Tuesday 26 June 2012

Rio + 20

Fingers Not yet Burnt: Only when the global environmental crisis is perceived as a direct existential threat will humanity take the steps necessary to address it. By then, of course, it will be too late.

WHO NOW REMEMBERS the 1992 “Earth Summit” meeting in Rio? Am I right in recalling that Al Gore was present? And weren’t we represented by the National Party’s smartest-ever cabinet minister – Simon Upton? It was all very worthy, not to mention predictable: the rain forests were disappearing; indigenous peoples were threatened; more and more species were endangered. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the Summit’s “Climate Change Convention” warned humanity that fossil-fuel emissions were heating up the Earth’s atmosphere.

All very important and urgent, but New Zealanders had other things on their minds back then. The effects of Ruth Richardson’s “Mother of All Budgets” and Jenny Shipley’s benefit cuts were all around them, and unemployment was only slowly coming off its 11 percent peak. For a great many people the survival of the planet came a poor second to the survival of themselves and their families.

Twenty years on and another Rio Summit is warning us that the condition of the planet’s wafer-thin biosphere, humanity’s incredibly delicate survival-suit, is deteriorating rapidly. And, again, the effects of a global economic crisis are dominating the headlines, banishing important environmental stories to the inside pages of our daily newspapers.

Do we care that global temperatures continue their relentless upward swing? Do we lament the extinction of entire species? Do we understand the dangers of out-of-control deforestation in the planet’s tropical zones? Of course we do. It’s just that we care about holding onto our jobs, paying our bills and looking after our kids a whole lot more.

As a species we are genetically programmed to recognise and repel immediate existential threats. The leopard in the long grass of the savannah; the firestorm swallowing up the forest; the cave bear rearing out of the darkness: these we can deal with. But the slow encroachment of the desert sands; the gradual decline in the river’s flow; the changing migration paths of woolly mammoths or caribou: these things proved more perplexing.

In the days before men drew lines on maps, people simply moved on to where the grass was greener, the rivers flowed more swiftly and the herds could be tracked and attacked in the same old ways. But today, one hundred millennia removed from our hunter-gatherer past, the human species numbers seven-thousand-millions, and moving on is not an option.

We must fight for our survival from where we are – and for most of us that means fighting in a city. It was only a few years ago that more than half of humanity ceased living in the countryside. If the planet is to be saved, it will be by people living in its urban environment.

The 2,400 representatives from Non-Governmental Organisations who attended the 1992 Rio Summit understood this very well. China and India were industrialising at break-neck speed and simply could not avoid drawing millions into the urban environments that manufacturing on a massive scale inevitably creates. They urged the developing countries’ governments to avoid the resource-depleting, pollution-generating automobile cultures of the West by prioritizing the provision of public transportation. Anyone attempting to navigate the streets of New Delhi or Shanghai will grasp how emphatically the world’s fastest-growing economies declined to heed their advice.

The determination of these economies to afford their consumers a Western life-style is entirely understandable, but it is also strip-mining Australia, Africa and South America of their natural resources, and sucking dry the world’s dwindling oil reserves. Unless the urban environment undergoes changes as dramatic as those which set this global environmental crisis in motion, its insatiable appetite, not only for minerals and fossil fuels, but simply for food and water, will crash the entire system of industrial civilisation.

The political representatives of late industrial capitalism seem incapable of understanding these existential threats. The only bears they’re willing to fight are those currently stalking Wall Street. It is to the representatives of enlightened humanity that we must, therefore, turn if the enemies of our common future are to be overcome: the Greens and those social-democratic parties still capable of stepping-up to the challenges of radical change.

Given New Zealand’s remoteness, and its relatively tiny population, the contribution we can make to saving the world will, necessarily, be limited. Perhaps the best gift we could offer our fellow human-beings is a positive example of the practical changes that need to be made.

The devastated city of Christchurch could play a vital role in this regard by modelling the sustainable urban environment the world needs to copy. There’d be a state-of-the-art public transportation system; ecologically intelligent architecture; urban gardens, self-sufficient small-scale energy generators connected to the national grid; water recycling schemes; and the conscious creation of resilient urban communities. (Hat-tip to Leanne Dalziel.)

