Rod Oram three cities

The Societies of Tomorrow

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment6 Comments

Rod Oram’s new book covers a lot of ground, both physically and metaphorically. The title is pretty self-explanatory; he travels to Three Cities with the goal of Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene. The three cities in question are Beijing, London and Chicago, and the anthropocene is the age where humans have had an impact on the planet; an impact rivaling the comet that finished off the dinosaurs.

His journey is rich and fascinating, and the book is as close as you can get to packing yourself in Rod’s suitcase and going travelling with him. Everywhere he went he asked how will we support a population of 9-10 billion people without stuffing the environment? Much like Rod himself, I finished the journey with a pretty grim view of the task ahead, tinged with rays of hope. But most of all I was left with the impression that New Zealand was slipping behind the rest of the world.

Beijing

Oram’s first stop was Beijing. It was striking how similar the issues facing China were to the developed world, yet the way the country deals with those issues couldn’t be more different. Despite incredible savings rates, China’s business sector is steeped in debt, and has huge unused capacity. There is a similar environmental debt, with toxic soil and smog that is the equivalent of a pack-a-day smoking habit.

Yet China is tackling these environmental problems with the same fervor it tackled development. The speed with which China has embraced dense and increasingly sustainable urbanisation puts Auckland’s Unitary Plan into stark relief. Likewise their lurch into the use of electric vehicles is impressive – in 2008 they bought 21 million e-bikes and e-scooters – although the driver seems to be more to improve air quality rather than combat climate change. Much like China’s economic miracle, you are left wondering if they can engineer an environmental miracle, or whether the edifice of central planning will crumble.

Oram finishes by musing on the Chinese success of New Zealand companies Comvita, Fonterra and milk formula generally. His main point is that if we are to achieve our own environmental goals we need to export value, not volume. He suggests that Chinese investment in milk formula factories here in New Zealand is a step in the wrong direction for our industry.

London

London has been at the leading edge of the world’s economy since the Industrial Revolution, and it continues to be a hotbed for new economic and environmental thinking. Key figures in its academia, civil society and media are calling for changes in how we run society, given that the current model is not working for the environment, the people or even the financial markets. Again, New Zealand has a lot to learn from this thinking.

Oram’s short visit to London crammed in a lot of ideas, and there isn’t a lot of time and space to explore which ones might work. A concept that resonates is the Doughnut Economy – that we need to operate within environmental limits (the outer ring of the doughnut) – while providing a minimum standard of living for all (the inner ring). Less alluring are the ideas of Tim Jackson who proposes Prosperity without Growth. While we certainly need to recognise the limits of the planet’s resources, not all growth requires using more resources. It is not clear how Jackson prescribes prosperity for a larger population without growing the world’s income. Why would we want to stop innovation and development entirely, rather than ensuring it truly benefits us and the planet? We will need all our ingenuity to achieve our goals, and having the right incentives is an important part of achieving that.

Chicago

Oram’s journey ends reminiscing how the environmental movement briefly united America into action the 1970s, leading to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. He ponders how that momentum might be recaptured. The role of business in facing the world’s problems is crucial, but generally the large incumbent corporates like Volkswagen have been pushing the other way. However disruptive new companies like the New Zealand startup (now Chicago based) Lanzatech provide some hope for overturning the status quo. Again, the reader is left with the nagging question whether we could have done more to keep the company here, or whether New Zealand should instead embrace its role as an incubator for new ideas.

In short, there is much to do, and New Zealand’s Government, business and public are only starting to scratch the surface of the task ahead. The book can be best summed up by this quote from Gus Speth:

I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change… But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy.

The Societies of Tomorrow was last modified: September 5th, 2016 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author
Geoff Simmons

Geoff Simmons

Facebook Twitter

Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.

  • Brian Poffley

    How about supporting the move to eating insects (Bugsolutely cricket pasta) for healthy complete food with out degrading the environment

  • lonelymoa

    Nice closing paragraph.

  • jh

    I used to think that the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change… But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy.

    ….

    The top environmental problems are people behaving normally? I’m sure it doesn’t help that liberals are too liberal to admit to population as a problem or limits to growth (how can we be liberal in a shrinking circle)?

    Argumentative theory says:
    “Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.”

    https://www.edge.org/conversation/hugo_mercier-the-argumentative-theory

    Daniel Gilbert argues that human brains evolved to respond to threats that have four features, ones that global warming lack.

    Firstly, global warming isn’t tied to social intention or plotting. Our brains are highly specialized for thinking about the devious schemes of others because social interaction (both in terms of cooperation and detecting defecting) crucial to the survival of our species. Unlike anthrax and terrorism, climate change lacks agency, and is instead an emergent property of more nebulous interactions.

    Secondly, global warming doesn’t violate our moral intuitions. Unlike dangers that are tied to emotional aversions, such as hurting an animal or burning a book, chemicals in the atmosphere do not make us angry or repulsed.

    Thirdly, humans are masters at responding to immediate threats (such as a zooming baseball or a hungry predator), but are novices at acting to resolve worries of the distant future.

    Lastly, Daniel Gilbert argues that global warming occurs so gradually that it goes undetected by the brain. Though the human brain is very sensitive to chemical and psychical changes such as light, temperature, pressure, sound, size, and weight, incremental differences largely go unnoticed.

    http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/01/09/evolutionary-psychology-of-climate-change/

    • Pietrad

      “Secondly, global warming doesn’t violate our moral intuitions. ………….. chemicals in the atmosphere do not make us angry or
      repulsed.” Oh yeah?
      I recently spent a month n Indonesia (again) and, as with previous visits to Bali, Lombok and Java, found the air in Sumatra so contaminated through the regular and widespread burning of everyday leaves, rubbish AND plastic bottles and wrappings. The sickly sweet, highly toxic (Dioxin) smoke was so pervasive, I have vowed to never set foot in that country again.
      I feel as sorry for the humans there, poisoning themselves, as I do for the Orang Utang being driven to extinction by forests destroyed for oil Palm.

      • jh

        But I think he means chemicals that don’t provoke a reaction.

  • Caroline Glass

    Geoff Simmons wrote: “It is not clear how Jackson prescribes prosperity for a larger population without growing the world’s income. Why would we want to stop innovation and development entirely, rather than ensuring it truly benefits us and the planet?”

    why does innovation and development need to require growing the world’s income? for example, if we made home appliances that are better and more durable than their predecessors, that would be innovation, but if we weren’t making more of them, and in fact started to make fewer because they were lasting longer, that would not actually be economic growth. Of course if we kept the same buying power and didn’t have to replace the appliances as frequently, it would free up money for people to spend more on other things, but all that means is that innovation doesn’t cause a drop in consumption of resources, not that it is incompatible with a drop in resource consumption.