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Trevor Hancock: Toward a just transformation to Earth for All

Humans must move from a society focused on “me” to one focused on “we”
Residents wait on a soccer field for food donated by the local group G10 Favelas in 2021 in the Capao Redondo area of Sao Paulo, Brazil. In the first quarter of 2021, Brazil saw its highest unemployment and economic inequality in at least nine years, with the cost of living surging and tent cities and shantytowns emerging. ANDRE PENNER, AP

In the past few weeks, I have been stressing the need for a rapid transformation of our society if we are to ensure people around the world can have good lives within planetary boundaries. A recent article in a (British) Royal Society journal by Prof. Timothy Lenton, a leading Earth-system scientist and director of the Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter, and Marten Scheffer at Wageningen University, makes the same point.

They suggest there are two main ways in which “the industrialized modern growth regime” is a threat to itself, which means, of course, a threat to our societies and to ourselves. First, “the growing consumption of non-essential goods, services and associated resources is causing climate change, loss of nature and disruption of humanity’s life-support system;” second, they state, “appropriation of resources by the richest is exacerbating inequality between nations and within some of the richest nations, producing geopolitical tension, social unrest and conflict (despite average wealth increasing).”

After looking at the process by which “human systems … come to dominate and transform the world,” they conclude that “to escape a bleak Anthropocene will require abruptly shifting from existing unsustainable ‘vicious cycles’ to alternative, sustainable ‘virtuous cycles.’” But they add that this will require “a revolutionary cultural shift from maximizing growth to maximizing persistence,” or as the Science Council of Canada put it almost 50 years ago, from a consumer to a conserver society.

It will also require another key shift in core values, in order to address the threat of growing inequality noted above: From a society focused on “me” to one focused on “we,” from the hyper-individualism of neo-liberalism to a concern for our neighbours and, as Indigenous people put it, for “all our relations.”

Earth for All, a 2022 report to the Club of Rome from its 21st Century Transformational Economics Commission, is focused on exactly this necessity. The key point of the report is inherent in its title; this is not Earth for a few, nor just for some, not even for many, but for all. It stems from a deeply humane concern to include everyone, to ensure everyone in the world has their basic needs met and that they enjoy good health, a sense of well-being and a decent quality of life.

The argument here is not for absolute equality, but for equity. In my field of population health, inequity — its opposite — is understood as unfair and unacceptable inequality. In other words, we recognize that in health, as in the rest of life, there will always be differences, inequalities. What matters is whether those differences are considered fair or just. Many would argue that the current level of inequality between rich and poor is neither fair nor just, and thus is unacceptable.

For those who have problems dealing with the strong moral argument to reduce inequality and achieve equity, I advance a strong social benefit. As the Earth for All report notes: “Countries that are more equal perform better in all areas of human well-being and achievement than countries with divisive levels of income inequality.” And since there are large economic costs both in lost productivity and lost contribution to society and in added cost to deal with health, social and other problems, this constitutes a strong economic argument for greater equity.

The Earth for All report proposed five “great turnarounds” or transformations to create a sustainable society, the first three of which are focused on inequality: Ending poverty globally, addressing gross inequality within nations and empowering women. The fourth great turnaround involves redesigning our food systems to make them healthy for both people and the planet, while the final great turnaround is focused on transforming our energy systems.

Underlying these five transformations is a sixth: a shift from “Winner takes all” capitalism to what the report calls “Earth4All economies.” Such economies are based on “securing a people’s well-being by securing their shared commons,” by which is meant the ecological determinants of our shared health — land, water, air, food, a clean and safe environment, biodiversity, a stable climate and so on.

I addressed the first turnaround, ending poverty globally, in December. Next week, I will start to look at the remaining turnarounds.

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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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