Environmental pressures have been steadily accumulating. Are we aware of them? Are we responding?

It is claimed that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then slowly brought to a boil, it will not see the danger and will be cooked to death. Apparently the research contradicts the proposition for frogs; I am less sure it is as sanguine for humans.

You have probably never heard of Raroa Road which winds down a Wellington hill from Karori to the Aro Valley. I have been using it regularly. I would not have noticed that the traffic has been steadily increasing except that I count the cars which pass me and over the last half-dozen years; their numbers have increased on average by at least 50 percent. Additionally the road is, in effect, narrower from more cars parked on its side and today’s cars are wider, so drivers are more often held up by oncoming traffic.

It would have been easy to illustrate the same problem with traffic on motorways, but I have chosen an obscure road to illustrate that increasing the congestion is much more widespread. It is not easy to think of a way of increasing the traffic capacity of Raroa Road,, for the hillside is steep and the road is narrow. Nor is there an obvious alternative route except through the already clogged inner Wellington basin.

Had I chosen a motorway, some would have come back with a proposal for more lanes or a second route or a tunnel or something. Others argue for technological tweaks like driverless cars (which can run closer together and might reduce street parking), or better traffic signalling or whatever. They may slow down the rate of the heating but ultimately the water will boil. (‘Not in my lifetime’, do I hear you say?)

It is not just transport. Had you told me in my youth that the beaches and rivers I swam in would be unusable fifty years later because of pollution, I would have been uncomprehending. I did not know then that sea levels were already steadily rising; they are likely to rise faster in the next fifty years and there will be more storm surges. Plastic bags were not invented then, the possibilities that parts of the sea will soon be clogged with them would have been ‘far out, man’. (Did we use that term then?) Oh, there would be plenty of water. Sure, droughts (especially on the east coasts) were regular then too, but the supply from runoff and aquifers seemed unlimited.

One could go on but these illustrations are enough. In a whole series of areas the tepid waters of our childhood have been steadily warming. We have often delayed the boil but the awful truth is we cannot do so indefinitely.

Between 2008 and 2017, GDP – a measure of economic activity – rose 46 percent in nominal terms (i.e. growth and prices). The Treasury reports that the value of state highways rose 23 percent – roughly half the rate. (Raroa Road is not a state highway.) The precise comparison is tricky, and has not been done, but allowing for the caveats (which go in both directions) the implication is that either, at one extreme, the productivity of the roading system grew more than double the overall GDP performance, or at the other, the roads are getting increasingly jammed.

Yet the Key-English Government (especially Stephen Joyce) is very proud of its achievements in building roads. (In fairness many of the roading programs were initiated by the Clark-Cullen Government or earlier, just as the Ardern-Peters Government will build roads started before them.) Yet their program did not keep up with the pace of economic activity. It was not because of the meanness of the government. The state roading program is funded out of levies paid by road users (such as petrol tax); it is they who have been mean – to themselves.

So should the frog jump? Or rather, where can it jump to? That is not a popular question; answering it is even harder. I am not saying we should not continue to seek technological tweaks and add to invested capital (including public transport). But it only (expensively) puts off the troubling day. Given our lifestyles and locations, I doubt we can  markedly reduce the number of trips we do. The water warms.

Should we slow down population growth? I have long supported zero population growth for the world (knowing that ZPG is easier said than done). But I saw part of the deal as New Zealand taking migrants from more population-pressed countries.

I certainly do not resile from our responsibilities towards refugees, but I wonder whether we should aim for net ZMG - zero migrant growth. We would have to take seriously providing the workforce skills for our own people instead of relying on other countries to provide them. It would involve some industries – such as real estate, tourism and the training of overseas students – not being so prosperous. I worry that the more limited diversity would mean a less vibrant society.

I am not sure. Earlier posts suggested we should be restraining net immigration in the short term because of housing shortages and the like. But this one is asking whether we should be restraining it in the long term. This post is an invitation to others to have a serious (non-xenophobic) discussion on our long-term population strategy. I shall listen with interest.

Oh! If research says the frogs do not get boiled alive, it is yet to rule out that they die from pollutants or being choked by plastic bags.

PS No actual frogs were hurt in the making of this column.

Comments (10)

by on March 26, 2018

Growing innovators and entrepreneurs takes time, like the old saying goes it takes 20 years to create an overnight success that can solve free market problems and as the original posts points out New Zealands melting pot isn't quite delicious enough. 

