Circles and Doughnuts: The local economy we need

Published as ‘Circular economy doesn’t go far enough’

Dr. Trevor Hancock

3 March 2021

700 words

Something good is happening: We are finally starting to question the economy and the way it works – or fails to work – for us and for nature, which sustains us.  A month ago I wrote a couple of columns about Doughnut economics, then took a bit of a diversion to explore the Dasgupta report on including in the economy the costs we impose on nature and – last week – the UN Secretary General’s observation that in waging war on nature we are suffering “towering economic losses”.

So what does this economic re-thinking mean at a local level, in the place where we live, learn, work, shop and play? How should we re-think and re-make our economy? Happily, various people and organisations are starting to think about this. Last week there was a front-page article in this newspaper by Lindsay Kines about the work of Project Zero to create a circular economy, with supportive resolutions adopted by both Victoria and Nanaimo councils.

A circular economy stands in contrast to our current linear ‘take-make-waste’ economy, in which we obtain resources, process and use them, then send the waste away, out there somewhere. Think of disposable plastic bags or coffee cups, or any number of other disposable products, up to and including your car and house. There are two big problems with this model, and both relate to nature, and the way nature works.

First, there is no ‘away’ in nature, our wastes end up somewhere and do harm to plants, animals and entire ecosystems. Moreover, only too often our wastes come back to haunt and harm us. Second, nature never discards anything, it all gets decomposed, recycled and re-used in some way, whereas we waste a lot of energy and resources by failing to close the loop.

A circular economy seeks to avoid these problems – greatly reducing both our wasteful use of scarce resources and our excessive production of wastes – by closing the loop. The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a leading advocate for the circular economy, proposes three key principles: Design out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems. This is underpinned by “designing products that can be ‘made to be made again’ and powering the system with renewable energy.”

It is a concept that has a lot of powerful support, including the World Economic Forum, which notes that businesses using this model gain a competitive edge because they “create more value from each unit of resource”, as Paul Shorthouse from Canada’s Circular Economy Leadership Coalition noted in a recent presentation to the Climate Caucus (a Canadian network of municipal leaders). The Coalition includes a number of large corporations, including Canadian Tire, Ikea, Loblaws, Unilever and Walmart.

But while the concept of the circular economy is undoubtedly useful and important, for me it does not go far enough. I find the Doughnut economy a more comprehensive and valuable model, for two reasons that are core to that model: First, it recognizes the ‘ecological ceiling’, the limits to growth imposed by the finite nature of the Earth.

Thus in an April 2019 essay in the Steady State Herald Herman Daly, the elder statesman of ecological economics, noted the circular economy is really a “recycling economy” and that it can only work if the economy “does not grow in scale beyond the regenerative and absorptive capacities of the containing biosphere” – the Earth.

A second reason is quite neatly summed up in a couple of pithy summaries of the two models. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the circular economy as one “that is restorative and regenerative by design”, while Kate Raworth describes her Doughnut economics model as “distributive and regenerative”.

In other words, the Doughnut model recognizes that the implication of the ecological ceiling is that if the economy can’t grow beyond a certain size in terms of its impact on the Earth, then we can only meet everyone’s needs through redistribution. Thus it links the economy centrally to the social purpose of ensuring an equitable distribution of the goods and services that provide a social foundation for all.

Next week – finally, I hear you say – I will look at what a Doughnut Economy might mean at the local level.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

War and peace with nature

23 February 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

Our relationship with the Earth has long been troubled. Thanks largely to two key developments – the adoption of Judeo-Christian beliefs and the philosophy of the Enlightenment – the Western worldview has been that we are separate from and superior to nature, leading us to horribly mistreat nature.

Prior to the emergence of Judeo-Christian thought there were multiple gods and nature spirits; between them, they embodied nature, for which there was a reverence. Writing in The Conversation in September 2019, University of Nottingham lecturer Heather Alberro noted people “generally considered the sacred to be found throughout nature, and humanity as thoroughly enmeshed within it.”

But then along came the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity and, wrote Alberro, “their sole god – as well as sacredness and salvation – were re-positioned outside of nature.” Not just outside of, but actually superior to nature.

