A Wellbeing society requires achieving equitable health

Published as “When it comes to health, inequality is inevitable, but inequity isn’t”

Dr. Trevor Hancock

8 February 2022

701 words

The World Health Organization’s December 2021 Geneva Charter for Well-being expresses “the urgency of creating sustainable well-being societies, committed to achieving equitable health now and for future generations without breaching ecological limits.” So far, I have mostly focused on the need to stay within ecological boundaries and to create an economy that takes such boundaries into account, while still ensuring a social foundation for all.

Here I turn to the second key element of such a society: Equitable health. Equity refers not to equality in health but to fairness in creating the pathway to health. We will never have equality in health, if by that we mean equal levels of health throughout our lives, for a variety of reasons.

To begin with, there are genetic differences – we are not clones – and sex-based differences; as a man, I don’t experience all the risks of pregnancy and childbirth, or face the possibility of ovarian cancer, for example. Then we all have different formative experiences growing up in our families, among our peers and in our communities, which may be shaped by discrimination based on gender, race, income or other factors. On top of that we have different life experiences; some of us have tragic accidents or meet up with infectious diseases that others do not, and so on.

But one of the most important factors determining our health is our level of wealth and income and all that comes with that; the quality of our environment, housing and neighbourhoods, the quality and availability of education, health care and other services, the opportunities and privileges we get or the barriers and exclusions we face. It is in the area of these socio-economic and related inequalities that equity becomes important.

Both globally and within nations, health inequity – unfair and unjust inequality – is rooted in inequitable economic and social arrangements. We see it in higher mortality rates and lower life expectancy between rich and poor both within and between countries, as well as in inequalities in health between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada and many other countries. “Social injustice”, the 2008 final report of the World Health Organization’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health stated, “is killing people on a grand scale”.

Health equity, then, means having equal opportunity, a fair chance to have good health and a good life; given that we will never have equal health, it also refers to inequalities that are considered socially acceptable. Addressing inequity often entails a hand-up of some sort, social support and affirmative action programs intended to level the playing field. And that is another key point about equity and inequity in health; while inequality rooted in genetic and other biological differences may not be remediable – we will always have inequality in those circumstances – inequity is or should be avoidable, preventable.

A classic illustration of an equitable response to inequality is the image of three children – tall, average height and short – trying to see over a wooden fence to watch a baseball game; only the tall child can see over the fence. If we have three boxes and treat the children equally by giving them each a box to stand on, the average size child can now see over too, but the short kid still can’t. To make it equitable, we have to give two boxes to the short child, one to the average height kid and none to the tall one; now all three can see. (In a final refinement of this image, if we replace the barrier of the wooden fence with a chain-link fence, all can see and no boxes are needed – the removal of systemic barriers for all.)

The World Inequality Report 2022, released in early December 2021, is directly relevant to the idea of equitable health in a Well-being society. Noting that “contemporary global inequalities are close to early 20th century levels” and that “inequality is a political choice, not an inevitability”, the authors stress that “addressing the challenges of the 21st century is not feasible without significant redistribution of income and wealth inequalities.”

This includes the challenge of creating Well-being societies that enjoy equitable health. So next week, I shall look in more depth at this important and troubling report.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

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

Towards a Wellbeing economy for Canada

(Published as “GDP needs to be replaced with more meaningful indicators”)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 February 2022

700 words

Last week I described the growing global attention to the concept of a Well-being society and economy. The latter has already been the focus of work by several national governments. In particular, Aotearoa New Zealand was the first country in the world to develop and present a Wellbeing budget, as I noted in my June 9, 2019 column.

At that time Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern commented “while economic growth is important – and something we will continue to pursue – it alone does not guarantee improvements to our living standards”. This theme was taken up by the Finance Minister, who noted that instead of focusing on “a limited set of economic data”, with success defined by “a narrow range of indicators, like GDP growth”, this new approach measures success in line with New Zealanders’ values – “fairness, the protection of the environment, the strength of our communities”.

