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Trevor Hancock: We need a great turnaround in societal values

New ethical frameworks for society are needed that reflect values of human solidarity, quality of life and ecological sensibility
We need to stop seeing nature as apart from us rather than something in which we are deeply embedded and upon which we are completely dependent, writes Trevor Hancock. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nature Conservancy of Canada

In recent weeks, I have been exploring Earth For All, the 2022 report of the 21st Century Transformational Economics Commission to the Club of Rome. Intended as a survival guide for humanity, the report focuses on five great turnarounds, each of which I have discussed.

There is, in effect, a sixth great turnaround in the report, one that underlies the other five: the need for a transformation in our economic system, which I wrote about last week.

But although it’s not explicitly discussed in the report, I detect a seventh — and perhaps the most profound — turnaround underlying all these: a turnaround in the deep cultural values that drive our society and its economy.

In his 2017 book The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent calls these deep cultural values “root metaphors.”

“Each culture,” he wrote in a 2018 blog for Schumacher College, “tends to construct its worldview on a root metaphor of the universe, which in turn defines people’s relationship to nature and each other, ultimately leading to a set of values that directs how that culture behaves.”

I have addressed this before. Back in November 2020, I wrote about the toxic values we need to change, including the excessive valuing of individualism; greed and materialism; and seeing nature as apart from us rather than something in which we are deeply embedded and upon which we are completely dependent.

Those thoughts align well with “the conventional triad of individualism, consumerism, and domination of nature” identified by the Great Transition Initiative as lying at the root of our current global and local crises. In opposition to them, the GTI proposes we develop “a constellation of values — human solidarity, quality of life, and ecological sensibility.”

The GTI, which, like Earth For All, is focused on a deep transformation of culture and society, is rooted in the Global Scenario Group, founded in 1995.

It is “an international collaboration for charting pathways to a planetary civilization rooted in solidarity, sustainability, and human well-being.” And it has a strong interest in ethics.

In February 2020, the GTI organised an online forum titled Toward a Great Ethics Transition.

In an opening essay, professor Brendan Mackey, director of the Climate Change Response Program at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, wrote: “systemic transformation will require a roadmap guided by shared values about what we want the future to look like and an agreed set of normative ethical principles to provide the necessary moral guidance.”

In particular, he noted: “we will not have the ‘green economy’ we need without a new economic vision and the institutional means to regulate private abuse of the global commons and goods held in common,” adding in a subsequent commentary, responding to a number of thoughtful responses to his essay, that “Humanity’s future and survival is very much tied to the health of our planet. And for this reason, I argue the Great Transition needs an ethic which is an Earth ethic.”

Mackey suggests that the Earth Charter, launched in 2000 after a five-year consultation process headed by Maurice Strong and Mikhail Gorbachev, is a useful example of a global ethical framework for governance, although it needs updating.

In particular, he notes its section on ecological integrity needs to address modern-day issues such as the Anthropocene and planetary boundaries, while he comments approvingly on the growing “influence of First Nations’ worldviews, values, and principles in national and international policy and law.”

Mackey also points to “the importance that world religions and religious leaders have to play in the ongoing development and application of Earth ethics.”

So I was pleased to be invited with my colleague Clare Attwell to speak recently to the Interfaith Liaison Network of the Victoria Multifaith Society about bioregionalism and the importance of becoming a One Planet Region.

I am convinced of the importance of faith communities in exploring and discussing new ethical frameworks for society that reflect the constellation of values — human solidarity, quality of life, and ecological sensibility — championed by the Great Transition Initiative.

We need conversations throughout this region, across B.C. and Canada about these ideas.

Such work is essential if we are to achieve the great turnaround in societal values we need, locally and globally.

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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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