The roots of our current crisis can be seen clearly in Genesis, Chapter 1, where “God said unto them, be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

So there we have it, not just the exhortation to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing, but to multiply the human population. Added to that was the Enlightenment view, first championed by René Descartes, not only that mind and body are separate but that humans, as the only rational beings, were separate from both inanimate nature and mindless animals, which are ours to exploit.

Hence nature is excluded from our thinking and from our economic models, as my two recent columns on the Dasgupta Review have discussed. And hence what the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has called our suicidal war on nature.

The ‘war’ metaphor with respect to our relationship with nature is not new, but is getting a new prominence these days. Here in Canada Seth Klein, long the Director of the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, has written a book titled “A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency”. In it, he argues that we need to adopt an approach to the climate crisis based on lessons to be learned from our mobilization in the Second World War.

But as my friend and colleague Thom Heyd, an Adjunct Professor in Environmental Studies at UVic, noted, “Are there ever “good wars” in this world? . . . What’s wrong with “A Good Peace” instead?” So I imagine Thom will be very pleased with the major new report from the UN Environment Program, released February 18th, entitled “Making Peace with Nature”.

In his foreword to the report, the UN Secretary General notes the triple human-created threat we face: “the climate emergency, the biodiversity crisis and the pollution that kills millions of people every year.”

In the face of this challenge, he writes, “making peace with nature is the defining task of the coming decades”, adding that we need “a peace plan and a post-war rebuilding programme.” The report provides these.

Making peace with nature, writes Guterres, will mean “transforming how we view nature”, so that “we can recognize its true value”, and then “ reflecting this value in policies, plans and economic systems”. The report calls for a transformation of our societal and economic systems, including our energy and food production systems, the way we treat the land, waters and oceans and the way we treat our wastes.

Such transformations, the report says, are key to addressing major social concerns such as “poverty elimination, equity, health, economic development, peace, food, water, sanitation, safe cities and settlements”; what Kate Raworth, in her Doughnut Economics model calls the social foundation of society.

In short, we must heed the wise words attributed to the 19th century Dwamish Chief, Seattle: “We are part of the great web of life, and whatever we do to the web of life, we do to ourselves”. So when we wage war on nature, we are really waging war on ourselves at the same time, which as Guterres notes, is “senseless and suicidal” – and I would say, insane. It’s time to make peace.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

What would it mean to recognize the price and value of nature?

16 February 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

699 words

Last week I provided an overview of Professor Partha Dasgupta’s report for the UK Treasury on the economics of biodiversity and the value of nature. This week, I want to share his proposals for change and relate them to several important current issues.

In the Headlines’ version of his report, Professor Dasgupta’s first message is simple: “Our economies, livelihoods and well-being all depend on our most precious asset: Nature”. So what would it mean to actually recognize this and incorporate nature into our economies and societies?

Not surprisingly, as an economist, he believes “the solution starts with understanding and accepting a simple truth: our economies are embedded within Nature, not external to it”. A number of important implications flow from this, one of which is that we need to change the way we measure what we do.

Today our primary measure of economic success is the GDP. But since it “does not account for the depreciation of assets, including the natural environment”, Dasgupta writes, “it therefore encourages us to pursue unsustainable economic growth and development”. So we need to replace the GDP with a more meaningful measure such as the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, the Genuine Progress Indicator or some other measure of inclusive or comprehensive wealth.

BC’s NDP government was supposed to have been developing a report on replacing the GDP in BC as part of their agreement with the Green Party. The report is long overdue and seems to have stalled. Premier Horgan and Finance Minister Selina Robinson need to read the Dasgupta Review and make this a priority.

A related issue, also a hot topic in BC, concerns subsidies. Because we do not have to pay for many of our biosphere’s services, Professor Dasgupta explains, they are in effect free. In fact, he goes on to say, it is even worse than that: “Governments almost everywhere amplify adverse environmental externalities by paying people more to exploit the biosphere than they do to protect it”, through subsidies to various resource use and extraction industries, including agriculture and fossil fuels.

