Neoliberalism is a major threat to wellbeing

Neoliberalism is a major threat to wellbeing

Dr Trevor Hancock

24 June 2020

701 words

One of the beneficial side-effects of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it might spur us to rethink the fundamental systems that constitute our society, and the deep values that underpin them. One of those systems is neoliberal economics, which has become the predominant, even orthodox economic model since the Second World War.

This model – or to be more precise, as Guy Dauncey among others points out, this ideology – was championed by a small group of economists in the years immediately following the Second World War. Starting in 1947 this group, who called themselves the Mont Pelerin Society – Milton Friedman being one of them – developed and implemented a deliberate strategy to make neoliberalism the core of economic ideology and policy in the West, and ultimately globally.

Its mantras of privatisation, austerity, tax breaks for the wealthy and the corporations, de-regulation and small governments have been great for the one percent and large corporations and hugely problematic for the exploited bottom 50 percent or more. Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics, writes “its narrative about the efficiency of the market, the incompetence of the state, the domesticity of the household and the tragedy of the commons, has helped to push many societies towards social and ecological collapse”.

At the heart of neoliberalism, it seems to me, lies a fundamental meanness, an inherent nastiness, in the way it puts money and profit first and people, community and the environment last. It is in essence an ideology of individualism – ‘there is no such thing as society’, Maggie Thatcher famously said – and selfishness; ‘I’ve got mine, the heck with you’. It results in an erosion of society – which seems to be exactly what neoliberals ultimately seek. In that sense it is in essence an anarchic view of the world.

Along the way it turns engaged citizens into grumpy taxpayers and customers into consumers, leaving us all to focus on paying as little as possible in taxes or at the till, and damn the consequences. It results in underfunded public services and underpaid workers. People who, we now realise, are essential to our wellbeing, are driven down by low wages and insecure employment, in order to enrich corporations.

So unsurprisingly, but sadly for millions of people, neoliberalism has left countries such as the USA, perhaps the poster child for neoliberalism, unable to respond effectively either to the short-term crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic or the longer, slower and more dangerous crisis of climate change and the other massive and rapid global ecological changes that we have come to call the Anthropocene.

A disturbing example of the moral vacuity of neoliberal economics is provided by William Rees, writing in The Tyee in May 2018. He quoted Lawrence Summers, writing in 1991 when he was the chief economist at the World Bank (he went on to become President of Harvard), that “a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable.” This approach, which quite coldly and viciously attacks the health of both poor people and their ecosystems at the same time, is a disgraceful example of the fatal ethical flaw in standard neoliberal economics.

It drew this response from Jose Lutzenberger, then Secretary of the Environment for Brazil: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane. . . Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in”.

As George Monbiot – one of our most perceptive and powerful social critics – wrote in The Guardian on 1st April this year, “You can watch neoliberalism collapsing in real time. Governments whose mission was to shrink the state, to cut taxes and borrowing and dismantle public services, are discovering that the market forces they fetishised cannot defend us from this crisis. The theory has been tested, and almost everywhere abandoned.”

It’s time we got rid of neoliberalism and created a new economics of social and ecological wellbeing, fit for purpose in the 21st century.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

We need a One Planet Region strategy

We need a One Planet Region strategy

Dr. Trevor Hancock

16 June 2020

701 words

As we plan for the economic recovery from Covid, many are pointing to the need for a green, just and healthy economic recovery. Mostly those calls have been directed to the global, national and provincial levels. But what would that mean in the Greater Victoria region? More specifically, what would it take to be a One Planet Region? Because the simple fact that seems to elude not only our political and corporate leaders but most of the rest of us is that we only have one Earth.

The2019 report from the Global Footprint Network, which had data to 2016, found that Canada’s ecological footprint (EF) was equivalent to consuming 4.7 Earth’s worth of annual biocapacity, with 65 percent of that being our carbon footprint – meaning one third is not our carbon footprint.

Things may be a bit better in this region, where we benefit from a milder climate and an almost fossil-fuel free electricity supply. Nonetheless, the footprint of Victoria and Saanich is estimated to be at least 3 planets, according to a 2018 estimate by Dr. Jennie Moore at BCIT and Cora Hallsworth, a local environmental consultant.

Among the top five suggestions to create a One Planet Saanich are reducing our purchases of non-food consumables (‘stuff’, in other words) by almost one-third while increasing recycling, and reducing both our meat and dairy consumption and our total food purchasing by a quarter. The latter helps to deal with the massive problem of food waste.

