The hope of a good Anthropocene

The hope of a good Anthropocene

Dr. Trevor Hancock

21 January 2020

699 words

Sadly, there is not much good news about the state of the Earth these days. Climate change becomes more real as it starts to bite – just ask the Australians – and there is growing awareness of and concern about the extinction crisis we are triggering. All in all the Anthropocene – a short-hand term for the massive and rapid human–created global ecological changes we face – is looking pretty grim.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, we do have positive options, good choices and many opportunities. Last week I referred to the ‘Seeds of a Good Anthropocene’ project. This week, I will explore what some of those seeds are and their relevance to Victoria.

The project began in 2014 and is the brainchild of academics from McGill University, the Stockholm Resilience Centre and South Africa’s Stellenbosch University. They wanted to identify and publicise “emerging innovative ideas, ways of living, and transformational projects”, the seeds that would lead to a good Anthropocene – “a more just, prosperous, and ecologically diverse world”.

Their website – – notes that seeds “can be social initiatives, new technologies, economic tools, or social-ecological projects, or organisations, movements or new ways of acting”, but that “they are likely not widespread nor well-known”. However, as I pointed out last week, they may grow to become important elements of the new and different future we need to create.

To date they have collected over 500 of these Seeds, many of them in Europe and North America, but also in East Africa, Southeast Asia, parts of Latin America and elsewhere. I will focus on the seeds from high-income countries because after all we have caused most of the global problems, we have the highest ecological footprints, and we are the ones who need to make the greatest changes.

The Seeds are grouped in 45 different tags, although each can be in several different tags. The tags include environmental issues such as climate change, water, agriculture and food, but also urban issues such as green buildings and infrastructure, parks, public spaces and urban farming.

But not surprisingly there is also a strong emphasis on the social and cultural aspects of change, with tags for behavior, community, governance, networks, participation and partnerships, among others. This reflects the important point made recently by Will Steffen, a leading Earth scientist working on the Anthropocene at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 in December 2019 he observed “we need to reach a social tipping point, before we reach a planetary one”.

Among the many urban seeds we find the German city of Lüneburg’s 2030+ Participatory Urban Sustainable Futures project that involved the local university, government, citizens, NGOs and businesses in envisioning the future city as a more sustainable, livable and fair place. The project has “developed sustainability visions in 25 different thematic fields that together comprise an Atlas of Visions” and in the process promoted collaboration and a sense of community.

In Canada there is Cities for People, a Montreal-based initiative that brings together a similar broad network of local stakeholders. They work to bring about systemic change by tapping in to “a demonstrable yearning for change and largely unmet civic appetite for involvement in local change and global governance”. Then there is Iron and Earth, “founded by Canadian oil sands workers . . . to train and re-train workers in Canada’s oil and gas industry to have skills in the renewable energy sector”.

These and many other Seeds are very much like the work that many groups and organisations are already doing here to prepare the ground for what we call a One Planet Region; we have our own seeds in Victoria, if not yet on the Seeds website – more on that next week. But we lack a comprehensive and visionary approach that brings it all together, such as in Lüneburg or Montreal.

It’s time our regional and municipal governments, higher education institutes and others provided the ground – in the form of a region-wide participatory futures process – and the fertilizer – in the form of funding and/or staff support – so that we can identify our local seeds for a good Anthropocene and help them sprout and grow.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


Small is beautiful – and essential

Small is beautiful – and essential

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 January 2020

701 words

Some readers will doubtless recognize the reference to E.F. Schumacher’s classic 1973 book ‘Small is Beautiful’, in which he introduced the world to the concept of ‘Buddhist economics’. The book’s sub-title was ‘Economics as if people mattered’, which today we might amend to read ‘Economics as if people and the planet mattered’.

But my purpose is not to review Buddhist economics, tempting though that is, but to pick up on the theme of ‘small is beautiful’. That idea is also reflected in the slogan ‘Think globally, act locally’, and both – as well as the notion of Buddhist economics -are central to the work I am doing with friends and colleagues in the Conversations for a One Planet Region.

