And still the sheep look up

And still the sheep look up

Dr. Trevor Hancock

15 September 2020

701 words

Contemplating an orange-red noon-day sun almost obscured by the smoke clouds roiling in from America, burning to the south, brought vividly to mind The Sheep Look Up by British author John Brunner, an eerily prescient science fiction novel I read almost 50 years ago. (As I no longer can find my copy, I had to turn to Wikipedia for a refresher; fortunately it has a long and quite thorough summary.)

The ending is chilling. America has descended into environmental, social and economic chaos. And over in Ireland a woman, seeing the clouds of smoke, suggests to a visitor that they call the fire department. They would have a long way to go, he replies, “it’s from America. The wind’s blowing that way”.

The book ends with these lines from John Milton’s poem Lycidas: “The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed, But swollen with wind and the rank mist they draw, Rot inwardly, and foul contagion spread.” Brunner’s sheep, like Milton’s, are the poor, neglected by those in power and condemned to starve. But I also think an element of indifference is implied here as well as helplessness– the sheep look up, but it is not their problem – they just want to get fed, the rest does not concern them.

Well before we get to that point, Brunner – writing 50 years ago – has come uncannily close to describing current politics in America. For example, the Wikipedia entry summarises, “The right wing government is indifferent to these problems. The President, known as Prexy, can only offer snappy quotes in response to various disasters. When poisonings and famine become rampant, the government scapegoats Honduran communist rebels and puts the country under martial law. They resort to violence and oppression to silence their critics.” And there is much more in this vein.

So here are the Americans, living out many elements of John Brunner’s dystopian future. But the fires are what grab our attention right now. What is going on there? Why is America burning? In brief – climate change and, underlying that, good old-fashioned American thirst for economic growth, as well as neglect of poverty and racism; the perfect storm that Brunner foresaw, and one to which we are not immune here in Canada.

Climate change is the most prominent factor, and speaking about the massive fires in California this past week Governor Newsom is clear: “The debate is over, around climate change . . . This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening.” What’s more, it’s happening a lot more quickly and severely than was foreseen only a few years ago.“In the last few weeks alone,” said Governor Newsome, “we’ve experienced the hottest August ever . . . arguably the hottest temperature ever worldwide, record-breaking temperature in Los Angeles”

But underlying climate change are two other key factors: Fire suppression largely to preserve valuable timber, but increasingly to protect communities as  – the second factor – people have increasingly moved into the wildland-urban interface, butting up against forests, scrub and grasslands. And underlying all that is the single-minded pursuit of short-term gain while ignoring long-term pain.

“By grazing livestock, logging the trees for timber and systematically fighting fires before they can run their course”, wrote BBC Earth reporter Claire Asher in 2016, “humans have changed the structure of the ecosystem and encouraged a build-up of forest-floor vegetation”. Then along comes climate change, which heats and dries out the air, the land and the vegetation and – bingo!

Secondly, the New York Times reported in November 2018 that “there were 12.7 million more houses and 25 million more people living in the [wildland-urban interface] zone in 2010 than in 1990” in the USA, including around one million in California. Moreover, when they burn down, they are for the most part rebuilt in the same place.

 “Crime and racial and civil unrest is growing”, wrote Brunner. “ Travel abroad is discouraged because of terrorist attacks on planes . . . The number of poor people is growing while the shrinking number of the wealthy enclose themselves in walled communities guarded by armed mercenaries.” Oh, and “and infectious disease is rampant”. And still the sheep look up, hoping for salvation.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

The four horsemen of ecology

The four horsemen of ecology

Dr. Trevor Hancock

9 September 2020

702 words

According to the Book of Revelations in the New Testament the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are conquest, war, famine and death, while in the Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel they are sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence or plague. (Sometimes, apparently, conquest is interpreted as pestilence or plague.)

But whatever we call them, they are remarkably close to what we might call the four horsemen of ecology, which regulate population size in nature. In his 2016 book “The Serengeti Rules”, Sean Carroll discusses the work of the pioneering ecologist Charles Elton in the 1920s. In thinking about how animal numbers are regulated to avoid over-population, “Elton suggested that, in general, increases in numbers were held in check by predators, pathogens, parasites and food supply”.