The oft-quoted environmental slogan: “Think globally, act locally” could hardly be more relevant.

Let the future begin right here.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 June 2012.


Brendon said...

There is a zero percent chance of Christchurch becoming a beacon of enviromental urban renewal. New Zealand like Britain is one of the most centralised run countries in the developed world. So New Zealand cities have no power to act locally.

Aucklanders and Canterbrians when given the chance have expressed the desire to live in cities with green spaces, fast public transport options like trams and light rail and being pedestrian and cycle friendly. They know it is possible because they have seen it work in places like Helsinki, Copenhagen and even across the ditch in Melbourne etc.

But these cities have genuine local democracies that have the power to act independently. They can raise taxes to fund public services that their commuities demand.

National have been very careful to control the rebuilt of Christchurch from Wellington. Labour talk about communíty control but until they offer genuine local government independence it is just hot air.

Basically New Zealand cities will only become enviromental beacons if a finance minister foregoes some of his or her tax gathering power and hands to it local democracies who are completely free to use it as their local communities demand.

Anonymous said...

Meh. Who cares.

We live at a relatively high latitude and happen to be about as far away from other people as is possible. It won't be as bad here as most other places.

All we really need to do is stop immigration at the right time, and we will manage. Not brilliantly, but we will manage.

The rest of humanity can take a running jump at themselves.

UncleGeoff said...

"WHO NOW REMEMBERS the 1992 “Earth Summit” meeting in Rio? ... And weren’t we represented by the National Party’s smartest-ever cabinet minister – Simon Upton? ..."

My recollection is that New Zealand was represented by Rob Storey (MP of Waikato at that time), who was emphatically not in the same intellectual league as Simon Upton. (Hands up all those who remember the saga of the "Regional Fuel Tax" from that era, and his suggestion, in 1993, that New Zealanders switch to driving on the right hand side of the road, with the purported objective of eliminating accidents caused by tourists from overseas who were not accustomed to driving on the left hand side of the road.)

As I see things though, the most significant reason why the world is struggling to seriously deal with global warming and upcoming resource shortages is that appropriate policies and actions would be highly detrimental to coprporate and plutocratic interests. Virtually every attempt to seriously reduce global warming has been savaged as being promoted by socialists or marxists, with at least one commentator even saying that people advocating sensible policies have a hatred of humanity.

The mass media also have a lot to answer for, by failing to challenge those vested interests in any serious manner. And while it is understandable that many people are concerned about their own circumstances, it should not be forgotten that the current economic malaise can also be attributed to the same corporate and plutocratic interests.

A highly plausible scenario is that when everything starts going seriously awry, the plutocrats will exit the scene in their helicoptors, and flee for well-equipped boltholes in locations inaccessible to others. It is highly depressing to think that such people could end up being the sole survivors of humanity, but unless the community at large wakes up as to what is really happening, such a scenario becomes increasingly likely.

While I fully agree that New Zealand could, and indeed should, strive to be an example to other countries of how to live with a low ecological footprint, we have to contend with a goverment that thinks that it is essential to spend billions of dollars on unnecessary roads, and that there is no compelling case for building Auckland's City Rail Link, or trams in a rebuilt Christchurch. And both of those cities are also "blessed" with newspapers of a highly stomach-churning nature; I am now of the view that "Granny" (Herald) "out-pongs" the Southdown freezing works of years past.

But even if all of their efforts ulimately prove to have been in vain, everyone who is aware of how dire things really are should still strive to do all that they can in order to improve the situation. So thank you Chris for everything that you have been saying and doing.

Galeandra said...

So Brendon thinks NZ is too big to see itself a single community? Certainly, I sympathise with his pessimism about the mindset of the present government, one which I see as being very much to his taste, by the way.
'enviromental urban renewal' is vital across the whole of NZ as we try to weather the oncoming storms and mitigate past excesses, but the intransigent narrow-mindedness of the right gives Brendan an excuse to sit on his hands?
No worries, probably like me he is due to clock off over the next couple of decades.

Anon@12.24 Love the satire but just a soupcon too much pepper.

Paulus said...