We believe that the best way to address the global challenges of massive and rapid ecological changes – and the necessary economic, social, cultural and ultimately ethical transformation that is required – is through local action, which requires that we have a community-wide conversation about the challenges we face and the solutions we need.

Small actions make a difference, and small groups of people make a difference, as the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead observed many years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”. In that sense, small is not only beautiful, it is necessary if we want to change things.

So I was pleased to see a recent article in the journal Sustainability Science that supported this contention. Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, a researcher at the McGill School of Environment, and her international colleagues – many of them associated with the Stockholm Resilience Centre – set out to establish a set of ‘good Anthropocene’ scenarios for Northern Europe. There are some terms and concepts here that need some explanation.

First of all, what on Earth is a ‘good Anthropocene’? The Anthropocene is convenient shorthand for the set of massive and rapid global ecological changes that we have initiated. By ‘we’, I mean primarily the people living in high-income countries and their corporations and governments – hence their interest in Northern Europe.

A ‘good’ Anthropocene is one in which we manage to address the challenge of the Anthropocene successfully and create “a more just, prosperous, and ecologically diverse world”, as a related article from much the same team puts it. I would add that such a world, or such a community, would also be a more healthy place to live.

This group of researchers recognize that such a future “will, by necessity, build on the present, and is likely to be composed of many elements already in existence, albeit reconfigured and combined with new participants, ideas, infrastructure, and technologies”. So part of their work has been to identify and document these elements of such a desirable future that already exist, which they call the ‘seeds of a good Anthropocene’ – check out their website, or read next week’s column for more on these seeds.

Another part of their work has been to create scenarios – coherent depictions of, in this case, a positive future, based on the growth of those seeds. They then examine how such a positive future comes about. It is this work that brings me back to the importance of ‘small’.

Because what they found was that “decentralization of power” featured in all four of the ‘good Anthropocene’ futures for Northern Europe they explored: “All scenarios imagined a decline in the power of the nation-state and multi-national companies, in which capitalism and national state power were no longer dominant, but power rested in decentralized communities, networks, and cooperatives”.

Of course, the transition they describe was not easy, requiring as it did the downgrading of “corporate greed, malignant governance, and the treadmill of competition and ever-increasing work.” and needed to include “a shift in mainstream values away from consumption, individualism [and] ownership” as well as “some sort of crisis”.

But “the empowerment of local communities was a crucial leverage point in all scenarios” in bringing about the transition. In other words, it seems that any route to a ‘good Anthropocene’ – healthier, more just and sustainable – requires local action and a decentralization of power. Small, it seems, is not only beautiful but essential.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020



The deepest health challenge of the 2020s

The deepest health challenge of the 2020s

Dr. Trevor Hancock

8 January 2020

702 words

Regular readers of this column will know that my main concern is with the deeper factors that underlie our state of health and that my main focus is on three inter-related sets of issues: Human-created ecological changes that undermine our health, social injustice that leads to large inequalities in health, and an economic system that is not fit for purpose in the 21st century.

But what underpins them – and what is therefore the most profound challenge to the health of the population both locally and globally – is a morally bankrupt corporate, commercial and political system of governance. The focus of the system is on the pursuit of growth and profit and the accumulation of obscene amounts of wealth, regardless of the health, social and ecological consequences for others.

The marketing of tobacco remains the poster child for this – a product that when used as intended is guaranteed to kill and sicken millions of people, and exert its malign influence for decades. Yet the industry continues to sell its products around the world, immorally using marketing practices elsewhere that are not allowed in high-income countries.

It exemplifies how corporations are prepared to distort and obfuscate the evidence and hide what they know, and how political leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to the evidence as long as possible and generally have to be dragged kicking and screaming into taking effective action.

All these factors – immoral marketing, distortion of the science and political ignore-ance of the evidence – have been adopted by the fossil fuel industry and were on display at the recent failed UN COP-25 climate change summit in Madrid. In fact, noted Canadian energy expert Martin Bush, while the World Health Organisation had in recent years banned the tobacco industry and its lobbyists from the process of establishing rules to govern the industry, that was not the case in Madrid, where “The fossil-fuel backed contingent was huge, well-funded, and hosted non-stop social events”.

