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Oram: The systems that got us here have failed

Rod Oram is planning out his last five and a half years as a business journalist, at the same time as he plans a cycle ride from the powerhouse that is modern Beijing to Birmingham - once, but no longer, "the workshop of the world".

Given the bewildering upheavals in the world, I’m wondering what I should focus on for the final five and a half years of my career as a business journalist.

My deadline is arbitrary. Come June 2025, I will have been a business journalist for 50 years. Since I’ve always worked best under deadline pressure, it seems best to set the last one. Heck, it’ll be a nice round number to finish on.

Over those decades, change has been ever faster and more forceful. It will only become more intense, raising the prospect of humankind’s inability to cope. Yet, most of the time I believe we will find ways to progress, albeit with disasters along the way. We have to. If we give up, it really is all over.

I’m a journalist for a selfish reason. I’m just trying to make some sense of the world to help me navigate through it. If some of the things I learn along the way are helpful to others, then I feel I’ve been useful.

Three events crystallised that sense of purpose while I was studying economics at a US university. In 1971, President Nixon ended the direct convertibility of US dollars into gold, thus ending fixed exchange rates and unleashing a global economic revolution; in 1972, the ‘White House Plumbers’ broke into the Watergate offices of the Democratic Party, which among many other things stimulated some terrific journalism; and that summer I hung out with journalists at the Republican and Democratic party presidential nomination conventions at Miami Beach.

I began my career in 1975 writing daily stock market reports for the business section of the Globe and Mail in Toronto. Those stories are so formulaic they are often machine-written these days. Thankfully, I moved on quickly to writing real stories about major Canadian companies, and covering the country’s international trade negotiations.

The seminal story for the world, though, was and remains China. In January 1979 I accompanied a Canadian trade mission to Beijing and Guangzhou. We were the first delegation to visit just a month after Deng Xiaoping, the country’s leader and architect of its economic revival, declared China open to foreign trade and investment.

My memories of that trip are still vivid. Such as people playing mahjong under street lights in frigid weather because they had so little power at home. That year, Beijingers used only one-quarter the electricity per capita as Wellingtonians; and Chang’an Avenue leading into Tiananmen Square had only one lane for vehicles but six for bicycles in each direction.

Today China’s economy is the biggest in the world on a purchasing parity basis. It is the largest maker of solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles, to name just a few of its clean tech successes. It is also racing to dominate other leading edge technologies such as artificial intelligence. Meanwhile President Trump boasts of persuading the Chinese to buy more US soybeans.

Yet, “workshop of the world” was the title Birmingham proudly claimed while I was growing up there in the 1950s and 1960s. It was still the centre of the British car and armaments industries and a rich diversity of other engineering fields, not to mention Cadbury chocolates and a dazzling array of other innovative enterprises.

We have to reinvent the way we work in order to become more effective. We need your help and support in building new journalism and business models to properly resource that work.

But progress came with high costs. To name two: air pollution from coal-fired electricity, gas and industrial plants was often so thick during the winter we slipped coughing and wheezing into preternatural darkness by mid-afternoon; and post-war, the demand for cheap labour encouraged strong flows of immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent, triggering a racial backlash. By the late 1960s, Birmingham was in decline, in common with the rest of the UK.

That’s far from the full story, of course, for city, country or world. Over the past 50 years, humankind has progressed significantly. Our population has more than doubled to 7.8 billion. A very high proportion of us enjoy far higher levels of nutrition and health, education and science, technology and wealth, and peace and security than any previous generation.

Yet, we know that many of our systems that got us here are fatally flawed. They are incapable of providing us a sustainable future. Consequently, ecosystems are dying, economies are stagnating, inequalities are rising, politics are polarising, and societies are shattering.

Worse, too often we can’t even agree a simple set of facts about a problem so our chances of solving it are minimal. While that’s an immense challenge for all of society, we journalists can play a useful role. We have to reinvent the way we work in order to become more effective. We need your help and support in building new journalism and business models to properly resource that work.

So I will make my last five and a half years as a business journalist a journey, in two senses of the word.

Metaphorically, I’ll seek more intently than ever examples of radical, positive innovations in society, politics, economics, technology, culture and our relationship with the living planet. Hopefully, these will offer a few glimpses of a sustainable future.

Physically, next month, I’ll cycle from Cape Reinga to Bluff in the Tour Aotearoa. Then in May next year I’ll set off from Beijing to cycle to Birmingham. The first leg to Istanbul will take five months. I’ll go back to Istanbul the following spring to ride the second leg to Birmingham.

Why? Well, I love cycling…it’ll be an adventure. More usefully, the journey will give me a chance to reflect on the extraordinary times I’ve lived through so far, and to talk to people along the way about what the future might hold for us all. Above all, how we in Aotearoa New Zealand can thrive.

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