So we need to remove these “perverse subsidies”, which amount to about US$500 billion globally. Moreover, he points out, “it has been estimated that to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and ocean . . .  by 2030 would require an average investment of US$140 billion annually” – so transferring less than one third of those subsidies to ecosystem protection would not only protect but would restore nature.

In fact, Dasgupta notes, “as part of fiscal stimulus packages in the wake of COVID-19, investment in natural capital has the potential for quick returns”. This fits well with the calls from many quarters for a green, healthy and just recovery, a ‘Green New Deal’; all these ideas should be incorporated in federal and provincial ‘build back better’ budgets currently under consideration.

But if all this is to come to pass, we also need profound changes in our institutions and in the core values that underpin our society and drive our economy. So it is encouraging that Dasgupta has an entire section in his report on education, and another on the sacred in nature.

Throughout his report, Dasgupta repeatedly refers to our attitude, rooted also in our economics, that we are detached from nature, not embedded within it. This he attributes to our separation from nature, especially as a result of urbanization. So he proposes “Every child in every country is owed the teaching of natural history, to be introduced to the awe and wonder of the natural world, to appreciate how it contributes to our lives”.

But, he adds, “connecting with Nature needs to be woven throughout our lives”. Part of that is to recognize that nature has intrinsic worth; “Many people, perhaps in all societies, locate the sacred in Nature”, he notes, suggesting “Nature’s transcendence gives it a value that is independent of us”.

And he ends on a note of optimism, suggesting that if we have been smart and powerful enough to cause so much harm to nature so quickly, surely we can use that same ingenuity “to bring about transformative change, perhaps even in just as short a time. We and our descendants deserve nothing less”.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

Nature’s high price and inestimable value

(Published as ‘Our economic system needs to recognize the price – and value – of nature’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

9 February 2021

701 words

A cynic, Oscar Wilde wrote, is someone who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. On that basis, our dominant economic system – corporate capitalism – is beyond cynical. It  takes Wilde’s aphorism one giant step further because it doesn’t even know or take into account the price of everything, never mind recognise and account for that which is priceless.

That, if not quite in those words, is the conclusion of a startling review of the economics of biodoversity by the distinguished Cambridge economics professor Sir Partha Dasgupta. Startling not just because of what he says, but because of who commissioned his report: The Chancellor of the Exchequer (read ‘Minister of Finance’) in Boris Johnson’s UK government. So this week I am taking a side trip on the road to Doughnut Economics to consider his important report; next week I will look at how we will have to change.

What Professor Dasgupta has to say is both simple and profoundly important: We have not correctly included either the price or the value of nature in our economic models and practices, or in the price of our goods and services. Instead we treat them as an ‘externality’, by which he means “the unaccounted-for consequences for others, including future people, of actions taken by one or more persons”. In other words, we gain at the expense of people elsewhere, future generations and, he might have added, other species.

The result of ignoring the harm to nature (and, he might also have added, harm to people’s health and the social wellbeing of communities) caused by our economic system and way of life, he writes, is that “while humanity has prospered immensely in recent decades, the ways in which we have achieved such prosperity means that it has come at a devastating cost to Nature.”

In fact, he reports, “between 1992 and 2014, produced capital per person doubled, and human capital [health, education, aptitude and skills] per person increased by about 13 percent globally”. However, he adds, “the stock of natural capital per person declined by nearly 40 percent”. Moreover, we should note this is only over 22 years; the decline since the onset of the ‘great acceleration’ in human impact in the 1950s is far greater.

The result is that “many ecosystems, from tropical forests to coral reefs, have already been degraded beyond repair, or are at imminent risk of ‘tipping points’. These tipping points could have catastrophic consequences for our economies and well-being.” Sadly, as he notes, this “is what economic growth and development has come to mean for many people”.

But even if we could include the cost of ecological harm in the price of our goods and services, that would not be enough; Professor Dasgupta notes “Nature is more than an economic good: many value its very existence and recognise its intrinsic worth too”.

This view is evident in a 2018 report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) on the measurement of ‘comprehensive wealth’, by which they mean the combination of five forms of capital: Produced (infrastructure, buildings and machinery), natural, human, financial (stocks, bonds and cash) and social capital.