We, of course, are animals, and we are suffering a population explosion, just as lemmings and other species do. But like other animals, we are held in check – or will be – by the same four horsemen of ecology – and some others of our own making, as I will discuss next week. So let’s see how Elton’s four ecological horsemen are working out for humans on Earth today. Why are we not controlled, and what might control us?

The first control is predators, and in “The Serengeti Rules” Sean Carroll  writes: “Kill the predators and the prey run amok”. But we humans are apex predators, there is very little that preys on us, if by ‘predator’ we mean animals that hunt us to eat us. Our main predators are crocodiles (about a thousand deaths a year, according to the online World Atlas), lions (about 100), tigers and other big cats, and occasionally wolves, some sharks (about 10 each annually), and a few other species such as bears.

Animals that kill us somewhat incidentally (they are not preying on us, just protecting themselves) are much more dangerous; snakes kill about 50,000 people each year, scorpions about 3,000. Dogs are not human predators, but are important incidental killers, because in some parts of the world where rabies is widespread they bite and infect us, killing an estimated 25,000 humans annually. But true predators are hardly threats to our numbers today, and anyway – sadly – we have dramatically reduced them. 

The most important large animal that kills humans, however, is us, largely through homicide and war, although we are not truly predators. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in 2014 that almost half a million people died from homicide in 2012, and another 200,000 or so directly from war in 2014, with many more dying because of the hunger and diseases that result from war.

So let’s turn to Elton’s second and third categories of pathogens and parasites. It turns out the most dangerous animals to humans are insects, and top of the list is the mosquito, which WHO reports “causes millions of deaths every year” by spreading malaria (435,000 deaths in 2015) and many other diseases.  Altogether, WHO estimates that vector-borne diseases (chiefly via insects) caused by either parasites, bacteria or viruses kill about 700,000 people  a year, and sicken hundreds of millions more.

But these are diseases that we don’t spread directly to each other, they require an intermediary. So it may be useful to distinguish diseases spread to us by other animals, (which might be considered ‘pestilence’ – diseases spread by pests) from what the Old and New Testaments call ‘plague’, by which I mean the infections we pass on to each other (even though many of them, such as Covid -19, originate in other animals).

‘Plagues’ have been and are the really big killers in the realm of pathogens. The WHO reports that 1.5 million people died from TB in 2018, while 690,000 people died from HIV-related causes in 2019. The annual influenza epidemics cause 290,000 to 650,000 respiratory deaths, while in 2018, there were more than 140,000 measles deaths globally. But nonetheless, it seems unlikely plagues will control our population, unless we get a pandemic as lethal as the Black Death.

So next week I will deal with the fourth of Elton’s controls – food supply – and the global ecological changes we are creating, as well as the social – rather than ecological – controls we have created for ourselves.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Stop using taxpayers’ money to fund pollution

Stop using taxpayers’ money to fund pollution

Dr. Trevor Hancock

1 September 2020

699 words

In May, The World Health Organisation (WHO) released its “Manifesto for a healthy and green COVID-19 recovery”. It is in many ways an astonishing document, because it speaks briefly and plainly to the many global problems we face and how we need to respond. But perhaps the most astonishing and heartening part is the last of its six-point prescription: “Stop using taxpayers money to fund pollution”, by which is meant “subsidizing the fossil fuels that are driving climate change and causing air pollution”

Globally, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reports, fossil fuel subsidies vary widely each year, largely based on the price of fossil fuels, reaching a peak of almost US440 billion in 2018, which was “more than double the estimated subsidies to renewables”.

In 2019 they were almost US$320 billion, with the decline “related in large part to lower average fuel prices over the course of the year”. In 2020, because of the economic impact of Covid on prices, they may fall as low as US$180 billion.

In 2019 the largest component of direct subsidies were to the oil industry (USD 150 billion), followed by electricity (USD 115 billion), natural gas (USD 50 billion) and coal (USD 2.5 billion). As a result, noted the IEA, “consumers receiving these subsidies paid on average around 85% of the competitive market reference prices for the energy products concerned”.

However, these are only direct costs. What gets overlooked – deliberately, one has to assume, since it is so obvious – are the “costs generated by health and other impacts from such pollution”. These amount to indirect or hidden subsidies, since the fossil fuel industry – like so many industries – does not carry the cost of the health, environmental and social impacts of their activities.

