Alberta proclaims its right to pollute

Alberta proclaims its right to pollute

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 February 2018

699 words

The David Suzuki Foundation’s ‘Blue Dot’ campaign aims to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in the Canadian Constitution, and last year the federal government’s Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development urged the government to enshrine it in law. Beyond these efforts to ensure that we humans (and, by implication, other species) have that right, there is also a move to give nature itself legal standing.

Indeed David Boyd, an environmental lawyer and a Professor of Law, Policy, and Sustainability at UBC, has just published a book on the rights of nature. In it he reports that courts in some countries have recognized that “endangered species have the legal right to exist”. But not only do species have rights, so too do entire ecosystems.

If you think that is far-fetched, consider that New Zealand has granted legal recognition as persons to both the Whanganui river – the third-longest in the country – and the Te Urewera region – previously a national park. The 2014 Act that established Te Urewera states it “has all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person”, with those rights “exercised and performed on behalf of, and in the name of, Te Urewera by Te Urewera Board”.

So it is disgraceful to see the Alberta and federal governments moving in the opposite direction in their attempt to ram Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline through BC. In doing so they are, in effect, proudly asserting Alberta’s right not only to pollute its own land, waters and people, but those of BC and the rest of the world.

Mr. Trudeau’s defence of his actions is that we need to get Canada’s resources to market, that we need the jobs, that we can protect the environment – especially BC’s coast – and, bizarrely, that increasing exports of oil from Alberta dirty oilsands is necessary if we are to meet our greenhouse gas emisson reduction targets. He is dangerously wrong on all counts.

Not all resources must be mined, used and exported; the sorry story of asbestos proves that point, although it took a long time to overcome stubborn government support for this industry. The last asbestos mine in Canada closed in 2011 and Canada finally agreed to ban the use of asbestos as of this year – 20 years after the World Health Organization declared asbestos a carcinogen in 1987

Not all jobs are good; we need 21st century clean energy jobs, not 20th century dirty energy jobs.

And this decision hardly protects the environment or human health; on the contrary, it expands the local harm done in Alberta by enabling expansion of the oilsands, while threatening BC’s land, waters and coast with a dramatic increase in the flow of diluted bitumen (dilbit) in the pipeline and increased tanker traffic along our coasts. Few believe that a so-called ‘world class’ disaster response system will be much use when a big tanker goes down in a heavy gale, as will surely happen one day.

Finally, the Pembina Institute, citing a 2015 Carnegie Foundation report, notes that “The oilsands are still one of the most carbon intensive oil sources on earth”; it also cites 2017 World Bank data that show that “if Alberta were an independent nation-state it would surpass Qatar to have the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions in the entire world”. At a time when we desperately need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and globally, why on earth would we be facilitating the expansion of this industry. We need to leave the carbon in the ground.

David Boyd argues “if nature has rights, then humans have responsibilities”. It is time we accepted our responsibility to the natural ecosystems of which we are a part, and upon which we ultimately depend for our wellbeing, indeed our very survival. This is far more important than Alberta’s right to pollute. In the face of this situation, the BC government should go much further than it has so far. It is time to petition the courts to give legal standing to our endangered orca and salmon and our threatened coastal and forest ecosystems; in doing so, we can protect the health of people here in Canada and around the world.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018



Family doctors deserve more of our respect

Family doctors deserve more of our respect

Alternative title: The generalist is an important specialist

Dr. Trevor Hancock

31 January 2018

701 words

Last November the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) and the Medical Schools Council in the UK released a disturbing report. They surveyed 3,680 medical students from 30 medical schools throughout the UK, finding that by the time they reach their final year “more than three quarters of medical students report hearing negative comments about general practice” – what we would call family practice – “from clinicians, educational trainers, and/or academics”.

The report – Destination GP – built on a 2016 report from Health Education England and the Medical Schools Council that noted “Recruitment into general practice has become a major issue”. That earlier report found what it called ‘professional tribalism’ from specialists who “perceive primary care of ‘lower status’”; this, the report says, is unacceptable.

