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Murray Grimwood says this year and those to follow will be interesting. But will we change course?

Public Policy / opinion
Murray Grimwood says this year and those to follow will be interesting. But will we change course?

By Murray Grimwood*

There has been the usual new-year flurry of short-term crystal-ball-gazing, emanating from the closed confines of the usual encampments; economists and social-science types. While both echelons are including global issues – like supply dislocations and conflicts – more, they are still short of appraising the interrelationships of all things with all things.

The simple truth is that our social narrative – almost all of it – was based on an incorrect set of assumptions. We thought we could increase our resource-consumption and waste-ejection, exponentially and forever. We mistook technology for energy; depletion for accrual; cheapness for availability; debt for wealth; and we misunderstood entropy, completely. Those pigeons are coming home to roost, both at global level, and in New Zealand.

Base-line truths, vs belief

The truth is that our social construct consumes energy and resources; putting out low-grade heat and degraded resources. That’s it; that’s the all of it. The physics, chemistry and biology of that, on this obviously-finite planet, are entirely uninterested in political hue; creed; digital expectations; self-importance; undelivered promises; optimism. The truth is that we have used the best half of a one-off global bonanza of fossil energy. We used it to indulge ourselves as if there were no tomorrow (ironically, the closest we’ve come to telling ourselves the truth).

We have built a never-bigger population; a never-bigger interlinked collection of fossil-dependent infrastructure (bitumen-dependent roads; road-
dependent vehicles; vehicle-dependent living arrangements), all of it ageing.

We built a physical-growth-accommodating accounting system which is becoming ever-more-obviously invalid in the face of the Limits to Growth; yet we hang – the way a sermon-swallowing congregation hangs - on every reported twist and turn of what is little more than a self-justifying smoke-and-mirrors Ponzi-scheme. The truth is that our accounting system – debt-issued money – doesn’t have a spreadsheet for physics/chemistry/biology (one proof being that economists still account labor, which was of course an energy-vector - solar-to-food-to-muscle-to-
work – but which is mere ‘noise’ vis-à-vis fossilised solar energy; oil/coal/gas-to-heat-to-work).

Compounding that problem, is that all but the occupiers of the lowest income-rung have status to lose if the present accounting system ceases. Thus the need to believe drives mass belief; something we should keep in mind as our major narrative becomes increasingly invalid and as we see ever-more fundamentalist believers being voted into key roles.

Yet another truth, is that those of us in first class have used that false assumption of infinite growth, to excuse our purloining of other’s resources (energy ones included). We assured ourselves that they just weren’t being as smart as us (or they’d be consuming at our level, wouldn’t they?) and that anyway, they could always catch up later. Then, if they fought back – against our debt-demands and/or forceful persuasions - we focused blame their leadership; their political constructs; anything but address our own repression of them.

Recently, folk with empathy – or perhaps, a greater tendency towards expressing guilt – have started trying to right some recent local wrongs. I suspect this move was based on a subconscious understanding that we are a species in overshoot, impacting not only our contemporaries, but all those who follow. Easier, though, to make much of redressing the most recent in a long series of resource-commandeerings (in the New Zealand case, European vs Maori) than to ask the bigger existential question(s). Virtue can be loudly signalled (as long as personal property-rights are not impacted, of course!). Self-justification can smugly sleep with itself – despite the fact that resource-displaced future generations are being
impacted by us orders-of-magnitude-morely that the single recent displacement those folk fixate upon.

Those with less empathy – typically those more self-centered and therefore the ones least likely to research with/for dispassionate intellectual interest – put more effort into maintaining whatever the status-quo is, simply because they gained their own level of status in it. They typically hold more of the wealth; thus more control of the rules and of the rule-makers; the recent election being a classic case of ‘follow the money’.

It seems it has ever been thus; every empire has continued until it couldn’t – none seem to have been able to adapt to an inevitable post-growth paradigm; all seem to have ignored their Cassandras. This time, though, the experiment is being run (for the first and only possible time) at global scale. New Zealand has been - whether it demurs modestly or not – part of the predominant global Empire, and we seem to be as incapable of addressing the consequences, as he who famously fiddled while his city burned.

Jacinda Ardern didn’t see the big picture – or she wouldn’t have taken on Child Poverty (which is better described as ‘Child lack of access the resources and energy’; a population vs resource-depletion equation). Christopher Luxon doesn’t see it, nor does Chris Hipkins, indeed most political aspirants seem to be quite capable of throwing anything and everything under the bus – while it is still running, that is – to ensure personal political survival. Truths included.

