Change the val­ues that shape our sys­tems

Times Colonist - - Islander - TREVOR HANCOCK thancock@uvic.ca Dr. Trevor Hancock is a re­tired pro­fes­sor and se­nior scholar at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria’s School of Pub­lic Health and So­cial Pol­icy.

Two weeks ago, I ar­gued that the im­mense chal­lenge of cli­mate change and other global eco­log­i­cal changes that threaten our health, as well as the high lev­els of in­equal­ity ex­pe­ri­enced world­wide, are the in­evitable re­sult of the so­ci­etal sys­tems we have cre­ated.

If “ev­ery sys­tem is per­fectly de­signed to get the re­sults it gets,” as the In­sti­tute for Health­care Im­prove­ment puts it, then to get dif­fer­ent re­sults, we need a dif­fer­ent sys­tem.

Last week, I sug­gested that our eco­nomic sys­tem is not “fit for pur­pose” in the 21st cen­tury. The new mantra that we can have both a strong econ­omy and a healthy en­vi­ron­ment is sim­ply not true if the strong econ­omy is based on harm­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

So the Justin Trudeau and Rachel Not­ley ar­gu­ment that we need the pipe­line to get the oil from the Al­berta oil­sands to for­eign mar­kets is non­sen­si­cal when we con­sider both the global cli­mate-change im­pact of the oil­sands, and the lo­cal dev­as­ta­tion they cre­ate. Their ar­gu­ments are rooted in a world view, modernism, and an un­der­ly­ing set of val­ues that are also not fit for pur­pose in the 21st cen­tury.

Modernism, the dom­i­nant world view or par­a­digm within which we op­er­ate, is rooted in two 16th-cen­tury trans­for­ma­tions in thought, ac­cord­ing to Kr­is­han Kumar, pro­fes­sor of so­cial and po­lit­i­cal thought at the Univer­sity of Kent. The first was a re­li­gious trans­for­ma­tion, the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion, with its at­ten­dant val­ues re­lat­ing to work (the Pu­ri­tan work ethic), which led to mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism. This was ac­com­pa­nied by a sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion that was based on ra­tio­nal­ist thought and the sci­en­tific method.

Kumar iden­ti­fies a num­ber of el­e­ments that com­prise “modernism,” but states: “Fun­da­men­tally, it is the eco­nomic changes that most dra­mat­i­cally af­fect in­dus­trial so­ci­ety.” Those eco­nomic changes in­clude “eco­nomic growth as the cen­tral defin­ing feature of an in­dus­trial … econ­omy.” Th­ese trans­for­ma­tions and the growth in wealth, re­sources and power for the na­tions of the West that re­sulted led to a be­lief in the in­evitabil­ity of progress.

But progress has been con­fused with eco­nomic growth, and two key val­ues that re­late to that: ac­quis­i­tive­ness and greed. We want more stuff, and we can never have enough. If you are a bil­lion­aire, you still aren’t a multi­bil­lion­aire. And if the ac­qui­si­tion of all that wealth (and the power that goes with it) im­pov­er­ishes oth­ers and harms the planet — well, that is just the cost of progress.

The fact that eco­nomic growth now threat­ens the sta­bil­ity of the ecosys­tems and the sus­tain­abil­ity of the nat­u­ral re­sources upon which we de­pend some­how is ig­nored. This is linked to an­other key at­tribute of modernism that Kumar men­tions, and which stems from the sci­en­tific rev­o­lu­tion: “A sense of be­ing su­pe­rior to and/or apart from na­ture.” We do not fully un­der­stand or ac­cept that the en­vi­ron­ment is not some “nice to have” fringe ben­e­fit of be­ing wealthy, not some­thing that must be sac­ri­ficed in the name of progress.

At the heart of our chal­lenges, then, lie two sets of val­ues that we have to change: ac­quis­i­tive­ness, greed and eco­nomic growth on the one hand, and our sep­a­ra­tion from na­ture on the other. With re­spect to the first, we need to re­place growth with the con­cepts of ad­e­quacy or suf­fi­ciency as a guid­ing prin­ci­ple.

In the fore­word to the book Enough is Enough by Rob Di­etz and Dan O’Neill, Her­man Daly — the “el­der states­man” of steady state eco­nom­ics — sug­gests that “enough,” which means “suf­fi­cient for a good life,” “should be the cen­tral con­cept in eco­nom­ics,” while “the cur­rent an­swer of ‘hav­ing ever more’ is wrong.” Or as Gandhi said: “Earth pro­vides enough to sat­isfy ev­ery per­son’s need, but not ev­ery per­son’s greed.”

Di­etz and O’Neill pro­pose a num­ber of poli­cies that to­gether “form an agenda for trans­form­ing the eco­nomic goal from more to enough.” Th­ese in­clude lim­it­ing the use of ma­te­ri­als and en­ergy to sus­tain­able lev­els, sta­bi­liz­ing pop­u­la­tion through com­pas­sion­ate and non-co­er­cive means, achiev­ing a fair dis­tri­bu­tion of in­come and wealth, and chang­ing the way we mea­sure progress.

Add to that a recog­ni­tion that we are part of, not apart from, na­ture and must act ac­cord­ingly, and we might have a fight­ing chance of get­ting to a so­ci­ety based on enough for all.

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