The level of denigration is astounding; Nine out of 10 of those surveyed felt their fellow students had negative perceptions of general practice, more half found doctors in specialty areas where they were placed were negative about general practice, and of the three-quarters who heard negative comments, 25 percent heard it suggested that GPs were of lower status and 15 percent heard general practice described as “undemanding and easy”.

As a result, says the RCGP, “some medical students considering a career in general practice are being discouraged and deterred from joining the profession, or abandoning it for other medical specialties”. This adds to the challenges faced by the NHS in recruiting GPs for a variety of reasons, including workload and status.

This situation will be familiar to the many patients across Canada who are having trouble finding a family physician. Sadly, it seems, some of the same attitudes to family practice exist within the medical profession here in Canada, according to an article by Roger Collier in the Canadian Medical Association Journal this January. It also is familiar to me, both as a former family physician and as a public health physician; we too are sometimes seen as not being ‘real doctors’ and not practicing ‘real medicine’.

What I think is really going on here is a wider phenomenon, found across many professions and disciplines, rooted in a societal tendency to value specialism over generalism. This attitude fails to recognize that generalism, perhaps better described as holistic thinking, is a specialty in its own right. Rather than knowing more and more about less and less, holistic thinkers know about a great many different things and work to synthesise and integrate them, looking for what Gregory Bateson called ‘the pattern that connects’. That is the value of family practice – understanding the whole person and their family in the context of their life and work.

I also see this holistic, generalist thinking under-valued in academe, another institution where specialization is (over) valued. Students tend to get funneled into narrowly conceived channels where funding and publication is to be found, while interdisciplinary programs – while given rhetorical support – are in practice difficult to establish and maintain.

Yet many of the challenges we face in the 21st century are complex, cut across and involve many sectors, and interact as complex systems. They cannot be solved by narrow specialists, who indeed may make the problem worse. We need people trained in holistic thinking who understand complex systems and how to manage them.

This is certainly true of public health, my specialty for 35 years. In a column in the Canadian Medical Association Journal a recently, I pointed out our vast scope of practice. In addition to being trained in medicine, public health physicians need to have a broad knowledge of the social sciences, from anthropology to psychology, community development to political science.

Because of the importance for health of the built environment, we need a grounding in the design professions (architecture, engineering, and urban planning), while our interactions with the natural environment require knowledge of toxicology, environmental health and ecology. Finally, because of our involvement in policy-making and regulation, we need an understanding of public administration and public communication.

I believe that family practice and public health are among the most challenging and complex specialties in all of medicine, requiring the best and brightest as their practitioners. They deserve far more respect, both within and beyond the medical profession, as specialties in their own right.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Pandora’s box and the Canada Pension Plan

Pandora’s box and the Canada Pension Plan

Dr. Trevor Hancock

21 January 2018

703 words

The World Economic Forum (WEF) released its 2018 Global Risks report last week. One business reporter dubbed it ‘the Pandora report’, and that is a pretty fair assessment. If you have an interest in the welfare of future generations – or for that matter, young people alive today – it makes for sober reading.

In their preface Klaus Schwab, the founder of the WEF, and Borge Brende, the President, write: “Globally, people are enjoying the highest standards of living in human history. And yet acceleration and interconnectedness in every field of human activity are pushing the absorptive capacities of institutions, communities and individuals to their limits. This is putting future human development at risk”.

To this, they might have added the absorptive capacities of the over-stretched natural systems that provide the basis for our life and wellbeing, and that underpin our society and economy. Because when you look at the risks the report considers to be most likely and to have the greatest impact, as assessed by about 1,000 of their multi-stakeholder communities, almost all the greatest threats are environmental.

In terms of impact, only weapons of mass destruction are seen as having a greater impact than extreme weather events, followed by natural disasters, failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation, and water crises. Overall, when likelihood and impact are combined, these last four are the top global risks, followed by cyber-attacks, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, large-scale involuntary migration and man made environmental disasters

In short, as the Executive Summary bluntly states: “We have been pushing our planet to the brink and the damage is becoming increasingly clear. Biodiversity is being lost at mass-extinction rates, agricultural systems are under strain and pollution of the air and sea has become an increasingly pressing threat to human health”.