These costs are enormous: The WHO states: “Including the damage to health and the environment that [fossil fuels] cause brings the real value of the subsidy to over US$5 trillion per year”. The $5 trillion estimate (which amounts to about 6 percent of global GDP) comes from the International Monetary Fund. In fact, the IMF finds, “under-charging for domestic air pollution (accounted) for about half of the total subsidy and global warming about a quarter”.

These and other indirect or hidden subsidies are not reflected in the price. If they were, the IMF reported “Efficient fossil fuel pricing in 2015 would have lowered global carbon emissions by 28 percent and fossil fuel air pollution deaths by 46 percent, and increased government revenue by 3.8 percent of GDP”.

Canada is not innocent of these outrageous fossil fuel subsidies. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) in Winnipeg, federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry were at least $600 million in 2019, but that “does not include tax provisions, subsidies for the Trans Mountain project, or subsidies resulting from credit support to fossil fuel producers”. Nor does it include provincial subsidies, which “also account for billions each year and, on the whole, outpace federal subsidies”.

An August 12th article in the National Observer by Barry Saxifrage & Chris Hatchused the Energy Policy Tracker developed by the IISD and its partners to examine Canada’s fossil fuel subsidies. They found that “Canada has committed nearly ten times the G20 average per capita — for a total of $12 billion so far this year in new fossil fuel support”.  They also point out that Canadian governments have only committed one-tenth as much to supporting clean energy.

Small wonder we are on track to miss not only the ambitious 1.50 C target for global warming but the 20C target of the Paris Accords. Clearly governments everywhere are either not truly understanding the situation or – since that seems unlikely – ignoring it. In doing so, they are ignoring the suffering of millions of people exposed to air pollution, and the millions more that will be harmed by climate change in the coming decades.

Clearly there is an urgent need for full cost accounting and pricing, both for the fossil fuels industry and for all other health–damaging industries. And if we are going to subsidise energy at all, let’s switch all the subsidies to clean and renewable energy and conservation, rather than continuing to pay for pollution.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

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

Beginnings, endings and connections

Beginnings, endings and connections

  • (Published as Humans are deeply connected with each other, and other life forms)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

25 August 2020

701 words

Following my reflections last week on Jeremy Lent’s ideas about connections, I found myself musing about beginnings and endings – my own, life on Earth and the universe – and the connections they imply. I thought about and partly wrote this column while sitting under the great trees in Heritage Grove in Francis-King Park, feeling both connected to and in awe of nature.

In a narrow sense I began, as we all did, with the fusion of an ovum and a sperm. But I am descended from a very long line of Homo sapiens, going back to the so-called ‘genetic Adam and Eve’ some 135,000 years ago, from whom it seems we are all descended.

According to the National Human Genome Project Research Institute in the USA, I share 99.9 percent of my DNA with every other human being on Earth. In other words, what connects us, genetically speaking, is one thousand times greater than what makes us distinct. So much for the idiocies of racism.

But we are also connected to all other life forms – we share 99 percent of our DNA with chimps and bonobos and 98 percent with gorillas. Going further afield, we share 84 percent of our DNA with dogs and 60 percent with the chickens we eat. We even share 60 percent of our DNA with fruit flies, 50 percent with bananas, 26 percent with yeast and 15 percent with mustard grass.

Once, on a walk in the East African savannah with Park Rangers, as we came across the bones of various prey animals, I suddenly realised that the soil I was walking on and the plant and animal life it supported was made up of the decomposed and recycled bones of all those animals – and the plants around them – dating back over millions of years.

Plants, of course, are the base of the food chain, but they also produce the oxygen we all need to survive. Moreover, every time we breathe, we are breathing in a few atoms of nitrogen, oxygen or carbon that all the people who came before us breathed, millennia ago.

And every time we eat, we are probably eating atoms that once made up the bodies of previous generations of humans – and for that matter, of dinosaurs! In short, we are all deeply connected to and entirely dependent upon the great web of life which sustains us in so many ways.

I have an abiding faith that nature – life – will go on, with or more likely without us. Life has continued through five previous Great Extinctions and will doubtless survive the Sixth that we are creating – although we may not.