These themes have continued, with Budget 2021 “continuing to place the wellbeing of current and future generations of New Zealanders at the heart of everything we do”. The Budget starts by reporting on the wellbeing of New Zealanders, which “is underpinned by stocks of the four capitals as set out in the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework: human capital, natural capital, social capital, and financial and physical capital”.

Note that wealth is understood here in the same terms as is proposed by the UN and other important groups, in terms of inclusive wealth – it’s not just about the money.

Since then, several more governments have started down this path. An October 2021 update from the Wellbeing Economy Alliance (WEAll) notes “the Wellbeing Economy Governments (WEGo) group now consists of five key governments: Scotland, Finland, Iceland, Wales and New Zealand”. The update also mentions that both Canada and Norway have started some work on a wellbeing framework.

Here in Canada a start has been made by the federal government, which included a report, “Toward a Quality of Life Strategy”, in the April 2021 Budget papers. This was a result of the Mandate Letter for the Associate Minister of Finance directing them to “better incorporate quality of life measurements into government decision-making and budgeting, drawing on lessons from other jurisdictions such as New Zealand and Scotland.”

Gratifyingly, the Budget paper reports that public opinion research conducted by the Department of Finance in August 2020 (amidst the first wave of Covid) found that while just over half of Canadians “feel that stronger growth in Canada’s GDP is important to their day-to-day life”, more than 4 in 5 “feel that measures beyond economic growth” are important.

These other factors include “health and safety, access to education, access to clean water, time for extracurricular and leisure activities, life satisfaction, social connections, and equality of access to public services”, the Department noted.

So not surprisingly, “nearly three quarters (71%) of respondents feel it is important that the government move past solely considering traditional economic measurements like levels of economic growth, and also consider other factors like health, safety, and the environment when it makes decisions.” Clearly, the Canadian public is well ahead of the political and business elite when it comes to measuring progress and understanding what matters.

Of course, the government can also lean on and learn from many years of work on a Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), now housed at the University of Waterloo. The Index creates a single number based on performance across eight domains of wellbeing and quality of life. Its most recent report, published in 2016, covered the period from 1994 to 2014. Over those 20 years, it found that while GDP grew 38 percent, the CIW only grew by 10 percent. Clearly GDP growth does not translate very well into improved quality of life.  

While the development by the federal government of a quality of life framework is a useful start, what now needs to happen is for the government to replace the GDP with these more meaningful indicators, and start producing proper Wellbeing budgets

As the recently established Wellbeing Economy Alliance for Canada notes, “A well-being economy depends on a re-imagination of societal purpose that enshrines what makes life worth living and a thriving planet.” That is the sort of society we must strive for.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

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 well-being society needs a well-being economy

24 January 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

Last week I discussed the first of three actions that are needed in order to create a Well-being society, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Geneva Charter for Wellbeing: Valuing, respecting and nurturing nature. This week I turn to the second: Design an equitable economy that serves human development within planetary and local ecological boundaries.

In the face of growing disquiet that our current economic system massively harms the Earth’s natural systems while creating excessive inequality and insecurity for many, there is growing interest in the idea of an economy that puts people and planet first. While long the focus of the work of ecological economics, such an approach to economics has been marginalised and largely ignored in mainstream economics, business operations and government policy until recently.

Instead, neo-liberal economics has become the orthodoxy, especially since the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Neo-liberal economics enshrines selfishness and greed as the driving forces of the economy, and material wealth, GDP growth and shareholder profit as the goals of a society where the economy is the centre of concern.

Impacts on people’s health and social wellbeing and on the environment that sustains them, whether locally or globally, are of secondary concern. In fact, they are considered ‘externalities’ and largely excluded from consideration “for no better reason than because we have made no provision for them in our economic models”, noted the respected ecological economist Herman Daly.

This leads to a fantasy economy, where GDP can grow both by selling tobacco and treating illnesses caused by tobacco; where profit can be made both by ignoring pollution regulations and by cleaning up the mess afterwards; where growth can continue even though we already exceed the limits of the Earth’s natural systems; where the rich get richer while the poor have a decreasing share of wealth and income.

