Trevor Hancock: Governments ignore urgent issues

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-19 crisis is that many people are looking for an alternative way forward, as Guardian columnist George Monbiot noted in his July 25 column reporting on recent U.K. polls.

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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.

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 1.5 C target for global warming, but the 2 C 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 endangering ourselves as well as 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-19.

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 organization in B.C.

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.

thancock@uvic.ca

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