Another profound experience of connection with nature came when, as a 15 year old lying down in a dark spot at night and gazing up at the stars, I suddenly became aware of – and overwhelmed by – the immensity of the universe. I don’t pretend to comprehend the immense scale of the universe, or to understand the mysteries of dark matter, dark energy and the origins of the universe in the Big Bang, never mind what came before, if there was a before, and what will happen to it at the end – if there is one. I won’t be around, nor will humans, nor even the Earth or solar system, so it doesn’t really matter, except as something to be curious about.

This leads, of course, to the ultimate connection: As Carl Sagan (and many others before him, it turns out) observed, we are all star stuff. I am hugely comforted by this idea, that the atoms of which I and everything I see around me are composed were forged in the heart of collapsing and dying stars and then exploded out into the universe to make – among other things – us.

I find comfort in all this because it puts into perspective our own small ways, our own small lives, our own small struggles. I am not going to stop doing what I do in my own small way, nor am I going to give up hope, but it is wonderful how much comfort and how many interesting thoughts come from walking in the woods or contemplating the night sky.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Making connections, finding balance

Making connections, finding balance

Dr. Trevor Hancock

18 August 2020

699 words

In his 2017 book The Patterning Instinct Jeremy Lent suggests there are three forms of disconnection that lie at the heart of the global challenges we are creating and that are “inexorably leading human civilization to potential disaster”. Those disconnections are within ourselves, between us and other people and between people and nature. Lent wrote: “Our minds and bodies, reason and emotion are seen as split parts within ourselves. Human beings are understood as individuals separated from each other, and humanity as a whole is perceived as separate from nature”.

Lent’s three disconnects brought to mind one of my favourite framings of the principles that should guide us going forward. Forty years ago, in his book The Sane Alternative, the English alternative futurist and economist James Robertson described the SHE future.

SHE stands for sane, humane and ecological, he wrote, where sanity is about balance within ourselves, humanity is about balance between ourselves and other people, and ecology is about the balance between humankind and nature.

Robertson is suggesting here not only that mind and body, reason and emotion should be connected, but that they should be balanced. Similarly, it is not an either/or proposition between ‘I’ and ‘we’, it is both/and; we cannot ignore individuals and their needs and wishes, but that has to be balanced with the needs and wishes of the group, as the Covid pandemic so powerfully reminds us. And we cannot place the needs of humans above the needs of nature, since we depend upon nature for all that makes life and health possible.

A powerful personal example of the failure to balance both reason and emotion and the wellbeing of people and nature came 30 or so years ago. We were on holiday on Vancouver Island (we lived then in Toronto) and drove through a clear-cut on the way to Tofino. It was truly horrible, disgusting, it wrenched at my heart to see such devastation.

So I wrote a letter to the Times Colonist in which I suggested that this was ecocide, every bit as appalling as genocide, and I wondered how we had raised a generation of people who thought this was OK. (I have not changed my opinion in the intervening years.)

A few months later, back home in Toronto, the Ontario College of Physicians and Surgeons (the licensing body for physicians) forwarded to me – without comment – a letter from a professional forester in BC who not only objected to my views but asked the College to suspend my medical licence. I clearly was not fit to be a physician because I had let emotion cloud my judgement and ignored the good science behind clear-cuts.

Setting aside the bizarre idea that you would want a physician devoid of emotion, I felt saddened by this forester. He could not connect and balance reason and emotion and could not feel the devastation he and his industry were wreaking on the forest. But what was sad for him was a tragedy for the forest and all the life it contains, a tragedy that has grown far greater in the intervening years.

Right now, the Sierra Club of BC tells us, “only three percent of old-growth forests with huge, old trees are still standing across BC—and most are on the chopping block”. In fact, they add, “every day more than 500 soccer fields of old-growth forest are clearcut in BC”. (You can find their campaign to stop this on their website.)

As if that were not bad enough – and not unrelated to this massive forest destruction, BC is the province with “with the highest number of species at risk of extinction” –more than 2,000 – noted Sarah Cox in The Narwhal earlier this month. And yet “B.C. still has no endangered species law, despite the NDP’s election promise to introduce one”.

