Good health requires environmental security

TH - PHSPTrevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy

 

Security has emerged as an important issue in the lead up to this year's federal election in Canada, but the understanding of it by the main parties is very narrow. It is focused largely on policing, criminal justice and the military.

If we look at the definition of security it is “the state of being free from danger or threat”; the dangers and threats we face globally are far greater than those posed by militant fundamentalists or even by criminals. This is not to deny the real danger and sense of threat that some of us experience from such people, nor is it to deny that some people are hurt, or tortured, even killed.

But if we step back and look at the bigger picture, the greatest universal threat to our security and that of our descendants – in Canada and globally - arises from climate change and from other global ecological changes that are underway and that we are causing. The Lancet described climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century” in the report of its 2009 Commission on Climate Change.

More recently, both the Rockefeller-Lancet Commission on Planetary Health and the Canadian Public Health Association’s report on the ecological determinants of health (which I led) have focused on the health impacts of global ecological change as a whole. In addition to climate change, this includes pollution and ecotoxicity, depletion of renewable and non-renewable resources, and loss of species and biodiversity. Together, they pose a threat greater than climate change alone.

But most of our political leaders seem unaware of the concept of environmental security, although the term has been in use for some 30 years. There are two key aspects. First, a healthy environment and an adequate supply of key resources (water, food, energy, raw materials) are the fundamental underpinnings of domestic security and the economy.

Second, as the Institute for Environmental Security states, “there are growing indications that [deterioration of the environment] is increasingly an underlying cause of instability, conflict and unrest”. In other words, lack of environmental security can lead to instability and conflict, even war. Given the serious threat posed by global ecological change, a lack of environmental security is a potential threat to world peace as well as national stability.

So what steps would a government take if it were intent on ensuring environmental security? A useful first step would be to recognize that global ecological change is underway, that it is a threat to our security and that it must be addressed. As a wealthy and resource-rich country and a member of the G-7, Canada is both a major producer and user of resources and a major source of pollution and greenhouse gases.

The most important strategy when you are in a hole is to stop digging! We have to do all we can, now, to reduce our impact and stop making the situation worse. As such, Canada should commit to becoming an environmentally sustainable society as quickly as possible, and to helping other countries achieve the same. This will contribute substantially to our security and well-being.

This means reducing our use of non-renewable resources (such as fossil fuels), using what we have more efficiently and recycling and re-using as fully as possible. For renewable resources such as water, fisheries, soil and forests, we can only use them at a sustainable rate that ensures they will always be there. Finally, it means moving to zero emissions of harmful pollutants.

However, as ecological decline is already happening, we need to learn how to live with it. How do we manage our way through ecological decline to a more sustainable future with the least disruption to national and global security and stability?

In a recent book chapter on ‘Managing Decline’ I suggested we treat this as a long, slow disaster. We already have mechanisms in place for disaster preparedness and management. So why not take that model and adapt it to preparing for and managing decline. The next government, in collaboration with the provincial and municipal governments and the voluntary sector, needs to establish programs for managing decline based on the existing disaster management infrastructure.

A government truly interested in ensuring that its citizens are free from danger or threat would make environmental security a priority.

Editor's note: This blog was originally published in the Times Colonist

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