My family arrived in New Zealand in 2005, fresh with all the expectations and apprehensions one would naturally ascribe to newcomers to a land recently popularised in fantastic widescreen exposure.
I grew up in a desert, shaped very much by a landscape which speaks of scarcity in the most understandable sense and yet offers abundance to those who learn its secret language. The livelihood afforded desert dwellers, however, is delicately balanced against overreach unless huge efforts are made to import the most basic requirements: water and food. My hometown, like others in the sunbelt of the US, grew phenomenally (or metastasised, as the late environmental writer Edward Abbey put it) — roughly quadrupling its population in my four decades living there and stretching the definition of unsustainability to the point of absurdity. When the time came to pull up stakes, our desire to pursue self-sufficiency meant that a destination with a temperate climate and reliable rainfall was a prerequisite. A job opportunity came, we did our research, weighed the pros and cons, and trusted intuition that this place offered better-than-average odds of weathering the gamut of changes that seemed to be imminent.
What greeted us was an interesting mix of genuine resource and soundstage illusion: Kiwis impressed us immediately with easy warmth, trust, hard work and sense of humour, but “clean and green” turned out to be a facade as rivers suffocated under their burden of eroded hill country and effluent discharge. “She’ll be right” sometimes became the stand-in for abdicating personal agency, and the land of number eight wire had outsourced nearly every vestige of its manufacturing sector and was running astronomical current account deficits as container ships loaded with consumer goods queued at the ports. Recent years have seen a property bubble collapse, a very tangible erosion of the average wage-earner’s prospects at the hands of globalised markets, and our love affair with the automobile carry on undiminished despite its role as an abusive partner. At the threshold of momentous changes in our social, economic, political and environmental frameworks, does New Zealand really have better-than-average chances for managing the transformation to a post-globalised, post-financial, post-petroleum state?
Kiwi inventiveness will give us a psychological as well as a practical leg up as we retool for a more artisan-based manufacturing sector, but for any sort of modern technology that we presently take for granted there will sometimes be high barriers to production. Electronics, computers and communications hardware, in particular, require raw materials and fabrication plants that do not exist in New Zealand. If we plan on maintaining even a semblance of our present day networked lives, we will need to bootstrap the expertise and facilities quickly and prepare for much lower performance from all the future contrivances that are pressed into service. Libraries won’t seem so quaint when hard disks are hard to come by, display devices are low-resolution and the Internet is only available via packet radio with bandwidth and latencies that will make old-timers yearn for dialup. Our international telecommunications links will falter when it becomes impossible to maintain the submarine cables that we rely on for connectivity. We should be able to keep the lights on, but more generation of power will need to be localised as the national electrical grid is already a troublesome beast in a long narrow pair of islands with the major supply and demand nodes at opposite ends of the country. Increased deployment of wind power coupled with pumped hydro for storage, plus exploitation of our unique and powerful tidal currents, could provide us with a reasonable and clean power future and puts New Zealand in a much better position than most countries with regard to energy independence — notwithstanding the peak oil elephant in the room.
An effect of New Zealand’s commodity-based economy is that the overwhelming majority of easily cultivated land is involved in milk production, either directly grazing the five-million-strong dairy herd, or growing feed crops such as maize silage. A rapid increase in oil prices will claim the international milk solids business as one of its early victims: in probably every market that is presently an outlet for our dairy trade, there will be an immediate incentive to switch to local or regional production when transport costs become untenable. In the month of February 2011, New Zealand’s gross export value was just under $4 billion and of that over $1 billion was milk solids, butter, cheese and caseinates. Adding in the other main primary products of the agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector accounted for another $1 billion. In terms of the “good news, bad news” quick assessment of our prospects for post-peak transition, one could make the assumption that the loss of our export base and the foreign exchange it brings will be somewhat mitigated by the wealth of high energy food and fibre available to the populace. But because a considerable portion of dairy producers are carrying high levels of debt and a nation of 4.4 million can only consume so much milk, butter and cheese, the sector will most likely collapse abruptly. Other primary producers will be in a slightly better position to scale down costs and adjust to a regional economy, but only those operations situated close to their markets or within droving distance of functioning rail lines and ports will remain viable when road transport largely ceases.
