In this latest piece on Newsroom, I argue that it is time we democratised economics and work towards designing an economy that works for people and the planet, not the other way around.
Imagine a day when you tune into the financial news and the announcer reports:
“Share markets have plummeted to historic lows overnight with more of the world’s mega-corporations losing investor confidence. Investors are flocking instead to promising social enterprises, citing pressure from grandchildren who would rather inherit a liveable planet than a private jet.
“In New Zealand, the Domestic Happiness Index (DHI) is continuing its strong upwards trajectory and our national contribution to the Planetary Overshoot Index (POI) is trending downwards. This mirrors global trends, and leading ecological economic commentators are bullish, predicting that we may still have a liveable planet in 2050.”
This scenario may not be as far-fetched as we first think. But for it to happen, we must be part of redesigning an economy fit for the 21st Century.
Many of us are aware by now that we are facing multiple crises: climate change being just one – warming and acidifying oceans, depleted soils, global habitat and biodiversity loss are among the others in this ‘polycrisis’. The Auckland floods have made us acutely aware of how vulnerable our cities are to the ravages of extreme weather, events predicted to become more extreme and frequent as the effects of climate change bed in.
We know that this is not going to get better any time soon. There will be more floods, droughts and other weather events that will cause destruction, economic loss and human distress on a scale that we cannot yet imagine. Even the issues that affect us day to day, such as the cost of living, have at their root the unsustainability of our current economic system.
The realisation is dawning among many of us that we cannot solve this problem following the same path that led us here – that is, an extractive growth-oriented economy dislocated from the realities of a finite planet.
Our current economy and way of life is built on a one-off windfall of energy-dense fossil fuels. While this will not run out any time soon, all evidence points to the fact that it has peaked. But irrespective, if we have any hope of averting the worst extremes of climate breakdown and ecological collapse, we will need to reduce our energy and resource use.
This article, published in Newsroom, explains why and how – by embracing ‘degrowth’, in which we redesign the economy to put human and environmental wellbeing at its centre.
“In years gone by, you may have heard the words ‘peak oil’, often intoned with a sense of foreboding, warning us that before long oil would run out and things would never be the same.
But we don’t hear the term so much any more. Is that because the ‘doomsters’ were all wrong? Because, in fact, we have plenty of oil – and, even better, it’s never going to run out? Unfortunately – or fortunately, if you care about what we are doing to our climate and biosphere – the answer to all those questions is ‘No. As Isaac Asimov said in his influential address ‘The future of humanity’ in 1974:
When I was 13, I started thinking … Major premise: The Earth’s volume is finite. Minor premise: The total volume of coal and oil on the Earth is less than the total volume of the Earth. Conclusion: The volume of coal and oil are finite.”
My latest piece on Newsroom reflects on the devastating impacts of Cyclone Gabrielle and the North Island floods and argues that “building back better” needs to encompass more than building “better” infrastructure.
“…there is a growing realisation that to make the transition to a low-carbon economy quickly enough to slow the accelerating effects of climate change and ecological breakdown, we must reduce our impact on the planet by consuming less, now. Isolated pockets of change, including the much-vaunted ‘behaviour change’ by the individual (which sits so comfortably within a neoliberal mindset) will not be enough. Only system-wide change will enable us to downscale our economy in time to have any chance of averting catastrophe.”
“As these catastrophic weather events have shown us, our communities – including our biggest city, for all its edifices of concrete and steel – are hopelessly vulnerable: they are like helpless, naked baby birds wholly reliant on their parents to bring them the sustenance they need to survive. But what if their mother can no longer get to them, what if their nest blows out of the tree? Here the analogy ends, because unlike our hapless nestlings, this is not a condition that must be accepted as ‘nature’. This helplessness has been created over a long period of colonisation, industrialisation and enclosure – processes that will continue if unchecked.”
Here is my second recent article, published on Newsroom. It argues that if we believe the cost of living crisis is more than a momentary blip, we need policy that will strengthen NZ’s own food security and encourage bioregionalism.
New Zealanders have been finding their supermarket shop a painful experience for some time now, but in December many reached their pain threshold as food prices increased by 10.6 percent compared with 2021. Fresh produce was a whopping 24 percent more expensive – at a time of the year when it is usually plentiful and cheap. Economists reassure us this is just a momentary blip in an otherwise smoothly running economic system – prices will ‘soften’, inflation will ‘moderate’ and ‘better times will come’. These reassurances are comforting and most of us are happy to be soothed by this narrative.
