We need a vaccine against Olympic and fossil fuel insanity

11 May 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

Two broad themes this week, both from recent headlines. The first is the insanity of the plans for the Olympic Games, and especially the unethical prioritization for Covid immunization of elite Olympic athletes over vulnerable people and essential workers in low income countries. The second is a couple of astonishing ideas from the fossil fuel industry and its political supporters in the USA.

What unites them is they both fit into the shake-your-head category of ‘they are doing what?’. Both reflect an inability or unwillingness to accept the new realities of – on the one hand – a pandemic and on the other hand, a climate crisis.

Let’s start with the Olympics. What is wrong with this sentence, from an article in the Times Colonist on Friday May 7th? “Pfizer and BioNTech are donating Covid-19 vaccine doses to inoculate athletes and officials preparing for the Tokyo Games.”  Well, where does one begin?

First – Games, what Games? They are holding the Olympic Games a couple of months from now, in the midst of a global pandemic? In a country with a vaccination rate of around 1 percent, according to another Times Colonist story the next day? A country that has just expanded its state of emergency to cover other regions and extended it until May 31st?

When the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had to cancel his trip to Japan on Monday because of the surge in cases? When places such as India, Brazil and who knows where else are essentially out of control? Hello, IOC – wake up and face reality!

Second, they are donating these vaccines to the IOC. Donating? Why the heck should vaccines be donated? Does anyone know how rich the IOC is? Its own website says the revenue for the 4 year cycle of the last Olympiad from 2013 to 2016 (the Sochi Winter Games and the Rio games), was $5.7 billion. So they can afford to buy their own vaccines.

Anyway, if there are enough vaccines that Pfizer and BioNTech can donate them, I can think of a very long list of way more deserving recipients than a lot of fit young elite athletes. For starters, front line and essential workers in low income countries. Whatever else Olympic athletes may be, they are not essential workers. Where is the slightest scintilla of morality in all this?

Moreover, why is the Canadian Olympic Committee accepting this donation?  They may try to dress it up as not jumping the queue, not getting the vaccine ahead of vulnerable and essential workers, because they are donated vaccines, but that is tosh. My local supermarket staff – who are essential – were not getting the vaccine, so I resent Olympic athletes, and for that matter, all professional athletes, getting it before they do. What the COC should do is re-donate all its donated vaccines to essential workers and vulnerable people and cancel its participation in the Games.

Turning to my second theme, here are a couple of recent jaw-dropping headlines from The Guardian. “Wyoming stands up for coal with threat to sue states that refuse to buy it” (May 7th) and “Bill seeks to make Louisiana ‘fossil fuel sanctuary’ in bid against Biden’s climate plans” (May 9th)

Let’s think about that for a moment. In Wyoming, the state hopes to take “legal action against other states that opt to power themselves with clean energy such as solar and wind, in order to meet targets to tackle the climate crisis, rather than burn Wyoming’s coal”, while the Louisiana proposal would “ban local and state employees from enforcing federal laws and regulations that negatively impact petrochemical companies” – such as limits on air pollution.

I see endless possibilities here. Perhaps we could sue places that refused to take our old growth lumber or the last of our dwindlng salmon stocks. Maybe tobacco states could sue people who give up smoking, thus depriving them of revenue. Or we could establish a whaling sanctuary so we can get rid of those pesky salmon-eating orca.

Oh, and please don’t tell Alberta about Wyoming and Louisiana’s plans, we don’t need the insanity to spread up here. What we really need is a vaccine against such insanity.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca 

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at                                                                    the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Active transportation is good for mental health

5 May 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

The physical health benefits of active transportation (walking, biking, public transit) are well known. Compared to cars, there are fewer emissions of carbon dioxide and various air pollutants per passenger mile, fewer accidents and more physical activity – I often joke that includes running for the bus. But less attention has been paid to the mental health impacts of transportation and the benefits of active transportation for mental and social wellbeing.

Some 35 years ago, when leading the Healthy City initiative for the City of Toronto, I gained a fascinating insight into the social role of public transportation. Former Mayor John Sewell, in discussing the TTC (Toronto’s public transit system), described it as “the great democratizer”.

