The current nationwide pause as a result of Covid-19 is an extraordinary opportunity, and probably the only one we will get, to redesign our economy so that it no longer threatens life on this planet.
Right now, councils, businesses and entrepreneurs are planning how to re-start their operations once the Covid-19 restrictions have eased. Like others abroad, the Government is looking to stimulate the economy with major investments in public works. Families will start to think about life after lockdown.
Covid-19 and its aftermath will be the greatest disruption that New Zealand has faced since at least the Great Depression in the 1930s. It is already causing untold misery and trauma and will bring both economic hardship and health consequences for some years to come.
Yet these impacts will be trivial compared to the likely economic and social disruption if we continue to destroy the environment. Climate action failure, biodiversity loss, extreme weather, human-made environmental disasters and water crises are five of the top 10 global risks identified by the World Economic Forum in 2020. Infectious diseases are just one more.
The sudden shock of the coronavirus pandemic has shown how quickly governments and societies can act to deal with an imminent existential threat. We’ve been able to make massive personal and business sacrifices to respond to this emergency. Lockdown is working and even greater costs, and deaths, are being avoided.
But at the same time, like frogs oblivious to a pot of heating water, we’re failing to take serious action to avoid the slow-boiling yet increasingly visible emergencies caused by human over-consumption, over-exploitation and radical destabilisation of natural systems. These are existential threats but, like the frogs, we are failing to make the leap.
Economies typically roll along like trains on tracks – locked into a pathway that it is hard to divert, no matter the long term survival benefits of doing so. Having stopped the train for a while, this is a perfect opportunity to lay a new track towards a more secure future.
The changes we need to make to reduce the risks to New Zealanders are significantly less disruptive than lockdown. If we don’t make them, the long-term devastation of human welfare, and that of other species, will be far worse than Covid-19.
As everyone attempts to get back to business-as-usual, there’s a danger that short-term thinking will prevail. That sort of thinking will condemn our younger generations to a very risky future.
This is our chance to kick-start a shift to a sustainable future. A chance to safeguard future generations, to re-design our direction, to define a new normal and make it our way of life. To re-lay our track unerringly to a sustainable future so that the young among us can face it with confidence and their elders can leave it to them without regret.
What should guide the direction of the tracks? I suggest we focus on seven big ideas – seven whetū (stars) we should reach for:
1. Radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve made a commitment as a nation to get to zero net carbon by 2050, and we all have a part to play. The time for prevarication is over.
2. Preparing for the impacts of climate change. Even if we reduce our emissions we will still have to adapt to sea level rise, more floods, and more droughts in addition to our existing natural hazards. We need climate resilience to be baked-in.
3. Restoring the vitality of natural systems. Our lives and livelihoods depend on healthy and diverse ecosystems and natural processes. Restoration and regeneration are part of a sustainable economy.
4. Increasing local, regional and national self-sufficiency. Covid-19 has shown the fragility of relying heavily on global markets. We need to be locally resilient, with strong social bonds, to deal with the repercussions of local and global environmental disasters.
5. Developing a circular economy. We are despoiling the planet with ‘throw-away’ business models because the consequences are not costed in. We need to account for social and environmental costs and benefits, use resources sparingly, make products that last much longer, and safely re-purpose all forms of waste.
6. Being socially responsible. As we’re seeing with Covid-19, disadvantage begets further disadvantage. Our new direction must focus on reducing inequities and improving health and wellbeing for all
7. Working together. The Covid-19 response has shown how our best instinct in times of trouble is to work together for a common vision. This will require goodwill, innovation and collaboration, powered by partnerships between all sectors and sound Treaty-based relationships.
Individually, each of these whetū is widely accepted. We see them in the language used by central and local governments, iwi, businesses and non-governmental organisations. But the key to our future lies in us achieving all of them at the same time.
If we fail, we face a serious risk of environmental, economic and societal tragedies in the years ahead.
I’m not alone in saying that this is our best opportunity to change direction. Business networks, church organisations, the Climate Change Commission, civil society groups and social leaders are already saying similar things.
When it comes to re-starting New Zealand’s economy, we can’t afford to have a mind-set of ‘we’ll do whatever it takes’. That would just lock us back into those train tracks that head to a future in which everyone loses.
Right now, we have an unprecedented opportunity to re-set our direction to a sustainable future. But it won’t happen unless visions are translated into actions that align with all seven whetū, not just the one or two that seem easiest.
In the night sky we can see the Southern Cross, or Māhutonga, as seven bright stars – five in the cross and two below, the ‘pointers’. By using these seven whetū as a constellation to guide every decision and every investment from here on, we would be on track towards achieving a sustainable future together.