According to marketwatch.com Auckland is the 3rd most liveable city..., https://t.co/SXIe5buJxG <<< this top ten most liveable cities according to market watch only makes sense if there's a "Freezing your Nuts off and living 6 months in the dark" sub index..., with a 70% weighting to the aggregate index. Measures they use are so off the mark for high standard of living. So much more can be added. Weather, business personal & consumption taxes, ease of travel, IQ levels and IQ distributions, regulatory framework, freedom of speech, debt per head, level of home ownership, education, health, law enforcement, defence. MORE? MORE? MORE? It's time to unlock that kiwi ingenuity again.

After the arrival of the English language to Aotearoa-New Zealand it was inevitable English would become the working language. It has opened up the world of science and commerce taking New Zealand from a backwards colonial outpost to a decent economy trying to be a first world democracy in the South Pacific Ocean. By overcoming the Pacific Ocean the first settlers that arrived were mostly fleeing the harshness of rule by aristocracy who used hunger as a tool to coerce. Most wanted to create a new and better life away from tyranny and others wanted to continue there business in, shall we say more favourable conditions. Away from the prying eyes of the aristocracy. Once the first settlers satisfied there technological and dietary needs they set about creating a culture with there surplus energy, and then stepped up the hierarchy again when they satisfied there cultural needs, and stepped up again once they satisfied there consumer needs.

Since the signing of The Treaty of Waitangi New Zealanders has experience 1% or 3% growth of the GDP every year up till now. The generation born today do not know the hardships that created New Zealand. They are to used to going from the luxury of there consumer houses to there covered bus stop and on to there secure jobs. People born into this life of relative luxury believe they have arrived. They do not know that things can go terribly wrong terribly fast. So we must use the education system to instal into this generation and the next generation and so on, a since of hunger and drive. By teaching them the history and the struggles we've been through in creating modern Aotearoa-New Zealand. Then we in turn will be open for business.

This generations accent and speech has already been set by the English language. And many immigrants find that uncomfortable. If you wait to learn the English language into your 40s you'll never speak engrush (sarc) properly no mater what you do. So English must be taught in schools as the working language, and English must be left at school so the native or mother tongue can be spoken at home so that 2nd generation immigrants understand when we say to them be kind to other cultures, don't judge them to harshly. Treat foreign cultures the way you would like to be treated. They get enough of the English language at school. When students return home they need time and space to be themselves. And then we will step up the hierarchy again once we satisfy our cultural needs. 

Under these conditions of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements. Double emphases on free flow of capital AND labour. It wouldn't matter who came through Auckland airport because as we grow prosperous our trading partners will grow prosperous.

Trade, immigration and TPPA-11 can provide the best infrastructure & lifestyle for entrepreneurs on the planet. TPPA-11 is New Zealand's last opportunity. If we screw it up well let's hope not. Them maybe, just maybe we'll cure the melting pot.



by Philip Grimmett on March 26, 2018
Philip Grimmett

Wow Sam,  what can amazing comment!  What have  you been eating? Frogs maybe. Your unbounded  belief  in verbosity  and market/technology  magic is unbelievable.  Best wishes  and I really hope  you  ate right.  

by Rich on March 26, 2018

NZ has one of the lowest population densities in the world, especially if you discount places like Australia that are mostly hard-to-inhabit desert. 

One of the reasons our cities aren't very sustainable is that we don't have the population base for things like mass transit. If you go to the Mid-Levels in Hong Kong, which is built on similar terrain to Raroa Rd, you've got a forest of tower blocks and a public escalator to get to them. 

by barry on March 26, 2018

I always tell people that I love immigrants but don't like people.  Yes, it would be a shame if ZMG meant a reduction in diversity, but I don't like the effects of increasing population.

The other thing I often say is that we need to grow up as a nation before we grow.  we might have plenty of "spare" land but that doesn't mean we have to cover it all in houses.  Greater housing density would make for better public transport and more walkable cities.  Out cities have grown because of the availabiliy of cars to the point where we can't live in them without cars.

We like to spread out and isolate ourselves in spite of all the science saying that we are happier living closer together.

Japan manages quite well with 100+ million people in a country of similar size to ours.  I suspect we could also cope, but we would need to clean up our act a lot. 

by on March 26, 2018

Every one complains that no one wants to work seasonal jobs and rural jobs. Or others complain that we need to be closer to the nature so we can huge it out. Well that's because the neo-fascist system of the last 30yrs is set up to provid urban settings. It's not set up to provide rural settings. 

Spread the jobs out and miraculously you're not so pressed for space. One super city rail or tunnel project will set you back a $bln dollar$ easy, for no more than 40 kilometres. For the same amount of money you could probably rig up every populated town with in 100ks of Hamilton hospital with light rail all the way to the emergency/maternity ward and the best shops and schools in the region. For a cool billion. That's if you'll accept my head cannon figures. But the argument is there's far more value for money investing in regions, just to take a bit of population pressures off over populated centres. 