But what if empty supermarket shelves and high prices are symptomatic of something much bigger? A sign of a broken system, now starting to show the tell-tale fissures of climate disruption, ecological collapse, energy descent and increased resource scarcity.
The immediate causes of surging food prices are familiar to most of us: high shipping costs, supply chain disruption, a tight labour market, disrupted weather patterns, spiralling on-farm costs such as fertiliser and diesel.
But all these factors are more connected than we might think.
Over the last few weeks, I have published a number of articles in the media exploring topics such as energy transition, energy descent and food security from a systems lens. I am sharing them through this blog so that they can reach as a wide as possible audience. Here is the first, published on The Spinoff:
“We are all aware of the ambitious changes we need to make if we are to avert catastrophic and irreversible climate change. However, exactly what we need to do remains a confusing minefield which few of us have the time or energy to navigate.
Every day we hear of a new technology that promises to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or a space-based solar technology that will power millions of homes, or, conversely, we find out that what was touted as a solution yesterday is no longer one today.
But all this “complexity” is just a distraction from the simple reality that to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown we need to make fundamental changes to the way we live.”
You can continue reading ‘Why combatting climate change means embracing degrowth’ at The Spinoff.
I believe cities are the key to the future. A bit controversial maybe – and no doubt many will disagree with me – but let me tell you about our experience and what has led me to this conclusion.
In 2017, my family and I moved to a lifestyle block in the country, about 30 km out from the nearest city and 15 km from the nearest shops. It seemed like a great opportunity to live close to the land, especially for our two kids, who were pre-school and primary school aged at the time.
We had the obligatory chickens, a flock of black and white Wiltshire sheep and for a while some gentle-natured lowline Angus cattle. We had a vegetable garden and a couple of fruit trees (though I did find out the hard way that sheep like to eat feijoa trees and walnuts don’t like clay soils).
Every winter we planted a trailer-load of eco-sourced native trees, and a once bare field is now bordered by a thick ribbon of vegetation – or as a neighbouring farmer observed, ‘You have blocked out the view!’ (note to readers: trees are not ‘a view’). We also worked on restoring the gully stream ecosystem from its weed-infested state.
The house we built was small, barely over 100 square metres, thermally efficient and made from no-fuss, long-lasting materials.
We sought a community-oriented life. Our children went to the local country school, just half a kilometre down the road.
But of course, like many ‘lifestylers’ we also maintained our jobs, which in my husband’s case involved a 60 km commute every day. I was working as a policy and communications consultant which meant that I did not need to commute daily – a no-commute lifestyle had been a bottom-line for me before we made the shift to the country.
But for all our living ‘from the land’, light-footprint aspirations, I became increasingly uncomfortable that this was a bit of a fraud. Running livestock for example, irrespective of how few, requires all the same nutritional, water-provisioning, fencing and animal welfare requirements as an actual farming operation (but without the efficiency of scale) – involving the purchasing of all kinds of paraphernalia that needed to be stored in a shipping container, along with other belongings we had accumulated along the way. We used to joke too that, with all the investment in our chickens – a premium quality henhouse, fencing, bedding material, feeding equipment and mollasses-fortified feed – the chooks really should have been producing golden eggs!
And of course, every time we needed something – milk or bread, for example – it was at least a 30 km round trip to get it.
And as the time came for our son to move on to high school, which would require a 60 km round-trip on a number of buses, it was time to re-evaluate. Not only were we concerned about our expanding carbon footprint but also the inability of our son to be independent or spontaneous – every after-school activity would require us to ferry him around.
A year ago we moved to the Kapiti Coast, to the town of Waikanae – sometimes known as God’s waiting room, because of the comparatively large proportion of older people. I was really sad about seeing our sheep go (to a new home, not to a freezer – I can happily reassure you, readers) but also felt like a bit of a hypocrite because it was my husband who had done all the work caring for them. Happily, we were able to find our chooks a new home just around the corner from our new place in Waikanae – and even get to eat their freshly laid eggs.
But apart from the sheepish regrets (bad pun alert), there has been no looking back. We now live a 5–15 minute cycle ride from both kids’ schools, a 5-minute cycle to the public swimming pool, a 10-minute cycle from two supermarkets, two farmers’ markets, our GP, our dentist, the chemist, the library and pretty much every other service we need on a daily basis.
And of course, there is the all-important green- and nature space. We live a 2-minute walk from the best football fields on the Coast (fortunate, because everyone in the family is football mad), minute from a beautiful swimming spot and 1 minute from a network of nature-rich walk- and cycle-ways along the river to the sea.
