Murray Grimwood, aka Power Down Kiwi, looks at the problems we face and aspirational ways we might approach them

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By Murray Grimwood

Having compared the planet to a paddock and given some thought to thinking, it’s time to turn that knowledge on our current set of problems. And they’re doozies, compounding.

Using the dispassionate logic mentioned in my last article, we can surmise that any planet upon which life evolves, is eventually going to throw up a species sapient enough to dominate all other life-forms and to alter the physics of said planet. The question is whether the species could get sapient enough quick enough to realise it was headed for a game of double-or-quits Russian Roulette (with its own existence at stake) or whether it was stupid enough to run off the cliff still denying that the cliff existed.

On current trajectory, we seem to be demonstrating that it doesn’t get sapient enough, fast enough. It looks like the exponentially-increasing growth of its endeavours outpaces it’s evolving cognisance, which may explain the lack of extra-terrestrial communications received. (In other words we seem to be demonstrating that dominant/sapient species wipe themselves out about 100 years after they’ve learned to transmit). The residual adherence to religious belief is another indicator that our rate of cognitive adaption (towards taking responsibility rather than off-loading it) is too slow.

I’d like to think we can do better than that. Let’s start from the top:

A Goal

How about an over-arching goal: that our grandchildren thank us for what we’ve left them? No objections? Let’s proceed…..

Population

This being a finite planet/paddock and this being everyone’s grandchildren we’re leaving things to, it’ll have to be replacement-procreation only from now on. Simple really; wealth boils down to access to parts of the planet (food, water, minerals, shelter, land). More people means poorer people; a per-head legacy is always invalid if it fails to count heads. So New Zealand’s prime move has to be to stabilize, and preferably reduce, population. More paddock per child – the ultimate gift.  

Yes, there will be yowls, howls, derision and snorting from the stables. Yes, it clashes with what is currently seen as personal choice. Yes, it clashes with some beliefs, be they religious, financial, or both. Yes, it means that altruism is the only workable format if we wish to continue; an interesting realisation in itself. But it does tell us that anyone parenting six offspring, should be questioned as to their appropriateness future-leadership-wise.

Consumption

The other side of the population coin is consumption. Actually, it’s the only one Nature takes notice of, it’s up to us to work out the per-head bit. Consumption can be divided into three categories: finite resources, renewable resources, and sinks.

Finite resources are easily addressed – they must be kept once they’ve been extracted, recycled as near 100% as possible, and only locked into infrastructure which will not be a liability to those grandchildren (you could conceivably leave them enough earmarked energy or tools to alleviate a liability, leaving them money is invalid for obvious reasons).

Renewable resources may only be used at up to their renewal rate, or we’re handing those grandchildren a depleted inventory and falling short of our stated goal. Aquifers, timber, fish-stocks, soil; currently New Zealand has a long way to go and arguably we should be looking at pre-European stocking levels/counts, as the base-line.

Sinks are the capacity of the environment (soil, water, atmosphere) to absorb and mitigate our output. Atmospheric CO2 is a classic, oceanic plastic another, reduction in NZ waterway-quality yet another. We’re up against and away past most of those counts too, when same-or-better is the requirement.

The three are easily identified. If we had the will, they are easily quantifiable and addressable. Address them, and cultural evolution can proceed unfettered, as can technology – just without reducing those three categories. Again, natural capital is not interchangeable with monetary capital; substitution is therefore invalid – you end up with a pile of worthless digits and an uninhabitable planet.

Few people grasp the magnitude of the physical de-growth required to meet those rather obvious criteria. We’re talking orders-of-magnitude here, and almost certainly the end of our present financial system. Trying to debate this with people trained in the current money-paradigm, is often difficult. Also proving difficult, is convincing people that an entirely fulfilling life can be lived with less consumption.

Re-defining Sustainability

Next, we have a Tragedy of the Commons problem. Some of the resources we use and have used (eg: Nauru phosphate, ex-bird-droppings) have not only been used up at an unsustainable rate, they’ve come from somewhere else. And some things we export (coal for instance) have negative repercussions from being burnt somewhere else. Yet the ocean, the atmosphere, indeed the entire biosphere, respect no boundaries. The classic ‘Tragedy’ scenario is a bunch of farmers each out for their own advantage, collectively running commonly-held land into ruin. Neo-liberal types tried to use the ‘Tragedy’ tale to advocate private ownership – but short-term demands (like debt-repayment obligations) and exponential growth have made a mockery of that.

The sapient approach is for the farmers to agree not to reduce the quality of their communal paddock, to put a measurement regime in place (and a penalty one for those no sapient enough yet) and pass the Commons on as a going-concern legacy.

Now we know enough to deduce that the United Nations ‘Global Goals for Sustainable Development’ (they took over from the Millennium Development Goals) are fatally-flawed. Here they are: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-Being for People, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable and Clean Energy, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, Reducing Inequalities, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water, Life on Land, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, Partnerships for the Goals.

 No mention of population curtailment nor of resource/environmental equilibrium and a clear demand for economic growth. They fail, in the same way that ‘Titanic passenger entertainment plans for tomorrow’ fail – they give no cognisance to the things which underwrite them. Some Goals may well be socially desirable, but there is no point in addressing those without addressing the levels of population/consumption which are maintainable long-term.

We know enough too, to deduce that the RMA is deficient in its definition of sustainability, and in its inability to adjudicate. Some of this can be traced back to the ‘Commons’ problem (like the fact that nearly all ‘economic’ activity in New Zealand is underwritten by foreign-sourced fossil fuels). As long as the RMA cannot address this, applications (from dairying to tourism to suburban sprawl) which are unsustainable, cannot be disallowed. Neither document will achieve real sustainability in current form.

Default logic tells us that if we need different goals (like the one I’ve suggested above, say) then we need different measures. Having discredited GDP, and with it ‘economic growth’, we need to introduce some others: measures for water, for soil, for bio-diversity, for the state of resource-stocks. Instead of RNZ Business chanting thrice daily that the Dow has moved X% (does a thing that big really move so far in a day?) we might expect daily updates on the state of the local river and adjacent farmland, with quarterly guidance and audited yearly reporting.

In formulating a replacement suite of Goals, we could do worse than begin with the suggestions of Rod Dietz and Dan O’Neill in their book ‘Enough is enough’, list three overarching discussion-points:

  1. Replace the culture of consumerism with a culture of sustainability.
  2. Stimulate political debate and media coverage of the limits to growth and the steady-state alternative.
  3. Change national goals regarding growth and improve international cooperation.

I don’t suggest they’re perfect – but they’re a start. Locally the wellbeing moves being made by Treasury and the current Government, are moves in the right direction. We can trace them back to fumbling beginnings like Victoria University’s Valuing Nature conference, and make some reasonable guesses as to where they will go. Calls for long-term thinking also indicate that the societal narrative is morphing. Whether it’s morphing fast enough is the 64,000-ton question.

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