Covering Climate Now

“We know what is happening and what we need to do”

Why should we few million inhabitants of a small country deep in the South Pacific bother to try to turn the tide in our part of the planet? And if we step up to the challenge, what will that mean in practical terms? 

The global climate crisis is forcing us to confront some very painful truths in Aotearoa New Zealand. We are among the best endowed countries in the world in terms of natural resources. Yet our use of our abundant natural capital is hitting ecological and economic limits, even before big climate shifts kick in and cripple us more.

Do we shrug our shoulders and say we’re doing the best we can? Or do we contribute to the utterly critical revolutions the people of the world need to achieve deep sustainability in climate and many other manifestations of complete unsustainability?

We know all about the economic limits. Of all developed countries we are by far the most dependent on our natural capital for earning our living in the global economy. Although farming, forestry, fisheries, other primary sectors and tourism generate less than 15 percent of our economic activity, they account for a large majority of our exports and foreign exchange earnings. Yet they all struggle to earn much more than the commodity price for their products.

In tourism, average wages are so low and so seasonal that every extra job lowers the country’s GDP per capita and productivity.

Moreover, all those sectors have become as big as they are by pursuing volume growth through their entire history. But now they are hitting the wall. Dairy in particular, our largest export earner by far, is absolutely beyond peak cows, hence the damage being done to land and water resources by those farms which have breached their ecological limits. Likewise the catch of the fisheries sector, thankfully curbed by a quota system that just about manages to keep fish stocks above the point they would collapse, has flat-lined for years.

This poorly paying economic model has long left us languishing in the lower wealth ranks of developed countries while destroying our natural capital. Environment Aotearoa, the Government’s comprehensive assessment of ecological performance, lays this bare.

Moreover, the report is very clear urban New Zealand is just as culpable as rural New Zealand. Each generates half our greenhouse gas emissions. Each is already suffering from the climate crisis. Our towns and cities, which are predominantly coastal, are affected by storm surges and rising sea levels. Our farms, forests and fisheries, and our rural and wilderness places are afflicted by changes in climate patterns.

In all this, of course, we are a microcosm of humankind’s deeply damaging and utterly unsustainable economic and ecological values and practices. We know so from a constant stream of scientific reports and our own observations, if we are brave enough to admit to them.

“We know what is happening and what we need to do,” says a memorial to the disappearing Ok glacier which the people of Iceland raised last month on its now rocky crest.

If this is the way humankind and the planet is going, why should we few million inhabitants of a small country deep in the South Pacific bother to try to turn the tide in our part of the planet?

Because we were the last large land mass to be settled by humans.

Because we have an unusually high level of indigenous life forms on our land, in our waters and in our air. A high proportion of those species are on the way to extinction. With every loss, we cut another thread in the web of life.

Because we’re physically a far bigger nation than we believe. Our main land mass is almost as long as the continent of Europe is wide. Our oceanic resource is the fourth largest in the world. Beyond those, we’re involved with others in caring for our segment of the planet from the South Pole to above the equator.

Because we’re trusted, creative and useful participants in global negotiations and forums.

Because we are part of a global community, a gathering of people - however few, however thwarted, from every nation on the planet - who are desperately trying to pull back from our wanton, existence-threatening destruction of our life support system.

Because we are just beginning to integrate western and indigenous values and knowledge. One excellent example is the centrality of this to the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, details here.

Another is our new construct of legal personhood for the Whanganui River and the Te Urewera mountains. These new ways will help us learn to live in right relationship with the rest of creation.

Because it is our ethical and spiritual responsibility to do all of the above, and more.

What does that mean in practical terms?

The very broad outlines are obvious. Along with every other nation, we must cut greenhouse gas emissions drastically and swiftly. We must stop depleting and polluting our natural capital. We must learn how to help ecosystems regenerate themselves, whether they be urban, farms, forests, rivers, lakes, seas or wilderness.

All those great tasks require us to amass a vast body of new knowledge and to recover a wealth of old knowledge and wisdom the cultures of the world once knew about the inter-dependence of all life on the planet. Above all, we have to achieve transformations of a scale, complexity, speed and effectiveness far beyond anything humankind has achieved to date.

We have precious few decades to do so. Around the world the journey has begun, albeit so far in often halting, dispiriting and ineffectual ways. But we will succeed because we will share widely the new knowledge we create to resolve these global, inter-dependent crises. And we will do so in great abundance and diversity. Each country and each community within it will find its own way to contribute. Each will play to its strengths. Each will express progress in ways meaningful to it. If we chose to do so.

What can we contribute from Aotearoa New Zealand?

The urban tasks are daunting. Our built-environment is haphazard, poorly planned and damaging to the land, water and ecosystems on which it depends.

For example, we’re throwing up houses on our very best horticultural soil south of Auckland, and overflows of the city’s stormwater and sewage contribute to our degradation of the Hauraki Gulf, our maritime treasure. Our homes and other buildings are too often of mediocre design, materials and construction. Many will have short lives or need frequent remedies and repairs. Most are energy inefficient even though we live in a temperate climate.