The only crumb of comfort was that for the first time – yes, you read that correctly, for the first time – the conference statement actually referred to fossil fuels. Astonishingly, noted Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada and Jamie Henn, strategic communications director of, “The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement ran 16 pages, but didn’t mention the words ‘fossil fuels’ ‘coal,’ ‘oil,’ or ‘gas’ once”.

When it comes to political ignore-ance, the obstructionist practices of the USA, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Russia, India, China and others were clear. But no better example is on display than Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister of Australia, who continues to plan for and celebrate increased fossil fuel exports even as his country burns and its Barrier Reef decays.

Of course this has nothing to do with the fact that “the corporate and fossil fuel industry’s powerful trade associations” in the USA spent well over $1 billion between 2008 and 2017 “to convince the American public that its products are beneficial and necessary”, according to a report from the Climate Investigations Centre. In Europe, the Guardian reported recently, “The five biggest oil and gas companies, and their industry groups, have spent at least €251m ($363m) lobbying the European Union over climate policies since 2010”.

Meanwhile here in Canada, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reported in November 2019 that in the seven years between January 2011 and January 2018, “the fossil fuel industry in Canada recorded 11,452 lobbying contacts with government officials”. This was far more than the forestry, automotive and renewable energy industries and five times more than environmental NGOs. Moreover, under Trudeau, the lobbying has shifted from a focus on politicians to senior government bureaucrats so that “key government institutions and actors become integrated with private firms and interest groups that together co-produce regulation and policy”. The danger of this shift in focus is that “the influence of industry actors—like those in the fossil fuel sector—are likely to far outlast election cycles”.

If the health of Canadians and the rest of the world’s population is to be protected and indeed improved in the 21st century, we have to replace this morally bankrupt system with one founded on ethical principles of social justice, ecological sustainability and human wellbeing.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Key public health issues for the 2020s

Key public health issues for the 2020s

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 January 2020

701 words

I was prompted to write this column by an article in The Tyee (a Vancouver-based on-line news service) about public health issues in 2020. It’s not often people write about public health, as opposed to health care, so the attention is welcome. However, I found the column heavily focused on infectious diseases and newsworthy items such as the opioid epidemic, dementia, brain injury and air pollution. But while not unimportant – Alzheimers disease and opioid overdose were seventh and eighth in the list of causes of death in 2018 – these are not the biggest public health problems we face over the next decade.

The major causes of death in Canada are chronic diseases, with cancer and cardio-vascular disease (CVD) causing more than half of all deaths. The good news is that overall mortality rates for these and two other major forms of chronic disease (chronic lung diseases and diabetes), age-adjusted to allow for the aging of the population “has decreased by a third over an 18-year period” (from 1998 to 2015), according to a 2018 update from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). Even better, the death rate for cardio-vascular disease declined 50 percent.

On the other hand, the 2017 Canadian Survey on Disability found “an estimated one in five Canadians (or 6.2 million) aged 15 years and over had one or more disabilities that limited them in their daily activities”. The leading causes of disability were pain-related problems (15 percent), flexibility and mobility problems (10 percent each), and problems related to mental health (7 percent).

Tobacco use continues to be the most important behavioural risk factor contributing to death and disease, a recent study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) noted, even though smoking has dramatically declined (only 13 percent of the population 15 and over report they are current smokers), thus markedly reducing tobacco-related illnesses. This is because the damage it has inflicted lasts for decades. Other good news is that better medical and lifestyle management of high blood pressure and high blood lipid levels has significantly reduced their contribution to premature death and disability since 1990.

Meanwhile, growing impacts on death and disability are being seen from physical inactivity (nearly two-thirds of children and youth and more than four in five adults do not get adequate exercise), unhealthy eating (7 out of 10 Canadians aged 12 and over) and harmful use of alcohol (more than 1 in 6 Canadians aged 15 and over) and drugs.

