2010 was all about one question: how, exactly, does one balance economic opportunities with environmental responsibilities? It was a 'politic, cautious' year

In 2010, we heard a lot about ‘balancing economic opportunities with environmental responsibilities’. Also, 'doing our fair share'. The government did not much, cautiously. Sometimes that worked well for conservation. Other times, it didn't.

2010 began with one farce, at Copenhagen, and ended with another, at Cancun, where last year's 'achievements' seem to have been accidentally reannounced. Eighteen years on from the Rio ‘Earth Summit’, about climate change and biodiversity loss, the UN confirmed none of the biodiversity targets had been met.

So, it was another year in which we failed to save ourselves, or the whales. In the end, the thing most likely to save the whales may be a simple commercial decision, that Japanese whaling is not viable any more.

Carbon trading and sequestration were openly doubted by activists, who want, well, some actual action, not the evasive kind. Fossil carbon ought to be left in the ground, they said. Copenhagen pledges are inadequate: the political commitment is less than the science requires, at the low end, not that different from business-as-usual. Loopholes in the rules are also large enough to emit business-as-usual.

Climate change was only the biggest symptom of our other growth-based challenges. Peak oil. Biodiversity loss. How, in short, may we live within the laws of nature and mathematics.

Thank heaven for the global financial crisis. Whatever its evils, it helps. 2011 will be about which party has economic and social security policies for a world challenged by growth.

Some visionaries came to see us, and told us their ideas: David Suzuki, Tim Flannery, Nicholas Stern. Next year brings James Hansen, and his own ‘tax switch’.

The Green Party told us some of theirs. Kennedy Graham's Member's Bill, in the ballot, would see reporting on environmental indicators written into the Public Finance Act. He would put them, in other words, at the heart of the budget and policy process annually; the government would give them to the PCE, five-yearly. The Greens tried to debate sustainable economy.

And, in reply, the government trotted out its mantra: ‘balancing economic opportunities with environmental responsibilities’.

Here, by the way, is the new overseas investment policy: “The Government’s overall policy approach to overseas investment in sensitive New Zealand assets is to achieve a balance between ensuring those assets are adequately protected while facilitating overseas investment that provides benefits to New Zealand.”

In 2011, after 3 years' government, is it too much to expect something less trite? To ask: what’s the plan, for this century, not the last one? Alan Bollard and Jeremy Moon, among others, scoffed at catching Australia. Minerals like Australia, oil like Saudi Arabia, rare earths like China. What’s the plan for New Zealand?

In 2010 I wrote serial tributes to Jeanette Fitzsimons, who retired from Parliament in February. One of my posts could have been a lot shorter, three words would have done: ‘I MISS JEANETTE’.

I celebrated organics. Everyone wants the 'grassroots' cachet: the Greens though have managed a tough process of transition, since 2005, and survived.

But there are questions for them in 2011, too.

At their economic policy conference, there was talk of putting the environment first, in setting economic and social policy: ‘strong sustainability’, it was called. But, faced with the GST conundrum (a consumption, thus pollution, tax, as well as a regressive tax), they treated it like a straight choice, not a policy design problem. They complained bitterly about regressive effect, with no mention of good parts to it. 

They did so, arguably, with good political and policy reasons, even if some (ie, me) did not agree with them. Nonetheless, if the Greens choose to talk 'strong sustainability' next year, are they ready to practise it themselves, when they write their own policies, and vote on others'? 

Conservation Director-General Al Morrison gave a speech about the conservation business. His department’s statement of intent emerged quite different-looking, with a list of commercial priorities. Tim Groser was replaced by Kate Wilkinson as Conservation Minister, proving you should be careful what you wish for. It seemed the intrinsic value of conservation was a blindspot for this government.

David Cunliffe and Phil Goff were not blind to it.

Conservationists flocked to Twizel, and the Mokihinui River gorge. I wrote to George Monbiot, and he wrote back. Nick Smith called the Mackenzie 'iconic' and 'fragile', requiring the government to step in and protect it -- later, he changed his mind. We learned a bit more about how SOE Meridian does its business.

The BANANA (‘build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone‘) backlash against Meridian taught us: when it's the view from our window, even renewable energy -- especially renewable energy -- is not cost-free.

We ruminated over housing cows -- housing them in bad weather, or 8 months of the year, on "extraordinary scale" in the Mackenzie country. We moved away from pig confinement: sow crates will be phased out and banned. On sustainability and welfare issues, Fonterra was all mouth and no trousers: calf induction, their Chinese operations, water quality, palm kernel.

The Environment Minister said primary production is trumps for the economic future of New Zealand. 

We liked our national parks too much for that -- and Gerry Brownlee's flagellation isn't finished yet. In the heady fumes of diesel self-sufficiency, lignite seemed almost sexy: not just dirty coal, better left in the ground.

Pledges by Ministers Smith and Groser, to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees, were not matched by their colleagues' fossil-fuel based draft Energy Strategy, and some other strategies.