But if we make money by making people sick or even killing them, by damaging or destroying communities or undermining the Earth’s natural systems that underpin our existence, in what conceivable way can we be said to have profited? How has our well-being been improved?

Happily, a growing number of key institutions recognize the limitations of the current model. Of particular interest are recent developments at the UN and among some national governments, perhaps including in Canada (the jury is still out on that). Here I will deal with recent UN reports, next week I will discuss national developments in Canada and elsewhere.

In a September 2021 speech introducing his report ‘Our Common Agenda’ to the UN’s General Assembly, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted: “GDP fails to account for the incalculable social and environmental damage that may be caused by the pursuit of profit”. The report itself went further, commenting: “Absurdly, GDP rises when there is overfishing, cutting of forests or burning of fossil fuels. We are destroying nature, but we count it as an increase in wealth.”

Guterres also called for a new way to measure progress, one that values “the life and wellbeing of the many over short-term profit for the few.” A UN Environment Program report from February 2021, ‘Making Peace with Nature’, goes further, spelling out some of the ways in which we need to re-design the economy.

This re-design includes incorporating full natural capital accounting, so when we deplete the Earth’s natural resources we count it as an economic loss, not a gain. That is one part of switching to measuring ‘inclusive wealth’, which is “the sum of produced, natural, human and social capital” – real wealth means increasing all these forms of capital at the same time.

Other key steps include governments moving “away from environmentally harmful subsidies”; ensuring “investments in sustainable development are financially attractive”; taxing harmful things, such as resource use and waste, rather than socially beneficial things such as production and labour.

These and related social measures spelled out by the WHO, such as decent and secure work, fair trade and inclusive social protection systems, are the basis for creating a Well-being economy and society. It is a clear call to put people and planet before profit and to re-define what business we are in as a society – it must be the economy of the future.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

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

What is a ‘well-being society’? For starters, one that values planet Earth

18 January 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

In the more than 40 years I have spent working in public health I have been guided by a key realization and two principles. The realization was that medicine, in which I was trained, while important, is not the main factor that contributes to good health. What matters most are our environmental, social and economic conditions and the cultural and political values that shape those conditions, which in turn shape our choices and behaviours.

The two principles that have guided my work came from thinking about the fundamental principles of public health. In an article published in 1980 I concluded they are what I then called ecological sanity and social justice; today we would say sustainability and equity. They deal with the two great external forces that shape our lives and health; the social (which includes the economic, because after all the economy is a social construct) and the environmental – both natural and built.

Medicine, meanwhile, is largely focused on the third great shaper of our health – human biology – and to a lesser extent on mental and social well-being, largely at the individual level. This is not to say physicians and other health professionals in clinical practice are not interested in or working to address the broader social and environmental conditions, many of them are. But it is not the main focus of their work, as it is for me and most other public health professionals.

Thinking this way led me to work on what we call the ‘upstream’ social and environmental conditions in which we lead our lives, whether at the local or the global level. At the local level, this is all about how we create ‘healthy communities’, while at the national level it is about how we create what the World Health Organization, in the Geneva Charter for Well-being, is now calling a ‘Well-being’ society.

This means focusing on “creating sustainable well-being societies, committed to achieving equitable health now and for future generations without breaching ecological limits”. There are several important points to note here: The focus is on health and well-being as the outcome of such a society; health status within the society is equitably distributed (which is to say, socially just and fair); there is a concern for future generations, and all this is done within the ecological limits of the one planet we have.  

The Geneva Charter goes on to propose five key areas for action, two of which are concerned with achieving universal health care and addressing the impacts of the digital transformation of society now underway.  But I want to focus here on the first three action areas, which are valuing, respecting and nurturing planet Earth and its ecosystems; designing an equitable economy that serves human development within planetary and local ecological boundaries, and developing healthy public policy for the common good. All three of these are dramatic departures from our current practices, and are essential if we are going to ensure good health for all on this planet, now and for future generations.