His point was that because it was a well-run, extensive system, everyone used it: Young and old, rich and poor, black and white, male and female. And so you had to literally rub shoulders with ‘the other’ all the time. And he felt that helped people learn tolerance, learn how to get on with each other.

Ever since, I have always had an interest in the social implications of transportation. But two recent reports have re-awakened my interest in the mental health implications.

The first is a March 2021 report on the relationship between transport and mental health prepared for the NZ Transport Agency by a University of Auckland research team. The second – a March 2021 report on Urban Sanity – is from Todd Litman, a local expert who runs the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, although he seems to be far better known internationally than he is locally.

The findings are perhaps not too surprising. The NZ report finds that factors leading to increasing psychological distress in cities include “increased noise pollution and neighbourhood severance, and declining levels of active transport use resulting from a rise in private car use”. The term ‘neighbourhood severance’ refers to “a decline in social connection and social capital (feelings of trust and belonging within neighbourhoods) due to rising traffic volumes”.

The researchers also found that longer commutes, whether by private car or bus, especially in congested conditions, lead to increased commuter stress. Moreover “transport poverty and inaccessible environments” are likely to cause “psychological distress for low-income households and people living with disability”.

On the other hand, the transport system conditions that are essential for mental health are “Low-cost and accessible . . . systems that enable people to access essentials such as employment, medical care, food, and social support”. In addition, “high-quality walking (or wheeling) environments that provide opportunities for gentle exercise as well as social interaction in low-stress traffic conditions” are also good for mental health.

Key ways to improve urban mental health through transport policy, the researchers suggest, include “improving neighbourhood walkability, reducing long commutes, increasing active commuting, and reducing the cost and improving the comfort of public transport”.

Todd Litman’s report is on urban mental wellbeing in general, with only one small part of his report focused on transportation. The intent, he writes, is to help us understand how to create saner and happier cities. But he readily acknowledges it is not easy to understand this complex issue.

In part, that is because our understanding of what mental wellbeing is and how to measure it is less than perfect. It is also a challenging area of research, in part because mental and social wellbeing is largely subjective, and varies a great deal. What makes one person happy or stresses them out may not have much effect at all on someone else.

Nonetheless, when it comes to transportation, he concurs with the NZ report, adding that more walking in the neighbourhood adds to community safety because there are more ‘eyes on the street’, as Jane Jacobs put it. He also notes that a British study found “psychological wellbeing was significantly higher for active mode commuters than car or public transport users, and for longer duration commutes, particularly driving.”

Litman concludes: “Cities can increase mental health and happiness by improving walking and cycling conditions, and enhancing public transit services, particularly reducing the most uncomfortable conditions such as excessive crowding, heat, and harassment.”

Local politicians, transport systems designers, mental health professionals and the public should pay attention to these important ideas.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Creating wellbeing: From the personal to the planetary

28 April 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

In 1948 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing”; I find it a good and simple definition. One of its strengths is that it fully recognises both mental and social wellbeing, with the latter inevitably bringing in our relationships with others – our families, communities and society as a whole. However, I would make an important change by adding ‘environmental wellbeing’. 

One aspect of environmental wellbeing is having a healthy local environment – clean air, water and soil and a healthy built environment. The other aspect is ‘ecological wellbeing’, something that was not so apparent 70 years ago. But today, we recognise that our health is dependent ultimately on the well-functioning of the Earth’s natural systems: No health without planetary health, we might say.

And yet, that simple concept seems to elude most of our political and corporate elite, and millions of our fellow citizens. We act as if we can continue to exploit and pollute the Earth beyond its ability to withstand such harm, without consequence for us.

But I have been heartened in recent weeks by a number of examples showing a strong interest in health and wellbeing as a motivating and driving force for positive change. For example, I sit on the Planning Committee for the Atlantic Summer Institute, an annual summer school on PEI focused on the mental wellbeing of infants, children and youth. This year’s theme is ‘The Great Reconnect’, and is focused on how we help young people form strong connections with their families, each other, their schools and communities, and with nature.

I have also been involved in discussions about a number of local activities that all, at their roots, are about improving human and planetary wellbeing. One local group, brought together by Steve Woolrich of Rethink Urban (and an occasional fellow columnist) is discussing how to address community safety and wellbeing in an humane and compassionate way. Another group is looking at how to create more livable, sustainable and healthy urban environments through creating ‘gentle density’.