If the challenge we face, as Jeremy Lent and James Robertson propose, is to re-establish connections and balance within ourselves, between ourselves and the community of which we are a part, and between ourselves and nature, then clearly the BC government is miserably failing to understand these vital connections and get the balance right, to the detriment of future generations and other species.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Conversations about values for a One Planet Region

Conversations about values for a One Planet Region

Dr. Trevor Hancock

11 August 2020

699 words

Tip O’Neill, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in the 1980s, famously remarked “all politics is local”. Significant change rarely starts at the top and moves down, mainly because the powerful do very well out of the current situation and seldom have any incentive to change it. Instead, change usually comes from the bottom up.

Occasionally – when faced with intransigence – that change has to come through violence and revolution, but more often it happens relatively peacefully and in an evolutionary manner, although not without the need for anger, determination and confrontation on occasion – witness the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA. Other recent examples include the growing acceptance of gay marriage and the youth climate strikes.

The concept of Conversations for a One Planet Region – a non-profit community organisation we established in November 2019 after almost 3 years of working as a loose network – is rooted in this understanding that all politics is local. We believe that before we can take effective action we need to learn about, discuss and understand both the global and – importantly – the local level implications of the massive and rapid global ecological changes we have created.

The word ‘conversation’ is key: We believe our discussions about these issues must be local and in person, face-to-face to the extent that is possible in the present circumstances. A second important reason for keeping the conversations local is that it is an important form of community building. Thus we use only local speakers/conversation leaders, because we believe we have more than enough knowledge, expertise and experience right here in the Greater Victoria Region to create a One Planet region.

Local change and local action are important, indeed vital, but they need to be rooted in a very different set of values to those that drive decision-making today, not just in our own Western democratic society but globally. In our work, we have come to see what we are doing as encouraging a form of cultural evolution, looking for ways to accelerate the change in the deep cultural values that lie at the heart of our problems.

In his recent book, The Patterning Instinct, which explores “the deep historical foundations of our modern worldview”, Jeremy Lent identifies what he calls root metaphors. They include the notion of “nature as machine” and our belief in “conquering nature”; the idea that indefinite growth is both possible and desirable, and the idea that it is normal to be selfish and pursue our own self-interest rather than the welfare of the group or community.

Lent is clear that if we are to achieve the deep transformation of civilization that is needed, we must change these root metaphors and establish new core values. He has identified three sets of values as “foundational principles for our major decisions”: an emphasis on quality of life rather than just how much wealth and ‘stuff’ we have; a sense of shared humanity where we are part of and have responsibilities to other people; and a commitment to environmental sustainability rooted in a sense of connection to nature and other species.

So in our next series of monthly Conversations starting in September – necessarily online at present – we will begin by exploring how values shift, how we can identify or stimulate key social tipping points and accelerate social and cultural evolution locally towards a commitment to becoming a One Planet Region. Then in the following three months up to the end of the year, we will explore in turn each of the three core values that Jeremy Lent has identified.

Clearly, understanding our situation and recognising the values shift that is necessary has to be widespread, and not confined to a small group who get it already. So we are committed to both broadening and deepening the rather narrow base of those who have been engaged in the Conversations we have been having. We urgently need a region-wide Conversation about the core values that are required and their implications for the individual and collective decisions we must make if we are to successfully make the transition to a healthier, more just and sustainable future for our children and the generations beyond them.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Shouldn’t we be talking about this?

Shouldn’t we be talking about this?

(Published as ‘Governments ignore urgent issues’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

4 August 2020

700 words

Last week I suggested that a major obstacle to achieving a more ecologically sane, socially just and healthy future is that we lack both a clear understanding of the scale and significance of the global ecological crisis we face and its social and economic implications, and an appropriate set of values to guide our response.

An understanding of our situation must come from a combination of increased awareness, knowledge and discussion. One impact of the Covid crisis is that many people are looking for an alternative way forward, as Guardian columnist George Monbiot noted in his July 25th column reporting on recent UK polls. But as a society or community we are not even talking about what we are facing, except in the rather narrow sense of climate change.

But while there is some evidence that we are slowly coming to grips with the reality of climate change, there are large and powerful pockets of resistance everywhere. Largely that resistance is rooted in and propagated by the fossil fuel industry and its ancillary industries such as the automobile industry. It is then supported by the right wing ideologues who are in thrall to corporate capitalism in general and the fossil fuel industry in particular.