While some forms of natural capital – so-called market natural assets such as the minerals, fossil fuels, timber, water resources and fish we extract) can be expressed in monetary terms, other forms of natural capital – a stable and warm climate and key ecosystems such as forests, wetlands, grasslands, lakes/rivers and the oceans – “are, effectively, priceless”.

That is because the latter  “are critical to well-being. Any degradation in them imposes direct and irreplaceable costs on well-being, and their monetary value is, therefore, not relevant”. So while we may be able to measure and account for some forms of natural capital, those ecosystem ‘goods and services’ that are critical to our wellbeing “cannot (and should not) be included in aggregate measures of comprehensive wealth”.

In other words, it is not enough to understand the price of nature, we need to recognise that it is to a significant degree priceless, of inestimable value. As a society, we need to know not just the price but the value of nature, and we need an economic system that recognises and incorporates this.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

Achieving high human potential is true prosperity

3 February 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

700 words

Last week I suggested that true prosperity is doughnut-shaped, but I did not define what I mean by ‘true prosperity’, nor what Doughnut Economics means for this region. I will explore the first of these topics this week and the second next week.

One understanding of true prosperity can be found in many faiths, where it is not primarily about material wealth but about mental, social and spiritual wealth. For example, Paramhansa Yogananda, the first Indian yoga master to live and teach permanently in the West, wrote in 1939 that true prosperity is “being able to supply your mental and spiritual needs, as well as the physical”, and that it involves having “at your command the things that are necessary for your existence”.

The things that are necessary for your existence are the basic human needs of clean air and water, shelter, sufficient food that is safe and nutritious, education, good basic health care, an adequate income to ensure these and a safe and supportive community. These and other ‘social determinants of health’ are what Kate Raworth means by the social foundation in her model of Doughnut Economics.

In the mid-20th century the social psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of human needs: First people must satisfy such basic physiological needs as hunger, thirst and bodily comforts (being warm and dry, for example), then ensure their safety and security. The third and fourth sets of needs are a sense of acceptance, belonging and being loved, followed by a sense of self-esteem – feeling competent, gaining respect and recognition.

But beyond these foundational needs, Maslow suggested that people have a need for what he called self-actualisation. There are several aspects to this, including being knowledgeable and curious, having an appreciation of beauty, finding self-fulfillment and realizing one’s potential, and finally what he called transcendence – helping others to achieve their own self-actualisation.

These concepts are very much how I understand health, as indeed does the World Health Organisation: “A state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing” (to which some would add spiritual wellbeing), or the achievement by everyone of the highest human potential of which they are capable. Clearly, while it takes a certain amount of wealth to ensure the social foundation, it is not necessary to accumulate vast amounts of ‘stuff’, of bling, to achieve this state, as it is largely non-material.

But the other key element of Raworth’s Doughnut model is the ecological ceiling. We cannot meet human needs for all in ways that undermine the ecological systems that are the ultimate determinants of our health.  As the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey in England puts it: “Our guiding vision for sustainable prosperity is one in which people everywhere have the capability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological and resource constraints of a finite planet”.

Those constraints are very real and increasingly apparent. We see it in the changing climate and the decaying oceans, in the depletion of key resources and the pollution of ecosystems and food chains, and in the loss of natural habitat and the extinction of species. Already we exceed the planet’s limits, and yet we have more people wanting more stuff and an economic system demanding more growth.

Which of course takes us to Gandhi, who said “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.” Or as Herman Daly, one of the key thinkers in the area of ecological economics, puts it in his foreword to the 2017 book Enough Is Enough: “Enough should be the central concept in economics. Enough means ‘sufficient for a good life’” And he added “this raises the perennial philosophical question, ‘What is a good life?’” – a question I have tried to answer above.

So what would it mean to redesign our economy and society to ensure human flourishing for all within the ecological and resource constraints of the Earth? That is the question that the Green New Deal and similar proposals for a sustainable, just and healthy post-Covid recovery seek to answer. It is the central question of our time, including right here in the Greater Victoria Region, and the topic for next week.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

True prosperity is doughnut-shaped

Dr Trevor Hancock

26 January  2021

701 words

It will come as no surprise to fans of the British satirical fantasy writer Tom Holt that economics has something to do with doughnuts. In his YouSpace series, a doughnut is the wormhole to an alternate reality, a parallel universe inhabited by elves, goblins, gnomes, dwarves and other fairytale characters who are ripe for exploitation.