Social connection is so much easier and spontaneous here too. We are forever meeting new and interesting people out on our walks or as we go about everyday life.
Because I am fortunate enough to be able to work from home at least part of my working week, I can go for days on end without using the car.
In short, whether it is that way by accident or design, we live in a 15-minute neighbourhood. In other words, we have everything we need for a good life within 15 minutes walk or cycle of our home.
But I am acutely conscious how fortunate we are – we had the means to purchase here and to the make the choices we have to be in this position.
Being able to live with a light footprint, within 15-20 minutes safe and pleasurable walk, mobility-scooter, cycle or bus-ride from most of the things you need in life should not be the preserve of the well-off. It should be everyone’s right in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Already 86% of New Zealanders live in our towns and cities. I emphatically believe that our towns and cities are going to be pivotal to a low-emissions, low-energy future. We therefore need them to be places people want to live – places people will not just survive, but thrive. Places where people feel connected – to place, people and nature. As we grapple with the challenges of the transition to a low-carbon future, now is the time to reshape our towns and cities so that they are fit for the future.
I have made a bleak realisation. I am a failure. I have failed at the single most important role in my life – to safeguard the future for my children.
This has been an awful realisation to make, and it crystallised when my 14-year old son, after listening to some climate-related report on the radio said, ‘We are doomed, aren’t we, Mum?’. Unusually for him, there was not even a hint of facetiousness or irony – he was quite sincere.
At that moment, a bit of my heart shattered into pieces.
We now face the growing certainty that we will breach the 1.5 degree warming threshold that may have enabled us to avoid catastrophic and irreversible climate change. We have been warned that accelerating climate breakdown will lead to more severe and frequent climate disasters, ecological collapse, economic and social breakdown and unimaginable human suffering, including starvation, illness, displacement and death.
Or as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres so starkly put is a few days ago, ‘we are on a highway to climate hell’ with the option to cooperate or, enter a collective suicide pact, and perish.
Even if my children do not experience the worst of this ‘climate hell’ first-hand, they will see it unfold in parts of the world, including the ‘global south’, most vulnerable to climate disruption.
As parents, we have worked to equip our children with the skills and attributes they will need when their time comes to navigate the adult world, and hopefully help make it a better place: critical thinking skills, a basic understanding of democratic process, compassion and empathy, and self-belief, especially when they hold views different from others.
And as a parent, I can only hope that this will be enough to weather the climate storm ahead.
For a while now, we have been reassured that if we cannot reduce our emissions as much as we need to, offsetting will take care of the rest – mainly through tree-planting. But this is a fairytale – a convenient one for industry and consumers alike. A tree planted now will not be sequestering carbon at anywhere near its peak rate for many years; meanwhile we continue to pump out climate pollution. Forests are also at increasing risk of fire due to a heating climate, or can simply be harvested – wiping out their sequestration capacity. Recently, Climate Commissioner Rod Carr condemned this strategy as ‘plant and pollute’.
But we can just switch our fossil-fuel guzzling habits to other more sustainable energies, and all will be well, right? Not quite, because there is the issue of net energy. At peak abundance, it took something like one unit of energy to produce 100 units of oil, but alternative energy sources – including hydropower, solar and wind – have a significantly lower energy return. Biofuels perform especially poorly – at 3 or less units of energy for every one consumed by some assessments. So producing enough energy to maintain our energy-hungry lifestyles will require a huge expansion of the energy sector, with all its associated environmental costs.
The reality is simple. The continued pursuit of growth is not viable; we cannot continue consuming and throwing stuff away at the rate we are. We are already in breach of multiple biophysical limits – climate being just one – and the technological salvation we have been waiting for is nowhere in sight.
To a growing number of New Zealanders, the way forward is clear. To reduce emissions and our environmental impacts, we must reduce our consumption. Some call this idea de-growth, but this has the obvious disadvantage of sounding like a deficit. In my eyes, this is the wrong way to think about it. I believe that a shift from our obsession with economic growth and its mythical ‘trickle down’ effect, to one where human and environmental wellbeing is central, would be a path to plenitude – of improved wellbeing, time with family and friends, connection with community, time to move, have fun and be in nature.
I grew up in the 1970s. Our family had no car, we walked or biked everywhere, and occasionally took a bus; most of our clothes were hand-me-downs; we grew our own vegetables; if something broke we fixed it; we spent most of our time playing creatively or outside – not with expensive devices. Did I feel deprived or hard done by? No – we had everything we needed for a good life.
