Seeing the slightly dulled light in Opoho

Posted on September 2, 2008

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When I was at school those who didn’t feel inclined to be at school could sneak off through the bush, slog up the hill and half an hour later turn up in Opoho. Logan Park is in a hollow and Opoho is renowned in Dunedin for its sunshine. Stuck in the gloom of Mr Tobin’s prefab we looked up to Opoho to see the light.

So, twenty one years later I went off to Opoho to listen to a panel discussion about sustainability. Was the light shining? Not really I’m afraid.

The panel was in the Opoho church, about 60 people were there, almost all with grey hair and almost all Opoho locals (including parents of several of my school friends). The vicar-lady welcomed everyone and Dr John Stenhouse opened the evening, introducing the topic: Is sustainable growth a myth?. He started by asking who in the audience agreed it was a myth, getting hands raised from about 2/3rds. That, unfortunately, was really the only time the question was answered.

AP Hugh Campbell of the Centre for the Study of Agriculture, Food and the Environment (CSAFE) spoke first. I’ve heard this talk before but that’s OK, it’s a good one. Hugh talks about industrial history, he describes the view of continual “development” since the industrial revolution being too simplistic and prefers a view of multiple phases of growth, crisis and collapse.

The rules written for human society no longer seem to apply

Hugh addresses 4 points

1. There is more than enough food. The problem is the resource (in)efficiencies of that production

2. The current crisis is one of food:market relations. The commercialisation of food doesn’t work at the margins.

3. The world market for food has a shifting boundary of self sufficiency/market relations

4. NZ’s role in solving world food system problems is virtually non-existent. Our food is destined for wealthy markets. We should be putting at least some efforts into underpinning sustainable food systems.

Hugh then went on to discuss growth and asks “what will be the next phase of growth?” He talked about the consumption burden of population, using Diamond’s 32 times resource footprint argument (audio from interview on National Radio). Hugh finished by talking about the need to change what is understood by satisfactory consumption.

John Cocks spoke next. John is a resource engineer (read waste engineer) and co-chair of Sustainable Dunedin City. John talked about his profession – the trade of building things is changing to avoiding building things. He talks about climate change as something that is having impact now, not just in the beach erosion that might be attributed to it, but in longer term engineering works. National guideline of 20-60cm sea level rise, explicitly exclude the ice cap melt – possibly 10 metres (eg John Hansen’s prediction). In the face of these predictions engineers making design decisions for new water treatment stations – John Cocks says most prudent engineers are building to about 6-7metres.

Dr Paul Thorsnes was the final panelist. I have to say, I was disappointed in his talk. Despite being on the flyer for the panel he seemed to be a ring-in, almost seeming uncomfortable with the subject matter. This was a shame, as if anyone in the room could sensibly discuss the topic for the evening (is sustainable growth a myth?), we all expected it to be Paul. His area, though is not macro-economics but micro-economics. He focuses on factors such as those affecting house sales. He researches the impediments to people taking up energy efficiency measures.

Paul finished his talk on an optimistic note: he “is confident it will all be alright, we’ve only just recognised this (sustainability) as a problem, when the market kicks in there will be a lot of room to adjust – we’ve only just started trying, and there will be lots of technological solutions we haven’t thought of yet”.

The last hour of the panel was an open discussion. Here are some of the discussions (there were others: whether we should heat houses or wear more clothes; be supplied with human manure; and run an alternative city council).

Q: Should we be trying to stop consumption growth in the 3rd world?

A: (HC) This is the problem described by Diamond. Is it reasonable to bring down the target. We should certainly lower it from 32 times the world level (American). The European level is much lower without a loss of quality of life. A vastly lower ecological footprint should be the target of people on the way “up” (and of, course, we have to also come down to meet it). This of course, is ethically challenging. We can look at happiness indices but need to balance the perhaps condescending notions of “happy poor” with concrete inequalities.

Q: We focus on one species (us), but there’s so much we can’t do (photosynthesize, fix Nitrogen etc), we need to be more humble in looking for solutions. Instead of looking at human footprint, we should be respecting cycles (C, N, water)?

A: (HC) Yes, it is in these ecosystem areas that unintended consequences become apparent.

Q: Is sustainable growth a mathematical impossibility?

A: (PT) Maybe at the theoretical extension of mathematics, but there are lots of resources, and we’re pretty clever.

A:(HC) I don’t think we should be looking at straight line graphs, transformative things happen for better or for worse

Q: Why is growth so embedded in classical economics? is there an alternative? (are we the hamster on the treadmill?)

A: (PT) Because growth is the foundation of a population’s quality of life. Burkina Faso as example.

Q: What should we do to promote cradle-to-cradle?

A: (JC) You mean required take-back? The priority products are nominated for manufacturer to take responsibility. There’s not much evidence of it working.

Q: What about planned obsolescence?

A: (PT) There’s little sign of any alternative working.

(HC) is the limitation a critical mass threshold?

(JC) There isn’t an economic driver, manufacturers with lower social/environmental conscience will pass costs to consumer at point of purchase.

Q: What factors can we use to affect the market to improve social and environmental outcomes?

A: (PT) If a resource does run short, and I can’t see that happening here, then the market will work. Higher priced oil will drive the development of alternatives. The few areas not controlled by the market are where the problems are- the atmosphere used as a waste dump for carbon, for example.

Q: What will NZ look like in 50 years?

A: (PT) We will sustain our development by using the resources we have got, selling our coal resources to China for example.

Comment from floor: Money will be secondary, or tied to an ecological footprint denomination.

Q: Pluralistic democracies play to centre; do socialist systems work better?

A: (HC) Cuba’s response to shortages has been outstanding. Not so much the centralised institutions, rather the community based innovations. Many variations on local plans, thousands of permaculture sites, and a community closely networked, watching for successful models which are rapidly expanded. This has been a stunning success story in food production – and related health benefits.

A: (HC) We need to be aware of the long waves and long cycles. The empire, state and free market models of society had quite different footprint characteristics. As we move to a community model, resilience will be key, and key to that resilience will be excitement, engagement, community based experiences.


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