Our descendants need protection from us

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


The Iroquois Confederacy’s Great Law is said to include the principle of making decisions taking into account impacts on the  seventh generation, which means thinking 140 – 175 years ahead. That is a far cry from our modern politicians, who can barely think past the next election, never mind our businesses and stock markets that are too often focused only on the next quarter’s bottom line.

As Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary, it seems a particularly good time to think about the next 150 years. Of course we can’t predict that far ahead; imagine how much of today’s world we could have predicted in 1867. But there is no doubt that what we do today will have impacts at least 150 years into the future, and probably much further.

The largest impacts are likely to be the result of the global ecological changes we are causing because of our current destructive economic system and the underlying social and political values that drive it. Climate change, ocean acidification, resource depletion and species extinctions, all of which are underway, will have significant impacts on people living in 2167, unless we change our ways dramatically and swiftly.

The good news is that there are many examples already in place of governments that have taken steps to safeguard the future, and many ideas of stronger, better steps we could take. The bad news is that Canada's federal and most provincial governments have taken none of those steps. So here are some ideas to get them started.

First, recognise the right to a healthy environment and include it in the Charter of Rights. Mooted at the First UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, it is now included in the constitutions of 100 nations. David Boyd, who literally wrote the book on this issue in 2012, notes: “All told, 181 of the UN’s 193 member nations recognize that their citizens possess the right to live in a healthy environment”. Sadly, Canada is one of a dozen who do not.

Happily, the David Suzuki Foundation has a plan to change that. Their Blue Dot Campaign aims to get municipalities, then provinces, to recognise the right to a healthy environment. Only then would we try to change the Charter. So far, over 100,00 people and nearly 150 communities have signed on. The next BC government should commit to being the first province to recognize the right to a healthy environment in law.

Another step is to adopt the Earth Charter, which was formally launched in 2000. It is intended to “guide the transition towards a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world”. There are 16 principles organized in four broad themes: Respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, social and economic justice, and democracy, non-violence and peace.

A campaign is underway in Victoria, BC, to have governments in the Capital Region endorse the Earth Charter, joining more than 7,000 organisations worldwide that have done so, including local governments and international organizations. This is something the next BC government should also endorse.

But we need to go further in ensuring that we act responsibly to protect future generations. For this we could follow the example of Wales, which in 2015 adopted a Well-Being of Future Generations Act.  The Act recognises that “Sustainable development is about improving the way that we can achieve our economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being”.

The Act places a legal duty on all public bodies, including Ministers, to carry out sustainable development, including setting and publishing wellbeing objectives, which they must pursue. They are also required to publish annual progress reports and respond publicly to recommendations from the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. Accountability is further ensured by requiring Ministers to set national indicators and report publicly on progress.

Finally, the Act requires, Ministers to publish a ‘Future Trends Report’ within twelve months of an election containing “predictions of likely future trends in social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales”, taking into account “the UN’s sustainable development goals and the impact of climate change on Wales”.

Adopting such legislation both provincially and federally would be a suitable 150th birthday present for Canada, and a commitment to protecting the wellbeing of the next seven generations.

Editor's note: This blog was originally published as a regular column in the Times Colonist

One thought on “Our descendants need protection from us

  1. Gordon Friesen

    Dear Trevor,

    I spent a fair amount of time, today, driving around the suburbs of Montreal, ostensibly running normal weekend errands, but actually preoccupied with the challenge of rationally analyzing the successive waves of profoundly negative emotion excited by the reading of this latest blog submission.

    First off, there is the sheer impossibility of the Globalist project. USA, EU, China, Russia, and perhaps one or more theocratic super-states in the Middle East. I cannot see any one, or combination, of these ever constraining the others to a forced surrender of sovereignty. And by the time they all did so voluntarily (admitting that possibility solely for the politeness of conversation) every last drop of Oil Sands product, not to mention every single crumb of the Earth’s coal, would long since have been harvested and burned.

    So, it would be easy, for me, to simply say that your ideals, while beautiful, are unfortunately unattainable in the real world. But that is not the case. I actually find the literal goals of the Earth Charter vision absolutely abhorrent. Yes, I believe we are at an evolutionary cross-roads. I would even liken its’ importance to that critical moment when the first determined sea creature dragged itself out on land and set in motion all of the diversity we see around us today. Homo Sapiens is now (and even more impressively, I believe), in the act of pulling him (or her) self, out of an ocean of passive suffering inflicted by the cruel process of random survival-based evolution, into a totally new phase of creative self-definition, the ultimate parameters of which we are not even dimly aware. And under these circumstances, to follow the Earth Charter plan of timidly restraining ourselves to some Neo-Primitive vision of “sustainability”, whereby the human potential is more or less permanently pegged at little more than that of a high end chimpanzee… well, I can only compare such a disaster to a hypothetical scenario where that first Heroic Creature from the Sea, might have become suddenly overcome with guilt and disgust at a realization of the astounding level of global perturbation his presence on land was about to inflict on the “Natural Order”, and, suitably rebuked in his fishy self consciousness, should have humbly resolved to abandon all such arrogant ambitions of piscocentric self-aggrandizement, and simply swum back out to sea !

    So perhaps that would suffice to my purpose ? The thing is horrid, indeed, but no fear, it is also, happily, impossible ?

    But no, there is worse. There is also the prospect of generations of brave, earnest, virtuous and beautiful young people committing their best, most sacred energies to the realization of this horrid and impossible thing. There is the prospect of watching them, in the same mold as the Jesuits, the Bolsheviks, the Maoists, and even the Nazis (if we are honest about it), who also saw their idiosyncratic visions of the greater good as a sufficient justification for any grotesque savagery whatsoever which they felt themselves obliged to carry out in the improvisational pursuit of that which, objectively, was both abhorrent and impossible.

    Space prevents me, here, from entering into greater detail, but that is the gist of my argument: Earth Charter is wrong and it is also impossible, but nonetheless, we are certain to suffer untold harm from the sincere, sustained, and misguided energy applied to its realization.

    Feel the Love,

    Gordon Friesen, Montreal


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