In The Outsourcerer’s Apprentice, for example, entrepreneurs discover they can outsource work to these folks and pay them next to nothing, buy property very cheaply and generally make a pile of money on the backs of the powerless and economically uninformed. Sound familiar?

But back here in the real world (where economics can seem just as mystical, magical and nonsensical as over there), we have our own very different version: Doughnut Economics. What’s more, it is being applied locally, in Nanaimo – so why not here?

The concept is the brainchild of Kate Raworth, who describes herself as a ‘renegade economist’. With a Masters in Economics for Development from Oxford, she spent a couple of decades working in international development, including 10 years as a Senior Researcher at Oxfam.

However, as she comments in a recent interview with Time Magazine, she was frustrated by conventional economics, which “emerged from an era in which humanity saw itself as separated from the web of life” and harm to that web of life is seen as an ‘externality’, something she calls the “ultimate absurdity”. In reality, as she realised from a 2010 report on planetary boundaries, we are exceeding what she calls the environmental ceiling

But she also knew from her work in development that a certain level of economic activity is need to ensure basic human needs – shelter, clean water, sanitation, food, education, good basic health care and so on – are met. She calls this the social foundation.

So she drew two circles and thus the Doughnut was born. Inside the inner circle is the social foundation, and that circle has to be large enough to meet everyone’s basic needs. The outer circle defines the environmental ceiling; exceeding that puts us into an unsustainable ecological overshoot.

Between the two – in the body of the doughnut – is what she calls the “sweet spot”; an economy which is neither too big (as it is in high-income countries) nor too small, as it is in low-income countries. This is an economy fit for the 21st century, one that will “meet the needs of all people within the means of the living planet”.

While originally published in a 2012 paper, the concept really took off when her book was published in 2017. Now a Senior Research Associate at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, she has created the Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) to turn “Doughnut Economics from a radical idea into transformative action”. 

One of the five core themes for DEAL’s work is ‘Cities and Places’, and in 2019 DEAL collaborated with the C40, a network of 97 of the world’s largest cities  that is focused on climate action, and Circle Economy to launch the Thriving Cities Initiative and apply the Doughnut Economics framework at a city level.

The process begins with a single core question that is essentially the same as the focus of our One Planet Region work: “How can our city be a home to thriving people, in a thriving place, whilst respecting the wellbeing of all people, and the health of the whole planet”? This is explored in more detail in four areas – social and ecological requirements at the local and global scale – and results in the creation of a ‘City Portrait’ that “invites a city to create and pursue a more holistic vision of what it means to thrive”.

The City of Amsterdam has really taken this on, adopting the Doughnut Economy framework as the basis for its post-Covid recovery, Meanwhile closer to home, on 14th December 2020 the City of Nanaimo adopted the framework as “a cohesive vision for all city initiatives and planning processes”, the first Canadian city to do so.

So next week, I will explore in more depth what this might mean for this region and what we can learn from Amsterdam, Nanaimo and other cities that are starting to adopt this approach.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

The Great Reconnect – to people and to nature

18 January 2021

Dr Trevor Hancock

701 words

Thirty-five years ago I co-authored with Len Duhl the foundational paper for the World Health Organisation’s new Healthy Cities project. In it we identified 11 key factors that contribute to the health and wellbeing of people who live in cities and other communities.

One of those factors is “Access to a wide variety of experiences and resources with the possibility of multiple contacts, interaction and communication”. Fast-forward 35 years and we find isolation and loneliness have become a significant social and health problem, even before the Covid pandemic made the creation of these important connections much more difficult.

So I was happy to be involved in an online event put on recently by the City of Victoria’s Neighbourhood Team. They showed ‘The Great Disconnect’, a one-hour documentary made by Tamer Soliman, an Ottawa-based health practitioner, and released in 2018. I was one of the experts featured in the film, which I am happy to say recently won the ‘Best Feature’ Award at the Better Cities Film Festival. The City invited Tamer, his partner Sarah (who was the writer and editor) and me to discuss the film after it was shown.