This concept, championed by Vancouver-based urban planner Brent Toderian, is about “density done well”. In a 2013 article he noted “Density isn’t just a downtown thing”, but that it includes “artfully adding to the inner city beyond the downtown, and building smarter suburbs that are more mixed, compact, walkable, and transit friendly”. His long list of benefits ends with “Improving public health, diversity, creativity, safety and vibrancy”.

Finally, this past week I was also able to participate in the online annual conference of the Planetary Health Alliance in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Alliance grew out of the 2015 report of the Lancet-Rockefeller Commission on Planetary Health, which established this new field of work. Planetary health is understood by the Alliance as focused on characterizing the human health impacts of human-caused disruptions of Earth’s natural systems.” Given that, you might have expected a strong focus on science and data about health and ecology.

So you would perhaps have been surprised by the focus of the opening session, which was all about the values needed to take us to and through the Great Transition to a world “where all people thrive by protecting and regenerating Earth’s natural systems for generations to come”.

The keynote speaker was Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York and an Indigenous woman. She talked movingly about the wisdom of both Indigenous and scientific knowledge for achieving our shared goals, stressing that “sustainability is not about looking for ways to go on taking”, but that we need to listen to what the Earth asks of us.

She was followed by speakers on Indigenous values, Earth ethics, religion and the Buddhist-rooted Bhutanese concept of measuring and being guided by Gross National Happiness. Embedded in many of their presentations was the need for a value shift that leads us to reject the current economic system and move to a new wellbeing economy.

Ultimately, societies, governments, businesses and communities have to focus on wellbeing – why else would they exist? Happily, in many ways and places, the conversation is starting, the move to a focus on creating wellbeing is underway.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

BC’s Throne Speech and budget fail future generations

21 April 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

The BC Budget, delivered two days before Earth Day, confirmed what the Throne Speech had already shown; the environment is very much an after-thought for the NDP government, tacked on at the end and lacking any real substance. Thus they fail to address the most important long-term issue we face; our excessive and unsustainable demands on the planet.

They just don’t get that we face a global ecological challenge and that young people need them to take strong action now. Nor do they get that the post-Covid recovery is an opportunity to bounce forward to a very different society and economy, one fit for the 21st century, one that will meet the needs of the coming generations.  

To be fair, the Throne Speech and budget both have a section – right at the end – about protecting the environment. The Speech says “Too often, economic growth in our province has come at the expense of the environment. That must change. We can no longer rely on simple resource extraction to generate wealth with no regard to long-term consequences.” And there is something similar in the Budget, noting  “our action on climate change will shape the world for generations to come.”

Fine sentiments, which I endorse. But as always, the devil is in the detail; how is that translated into policy and action? Let’s look at their action on climate change, since it is among the most important of the multiple ecological challenges we face.

The Throne Speech and budget both include a commitment to the CleanBC strategy and climate action. But they do not go far enough: The budget “expands clean transportation, builds more energy-efficient buildings, and works with industries to reduce their carbon footprint” – all good and useful. But at the same time, notes Jay Ritchlin of the David Suzuki Foundation, “the balanced budget hinges on massive amounts of liquid fracked gas coming online in 2025 – another huge climate miss.”

Indeed there is no hint that BC is a major producer and exporter of fossil fuels. You won’t find the words coal, oil, gas or LNG in either the Speech or the budget, nor any reference to winding down the fossil fuel industry in BC. Yet we know that most of the fossil fuel reserves we have, especially coal, need to stay in the ground if the world is to avoid a global climate disaster.

In fact a March 2020 report from the Corporate Mapping Project (CMP) – jointly led by the University of Victoria, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Parkland Institute – notes the BC government shows “little willingness to contemplate a managed wind-down [of BC’s fossil fuel sector] so long as there are external buyers for BC resources.” So much for no longer relying on simple resource extraction to generate wealth with no regard to long-term consequences.

Regrettably, the BC Government “has become one of the most generous subsidizers of oil and gas in Canada”, according to a September 2020 report from StandEarth. Specifically, their report finds “BC pays out substantially more in fossil fuel subsidies than the province earns in oil and gas royalties.”