Starting with the first, valuing, respecting and nurturing nature will require us not only to put nature at the heart of all our decision-making, but at the heart of all our thinking. We have become divorced from nature, we have lost sight of the simple fact that all the things we need for life – air, water, food, materials, fuels and much else – ultimately come from nature. As the Geneva Charter states, “a healthy planet is essential to the health and well-being of current and future generations.”

Thus we need to re-establish a reverence for nature, to see it not simply as a set of resources put there for our benefit and to make money from, but as a sacred trust that we must pass on in good condition to future generations. There are also spiritual dimensions to this; most if not all faiths include some form of reverence for creation and it is a core belief for Indigenous people around the world.

‘Valuing nature’ can also mean putting an economic value on nature, and indeed that is one of the key elements of the second action area, the creation of a well-being economy, to which I turn next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

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

Health requires a well-being society

11 January 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

I wrote last week that we cannot let the next 50 years be the same as the last fifty. When I think about how the global situation has changed since 1970, four key things stand out:  Improved health, increased wealth, continuing high levels of inequality that are only slowly declining, and massive environmental damage. They are inter-related, and only one – improved health – is an unalloyed good thing.

First, as a proxy measure of health, life expectancy at birth has increased globally from 56.9 years in 1970 to 72.6 years in 2019, according to the Oxford University-based organization Our World in Data. But global GDP more than quadrupled  between 1970 and 2020, from $19 trillion to $81.9 trillion, while GDP per person has nearly tripled, from US$5,592 in 1970 to US$15,212 in 2018 (after adjusting for inflation).

However these global averages conceal enormous inequality. Globally, Our World in Data notes, “A child born in one of the countries with the worst health is 60-times more likely to die than a child born in a country with the best health”. Life expectancy in Japan in 2019, the highest in the world at 84.6 years, was more than 30 years longer than the 53.3 years in the Central African Republic.

Even here in Canada, there are dramatic inequalities in health: A 2018 report from the Public Health Agency of Canada found a 4.1 year gap in life expectancy between those living in high versus low-income neighbourhoods, and around 11 – 12 year gaps between areas with high or low concentrations of Inuit or First Nations people.

There is also enormous economic inequality. The GDP per person in 2020 in the richest country (Qatar) was 91 times that of the poorest country (Central African Republic), while there was a 49-fold difference between the Central African Republic and Canada. And there are even more dramatic differences between the obscenely wealthy and the most deprived people, both within and between nations

The good news is that global inequality has declined since 1970, as low and middle-income countries have become wealthier, and that has led to improved health. The bad news is that the decline is slow, and at this rate it will require decades more of growth for the world to be rid of poverty.

The really bad news is that economic growth has already caused massive environmental harm, and the further growth needed to eliminate poverty, if based on our current economic paradigm, will further undermine the Earth’s natural systems upon which we depend for our health and wellbeing.

It’s a Catch-22; we need growth to improve health, but further growth will harm health. In other words, the current economic model is simply not fit for purpose in the 21st century. We need an entirely different economic model and an entirely different societal system, one focused on human rather than economic development.

More precisely, we need a society that is focused on ecologically sustainable and socially equitable human development, and that constructs an economic model to match that societal imperative. Interestingly, both the UN and its health and environmental agencies – the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP) – are starting to point the way.

I will return to the important messages in recent reports of the UN Secretary General and the UNEP in future columns, but here I will focus on the recent work of the WHO, since the main focus of my work is the health of the population.

In its contribution to the COP26 global conference on climate change in October and the even more recent Geneva Charter for Well-being, the WHO has begun to spell out the concept of well-being societies. The Geneva Charter states that well-being societies are “committed to achieving equitable health now and for future generations without breaching ecological limits”, adding that “well-being is a political choice.”

The WHO’s special report on climate change and health spells out what that means in practice, noting that “protecting people’s health requires transformational action in every sector, including on energy, transport, nature, food systems and finance.”  This, then, is the task facing public health as it works to create protect and improve the health of the population.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

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

Let’s not make the next 50 years a repeat of the last

4 January 2022

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

Last week I suggested one of the key problems we face is that our critical challenges are long-term, but our thinking and decision-making is short term. I noted the UN Secretary General, in a September 2021 speech to the General Assembly, said “global decision-making is fixed on immediate gain, ignoring the long-term consequences of decisions — or indecision.” And I stated we need a time horizon that extends beyond this financial year-end or this legislature’s term of office.