The realignment of the rural sector presents us with an extraordinary challenge along with a significant opportunity. Local food networks and household gardens will not, in the majority of cases, provide sufficient energy-dense nutrition year-round for urban and suburban inhabitants, and without oil the large-scale 20th century agricultural paradigm is unworkable. Complex carbohydrates from cereal grains, legumes and root crops represent an effective means of feeding people while maintaining soil fertility via low-input pastoral systems such as those espoused by the American “contrary farmer” Gene Logsdon. By rotating paddocks through successive regimes of pasture, cropping and fallow intervals and by using techniques such as undersowing, timed grazing and in-place mulching instead of energy-intensive and topsoil-depleting mechanical tillage, the next generation of Kiwi farmers could feed us well without resorting to slashing and burning. The yields to be expected from this sort of low-tech farming would be considerably lower than what is considered commonplace in the era of oil-intensive cultivation, but the advantages of long-term husbandry of resources and diversification of production are strong arguments for building the expertise right away.
As export-driven production winds down, thousands of hectares of fertile land will be available not just for conversion to regional level food production but also for replanting in mixed forestry or native vegetation and rehabilitating badly degraded waterways. Improvement of inland water quality will enhance productivity of fish stocks and could allow greater reliance on this resource. Meanwhile, as the worldwide longline and trawler fleets are scuttled when they become too costly to send out to sea, we may be fortunate enough to see some of our coastal and deepwater fisheries return to sustainability — provided ocean acidification does not wipe out the food web that supports nearly all marine life.
The topography of New Zealand makes overland movement of bulk goods in the absence of cheap oil problematic in the extreme. The enormously expensive roading projects currently being pushed will become crumbling monuments to blindness and denial, and will be mostly useless to any sort of vehicle travel as the lack of maintenance sets in. Existing rail lines should be regarded as high priority assets and as many as possible should be electrified and extended (we’ll only get one chance to do this). Draft animals will make a comeback, especially on spoke routes to shipping and rail hubs. With long-haul roads out of the picture, Dmitry Orlov’s discussion of coastal shipping is extremely relevant to our geography and this mode of transport is likely to predominate in short order. A resurgence in trans-Tasman sail traffic is another predictable outcome, reinforcing the cultural and economic ties already in existence.
The cohesiveness of the social fabric here at home is tenuous, as a generation of consumerism has contributed to a growing alienation of country dwellers from their urban counterparts — three quarters of the population among the sixteen largest centres. In a similar fashion, the remaining vestiges of Kiwi egalitarian society and the welfare state are fast falling away in the face of privatisation and government rewards for corporate interests and tax breaks for the wealthy. During the boom years around the turn of the 21st century, soaring property values combined with easy credit and a flood of cheap imported manufactured goods to encourage large numbers of New Zealanders to define themselves through their ability to buy stuff. Now, in the aftermath of the correction in the housing market and the global financial crisis of 2008, we carry a staggering amount of private debt to overseas banks. The nation’s net foreign liability as of 30 June 2010 was 86% of GDP; that housing loans comprised more than half reflected not only the soaring real-estate prices of the preceding decade, but also a distorted tax structure which encouraged people to buy investment properties in lieu of savings instruments. Worldwide ructions in markets are now highlighting the fragile nature of an unbalanced economic recovery overseas which has seen large corporations and banks return to record profitability at the same time the unemployed are increasing in number, and as rioting over food and fuel prices leads to bloodshed in numerous countries and drives the spot prices of oil ever higher. The pinch for all but the wealthiest in New Zealand increases the incidence of scapegoating and provides incentive for cuts in benefits and public sector spending.