Even worse, a December 2020 report from CMP, examining three coal mines in northeastern BC, found that “not only do the costs of mining activity in northeastern BC outweigh the benefits, but the public helped to fund extinction of caribou by subsidizing exploration and development.”

The Throne Speech also touts the government’s new sectoral emission targets, while failing to mention that in spite of Horgan’s 2017 direction to tax them, according to Peter McCartney, the Wilderness Committee’s climate campaigner, writing in the Georgia Straight on April 1st, “B.C.’s largest emitters—fracking and logging companies—don’t have to pay the tax on much of their carbon emissions”

In short, the Horgan government fails future generations when it comes to climate change. Reliance on fracked gas and subsidies for fossil fuel extraction and export continue – even when the subsidies fail to have the projected economic benefit and in fact harm sensitive species and ecosystems; major sectors are partially exempt from the carbon tax, and there are no plans for a managed wind-down of the fossil fuel sector.

Not exactly climate leadership!

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Memo to John Horgan: Don’t blow it for the next generation

14 April 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

I was struck by the immense irony of John Horgan’s recent exhortation to young people not to blow it for the rest of us with respect to Covid. The irony, of course, is that he and his government are blowing it for the younger generation by continuing to treat the environment as a resource for industrial activity and failing to protect species at risk. In doing so, they jeopardise the future for the next generation in order to achieve their more immediate economic and political gains.

It seems I was not alone in seeing the irony. As I was preparing this column, I learned that the Dogwood Initiative will be releasing a response to Horgan from high school student and Dogwood staff member Nahira Gerster-Sim, making the same point. (By the time you read this, I imagine it will have been released.)

The issue was neatly summarised by Martyn Brown, former Chief of Staff to Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell and a member of the weekly political panel on CBC Radio’s ‘On the Island’. In the April 9th broadcast he described the NDP as “a labour government, not an environmental government”, and that when there is a clash between what he called ‘brown’ (industrial development) and green values, “the brown guys win”.

This is a fundamental point: From the perpective of nature, it doesn’t matter much whether it is free-enterprise capitalism, state capitalism or socialism, all are intent on exploiting nature for personal or collective profit and human wellbeing, and all put the environment second at best. The only real difference is the way in which the proceeds will be divided up across society, and the degree of ‘greenwash’ that will be applied.  

Which is why we need Green parties, because they are the only political grouping that recognises the total dependence of people on the well-functioning of the planet and promotes an economic and social system that can live within the means of the Earth.

The neglect of environmental concerns by the NDP government is apparent in many areas. Foremost is John Horgan’s disavowal of his own commitment to bring in a Species at Risk Act. While his 2017 Mandate Letter to his Environment Minister clearly states “Enact an endangered species law”, Susan Cox reported in The Narwhal in April 2019 that Horgan had told reporters “There’s no significant species at risk legislation on the docket for the foreseeable future here in B.C”.

Presumably he had realised that protecting caribou, orca, salmon, owls or old-growth forest – arguably an eco-zone at risk – would present a problem for the forestry, mining, fossil fuel and other industries that continue to plunder BC. So in the interests of profit before planet, the planned Act had to go. And there is no mention of it in this week’s Throne Speech, although there is a vague reference to  “build on the progress we have made recently – like . . . protecting wildlife and habitat”.  

In fact if the next generation are looking for an indication of the BC government’s neglect of their future, the Throne Speech is a good place to begin. While it may seem laudable, as the government states, to put people first, it is a problem for future generations if it means neglecting nature. People and the planet need to be dealt with together and with an eye to the long-term, which is why, at a time of transition and recovery, at a potential turning point, the government should have announced the creation of a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and Commissioner, based on the Welsh model.

There is so much missing in the Throne Speech that I will have to return to it next week. But a clear and consistent picture emerges; the NDP government has little interest in protecting nature in BC if that means getting in the way of logging, mining or any other harmful resource extraction activity.

In failing to adequately protect and restore the forests, oceans and species that are the beating heart of BC, Horgan’s government is jeopardising the ecological and social wellbeing of future generations; he is blowing it for the young people he was so busy excoriating. No wonder they are ticked off.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Circling the new local economy

6 April 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

Becoming a One Planet region is a mammoth challenge, but one we have to meet unless we prefer to leave it to Mother Nature to do it for us (and to us). But that is not going to be pretty!