So I was very pleased to see Mayor Lisa Helps, in an interview in last Sunday’s Times Colonist, saying she sees her job as setting the city up for success 50 years down the line and that “some of the policies that we’ve put in place and the actions we’ve taken . . .  are leaving a good legacy for the next 50 years.”

The choice of 50 years is an interesting one, because one of the themes I will explore in my columns this year is that 2022 marks 50 years since the First UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in June 1972.

In many ways the intervening 50 years have been, if not yet quite a disaster, at least a very serious setback for the global environment. As someone who first got interested in environmental issues in the late 1960s, I saw that UN conference as heralding a turning point, a new beginning. After all, the conference book was titled ‘Only One Earth’, the Club of Rome published a report on ‘The Limits to Growth’, and The Ecologist published ‘Blueprint for Survival’, which among other things called for the creation of ecological political parties.

Already, Rachel Carson had shown us the ravages of the chemical industry in her landmark 1962 book ‘Silent Spring’, Paul and Anne Ehrlich had discussed the challenges of population growth in their 1968 book ‘The Population Bomb’, and Francis Moore Lappé had discussed the importance of shifting to a low-meat ‘Diet for a Small Planet’ in her 1971 book of that name.

Within a year of the conference, the Buddhist economist EF Schumacher had described a system of “economics as if people mattered”, the subtitle of his 1973 book ‘Small is Beautiful’. In that same year the first two ecological parties were begun; the People Party in the UK and the Values party in New Zealand, both to become Green Parties following the establishment of the German Greens in1980.

I genuinely thought that in the coming years we would begin the transition to what the Science Council of Canada, in a 1977 report (back in the days when we actually had a Science Council) called a ‘Conserver Society’, what others called sustainable societies or communities.

But it was not to be, although small initiatives in many places did try to create more sustainable communities, and some positive changes have occurred. Every decade we thought we would see the shift start, but it never did. The 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development proposed the strategy of sustainable development, and Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, dubbed the 1990s the ‘turn-around decade’. But we did not turn.

Fifty years after the Stockholm conference, the global population is 2 times larger while the world GDP per person is 2.5 times larger, so in roughly 50 years our total impact has increased five-fold, while our technologies are more powerful, widespread and pervasive than ever. As a result we are crossing planetary boundaries, over-heating the planet, exceeding the Earth’s biocapacity and decimating the biosphere.

For the sake of future generations, not to mention other species, we desperately need to make sure that the next 50 years do not repeat the past 50 years of delay, denial and obfuscation by powerful industries, fossil fuel-rich countries and other economic interests wedded to a neo-liberal ‘consumer society’ agenda.

I concluded last week that what I really want for 2022 is wider public discussion about the reality of the existential challenge of the multiple ­human-induced ecological crises that are conveniently referred to as the ­Anthropocene, and how we should respond here in the Greater Victoria region.

I intend to use my column this year to pursue that discussion.

© Trevor Hancock, 2022

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

All I want for the New Year is . . .

28 December 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

. . . well, world peace, of course; an end to poverty, hatred and discrimination in all its forms; reconciliation with Indigenous people in Canada and around the world; serious action on climate change and an end to the ravaging of nature and instead a re-establishment of reverence for the Earth – oh, and an end to Covid too.

Utopian? Yes, of course. But then, who would wish for the opposite of those things? Achievable? Well, certainly not in the coming year, but I would be happy with at least some signs of progress in all those areas, both globally and locally. But key to any substantial progress are some profound reflections on our present situation.

Many years ago Don Toppin, a Canadian futurist, suggested that too often we pay attention to the important rather than to the critical; what catches our attention now, compared to what really affects our long-term future, even our existence.  For example, while Covid is important it is not critical, it is far from being the greatest challenge we face.