So while Prime Minister Trudeau is in Davos, Switzerland, this week for the meeting of the WEF, let us hope he pays more attention to the environmental consequences of our current economic system, and their implications for human health. If he were to do so, perhaps he would eschew the narrow, short-term economic gains that have guided his choices on the Kinder Morgan pipeline and other short-sighted and harmful decisions that further encourage the fossil fuel industry.

Since climate change lies behind most of the leading global risks we face, the last thing we should be doing is supporting the further growth and development of this industry. Instead we should be divesting from fossil fuels, transferring all the many subsidies they enjoy to the conservation, renewable and clean energy sector, and setting up transition support programs for the workers that will be displaced.

In thinking about this, Mr. Trudeau and his Finance Minister, Mr Morneau, might be helped by these nuggets from the WEF report: the World Bank announced in December 2017 that it was placing a moratorium on financing upstream oil and gas-related investments after 2019, while Norway’s Wealth Fund announced in November that it was divesting from oil and gas shares. Indeed, the time is swiftly coming, if it is not already here, when it will be fiscally negligent for pension-fund managers to invest in fossil fuels.

With more than $300 billion in investments, the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) is one of the largest state-owned investment funds in the world. Its Investment Board is accountable to the government and reports to Parliament through the Finance Minister. But in a 2015 report, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) estimated that about 22 percent of the CPP’s Canadian investments are in fossil fuel producers or pipeline companies.

This is considerably higher than the 4–9% of funds the CCPA estimates are invested in fossil fuel stock by the 20 largest public pension funds, meaning “the CPP is more exposed to climate policy risk”. For example, the BC Investment Management Corporation, which manages the BC public sector’s pension funds, was estimated to have about 8 percent of its holdings in fossil fuels.

For the sake of the environment, our health and the security of our pensions, it is time the CPP and other public pension funds followed the lead of Norway and a growing number of investors, disclosed their fossil fuel holdings and started to divest from fossil fuels.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018



Misery and health: The diseases of despair

Misery and health: The diseases of despair

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 January 2018

702 words

Last week I wrote about happiness and health. Interestingly, we live next door to a nation that has put the pursuit of happiness into its founding document as a central purpose – and is spectacularly failing to achieve its aim.

The 2012 World Happiness Report noted that “the U.S. has experienced no rise of life satisfaction for half a century”, while the 2017 version of the Report found happiness in the USA has actually been declining for most of the past decade. The opposite of happiness is misery, which seems to be where the US is headed, and that shows up, in health terms, in what have become known as the ‘diseases of despair’ – alcohol, drugs and suicide.

A November 2017 report – Pain in the Nation – released by the Trust for America’s Health and the Well Being Trust, notes that “Drug-related deaths have tripled since 2000 . . . Alcohol-induced deaths grew by 37 percent from 2000 to 2014 [and] . . Suicides increased by 28 percent from 2000 to 2015”. The combined effect has been to actually lower life expectancy in the USA in the past two years – the first time in 60 years that has happened.

As I noted in a March 2016 column, and as this report confirms, these diseases of despair are found particularly among White middle-aged Americans with less than a college education. Among this group, life expectancy has declined 20 percent, while deaths from drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning, liver disease and suicide all tripled.

“These trends are a wake-up call that there is a serious crisis in this country”, states Pain in the Nation. The report went on: “They are signals of grave underlying concerns facing too many Americans – about pain, despair, disconnection and lack of opportunity – and the urgent need to address them”.

Not coincidentally, in December 2016 the Washington Post reported a study by Penn State University professor Shannon Monnat that found Donald Trump performed better “in the counties with the highest drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates” than had the Republican nominee in 2012. This was particularly so in the Rust Belt states of the (de-industrialising) Midwest, as well as in New England.

The authors of Pain in the Nation propose to address these issues is through a ‘national resilience strategy’ that focuses largely upon individual and to some extent collective interventions intended to enhance resilience among people and communities and to identify problems early and intervene. While these are useful and important strategies, in my view they do not go far enough, because they do not address the upstream causes that lie behind the dramatic increase in the ‘diseases of despair’ they document.