The key to becoming a One Planet Region is in principle very simple; use and consume a lot less stuff and energy – especially fossil fuels – and produce much less waste. Here in Victoria the Synergy Foundation’s Project Zero, which was featured in our March Conversation for a One Planet Region, puts it this way: “Our residents will own less, but live more fulfilling lives. Material goods will be shared, not stored. Our waste will be our greatest resource.”

Would that it were that easy. But we have a problem; our economic system, societal values and way of life are set up to do the exact opposite. More is better, bigger is better, faster is better. Obsolescence is planned in, repair is difficult, disposables are convenient.

One of the basic tenets of systems science is that every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it gets. Our present system has been described by the UK-based Ellen McArthur Foundation as a linear economy based on a ‘take-make-waste extractive industrial model’. But while profitable in the short-term, it is perfectly designed to be very wasteful and inefficient and have a large ecological footprint.

Which is where the circular economy comes in. The Ellen McArthur Foundation describes such an economy as based on three principles: “Design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use and regenerate natural systems”. All this is “underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources”. Sadly, less than 10 percent of the global economy is circular today; the good news is there is lots of scope for expanding this approach.

The Synergy Foundation’s Project Zero identifies what are now the six ‘R’s needed to reduce pollution and waste: reduce consumption, reuse and repair products and redistribute, recondition and recycle them.

Their program, in partnership with the Vancity Credit Union as well as the City of Victoria, BC Hydro, the Victoria Foundation and Environment and Climate Change Canada, supports new small enterprises that are working to create a local circular economy. They anticipate this will create hundreds of jobs, with more products made and repaired locally and fewer goods arriving from off-Island, which will result in reduced emissions, packaging and waste.

The five-year program is based on an incubator model, with a small number of new business ideas and early start-ups selected each year. They receive free business development advice, including advice and training on creating a business plan and pitching their idea, learning entrepreneurial skills and connecting with mentors. This work is supported by guest experts from local colleges and universities and local business consultancies. 

So what sort of circular economy businesses are being created in the Greater Victoria Region? Well, in the 2019 cohort we find businesses that work to make home composting easier (Bin Breeze), convert waste cooking oils to biofuel (Ergo); sell donated art, office, & school supplies to support educational programs (Supply Victoria), create reusable and returnable coffee cups and takeout containers (The Nulla Project) and even design the world’s first eco-friendly glow stick by using bioluminescence (Nyoka).

The 2020 cohort includes businesses that repair and reuse materials such as outdoor gear (Basecamp Repairs), old sails (Salt Legacy), burlap coffee bags and hotel linens (Thread Lightly) and plastics (Flipside Plastics); create energy recovery systems (Polar Engineering), use ‘green’ cleaning products (Positively Clean), create economic opportunities for binners (The Diverters) and even offer solar-powered tours (Tesla Tours).

Government has an important role to play too. Locally, a much stronger commitment is needed to Zero Waste strategies such as recently adopted by the City of Victoria. The BC or federal governments need to ban single-use products wherever possible, legislate the right to repair and attack planned obsolescence.

The circular economy is just getting started, but has huge potential, as more than 90 percent of our economy is not yet circular. So support these businesses where you can, demand governments play their part, and stay tuned, there is much more still to come!

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

No, Victoria Council is not the devil incarnate

31 March 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

698 words

As an internationally acknowledged expert on the creation of healthier cities and communities, I have been observing with both bemusement and concern the furor in this newspaper’s letters page over Victoria City Council’s actions on bike lanes, homelessness, affordable housing and the like.

Bemusement because it seems to me that in many ways what Council is trying to do is create a more sustainable, livable and healthy city in line with the best practices found in many European and some North American cities, emphasizing walking, biking and strong neighbourhoods.

I don’t hear many visitors to cities such as Copenhagen or Amsterdam – or the many livable cities like them in Europe that are more Victoria-sized – come away saying ‘what this place needs is more cars and parking’. For far too long, the automobile has been king in our cities, causing air and noise pollution, injuries and deaths, and contributing to inactivity and climate change; it is time it was dethroned.

