Opinion: On one autumnal afternoon in 2013, the late Jeanette Fitzsimons addressed a hall full of people in the leafy town of Waikanae on the Kāpiti Coast. Unusually, for a former academic and seasoned politician, she began her address with a story about a certain slow-witted but very likeable bear – who had indulged in a bit too much honey while visiting his friend Rabbit and got stuck in Rabbit’s doorway on his way out.
In the story much discussion ensued on ways to resolve this predicament, including Rabbit moving to a bigger tree, or cutting a bigger doorway. But in the end it was Christopher Robin who sagely concluded, “Pooh, you will just have to stay there and not eat any more until you lose weight”.
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Through this story, Fitzsimons was deftly providing an analogy for the current human predicament. She went on to describe the need to transition to an “economy of enough”. That is, rather than Rabbit upsizing to allow for more honey consumption, Pooh just needed to cut back a bit. He needed to understand how much honey was enough and be satisfied with that.
Ten years have passed, and the need to transition to an economy of enough has only become more urgent. The words “overshoot”, “polycrisis”, “metacrisis” and “collapse” are now scattered through everyday conversations in lecture halls, meeting rooms, cafes and living rooms around the country as our awareness of the situation deepens.
But any suggestion of abandoning growth is still steadfastly resisted (or, less respectfully, laughed off as “lefty lunacy”). For some, this is like suggesting we stop the earth from spinning – the perpetual pursuit of growth has become akin to a natural law. Even among those who argue for the need to move to a post-growth economy, the scale of the challenge is recognised and many are resigned to the fact that it will only occur once “collapse” (the disintegration of the current social and economic system as a result of catastrophic ecological and climate breakdown) becomes more advanced. For those of us who have children, or care about future generations, this is a deeply disturbing thought.
Key to making progress towards the transitions we need for a more survivable future will be the building of bridges. Not ones made of concrete and steel, but ones of ideas.
I believe that one of these ideas is “sufficiency”. If we say, “We need to shrink our economy to bring it within planetary limits”, people (and especially those who gain from the status quo) will resist – because it sounds as if we are taking something away. But if we say, “We need to make our communities, our society and our economy more sufficient”, there will be few who argue with this – irrespective of where they fall on the political spectrum. It just sounds like common sense.
In our increasingly globalised, just-in-time supply chain economy, we have become acutely vulnerable to supply chain disruption. As climate disruption starts to bed in, our increasingly industrialised systems of food production are fragile.
If most of our onion or broccoli production is concentrated in one or two geographical areas, rather than arable crops being geographically diverse and dispersed as they were in the past, they are vulnerable to weather events that wipe a whole season’s production out. This fragility is amplified for food that needs to be shipped in from overseas.
Meanwhile, our whole economy is dependent on being able to move products and materials over large distances in short timeframes. This has been enabled by the supply of cheap fuel – especially diesel, the life-blood of the economy. But there is broad agreement among industry experts that irrespective of emissions reduction imperatives, the days of cheap and abundant oil are numbered.
Oil is becoming more and more difficult to extract as the more accessible reserves have been exhausted, and its quality (energy density) is decreasing. This will have profound implications for our current long and complex supply chains – which are only viable because of cheap fuel supply – creating more impetus for strengthened national and local sufficiency.
With the best minds from government, industry, the Māori economy and academia, we could begin to shape the foundation for a more resilient economy – one much better able to withstand a future of escalating disruption and instability
Since the 1950s, we have become accustomed to our role as consumers – pre-war concerns of having “enough” have given way to the desire to have more, bigger, newer and “better” versions of everything, cheerfully induced by the multi-billion-dollar advertising industry that has perfected the art of psychological manipulation to extract ever greater profits.
To give one example, whereas 100 years ago many New Zealanders were content with a bowl of porridge in the morning made from oats produced in the cereal bowl of New Zealand (Southland, Otago and Canterbury), today we are mesmerised by a bamboozling array of highly packaged, highly processed, sugar- and additive-infused cereals, many of them much less nutritious and much more expensive than this former staple. And even if we do opt for a trusty bowl of porridge, we may notice that our oats are no longer exclusively home-grown – some come from over the Tasman.
Let’s take another example: the stuff that another traditional breakfast mainstay is made from – wheat. (And if you are wondering why the fixation on cereal crops, ponder for a moment the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Is it a coincidence that Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe – a major global producer not only of wheat, but also corn and sunflower oil? With its vast extent of richly fertile food-producing soils, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a desire for food security is one of the underlying motivations for Russia’s desire for conquest.) According to the Foundation of Arable Research, New Zealand was self-sufficient in milling wheat until 30 years ago (and until the early 20th Century, we even managed to export a sizeable proportion of the grain).
But now, though we grow 452,000 tonnes of wheat annually in New Zealand, we import about 70 percent of the wheat we use to make our bread from Australia. Modelling has shown that with an expansion of wheat production in Canterbury, including on land used for dairy, New Zealand would not only become self-sufficient in milling wheat, but would also reduce environmental impacts of agricultural production (especially biogenic methane emissions and water use).
Just with these two examples, it is not hard to see how central government policy could support shifts towards a more self-sufficient economy. Of course, in a globalised world, it is unrealistic to envisage an economy totally independent of the global one – ever since New Zealand was settled by Europeans, we have relied on imported goods and materials to meet some of our needs. (In the items listed as ‘household necessaries’ in a 1912 government report, imported items included rice, cocoa, kippered herrings and kerosene.)
However, a profit-maximising economic system that externalises all environmental and social costs of production, trade and distribution has distorted prices so that it is often cheaper to import goods from other places that we could make in New Zealand – food, clothes, footwear and furniture are just a few examples. If we had sufficiency as a guiding principle, we might opt to substitute or forgo some products or materials that are simply not critical to our lives or economy.
What if we made sufficiency a central guiding principal of our economy, as countries such as France are starting to do? What might that look like? I don’t know the answer to this, but I am convinced it is a question that needs to be explored. We have a Productivity Commission whose goal is to boost our economy’s productivity. How about a Sufficiency Commission, whose goal would be to make our economy more sufficient, meeting New Zealanders’ needs within the biophysical limits of our country and the planet? With the best minds from government, industry, the Māori economy and academia, we could begin to shape the foundation for a more resilient economy – one much better able to withstand a future of escalating disruption and instability.
Would our grandchildren really mind if breakfast in the future was a more limited offering of toast or oatmeal (perhaps with a dollop of Pooh’s much-coveted honey) along with any other locally produced fresh fare, if that means living a life of sufficiency on a planet where ecosystems still flourish and there is still joy? My guess is they would not – but we will never know if we do not make changes now to secure that future.