In addition, the PHAC update reports that 13 percent of children and youth aged 5 to 17 years and 28 percent of adults were found to be obese in 2014/15 – and many more were overweight. Because having a high BMI contributes to diabetes and muskulo-skeletal disorders, the major diseases causing disability, a high BMI is “the top risk factor contributing to years lived with disability in Canada”, according to the CMAJ study.

Since the major causes of death and disease in Canada are chronic diseases that last for years and are rooted in a life-time of exposure to unhealthy living, rates do not change very swiftly. As the CMAJ study noted, “risk factors can influence the population for a substantial length of time and . . . decreasing [the] health burden for Canadians requires a long-term commitment to risk reduction”.

Looking to the 2020s, I do not expect to see major changes in this pattern, with perhaps one exception; a growing recognition of the increasing burden of disease related to poor mental health. So the critical issues in public health in the 2020s will be much the same as today: Continuing the fight against tobacco (and now vaping, which may become an entry-level drug for smoking); working to reduce the impact of increasing behavioural risk factors related to diet, physical inactivity and alcohol and drug use; and improving the management of chronic diseases.

However, the real fight will be against the commercial, social, economic and environmental conditions that encourage and support these risk behaviours, the complex social factors leading to increasing mental health problems, and the broader ecological changes and underlying cultural values that threaten our health for the rest of the century and beyond. More on all that next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020





We need faith in a sustainable future

We need faith in a sustainable future

Dr. Trevor Hancock

24 December 2019

700 words

I recently touched on the interest among local faith communities in the challenge of becoming a One Planet region. But that local interest is part of a wider national and global movement across many faiths that links concern with ecological change – especially but not exclusively climate change – and social justice.

Faith communities are important holders of values in our communities, and in society at large. If they can bring their moral and spiritual weight to the discussion about how we can address the massive social and economic challenges we face as a result of human-induced global ecological changes, that is a very helpful contribution.

Here in the West we are perhaps more familiar with Christian statements, such as the Pope’s 2015 Encyclical on Care for Our Common Home, the World Council of Churches’ Statement prior to the 2015 Paris climate change summit or the Canadian Council of Churches’ 2015 statement “On Promoting Climate Justice and Ending Poverty in Canada”, which was also signed by Buddhist and Sikh leaders. This statement identifies “a spiritual, moral and ethical human crisis that can be expressed in this question: how will Canadians act as a good neighbour in both the natural and human communities since in the long run the health of one depends on the health of the other?”

But the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University lists statements on climate change from fourteen of the world’s major religions, from Baha’i to Judaism, Buddhism to Shinto. For example, a Hindu Declaration on Climate Change was adopted by spiritual leaders at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne in 2009, and recently updated. The Declaration calls on all Hindus to “consider the effects of our actions not just on ourselves and those humans around us, but also on all beings. We have a dharmic duty for each of us to do our part in ensuring that we have a functioning, abundant, and bountiful planet”.

Similarly, an Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change was issued at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in August 2015. The Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences, a UK-based organisation that championed the Declaration, notes that “The Qur’an is inherently conservationist and much of it has to do with how human beings relate to the natural world and the benefits that accrue from protecting it”.

At a global interfaith level, the Parliament of the World’s Religions, which seeks “a more just, peaceful and sustainable world”, held its seventh global Parliament in Toronto in 2018, with more than 8,300 people from 118 spiritual and secular traditions and 81 countries in attendance. The Parliament’s Declaration on Climate Change states “As members of religious and spiritual communities, we affirm these values and principles, which are taught by all our traditions”. The principles relate to humanity’s profound interconnection with nature, the need to respect and care for nature and all life, and our duties to future generations, “who will bear the consequences of our action or inaction”.

The United Religions Initiative (URI), a global grassroots interfaith network, has identified the environment as one of fourteen global challenges it is addressing. URI seeks common ground among all faiths because “every member of every faith tradition depends on necessities like clean water and access to natural resources to survive”.

URI has over 1,000 Cooperation Circles (CCs) world-wide, of which over 300 identify the environment as a focus. It is noteworthy that of the seven CCs in Canada that identify the environment as a focus, the five which are clearly locally based are all in BC: Squamish, White Rock, Surrey and two in Vancouver.

