Canadian challenges for justice and sustainability in the Anthropocene

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While the emergence of Covid-19 and its global spread is radically changing the social and economic future of our planet, it is appropriate to reflect on how all life is interconnected and interdependent. Two fairly recent events in Toronto drew attention to deep and interlinked adverse local and global trends that provide points of departure for such reflection and rectifying actions.

Tanya Talaga’s insightful and sensitive Massey Lectures about the history of cultural genocide of indigenous people in Canada – with the trauma of residential school experiences, tragic suicides of indigenous youth and inadequate social/health care services – are reminders of a long history of oppression, neglect, and abuse. This shameful treatment of colonised peoples in Canada (and others world-wide), together with racially discriminatory practices, has played a significant role in undermining universal human rights and shaping wide disparities in health. The sentiments central to the plight of Canada’s indigenous peoples have been succinctly articulated by Richard Wagamese:

As an Ojibway man I have been marginalized, analyzed, criticized, ostracized, legitimized, politicized, dehumanized, downsized and Supersized. One day I shall be eulogized. In my younger years I was uneducated, untrained, unskilled and unemployed. In the time since, I have been displaced, disenfranchised, disinherited, disaffected, disappointed, disconsolate, disqualified, disrespected, disquieted, disheveled, disingenuous, dishonest, disinterested and sometimes discombobulated. Struggling with my identity I’ve been, misinterpreted, misfiled, misjudged, misunderstood, and misguided. I have been misinformed, misdirected, mismatched, misstated, and misused.  Occasionally I have been mistrusted and misquoted. These days I am misgoverned and misrepresented.

The Anthropocene Exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario provided irrefutable photographic evidence, on a global scale, of the immense biological and environmental threats to the future of all life on our planet from ever escalating consumption of natural resources and relentless pursuit of economic interests. Driving forces include exponential population growth, a myopic, cultural (materialistic), economic (neoliberal), and spiritually deprived (egocentric) ideology based on the virtually unlimited freedom of the powerful to enclose the commons and free-ride on the environment. This arrogant disregard for both present and future generations is revealed by intense competitiveness and short-term self-interest taking precedence over considerations of the adverse impacts on marginalized people and the environment.

We ignore, at our peril, and to the detriment of our humanity, Canada’s involvement in such local and global crises. Additional examples of local crises include pollution of once pristine water supplies, persisting poverty and unacceptably high rates of tuberculosis among indigenous people. Canada’s contributions to global crises include participation in trading weapons of war, the pursuit of endless economic growth and its large footprint on our biosphere- which remains a crucial life-link to the existential and physical well-being of us all.

There are several overlapping explanations for failure to address these human imperfections. First, the trajectory of history may be too complex and opaque to be widely well comprehended. Second, it may be too uncomfortable to confront our human failures with the deep sense of shame, regret and resolve that they should arouse. Third, is the complexity of having open minded dialogues between contrasting belief systems. Fourth, it could be too demanding to contemplate paradigm shifts in thinking and behavior that would require pathways forward with threatening implications for the current comfort zones of the most privileged, as well as restricting their future expectations. Last but not least are the power relationships and structural violence that support hegemonic views.

The most urgent and important challenge is to move beyond denial of the critical interdependence of all life on a planet being destroyed. Progress, as we know it, is deeply associated with the enlightenment values of freedom, rationality, and economic growth as the engines of innovation. Yet innovation seems to be preferentially limited to scientific progress and improvements in technological applications while deeply neglectful of much needed, socially innovative projects that could narrow egregious disparities in health and human flourishing.

It is unlikely that old ways of thinking and acting could solve the new and very different challenges of the 21st century, so poignantly illustrated by the Covid-19 pandemic and  inadequate health care systems for public health purposes. Yet we surely have the capacity for cooperation and solidarity to allow us to see the predicament of indigenous people and the erosion of planetary resilience. These local and global examples of the ‘canary in the coal mine’ are warnings of our collective destructive behavior in the Anthropocene’s finale.

Those who ask what we can do and should do, are challenged to be introspective about all of the above – and to be accountable for our everyday actions individually and collectively. Accountability ranges from meaningful acts of reconciliation with factual aspects of our relationships with indigenous peoples and their traditional reverence for nature, to reversing our unsustainable exploitative interactions with nature.

The long-term futility of our current lemming-like race towards extinction, calls for humility and deep introspection on these issues, coupled to willingness and courage to take politically and socially  innovative actions that reflect both our aspirations for integrity and our ingenuity so clearly apparent in many spectacular scientific and technological achievements.

Canada today could offer a more hopeful future for indigenous people and all of us. It could provide exemplary local and global co-operative leadership towards achieving greater peace, equity and sustainability with less wasteful use of resources, rather than expecting boundless economic growth to solve our problems.

Those who are critical of oppressive and exploitative forces in other countries do so with credibility only if they live up to universal ethical and human rights standards. Neglect of serious local failings with selective moral posturing about the failings of others carries no ethical weight.


Solomon Benatar DSc (Med)

Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Cape Town

Adjunct Professor, Dalla Lana School of Public Health University of Toronto

1 thought on “Canadian challenges for justice and sustainability in the Anthropocene”

  1. Thanks Dr. Benatar for this insightful call to reflection and action. I hope Western societies respond to your call to change our behaviour in the name of social and ecological peace. Humanity’s intentional war to destroy Covid-19 is analogous to our unintentional and undeclared war on Earth. Covid-19 must be destroyed to save human lives and preserve our economies. Earth’s ecosystems must be destroyed to sustain Western society’s insatiable appetites and the economic activities that feed and fuel them. While I share your assessment of human ingenuity, I am not so sure we have the individual or collective integrity (and other necessary virtues) required to do what we can and should do individually or collectively to what you clearly demonstrate needs and should be done. Until Western societies like Canada stop responding to health care deficiencies and inequities by pretending the right words and bandaids are enough, until politicians begin to overhaul unjust decision-making processes and systems, it is difficult to be optimistic that human ingenuity will be directed at finding real solutions.

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