Why cities are key to the future

A thriving city street-scape (even better if you imagine away the parked cars!)

[This article was first published on https://www.catherineknight.nz/]

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).

Our sheep came to the rattle of sheep nuts
Chickens make good pets but can be quite bossy (like someone else I know!)

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.

Little house in the valley

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.

Topping the grass with a neigbour’s vintage tractor

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.

Cycling is safe and pleasurable in Waikanae – including for Archie, who has become a bit of a local celebrity

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.

Going for a cycle along the river pathway, with Gracie the dog and Mia the lamb

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.

Dr Catherine Knight is author of ‘Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand‘ (Totara Press, 2020) and ‘Beyond Manapouri: 50 years of environmental politics in New Zealand‘ (Canterbury University Press, 2018). To view her other publications see her website http://www.catherineknight.nz.

The bleak realisation of failure – parenthood in the face of a climate-disrupted future

Me with Carter, aged 11 months

[Originally posted on http://www.catherineknight.nz on 18 November 2022]

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.

Carter and Caitlyn with Rosie the chicken. What will their future hold?

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.

A girl carries a goat through floodwaters in Bangladesh. Climate Outreach.

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.

Carter playing his beloved uke, Pippa by his side, under the macadamia nut tree.

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.

Protecting our future: do we need to fundamentally re-evaluate the way we live our lives?

Photo: Pexels – Pixabay

[First published on www. catherineknight.nz on 16 November 2022]

Is it time we re-evaluated our obsession with perpetual growth and shifted our focus to building a society that puts human wellbeing at its centre?

The signs that we have breached multiple biophysical boundaries are becoming harder to ignore. Climate scientists say that we have missed the opportunity to limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees and predict that the world will breach this critical threshold in the next few years. Unprecedented biodiversity loss, marine and freshwater degradation are well-documented. In recent weeks, researchers reported that 75% of fish caught in New Zealand’s southern seas contained microplastics.

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.

Photo: Pexels – Jose Francisco Fernandez Saura

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, our per capita energy consumption (in oil equivalent terms) has been on a relentless rise – tripling since the 1960s – despite all our ‘energy-saving’ devices.

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.

Photo: Pexels – Creation Hill

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?

Can we really have it all? Economic growth, social wellbeing and environmental protection

Photo by Sanjeevan SatheesKumar @ unsplash.com

This was first published on http://www.catherineknight.nz on 6 November 2022.

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?

Nature, wellbeing and finding our own ‘sacred groves’

It was a privilege to be invited to speak at this month’s Urban Water, Urban Culture Symposium, hosted by Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan. This ambitious symposium featured speakers from around the world and across time zones.

Sacred groves, in Japanese, ‘chinju no mori’ are often found associated with Shinto shrines, but are also found widely across Asia.

My presentation focused on the connection between nature and wellbeing, and the potential to find (or even better, create) our own ‘sacred groves’ in or near the places we live. This theme built on a previous envirohistory NZ post ‘Discovering our own sacred groves‘, and drew on my research exploring human-nature relationships in Japan. 

More information on this symposium can be found at this website.

Solving the mysteries of our landscape through time travel

One of the steepest sections of the gully

First published on http://www.catherineknight.nz

Last weekend, we entered a time machine, which took us back in time about 18,000 years to a much colder version of the Manawatu – the last glaciation period. And we did this by walking just metres from our house. We were fortunate to have as our time-machine guide Professor of fluvial geomorphology Ian Fuller.

This bit of time travel solved a number of mysteries that had drawn on my curiosity for some time.

As I have described in previous posts, to access our gully stream, we walk down a spur from our paddocks (on a river terrace), with sheer drops on either side. The top of the spur is made up of a loose mix of soil and stones, the sort of material you would expect to see on a river flood plain. But the spur is 20 metres higher than the current streambed – could the stream at one time been a surging torrent so voluminous it had scattered river gravel across the spur?

With an expert at our disposal (not literally obviously – we are nice to our guests!), we discovered the more likely explanation. Our river terrace, now tens of metres above the Pohangina River, was once the flood plain of a braided river, bringing huge quantities of greywacke rock down from the ranges in its wandering currents. This braided river flowed during the glacial maximum – 18,000 to 20,000 years ago, when glaciers was last at their maximum extent, and otherwise known as the last glaciation. Aotearoa New Zealand was quite a bit bigger then, and joined up as one island (see this map) – which would have been handy if there had been any people around to enjoy the convenience!

As well as being a lot colder, the landscape was quite different then – instead of the dense forest that greeted our island’s first settlers 700 or so years ago, the landscape was a mosaic of grassland and shrubby plants, with patches of beech and a few scattered conifers. See vegetation map from Newnham, Wilmhurst and McGlone (2013).

From Newnham et al. (2013). ‘The vegetation cover of New Zealand at the Last Glacial Maximum’, Quaternary Science Reviews

The second mystery that this bit of time travel solved was how a relatively small stream that can go dry in the summer months could have carved out such a cavernous gully of 20 metres depth. Well the answer, in very simple terms is this. As our islands started to warm after this last ‘cold snap’, the Pohangina River, which our stream is a tributary to, started to cut down into the soft mudstone land. As it did so, the stream also needed to cut down to keep up (or more accurately, down) with the river, probably through the gradual shifting of a waterfall into the river upstream, or, in fluvial geomorphologist language: ‘the mechanism was probably the headward retreat of a waterfall, initiated by incision of the main river’. … What I said.

Here, the stream has carved out pools in the mudstone.

The exciting thing is, we still have that waterfall, though it now comes out of a concrete culvert rather than a natural channel. It is likely that it cut back to this place, an area of particularly hard and stable rock, and because of its relative stability, engineers chose this place to build the road over the stream a century or so ago, piping it through a culvert. Thus, the waterfall has been ‘frozen’ in time, unable to cut back any more.

The waterfall, now unceremoniously piped through a concrete culvert, thanks to roading engineers of a century ago

“Nature and Wellbeing” is launched into the World!

Totara Press launched “Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand” on 12 November in Wellington, with attendees coming from far and wide: Auckland, Hamilton, Bay of Plenty, Hawke’s Bay and even Christchurch. Thank you all for coming and for making the event such a success! We were so fortunate to have Professor Bruce Clarkson as our launch speaker, ably supported by Caitlyn Madge. Here are some photographs of the evening, taken by Bob Zuur. (Click right arrow to progress through slideshow.)

Launch of Nature & Wellbeing – 12 November

The launch is less than two weeks away and you are invited!

South Island folks, we also have a launch event coming up on 10 December – details coming soon.

If you are interested in this topic and would like to organise an event in your part of the world, please get in touch!

For more information on this book and to order, go to the Totara Press website.