For example, we planted lots of trees, to offset Kyoto liability. But Bill English defended palm kernel imports, from an industry devastating rainforest in Indonesia, and the government voted down a Green unsustainable rainforest logging Customs and Excise Bill, leaving the public information campaign to others.

There were fine words, too, about defending consumers from the ETS, by halving its costs -- the same consumers who are also taxpayers, on to whom polluter subsidies were shifted.

I have not been a friend to Gerry Brownlee, on this blog this year. But in the end, I wonder if he is the only man among them with the balls, if you'll pardon me, to stand up for what he believes in, and say so, consistently.

The irony there, however, is: it was his more circumspect colleagues, that whittled the Schedule 4 proposals down. And further irony, that they cannot or will not perceive: their very economic caution and intransigence may be among our greatest economic, as well as environmental, risks.

So here, in four lines, is my last lament for 2010: 

Politic, cautious and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous --
Almost, at times, the Fool.
-- T S Eliot, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock 

Comments (17)

by Mark Wilson on December 14, 2010
Mark Wilson

The Green's options would push us back to an fuedal economy. They only talk about what they perceive needs to be done without discussing which schools and hospitals will need to be closed.  

As to the Government -

"And further irony, that they cannot or will not perceive: their very economic caution and intransigence may be among our greatest economic, as well as environmental, risks."

I am sorry but that is plain irrational. Nothing you have proposed here would not cause massive financial damage.  

In fairness, you did point out one of the delicious irony's to the Green's agenda - their banana response even to the alternative energy projects they support.

The fact is that climate change will not be stopped because there is zero interest by the world's decision makers in doing so and the only sane response is to plan for it. Meantime the left continue to run around Chicken Littlening and wonder why no one takes them seriously. When it comes to climate change someone needs to explain to them the meaning of fait accompli.

And those countries that try to return to the past will be taken over by those that have the muscle to do so so. "The sustainable economies" will be deservedly crushed by the realists of this world. 

Compare the Australian response - they know they can't afford to fall behind by opting out as the Greens would have us do and they know (and prepare) they will have to defend what they have from the have nots.

2010 was  a year that, as proved by Cancun and Copenhagen, that the Greens are as impotent as ever in the face of oppostion by the rich and strong. The Greens were complelty slaughtered by the pollies and big business and yet they refuse to accept that reality.

How dumb is that????????

However the highlight of the year to date is Sue Bradfords comment -  

"This Government appears to neither know nor care that it is not welfare expenses that are likely to spiral out of control between now and 2050, but superannuation, health and Government financing costs, as per a 2009 report from Treasury itself."

Um - the biggest biggest part of the government financing costs is welfare.

by Claire Browning on December 14, 2010
Claire Browning

In fairness, you did point out one of the delicious irony's to the Green's agenda - their banana response even to the alternative energy projects they support.

Trust me, I wasn't referring to the Greens.

by stuart munro on December 14, 2010
stuart munro

@ Mark,

Perhaps the Greens would achieve a 'fuedal' economy - whatever that is.

But if you were referring to feudalism, that would be more typical of ultrarightwing nutbars like  yourself - great lords of 'wealth creators' & their humble serfs.

Greens are not so much into great lords. They kind of like democracy.

by Mark Wilson on December 14, 2010
Mark Wilson

Stuart they also like destroying the economy they bludge off.

by stuart munro on December 14, 2010
stuart munro

The Greens might say the same of you and your fellow epic consumers - if a population consumes more in aggregate that the local environment can sustain, pretty soon it degrades, and everyone's quality of life degrades with it. The biosphere is an economy too, but little tricks like derivatives trading and banking multipliers do not work in it.

by Mark Wilson on December 14, 2010
Mark Wilson

Stuart, I have never said that running a modern economy is perfect but it is way better that the Greens alternative for two reasons.

If the Greens had power you would see massive destruction of wealth creating business with a collapse of the economy and as the Aussies have already realised someone a lot tougher than they are will take over. The weak don't get to keep anything.

But it would be fun to watch the chickens dumping on them from  a great height.

 

by Andrew Geddis on December 14, 2010
Andrew Geddis

Mark,

"If the Greens had power you would see massive destruction of wealth creating business with a collapse of the economy..."

You mean like happened in Finland after the Green League became part of its governing coalition in 1995? I mean, read the CIA's summary of the truly horrifying state that the country is in now ...

"Finland has a highly industrialized, largely free-market economy with per capita output roughly that of Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Trade is important with exports accounting for over one third of GDP in recent years. Finland is strongly competitive in manufacturing - principally the wood, metals, engineering, telecommunications, and electronics industries. Finland excels in high-tech exports such as mobile phones. ... . Finland had been one of the best performing economies within the EU in recent years and its banks and financial markets avoided the worst of global financial crisis."