Victoria Council is also trying with humaneness and compassion to deal with a perfect storm of homelessness, mental health and substance use problems, aggravated by Covid-19. But these are problems that were not created by the city in the first place, but by other levels of government over the past decades.

It was the provincial government that closed the mental health institutions and then failed to put in place adequate funding and support for community care, as retired social workers Joni Hockert (March 8th) and Gail Simpson (March 18th) pointed out in compassionate and outraged columns.

It was Health Canada and the medical profession that failed to protect Canadians from the pharmaceutical industry’s unethical marketing of opioids and the inappropriate prescribing by physicians, that led to the opioid crisis.

It was the federal and provincial governments who abandoned social housing in the 1990s and allowed minimum wages and social assistance to stagnate, leading to the crisis of unaffordable housing. And it was the courts that quite properly gave people the right to camp in the parks in the absence of other and better shelter.

My concern is that the criticism is getting out of hand, with a nasty edge to it. In the eyes of some, nothing that the Mayor and the majority of Council do is right, and the anger and vituperation heaped upon them is intemperate and excessive. Yet despite what letter writer Bob Beckwith wrote on March 26th, it is not the minority ruling the majority; I think he confuses the people who write angry letters to the Times Colonist – many of whom do not live in Victoria – with the voting public.

In the 2018 election Mayor Lisa Helps got 12,642 votes, 43 percent of the total, almost 4,000 votes more than her nearest rival, Stephen Hammond, of NewCouncil.ca. As to Council members, Ben Isitt and Jeremy Loveday topped the polls and three members of Together Victoria were also elected. Meanwhile, not one of the four NewCouncil.ca candidates was elected.

Moreover turnout was almost 45 percent of eligible voters, which is quite high for municipal elections; in this region, only Oak Bay (53.6 percent) and Sidney (48.4 percent) had higher turnouts, while Metchosin and North Saanich almost matched Victoria. The rest had turnouts ranging from 25 to 41 percent, while the nadir was Langford (18.5 percent) and Highlands, where the Mayor and Council were acclaimed without a vote. So if turnout is an indication of the legitimacy of an election, there has to be doubt about the legitimacy of many councils other than Victoria in this region.

Lawrie McFarlane wrote on March 21st that people need to “take back our city”. Take it back from whom? The people who care about sheltering those who are homeless, vulnerable and distressed? Who want to create more walkable, bikeable, livable communities? Who are trying to protect and restore the environment for future generations?

I may not agree with every decision Victoria Council has made, but I have never doubted that the Council is doing its best in challenging circumstances. People may not like the results of the election or the decisions made by Victoria Council, but it’s called democracy and its better than all the alternatives.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Creating communities fit for the 21st century

22 March 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

Last week I noted three ways proposed by Professor Graham Smith to reform our democracy to safeguard the future and dealt with two of them; re-shaping legislatures and constitutions and bringing an independent voice to decision-making. This week I turn to his third proposal; futures-oriented participatory democracy.

My interest in futures thinking began when I read Alvin Toffler’s book ‘Future Shock’ in the early 1970s. In it he proposed the concept of ‘anticipatory democracy’, which my close friend and colleague Clem Bezold – one of the world’s leading futurists and founder with Toffler of the Institute for Alternative Futures – defines as involving “enhanced participation in shaping the future.”

While the first two of Smith’s proposals are essentially high-level interventions at the national and provincial levels, participatory democracy needs to be bottom-up, which makes it particularly relevant to the municipal and neighbourhood levels.

It is thus of considerable interest to Conversations for a One Planet Region, the NGO I have founded to establish and maintain conversations about what it means to become a region with a markedly reduced ecological footprint yet with a high quality of life.

Participatory democracy can be related to the concept of community architecture, which is based on the simple principle that the environment works best when those who live and work in it are involved in its design. It is an approach that is central to the concept of Healthy Communities, my main area of work.

Our challenge, then, is to engage people in the Greater Victoria Region in conversations about designing a community fit for the 21st century; one with a high quality of life and good health for all while taking only our fair share of the Earth’s biocapacity and resources.

