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Trevor Hancock: B.C. should protect our future well-being

The new B.C. government — assuming things work out as predicted — will mark a significant departure from any previous government we have seen in Canada.

The new B.C. government — assuming things work out as predicted — will mark a significant departure from any previous government we have seen in Canada. The presence of the Greens as partners with a minority NDP government should lead to a significant rethinking of the direction of society and the role of government.

This is because the Greens mark a real break with the economic and social consensus that has dominated politics on both left and right for the past century or more. This consensus has been that we need to exploit the Earth’s resources to fuel economic growth, which in turn will fuel human development and progress, without any serious consideration of the long-term implications.

While there are important social-policy distinctions between left and right, until recently there have not been important differences from the Earth’s point of view. Both socialist and capitalist governments in Canada and around the world have been keen to industrialize and to exploit the Earth, with differences more in the realm of how equitably the benefits and costs are distributed, and how much or how little environmental protection is offered.

We only have to look at the current positions on the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion to see this; it is supported by the right-wing “Liberals” in B.C., the federal Liberals and the Alberta NDP.

But now we have both the B.C. NDP and the B.C. Greens opposing it. This is promising, but that approach has to become broader and deeper if we are to make the transition from an economic system that increasingly does more harm than good to a system that improves human and ecosystem health at the same time.

This is what really makes the Greens different; they are, as an old German Green Party slogan put it: “Neither left nor right, but ahead.” The focus of Green politics and economics is on ecologically sustainable human and social development rather than economic growth, and on such ideas as a steady-state economy (my topic last week) and alternative measures of progress to GDP, such as the genuine-progress index.

One of the key problems that we have to overcome if we are to move to a sustainable system of social and economic development is the short-term thinking that dominates in both government and business. Too often, government policy is dictated by the need for quick (and thus often “dirty”) fixes before the next election, with scant regard for long-term impact, while business, too, is often focused on the short-term bottom line.

So if I have one key wish for this new government, it is that it takes a leaf from the Welsh Assembly and pass a Well-being of Future Generations Act. The act was passed in 2015, and it is intended to “improve the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales” to “give future generations a good quality of life.”

The act requires governments to think about the long-term impacts of their actions. Crucially, it requires all ministers, as well as local authorities, health boards and a number of other public bodies, to “carry out sustainable development,” and establishes a “sustainable development principle” that they must follow. They “must act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

There are seven “well-being goals” (a Wales that is prosperous, resilient, healthier, more equal, globally responsible, with cohesive communities and a vibrant culture), and the act “makes it clear the listed public bodies must work to achieve all of the goals, not just one or two.”

The act also requires transparency and accountability; the ministers and others must “set and publish well-being objectives” for all seven goals and must publish an annual report on their progress.

They are also subject to review by the future generations commissioner (who is “a guardian for the interests of future generations in Wales”) as well as the auditor general.

What’s not to like in this? If Wales can do it, there is no reason B.C. cannot; future generations will be very grateful.


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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