The 2012 World Happiness Report noted that in the five decades during which there has been no increase in happiness, “inequality has soared, social trust has declined, and the public has lost faith in its government.” Moreover, this occurred while at the same time “income per person has increased roughly three times”; clearly, money is not buying happiness.

Indeed, the noted economist Jeffrey Sachs points out in the 2017 World Happiness Report, in a chapter on ‘Restoring American happiness’, that “the situation has gotten worse in recent years: per capita GDP is still rising, but happiness is now actually falling.” Sachs writes that about half the decline in happiness can be related to four social factors: “less social support, less sense of personal freedom, lower donations, and more perceived corruption of government and business”.

Here in Canada, we cannot afford to be smug. We too have an opioid addictions crisis and a lot of alcohol-related deaths; a 2015 OECD report shows that US and Canadian alcohol consumption per person and the proportion of deaths attributable to alcohol are similar, while our rates of suicide are not that dissimilar from the US (13.5 in the USA v 12 in Canada per 100,000 in 2014).

Nationally, the latest life expectancy data only goes to 2014, but here in BC, life expectancy peaked at 82.9 years in 2014 and declined by about 2 months to 82.74 years in 2015 and 2016. We need to learn from the USA that the pursuit of happiness is more than just the pursuit of money.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018

Society’s happiness is a serious business

Society’s happiness is a serious business

Dr. Trevor Hancock

8 January 2018

699 words

Happiness is in vogue. It was the cover story in the November 2017 National Geographic. We have the annual World Happiness Report (launched on the International Day of Happiness, March 20th), a Happy Cities initiative, an Economics of Happiness initiative, a country – Bhutan – that measures its Gross National Happiness, even World Happiness Summits and a Happy Planet Index. Indeed, we have one of the world’s leading experts on happiness right here in BC – John Helliwell, Professor Emeritus of Economics at UBC and one of the co-editors of the World Happiness Report since its inception in 2012.

Clearly happiness is serious business. But what does it have to do with health? Well, not surprisingly, quite a lot – in fact, the two are in many ways almost the same thing, and each helps to predict the other. Happier people live longer lives in good health, while good health is a key factor contributing to happiness; what makes us happy makes us healthy, and vice versa.

So what exactly is meant by ‘happiness’? Interestingly, that first Report didn’t define it – after all, it is a subjective phenomenon, we each have our own idea of what it means to be happy. But it did note there are “two broad measurements of happiness: the ups and downs of daily emotions, and an individual’s overall evaluation of life”, how you feel about your place in society. The former is known as ‘affective happiness’ while the latter – evaluative happiness – is the more important from a public policy perspective.

But while to some extent happiness is built into us – the 2012 report noted that it “depends crucially on personality, [which is] strongly affected by your genetic make-up” – the 2017 edition notes that “Happiness is increasingly considered the proper measure of social progress and the goal of public policy”. Indeed, the OECD committed itself in 2016 “to redefine the growth narrative to put people’s well-being at the centre of governments’ efforts”.

This, of course, is precisely what public health has been advocating for many years. So what areas should a government focus on if happiness (and thus, health) were the goal of public policy and the measure of social progress?

The 2017 report identifies six factors that between them explain three-quarters of the variability in happiness between countries: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support (having someone to count on in times of trouble), trust (measured in absence of perceived corruption), perceived freedom to make life decisions, and generosity. In addition, having positive emotions – which as noted may be partly genetic, but can also be learned – and having a sense of life purpose are important.

And who does this best? Well, no surprises there: The 2012 report noted “the happiest countries in the world tend to be high-income countries that also have a high degree of social equality, trust, and quality of governance”. Based on data from 2014-16, the top six are Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland and The Netherlands; Canada ranks 7th, the USA is 14th, the UK 19th.

Internationally, GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy explains about half the difference between countries, which is hardly surprising. We know that up to about $20,000 per capita, growth in GDP and increased life expectancy are closely linked; you need a certain level of wealth to fund clean water, sanitation universal education and so on.