But ideally anticipatory democracy would mean engaging people who will live in the future in its design. Obviously we need to engage young people in the process, since it’s their future we are designing. Clearly schools can and should play an important role, as they do as part of One Planet Saanich.

But we also we need to get today’s adults to raise their focus from what affects them today and take into account the needs of future generations, including those not yet born, recognizing that their situation and needs will be very different from our own.

This is where the provincial Commissioner for the Wellbeing of Future Generations that I suggested last week could play a role. The Commissioner should appoint regional Commissioners to ensure that regional and municipal governments are taking future generations into account, and to facilitate the engagement of young people.

Another idea we might try was described in a recent article in The Alternative UK, which reports on Roman Krznaric’s description of Japan’s Future Design movement in his book ‘The Good Ancestor’. Their approach might be used as part of the One Planet Neighbourhood co-design charettes that we hope to develop as part of our Conversations.

A group of local residents would be brought together to discuss how to improve the design and functioning of their neighbourhood as it is and they are today. But then they are asked to take the “imaginative step of picturing themselves living – at their current age – several decades into the future”. As they start to imagine how their decisions will affect the lives of their children and grandchildren, Krznaric writes, “they systematically favour much more transformative plans, whether discussing issues such as health care, the future impacts of AI or ecological threats.”

Another model worth considering is the Lüneburg 2030 ‘City of the Future’ project, which developed and used sustainability visions in 25 different thematic fields. Jointly developed in this German city of 75,000 people by the local university, city government, local NGOs, businesses and citizens, it is clearly an approach that could work here.

I am convinced that involving people in designing and creating a community fit for the 21st century is a very important and indeed urgent issue. Perhaps we should establish a Regional Commission for the Future to take on this work, supported by regional and municipal governments, school boards, colleges and universities, the business sector and community organisations such as the Victoria Foundation and the Community Social Planning Council.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

Practising democracy as if the future mattered

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 March 2021

698 words

Too often, politics is focused on the short-term. We see it everywhere: Support for clearcutting the last stands of old growth forest, fishing to the last fish, maintaining and even expanding the fossil fuel industry – the list goes on. Only when it is almost too late do we act – and not always even then.

The reason is not hard to find: The future doesn’t vote, nor does it fund campaigns or provide jobs for today’s voters. So we discount the future, ignore the needs of the next generations, and largely carry on with an occasionally modified form of ‘business as usual’.  

But in a world where our ecological systems are under threat by a combination of population and economic growth, rising expectations and the widespread deployment of our powerful technologies, such an approach is a threat to our entire society and especially to our descendants.

We should recall that sustainable development was defined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

So we need to change the way democracy and governance works. At the very least we need to value future generations as much as we do the current generations, and perhaps even more, since they are not here to speak for themselves. And we certainly should pay attention to young people, whose future we are deciding upon.

Enter Graham Smith, Professor of Politics at the University of Westminster in Britain, where he is Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy; he also is Chair of the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development. So these are issues he thinks about a lot, and writes about in his book “Can Democracy Safeguard the Future?”, released this month.

He looks at three areas that we would be wise to consider. First, he argues for re-shaping legislatures and constitutions; second, he proposes bringing an independent voice to decision-making by “strengthening independent offices whose overarching goals do not change at every election”; third, he focuses on participatory democracy, an area of particular interest for him. What might all this mean here?

Well, one place to start would be to change the Canadian Constitution both to recognise that people have a right to a healthy environment and that Nature has rights. Achieving the first is the target of the David Suzuki Foundation’s ‘Blue Dot’ campaign. As to the second, we can look to Aotearoa New Zealand, where both a river and a region have been recognized as having rights. Both these areas are also the focus of the work of Dr. David Boyd, the BC-based UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, another source of knowledge and inspiration.

Turning to independent officers, this is not a new model. We have had Auditors General for decades, whose reports on the government’s finances are tabled with the Legislature.  Here in BC we also have the Representative for Children and Youth and the BC Seniors Advocate, while federally there is a Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, although appointed, oddly, by the Auditor General.

But why is independent reporting on public finances more important than independent reporting on what should be our main concern – the achievement of high levels of health, wellbeing and human development in a way that is socially just and ecologically sustainable. It’s time for a separate and equal-ranking Wellbeing Auditor General, both at the federal and provincial levels.

