Six sustainability principles to guide the process of rebuilding after the current devastation 

Opinion: The devastation across many parts of the North Island needs immediate attention. A big question is how do we meet needs in the short term in a way that does not make matters worse in the long run? 

We know the storms that caused this devastation were at least partly made worse by global heating. We also know that storms with even greater intensity are likely in the future. The only uncertainties are when and where they will strike. Recent events underline that nowhere and none of us are immune.

But global heating is not the only threat we need to reduce and avoid. Ecological overshoot, our drawing down of too many natural resources for natural systems to function properly, is an even more fundamental threat to our collective wellbeing. 

Global heating, as well as biodiversity loss, and a host of other breaches of planetary boundaries, are all examples of ecological overshoot. We won’t adequately deal with any of these existential threats unless we deal with the fundamental challenge of reducing our ecological footprint, as we attempt to deal with the damages and disruptions we are now encountering. This means significantly reducing our energy and raw materials demands, especially for infrastructure.

Our reflex will be to rebuild what has been lost, and to rebuild pretty much the same way things were originally built. This approach has at least two major problems: the next storms will wreak the same havoc, and such a rebuild will make ecological overshoot even worse.

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So what’s the alternative? Here are just a few of the many options available to acknowledge planetary boundaries, to respect the way nature operates, to realise we are dependent on natural systems, and to accept their limits.

We also need to ensure everyone’s basic needs are met. This calls for a big rethink as to how we go about rebuilding after the current devastation. Here are some sustainability principles to guide such a process.

Accept planetary boundaries

To be most beneficial to the most people over the longest timeframe, above all else we need to accept planetary boundaries.  We are currently consuming far too many natural resources and using too much energy. Redesigning what has been lost or damaged needs to be planed carefully to minimise the energy and natural resources used. Much can be achieved with less; we just have to be creative in how we do things.

Focus on needs rather than desires  

There is a vast scholarly literature on basic human needs, needs that transcend place and time, needs that existed 200 years ago and will exists 200 years hence. We’ve had at least a century of marketing and advertising that has brainwashed us into confusing needs with wishes. 

The imperative of reducing our ecological footprint means we must refocus on needs first, before using whatever ecological space we have left for the “nice to haves”.

The simple question “Is this really needed?” can lead to interesting discussions and more sustainable decisions.

How does this perspective apply to a “rebuild”? One way is to ask some questions about the basic designs of our settlements and how they connect with each other. Obviously, all settlements should be on ground elevated high and solid enough to avoid flooding and slips. But what about the design and location of settlements?

Plan settlements to ensure food security and reduce transport

A sustainability perspective accepts the likelihood of a future decline in energy and raw material availability. This means more human labour for basic activities such as agriculture, which will lead to more re-ruralisation. It also means less energy and materials will be available for maintaining the infrastructure we have. Redesigning what we rebuild for minimal maintenance becomes increasingly important.

Significant disruptions to distant supply chains are also likely over the coming years, which will lead to reorganising society to ensure we can provide for our own basic needs. Fewer exports and imports will be the result. We need to think about import substitutions we can produce in NZ.

The need for more farm labour to meet more of NZ’s food requirements (one of the most basic needs we should not take for granted), will encourage people to live near good growing areas. This is a vision of small resilient villages with a few thousand people organised around agriculture, to feed villagers and neighbouring areas. Such villages are the inspiration for the 15-minute city idea – most needs are met regarding live, work and play, within a 15-minute active transport area.

Multiple local water catchment and retention systems for each village would increase resilience and water security. The same goes for locally owned and operated renewable energy systems. A major disruption in one area would not necessarily interfere with the system in another area.

Animal labour will also be part of this redesign, requiring space to feed and house the animals. It also opens new career opportunities in caring for and servicing these helpers.

Villages would be connected with good public transport options. Overall, this design will reduce energy and transport demands– essential for reducing our ecological footprint.

Reduced transport demands could mean no longer paving certain roads. Bitumen will become increasingly expensive (and is non-renewable) and may only be needed for connecting village settlements. This would be more savings toward reducing our footprint.

Sustainable structures and infrastructure

We have become used to building with concrete and steel. Both are responsible for large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, and require energy-intensive, and biodiversity-destroying mining activities. Even large buildings are possible with wood. And solid, durable buildings of any size can be passive solar designs. These can provide comfort in all weather, reducing energy costs, and be made with locally grown sustainable wood. Passive solar buildings need not cost more; it’s a simple design issue.

Each region could have a local sustainable forestry operation to provide future timber needs for buildings, furniture and tools. Several villages could co-own a mill to process the wood locally and supply local craft industries to further process the wood into useable items for distribution to an even broader network of villages and nearby urban areas.  

The local forests provide space for wildlife and increased biodiversity, as well as being easily accessible recreational areas.

Other infrastructure such as bridges, and even water pipes and courses, could be constructed with laminated wood for strength and durability. This type of construction sequesters carbon in contrast to the high greenhouse gas emissions associated with steel and concrete.

If it is a larger municipal area that has been destroyed, then the process can aim for the creation of several “villages within the city” design. Again, the idea is that most essential needs on a daily basis are available within a 15-minute active transport area. 

Parts of a damaged city could become food growing, wetlands or urban forest areas. Car parks and perhaps some streets could be transformed into gardens or urban forests to provide these amenities. 

The urban area becomes more like a series of villages, and the countryside becomes more like a series of spread-out neighbourhoods. The same design goals could be applied to suburban areas. The key is redesigning things so that active transport is all that is needed for most daily needs.

Such settlement designs reduce the need to commute and increase the free time available to pursue personal interests. Life can assume a slower pace and leave time for more convivial and creative activities. Less stress, more fun.

Quality goods rather than production quotas

Our current economic paradigm requires ever-increasing production of material goods, and ever-increasing productivity. Both goals are serving false gods. Meeting human needs is the new focus, not producing ever more things to generate profit. Lower productivity can be associated with increased quality – craftsmanship rather than large quantities of cheap, offshore, disposable, and wasteful stuff. 

Greater job satisfaction comes with the increased quality of what is produced, which is likely to be more durable, more attractive and more functional. Living sustainably is about having fewer things but of higher quality. The satisfaction of producing and owning quality items will more than compensate for relinquishing numerous cheap items.

New housing models

If homes have been destroyed by storms, or need to be moved or abandoned because of flood risks, one option is to consider a different model of housing. In Germany, for instance, public housing is provided which is of high quality, tenants can have lifelong leases and freedom to improve the dwellings they call home. Rents are affordable, and many homes are passive solar, minimising heating and cooling costs. Such a scheme could be developed to deal with the difficult “managed retreat” we know is inevitable.

Rethink then rebuild

The above examples are clearly not a full plan to redesign the way we live and how we might rebuild. These are just a few ideas from a sustainability perspective to meet people’s basic needs, build community, reorient the economy, and increase community resilience to the inevitable storms that are coming our way.

We need a big rethink of how we do things, how we conceive of the future, and what we regard as most important. Such a rethink can be applied not only to “rebuilding” the devastation of the past two storms. It can also be applied to redesigning any new developments we undertake. Doing the same as we did before will only make things worse.

Perhaps discussing such redesign plans for your community now is a useful adaptation process for when a disaster strikes closer to home.

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