... we must discover a New Zealand expression of urbanism to inspire the way we design, build and live sustainably.

But we have built many of our towns and cities in beautiful settings of coast, plains and hills. We can reconnect them with our distinctive nature by restoring native flora and fauna where we can within them and, for example, by using more natural materials rather than greenhouse gas emitting steel and concrete.

Above all, we must discover a New Zealand expression of urbanism to inspire the way we design, build and live sustainably. After all, 86 percent of us live in town and cities. We are more urbanised that the British, Americans, French and Germans. Yet we still define ourselves, our nation and our economy by our rural and wild parts. If, though, we bring our distinctive natural world back into our cities by, for example, growing more food, inspiring and reconnecting us with living systems, we would be an encouraging example to city dwellers the world over.

So, how are we doing in our towns and cities? We have made some gestures towards more liveable places through some better designed projects. But commitments to and delivery of eco-transformation of our built environment, the provision of affordable housing, efficient public and private transport and attractive civic amenities – let alone a distinctive Kiwi urbanism -- remain as elusive as ever.

The rural tasks are equally daunting. Globally, land use changes and food production are in aggregate the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the greatest cause of ecosystem degradation and loss of biodiversity. The recent UN report on land use and climate change is the most comprehensive analysis of this to date.

To ensure we have healthy people and a healthy planet, farmers the world over have to transform their practices from being extractive and damaging to ecosystems to being regenerative of them. Then their farms will be more productive and more resilient to changes in climate. But to achieve such deep sustainability farmers have to know far more about the ecosystems they depend on and learn how to work as integral parts of them rather than as dominant exploiters and manipulators of them.

To those ends, farmers, their support agencies and governments have to greatly increase their investment in science, drastically speed up their innovation cycles and fundamentally understand and respond to the messages the ecosystems are sending them. Consumers have to learn more about health, nutrition and environmental factors in food so they make better choices about what they eat. Food processors and suppliers must play their roles too in this revolution.

So, how is our primary sector doing? Very badly. Our dairy and meat farmers argue they are already among the world’s highest quality, most efficient, lowest greenhouse gas generating and least damaging land users in their sector. Regardless of how much diets change they believe there will always be plenty of demand for their products. Moreover they say they can achieve slow, incremental improvements in many of those attributes, while gradually reducing their environmental damage.

But they seem oblivious to the required revolution just beginning in the food we eat and the way it is farmed or otherwise produced. They also seem to have forgotten that once they were great innovators who learnt how to produce high quality food (uniquely without subsidies) and export it to the world.

... farmers are feeling victimised. Yet they would be heroes to their fellow citizens, and useful to the world, if they became leaders in the agricultural revolution ...

Various factors have caused their loss of mojo: a debt-fuelled dairy boom triggered by our 2008 free trade agreement with China has pushed dairy farming beyond its ecological limits; failure to break free from commodity products and prices; failure of a number of very costly overseas investments, particularly Fonterra’s in China; and increasing purchases of farming and processing assets here by foreign investors; and escalating demands from the public to clean up their environmental performance.

All in all, farmers are feeling victimised. Yet they would be heroes to their fellow citizens, and useful to the world, if they became leaders in the agricultural revolution needed to help confront the interrelated crises of climate, land and water use and inadequate nutrition.

The wilderness, ecosystem and biodiversity revivals are no less challenging. Around the world, people are only just learning some ways to save endangered species and to help habitats recover their health and abundance.

In New Zealand we have some particular skills in those areas. Our commitment to eradicate predator pests by 2050 in order to protect our native trees and birds is building effective and energetic communities of volunteers, inspiring innovation and expanding our areas of revitalised forests. We’re also beginning to think about how to protect and restore some of our badly abused inshore and oceanic treasures. Such efforts will help restore our relationship with nature.

... overall we are as a nation still captured by vested interests, debilitated by denial and despair, and lacking in vision and hope.

To become truly effective, though, in solving these interdependent crises of climate and deep unsustainability we need great cultural changes in civil society, business and politics. We are starting to see the first glimmers of that in all three. But overall we are as a nation still captured by vested interests, debilitated by denial and despair, and lacking in vision and hope – just as many people the world over are.

In a similarly desperately dark time in 1942, Allen Curnow wrote Landfall in Unknown Seas to mark the 300th anniversary of Abel Tasman arriving here. He was the first European to find this place, and he did so “simply by sailing in a new direction” in Curnow’s words.

The poem speaks to us today, such as in these lines:

But now there are no more islands to be found

And the eye scans risky horizons of its own

In unsettled weather, and murmurs of the drowned

Haunt their familiar beaches –

Who navigates us toward what unknown

But not improbable provinces? Who reaches

A future down for us from the high shelf

Of spiritual daring?

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