Even when the situation is understood, there is still a vast gulf between our understanding and our intentions, and then between our intentions and our actions. Governments continue to support the fossil fuel industry, providing a wide range of subsidies. Globally, this amounted to about $320 billion in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency.

Here in Canada, subsidies totalled at least $600 million in direct support from the federal government in 2019, according to the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustainable Development, and a lot more in unquantified tax breaks and incentives and in provincial subsidies. Clearly, the message on climate change is not getting through. Small wonder we are on track to miss not only the ambitious 1.50 C target for global warming but the 20C target of the Paris Accords.

But there is far less understanding that climate change is but one of a number of massive and rapid global Earth system changes that we have created – all of them happening at the same time. On top of climate change we continue to deplete natural resources such as ocean and freshwater fisheries, forests, fresh water, farmland and topsoils. We continue to produce vast quantities of solid waste, especially plastics and paper, as well as liquid and gaseous wastes, leading to high levels of air and water pollution.

We continue to produce and widely disperse a vast array of pesticides and other toxic chemicals, many of them persistent, resulting in the contamination of soils and food chains. Perhaps most seriously, we have triggered a sixth Great Extinction, with plummeting population counts in many species and growing rates of extinctions.

But since we depend on the Earth’s natural systems for the very basis of life and health, we are in the process endangering ourselves as well as a myriad other species. If those natural systems start to collapse, or change rapidly, the social and economic implications are profoundly troubling.

Yet governments everywhere are not truly understanding the situation. They don’t act as if this were the case, that we face a potential, indeed an actual existential crisis. In fact, we are barely even talking about it, as a community or a society. We – or at least our governments – continue to pine for business as usual and plan for economic growth; they can’t wait for us to go roaring back – in Justin Trudeau’s unfortunate but accurate phrase – to how we were before Covid.

The urgent need to have widespread community conversations about what it means to be a Region with a markedly reduced ecological footprint is why we recently registered Conversations for a One Planet Region as a non-profit organisation in BC. The lack of an appropriate set of values is why our Fall series will focus on what our guiding values should be and how we shift community and societal values. I will discuss both our plans for expanding and deepening the understanding of our situation and the discussion of appropriate guiding values next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

A new ecological civilization: How do we get there?

A new ecological civilization: How do we get there?

Dr. Trevor Hancock

28 July 2020

701 words

Last week I explored Guy Dauncey’s ideas for a ‘New Ecological Civilisation’ based on an ‘economics of kindness’, which he describes as “a cultural system of compassionate values expressed in the economy through the use of democracy”. But as one of my readers wrote to me in response to that column, this is all very well, but “How do we get to . . . the economics of kindness? Alternative economics is fine, but how do we sway society away from profits and environmental degradation?”

A raft of proposals to do this are to be found in a recent brief on ‘Rebuilding BC’ (for which Guy was a lead author) from the Vancouver-based Green Technology Education Centre (GTEC) on how to guide economic recovery to create a just, sustainable and resilient society. Importantly, many of the recommendations have already been adopted in other industrialised countries and been shown to work.

At its root, the key to all their proposals is a re-focusing of the business we are in, as a society, as communities and as an economy, to “prioritize the public good” rather than private gain. Elsewhere, Guy has called this “changing the social DNA of business”.

A particularly important set of proposals are concerned with encouraging “a province-wide transition to purpose-driven business”, as suggested by BC’s United Way Social Purpose Institute. In practice, this means businesses would adopt Social Purpose charters that clarify that they have a “fiduciary duty to include the pursuit of social and ecological as well as financial purpose”. Globally there are already 3,300 certified B-Corporations, as these are known, of which 70 are in BC, they report.

Some of the key proposals are focused on significant reforms to the present financial system. BC should establish a Green Investment Bank of BC that would “be used to finance recovery investments that support BC’s climate action targets and other goals”. This would be a public bank, such as exist in Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, Spain and France.

It would use public funds to leverage private funds for investments in green infrastructure projects, as the Connecticut Green Bank has done, “attracting $5 private-sector dollars for every government dollar”. Such funding could support an aggressive program of neighbourhood-scale building retrofits, investments in pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, acceleration of the electrification of transportation or support for non-profit societies to accelerate the construction of affordable housing.