If they don’t see the big picture (painted atop a background of first-principle scientific facts), people aren’t going to correctly ascertain why trends are happening.

For instance: What have all the Rainbow hues got in common?

Answer: A lesser emphasis on reproduction of our (grossly overshot) species.

Nobody in New Zealand’s media, academia or politics has articulated this stark connection; instead we get ignorant bleating that ‘we need more people’, accompanied by misguided assertions of ‘Rights’ (no member of an ecologically-overshot species can assume Rights – ‘best-possible-in-the-circumstances’ maybe, but not Rights; that’s just the arrogance of assumed permanence, by those temporarily dominant).

Thus we are wasting our time prognosticating about the coming year. We need to be thinking beyond one year; beyond three; beyond ten. Beyond Left and Right.

Beyond us and them. Beyond beliefs and assumptions. Well beyond. And well beyond beyond.

If we don’t think long, we run the chance of putting our last-call efforts into stranded assets. Cycleways and EVs are, by long-think measure, right answers to wrongly-identified problems. Why? Both assume bitumen and travel; how long will a global system operating on ever-reducing fossil energy supplies, supply those? And both assume current-format cities and lifestyles; all developed since we tapped into fossil energy.

The truth about cities – which seemed to escape David cram-‘em-in-3x3 Parker –is that the resources and energy they need, come from somewhere else. Of recent decades, that somewhere else has included underground acres (historic sun-drenched acres; aka fossil energy) which are going to have to be replaced – as much as possible – with above-ground acres. Which are already tapped-out.

Nobody has proven that cities of over 1 million inhabitants, can exist ex fossil energy. Few have thought to ask if they can.

Obligations to speak truths

The media, academia and our political leaders, have an obligation to society. The first and second are meant to investigate, the third to act on the resultant information. How can we survive societally, when public broadcasting is busy plunging headlong down such an intellectually-narrow, virtue-signalling rabbit-hole?

How can we survive a university system – itself being punctured by entirely-predictable entropy – incapable of ascertaining the effects on society, of said entropy? And how can we survive if we – the voters – are therefore kept-in-the-dark ignorant? We vote for ‘growth’, because they promise it and because nobody has bothered to point out that scattergun ‘growth’ is no longer a valid target (in truth, it never was). We are fed non-facts in the name of ‘balance’; told that our tiny Left-Right appraisal is the whole spectrum; told that the mainstream media is correct and not to trust those (insert despicable online source) others.

This, when the mainstream media is peddling economic growth as given-and-good; perhaps the biggest lie in the collection of lies which comprise our social narrative.

Perhaps, this year, public media will do some research. Ascertain some facts. Tell us some truths. But I’m not holding my breath; Having put in formal complaints, I note that they have no mechanism for learning (a presumption of knowing all already?), no correlation between those who bat-away complaints and those posing as knowledge-disseminators. And a collection of beliefs and assumptions unwittingly – word chosen with care – held.

As to predictions, we can assume increasing resource competition, including conflict. We can assume that the three-ring circus of forward bets on resource availability – debt, cash, return-expectations and all their derivatives -, will increasingly become non-underwritten. We can assume that this trend, at some point, will initiate a stampede for the exits; one which, this time, may well collapse the whole tent.

Given that anything unsustainable will cease (and our global consumption/waste system is nothing if not unsustainable), we can confidently say we are a year closer to that cessation. More accurately; a year plus the growth-rate percentage closer; so compound problems, compounding. It’ll be an interesting year, as will the few beyond. I have to close now; it’s very important that I check the Dow – it might be up; it might be down; it’s a very important measure of…


*Murray Grimwood comments on as powerdownkiwi.

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'For instance: What have all the Rainbow hues got in common?

Answer: A lesser emphasis on reproduction of our (grossly overshot) species.'


Probably your best summation yet PDK.

You mentioned social science. Physics chemistry and biology are not everything. Human behavior being what it is, I am in the camp that believes most individuals will still be standing on the throttle while it benefits themselves...right to the end.


Human behavior is natural in itself.



Well done. 

I recall as a child my mates thought my dad was bonkers.  Trying to save forests and birds, recycling, composting, walking or biking. A professional man who consumed like a pauper and died at 99.  No religious hymns at his funeral, just a recording of native birdsong.