Together with the top two recommendations – eliminate fossil fuel emissions in buildings and convert half of gasoline private vehicles to electric while reducing the number of vehicles on the road – these five actions will take us a long way towards the target of being a One Planet Region.

They will also have significant health co-benefits, some of which we have seen during the ‘Covid pause’: Cleaner air, reduced carbon emissions, fewer motor vehicle crashes. We can also expect longer and healthier lives due to a healthier diet and reduced obesity as well as increased activity associated with active transportation.

So we should use the opportunity of the ‘pandemic pause’ to plot a course to becoming a region with a One Planet footprint and a high quality of life for all. The good news is that most municipalities already have a climate action plan and many – including the CRD – have declared a climate emergency. But while carbon emissions are a large part of the footprint, such plans do not go far enough. We need to move beyond climate action plans to develop a One Planet strategy for the region.

Many of these ideas are part of an approach that was approved in principle on May 14th by the City of Victoria. Moving Forward, Not Backward is based on the 2018 Common Vision, Common Action Solutions Statement, which created a regional agenda for social and ecological justice. Intended to guide action to create caring, low-carbon communities in the post-Covid-19 world, Moving Forward, Not Backward goes further than One Planet Saanich in also addressing the social aspects of a One Planet Region.

The Covid pause has highlighted and worsened the social injustices inherent in our society, from homelessness and unaffordable housing to undervalued and underpaid service workers. In the transition to a One Planet Region, we can expect to see additional social strains as the economy shifts in new directions. So it calls for a raft of policies intended to “ensure every person can live with security and dignity with access to the basic necessities of life”

But it also recognizes that local action depends in part on the provincial and federal government putting supportive policies and programs in place. Among other things it calls for a fairer tax system, a robust non-market housing system and a Living Wage (estimated to be $19.39 in Victoria in 2019), as well as divesting from fossil fuels and ensuring a just transition for energy and other workers.

If the region as a whole and its individual municipalities, the business community and leading institutions and community organisations were to adopt a One Planet Region strategy, it would put us at the forefront of the growing global movement to create One Planet communities.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Just which predator needs to be controlled?

Just which predator needs to be controlled?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

9 June 2020

700 words

An opinion piece in this newspaper on June 4th from the BC Chamber of Commerce and the Thriving Orcas Thriving Communities Coalition (composed of a number of coastal communities’ Chambers of Commerce) warned that coastal communities are on the brink of extinction because they rely on recreational fishing, which is in jeopardy. Part of their proposed strategy to protect the orca and the Chinook salmon – and their livelihoods – is “predator control”.

But just which predator is it that needs to be controlled? Ironically, two other reports released the same day made it clear; the chief predator is us. The first was a report from NatureServe Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada on the crisis facing endemic species – species that are found only in Canada. The second, released by the Sierra Club of BC, was a report from three independent scientists on the state of BC’s old growth forests.

The endemic species report identified 308 of them, most being vascular plants and invertebrates (bugs and slugs, if you like). In BC we have 105 of these endemic species, 76 of which are unique to BC (the rest overlap with other provinces or the USA), with many found only on Vancouver Island, Haida Gwaii and other islands. Ten of them are Critically Imperilled and 13 are Imperilled. But this is only a small part of the picture.

There are over 50,000 species of plants and animals in BC according to the Royal BC Museum – more than in any other province. Of them, 1,807 species are at risk of extinction, according to an opinion piece in The Narwhal last year by a group of prominent academics, most from BC, who conduct research on endangered species. Overall, 784 species present in BC are Red-listed, meaning they are Extirpated, Endangered, or Threatened in BC.

The lead researcher on the third report, on old growth forests, was Dr. Rachel Holt, a conservation biologist and the principal of Veridian Ecological Consulting, based in Nelson. In the past she has served as Vice-Chair of the BC Forest Practices Board.

Shockingly, she and her colleagues found that “many old-growth management areas, created to protect old-growth forests, do not actually contain old forest”, but that “government information was either misleading or not making it out to the public”; hence their independent report. They agree with the information on the website of BC’s Old Growth Strategic Review (due to report about now) that old-growth forests comprise about 23% of forested areas in BC.