Another important proposed business innovation is to help companies avoid bankruptcy by transitioning to employee or community ownership, with support from a suitable agency and some transition funding.

Bankruptcy is also an issue at the household level, the report notes: “BC’s average household debt is the 2nd highest in Canada, at $155,500 per household”. This “poses a huge obstacle to the recovery of consumer confidence, and risks pushing households into bankruptcy”. To address this, the report suggests supporting “the Credit Counselling Society to expand the reach of its services” and using “the government’s ability to borrow at very low rates to establish a large pool of funds for household debt consolidation and repayment”.

Another important approach, which I touched on a couple of weeks ago, is social procurement. The BC government should create Community Benefit Clauses for all government purchases (as has been done in Scotland), requiring all contracting authorities to consider how the funding can be used to “improve the social, environmental and economic wellbeing of the area in which it operates”.

There is much more to this report than I can cover in one short column, including proposals for establishing a Crown Corporation to kick-start an Advanced Green Manufacturing sector in BC and establishing a Community Mutual Support Fund to support community organisations to support and develop mutual aid initiatives.

But the challenge of dramatically reforming our economy to put people and planet first requires two changes that I see as the far larger challenges we face and that I will address in the next two columns: How do we arrive at a shared understanding of the challenges we face and what to do about them, and how do we establish a very different set of values to those that have guided our societal and community decision-making over the past couple of hundred years?

© Trevor Hancock, 2020

Guy Dauncey and the economics of kindness

Guy Dauncey and the economics of kindness

Dr. Trevor Hancock

22 July 2020

700 words

I received both supportive and critical comments in response to my recent columns on the local economy, although nobody swore at me – which means I am not as good a columnist as Jack Knox! One writer even went so far as to say my writing gave him the shivers, although my brief pleasure at the thought that I was that good were quickly dispelled by his next sentence, in which he wondered what closet I had been hiding in for the past few centuries.

Two of the responses – of which the above mentioned was one – provided reasonably lengthy critiques outlining their objections. But what struck me about both of them was their shared view that the present system was pretty darned good, and that in any case there was no alternative, or at least no desirable alternative.

One writer supported neoliberalism, suggesting that I had not offered an alternative to capitalism and he assumed – correctly – that I was not proposing Soviet totalitarianism/communism. The rich, he said, should not be blamed for being successful and providing jobs that give people dignity, purpose and a place in society. Try telling that to workers whose jobs have been shifted off-shore, or who are working multiple non-unionised part-time jobs with few or no benefits, all to benefit owners and shareholders.

My other critic suggested I wanted to go back to medieval times, with moats, drawbridges and ox-drawn carts. He put his faith in the ability of technology to address the environmental and social issues we face. But often technologies contribute to the challenges we face, although it is the application of those technologies through the dominant social, political and cultural forces shaping our world that are the root of our problems.

So let me turn to Guy Dauncey for an alternative that is neither communism nor medieval. Guy has been an interesting, thoughtful and – in the best sense – provocative thinker, writer and activist on ecological and social issues in this region for years. I first came across him when he was involved in the proposal for an ecologically sustainable development at Bamberton in the early 1990s. While it was never built, the thinking that went into it was leading edge at that time.

Now he is working on a book on the economics of kindness, which focuses on a caring and cooperative economy. He recently shared some of his thinking in an online webinar for Creatively United for the Planet, a local community organisation led by Frances Litman that links the arts, creativity and environmental activism. His thinking also substantially shaped a recent brief on Rebuilding BC from the Green Technology Education Centre (GTEC).

Guy argues that there are four fundamental causes that underpin our current ecologically unsustainable and socially unjust economy and society: Faulty economic ideas on both the left and right of the political spectrum that suggest we are subject to the ‘laws’ of economics, the “ancient impulse to dominate” rather than cooperate, our ecological ignorance and what he calls the “loss of our civilisational story”.

He argues, as did I, that “selfishness is enshrined as an economic law” and that “kindness and cooperation are dismissed”. Domination, he states, brings us conquest, ownership, colonialism and slavery – and he might have added, the subjugation of women. I would also add William Leiss’ observation that domination of nature leads inevitably to the domination of human nature – and that applies both ways, I suspect.

