Trevor Hancock: Good health requires different economics

For the past three years, I have been leading an important project for the Canadian Public Health Association, which led to the release on Monday of our discussion paper and report on global change and public health.

In these documents, we identify human-induced global ecological changes as the greatest threat to public health in the 21st century. As I discussed in a previous column, those changes include:

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• Global warming and resultant climate instability;

• The contamination of all ecosystems and food chains — and all humans — with persistent organic pollutants and other novel entities such as nano-particles;

• The depletion of key resources and damage to ecosystems that provide life-supporting “goods and services”; and

• The loss of species and biodiversity, a human-induced “sixth great extinction” that threatens the overall web of life.

Here and in future columns, I will explore some of the issues and approaches in our report, beginning with the underlying values and beliefs that drive the ecological changes we are witness to, and the changes in those values and beliefs we need to create.

The drivers of the ecological changes noted above, collectively referred to as ”the Anthropocene,” are a combination of population growth and affluence, with technology sometimes amplifying and sometimes reducing the impact of those drivers. But underlying these drivers is an increasingly globally shared set of values and beliefs that together comprise “modernism.” The central value is a belief in “progress” and that progress equates with growth, especially growth in material well-being.

This leads to the pursuit of economic growth to meet the growing demands of a growing population. But this is the fundamental problem because, in our current economic system, growth means more demands on the Earth’s natural resources and more damage to its ecosystems.

Such damage is resulting in the decline, and might result in the collapse, of key ecosystems that are the basis for the life and survival of humans and other life forms; when ecosystems decline or collapse, so too do the societies that are dependent upon them. This damage undermines the economy and threatens the well-being and even the very survival of societies and our increasingly interconnected global civilization.

Moreover, as resources become scarce and ecosystems fragile, those with wealth and power will ensure their access to them, even if it means others — including other humans and other species — have less. This will heighten global and local inequity and push more ecosystems toward collapse and more species toward extinction. It will also heighten the potential for local and global strife.

Faced with these immense challenges, the only answer from conventional economics is more growth. But continued conventional growth in a finite system — the Earth — is clearly impossible when it involves more growth in demand for resources and more strain upon our increasingly fragile ecosystems. There are indeed limits to growth — or to be more precise, there is a limit to growth, and that limit is the Earth itself.

Our current economic philosophy and system is broken, and must be discarded and replaced with an economic system that is compatible with the Earth and all its ecosystems and resources. This will require a massive global change in the cultural and political values that drive our current economic system.

That change has to begin with the wealthy countries, because we cannot say, in effect, we will keep what we have but the rest of the world cannot have what we have because there isn’t enough to go around. We need to shift our focus from the pursuit of economic development to the pursuit of a higher goal: human development that is equitable and sustainable.

After all, what business are we in — or should we be in — as societies and governments? Is growing the economy really the ultimate human purpose? Or are we here to “grow” people? And are we here only to “grow” some people — people like us, perhaps? — or are we here to pursue a more noble purpose; ensuring the achievement by everyone of the highest human potential of which they are capable?


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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