Rod Oram: In search of unconventional solutions

Rod Oram explains in his first column for Newsroom how a trebling of the world's population since he was born is changing economies, business and the environment. And how it will shape his columns for Newsroom.

Given this is my first column for Newsroom, I should give you an idea of where I’m coming from. Hopefully, we’ll keep company for a long while. I tend to stick around. Two newspapers account for 34 years of my journalism to date.

One fact explains a lot about the issues I focus on. We humans have trebled to 7.5bn since I was born; and we’ll grow by a further 2.5bn or so before our global population starts to plateau around 2050.

“The second half of the twentieth century is unique in the entire history of human existence on Earth,” Will Steffen and colleagues from the Stockholm Resilience Centre wrote in their 2004 book Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure.

“Many human activities reached take-off points sometime in the twentieth century and have accelerated sharply towards the end of the century. The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.”

These socio-economic trends and the resulting impact on the Earth are captured in these charts from their book showing exponential rises in a range of variables from population to fertiliser use and greenhouse gas emissions.

We see the deep damage we’re inflicting around the world. Ecosystems are suffering, societies are shattering, politics are polarising and economies are failing to deliver what we need.

Conventional ways create the problems. We need different ways to enable us to achieve deep ecological, social, economic and cultural sustainability.

If, for example, we transform our technologies so they work with the ecosystem and not against it, we will be able to provide abundantly for people. Solar power versus fossil fuels is just one example of the shifts underway.

Here’s a concept for how we can bring about such transformative change, and fast. It’s the work of Kate Raworth, a British economist, in her latest book: Doughnut Economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st century economist. She includes this graphic in her book.

The outer circle is the ecological ceiling – the nine planetary boundaries of the Stockholm Resilience Centre –with our massive overshoots in red. The inner circle is the social foundation – 12 fundamentals such as education, political voice, energy and food - people have to have if they are to flourish and contribute to changing their communities, and as communities contribute to global progress. Our undershoots in red.

Between the ceiling and floor is “the safe and just space for humanity”, enabled by a “regenerative and distributive economy”.

It seems to me, we can only achieve such profound change to our ways if our communities have:

* Common sense - a shared understanding of what we need to do.
* Common purpose – shared plans of how we will progress.
* Common wealth – a sharing of the social, economic, environmental and cultural wealth we will create.

Then our communities will have the courage and confidence to progress faster, and the compassion to bring everyone on the journey. Then we will achieve the speed of change, the scale of change and the complexity of change essential to our survival.

While my understanding of all this has only deepened and quickened in the past decade, I see in retrospect how elements of it shaped my life and work in earlier decades.

In the 1950s and 1960s I was growing up in the UK while it was struggling to find a new social and economic future for itself in a post-colonial world.

In the 1970s, I was a university student in the US, and then began my business journalism career in Canada. This was a time of very different social and political change, marked by the anti-war and environmental movements.

In the 1980s, I was working in London and New York again during another great shift in politics and economics, notably Thatcherism in the UK, and the global stock market boom culminating in the crash of 1987.

In the 1990s, I was back in London as globalisation kicked into a much higher gear with notably the rise of China.

And since 1997, I’ve been a Kiwi trying to work out how we can best respond to the opportunities and threats the world throws at us -- how we can best sustain and progress our nation.

My family and I emigrated to New Zealand because we knew this was a country making its future rather than defending its past. We also knew the small scale, yet depth and breadth, of its society would offer us much more varied, richer relationships and opportunities than would the large countries we knew well. Indeed, New Zealand has given us all that, and continues to do so, for which we’re deeply grateful.

Richard Nixon's nomination in 1972

I know exactly where and when I decided to be a journalist. It was Miami Beach, August 1972. I was hanging out at the Republican Party’s convention as it nominated Richard Nixon for a second presidential term. Watching journalists at work I suddenly realised what a great job it was – being paid to find out things.

The work I do is essentially selfish. I’m only trying to make sense of things for myself so I can cope better, enjoy life more. If, though, some people find my journalism helpful, that’s a bonus. Even better, is doing so in good media organisations. They bring benefits such as lively colleagues, access to sources, professional disciplines, and adequate pay.

In one sense my work hasn’t changed over the past four decades. I still try to explain issues in ways that are useful to people who know the subjects well…while simultaneously being accessible and helpful to people who don’t.

Ideally, business journalism is valuable to everyone, not just to business people.

Yet my journalism has changed deeply in other ways. For the first 25 years or so I needed to work for large organisations with research staffs and libraries because that’s how we collected, stored and retrieved much of our information.

But by the time I became a freelancer in 2000, the internet was giving me astonishing access to information, much of it free. I could research with a speed and depth I barely dreamed of, and it just keeps getting better and better.

Why this column is on Newsroom

The technology also gives me a much more engaged and immediate relationship with people. But the technology has swept old media models away. I’ve come to Newsroom because I want to help show we journalists can work in powerful and useful new ways, in deeper engagement with our sources and audience, and earn our keep.

Right from the beginning of my career I’ve been a business journalist. My interest goes back a long way. In my teens, I started doing economic geography and economic history at school. ‘Following the money’ helps explain where and why human activity flourishes or fails. Covering three major global financial crises in my career to date, I’m more convinced of that than ever.

Above all, business is about people – how they gather and deploy talents, ideas, capital, and physical resources in some endeavour, however modest or monumental. Good businesses contribute significantly to their societies; bad businesses damage them, sometimes grievously.

While I’m very focused on the big drivers of change, I take great interest in the here and now for signs and seeds of progress. That’s why I still love to fish in the river of news, even more so now the currents are ever faster and trickier.

Yet, if we row half a knot faster than the current, we can pick where we want to go, where we want to land. I believe good business journalism can help us do so.

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