Something changed

The “Signs of Change” conference was held this week bringing together by video conference lecture theatres in Kerikeri, Auckland, Palmerston North, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, and Invercargill [writes Tom Bennion]. Up to 200 attendees in all. The conference was organised by Christchurch engineering professor Susan Krumdeick who has for some time been active in researching ways to manage the risks related to resource limits (eg peak oil) and climate change — at local and national scales.

Susan’s approach is refreshingly upbeat while being entirely realistic and pragmatic about the changes required. The focus is on the need to get serious about the changes needed for the economy, society and infrastructure to cope with these challenges. She advised delegates that, as people who want to do the right thing, the thing to do now is not to buy a solar panel, but rather to understand that technology is not a magic solution, it’s a form of grief and bargaining. The changes required are simpler but more profound, but we can nevertheless all live reasonably comfortable and happy lives.
A kind of manifesto for the conference was produced. I’m not usually one for broad poetic statements of this sort, but I nevertheless found it uplifting.

We have enough
We can share what we have
If we used less, it would be fine
We can move ourselves
The economy does not need to grow in order for us to thrive
Business can be ethical and fair
Business can express and nurture cultural values
Health is the care of humans
Public space belongs to humans
We can meet at the market face to face
We can have humane relationships with the animals we depend on
We can work with Earth’s systems
We can build our homes and buildings to last for 600 years
We look upstream to manage our waste
We derive wealth from our waste
We protect and restore what nature creates
We listen to what Earth’s complex systems tell us
Our leaders listen to us and derive power from the mana of ethical behaviour and decisions
The powerful protect the weak
We are becoming indigenous
We are weaving all the threads together
The most important people in our village are those who will be us some day and we are listening to them.

Presentations covered a wide range of topics, from energy and waste management in cities, health, cycling, local food production, rail and electricity demand management. It was apparent that many initiatives that are happening now are occurring at or below the local government level, and not attracting the politics that affects national initiatives.


23 thoughts on “Something changed”

  1. “We have enough”

    This is not the way I feel though! I always want more. More holidays, more toys, more tools. Imagine if someone had said this 50 years ago? Now we have international travel (for the masses), mobile phones, personal computers, the internet, skype, The ability to communicate on this blog, the works. These are the things that pop into my mind but im sure another person will list a different list of new innovations.

    The key is not to stop the desire for more, we need this to drive innovation, it is to ensure innovation does not increase consumption of limited resources. So instead of the next transport revolution being based on fossil fuel it needs to be based on renewable energy. That’s still economic growth. This new philosophy of stopping economic growth is very dangerous in my opinion.

    1. You are the prime example of the power of the advertiser R2.
      That has been their role for the past 40 odd years. Now that we have enough, the task of the marketer is to convince the public that even though all their needs are met, they “want more”.
      A niece’s partner for instance is employed by a biscuit company working day and night trying to convince NZers that they need to consume more water crackers. It doesn’t end there. You probably don’t NEED a new car, but every car manufacturer is out there trying to convince you that WANT theirs.

    2. My family of 3 have decided to get rid of or give away 100 possessions each before Christmas. For some years we have practiced letting go of 2 things every time we get something new. We still have more than enough. You can have your new toys (tools, my husband calls ’em) without accumulating masses of stuff.

      When I learned that national economic growth relies on increasing personal debt I decided to step off the treadmill (not that I have ever had much anyway, we chose to live on one income while I stayed home to raise our children).

      Whoever you are in debt to, owns you.

      1. You turn sustainability into an extreme relegion where you need to take a vow of poverty. That is not for me. We should aim for sustainable economic growth, not no growth.

        1. Can any denier get through the day without accusing their opponents of being ‘religious’ and ‘extremists’, I wonder? The psychological term for this is ‘projection’; R2 is a market zealot of the first water and cannot even begin to acknowledge that there might be a downside to the philosophy of perpetual growth. Yet R2 is perenially hyper-skeptical of any claim to knowledge he’d rather not credit!

          As for shedding a few pointless knick knacks – if that’s your idea of human misery, you need to get out more!

