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Murray Grimwood, aka Power Down Kiwi, looks at the problems we face and aspirational ways we might approach them

Murray Grimwood, aka Power Down Kiwi, looks at the problems we face and aspirational ways we might approach them

By Murray Grimwood

Having compared the planet to a paddock and given some thought to thinking, it’s time to turn that knowledge on our current set of problems. And they’re doozies, compounding.

Using the dispassionate logic mentioned in my last article, we can surmise that any planet upon which life evolves, is eventually going to throw up a species sapient enough to dominate all other life-forms and to alter the physics of said planet. The question is whether the species could get sapient enough quick enough to realise it was headed for a game of double-or-quits Russian Roulette (with its own existence at stake) or whether it was stupid enough to run off the cliff still denying that the cliff existed.

On current trajectory, we seem to be demonstrating that it doesn’t get sapient enough, fast enough. It looks like the exponentially-increasing growth of its endeavours outpaces it’s evolving cognisance, which may explain the lack of extra-terrestrial communications received. (In other words we seem to be demonstrating that dominant/sapient species wipe themselves out about 100 years after they’ve learned to transmit). The residual adherence to religious belief is another indicator that our rate of cognitive adaption (towards taking responsibility rather than off-loading it) is too slow.

I’d like to think we can do better than that. Let’s start from the top:

A Goal

How about an over-arching goal: that our grandchildren thank us for what we’ve left them? No objections? Let’s proceed…..

Population

This being a finite planet/paddock and this being everyone’s grandchildren we’re leaving things to, it’ll have to be replacement-procreation only from now on. Simple really; wealth boils down to access to parts of the planet (food, water, minerals, shelter, land). More people means poorer people; a per-head legacy is always invalid if it fails to count heads. So New Zealand’s prime move has to be to stabilize, and preferably reduce, population. More paddock per child – the ultimate gift.  

Yes, there will be yowls, howls, derision and snorting from the stables. Yes, it clashes with what is currently seen as personal choice. Yes, it clashes with some beliefs, be they religious, financial, or both. Yes, it means that altruism is the only workable format if we wish to continue; an interesting realisation in itself. But it does tell us that anyone parenting six offspring, should be questioned as to their appropriateness future-leadership-wise.

Consumption

The other side of the population coin is consumption. Actually, it’s the only one Nature takes notice of, it’s up to us to work out the per-head bit. Consumption can be divided into three categories: finite resources, renewable resources, and sinks.

Finite resources are easily addressed – they must be kept once they’ve been extracted, recycled as near 100% as possible, and only locked into infrastructure which will not be a liability to those grandchildren (you could conceivably leave them enough earmarked energy or tools to alleviate a liability, leaving them money is invalid for obvious reasons).

Renewable resources may only be used at up to their renewal rate, or we’re handing those grandchildren a depleted inventory and falling short of our stated goal. Aquifers, timber, fish-stocks, soil; currently New Zealand has a long way to go and arguably we should be looking at pre-European stocking levels/counts, as the base-line.

Sinks are the capacity of the environment (soil, water, atmosphere) to absorb and mitigate our output. Atmospheric CO2 is a classic, oceanic plastic another, reduction in NZ waterway-quality yet another. We’re up against and away past most of those counts too, when same-or-better is the requirement.

The three are easily identified. If we had the will, they are easily quantifiable and addressable. Address them, and cultural evolution can proceed unfettered, as can technology – just without reducing those three categories. Again, natural capital is not interchangeable with monetary capital; substitution is therefore invalid – you end up with a pile of worthless digits and an uninhabitable planet.

Few people grasp the magnitude of the physical de-growth required to meet those rather obvious criteria. We’re talking orders-of-magnitude here, and almost certainly the end of our present financial system. Trying to debate this with people trained in the current money-paradigm, is often difficult. Also proving difficult, is convincing people that an entirely fulfilling life can be lived with less consumption.

Re-defining Sustainability

Next, we have a Tragedy of the Commons problem. Some of the resources we use and have used (eg: Nauru phosphate, ex-bird-droppings) have not only been used up at an unsustainable rate, they’ve come from somewhere else. And some things we export (coal for instance) have negative repercussions from being burnt somewhere else. Yet the ocean, the atmosphere, indeed the entire biosphere, respect no boundaries. The classic ‘Tragedy’ scenario is a bunch of farmers each out for their own advantage, collectively running commonly-held land into ruin. Neo-liberal types tried to use the ‘Tragedy’ tale to advocate private ownership – but short-term demands (like debt-repayment obligations) and exponential growth have made a mockery of that.