My God ... pray that we in New Zealand never face such a hideous fate.

by stuart munro on December 14, 2010
stuart munro

Yes, and the same might be said of Germany. Merckel's lot scarcely destroyed it.

by nommopilot on December 14, 2010
nommopilot

"If the Greens had power you would see massive destruction of wealth creating business with a collapse of the economy"

which could never happen in a country run by genius "wealth creators" and their clever magics...

by Claire Browning on December 15, 2010
Claire Browning

Mark,

I enjoyed this. You may do, too. Has it anything to do with your 'wealth creation' activities?

Extract:

Reading comment threads on the Guardian’s sites and elsewhere on the web, two patterns jump out at me. The first is that discussions of issues in which there’s little money at stake tend to be a lot more civilised than debates about issues where companies stand to lose or gain billions: such as climate change, public health and corporate tax avoidance. These are often characterised by amazing levels of abuse and disruption.

Articles about the environment are hit harder by such tactics than any others. I love debate, and I often wade into the threads beneath my columns. But it’s a depressing experience, as instead of contesting the issues I raise, many of those who disagree bombard me with infantile abuse, or just keep repeating a fiction, however often you discredit it. This ensures that an intelligent discussion is almost impossible - which appears to be the point ...

We’re in danger of losing this global commons as it comes under assault from an army of trolls and flacks, many of them covertly organised or trained. The question for all of us - the Guardian, other websites, everyone who benefits from this resource - is what we intend to do about it. It’s time we fought back and reclaimed the internet for what it does best: exploring issues, testing ideas, opening the debate.

by Mark Wilson on December 15, 2010
Mark Wilson

Hi Claire - it is a great article and right on the money.

The strong eat the weak and that is the natural order of things.

Of course some on the right are going to cheat lie and steal and whatever else it takes when the serious money is on the table! And of course they are going to play fair when it is an issue with little or nothing important at stake. It is important that the left win their "fair share" or the pressure will build and there is a real risk of meaningful change. 

The effective right is a lot smarter than the left give them credit for, which explains their track record of sucess. But God bless the Sarah Palins of this world because while they are deservedly being mocked by the left the real action is going on elsewhere. I have no doubt the shell game was invented by the right.  

That is why we should be preparing for climate change because their is zero chance of meaningful action.

Ditto - "It’s time we fought back and reclaimed the internet for what it does best: exploring issues, testing ideas, opening the debate."

No chance - who is going to win that one - well meaning amateurs or paid professionals?

The left's function is to complain and the right's function is to get what they want.

The wisest thing ever said - "The race is not always to the fast and the strong but that's the way to bet" Damon Runyon.

"Has it anything to do with your 'wealth creation' activities?"

Not enough money in it.

 

by Petone on December 16, 2010
Petone

MW;
Your comment says it all, in terms of you own values.  In terms of the issue, it completely misses the point.  The point isn't some pathetic pissing match between left and right.  The point of Pundit is some intelligent debate about issues that matter, and the point of Claire's chosen issue is that in the race between exponententially gowing consumption and declining resources, consumption isn't going to win. If that point is accepted, the necessity for a re-design of our living arrangements becomes obvious.

Such a re-design is a huge, civilisation-defining endeavour, and needs ideas and input from all points of the compass. Many people in the world give an amazing amount of creativity and energy towards that goal.  Some of those could be characterised as right-wing, sometimes extremely so.  Personally I don't usually agree with their ideas but at least their hearts are in the right place and their ideas need considering .  Others have no positive contribution, their only goal is to frustrate, needle, annoy, and derail.  One can only wonder at their motives.

by Mark Wilson on December 17, 2010
Mark Wilson

So Petone, aside from the humour bypass, you think that being completely ineffectual is an acceptable way to bring about change?

My point is very serious - when there is a problem we need to stop wasting time, money and useless words (written and spoken) and have a actual achievable goal and process for getting there.

Despite billions and billions of words from the left, despite millions of dollars wasted by meetings etc etc by the left, nothing useful will be done about climate change. So we should be redirecting that money and effort into planning for the change. And after all it is the right's money you are wasting.

We have given an uncountable amount of money to beneficiaries over the last 60 years and it just keeps getting worse. Even some of the less wilfully blind left accept that the system is broken and I have given a clear solution which works overseas. The left's response is, as usual, ad hominem. 

The philosophical difference between the left and the right is that the left believe ineffectual talk and refusal to accept reality is fine as long as it is in PC language. The right are focussed on what works. Which is why we make the rules and the left get to complain.

Couldn't be fairer that that.

And mocking the left is just the icing on the cake. 

by Claire Browning on December 17, 2010
Claire Browning

My point is very serious - when there is a problem we need to stop wasting time, money and useless words (written and spoken) and have a actual achievable goal and process for getting there.

Fully agree, Mark, hence my limited patience for dialogue with your good self.

by Mark Wilson on December 17, 2010
Mark Wilson

"Despite billions and billions of words from the left, despite millions of dollars wasted by meetings etc etc by the left, nothing useful will be done about climate change. So we should be redirecting that money and effort into planning for the change. And after all it is the right's money you are wasting."

?

by Claire Browning on December 17, 2010
Claire Browning

I know what you mean. That was my reaction, too, approximately.

by on September 26, 2011
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