With economies stagnating, politics polarising, societies shattering and ecosystems suffering, I felt an urgent need to go walkabout last September.
It was my best chance of making some sense of the news from around the world. I travelled to Beijing, London, and Chicago, three cities that have profoundly shaped my life, as much so as Auckland has these past twenty years.
I came home from my walkabout feeling in some ways more despondent. The damage being done is so rampant, the vital changes needed so radical, the time left so fleeting. Righting our utter unsustainability seems impossible. Yet if we give up we are already lost.
Thankfully, I also came home feeling more optimistic and purposeful, with a deep appreciation for the people I had met and the work they do.
They are recovering a sense of boundless opportunity, optimism, common good and, above all, values and moral purpose. They are keeping alive rationality, engagement, enterprise and freedom. They are creating political systems, social structures and business models that will help us achieve an unprecedented speed, scale and complexity of change.
They are giving us half a chance to work with the ecosystem, not against it. They all work in small communities of interest with deep knowledge and skills, while networking widely. These are strong, learning communities with the essential attributes of common sense (understanding what’s going on), common purpose (responding effectively) and common wealth (sharing the economic, ecological and societal benefits).
In such communities, individuals are valued, helped and encouraged. In return, they participate and change, and help others change. In my new BWB Text, Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene, I discuss three concepts that help show us how we can achieve this.
First, the Doughnut Economy situates the ideal economy between two circles, the outer one labelled ‘environmental ceiling’, the inner one ‘social foundation’. In between lies ‘the safe and just space for humanity’. Created by British economist Kate Raworth, this concept lays out the strong social foundation required for transformational change, and the environmental limits within which we must live.
The second concept is the Circular Economy in which the waste material from making one product becomes the raw material for making another. This guides us towards returning to nature everything we take from it, ensuring we work with the ecosystem, not against it.
The third is China’s long-term vision of Ecological Civilisation which involves wise use of resources, environmental protection and ecological preservation. This informs the values we need to achieve deep sustainability in environmental, social, cultural and economic terms.
While the concepts are new, some elements of them were once embedded in New Zealand society. We used to talk about equality of opportunity. But now we create growing inequalities in health, education and welfare. We used to conserve some of our local ecosystems. But now we systematically degrade all our land, water and air.
Now, though, we have to embark on deep change so we can achieve the biggest goal humankind has ever attempted. It is not to save the planet. It will survive the Anthropocene - even if we don’t. It will adapt as it has to previous geological eras. Over tens of millions of years a vastly different ecosystem will evolve, one shaped by prevailing conditions.
Our goal has to be to save ourselves. To do so we must give this ecosystem that gives us life the best chance it has to recover and to continue to support us. Achieving this enormous goal will take countless steps. The three most critical are minimising climate change, and making sustainable use of land and oceans. Each in turn will take myriad steps. This can be achieved if people are wise and effective, quick and committed.
Minimising climate change dictates we must drastically cut human triggered carbon emissions to net zero by 2040 - meaning, we reuse or capture and store enough existing atmospheric carbon to negate the new carbon we add. That requires radical changes to the way people design the built-environment and economy, the materials used to make them and the energy used to run them. Then we will have half a chance of keeping climate change to less than 2 ̊C.
We have to begin right now with communities, business and government working on ways to reduce our carbon emissions far more, and far more quickly, than the immorally minimalist target our government tabled in the 2015 Paris climate negotiations. Such transformation will create great economic opportunities for all.
Sustainable land requires equally radical change in the way soil and freshwater are used. For farmers, this means developing practices that improve the health of soil and water and increase biodiversity, while eliminating artificial fertilisers and chemicals. Deep science and technology are vital to helping people understand and work with the vast complexity and abundance of nature.
For city-dwellers, achieving sustainable land and water use means minimising urban footprints and bringing more of nature into our built- environments. This includes producing more food in towns, using natural processes to treat storm water, and greening buildings and streetscapes to enhance their biodiversity.
Sustainable oceans are a still greater challenge, not least here in the South Seas. New Zealand is responsible for the fourth-largest oceanic zone in the world. It is more than twenty times our land area. Yet we know little about it. Given the great complexity of the marine ecosystem our fishery management practices are crude and probably not sustainable. Close to shore in places such as the Hauraki Gulf we are rapidly degrading the ecosystem by over-exploiting it and pouring urban detritus into it.
These ambitious goals can be achieved over coming decades if we commit right now to beginning the long adventure. Crucial first steps include the government making a much deeper international carbon reduction pledge than it did in Paris.
Long-term, stable policies, devised collaboratively with companies and communities, would enable the country to meet that commitment. The policies would need strong cross-party and public support, based on a clear understanding of their benefits, and because of their intergenerational timeframe.
But treaties and policies are top-down. They alone can’t do the job. We must also have bottom-up complementary, voluntary measures to enable companies, communities and individuals to go above and beyond.
All of the above needs to be underpinned by a committee on climate change, like the UK’s, which gives independent, evidence-based advice to the government and parliament on carbon budgets and policies, while measuring progress on it.
New Zealand businesses need to play their part by following the lead of offshore corporates that are measuring and managing their carbon flows. This has become a fundamental business discipline, as much so as measuring and managing money. The London Stock Exchange, for example, requires listed companies to measure, report and manage their carbon footprint.
Likewise, carbon is increasingly a metric for company evaluations by investment fund managers. This helps them judge which companies will benefit most from engaging in the low-carbon transformation, and which are most vulnerable from not engaging. […]
All these projects would deliver substantial economic and environmental benefits. But at best only a few might happen, because society is so divided over how serious the current unsustainability is. And that won’t change until we understand how fundamental a transformation we need in our relationships with each other and with the ecosystem.
If we get them right, though, a galaxy of opportunities for our planet’s remedy and renewal will open up.
Rod Oram has forty years’ experience as an international business journalist. He has worked for various publications in Europe, North America and New Zealand, including the Financial Times and the New Zealand Herald. He is currently a columnist for the Sunday Star-Times; a regular broadcaster on radio and television; and a frequent public speaker on sustainability, business, economics, innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship, in both New Zealand and global contexts.