Indeed this newspaper itself was taken to task just a month ago by Pastor Don Johnson for suggesting in an editorial that Covid “could make past epidemics look tame by comparison.” In reality it is comparatively minor, as these things go, with a relatively low case fatality rate of around 1.5 percent in Canada. Thanks to strong public health measures, including a rapidly developed and deployed vaccine, it only accounts for around 5 percent of all deaths in the past 2 years of the pandemic.

This is not to diminish the deaths of millions of people globally, the sense of loss among the bereaved, or the mental, social and economic costs borne by billions. But we should be glad it was not the Black Death, which killed around 40 percent of the European population in just 4 years from 1347, or smallpox, with a death rate of around 30 percent before the use of vaccination.

And this was nothing compared to the disruption that Indigenous people in the Americas experienced when they encountered European diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles and whooping cough. One estimate is that up to 90 percent of the pre-contact population of some 60 million Indigenous people in the Americas died within a century of contact due to a combination of infectious disease and colonial policies that amounted to what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called a cultural genocide.

But Covid is not an existential crisis, it does not threaten societal collapse. More profoundly concerning, indeed critical, is what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calls our “suicidal  war on nature” that we have been conducting for the past couple of centuries, and with increasing intensity since the mid-20th century. Globally, the UN Secretary General and the UN Environment Program have begun to address the challenge of making peace with nature, focusing on the triple threat of climate change, loss of biodiversity and high levels of pollution.

In a September 2021 speech to the UN, Mr. Guterres linked the war on nature to several other global crises that together threaten “a future of serious instability and climate chaos.” In addition to Covid, these include “unchecked inequality [which is] is undermining social cohesion, creating fragilities that affect us all”, the “unforeseen consequences” of technology and a system of “global decision-making [that] is fixed on immediate gain, ignoring the long-term consequences of decisions — or indecision.” 

Climate change inaction, and the desecration of nature more generally, in the name of ‘progress’ is of course the poster child for such bad decisions. What is critical, it seems to me, is an understanding of our complete inter-connection with and dependence on the Earth’s natural systems for our very existence, coupled with a time horizon that extends beyond this financial year-end or this legislature’s term of office. We also need to pay more attention to the deep cultural values  that underlie and drive our dangerous social and economic behaviours.

So what I really want for 2022 is wider public discussion about the reality of the existential challenge of the multiple human-induced ecological crises that are conveniently referred to as the Anthropocene, and how we should respond here in the Greater Victoria Region.

© 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

The midwinter solstice and other turning points

14 December 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

This evening I will gather with others in our neighbourhood at Lights on the Gorge, our annual event to mark the midwinter solstice. We will light some of the trees along Gorge Road, sing songs appropriate to midwinter and the solstice and have a lantern parade for the kids. It’s not a major event in itself, but it certainly marks a major event, a key turning point each year.

Its importance, for me, is not only that the sun has ceased its retreat and now the days start getting longer, although that is certainly part of it. But more than that, it is a way of connecting ourselves to nature and the great annual cycles that mark our year. 

My recent columns, as you will have seen, have been based around the theme of ceasing our war on nature and instead making peace with nature, as the UN Secretary General has urged. But as with all peace initiatives, this means coming to know your ‘enemy’ – and as the recent extreme weather events have shown, nature can at times seem like an enemy, even though these events are at least to some extent caused or exacerbated by humanity.

So getting to know and respect nature, to treat nature as an ally and partner, not a foe and competitior, begins with increasing our contact with nature. Recognising the winter and summer solstices is part of that process.

The solstice is also a time when my mind turns to other turning points. One of those has to do with the set of human-induced global ecological changes that we are witnessing, most obviously climate change. Unfortunately, the decision-making systems in our societies and economies are not set up to deal well with changes in complex dynamic systems such as ecosystems (and our societal systems, for that matter). We assume a degree of stability and slow, fairly smooth and linear change.

But that is not how complex systems change; they can both resist pressures and maintain stability and then, when the right trigger happens or the pressure becomes too much, they can flip quite suddenly to a new state. “Sometimes”, notes the recently-established Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University (I am on the Institute’s Science Advisory Board) “a small change in one component of a complex system causes an enormous shift in the system’s overall behavior; but other times, even large changes in multiple components produce little effect.”

