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Trevor Hancock: All I want for the new year is ...

What is critical is an understanding of our complete inter-­connection with and dependence on the Earth’s natural systems for our very ­existence
Flood damage in Abbotsford in ­November. Trevor Hancock argues that COVID-19 is not an existential threat, but climate change is. JONATHAN HAYWARD, THE CANADIAN PRESS

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

Utopian? Yes, of course. But then, who would wish for the opposite of those things?

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

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

Indeed, this newspaper itself was taken to task just a month ago by Pastor Don Johnson for suggesting in an editorial that COVID “could make past epidemics look tame by comparison.”

In reality, it is comparatively minor, as these things go, with a relatively low case-fatality rate of around 1.5 per cent in Canada. Thanks to strong public-health measures, including a rapidly developed and deployed vaccine, it only accounts for around five per cent of all deaths in the past two years of the pandemic.

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

And this was nothing compared to the ­disruption that Indigenous people in the Americas experienced when they ­encountered European diseases such as smallpox, influenza, measles and whooping cough.

One estimate is that up to 90 per cent of the pre-contact population of some 60 million Indigenous people in the Americas died within a century of contact due to a combination of infectious disease and colonial policies that amounted to what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called a cultural genocide.

But COVID is not an existential crisis. It does not threaten societal collapse. More profoundly concerning, indeed critical, is what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres calls our “suicidal war on nature” that we have been conducting for the past couple of centuries, and with increasing intensity since the mid-20th century.

Globally, the UN secretary general and the UN Environment Program have begun to address the challenge of making peace with nature, focusing on the triple threat of climate change, loss of biodiversity and high levels of pollution.

In a September 2021 speech to the UN, Guterres linked the war on nature to several other global crises that together threaten “a future of serious instability and climate chaos.”

In addition to COVID, these include “unchecked inequality [which] is ­undermining social cohesion, creating ­fragilities that affect us all,” the “unforeseen consequences” of technology and a system of “global decision-making [that] is fixed on immediate gain, ignoring the long-term ­consequences of decisions — or indecision.”

Climate-change inaction, and the ­desecration of nature more generally, in the name of “progress” is, of course, the poster child for such bad decisions.

What is critical, it seems to me, is an understanding of our complete inter-­connection with and dependence on the Earth’s natural systems for our very ­existence, coupled with a time horizon that extends beyond this financial year-end or this legislature’s term of office.

We also need to pay more attention to the deep cultural values that underlie and drive our dangerous social and economic ­behaviours.

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

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