Trevor Hancock: The turning of the year, coming of the light

On Monday, the sun reaches its southernmost point and starts its long slow trek back to the north, heading for the summer solstice. For thousands of years, throughout the northern hemisphere, this has been an important turning point. The fear that the sun would not return, that our world would continue to get darker and colder, would have haunted our forebears.

But the turning of the sun brought with it the promise of light and warmth, a new spring, new life, new planting and a new harvest. No wonder it was a cause for celebration, a time for fires and lights to ward off the dark and celebrate the return of the light.

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In more recent times, those celebrations have been taken up as Christmas, Hannukah, Diwali and related events, but their roots lie in the observation and celebration of the winter solstice.

Today, the focus is on these modern celebrations — and especially their commercialized incarnations — but their roots in solstice, like many of our connections to nature, have been drastically reduced, if not severed.

The Paris Agreement on Global Climate Change is a good illustration of that loss of connection — but perhaps is also a symbol of a turning, a coming of the light of hope, and a cause for celebration. It holds out the hope that we may avoid the worst of the damage that can come from climate change, damage that includes significant threats to the health of people around the world.

The agreement illustrates our loss of connection with nature, because it should have come decades ago. The science of climate change was clear long ago, as were the probable consequences and potential solutions, and the signs of global warming were there to be seen.

But we chose to ignore them — helped on by a denial movement supported by the fossil-fuel industry and its supporters — until the signs became so obvious that they could no longer be ignored.

Yet at this turning point of the year, the Paris agreement brings hope. In the decline of the fossil-fuel industry, we also see the possibilities inherent in the birth of a new clean-energy industry based on conservation and renewable energy.

Not only will there be significant economic and employment benefits in this new energy industry, there will be significant health benefits, too. Certainly, the people of Beijing and many other cities around the world will be able to breathe easier in the future as the shift away from fossil fuels leads to cleaner air.

But there is a deeper lesson in the climate-change debate and decision-making process to which we need to pay attention, and that is the limitations of the scientific approach.

It has taken decades longer than it should have to reach this agreement, in part because logic and science have not been enough to change policy. Knowing something intellectually is not enough. People need to know it in their hearts and in their guts; they need to feel the changes in the Earth’s ecosystems.

In her latest book, Naomi Klein says of climate change: “This changes everything,” and it does. If we are to live successfully within the limitations of our home planet, we need to foster a social and indeed a cultural transformation.

Key to that transformation is to see ourselves not as separate from and superior to nature, but part of and deeply interdependent with nature. But creating such a feeling is not science’s strength, it is the role of the arts, culture and the humanities, which is why I believe they have a large role to play in addressing the challenges we face.

Which brings me to the celebration of solstice. Part of reconnecting with nature is to reconnect to the seasons, to the turning of the year and to the coming of the light. Which is why you will find me this Sunday, as the Green Man, participating in our annual Mummers Play at the Lights on the Gorge Solstice celebration.

My closing lines say it all: “Our purpose is to celebrate the turning of the year, so we wish joy and happiness, great mirth and great good cheer.”


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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