The sapient approach is for the farmers to agree not to reduce the quality of their communal paddock, to put a measurement regime in place (and a penalty one for those no sapient enough yet) and pass the Commons on as a going-concern legacy.

Now we know enough to deduce that the United Nations ‘Global Goals for Sustainable Development’ (they took over from the Millennium Development Goals) are fatally-flawed. Here they are: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-Being for People, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable and Clean Energy, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure, Reducing Inequalities, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water, Life on Land, Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, Partnerships for the Goals.

 No mention of population curtailment nor of resource/environmental equilibrium and a clear demand for economic growth. They fail, in the same way that ‘Titanic passenger entertainment plans for tomorrow’ fail – they give no cognisance to the things which underwrite them. Some Goals may well be socially desirable, but there is no point in addressing those without addressing the levels of population/consumption which are maintainable long-term.

We know enough too, to deduce that the RMA is deficient in its definition of sustainability, and in its inability to adjudicate. Some of this can be traced back to the ‘Commons’ problem (like the fact that nearly all ‘economic’ activity in New Zealand is underwritten by foreign-sourced fossil fuels). As long as the RMA cannot address this, applications (from dairying to tourism to suburban sprawl) which are unsustainable, cannot be disallowed. Neither document will achieve real sustainability in current form.

Default logic tells us that if we need different goals (like the one I’ve suggested above, say) then we need different measures. Having discredited GDP, and with it ‘economic growth’, we need to introduce some others: measures for water, for soil, for bio-diversity, for the state of resource-stocks. Instead of RNZ Business chanting thrice daily that the Dow has moved X% (does a thing that big really move so far in a day?) we might expect daily updates on the state of the local river and adjacent farmland, with quarterly guidance and audited yearly reporting.

In formulating a replacement suite of Goals, we could do worse than begin with the suggestions of Rod Dietz and Dan O’Neill in their book ‘Enough is enough’, list three overarching discussion-points:

  1. Replace the culture of consumerism with a culture of sustainability.
  2. Stimulate political debate and media coverage of the limits to growth and the steady-state alternative.
  3. Change national goals regarding growth and improve international cooperation.

I don’t suggest they’re perfect – but they’re a start. Locally the wellbeing moves being made by Treasury and the current Government, are moves in the right direction. We can trace them back to fumbling beginnings like Victoria University’s Valuing Nature conference, and make some reasonable guesses as to where they will go. Calls for long-term thinking also indicate that the societal narrative is morphing. Whether it’s morphing fast enough is the 64,000-ton question.

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30 Comments

" it’ll have to be replacement-procreation only from now on"
How do we ensure that? Especially as we live longer and longer. Having a one child each policy won't necessarily work, especially as we approach being able to live forever.

Yeah that's what I want know too.
Would be also interesting to know if the author has multiple children, and if so why was it ok for him to have that joy and not the young people of today and their descendants.
I thought the world is going to lower birth rates anyway without draconian measures.

Not a problem to ensure that Jimbo. Quite a few places are there now. New Zealand is there now, we are not increasing in population apart from immigration. Without that, we are at stable population now.
True though, there are chunks of the world where crazy increases of population continue. Hard one to fix, but if the status of women was improved, poverty was reduced, the birth rate would go down.
But there is no unsolvable and inevitable increase in population.

But without knowing how long we are going to live, we can't know how many kids we are able to have. If we ever get to the point where we can live forever (we must be getting close), then we can't have any more kids.

Have no fear of this. There are some sneaky bacteria working strenuously to ensure this doesn't happen

Eternal life: you need to think it through. We are moving in that direction - maybe a decade ago my minor heart condition would have left me as dead. Cancer therapy is getting interesting too. So maybe live forever (or close enough to make little difference) but have dementia for a century - will mercy killings return as per the aftermath of European Napoleonic battles with the severely wounded? What if they discover a means of returning our cells to 'as new condition' - it would be nice to have skin without wrinkles just like my grandchildren - but if it was very expensive? Do you think Putin or Trump would hesitate to command the technology whatever the cost. Would we start a 'give-a-little' page to give Jacinda eternal life?