Such a position could well incorporate a related function, for which a model already exists in Wales: The Wellbeing for Future Generations Commissioner. Backed by the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, the Commissioner’s duties are “to promote the sustainable development principle, and act as a guardian of the ability for future generations in Wales to meet their needs, encouraging public bodies to think about the long-term impact of what they do.”

The third part of Graham Smith’s proposed approach is a futures-oriented participatory democracy. It too is not a new idea; Alvin Toffler discussed ‘anticipatory democracy’ in his 1970 book ‘Future Shock’. I believe it is well suited to local action, and I will address it in my next column.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.

A Doughnut economy for Victoria

Published as ‘Doughnut economy means not spending $100M on interchange’

Dr Trevor Hancock

10 March 2021

700 words

Our most important task in the 21st century is to transform our society and economy so we live within the “safe and just space for humanity”, as Kate Raworth describes it in her Doughnut Economics model. This means an economy large enough and fair enough that we can meet everyone’s needs (the ‘social foundation’) but small enough that we can live within the limits of the Earth (the ‘ecological ceiling’).

In thinking about what a Doughnut economy means at the local level, the Doughnut Economy Action Lab suggests we ask “how can our city be a home to thriving people, in a thriving place, whilst respecting the wellbeing of all people, and the health of the whole planet?”

This means, they say, asking what it would mean for the people – ALL the people – of this region to thrive and for the region to thrive within its natural habitat. But, they add, it also means asking what would it mean for this region to respect the wellbeing of people worldwide and to respect the health of the whole planet. In other words, think globally and act locally.

To date, only a few cities have begun to ask these questions, foremost of which is Amsterdam, closely followed by Copenhagen, the Brussels region, Dunedin in Aotearoa New Zealand and Nanaimo. According to an article in Time magazine in January about Amsterdam’s adoption of Doughnut Economics, policies based on this model “aim to protect the environment and natural resources, reduce social exclusion and guarantee good living standards for all.”

What might that mean here. Well, let’s look at the thorny problem of affordable housing. In Brussels, the Community Land Trust acquires land that it holds in trust for the community. Low-income families can buy and sell a house, but the land remains community-owned in perpetuity. Moreover, the Trust involves the residents in the design and management of the housing, and the homes they build are environmentally friendly passive houses, re-using construction material where possible.

How about transportation? Well, we wouldn’t waste $100 million on a pointless highway interchange at McKenzie that just encourages urban sprawl and commuting. First, we would moderately intensify housing fairly, using the 1.5 percent principle proposed by Todd Litman of Cities for Everyone; since the region’s population grows by 1.5 percent annually, each municipality and neighbourhood should grow that much.

This should be achieved not by building high-rise condo towers downtown but by sensitive in-filling to create “moderate-priced housing in walkable neighbourhoods”, says Litman, with traditional-looking but more dense homes. Look at the recently approved ASH (affordable, sustainable housing) project on Richardson St in Victoria and similar innovative proposals for what has been called ‘gentle densification’.

Then we could take that $100 million and invest it in decentralised work spaces and telecommute centres in the western and northern suburbs and better transit.

Amsterdam is also pushing the denim clothing industry to include 20 percent recycled material in its products by 2023 and is encouraging the development of more repair shops where people can get their clothing fixed rather than just throwing it out.

Philadelphia is also looking at the Doughnut economy, according to a recent article in Yes! Magazine. While Covid has set them back, it has also been a spur to action: we need “a green and just recovery”, said the director of the city’s Office of Sustainability. One approach they are looking at is to replace school meals made in Brooklyn and sent to the city with lunches that are made locally using locally grown food, creating local employment.

Finally, how about paying the full cost of our products and services by paying local workers a living wage and including the full cost of the environmental and social impacts in the price we pay. The Time magazine article on Amsterdam provides an example: Zucchini would cost an extra 15¢ per kilo  – 6¢ for the carbon footprint, 5¢ for the impact of farming on the land, and 4¢ for fair pay.

Yes, it will be more expensive, but if we don’t pay the full cost, our descendants will pay the price in ecological decline, social conflict and poor health. Is that the legacy we want to leave?

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.