The importance of faith communities in the fight against climate change was underscored by the UN’s Climate Change Program back in 2015, at the time of the Paris Summit. They referred to a study from the Pew Research Centre that reported that “around 84 percent of the world’s population are religiously affiliated”. Imagine the impact if the world’s religions can engage those 6.8 billion people in the fight against climate change and other important global ecological changes.

Imagine the impact locally if our many faith communities could come together to protect the Earth and our local part of it.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

We’re spending our kids’ inheritance

We’re spending our kids’ inheritance

Dr. Trevor Hancock

17 December 2019

701 words

No doubt you have seen – perhaps you even have – a licence plate holder or bumper sticker that proclaims ‘we’re spending our kids’ inheritance’. While that may be a somewhat amusing idea to some, when elevated to the level of national and global policy, as we have just seen in the failed climate change summit in Madrid, there is absolutely nothing funny about it.

In reporting on a UN climate change report last month, the CBC quoted Jennifer Francis – a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center – as noting: “it’s important for people to realize the end of the century isn’t really that far away. It is just one lifetime: a mere 80 years from now”.

Globally, average life expectancy is now more than 70 years, and the UN Development Program reported this month that 34 countries had life expectancies of 80 years or more in 2018 (82.3 years in Canada). In those countries, an infant born today would live to see the end of the 21st century – or they would if life expectancy were actually a prediction, which it is not.

At its heart, life expectancy is a sophisticated way of measuring what amounts to the average age of death for people dying this year. So it can only predict the length of life of a child born this year if she or he experiences EXACTLY the same set of life circumstances as was experienced by those dying this year.

But one thing of which we can be certain is that children born today will not have the same life experience. The future will be nothing like the past. Go back to 1940 and think about just how different today’s world is from what it was then – and since then, the pace of change has dramatically increased. We have seen massive and rapid increases in a range of socio-economic factors that in turn have driven massive and rapid changes in the natural systems that are the ultimate determinants of our health and wellbeing and the stability of our societies.

The global ecological change that is most apparent and of greatest concern right now is climate change. The UN Environment Program described the findings in its Emissions Gap Report, released in late November, as “bleak”, noting “countries collectively failed to stop the growth in global GHG emissions”. As a result the world is on track for as much as 3 – 50C warming, as predicted by Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, in November 2018.

A temperature increase of 40C would be devastating, the World Bank’s President warned in a 2012 report, listing a variety of serious consequences, and concluding: “A 40C world can, and must, be avoided”. It is a simple point that seems to have eluded many of the key players in Madrid – the US, Brazil, India, China, Saudi Arabia and Australia were especially mentioned. They were far too busy squabbling over money and past wrongs, real or imagined, to spare much thought for future generations.

The collapse of the Madrid climate change summit is something of which the world’s government and corporate leaders should be deeply ashamed. When push comes to shove, they are perfectly prepared to sacrifice the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people, as well as their own children, grandchildren and subsequent generations – not to mention many of the other species with whom we share the Earth – on the altar of greed and self-interest.

The BBC quoted Adam Currie, with youth climate organisation Generation Zero, saying “We are tired of governments siding with the polluters. We are tired of our lives being negotiated away for money. The people are tired of being ignored while a handful of wreckers and bullies negotiate in bad faith. We know that until we get them out of power they will continue to sabotage our future.”

The level of greed and selfishness on display in Madrid these past couple of weeks is shocking. This is the legacy of our government and corporate leaders, their bequest to future generations – we don’t care if we are blighting your future, we are only interested in making money today, so we are spending your inheritance. Nothing funny in that at all.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

Awe and peace: The spiritual value of nature

Awe and peace: The spiritual value of nature

Dr. Trevor Hancock

10 December 2019

698 words

The Midwinter Solstice is nearly upon us, and it is a powerful time of the year. For our ancestors, the shortening days and the growing cold must have been a source of concern every year; would the sun come back, would winter end? So the point at which the sun stopped moving north and the days stopped growing shorter was a vitally important time of the year. The Midwinter Solstice was a time to celebrate, and of course our various midwinter festivals – Christmas, Hannukah, Diwali and others – are rooted in that time of year.