But much of the remainder flows from the other four social factors; of these, it seems, increased social support is almost as important as GDP per capita. Indeed, the report finds that on average, if a country were to increase the proportion of its population that had just one person to count on by just 10 percent, it would be “equivalent to that from a doubling of GDP per capita”.

Good mental health also has a significant impact. In examining the US, Australia and Britain, the 2017 report also found that “diagnosed mental illness emerges as more important than income, employment or physical illness” in explaining the difference in happiness among individuals.

So once we have enough wealth, it seems we should focus more on building social support and mental health if we want to improve happiness and health.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018



Connecting to our past and to nature

Connecting to our past and to nature

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 January 2018

702 words

Thirty years ago, in the background paper for the World Health Organisation’s new Healthy Cities program in Europe, Len Duhl and I identified eleven evidence-informed characteristics of a Healthy City. One of them was “connection to biological and cultural heritage”, and was particularly influenced by an interesting review of the literature on environments, people and health by Ros Lindheim, an architect, and Len Syme, a noted social epidemiologist.

They identified three major aspects of urbanization that are important for the health of urban populations, one of which was this connection, which they saw as helping to “define a person’s sense of self, a person’s place in the world”. They saw it as “important to health that natural (circadian, seasonal etc.) rhythms be respected, that our hunger for nature and variety be satisfied”. There has been a good deal of evidence developed since then that suggests they were right.

While I am always somewhat conscious of these connections, they are much in my mind at the winter solstice. This is the time of the year when I perform the Green Man in our Mummers Play and at a couple of Wassails. So at this point, you are probably wondering what all these strange ideas are – Green Man, Mummers Play, Wassail, – and what does this have to do with health.

I have been a Morris dancer – an ancient English folk tradition – for the past 40 years. Long-time readers of my column may recall I wrote about the health benefits of dancing back in June 2015. A related part of English folk tradition is the Mummers Play; both the Morris and the Mummers Play have their roots in village life and are connected with nature.

The Morris dance was performed in the spring – especially May Day – and on into the summer and is believed by many to be, in part, a fertility ritual, while the Mummers plays – which have elements of pantomime within them – were performed around mid-winter. While every village that did this had its own version, at the heart of every Mummers play there is a fight, a death, and a quack doctor who brings the victim back to life. Many believe this is an invocation of a much deeper tradition concerning the death of the old year and the birth of the new. I see it as a way of reminding us of – and celebrating – the solstice, of re-connecting with the cycles of nature.

As to the Green Man, that is an even older tradition. Thousand-year old carvings of ‘green men’ (the technical term is foliate faces) can be found in the churches of England and other northern European regions. While nobody is quite sure why they are there, they are widely assumed to represent some sort of forest spirit – perhaps a forest guardian – at a time when forests were dark and dangerous places.

For me, the Green Man and similar traditions – the Wild Men that can still be found in villages across Europe, and the festivals associated with them – are an important way of reminding us, at a deep level, of our vital connection to and roots in nature – a lesson we desperately need to re-learn these days, not just intellectually, but emotionally.

The Wassail is another ancient tradition; the word itself comes from the Middle English wæs hæil – ‘be healthy! (Haeil is also the root word for hello, hail, whole, hale, health and holy). Villagers went around to the ‘great houses’ and cider orchards in mid-winter singing wassails (many may know the Christmas carol ‘Here we come a-wassailing’), blessing the apple trees (“we hope that your apple trees blossom and bear, that we may have cider when we call next year”) and seeking food and liquid refreshment. (I wrote about the health benefits of singing together in one of my first columns, in December 2014.)

For those who are interested, our final public performance of the Mummers Play this season is at the Sea Cider Wassail on Sunday January 21st. So Waes Haeil in 2018! I hope you find your own ways of connecting with nature and your cultural heritage – its good for your health, especially when combined with singing and dancing together.

© Trevor Hancock, 2018



My Healthy New Year’s wish list

My Healthy New Year’s wish list

Dr. Trevor Hancock

24 December 2017

700 words

Well, world peace, of course. And to be rid of the Donald. But while with any luck the latter is possible, and the former is devoutly to be wished for, I would settle for some healthy actions closer to home. Here are a few of the major population and public health issues where I hope we might see some progress in 2018

The most profound challenge to our health facing us in the 21st century is the accelerating global ecological crisis we are causing, including climate change; depletion of fisheries, forests and foodlands; ocean acidification; pollution and species extinction.