But the bulk of this old growth forest, they write, is not the iconic old growth with big trees that we think of when we hear the term ‘old growth’. Instead, they report, “the vast majority of this forest (80%) consists of small trees”, including “black spruce bog forests in the northeast, subalpine forests at high elevation, and low productivity western red cedar forests on the outer coast”.

In fact, they note, “Sites with the potential to grow very large trees cover less than 3% of the province”, and of this small amount, only about 3 percent is old forest. Large tree old-growth forest ecosystems, they say, “are almost extinguished and will not recover from logging”.

And yet, they note “little human effort is tasked with protecting old forest values, while much is focused on harvesting”. Similarly, the endangered species researchers note “B.C. is still one of the only provinces in Canada without legislation dedicated to protecting and recovering species at risk”.

The harsh reality is that communities that rely on the over-exploitation of natural systems such as old growth forests or salmon fisheries, or that are affected by the actions of others that have seriously damaged those ecosystems, are indeed threatened with extinction, because their natural resources base is heading for extinction.

So when we talk about predator control, let’s be clear what predator we are talking about. We are the planet’s apex predator and so the predator we need to control is us. Because as the 19th century Duwamish elder, Chief Seattle, is recorded saying, “we are part of the web of life, and whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves”. We forget that wisdom at our peril.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

 

Towards a healthy economic recovery

Towards a healthy economic recovery

Dr. Trevor Hancock

2 June 2020

700 words

That there will be some sort of economic recovery from the Covid pandemic is not in doubt. But the fight that is shaping up is between those who want to go roaring back to the past by promoting fossil fuels and ditching environmental protections and those who want to use this opportunity to bounce forward instead to a green, just and healthy recovery.

So what would the economic recovery look like if health mattered? The Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, has some ideas. In an address to the World Health Assembly in mid-May, he discussed the need for a healthy and green recovery, noting that “going back to ‘normal’ is not good enough”.

Governments are committing trillions of dollars to support people during the pandemic, he said, and to “eventually resuscitate economy activity”. The ways in which these vast sums are allocated “have the potential to shape the way we live our lives, work and consume for years to come”. But there is a danger we will “lock in economic development patterns that will do permanent and escalating damage to the ecological systems that sustain all human health”.

So he called on governments to instead “promote a healthier, fairer, and greener world” and identified a six-part prescription for a healthy, green recovery. The first is to protect and preserve nature, which is “the source of human health”. Second, governments need to invest in essential services, in particular water and sanitation.

Third, he said, we need to ensure a quick transition to a healthy energy system, not only because fossil fuel combustion causes climate change, but because it also causes two-thirds of outdoor air pollution. Around the world, “over 90% of people breathe outdoor air with pollution levels exceeding WHO air quality guideline values”. The transition to a clean energy system would “improve air quality to such an extent that the resulting health gains would repay the cost of the investment twice over”.

Linked to this is the sixth element of the prescription;“stop using taxpayers money to fund pollution”. He is referring here to the amount spent subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, about US$400 billion every year. But added to that are the costs of the harm to health and the environment caused by fossil fuel use, which he pegs at more than US$ 5 trillion every year. These costs are not included in the price of fossil fuels, amounting to a hidden subsidy greater than the amount all governments in the world spend on health care.

Rounding off the prescription for a healthy and green future are recommendations to promote healthy, sustainable food systems and build healthy, liveable cities. Transitioning to a diet that meets the WHO healthy diet guidelines “would save millions of lives, reduce disease risks, and bring major reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions”, while cities need to be designed for public transport, walking and cycling, rather than the private car.

Dr. Ghebreyesus is not alone in his views. Last week a letter went to the G20 leaders calling for a healthy recovery very much in line with his prescription. The letter came from over 350 organisations representing over 40 million health professionals and over 4,500 individual health professionals from 90 different countries. It stated “a truly healthy recovery will not allow pollution to continue to cloud the air we breathe and the water we drink. It will not permit unabated climate change and deforestation”. In addition, the letter added, we must look after the vulnerable and ensure workers are well paid.

Among the 18 organisations in Canada that signed the letter are the Canadian Medical Association, the Canadian Nurses Association, the College of Family Physicians of Canada and the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, as well as organisations one would expect such as Canadian Nurses for the Environment and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. The latter has also sent a petition to Prime Minister Trudeau calling for a healthy recovery in Canada.

We need to push our elected leaders to pay heed to this health advice, ensuring that the recovery from the recession induced by our response to Covid-19 is a healthy, green and just recovery.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

 

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