The last 50 years has seen a focus on cleaning up environmental messes—in policy jargon, mitigating the effects of human activities. This approach has led to the creation worldwide of institutions such as environmental protection agencies and, in New Zealand, to legislation such as the Resource Management Act. While this ‘clean up’ is important, the concept of sustainability is much broader and more positive. Essentially, it means developing systems that deliver qualities of life without making a mess in the first place.
In physical terms there are many ‘visions’ of a more sustainable future. Many include more public transport and hopefully fewer cars; more solar water heaters on our houses and fewer heated towel rails in our bathrooms; more wind turbines and fewer thermal powered stations; more children walking to school and fewer SUVs at the school gate; more trees in our cities and fewer acres of concrete; cleaner lowland streams and rivers; and our seas still rich in species of all types, fished or unfished, and our dawn choruses at full volume.
That is our common physical utopia. However, it is a rather one-dimensional view. The end game may be physical, but to redesign the mechanisms by which we arrive there is a quite different exercise.
Sustain, in its simplest terms, means to endure and to remain healthy—how we continue to exist, provide shelter, and clean water or food into a very distant future. When most of us think about sustainability, we think about our biophysical world, our waters, forests, pastures, orchards, rivers and oceans. But I would also look at what we value; what we celebrate and honour; and what and how we learn for life. We need a broader picture of how to craft our learning, economic institutions, and tax systems for a more sustainable physical world. Above all, we need new values and beliefs to underpin that picture.
There is a difference between conserving and sustaining. Conserving our indigenous flora and fauna is just one component—a far greater challenge is to sustain, in good health, the natural capital in that 70% of New Zealand from which we extract a living.
Sustaining is about using while keeping our natural capital healthy. It is a matter of going back up the pipe and crafting industrial, agricultural, legal and business models that use materials and resources more efficiently, create much less waste, and remove the pressure of ever increasing demand. That is why I maintain that sustainability is a positive construct—it offers enormous opportunities for developing totally new ways of providing for our societies.
However, seizing these opportunities is where the going gets tough. Many commentators over the last decade have noted little change in unsustainable patterns of consumption and production. Our economic and taxation systems continue to offer incentives for unsustainable behaviours.
In terms of the continual increase in demand for physical resources of fuel, minerals, water, and land for housing, plenty of data suggests that four million Kiwis are living in unsustainable ways.
This constant expansion of physical demands and the associated pressures on our receiving environments—our rivers, ground waters and atmosphere—cannot be sustained. As the noted economist Herman Daily said in 1989, we need to distinguish between growth and development, quantity and quality:
“Growth of the economic organism means larger jaws and a bigger digestive tract. Development means more complete digestion and wiser purposes.”
Here lies the biggest single challenge, to sustain and advance quality of life without constantly expanding the physical economy. It requires major changes in how we view the world—our values and beliefs—and in the way we arrange our social and economic systems. It is beyond the scope of this viewpoint to argue the ‘hows’ of this transformation. Rather, I would like to concentrate on what things are happening in a more sustainable New Zealand that are good indicators that we are making the needed changes in our thinking and behaviours.
Already there are signs that in the key area of what we teach and learn about sustainability, change is occurring. My January 2004 publication, See Change: Learning and Education for Sustainability, gave an example of the Enviroschools programme that emerged from Hamilton City Council efforts to promote sustainable learning in school activity and thinking. Ideas around sustainability are embedded into all teaching, whether language, maths, science or geography. However, it’s not just what is taught in the classroom, but the very way running the school is thought about, whether building a new classroom, buying a mini bus for taking children to sports, or a project in the school grounds. The sustainability ruler is run over every decision. This is a whole-oflife approach in that the kids take ideas from school to home and create an interaction between the school and the wider community.
I would also look for major reshaping of our formal teaching curricula at secondary and tertiary levels. In tertiary, while the government’s 2002 Tertiary Education Strategy recognises sustainability as important, there is very little focus on action. The concept needs to be embedded so that institutions are teaching what amounts to a core subject, as important in the 21st century as teaching our arithmetic in earlier days of education.
One Australian institution, the University of Queensland, is responding to the challenge to create talent that can work across the spectrum of social, environmental and economic worlds. Its School of Natural and Rural Systems Management (NRSM) was developed in response to the growing demand for graduates with research capabilities that were truly interdisciplinary.
Farmers, agri-industries and governments find they struggle with the complexity of developing profitable, environmentally friendly and socially acceptable management practices. Many NRSM students have returned to university after working in some part of the rural and agribusiness sector. They typically had completed a degree in science, economics, resource management or social science, but found it did not adequately equip them to deal with the sheer complexity of issues, often to do with environmental sustainability, they were facing in their work.
The school meshes three areas of activity: a focus on social, biophysical and quality of life issues; clean and green production of food, fibre and ecosystem services; and enterprise development. Such developments are also needed in New Zealand.
Beyond formal education, a more sustainable New Zealand would be characterised by major reshaping of our taxation system so that it offers incentives to efficient resource use and recovery. Increasingly we would be shifting taxation from labour and capital to resource uses in ways that did not, of necessity, increase the total tax take.
On the wider economic front, we would see more extensive valuation of ‘environmental externalities’—all environmental costs associated with whatever it is we are doing. These would appear on balance sheets so we can clearly see the full cost of producing a megawatt of electricity, a tray of kiwifruit or a litre of milk. This is not entirely radical, given we have signed the Kyoto Protocol which seeks to bring carbon onto our economic balance sheets.
Today we measure our progress almost totally by economic indicators, with the occasional Olympic or World Cup sporting index thrown in. In the future I hope we will consider measures of our natural, social and cultural capital.
An annual sustainability scorecard listing 20 key social, economic, environmental and cultural measures, devised after consultations with communities the length and breadth of New Zealand, should attract more attention from politicians and stock-markets than the Reserve Bank’s interest rate pronouncements.
The New Year and Queen’s Birthday Honours lists will feature prestigious and much sought-after awards for New Zealanders’ contributions to sustainability.
We will have got to grips with seeing quality of life, not in largely material terms, but in terms of experiential wealth. Yes, incomes will have increased, but what will matter to New Zealanders is clean water at the beach, well maintained sports grounds accessible to all, family friendly waterfronts, safe, well-lit city streets, and quality schools and medical facilities. These indicators, on which we already place a high premium, will be public, widely understood, and the benchmark of our national wellbeing.
They will flow through to the nature of our businesses, to where we live and our patterns of settlement and movement. Present trends are towards ever larger retail units, often in mall complexes dominated by a handful of conglomerates. Two companies now provide over 90 per cent of New Zealand’s food and household good supplies.
In a more sustainable New Zealand, retail will again be more dispersed. Smaller business units, which may be part of collectives, will be back to the high streets of our villages or to suburban centres within our cities and smaller towns. Neighbourhood retail rather than mega stores will be the focus.
Internationally, we will have moved on from our somewhat fragile ‘clean green’ or ‘100% New Zealand pure’ image. We will be celebrated as a sustainable nation, the lynchpin of a thriving tourism industry. Such is the demand to come and share our land and spaces that, for some time, we will have had to limit visitor numbers, in the same way the French have limited visitors to the Lascaux Caves because of the effect of CO2 on the unique ice age paintings.
Our authors, playwrights and film directors will be world renowned for their portrayals of a more sustainable New Zealand. A telling sign that we are well down the path will come when the annual Fonterra Award, given for a book, play or film that contributes most to our understanding, is presented to Roger Hall for his blockbuster play about our transition to a more sustainable nation.