); use of renewable materials “rather than depleting whenever technically and economically practicable” and design for degradation “so that at the end of their function they break down into innocuous degradation products and do not persist in the environment”. Hard to argue against that.

In fact, this column was prompted by the recent announcement that a team led by Professor Heather Buckley of the UVic School of Civil Engineering – one of a new breed of ‘green’ chemists – had just won first place in a global competition to identify new preservatives for use in cosmetics and household products. According to a UVic press release, the team won for its “reversible” anti-microbial that fights bacteria while in the container but breaks down into two harmless ingredients once outside of it.

The award came from the Green Chemistry & Commerce Council, a US-based organisation that “drives the commercial adoption of green chemistry”.Among other activities, the Council holds an annual Green & Bio-Based Chemistry Technology Showcase & Networking Event, at which start-up companies get to pitch their new green chemical products. At the most recent event, in May 2018, companies were pitching greener, safer “adhesives, coating technologies, flame retardants, monomers/polymers, ingredients for formulated consumer products (including personal care and household products), and recycling technologies”.

While it may be true that “chemistry makes everything we do possible”and that we want and need the benefits of all – or at least many – of these chemicals, we obviously don’t want all the environmental and health impacts that result. Thus we need to pressure corporations and governments to only allow new chemicals on the market that meet the standards for green chemicals. In addition, if the new, safer green chemicals are more expensive, governments must use taxation to tilt the market in favour of the greener products, allied with regulations to quickly rid us of the chemicals that bring us worse living.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018