A Peaceful, Just and Sustainable New Zealand?

Almost exactly 110 years ago, the eminent Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius wrote a paper on the likelihood of global climate change from the burning of fossil fuels. In that paper, he commented that ... we are evaporating our coal mines into the sky. In New Zealand, we have known for at least the last 20 years that human-induced accelerated climate change is a distinct probability.

Given the extended period of warning about the issue (not to mention the somewhat more recent, but still extensive warning about depletion of low-cost petroleum reserves - the Peak Oil issue), one could be forgiven for wondering just why it is that, until recently, nothing much of policy significance happened in response, over the last 20 years. Climate change gas emissions have continued to rise, not only from increased fossil fuel use but also from agricultural expansion, especially dairying.

Is this the result of governmental caution, or of not understanding what science is telling us? I think neither. To me, climate change is only one of several major challenges facing NZ and the world. These include environmental, social, economic and cultural dimensions, together with ethical and equity issues within and across generations.

To address these as separate problems misses the point that they are all interrelated in many ways. A key issue giving rise to all of them is Humanity’s relatively recent headlong rush for growth - in population, wealth, technology, trade and so on. Mahatma Gandhi put it well when he pointed out half a century or more ago, that Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed. (When asked whether he thought the country could follow the British model of industrial development, his response was It took Britain half the resources of this planet to achieve its prosperity. How many planets will India require for development?).

This greed is central to mainstream political ideas, and is also sanctioned by the economic theories that arose from them. The dominant economic theory in NZ today is that of neoclassical economics, in which it is believed to be part of the natural order for growth to proceed indefinitely. The biophysical environment is essentially absent from the theories, being treated simply as an externality, if it looks like causing concern.

Unfortunately, as indicated above, there is now an abundance of evidence that NZ and the world faces several environmental crises, due to Humanity’s overloading of the Earth’s biophysical systems. Neoclassical economics is now recognised as probably the greatest single barrier to our ability to combat climate change and other threats to the planet. It is therefore imperative that we devise new theories, resourced by the best of both science and morality, to take the realities of our global system into account in creating an economics for the 21st Century. We might also reflect on Einstein’s advice, that We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. We badly need a Plan B.

One of the common responses to such warnings is that all we need to do is to free up markets and ensure the appropriate mechanisms are in place to enable Science and Technology to generate Innovation and hence Productivity growth. Unfortunately, many of these responses require a degree of confidence in the ability of science and technology to solve problems, that often borders on the delusional. There is in fact a great deal of information available from Physics, the fundamental science, that tells us exactly why we cannot just wave our arms around and trust the market to create a Star Trek economy for us.

Physics tells us that when resources become less easily available (ie after we have used up the easily-accessible ones) the energy and resource demands of further resource extraction increase exponentially. So do the pollution and waste and the economic costs of those processes. Under these circumstances, ideas of endless growth don’t make much sense.

A further point worth noting is that decades of following the policy prescriptions of this form of economics have resulted in obscene increases in the level of wealth of a tiny minority, at the same time as the vast majority of people have received little, and a substantial proportion are arguably worse off. Starvation, malnutrition and disease are widespread and increasing in poor countries, at a time when the rich are becoming vastly richer. There is a moral shadow to all this, hovering quietly in the background.

My conclusion is that without actually admitting it, we are facing the need for something like a Steady State Economy, an idea first put forward by the 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill and extensively developed by some forward-thinking economists and scientists in recent years. In a SSE, the quantities of resources available to the economy (and the consequent pollution and waste) are reduced to levels that can be supplied (or absorbed) indefinitely by surrounding ecosystems. These will be very substantially less than present levels of resource use. Limits to population growth would also be part of a SSE.

It is a direct consequence that the nature of socio-economic activity in a SSE would change, as it moves from mindless growth towards a more meaningful concept of quality of life. In a SSE, humans would be free to follow a wide range of activities, the only constraint being that of maintaining benign, sustainable relationships with others and with the planet.

Some early steps towards what is variously being called Relocalisation, Sustainable Communities, Transition Towns or Post-Carbon Cities are already underway, in NZ and elsewhere. Terms such as power down, energy descent and contract and converge are being used as ethical guidelines.

It is clear that major challenges face NZ and the other countries of the world - and that they are all inter-connected. They do not require superhuman technology to overcome; rather, they require adoption of ethics that respect Humanity as a part of Nature, not apart from Nature

These notes are from an address by the writer to the World Peace Summit, Wellington, 29 March 2008