Our ecological ignorance is profound, and shows itself best – or worst – in the exclusion of ‘natural capital’ (along with social and human capital) from our measurement of wealth and the treatment of these forms of capital by economics as ‘externalities’ that can be ignored.

So we need a new civilisational story, Guy suggests, in which ‘eco’ replaces ‘ego’ and – implicitly – in which ‘we’ replaces ‘I’. He calls this the economics of kindness, others call it the economics of wellbeing; both elevate wellbeing, social justice and ecological sustainability above the mere making of profit and accumulation of wealth, especially excessive wealth. The economy, in other words, is the means, not the end. Next week, I will delve more deeply into the alternative economics he and the GTEC propose for BC.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020


Building a stronger, One Planet regional economy

Building a stronger, One Planet regional economy

Dr. Trevor Hancock

14 July 2020

701 words

Last week I stressed the importance of a stronger regional economy as a means of increasing local self-reliance, given that we live on an Island and that the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the vulnerability that comes from being very reliant on others – be they food or energy producers or tourists.

Add to that the growing recognition that we live on one small planet and have to trim our expectations to live within its limits. But as the Centre for Local Prosperity noted in its 2018 report on import replacement, “a community’s willingness to be restrained in what it wants and resourceful in providing what it needs, opens up enormous long-term community benefits”.

The good news is that several important local initiatives are already underway, such as Think Local First, a non-profit society founded in 2013 and directed by small business owners in Greater Victoria. They promote the ‘10 percent shift movement’ because “for every 10 percent of dollars spent at locally-owned shops and services, 25 percent more money stays in the Victoria economy”. Their website cites a CUPE study that found “if all of BC made the 10% shift, we would actually create 31,000 more jobs and infuse $940 million in wages into the province’s economy”.

They point to a number of other benefits of spending locally, including helping to create more vibrant, compact and walkable town centres, which help to reduce traffic and pollution. And, they add, locally owned businesses “invest more in local labour, pay more local taxes, spend more time on community-based decisions, and participate in local events”.

A second example is social procurement, which is a fairly straightforward concept. Buy Social Canada (BSC) describes it as “a tool for building healthy communities”, by using the purchasing power of municipalities to enhance not only the economic and physical capital of the community, but its human, social, cultural and natural capital.

Based on the 2017 report of the Mayor’s Task Force on Social Enterprise and Social Procurement, the City of Victoria has adopted a three-pronged strategy of social procurement, social enterprise development and social entrepreneurship. The main suggested focus for social procurement is on “efforts to ladder the unemployed, underemployed and marginalized into employment”. The City is also the only municipality in the CRD that is a member of the Coastal Community Social Procurement project, which Mayor Helps co-chairs.

Finally, there is the South Island Prosperity Partnership (SIPP), which brings together business, municipal and First Nations leaders to “bolster our region’s economic and social prosperity . . . by catalyzing the creation of high-quality, household-sustaining jobs, so that more families can afford to live, work and build a life here”. It recently initiated a Civic Solutions Hub that would “introduce new approaches to Municipal procurement that (would) spark innovation in the local economy”

Responding to the economic impact of Coved-19, SIPP recently launched a Rising Economy Taskforce, not only to work on economic recovery but to “advance plans to create greater economic resiliency in the region to withstand future global shocks”. The broad-based Taskforce, which includes representatives from post-secondary institutions and nonprofits, will “explore business transitions and new emerging opportunities”.

One of the immediate fruits of their work is a study of the feasibility of a local abattoir because, noted SIPP, “the vast majority of meat is imported to the Island, and most locally raised livestock are transported out of the region to be processed.” The benefits of a local abattoir, SIPP noted, would be to “reduce environmental impacts due to transport . . . help create jobs and stimulate the economy”.

Perhaps this idea should be expanded to the fishing industry, where we find a similar situation. Jim McIsaac, Executive Director of the T. Buck Suzuki Foundation, likes to make this astonishing point; in Canada we import 93 percent of the seafood we eat, while 85 – 90 percent of what we harvest is exported. Surely the same argument can be applied to this situation as to the meat industry; process and consume it locally.

In any case, it is good to see these efforts underway, they need to be expanded and strengthened if we are to create a more resilient local economy that works for us locally.

© Trevor Hancock, 2020