So my wish for 2018 is that we wake up and start to face the future. Because while this is not going to have a great impact in 2018, it is going to have a big impact on our children and grandchildren, and on many vulnerable populations around the world. As the Rockefeller-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health bluntly put it: “we have mortgaged the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present”.

One vital task for our descendants, regardless of what the Donald may think, is to begin to get off fossil fuels, especially coal and – here in Canada – the Alberta tar sands as well. There is a growing movement to divest from fossil fuels, just as was done for tobacco and apartheid-era South Africa. Interestingly, this may in fact be not only ethically advisable, but fiscally necessary.

Bevis Longstreth, a securities lawyer twice appointed to the Securities and Exchange Commission in the US, wrote last year that “it is entirely plausible, even predictable, that continuing to hold equities in fossil fuel companies will be ruled negligence” because “the foreseeable rewards are not likely to be equal to the foreseeable risks”. If that is the case, pension funds and others have a duty to future pensioners to safeguard their investments by getting out of fossil fuels.

On the topic of making the next generation less healthy, a 2014 Statistics Canada report noted that “Obesity has become one of the world’s greatest health concerns and threatens to undo gains made in life expectancy during the 20th century”. So I look forward to several key healthy food policies that I hope and expect will be coming from the federal government in 2018, in the form of a Healthy Eating Strategy.

First, the draft of the new Canada Food Guide is focused more strongly on a plant-based diet, limited intake of processed or prepared foods high in sodium, sugars, or saturated fats and avoidance of processed or prepared beverages high in sugars (including 100% fruit juice). A low-meat diet is not only good for our health, it is good for the planet, as meat production – especially beef – is energy intensive and a major source of greenhouse gases.

Second, there is a proposal for new regulations for front-of-pack warning labels for packaged foods high in salt, saturated fat and sugar that would be much easier for consumers to understand. Third, there is a strong push for Canada to prohibit the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children. You can help by supporting the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition and writing to your MP. Go to for more information.


None of these changes are a foregone conclusion and as you can imagine, the junk food and fast food industries and the pop, juice and soda industries are pushing back hard. The last thing they want is for their customers to know in clear and simple language how unhealthy their food is, and to be limited in their marketing, as was done for tobacco. But I wonder whether the guidance on prudent investing might also apply here; maybe wise investors should be divesting from these industries too, given the harm they do.

My final health wish for 2018 concerns another fundamental requirement for good health: housing. If housing is a human right, and if “everyone deserves a safe and affordable place to call home”, as Justin Trudeau has stated, then we need the Liberal housing strategy to get going now, not in April 2020, as has been announced. It would make a happier, healthier New Year for thousands of people.

© Trevor Hancock, 2017

Finding hope at the turning of the year

Finding hope at the turning of the year

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 December 2017

698 words

We are at the winter solstice, when the sun ends its long decline and starts to turn back to us. Traditionally, this is a time of celebration, the real new year, when we mark the death of the old year and the birth of the new. It is a time to look forward hopefully to longer, warmer, sunnier days.

But finding hope is no easy task; on the contrary I find good reason for pessimism, at least at the global level. We seem stuck in the same old, tired, harmful neoliberal economic thinking and practice that has brought us to the brink of ecological system decline, perhaps even collapse. It has also brought us unacceptable levels of inequality, which breeds anger, resentment and what the Americans are now calling the ‘diseases of despair’ – drug and alcohol use and suicides that have actually reduced life expectancy in the USA.

Unsurprisingly, I have been called a merchant of doom and gloom when it comes to describing the ecological and social crises we are creating, and there is some truth to that. But as a physician, I look upon it as akin to dealing with a patient with cancer. We don’t believe we should hide the truth and pretend everything is fine, when it isn’t. On the contrary, we need to help patients face the facts and find a way to deal with their reality. But we also need to find a way to provide them with hope, as well as comfort and acceptance.