The film is about loneliness – which has been described as being as harmful to health as smoking –  and the importance of connections. The film’s website asks “is it possible to overcome our modern culture of disconnectedness and rediscover how truly essential we are to one other?”.  In the discussion that followed the film I suggested that after Covid we need the Great Reconnect, and suggested a couple of ways we might do that; I am sure many readers will have their own ideas – we need them all.

My first thought was to organise street or block parties all over the region as soon as we are able to, to bring neighbours together. It probably can’t be done on a single day, but a series of events over a few weekends would do the trick. It seems most municipalities have a permitting system for block parties, which requires getting permission weeks in advance – so plan ahead. Some municipalities offer Block Party kits to help you plan the event; Esquimalt even has an Event Trailer, available to rent, that includes tables and chairs, a tent shelter, barricades, traffic cones, signage for the road closure and games to encourage participation. They also encourage you to make it a ‘green’ event.

My second thought was to organise a human chain to symbolically link people in neighbourhoods and municipalities throughout the region. While I doubt we could pull it off across the entire region – it’s a long way from Deep Cove to Sooke and beyond! – it could be done in individual municipalities and perhaps across the more urban core municipalities. I did wonder about a world record, but a quick check with the Guinness Book of Records revealed that in 2004 over 5 million people formed a chain over 1,000 km long in Bangladesh (although it was a political protest, so  not quite the same thing).

It also occurred to me that there is another important reconnection we need to make, and that is between people and nature. So maybe we can combine these ideas in events that bring us together to celebrate nature. How about a set of seasonal events to celebrate the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes, which would re-connect us to the cycle of the seasons. Many different cultures have traditions that celebrate the seasons, so we can celebrate in many diverse ways all over the region.

A spring festival around March 21st would roughly coincide with the peak of the cherry blossoms – so a cherry blossom festival. The summer solstice is now Indigenous Peoples Day in Canada, so we would not want to compete with or detract from that, but it could be a time to celebrate the land and waters of the region in company with Indigenous people. Then of course the fall equinox could be a harvest festival and the winter solstice could build on the Lights on the Gorge event and similar local events.

Many of you, I am sure, will have other ideas. But whatever we do, let’s reconnect with each other and with nature.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

Indigenous people and the stewardship of nature

12 January 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

700 words

As noted last week, the 2019 Human Development Report – which was focused on inequalities in the Human Development Index (HDI) – did not look at an inequality that is particularly important in Canada: The HDI of Indigenous people. Happily, Indigenous Services Canada has done this, at the request of the Assembly of First Nations – although only for “Registered Indians”, which misses Inuit and Métis people. 

Shockingly, the report notes that while Canada ranked 12th on the HDI internationally in 2016, the Registered Indian population as a whole would have ranked 52nd out of 189 countries (the same as Bulgaria, Montenegro and Romania that year), while the on-reserve population ranked 78th, the same as Grenada and about the same as Thailand, Brazil or Colombia. 

So it is more than a bit ironic that in his December 2nd 2020 speech on the state of the planet, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres discussed the important role of Indigenous people in protecting nature and helping us move towards a healthy, just and sustainable future.

He noted that “Indigenous peoples make up less than 6 per cent of the world’s population yet are stewards of 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity on land”. Moreover “we know that nature managed by indigenous peoples is declining less rapidly than elsewhere”, even though their land “is among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation”. We need, he said to “heed their voices, reward their knowledge and respect their rights”.

His words were in part inspired, it seems, by the 2020 Human Development Report, which focuses on the Anthropocene and discusses the important contribution of Indigenous people to achieving sustainable development. A section in the report on Indigenous peoples as shapers and defenders of nature, for example, refers to their contributions through agroforestry, protection of coastal ecosystems and sustainable land use management.But the report also addresses issues of the rights of Indigenous people, including their right to land, and the importance of Indigenous knowledge about land management and our relationship with nature.

Indigenous knowledge, which Mr. Guterres noted has been “distilled over millennia of close and direct contact with nature”, is receiving increasing attention. It is also emphasized in the 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (the ecosystems equivalent of the better known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and recognized in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which was recently passed into law in BC.