I believe that the only decision made at RIO +20 was where the next conference was to be held.

Sad really if that is the best that can be said. Once again, lost opportunity.

Chris Trotter said...

Hey, Galeandra, are you sure you're not confusing Brendon with Brendan? Two very different dudes!

Brendon said...

Just to confirm I am not Brendan who offen writes right wing nonsense on this blog.

Galeandra I do think New Zealand is too big to see itself as a single community with respect to some public services. These being urban planning, roading and public transport and vocational education.

The specific nature of the needed public services will depend on the cities geography, size, business types and the history and preferences of the locals.

In New Zealand it is unrealistic to expect high quality public services for enviromental urban renewal to be the same for diverse cities like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch not to mention smaller centres like Nelson, New Plymouth etc. So why should Wellington impose some 'single community' solution on the whole country.

The solution that works very successfully overseas is to give cities/regions some political and financial independence.

I feel that talk about New Zealand cities being a beacon of enviromental renewal is a con when our main political parties will not put in place the basic structures needed to achieve this.

I can understand why the right doesn't do this because they have an ideological hatred of public services but the left have had many opportunites to give New Zealand genuine local democracy and each time thay renege on giving kiwis this basic freedom.

I prefer to think that I am not 'sitting on my hands' but am using my right as a citizen to demand better from the political process.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

Most on the left tend to consider the 'science settled' when it comes to, global warming, climate change etc, its just those oil drilling, selfish neo-cons of the right that refuse to believe the facts placed before them, purely out of commercial self interest.

At least, that's the common narrative.

Do you remember the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit? These are the folks that really broke the climate change story, backed it all up with data, research, papers, peer reviews, the whole works.

They are considered the most influential research organization in this whole area of climate science. They were the ones targeted by the email 'leaks' which I"m sure your readers will remember.

Well, guess what they along with the UK Met office have 'just discovered'.

There has been no warming of the plant for 15 years.


What's more, NASA scientists are saying that it's probable we face the prospect of considerable cooling such that the Thames may freeze over - once again.

At the very least, these recent findings suggest that the science is far from settled.

It's hard not to be cynical about these climate change talk feasts. I read that last years event at Doha attracted 20,000 participates who flew in from all around the world. At the end of this year at the next Doha conference they are expecting another 20,000 - 24,000 attendees.


How many have flown in for the Rio gig?

It really makes you wonder how many climate change activists it takes flying around the world to turn off a light bulb.

paul scott said...

Ahh yes fine words,
" a state of the art transport system" in Christchurch central dead centre,going round in circles and back to nowhere because property investors have fled and those left are extremely
reluctant about wasting their money on "intelligent eco intelligent architecture", that nobody will rent, because there is nothing there, it is dead commercially and it will stay that way, maybe a few " water cycling schemes’
but I doubt it Chris

Sanctuary said...

All journeys begin with a single step, and a single step this blog owner could make would be to delete Brendan's June 27, 2012 9:56 PM post above.

My personal view is that it is long past the time that blog sites such as this one should have adopted a policy of simply deleting the posts of those who question climate change. Such people offer little new in their unquestioning role of being foolish dupes and ignorant shills. Allowing their comments to stand simply furthers the agenda of those powerful corporate interests who seek to place their six monthly balance sheet ahead of our planet and our children's and grandchildren's future.

Delete them, in the same way newspaper editors eventually refused to publish the daily letters from crackpots ranting against the global fouride conspiracy.

Jigsaw said...

The statement that the 'science is settled' is an incredibly non-science statement in itself.

Chris Trotter said...

To: Sanctuary.

"I do not agree with what you say - but I shall defend to the death your right to say it" - Voltaire.

guerila surgeon said...

Science is complex, which makes it easy for people to pick on small aspects of it and criticise them. It also abrogates politicians from responsibility for coping with it. But believe me, the science is settled.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Sanctuary.

Absolutely chilling. What other ideas do you have in mind when the left get back in control again I.e. for those with "unapproved" ideas. Lavrenti Beria might be a appropriate source of ideas for you. "Education" camps on the volcanic plateau maybe.

guerilla surgeon said...

Well now the Heartland institute is going down the tubes we won't need Beria :-).