Trevor Hancock: It’s time to be responsible ancestors

As I listen to the increasingly shrill and heated rhetoric of Jason Kenney, and others of his ilk as they try to defend and promote the fossil-fuel industry, it brings to mind a phrase from a 2015 report from The Lancet.

This leading medical journal has sponsored several commissions, often in partnership with international organizations, on the effects of global ecological change on health. There have been two on climate change and one each on pollution, healthy diets from sustainable food systems, and planetary health.

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The Commission on Planetary Health, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, examined the “health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends.” In their report, the commission noted “we have been mortgaging the health of future generations to realise economic and development gains in the present.

“By unsustainably exploiting nature’s resources, human civilization has flourished but now risks substantial health effects from the degradation of nature’s life support systems in the future.”

In other words, we have been flagrantly violating the fundamental principle of sustainable development put forward in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission: To meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Or to use an older concept, we have forgotten that we do not inherit the Earth from our parents, but borrow it from our children.

Of course, it’s not just the fossil-fuel industry that is causing harm. Other major industries behind these global ecological changes also bear a heavy responsibility — as do we all, ultimately, in that we use and enjoy their products.

The focus on making money now and to heck with the future is grossly irresponsible. The legacy is a depleted and impoverished natural environment for our descendants, an infringement of their right to a healthy environment.

But I cannot think of a better example of a group that is intent on harming the health of their descendants than the fossil-fuel industry and their political allies and supporters.

We know that our present path will take us well beyond a global temperature increase of 20 C. We also know that much of the carbon in the ground, in the form of coal, oil and gas, will need to stay there if we are to avoid this.

So continuing to push for the use of fossil fuels, leaving in place tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry and opposing carbon taxes and other measures to limit fossil-fuel use, is the height of inter-generational selfishness and irresponsibility.

The defence of the industry in Canada — which basically amounts to “other people around the world are being irresponsible, so we should be irresponsible, too” — is an abdication of leadership.

The approach of these fossil-fuel advocates is also harmful to those who make their living from fossil fuels, because in going to the wall for the industry, Kenney and his fellow travellers around the world delude not only themselves, but these workers, that the industry must be there and must grow.

In doing so, they are postponing the vitally important work of creating a socially just transition away from fossil fuels for these workers, with the training, support and other measures they and their communities will need. That will only make the changes, when they do happen, that much more sudden and wrenching.

What we all need to do, including Kenney, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the rest of the fossil-fuel support clique, is to follow the advice of Jonas Salk, creator of the polio vaccine, who said: “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” Being responsible ancestors does not include mortgaging the health of future generations and compromising the ability of those future generations to meet their own environmental, social and economic needs.

Acting as responsible ancestors means, first of all, recognizing the issue of intergenerational justice, the right of our descendants to a healthy environment. It means seeking to create high levels of human and social development for this generation in a way that is socially just and within the limits of the Earth.

It does not mean continuing to boost the fossil-fuel industry, but seeking the quickest possible transition to a low-carbon future.

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

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