Faced with these huge global challenges, I am often asked how I can find hope and keep working in a positive way. Several years ago, a couple of my colleagues defined hope in an article in these pages in a way I find helpful; “finding positivity in the face of adversity”. This certainly describes my approach, perhaps because I like a challenge. In fact, I have come to think of hope as a vaccine against despair

I often find reason for hope – if not optimism – at the local level. Experience has shown that good things often start locally and move up, which explains why we should think globally, but act locally. In part, I think this is because at a local level we are actually closer to the problem, and also because local governments tend to focus more on quality of life. But also, there are so many more local governments than at provincial and federal levels, and thus so many more opportunities for innovation and experimentation.

When I look around, I see that the seeds of a new economy and a new way of life that were sown back in the 1960s and 1970s are slowly beginning to sprout in communities around the world. Globally, one useful source is the Optimist Daily, a free daily summary of “real news focused on the things that ARE working and the solutions that we can apply to our communities, and to our global civilization”.

Recent urban examples include an underground urban farm in Sweden that is heating the building above it; Los Angeles painting its blacktop white to reduce local summer temperatures; and a study that found that simple interventions such as public seating, inviting frontages and welcoming signage can make a big difference in how people perceive their cities.

On the energy front, a recent story highlighted “the world’s first zero-emissions fossil-fuel power plant” while another concerned a new cooling technology that “could cut an office building’s cooling electricity needs by 21 percent in summer”, while new mini wastewater treatment plants are being installed in South Africa “that recover energy, clean water and fertilizer from sewage” while obviating “the need for the facilities to be connected to sewage systems”.

There are similar stories to be found right here in Victoria. And a good place to find them is Creatively United’s Solutions Hub, described as “a free community resource hub designed to help you learn more about the many amazing people and organizations in our community who are providing positive and sustainable solutions to ensure our region remains beautiful, healthy, happy and resilient”.

Check it out, so you too can find hope at the turning of the year.

© Trevor Hancock, 2017




The business of government in the 21st century

The business of government in the 21st century

Dr. Trevor Hancock

10 December 2017

703 words

In the past two columns I have explored how Ministries other than the Ministry of Health could contribute to our health and wellbeing. But I want to step back and consider the implications of this for the way we organise government more broadly. Put simply, is the current structure of government fit for purpose in the 21st century? After all, it is based largely on the management of a set of 20th and even 19th century issues.

A recurring theme in my columns is the need to ask what business government is in. For some, those who are still stuck in the mid to late-20th century ideology of neoliberalism, the business of government is business. But if we look at what that has brought us – obscene levels of inequality and global ecological destruction, both of which threaten our personal and collective wellbeing – we can see it is a failed model. The last thing we need is more of the same.

Instead, we need to recognise that the ‘business’ of government is – or should be – to maximise human and social development in a way that is indefinitely ecologically sustainable. That will mean building simultaneously four different forms of capital: Human, social, natural and economic capital. It might be a good idea to organise government along these same lines.

Human capital is concerned with the level of human development of each individual. How can we enable each person to develop to their maximum potential, whatever that may be? This calls for education and life-long learning, the protection and promotion of health, the cultivation of creativity and innovation, and the creation of caring, supportive, compassionate people who respect and cherish diversity.

Social capital, on the other hand, is concerned with the collective, recognising that humans are social animals. It is about the strength that is found in our connections with and responsibilities towards each other. There are at least three ways in which our social capital is manifested. The first, is ‘informal’ social capital, the social networks and bonds we all form through family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.

The second form of social capital concerns the formal social contract that we make with each other through governments and, to some extent, the non-profit sector. It manifests itself in universal free education, universal healthcare, employment insurance, social assistance programs, disability and retirement pensions and so on.

I call the third form of social capital ‘invisible’ social capital; the legal, political, constitutional and diplomatic systems which we have developed over centuries of trial and error that provide the basis for peaceful resolution of our differences and disputes. One of the challenges we face today is how to bring these systems of peaceful democratic governance into the 21st century age of the internet, social media, and artificial intelligence.

