COVER STORY : In Our Hands

It’s like the elephant in the room that no-one likes to mention – well in fact two elephants. You can’t have serious conversation about sustainability (and many prefer to avoid them altogether) without these two leviathans wandering in to stand silently accusing – what about me?
One is babies. Resources to cope with population approaching seven billion are already stretched – let alone the 10 billion that could be around by 2060. Even today, if everyone enjoyed Kiwi lifestyle, we’d need the equivalent of three planets to cope. But, hey, we’re addicted to babies. Banning births won’t win votes. So the trick is to get helluva lot more efficient about how we use resources.
Two is growth. Onwards and upwards we romp, growing our businesses, expanding our economies, piling up the national debt and lamenting that Kiwis still languish lower in OECD rankings of the Gross Domestic Product than we’d like. Growth is good. We’re addicted to that too.
But recently launched think tank document on sustainability (see box story “Strong sustainability”) took fairly serious poke at that particular elephant last month. “Mainstream economic beliefs and practices,” it says, “have put humanity on collision course with nature.” One of the problems is the false assumption economic growth can continue indefinitely.
That is simply impossible, says Wayne Cartwright, business consultant, former professor of strategic management at the University of Auckland, and chair of Sustainable Aotearoa NZ.
“The reality is the biosphere within which the economy operates has finite limits and when these limits are reached, continued economic growth causes cumulative and accelerating degradation.”
The mistake is in acting ‘as if’ the economy somehow exists outside of or independent of planetary constraints. Or that those constraints are somehow being manufactured by overly protective environmental boffins with (a dwindling number of) bees in their collective bonnet.
In reality, the services supplied by our unique little planet (soil, air, oceans, waterways, lakes – are natural purifiers and recyclers, and irreplaceable living things like bees) are worth heap but we’re blind to that because they’re in what’s called the “commons” – in other words they are not owned and therefore don’t attract financial value.
As Cartwright puts it: “Economic theory and practice suggests all useful things are done through markets, but it turns out that market mechanisms overlook that which is in the commons totally, so our markets offer no guidance for the utilisation and maintenance of these essential ecological services.
“And by the way, these services have been estimated to contribute more to human beings than the aggregated GDP of all the nations on earth. What these systems do for us is greater in dollar terms than all the things we do for ourselves. So to overlook them is ludicrous. But this flaw in economics threatens the survival of human beings – not just threatens, it’s the path we’re already on.”
It’s not like this is new stuff. Nor that the sense of urgency it embodies comes from some way-out-of-leftfield source. How about this comment from paper recently put out by the UK’s biggest business lobby, CBI (the Confederation of British Industries)?
“The comfortable perception that global environmental challenges can be met through marginal lifestyle changes no longer bears scrutiny. The cumulative impact of large numbers of individuals making marginal improvements in their environmental impact will be marginal collective improvement in environmental impact. Yet we live at time when we need urgent and ambitious changes.”
That’s because some major disruptions to the business-as-usual scenario – in the form of escalating hydrocarbon prices combined with climate change impacts, water scarcity, food supply deficits, structural/economic disruptions – are already happening.
You don’t even have to mention sustainability or the ungainly political dance currently being conducted around the nature, breadth or viability of an Emissions Trading Scheme in New Zealand. The more strategic business minds get that there are some major change drivers heading down the track towards us and preparing for them is both pragmatic and sensible.
Okay – that’s the bad news. The good news is that New Zealand has bit more scope to move. As Toyota NZ’s chair Bob Field noted in recent presentation (see also p12), New Zealand is one of the few countries that enjoys bio-capacity surplus – we’re still living within our means ecologically speaking compared to many other countries.
That’s not through any particular effort – it’s been shrinking in recent years due to our increased carbon emissions – but it would be silly to squander the opportunity it represents, says Field.
“That remaining surplus is New Zealand’s big competitive advantage – and if we have enough wisdom to preserve and convert this advantage into winning economic strategy for the future (possibly based on 100 percent Pure New Zealand brand) then our best of times could still be ahead of us.”
But only if Kiwi businesses not only see the opportunity, but grab it with both hands. Why not take advantage of our enviable capacity for generating renewable energy, our well-educated populace, reputation for science and innovation and outside-the-square thinking to lead the way on products and IP suited for and needed by carbon-constrained world?
What’s stopping us? Possibly the right sort of leadership, suggests Cartwright. Shifting economic sights is going to require strong leadership – and it may be that existing leaders are just too wedded to what is, rather than what might be.
“Emerging leaders will need to be broadly based across several areas of experience and be adept at managing change – and this I believe is one of our most telling points. Incumbent political and corporate leaders who are committed to the current and failing paradigms of economics and governance will be unlikely to have the required skills and motivation to be those leaders.
“In fact, many will try and hang onto the past and oppose needed shifts. And that will cause considerable tensions in our societies. In other words, few of our existing leaders will be suitable for the required shift.”
The challenge for those that do step up will be in generating the sorts of conversations that encourage and inspire the necessary changes. There are certainly more of these conversations already happening, many attached to what you might call citizen-generated initiatives – like the international “Transition Town” movement already taking root in local communities (www.transitiontowns.org) or 350 (www.350.org) – global movement aimed at raising awareness of climate change.
Taking its name from the number scientists recognise as the safe upper limit of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere (current levels are 385-390ppm), 350 is coordinating an International Climate Action Day on October 24th to put pressure on world leaders to make the right decisions when they meet at Copenhagen in December to craft new global treaty on cutting emissions.
While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had originally cited 450ppm as an upper ceiling to avoid dangerous global warming, its chair, Rajendra Pachauri, recently expressed support for the 350 goal reflecting growing scientific concern about the perceived pace of climatic change.
If growing numbers of citizens are concerned that the international regulatory mechanisms are moving at too glacial pace to effect the necessary change, what about business?
As our green business feature (p53) highlights, there are growing number of New Zealand businesses starting to do things differently – often discovering that while it can be slow process, the impetus to reduce inputs of energy, water and materials, reduce waste, increase recycling and explo

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