Recognising and celebrating the Solstice is an important way of re-connecting us to the seasons and great cycles of nature. But in the past century or more we have become increasingly disconnected from nature. On average, in Canada, we spend only about one hour a day outdoors, and since we are 80 percent urbanised, most of that outdoor time is spent in an urban environment, with little nature contact.

Symbolic of our disconnect from nature is a wonderful but disturbing book that was published in the UK last year – The Lost Words. The lost words in question were words related to nature which had disappeared from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. They included words related to common plants and animals in Britain (and for that matter, here in Canada) such as acorn, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter and willow.

In their place were new words such as attachment, blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste and voice-mail. As the publishers noted, this shows “the outdoor and natural being displaced by the indoor and virtual”, something that was seen by many as “a powerful sign of the growing gulf between childhood and the natural world”.

Yet over the past couple of decades there has been a growing body of work showing a wide variety of mental, physical, emotional and social benefits of nature contact. This in turn has given rise to a growing interest in issues such as outdoor play, nature kindergartens and ‘forest bathing’.

But it is deeper than that. Surely we have never known a time when we more desperately needed a strong connection between humans and nature. We face not only a climate emergency but a wide range of other troubling human-induced global ecological changes that threaten present and future generations. I firmly believe that what we face is not a science and technology problem – we have known at least in broad terms the science of global change and the technologies we need to address the problems we have created for at least 50 years. It is instead a social, economic, legal, political, cultural and ultimately ethical and spiritual problem.

Which is why faith communities are such an important part of the conversation, because we need not only to understand nature in an intellectual way, as the source of all that we need for life and health and for our material prosperity, but to feel a real emotional and spiritual connection to nature.

The need for that spiritual connection, and also a concern with ethical matters related to our relationship with the Earth, seems to be of growing importance for some faith communities here in Victoria and, for that matter around the world. In the past month or so I have spoken on the issue of becoming a One Planet Region, and the ethical and spiritual aspects of that, with three congregations.

Many who experience nature would agree there is a spiritual quality to that experience. Nature can be beautiful, a source of peace and tranquility, of reflection and contemplation; it can also be awe-inspiring and humbling as we see the power of a river, a storm or a volcano, or the immensity of a forest, a canyon, a desert, the ocean or the sky.

Re-discovering the spirit in nature, experiencing both the awe and the peace that nature can provide, may be one of the more important ways for us to address the massive ecological, social and economic challenges we face. Because ultimately, saving us from ourselves is not a technological but a spiritual quest to live in harmony with and as part of – not separate from – nature.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019

First they came for the whales

First they came for the whales

Dr. Trevor Hancock

2 December 2019

701 words

While there has been an increasing public focus on climate change in the last few years, and a slow awakening to the threat it poses, we have yet to wake up fully to an even bigger problem. I noted in a September 2019 column that we face not only a climate emergency but an extinction emergency.

A 2018 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences sheds light on this. It reported on a census of the biomass of the Earth – the weight (measured as carbon) of all living things. Just over 80 percent is plants, while another 12 percent or so is bacteria; fungi make up about 2 percent and the entire animal kingdom makes up less than 0.4 percent of the Earth’s biomass.

Within the miniscule fraction that is the animal kingdom, about half the biomass is marine arthropods, with most of that being crustacea (e.g. crabs, shrimps, lobsters and Antarctic krill) and another 35 percent is fish. Land vertebrates are only about 0.03 percent (three ten-thousandths) of the weight of all living things, with humans making up about one third of that (0.01 percent). We are outweighed by our livestock, and roughly matched by both Antarctic krill and termites. That should make us feel small and humble!

But while small, we are also mighty. The article notes it has been estimated that “the present-day biomass of wild land mammals is approximately sevenfold lower” than it was 50,000 years ago, before we started wiping out the large land mammals. As a result we now outweigh wild animals ten-fold. They also report that our hunting of whales and other marine mammals has led to a roughly five-fold decrease in their biomass, while we have roughly halved total fish biomass.

