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.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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 →