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

Photo by Sanjeevan SatheesKumar @

This was first published on 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

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.

New book urges for more nature in our cities

The author’s daughter at a grove of kohekohe trees on the Kapiti Coast. Catherine Knight

In her new book examining the link between nature and wellbeing, environmental historian Dr Catherine Knight explores the benefits of nature experienced by everyday New Zealanders, and argues for more nature in the places where most New Zealanders live – our towns and cities. 

In New Zealand, we think of ourselves as a country rich with nature, but the fact is that most of our surviving forest and pristine waterways are concentrated in the most mountainous parts of the country. They’re preserved not as a result of careful stewardship, but rather an accident of history: it was just too hard to develop and economically exploit these rugged, inaccessible places. Our lowland landscapes are largely bereft of any forests, wetlands or any nature in its original form.

Read more of this article on The Spinoff.

New book exploring nature and wellbeing in New Zealand

I am very excited to announce the emergence into the world of my latest book Nature and Wellbeing in Aotearoa New Zealand: Exploring the connection (Totara Press).

This comes as the culmination of three years of research, interviews and writing, but in many ways, could not be more timely. The experience of many New Zealanders during this year’s Covid lockdown has only served to underscore how important access to natural spaces are – for both body and mind.

To find out more about the book, visit the Totara Press webpage.

Details on launch coming soon!

Christchurch’s “Garden of Tranquility”

rocks in the Recovery Garden
“Tomorrow is a new day”: A rock in the Recovery Garden

Christchurch, and especially its Red Zone, it a veritable hotbed of nature and wellbeing projects – the topic of my latest book. A vast area in the eastern parts of Christchurch as well as a number of inner city sites were deemed too risky to reoccupy following the February 2011 earthquake. While this has had tragic consequences for those many people who had to say goodbye to their homes, gardens and neighbourhoods forever, it has created a unique opportunity – unique not only within the context of New Zealand and its history, but also a rare opportunity anywhere in the world. I explored this in my 2016 book New Zealand’s Rivers. Continue reading