The timing of non-linear change in a system, adds the Institute, is hard to predict, and such shifts to a new stable state “are usually extremely difficult to reverse”. That is a problem, because we face “the real possibility that . . . [our planetary socio-ecological] system is close to an irreversible shift to a new pathway that would radically degrade human well-being and civilization’s long-term prospects.” This is a turning point we really don’t want to bring about.

On the other hand, there are turning points we do want to trigger. As leading Earth scientist Will Steffen noted a couple of years ago, in contemplating the possibility of rapid and irreversible shifts in the planetary Earth systems that are our life support: “We need to reach a social tipping point, before we reach a planetary one.” It is not yet clear we have reached a social tipping point for climate change, but after the extreme weather events of 2021, we may be getting closer.

Societal systems also maintain stability in the face of pressures (which is one of the unstated purposes of a bureaucracy), but if they reach a tipping point they too can flip. We have seen this with respect to the shift in the social acceptability of smoking a few decades ago or the fairly sudden acceptance of gay marriage in many countries in recent years. Now we need some fairly rapid societal shifts with respect to our overall relationship with – and dependence upon – nature.

That is the central focus of the work of the Cascade Institute; to try to figure out how we might intervene to “produce a virtuous cascade of change that helps flip humanity onto a far more positive path”. So Happy Solstice, I wish all of us a positive turning point soon.

© 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

Black Friday is bad for the planet and our wellbeing

7 December 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

701 words

We have just witnessed another Black Friday and Cyber Monday, an orgy of consumerism that kicks off the Christmas shopping binge. Every year it seems the consumption-fest gets worse, hyped by a marketplace that encourages greed and over-consumption because it desperately wants us to purchase more and more stuff.

But while this consumer-fest may seem to be good for the economy, it’s bad for the planet, as the retail market supercharges our environmental impact, and bad for us.

First there is the amount of materials that have to be mined, harvested or otherwise extracted to make the products and their packaging, as well as the pollutants created in those processes. Then there is all the energy used in manufacturing, distributing and delivering them, again with associated pollution, and finally the mountains of waste that result.

A 2018 CBC report noted several ways in which on-line shopping – which can have a lower carbon footprint than in-store shopping – can end up being worse: Selecting rush-shipping, over-ordering and doing product returns, doing international online shopping, and not having an alternate delivery option when you are not home, requiring re-delivery. The problem is that the system is set up to make these unsustainable choices easy.

Then there is the waste, including all the packaging waste. I have a classic example of this. Last year I was sent a thank-you gift by an organization in Ontario whose event I had spoken at (via Zoom). The gift, which was shipped from Vancouver, was a small green plant in a huge cardboard box. The thought was good, but the environmental impact was excessive.

But what makes all this even worse is that the materialistic values that underpin and drive consumerism make us feel worse, not better. In his 2002 book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser, a psychology professor at Knox College, Illinois, showed that “materialistic values go hand in hand with low quality of life and psychological health”.

In a 2013 article, he and his co-authors noted there is “empirical evidence . . . that the more that people prioritized values and goals for money and possessions, relative to other aims in life, the lower they scored on outcomes such as life satisfaction, happiness, vitality, and self-actualization.” And a 2014 article that Kasser co-authored noted “a growing body of evidence suggests that materialistic values may be negatively associated with pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors.”

It seems we – and the planet upon which we depend – would be better off without Black Friday and Cyber Monday. So it is important to know that there is some good news. For example, an August 2020 report from the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at Cardiff University found that during Covid there had been “reductions in waste, travel and consumption [and a] rise in low-carbon recreation such as virtual and outdoor exercise, gardening and creative hobbies”, although they expressed concern that with the lifting of lockdown there could be a return to pre-existing habits.

Closer to home, Teghan Acres, Communications Coordinator at Canada’s National Zero Waste Council, recently noted pioneering work in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal to use cargo electric bikes and electric vehicles to lower the environmental impact of online deliveries.

