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Trevor Hancock: Our ‘ignore-ant’ elites blindly adhere to 'business as usual'

Many of our so-called leaders don’t want to change because they get so much benefit — wealth, power, status — from the way things are
Bank towers in Toronto’s financial district. Many of our leaders don’t want to change because they get so much benefit — wealth, power, status — from the way things are, writes Trevor Hancock. Andrew Lahodynskyj, CP

My colleague Paul Kershaw is a professor of public health at UBC and founder of Generation Squeeze, a “Think and Change Tank” that promotes wellbeing for all generations.

It does so “by turning evidence into action and rejuvenating democracy to protect what is sacred for younger and future generations: a healthy ­childhood, home and planet.” Paul has been very effective in ­raising issues of concern and getting public policy changed.

Recently, we have been discussing the content of a session we are planning on planetary health and a ­wellbeing society at the Victoria Forum this August. In the process of that discussion, Paul wrote: “I doubt we need a session that makes the case we have crossed planetary boundaries, or that wellbeing frameworks matter, or that Indigenous knowledge is critical to thinking sustainably over generations.”

A reasonable point — one would like to think these issues are already well understood, at least in principle.

But he then made the case that — sadly — we do indeed need such a session, adding: “Except that the governments and corporations that drive our economies and societies are not behaving as if they have heard or understand this.”

Now this is from someone who is well steeped in public policy and well connected to the policy-making process and to policy-makers. So when he says that our government and corporate leadership is not paying attention to these important issues, it worries me.

What they are not hearing or understanding is really very simple: We only have one planet, and its natural ecosystems are the source of all life — not just ­humanity but every single living thing. And yet our demands considerably exceed the biocapacity and resources of the Earth.

We behave as if we have and can use the resources of several planets. Indeed, the more bizarrely delusional of us actually seem to believe we can and should move to another planet — presumably so we can repeat the process there!

But back here on Earth, where we actually live, we have crossed six of nine suggested planetary ­boundaries and are approaching two others, one of which is climate change.

Now it’s hard to believe that governments and ­corporations are not hearing or understanding this; indeed, I am sure they are. But what Paul is saying is that they are not behaving as if they have heard or understood what is going on.

They are practising what Elizabeth Ellsworth, in a 1997 book, called “ignore-ance” — “an active dynamic of negation, an active refusal of information.”

I can imagine several reasons that lead to this ­inability to face reality and act accordingly.

In responding to Paul, I suggested possible reasons for this ignore-ance: It may be that many of our leaders — and indeed many people in general — don’t believe it is really that bad, or can’t easily face the implications.

Or perhaps people believe that somehow someone, somewhere, will come up with a technological fix that will allow us to carry on much as we are.

But I suspect that for many of our so-called leaders, they don’t want to change because they get so much benefit — wealth, power, status — from the way things are.

And therein lies the nub of our problem — ­self-­interested blind adherence to “business as usual,” to an economic system and underlying core values that plainly work against our long-term interests.

The result is an inability or unwillingness to play a leadership role in the massive and rapid transformation needed to stave off ecological decline, even collapse. And when ecosystems decline or collapse, so, too, do the communities and societies embedded within them, and the economies they create.

As the old adage has it, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. And since this government and corporate elite has shown itself ­unwilling to or incapable of addressing the problem, it clearly IS the problem.

But it is not just the behaviour of our elites — the problem is more profound than that.

They are merely reflecting and acting upon a set of deep cultural values that are unfit for purpose in the 21st century, as I start to discuss next week.

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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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