Tackling poverty needs to be a core part of the battle against climate change and other environmental issues, says Professor Girol Karacaoglu, Head of Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Government.

Speaking during the University’s Toitū te Ao–Sustainability Week, Karacaoglu, a former Chief Economist at the New Zealand Treasury and Chief Executive of the Co-operative Bank of New Zealand, described poverty as “the greatest enemy of the environment and also one of the greatest enemies of social cohesion”.

He told the audience at the week’s ‘Sustaining the economy’ panel session: “If I were a dictator and my objective was to sustain and enhance intergenerational wellbeing, and wellbeing was dependent on the interactions between the natural environment, social cohesion and the economy, then I would do things concurrently in terms of prioritising my investments: I would focus on eradicating poverty complemented by investing in a technological shift towards cleaner technology.”

Karacaoglu later elaborated: “When four women who voted for US President Donald Trump were interviewed on the BBC and the BBC said to them ‘How can you ever vote for such a man who’s clearly against females in all kinds of ways and is a horrible man?’, all of them said Trump had promised he would put food on the table by providing jobs for them and that’s the only thing that mattered and everything else is a footnote.

“It’s in that spirit I say poverty is the greatest enemy of the environment, because somebody who’s poor cannot switch to cleaner energy, somebody who’s poor does not worry whether they are carrying something in plastic or not. They just have to put food on the table.”

Moderator Professor Ian Williamson, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Commerce at Victoria Business School, asked panellists where New Zealand’s strengths and weaknesses lie in moving to a more sustainable economy.

Stephen Cummings, Professor of Strategy and Innovation in the University’s School of Management, highlighted biculturalism.

“As this country really investigates what biculturalism means and how that can be a foundation for thinking differently, this gives us a huge advantage. It enables us to go back to look at indigenous values. The notion of the circular economy is not a new thing. It’s a very ancient thing if you’re in Aotearoa and many other countries. I think the advantage is people are really beginning to take this seriously now as a way we can measure what we do.

“I think the Wellbeing Budget is a good example of that. I’m not sure anybody is clear where a Wellbeing Budget will take us, but we are having conversations here that other countries around the world haven’t quite found a framework for doing. That’s exciting. When we talk to people in the public sector and private sector, they’re really interested in how we might be able to look at these problems in a bicultural way.”

Panellist Amber Nicholson (Ngāruahine) is a Lecturer at AUT whose research focuses on Māori notions of wellbeing.

A Māori worldview, she said, sees the Earth as an ancestor, as kin. “It creates belonging to the Earth, it creates a connection to the Earth.”

“It’s in that spirit I say poverty is the greatest enemy of the environment, because somebody who’s poor cannot switch to cleaner energy, somebody who’s poor does not worry whether they are carrying something in plastic or not. They just have to put food on the table.”

The barrier, said Nicholson, is when worldviews see the Earth as a commodity. “If we flip that and start looking at the Earth as a caregiver, as an ancestor, we are seeing it in a completely different way and if you can change the ideology you can change the lens and it really can do a lot of things about changing sustainable futures.”

Another of New Zealand’s strengths, said Cummings, “is almost everybody in this country under 20 years old”.

He spoke of young people at the University “thinking about sustainability before they start. We don’t have to teach it to them, they already know about it”.

Cummings works with young entrepreneurs at Victoria Business School’s The Atom innovation space “and every one of those student companies has a sustainability goal. It might not be direct but they will be focused to some degree on social benefits, environmental benefits.

“So I think if you look at what young people in this country are doing – and I should give a shoutout to our high school and primary school teachers who are introducing the concepts – the barriers are not so much with young people, it’s often with older and more established thinking.

“But I think those young people are going to come through and are going to demand the rest of us do something about this. We have seen it recently just across the road [at Parliament] and across the country with climate change protests led by young people for young people. That’s our greatest hope and if we can harness it our greatest strength.”

Cummings called on company boards to include young people.

“There’s been a lot of focus recently on diversity on boards. I think that’s really important, but the focus has been on gender diversity and ethnic diversity. I remember we had a visitor from Israel who taught here and one of the problems he saw was the average age of being on boards is just very, very old. There’s not a lot of young people on New Zealand boards. I think that might be one thing to think about. How do we get more young people involved in decision-making?

“There’s a really interesting scheme in the Netherlands they call youth councils. You can organise a youth council to advise on your business. This is a council of 11- and 12-year-olds you can meet with every year. I think it’s a really interesting dynamic where you have to explain to those 11- and 12-year olds what your business does and why it does it.

“Often we think in New Zealand we’re very innovative and this is a great place for young people to live. And I think certainly it is. But I think sometimes we overlook the fact we often do rely on older, ‘wiser’ heads who may have become used to an economy being a certain way. I’m not saying we should do away with those older, ‘wiser’ heads, but maybe we could look at ways to blend that with younger people and actually really confront ourselves with the idea we may not be around in 20 or 30 years but those young people will, so how do we get them involved in the decision-making process.”

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