We have an opportunity to reconnect ourselves at the community level, where it matters most. In a post-peak world where long-distance travel is no longer second-nature for ordinary folk, we will move within smaller, geographically-defined circles. Our trade, social and cultural relationships must be strengthened at the local level. These links can be jump-started by setting up community currencies whose value as network builders may far outweigh their advantages over debt-backed fiat money in the short term. One such project currently under way is in my new home town, Ashhurst. We are preparing to launch a voucher system which will initially be backed by the New Zealand dollar but as a key part of the design we are devising a means for establishing a set of commodities as the ultimate basis. This would give the community the ability to decouple from the national currency in the event of hyperinflation or other monetary destabilisation. As these schemes are established, it is essential to collaborate and network among them in order to share experiences and guide newcomers, and ultimately to devise transparent means of intertrading and fostering regional markets. For as long as we have access to sufficient technology, the assistance of software in running mutual credit systems and time banks reduces the burden on administrators and offers a template for startups which leverages the solutions already in place. Projects currently under active development and in use internationally include CES, Community Forge, Cyclos, Fourth Corner and Time Banks USA. If an online system is to be judged sustainable, however, it will need the ability to be locally hosted so as not to rely on Internet availability, and should always have a backup means of degrading to paper-based accounting should too many systems fail. It should ideally be developed using open source components, not just to avoid the requirement of foreign exchange for purchase and licensing expenses, but to allow customisation and support without relying on the original programmers.
Extrapolating the resurgence of personal agency through strong and effective communities to the regional and particularly the national level becomes trickier as entrenched centres of power will in many cases resist the rate and scope of change, or potentially use the upheavals as an excuse for imposing authoritarian institutions all the way up to martial law. New Zealand is internationally regarded for its participatory democracy and its lack of corruption, but much of this is a happy accident which could be undone by a handful of parliamentary acts. We need, more than ever, a republic founded on the rule of law with a robust constitution guaranteeing individual rights and limiting the ability of central government to act in a unitary manner. A more clearly-delineated separation of legislative and executive roles is necessary to prevent Parliament from becoming a means to legitimising ministerial policy, and the ability for an act to be considered under urgency must be removed or at least only permitted in the face of an imminent and existential threat to the nation at the hands of a hostile force. True democracy requires deliberation and consideration of input from all stakeholders, but the process we currently have can devolve rapidly to tyranny of the majority and in recent months has been used to summarily deny representation and due process to citizens. As a direct example, the Government reacted to the Christchurch earthquakes by declaring first a regional, and later a national state of emergency — revoking basic civil rights, limiting redress and granting unprecedented and virtually unlimited legal authority to cabinet ministers. In Japan, where an earthquake 100 times as powerful killed far more people and caused immensely greater damage, the Diet did not suspend essential liberties or invoke extraordinary powers.
Codifying the powers of government with an actual written constitution also gives us a means of defining issues of sovereignty. We need to provide a formal continuation of the Treaty of Waitangi which spells out the role of all New Zealanders in maintaining ownership and control of our lands, waters, and self-determination. Specifically, we must rule out any ability of governments to transfer assets into foreign ownership, and similarly prohibit external interests from holding veto power over our legislative, regulatory and judicial processes. This will necessitate opting out of global and multinational free trade agreements, as these are vehicles for unelected and unaccountable entities to impose rule by force of commercial imperative. A proposal being negotiated at the time of this writing, the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, is being drafted in secret and is targeted for signing later in 2011 without any parliamentary debate, let alone public review or commentary. Items which have been divulged look undemocratic in the extreme: foreign corporations would be given grounds to sue the New Zealand Government to force conditions more conducive to their trade. We could easily wave away widely-approved policies such as our national pharmaceutical buying programme, GMO restrictions, and land-ownership tests. All these and many more “features” of free trade are sold to the populace as necessary to raise foreign capital and balance the country’s books, but the reality is that once assets are sold and rights bartered away you almost never get them back except by force — and a tiny isolated island country is in a poor position to go on the offensive against superpowers just to right a misdeed that would have been our own fault in the first instance.
So, are the puzzle pieces there? Can we connect enough of the dots to create a picture of a more hopeful future than some would suggest lies in store for Aotearoa? Although the indicators are clearly warning us of a chaotic time ahead and forces which must be countered in order for the essence of the human spirit to flourish in a sustainable relationship with our home planet, the chaos is not insurmountable and we have the gift of good land plus resourceful people to lend their efforts. As a well-known proverb has it: “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.”