Here in BC we are learning from First Nations about clam gardens and other marine management practices, while there is growing interest in learning how Indigenous people in the Americas used fire in managing their lands.  More broadly, the 2020 HDR emphasises that “indigenous peoples’ knowledge systems reflect sophisticated governance practices that advance human wellbeing while maintaining bi­ocultural diversity”.

But perhaps the most important thing to learn from Indigenous people is to be found in an entire section of the 2020 HDR devoted to instilling a sense of stewardship of nature. “Recognizing our humanity as part of a larger net­work of connections that include all living things”, the report notes, is an important part of many philosophical and religious traditions. For many Indigenous peoples, it adds, “wellbeing and devel­opment begin where our lives with each other and with the natural environment meet”.

For me, this was beautifully summed up in “Waiora: The Indigenous Peoples’ Statement for Planetary Health and Sustainable Development”, which resulted from a global conference on health promotion held in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2019. Strongly influenced by Maori traditions (‘Waiora’ being a Maori word for health that is derived from the words for water and life), the statement noted:

“Core features of Indigenous worldviews are the interactive relationship between spiritual and material realms, intergenerational and collective orientations, that Mother Earth is a living being – a ‘person’ with whom we have special relationships that are a foundation for identity, and the interconnectedness and interdependence between all that exists, which locates humanity as part of Mother Earth’s ecosystems alongside our relations in the natural world.”

This is the worldview we need if we are to achieve high levels of human development while remaining within the Earth’s ecological limits.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

Human development as if the planet mattered

(Published as ‘Canada’s heavy ecological footprint hurts its human-development ranking’)

Dr. Trevor Hancock

6 January 2021

699 words

Last week I quoted from the December 2nd speech by Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, on the state of the planet. It made for grim reading, but it is the reality we need to face. But Mr Guterres did not end on a pessimistic note; instead he pointed to many indications of opportunity and hope. He concluded: “We cannot go back to the old normal of inequality, injustice and heedless dominion over the Earth. Instead we must step towards a safer, more sustainable and equitable path. . . . Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world – and with each other”.

One recent UN report helps us chart this new course, in part by addressing one of the challenges Mr. Guterres noted: “More and more people are recognizing the limits of conventional yardsticks such as Gross Domestic Product, in which environmentally damaging activities count as economic positives”.

The UN Development Programs’s Human Development Report began in 1990 “precisely as a counterpoint to myopic definitions of development”, as the 2020 report puts it. Specifically it offers the Human Development Index (HDI) as an alternative to the GDP, one grounded in human rather than economic development, reminding us that “economic growth is more means than end”. Human de­velopment, says the 2020 report, “is about empowering people to identify and pursue their own paths for a meaningful life, one anchored in expanding freedoms.”

The HDI has 3 main components: education, health and income per person. The first two represent basic capabilities that are key to people enjoying a high level of human development, while the income component is intended to reflect “command over resources to enjoy a decent standard of living” by acquiring other key requirements such as shelter and food.

The income component of the HDI has been particularly problematic from a sustainable development perspective.  Having more income is very important in low-income countries, where a bit more income can ‘buy’ a lot more human development, both at a personal level and in terms of the country being able to afford universal education and basic health care and meet other basic needs. But that is not the case in high income countries, where having more income not only may not increase human development much but – because they have high ecological footprints – may actually harm human development by increasing ecological harm.

Over time the HDI has been revised to include measurements of inequality and gender disparity, and indeed the 2019 report focused on inequalities in the HDI.  Troublingly, perhaps because it is focused on nation states, the report did not look at an inequality that is particularly important in Canada: The HDI of Indigenous people. This – and the important role of Indigenous people in protecting nature around the world – are issues I will return to in my next column.

But I want to focus on the 2020 Human Development Report, entitled “Human development and the Anthropocene”. Not only are we “destabilizing the planetary systems we rely on for survival”, the report notes, but the combination of social strains due to inequality and the strain on our planet “reinforce each other, amplifying the challenges”.