We have to do it together

Isn't that what got us in trouble in the first place? The solution is to do it alone.

The solution.. or the lotion?

The solution is to create virtual worlds.

You will have to be more specific to be credible.
Do you propose punitive taxation for every family that has more than one child?
Do we take no refugees?
Do we have minimal immigration? And if so who fills skills shortages?

TL;DR

I certainly think we should disincentivise more-than-two offspring - ultimately it is better to reduce in a controlled manner than overshoot/collapse. It is always those who think their power increases with numbers under them (church, ruler, any minor head-honcho.
No.
If you open up on humanitarian grounds, you get swamped. You'd take a billion and they'd still be coming.
If we deem ourselves to have skill shortages (realising that this isn't a dairying/growing housing/touristing 'economy' we're talking about) then perhaps we up-skill those of us who are interested. Even now, you could argue that we're avoiding the training cost by importing skill - gaming someone else, in effect. ...

I agree on refugees.
It's why I think Europe's refugee policy is flawed.
It's well meaning but it's screwing the host countries, and it's just a drop in the ocean.

In my lifetime the population of Algeria has gone from 9m to 42m and is still increasing. Big beautiful country but with a very narrow strip of arable land. Presumably they cannot feed themselves and are trading oil for food. OK - what happens when the oil runs out?
Repeat that exercise for many other countries - try Bangladesh with about 80m living just above sea level on a rich fertile delta - what happens with say sea level increase of 1m with stronger storm surges (fairly conservative climate change predicition) who will take 80m refugees or alternatively allow 80m to starve? Note how well Bangladesh has performed with the 700,000 Rohingya refugees recently but can we manage to do the same? If we try and took in say 2m refugees would they get full NZ benefits with state housing or just become a type of slave class providing toilet cleaners and sex workers and if so how would that change our Kiwi 'fair-go' culture?

The solution is to get off this rock. We live in a infinitely expanding universe, so we need systems that encourage expansion. Reorganising ourselves to a system of naval gazing inwardness is willfully suicidal. We are an expansive species, we expand and if we stop we die.

You want to tell your descendants that their only choice is to cower in place? You want them confined to one little rock? Mentally conditioned to cull 95% of all humanity?

Hubris might suppose that some smart people of today know enough to judge tomorrow. But idiotic doomsday predictions have been wrongly made for 100's of years.

unaha-closp - nominal incoherence aside,

I suspect they'd respect a generation with the sapience to live within the boundaries of the best ecosystem they'll ever find (indeed, the ecosystem they evolved/thrived in). With the sapience to realise that trashing a place and moving on is a tad ignorant, not to mention impractical. Slight energy and time problems - or you thinking of walking up this escalator, one by one all seven billlion of us, taking a deep breath and ......... how many light-years again?

And you might want to do a little due diligence on exponential growth. :)

The UN Global Goals for SD do address the population issue, under the goal of Gender Equality;

https://www.globalgoals.org/5-gender-equality

As it is within this goal that the family planning/contraception programmes are carried out;

https://www.unfpa.org/news/fifty-years-ago-it-became-official-family-pla...

Empowering women is really the only realistic path toward addressing over-population.

Empowering women is a very important goal, but kinda different in terms of addressing over-population. What you are suggesting is that women do not want to have more than two children but are forced to due to gender inequity. There may be a small kernel in there, but it is very much not the case for many large families where the woman wants to have several children, whether for financial or other reasons.

The most realistic path to addressing over-population is to reduce the incentives for having more than two children.

Look to where the worst strife is in the world nowadays. Almost without exception, these locations have had a large and sustained increase in population over the preceding decades. Population growth does not have a universally positive outcome. At this stage, it is beginning to start on the universally negative outcome path.

A related amusement is the the "gender responsive" verbiage in the Paris Climate Agreement. Ummm... excuse me? The Paris Agreement should be wholly about working towards improving the habitat of the world. WTH does "gender responsive" mean in terms of reducing CO2 emissions? A rational person would be very tempted to dismiss the entire concept of the Paris Agreement due to the inclusion of "gender responsive" in the requirements written in the Paris Agreement.

Look to where the worst strife is in the world nowadays. Almost without exception, these locations have had a large and sustained increase in population over the preceding decades.

Well yes, and woman are generally not equal and not empowered in these areas - quite the contrary. I think your point actually illustrates/supports the aim/reason for the UN initiative.

