Just about everything we do now will not be done this way in thirty years time. It's up to us to think what the new way will be.
Think Again! – Abstract
My vision is a New Zealand that thinks and acts globally and sustainably on all fronts - environmental, social, and economic….. Sustainability has generally been found to work best when arrived at by discussion and consensus, rather than pure weight of voting numbers…. Just about everything we do now will not be done this way in thirty years time. It's up to us to think what the new way will be.
I suppose that spending much of my boyhood on a farm played a great role in shaping me. It was a mixed farm, with animals, mangels, and cereals. I studied agricultural science at university. When I graduated, I didn’t want to get a real job, so I studied some more in Denmark, then more as I did a PhD in agriculture, followed by Masters in Economics. I couldn’t seem to stop studying. I marvelled at people who seemed so sure of themselves that they had sure-fire answers to questions which always seemed more complex to me. Eventually I managed research stations and ran Canada’s agricultural inspection service before being drawn into the Canadian Prime Minister’s “think tank” on sustainable development, and then taking a University Chair. Throughout my life, I’ve had the feeling that the questions we research always contain wider ramifications than we think they do!
Now, living in New Zealand for a while, I’m beginning to see what some of the questions are really about. What’s my vision? Well, it is of a New Zealand that thinks and acts globally on all fronts – environmental, social, and economic. These days, accountants speak of a “triple bottom line”, where enterprises public and private look at more than just the dollar balance sheet. They talk of balancing the environmental and social ledgers too. But sustainable development can take on the aura of some new religion. It’s easy to see how that happens, when we are exhorted not to waste anything, or pollute, or consume conspicuously.
It doesn’t have to be that way. There is a central core to sustainable development which is worth recalling. The economic dimension reduces to one aim: to mitigate or reverse our use of resources which are in danger of exhaustion. The environmental dimension is really about preserving habitats and diversity, and a good way to go about that is by minimising pollution from human activity, and by minimising the physical impact of human populations on habitat. Lastly, the social dimension is about honouring religious and cultural values, equity and inclusion. As our population catapults beyond six billion, this is a formidable list, but it doesn’t mean we have to wear hair shirts. It means instead that we have to apply our energies and intellect to building a rewarding and healthy life in a way which minimises our ecological footprint. This is not new. The writer Tertullian was a rabble rouser in his day (around 200 AD), but even he said of his time:
"What most frequently meets our view is our teeming population. We tread heavily on this earth, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements. Our wants grow more and more keen and our complaints more bitter in all mouths whilst nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. Indeed, pestilence and famine and wars and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nature, as a means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race."
Thomas Malthus said much the same thing about 1500 years later! Each of us could of course stay home and live a subsistence life. It would be possible with our low population in New Zealand, but there is a better life to be had, and it depends upon exchanging ideas, goods and services with other parts of the globe. That means that my household may no longer subsist at a sustainable level, but the system that I am part of has the potential to be sustainable as a whole, while enriching each individual life. The trouble is that many of the world’s present systems are not sustainable at either the macro or micro levels!
New Zealand currently scores a deficit in all three of its bottom line areas, socially economically and environmentally. Our way forward is two-fold: firstly in designing, developing and exporting new ideas and services which use much less energy to transport, and lighten our footprint on the Earth. Secondly, in developing ideas which enable others to lighten their footprints too. New Zealand cannot be isolationist. Not only does our future depend on trading intellectually and economically with the vast majority of humanity who do not live in New Zealand, we must also make our contribution to world development. We cannot turn our back on the world socially, environmentally, or economically.
We grow more lumber and raw food than we need in New Zealand, so we can export some, as long as we don’t pollute or exhaust the underlying resources of stocks, land and water. But lumber and carcasses are heavy and burn oil when we transport them. We can take out the water, as the dairy industry does with dried milk, and we can extract the highest value products from them, rather than shipping them in raw form. Just as importantly for our future, we can apply our creative talents to new items packed in the smallest possible space – nano-machines to do tiny, precision jobs, bits and bytes to solve someone’s problem or display an outcome in a highly visual form. In the medium tem, New Zealanders will find niche and intermediate markets in delivering solutions to other industry, rather than to the final consumer. We cannot maintain the huge networks needed to service global consumers, but we can provide other firms with the technologies to do so.
New Zealand’s creative energies and design talents are huge, almost too huge, because we love to compete against each other in tiny firms, rather than band together and take on the world. Of our 270-odd thousand firms, only a handful have the size or desire to export at all, while some 230,000 firms house under five people. Yes, the surveys show that we are entrepreneurial, but tiny firms are not generally the growth engines of prosperity. Between these small firms and our current exporters lies a band of maybe 15,000 or 20,000 firms which are poised to make that quantum leap into the world outside New Zealand.
No, I haven’t forgotten the environmental and social dimensions. New Zealand, like other countries, will have to move carefully in the new areas of biotechnology to guard against unwitting environmental damage. A couple of hundred years ago, it was almost impossible for a single individual to harm any more than his or her local environment, but as we move into the 21st. Century, global errors can and do have global consequences. There is a clear and present danger to our environment, but the threat comes least from biotechnology and most from our own more mundane actions as we pollute and destroy habitats. On an evolutionary time scale, species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate. The precautionary principle, as long as it is not used to induce complete paralysis, is a piece of good sense that has re-surfaced in timely fashion!
Social dimensions are always at risk. No one has yet found a recipe whereby all the people are happy all the time. Sustainability has generally been found to work best when arrived at by discussion and consensus, rather than pure weight of voting numbers.
Which brings us to leadership. Leadership is a dangerous word. It implies that we can put our trust in someone else to do the hard work and take us forward, while we hang on for the ride. The real leadership is inside you and me, not somewhere else. That means that everyone makes a contribution according to where they are in the system. Over time, politicians in Western countries can help by moving carefully to a system of taxation which taxes bads rather than goods. Instead of a GST, let’s have a BPT, a bads and pollution tax. That way, we can reduce disincentives to do useful things like work, and simultaneously make it more expensive to exhaust resources, pollute habitats or exclude social groups from decision making. Tax departments can also treat things like research and joint ventures as investments in our future.
Firms can help by learning from each other, by banding together in clusters with similar interests to learn, and also join together when needed to compete on the world stage. Yes, we are a tiny country, and maybe we should buy in a lot of the technology which we want to use. After all, only a fraction of a percent of the world’s R&D is done here, but we should have least have the knowledge and understanding to recognise a useful idea, and how it might be joined with others to give us that creative and competitive edge.
Lastly, you and I can do the most important thing. When it comes to the environment, you and I usually do the wrong thing first. We happily Recycle, but forget the two Rs above it –Reduce and Re-use! But above those there is an even more important R:- Re-think. Virtually nothing we do now should be done that way. Just about everything we do now will not be done this way in thirty years time. It’s up to us to think what the new way will be.
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