For the first time, the HDI is adjusted for ‘planetary pressures’ – the impact that countries make on Earth’s biocapacity and resources. Specifically, the Index is adjusted to take into account both a country’s carbon emissions and ‘material footprint’ per person, the latter reflecting the use of materials (biomass, fossil fuels, metal ores and non-metal ores) for domestic consumption. 

So where is Canada on this scale? Well, in 2019 we ranked 16th in the world for the HDI. But once our HDI is adjusted for the planetary pressures we create, it declines 22 percent and we fall to 56th place, which is a poor performance compared to most of the 66 countries in the ‘Very high HDI’ group. While a bit better than the USA and quite a bit better than Australia, we are way behind the countries of Western Europe, which with New Zealand occupy the top ten positions.

The challenge we face is to become a ‘One Planet country’, with a high HDI and a low ecological footprint – and soon.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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

“Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century” – UN Secretary General

29 December 2020

Dr Trevor Hancock

697 words

(Published as ‘To heal the planet, we need to embrace solutions that are already here’)

On 2nd December 2020 the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, gave an important if somewhat overlooked speech on “The State of the Planet” at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum. Mr Guterres was blunt: “To put it simply, the state of the planet is broken”, he said; “humanity is waging war on nature” – and that “is suicidal”.

It’s worth quoting in full the litany of problems he laid out, because this is THE challenge we face throughout the 21st century, and especially in the 2020s: “Biodiversity is collapsing. One million species are at risk of extinction. Ecosystems are disappearing before our eyes. Deserts are spreading. Wetlands are being lost. Every year, we lose 10 million hectares of forests. Oceans are overfished — and choking with plastic waste. The carbon dioxide they absorb is acidifying the seas. Coral reefs are bleached and dying. Air and water pollution are killing 9 million people annually – more than six times the current toll of the pandemic. And with people and livestock encroaching further into animal habitats and disrupting wild spaces, we could see more viruses and other disease-causing agents jump from animals to humans.”

Mr. Guterres then turned his attention specifically to climate change, noting “two new authoritative reports from the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme [that] spell out how close we are to climate catastrophe. . . . The past decade was the hottest in human history. Ocean heat is at record levels. . . . Arctic sea ice in October was the lowest on record – and now re-freezing has been the slowest on record. Greenland ice has continued its long-term decline, . . . Permafrost is melting and so releasing methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Apocalyptic fires and floods, cyclones and hurricanes are increasingly the new normal. . . . carbon dioxide levels are still at record highs – and rising. . . .  In 2020, the upward trend has continued despite the pandemic. Methane [a potent greenhouse gas] soared even higher – to 260 per cent” of pre-industrial levels.

Today, he added, “we are at 1.2 degrees of warming and already witnessing unprecedented climate extremes and volatility in every region and on every continent.  We are headed for a thundering temperature rise of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius this century. The science is crystal clear: to limit temperature rise to 1.5-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent every year between now and 2030. Instead, the world is going in the opposite direction — planning an annual increase of 2 per cent.”

But Mr. Guterres did not give way to despair. Instead he said “Let’s be clear: human activities are at the root of our descent towards chaos. But that means human action can help solve it. Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century. It must be the top, top priority for everyone, everywhere.”

Our work must begin with facing the facts and acknowledging the challenges we face. As Mr. Guterres makes clear, this litany of challenges calls for resolve; we must – and we can – turn this around. The good news is that in many cases we have long understood the solutions we need to implement. Indeed, they largely exist already, and in many cases are being applied in some places around the world.

So my resolve in 2021 is to focus as much as I can on the solutions – and not the solutions that are ‘out there’, but the solutions that are right here. Inspired by the McGill University-based project ‘Seeds of Good Anthropocenes’, which documents examples of existing initiatives that hold the potential to shape “a more just, prosperous, and ecologically diverse world”, the Conversations for a One Planet initiative I founded will spend 2021 focusing on the Seed of a One Planet Region to be found right here in the Greater Victoria Region.

We will bring stories of hope and practical application to our monthly Conversations, and we are also planning to create a ‘Seeds Catalogue’ – an online resource that will help people connect to, learn from and be inspired by what I am calling the One Planeteers. Stay tuned. 

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

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