The real limiting factor here is drought, and New Zealand's carrying capacity of land, to provide water, sustainable leisure and security. Obviously to support a mere 5 million population even this is far beyond the skills and capabilities of our political and economic leaders, and way beyond the imagination of Mathew Hooton. Therefore to provide for 100 million people would require dozens if not hundreds of times more decision makers before it's possible to allocate those amount of resources with in our current political and economic framework. When you really get down to it, 5 million people really stuffs up decision makers work life balance. Just ask John Key, he had to tap out because his friends where going on holiday. Poor guy.

And besides it not like you can stick residential high rises all over New Zealand's volcanic cliff edge. New Zealand has seen at least 2 earth quakes over magnitude 7. So high density everywhere is probably a bad idea. And industrial centres which aren't any more populated than many locations in the South Island. If New Zealand's population was represented like New York our entire population could fit on The Great Barrier Island. How ever this is Just New York and none of the surrounding suburbs or the metropolis. If these were also taken into consideration, it's not unreasonable to assume a New Zealand population of 80 million easy, peaking to 100 million.

But if anything 80 million will go far beyond New Zealand's current political and economic masters ability to feasibly manage New Zealand's carrying capacity of land plus trade and immigration.


by Ross on March 27, 2018

the productivity of the roading system grew more than double the overall GDP performance...

Brian, you said that GDP rose at twice the rate of roading value. Doesn't that mean that building roads did not keep up with GDP? I'm confused by your comment above. 

Expanding on your point of zero population growth, how would you achieve that? In 2016, there were 59,430 births and 31,179 deaths - a natural increase of 28,251. 

by on March 27, 2018

What a bunch of lefty ABC rubbish calculations Ross. We are living longer Ross. It's 123 Ross! not ABC. I'll live till I'm about 80. My kids will have a good shot at living into thier 90's and my kids kids will have a good shot at living till 100-110 thanks to major advances in medicine and education. But the pensions system was designed for people who retire at 60. You can't save for 30 years and then retire at 60 and expect 30 years of savings to strech 20yrs, 30,yrs, 40yrs or even 50yrs. Kiwi saver isn't a rubber band Ross. It's this pensions question that is causing a lot of the discomfort. There fore it is inevitable a levy will be raised to cover the short fall. 


People in the modern era expect a decent, minimum standard of living. And the current system can't even allocate enough resources to do that. And people sit around, reading the tea leafs wondering why Winston keeps on winning. Well keep on wondering Ross, keep on using your leftie logic. Amazing. 

by Brian Easton on March 29, 2018
Brian Easton

Ross: ‘you said that GDP rose at twice the rate of roading value. Doesn't that mean that building roads did not keep up with GDP?’ If the demand for transport grew at the same rate as economic activity (it probably grows faster) then we are putting greater pressure on the roads. In simple terms our state highway system does not seem to be keeping up with the demands we place on it.

Zero Population Growth was an aim which would not be readily attained. The immediate objective was two children per couple. Zero Migration Growth would still mean the New Zealand population would be growing.

However the growth will be not enormous. In the very long term New Zealand might be able to sustain a greater share of the world’s population, but funding the enormous public infrastructural needs rule it out in the medium term. There is no practical likelihood that in the lifetime of any reader of this column that the New Zealand population will hit 20 million, even with substantial immigration. Yet 20 million is often thought to be the minimum population needed to switch from being a primary exporter to a major manufacturing exporter.

(By the way the way, ZMG would still mean there would be some immigration to offset the out migration of New Zealanders. So there would still be some increased diversity and zing.)

by Charlie on March 31, 2018

I think Sam makes a very good point about spreading out.

A large slice of Brain's post was specifically about crowded Wellington. It is a seismic time bomb and is geographically highly constrained. Government is paying a fortune to landlords for office rental for no good reason except Wellingtonian government wonks seem to like living there (God knows why!)

As a classic example of this, we are currently rebuilding the stats building after the last earthquake. Stats NZ is supposed to be totally independent of government so in this age of the internet why are we allowing its rebuild back in Wellington when there are many lovely provincial towns that are cying out for an influx of people, their jobs and their barristas? We live in the 'shaky isles' so for maximum resilience we should spread out government departments.

It would also ease the rental situation in Wellington, reduce the number of cars in Brian's street, and fire a shot across Sir Bob's bows regarding office rental rates ;-)





by Brian Easton on April 08, 2018
Brian Easton

Actually, Charlie, I can assure you that Auckland was uppermost in my mind when I wrote this column -- simply because the population pressures there are greatest. 

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