Even closer to home, she reported that several eco-conscious small businesses in Victoria launched Blue Friday in 2019. The stores pledge to donate a large portion of Black Friday sales to support ocean conservation initiatives. Of course, it is still about selling stuff, but at least it is local. The Blue Friday revenue in past years has helped purchase Seabins for North Saanich Marina and this year will replace the foam dock at First Street Marina in Tofino.

But beyond these small steps, important though they may be, we need a transformation in our core values away from materialism to other, more pro-health, pro-social and pro-planet values.  As the recent report from the UN Environment Program, ‘Making Peace with Nature’, noted: “With successful transformative change, the consumption of resources would decrease in wealthy contexts and increase sustainably elsewhere.” In such a future, we would not see the good life being “centred around high levels of material consumption, but around rich relationships involving people and nature.”

© 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

Mother Nature has shown us that ‘business as usual’ is a disaster

1 December 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 December 2021

701 words

Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, has told us “humanity is waging war on nature.” The problem is that wars have winners and losers. But as the events this year have surely shown us, Mother Nature is more powerful than us, and bats last. We are going to lose this war, which is why Mr. Guterres added: “This is suicidal.”

We need to give up the belief that humanity is more powerful than nature, that we can manage and control and defeat nature. Instead, we need to understand that we have to work with and make peace with nature, as Mr. Guterres urges us to do. Because Mother Nature has been showing us that ‘business as usual’ is a recipe for disaster, one for which we seem almost entirely unprepared.

We have become the victims of a self-imposed ‘perfect storm’, which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a critical or disastrous situation created by a powerful concurrence of factors”. Here in BC we have experienced the heat dome, disastrous forest fires and now horrendous floods. What drives all these events is climate change, to which BC is a significant contributor, combined with poor planning and bad practices that create vulnerable conditions.

What we have heard described as ‘atmospheric rivers’ are better described as vapor storms. In an article in the November edition of Scientific American, Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Centre notes that global warming leads to higher levels of water vapor in the air. This fuels “’vapor storms’  that are unleashing more rain and snow than storms did only a few decades ago.”

Then we have increased our vulnerability to fire and flood and storm over the decades of ‘business as usual’ practices, and compounded that by a failure to adequately take into account the changing climate. We drained Sumas Lake for farming, but then failed to protect and enhance the dykes that should protect it. We built on floodplains: An entire suburb of Vancouver is called Delta – surely that should tell us something – while a November 28th article in the Times Colonist noted that 85 percent of the community of Pitt Meadows is built on floodplain.

We have clearcut forests as if there were no tomorrow, even though “clearcutting increases the frequency and intensity of forest fires” and also increases “the risk of flooding at peak periods” and “the likelihood of landslides”, according to a report prepared this year for the Sierra Club by Dr. Peter Wood, a forester with over 20 years experience in the area of forests and climate change in Canada and internationally.

We built the Coquihalla Highway very rapidly, just 18 months, ready for Expo 86, but are we now paying the penalty for a rushed job? Have we failed to improve and protect the highway in light of predicted climate changes?

None of the events of 2021 should have come as a surprise, although they clearly have. Previous heat events should have warned us of the potential health effects, yet 595 people died in the heat dome and Lytton burned to the ground. A 2015 report commissioned by the BC government found that the dike that protected the Sumas Prairie was “substandard,” “too low” and “need[ed] to be updated” and more generally that “none of the 74 dikes examined in the Lower Mainland fully met the province’s standards”, CBC News reported last week. On top of that, a report by Ebbwater Consultants earlier this year warned that “the current model for flood risk governance in B.C. is broken”, and yet governments were taken by surprise.

As environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk said on CBC’s The Fifth Estate on November 26th: “For governments, experience has become making the same mistake over and over again, but with greater confidence.” 

What Mother Nature is telling us, fairly clearly, is that we can’t go on with business as usual. We have created climate change, and now we are beginning to see its implications. We have to change, we have to take all possible measures to slow and then halt human-induced climate change, and we have to learn to live with and adapt to the changes that are inevitably coming. We can’t keep on this way.

© 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