Natural capital is the third main form of capital; in a nutshell, it is the one planet on which we live, and which we share with a myriad other species. It is the most fundamentally important form of wealth we have, as these ecological systems and natural resources are the ultimate determinants of our wellbeing.

The final form of capital is, of course, economic capital. Currently, it is the only form of capital that seems to matter. But it is in fact the least important, which is why I address it last. We need a certain level of economic wealth in order to pay for clean water, sanitation, education and so on. But building economic capital by depleting natural, social or human capital, which is what so often happens, is a good definition of insanity!

I suggest we need a government organised along these lines, with perhaps four super-Ministries, or Cabinet Committees, each responsible for tending one form of capital, and with Cabinet as a whole ensuring they mutually support each other in doing so. Note that in this system, the Minister of Economic Development is the least important minister, there to serve the other sectors whose job it is to grow human, social and natural capital. The role of economic development is subservient, there to enable and support human and social development for all, in a manner that is indefinitely ecologically sustainable. If it doesn’t do that, it fails.

© Trevor Hancock, 2017




Other ministries should focus on health

Other ministries should focus on health

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 December 2017

699 words

Last week I suggested that in a government that was focused on ecologically sustainable human and social development, rather than mainly on economic development, the Ministries would be named according to their function. I am using the list of prerequisites for health identified in the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, so next on the list is food.

Hunger should be just as unthinkable in a society this rich as is homelessness. The first task of a Ministry of Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture should be to make food banks redundant by recognising and implementing the right to food – just as the federal government proposes to do for housing. And of course, the Ministry must ensure the food we eat is healthy.

You would think that the healthfulness of the food supply would be an important concern for Ministries of Agriculture. But that is not the case today in BC. The mandate letter for the new Minister of Agriculture does not include any reference to health. Perhaps the NDP government needs to take a leaf from the federal Liberals, whose 2015 mandate letter has as its second priority “Develop a food policy that promotes healthy living and safe food”.

This will mean working with – and if need be, regulating – the food industry to reduce the availability and consumption of processed foods high in sugar, salt and fat, while increasing our consumption of vegetables, whole grains and fruit, and reducing portion size.

In addition, this Ministry would have to work to shift agriculture towards the production of healthy foods in a healthy and ecologically sustainable manner, using ecological and organic farming methods. An important part of this would be a shift to a low meat diet, which would result in less damage to the environment – in particular a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions – and a healthy diet for us. What’s not to like in securing these health and environmental and benefits?

Next comes income; so why not a Ministry of Income Security? It would have to enshrine at least a decent minimum wage, and preferably a ‘living wage’ for all workers. The latter is a wage high enough to ensure a normal standard of living. Both these need to be adjusted for local conditions; clearly the minimum wage needs to be higher in Vancouver than elsewhere in BC.

In addition, this Ministry would need to ensure a level of social assistance that would also ensure people can live a decent life. This probably means developing some form of universal basic income, as is being experimented with right now in Ontario. Moreover, as our economy is increasingly automated, we will need to find a way to redistribute the income these robots earn, using economic production to support social production.

This is not a new idea – I first heard of it decades ago – but it was given added impetus recently by Bill Gates in an interview with Quartz. Referring to the automation of factory work, he said “If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level”, using the money to fund the displaced workers in roles that benefit the community.

Finally, one of the key tasks of this form of government is to ensure that our human and social development is ecologically sustainable, which means reducing our ecological footprint by about 80 percent. This calls for a Ministry – or perhaps a ‘super-Ministry’ – of Sustainable Resource Use and Conservation. Among its key responsibilities would be ensuring energy conservation, recognising that it is still the case that one of the largest sources of energy available to us is conservation. We would be much better off spending money on this than on new energy sources such as Site C or fracked oil and gas. And of course it would work to get us off fossil fuels and on to clean, renewable energy.

This Ministry would also work to reduce our consumption of scarce natural resources, promote repair, re-use and recycling, and protect and conserve the natural environment and the other species with whom we share the Earth, and the natural systems that are the ultimate determinants of our health.

© Trevor Hancock, 2017