I am not suggesting we turn back time and eschew technology, Amish-like, but rather think about what we really need for a good life. When looking back on their lives, few people will regret not having the latest Smart TV or getting that status-enhancing but stress-inducing promotion. Most people will regret things like not spending more time with their kids, or not prioritising their health over work.
Whatever we call it: degrowth, steady state economy, wellbeing economy or ‘new economics’, the time to fundamentally reassess what is important to us, both individually and as a nation, is now. Is it growth, mass consumption, convenience; or is it wellbeing, connection, and time to spend with those we love?
It is rare these days to hear anyone say, ‘We want more growth, and if that means destroying the environment, well, that’s the price we must pay!’ Local and central government documents are adorned with such statements as ‘We are going to grow our city/district/economy, while protecting and enhancing the environment, and transitioning to a low-carbon future’. Most of us would relate more to the second kind of statement – it sounds more, well, sustainable.
But which one is more honest?
In an attempt to answer this, I have been exploring the literature around green growth. This is the idea that we can continue growing the global (and national) economy, while reducing our impact on the environment, and especially climate. The central assumption is that we can decouple economic growth from greenhouse gas emissions and resource use.
So, how is this going? Not that well so far. As of 2022, seven years after the Paris Agreement agreed to maintain global temperatures below 1.5 degrees, global CO2 emissions are still rising.
That may be so, but haven’t some countries managed to decouple their economies from emissions? Yes, one study often cited to support the case for green growth found that between 2005 and 2015, 18 countries (mainly – but not all – European) have decreased their CO2 emissions by 2.4% per year collectively – though that decrease can in part be explained by a slowdown in GDP growth rates.
And, while decoupling of emissions is happening in some regions, there are almost no cases of the absolute decoupling of resource use (i.e., a decrease in resource use while GDP continues to go up).
And of course, it is important to remember that the biosphere doesn’t care where emissions come from. So if one country is able to decouple its emissions by – at least in part – outsourcing polluting industries to another country, that’s good for its emissions footprint but doesn’t make a jot of difference for the health of our planet.
But can’t we just plant more trees, to suck up our growing emissions and reach ‘net zero’ that way? Not according to Climate Commissioner Dr Rod Carr, who says this only reinforces a ‘plant and pollute’ mindset. Carbon sequestration through tree-planting is riddled with problems, including the time it takes for a newly planted forest to mature and sequester at an optimal rate (when emissions and harm from emissions is happening now), and the fact that once it reaches maturity, sequestration plateaus. To use forests to sequester our growing emissions, we would also need an immense amount of space, inevitably compromising capacity for food production. Impermanence is another major flaw – forests are vulnerable to multiple risks, including fire, disease, destruction for other land uses, and of course harvesting for timber. In a (tree)nut-shell – trees are great, but they shouldn’t be our strategy to reduce carbon in the atmosphere.
But what about negative emissions technology, such as BECCS (bioenergy and carbon capture and storage)? This is what many (including the IPCC) are pinning their hopes on. Scaling BECCS to the level required to meet net zero targets will require a vast area of agricultural land (estimated to be equivalent to two times the size of India – for best results the size of Africa would be even better) and colossal quantities of water and fertiliser to grow the crops required to create biofuels (recent estimates put both at double current global usage), shooting through already strained biophysical limits, not to mention being problematic for global inequities (which countries are going to forgo food-making capacity to enable us to continue our pursuit of growth?). Check out this video explainer on BECCS.
Broadening the discussion for a moment to the idea of ‘sustainable development’, established as a foundational principle at the 1992 Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro, including being enshrined in our own Local Government Act 2002, has also been criticised as a vague and contradictory concept enabling governments to promote the message that ‘we can have it all at the same time, i.e. economic growth, prospering societies and a healthy environment. … This so-called weak version of sustainability is popular among governments, and businesses, but profoundly wrong and not even weak [sustainability], as there is no alternative to preserving the earth’s ecological integrity.” (Klaus Bosselmann in his book ‘The principal of sustainability’ (2017)). Our difficulty in decoupling environmental harm from economic development certainly supports this critique.
And from a New Zealand perspective, numerous environmental indicators tell us that since the enactment of the Resource Management Act in 1991, based on the principle of ‘sustainable management’, degradation of our environment has only accelerated. (For a more in-depth discussion of this, see Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand.)
So where does this leave us? While the idea that we can continue to pursue growth while reducing harm on the planet (through reduced emissions and resource use, environmental destruction and degradation) may remain alive in theory, there is little empirical evidence that it is possible in practice. Put simply, it hasn’t happened so far.
So at what stage do we abandon the imperative for growth and focus instead on the pursuit of human and planetary wellbeing?