Hang in there PDK. You are making a difference.


I have followed PDK for a long time. It requires no specialist knowledge to accept that Earth's resources are finite-everything we dig out of the ground has been there for a very long time and will, at some stage, run out.

But where we part company is that he accepts no possibility other than societal collapse. He has said that earth's carrying capacity is under 2 billion and unless he has changed his mind, he goes along with Clugton's view as expressed in Blip, that this will happen on or by 2050.

Perhaps because I have 4 young grandchildren, I cannot accept that. For one thing, we are far from running out of stuff to mine. Those who doubt that should read The Material World by Ed Conway Consider just copper, critical to the modern world. Now, copper grades have been in decline for a long time, but let me quote; "Between 2010 and 2020, we mined 207 million tonnes of copper, but far from falling, the total global reserves of copper grew by 240 million tonnes. Just today, the herald reports that a huge new deposit has been found in Zambia. In oil, Guyana has from nowhere, become a major producer and exporter within the last few years. My point is that it will take a lot longer than the ultra pessimists believe to exhaust the earth's resources. This is important because by the end of this century, global depopulation will be well underway. 

What technological  progress might we make? Might we be able to harness the sun's energy much more efficiently? Might we make significant progress on nuclear energy? I have no idea and I am no Pollyanna. I see huge issues ahead with the transition to a lower carbon economy, with water, with climate change and perhaps most of all, with the darker side of human nature, but with all that, I remain cautiously optimistic.


Total reserves did NOT grow, as you point out at the beginning, they can't. 

Proven reserves might have - there's a world of difference. 

And if we're going to attempt going electric (which is everything other than FF, really) we're going to need quite a lot..... More....


There will be resources for a new society of sorts but nothing like the current vastly wasteful, consumerist unthinking me first, uneducated and oblivious to science and social science as we have now. In many ways the new society we consciously build once we rise up against our vastly dishonest and utterly corrupted political, media and corporate systems...can be a lot better- focussed on each other, community and protecting and enhancing what is left of the natural world. I don't think we will see near term extinction however we don't have much time to turn around the ship and you need to get polotical and become and activist to act in your grandchildens best interests and perhaps teach them what is possible. A good place to start is really study the science of where were actually are. 1.5 degrees was over some time ago, 2 degrees warming is a best case scenario if we act now comprehensively for the next 30 years. We are looking at 2 degrees by 2040, decades ahead of the older predictions not allowing for climate feedback loops and aerosol cooling and the vast underreporting of emissions by corporations and governments. In nz we dont report international aviation or shipping or marine envrionment/ land degradation causing emissions. So somewhere between 2 and 3 is where we will end up if we stop emitting.
The scientific target is 50% ghg reduction asap, by 2030 ideally however gdp is 1-1 with fossil fuel and materil use so to get there expect big changes we can only achieve by getting rid of our dysfunctional billionaire corrupted democracy and neoliberal deceit economics.


" And how can we survive if we – the voters – are therefore kept-in-the-dark ignorant? We vote for ‘growth’, because they promise it and because nobody has bothered to point out that scattergun ‘growth’ is no longer a valid target (in truth, it never was). We are fed non-facts in the name of ‘balance’; told that our tiny Left-Right appraisal is the whole spectrum; told that the mainstream media is correct and not to trust those (insert despicable online source) others."

Or do we vote for 'growth' because we fear the reality of what is required for a sustainable society and it is easier to defer and delay?



A small depiction perhaps in the theme can be found in plenty of examples in the American West, commonly known as ghost towns. Once boom towns gone bust because the reason for their construction, some ore of some then value was exhausted. Another example, in Canada quite a large centre actually named Asbestos. Towns didn’t just disappear for that reason either. In the rural parts of where we lived in New Jersey, yellow fever and similar diseases had wiped them out. Mother nature had much more influence on thinning things out in those days.


What might prosperity without growth look like sans fossil fuels Murray?


If you were leading a transition towards an economic arrangement where human society operates within and enhances ecosystem carrying capacity, what would be the vision that you paint and messaging you would use to inspire people towards that?


Murray at last the most sensible article i have yet read on and which makes a number of correct assertions and points. Very well done, keep it up and get political, join us activists on the streets protesting for our childrens futures which are being thrown away by our corrupt neoliberal empty husk politicians, media and corporate ghouls. The neoliberal mass death project must be stopped and replaced with a system that will guarantee life for all including mother nature and the planet.