The UN Global Goals for SD also address that resource/environmental equilibrium that you speak of under the Responsible Consumption and Production goal;

https://www.globalgoals.org/12-responsible-consumption-and-production

Granted, progress against these targets are in many cases going backwards, but at least the targets have been enunciated.

I'm more positive about the potential of the UN going forward - they do produce some excellent collaborative research and work programmes. Shame about the politics of selection (and the gender inequality!) where the top job is concerned.

So you're saying the wife of our past PM wasn't empowered? Or the current co-leader of the Greens?

And you can trace that line back to a 1968 launching. I acknowledge there is an inertia in the education process - but what I don't think you get is the little time remaining. If indeed there is any.

No, what I'm saying is the over-population problem isn't rooted in the developed world. It really is a developing nations issue where women are treated as unequals in education, work opportunity, law and in family planning matters.

And no I'm not up to scratch on what little time the human species have remaining on this planet... not sure anyone does.

Religion is a big part of the problem too. Islam is a heinous religion that belittles women, amongst other things. Hopefully Islamic states follow the west over time, in secularising.

Don't leave the various christian cults out of it. The Spanish didn't do the Philippines any favours with Catholicism.

Agree. But at least western countries have seen the light and secularised.
Hopefully Islamic countries will too. It's a horrid religion of suppression and violence.

Check the info for Iran. From high birth rate to replacement despite religious leaders. Simple result of universal education after the fall of the Shah.

A tangent: determination of 'resources'.

Some insider comments (RTWT, it even has an EU reference, deep in the overall thread, to a 'Circular Economy', so perhaps not so Tangential.

Reserves, resources and predictions.....the whole thread is a bit fascinating.

G:

All true. But you are discussing safe mining and planning practices, which is a little different.

You have to be VERY careful announcing reserves or the SEC will rip your ass to shreds, since announcing reserves that are less than fully proven is a classic scheme to pump and dump mining stocks. Lots of times it is better just to keep it to yourself, or not look too hard for more reserves until you need to.

How many mines announce they have 20 years of reserves, then in 20 years, announce they just found 20 more? Happens all the time.

My only point is there are often reasons exploration for minerals doesn’t happen, even though we know more reserves likely exist. So anything that states reserves past 30 years tends to be highly speculative.

This was the essential mistake most Malthusians make – they look at todays reserves and assume, that’s all there is. They divvy it up and low and behold in a single generation we will run out of this of that. But it never happens.

RA:

I know. I did it professionally for about 15 years.

G:
Hey, me too! I’m working with a mine that started with 20 years of reserves…40 years ago. Between you and me they have another 50 years at that 20 year deposit.

One mine I work with was just sold to an investor with only 2 years of reserves “left”. Wonder why he would buy up all that liability…? My guess is they’ll announce a new “discovery” of additional “reserves” shortly.

RA:
Ha! A colleague!

What happens at a lot of larger mines is that reserves at startup are defined and drilled out relative to the metal prices and mining/processing costs of the time, but before these reserves are exhausted higher metal prices and/or decreased costs resulting from technological advances turn a lot of what was initially waste into ore. And then when this ore is gone the same thing happens all over again.

This is how the Bingham Canyon mine has been able to operate for over 100 years. I don’t know what the estimated mine life was back in 1904 but I’m sure it wasn’t anywhere near that long.

Some good examples of the difference a few years makes are to be found here in Mexico, where you can make money by mining vein margins that were of no value to the Spanish who mined the good stuff in the middle hundreds of years ago.

So I wouldn’t be in the least surprised if your 20-year mine that has been operating for 40 years and which still has 50 years of reserves left celebrates its 100th birthday with some reserves still in hand, although I won’t be around to see it.

Indeed, one of the small Australian gold mining companies I invested in is producing in an area that been actively mined for years, and they have analysed the tailings pile from previous mining endeavors, and decided if the gold price is high enough, they will reprocess those tailings at some date in the future for a resonable return. they will probably use it to keep the plant running while they remove the overburden to open a new pit up.

StatsNZ is currently consulting on what they should include in their wider basket of indicators. I would recommend that you take the time to fill out a submission on what measures should be used e.g. resources/capita
https://www.stats.govt.nz/consultations/indicators-aotearoa-new-zealand-...