It’s not just animals that we have harmed; the authors point to evidence suggesting “the total plant biomass (and, by proxy, the total biomass on Earth) has declined approximately two-fold relative to its value before the start of human civilization”. Given that plants make up roughly 80 percent of the total biomass, that is an astonishing level of impact, one that is not compensated for by our crops, which, they report, account for only about 2 percent of total plant biomass.

Small wonder, then, that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature reports there are more than 28,000 species threatened with extinction, which is 27 percent of all the species they have assessed. This includes four in ten assessed amphibian species, one quarter of all mammals, almost a third of the sharks and rays and in the plant kingdom, a third of conifers and more than half Europe’s endemic trees.

Contemplating what amounts to a holocaust in the animal and plant kingdoms, the famous 1946 confession of the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller came to mind: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

In the face of this sixth Great Extinction of life that humanity has initiated, I think we need an updated version, a lament for the web of life:

“First they came for the whales and the sharks, the salmon and the cod and I did not speak out – because they were but sea creatures. Then they came for the elephants and the tigers, the rhinos and the bears, and I did not speak out – because they were only animals. Then they came for the birds and the insects, the reptiles and the frogs, and I did not speak out – because they were small and unimportant. Then they came for the trees and the grasslands, the ferns and mosses, and I did not speak out – because they are just plants. Then they came for me – because we had so damaged the great web of life that everything I depended upon for life was gone.”

© Trevor Hancock, 2019



Poverty and the Olympian fallacy

Poverty and the Olympian fallacy

Dr. Trevor Hancock

26 November 2019

699 words

I was not surprised to receive feedback from a couple of readers objecting to the conclusion of my column last week. In it I explained that economic growth was not the solution for poverty, partly because it does not work very well and partly because further growth of our existing economy is not possible in a finite world where ecosystems are already becoming overwhelmed. Instead, I wrote, we need redistribution of income – and, I should have added, power and resources – from rich countries to poor countries and within countries, from rich people to poor people.

Both readers wrote that they had worked hard and got a university education. One noted “People have to have the desire, focus, and strength to change. Changing social standing, from my experience, is a personal choice”, while the other wrote “I remember well talking to my parents when I was a kid growing up, it was made clear to me that if any wealth was going to be distributed it should be up to the individual, certainly not the state”.

Both of these responses have aspects of what I call the Olympian fallacy, something we sometimes hear from Olympic athletes and other high achievers: I worked hard and was very successful, so you can do the same. The implication, of course, is that we all have an equal chance and if you don’t succeed it’s your own fault.

But the argument is fallacious for two major reasons. First, we are not born equal because we differ genetically. Some people are bigger, faster or stronger than others because they got the right genes. Of course training helps, as does dedication to that training, but having the right genes also helps. And its not just genes for physical attributes but also for psychological traits, which are defined in the American Psychological Association’s dictionary as “an enduring personality characteristic that describes or determines an individual’s behavior across a range of situations”.

Thomas Bouchard, a psychologist, geneticist and professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota, is known for his studies of twins who are separated and grow up in different environments, but with essentially the same genetic makeup. In a 2008 book chapter he noted that “genetic variation is an important feature of virtually every human psychological trait and must be taken into account in any comprehensive explanation (theory) of human behaviour”.

In a 2004 article he reported the genetic influence on personality – including such traits as extraversion, agreeableness or aggression, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, positive or negative emotionality and constraint – is about 40 to 50 percent, while it is about 36 percent for vocational or occupational interest. Genetic factors also play a significant role in mental ability and social attitudes. You can see how this might affect your ability to succeed.

Interestingly, he reports that the genetic influence on some traits vary with age, with genetic influences on mental ability and social attitudes such as conservatism and religiousness being low in young people, but increasing with age – meaning that socio-environmental influences on young people can counteract a genetic predisposition.

This points to a second major problem with the Olympian fallacy; it’s not just nature, it’s also nurture – our environment matters. We all experience different cultural, socio-economic and physical environments growing up, and these conditions influence the choices available to us.

Add to that mix factors such as colonisation, dispossession and racism, or on the other hand inherited wealth, and the scales are tipped further, one way or the other. Then add in slum housing, oppressive governments or employers, resource depletion and an economic system that, left to its own devices, leads to wealth moving up, and you can see why we don’t all have an equal chance.

This is not to deny the role of the individual who is determined and works hard – although remembering that there is a significant genetic influence on personality at work. But it depends also on where you start from and the opportunities you have, it’s not all down to the individual.

Which is why a fair, just and compassionate society will try to level the playing field by redistributing wealth, power and resources to those most in need.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019



Economic growth won’t fix poverty

Economic growth won’t fix poverty

Dr. Trevor Hancock

18 November 2019

702 words

In 2004 Roy Romanow, former Saskatchewan Premier and Chair of a Federal Commission on the Future of Health Care, gave his keynote address to the inaugural meeting of the Health Council of Canada, which was set up as a result of his report. He suggested seven things we could do to stay healthy: Number one was “Don’t be poor”.

At the global level the poverty line, set by the World Bank in 2015 at $1.90 per day, measures extreme poverty. This is the amount needed for basic shelter, food and clothing, but does not include clean water, sanitation, electricity, education or health care. In other words, the global poverty line represents mere survival, hardly even a bare existence. A more realistic poverty line, suggests David Woodward in the World Economic Review in 2015, would be $5 per day, “the income at which basic needs may be met, and social and economic rights minimally fulfilled.”

For decades the economic establishment has argued that we need economic growth to remove the scourge of poverty: A rising tide, they say, will float all boats. But there are flaws in that analogy. First, it may raise all boats, but if you are in a dugout canoe rather than a luxury yacht, you will still be in a dugout canoe. Second, if your boat has a leak, the rising tide will swamp and sink it – and a lot of people are in leaky boats.

Moreover, Woodward argues, if the pattern of economic growth and distribution we experienced from 1993 – 2008 continued indefinitely, it would take 100 years to lift everyone above the $1.25 level and 200 years to get them above $5 per day. And, he adds, to do so “global GDP would need to increase “to nearly 15 times its 2010 level by the time $1.25-a-day poverty is eradicated in 2115, and 173 times its 2010 level by the time of $5-a-day poverty eradication in 2222”. But the Earth cannot even support today’s economy, as we are seeing, never mind an economy at that scale.

In rich countries too, economic growth is not the answer. Sir Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, pointed out in a July 2019 article that in America “real wages for men without a four-year college degree have fallen for half a century, even at a time when per capita GDP has robustly risen” and that “median real wages in Britain have not risen for more than a decade”. Moreover, he adds, in America “inequality has risen not only due to wealth generation from innovation or creation, but also through upward transfers from workers”. In other words, we are robbing the poor to enrich the wealthy.

So while there may have been a tiny amount trickling down to the world’s poorest – crumbs falling from the overloaded tables of the wealthy – that is vastly outweighed by the flooding up of wealth to the already wealthy. In a paper this month in Scientific American, Bruce Boghosian, a professor of mathematics at Tufts University, shows that this result is inevitable in a free market, unless there is significant government intervention.

He and his colleagues created a mathematical model of the economy which is highly accurate, matching the distribution of wealth in the US “to less than a sixth of a percent over a span of three decades” and European wealth distribution in 2010 to within half a percent.

Their key finding is that “far from wealth trickling down to the poor, the natural inclination of wealth is to flow upward, so that the ‘natural’ wealth distribution in a free-market economy is one of complete oligarchy” – a situation in which one person owns everything. Importantly, he adds, “it is only redistribution that sets limits on inequality.”

The answer to the problem of poverty, then, is not more growth – not only because the pie has to stop growing, but because growth does not fix poverty. In their book about a steady state economy, “Enough is Enough”, Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill note “reducing poverty without global growth would require the redistribution of income from rich countries to poor countries” – and, we might add, the same applies within countries, from rich people to poor people.

© Trevor Hancock, 2019