        2. I haven’t taken a vow of poverty, R2D2, I just choose not to accumulate possessions I do not need. That leaves me free to share my excess with others. I like that.

        3. Why is this response characterised as religious? It sounds quite rational to me. There is no vow of poverty here (have you ever actually looked into what a real vow of poverty entails? Far more than this modest proposal), there is simply a refusal to allow consumption and accumulation to define one’s life. It is a form of liberation and quite healthy.

  2. @ R2D2 – do you understand exponential growth? The very dangerous philosophy that we must be concerned about is an exponentially growing economy, based on the consumption of stuff, within a finite system.

    here’s a cool and interactive demonstration of this concept by David Suzuki:

    here is a primer by Albert Bartlett, there are also lots of youtube clips of this lecture:

    We can only have exponential growth in that which can grow infinitely in a finite system – for example knowledge, happiness. Otherwise at some point stasis must occur, otherwise the system overbalances and crashes.

  3. In an economy with high levels of capital like New Zealand or the USA most economic growth is based on increases in technology, which as you say (knowledge) can grow exponentially in a closed system. So we probably agree but have a different understanding of what economic growth is. A nation like China is growing by accumilating capital, so the 10%+ rates of economic growth will not last forever.

    I haven’t viewed your videos but will do when I get home later. I don’t imagine David Suzuki is going to inspire me too much to change my mind though….

    1. R2 I think you’re confusing 2 separate concepts. We want prosperity, preferably for as amny people as possible. So far we’ve chosen the path of “growth” to try and achieve this aim.

      The constant urging towards growth takes our collective eyes off the ball – what we want is prosperity. It’s a bit like saying that we need to cook food in order to eat. The important part is the eating. We could just as readily get most of our diet from fresh fruit and vegetables – there is no good reason to insist that every morsel that passes our lips must have been boiled or roasted for endless hours.

      Same thing for prosperity. Some growth in some sectors of the economy is obviously necessary at various times. There is no good reason why the all of the economy needs to “grow” all of the time to deliver prosperity. There are other ways.

      1. Sorry, I think we actually agree in principal but have not communicated it well.

        The concept of economic growth is a growth in welfare. So say for example the income of New Zealanders stays the same one year but the hours worked decreases then economic growth has occurred, because work is a negative utility good.

        In practice economic growth is hard to measure. How can we compare the welfare of people today to those of last year? Or 2000 years ago? When we compare year to year we tend to use real GDP per capita. This is not a perfect measure by any stretch, but it is the best we currently have. When we compare to 2000 years ago we tend to use life expectancy, hours worked / leisure time etc. Unfortunately the use of GDP per capita, which only measures consumption and not non-monetary goods like leisure and health, has lead to the belief that economic growth is only concerned with monetary wealth. Indeed, many economists themselves have fallen into this belief.

        So in my view we should not look at economic growth only from a monetary view point. That is not to say we shouldn’t try to grow the economy! I also believe those who debate the merits of economic growth based increased use scarce resources (if Saudi Arabia digs oil out of the ground and sells it is this good economic growth? The welfare of the people has gone up in the short term but it wasn’t due to an increase in capital or technology) have a very valid and strong point. But in the long term I think the prospect for more economic growth for the human race is great. In 200+ years we will have more medical knowledge, more automation of manual tasks, more entertainment, hopefully more leisure hours, more communication technology, more travel technology etc. So in that sense we should defiantly not say “We have enough”, because so much more is possible! And we should aim to grow the economy through increasing our productive capacity in the long term.

    2. “I don’t imagine David Suzuki is going to inspire me too much to change my mind though”

      yeah, cos you’re way smarter than him…

      “technology, which as you say (knowledge) can grow exponentially in a closed system”

      technology and knowledge are not the same thing. technology cannot grow exponentially any more than any other material factor can in a closed and finite system, particularly if we are unable to quickly change our habit of using and disposing of natural resources.

      There are more and less wasteful paths which will affect the slope of the exponential curve, but no matter what the trajectory there is certainly an upper limit that will be met if we continue to increase comnsumption.

      1. Increased technology is an output increased knowledge. If we learn about nuclear forces we can develop nuclear technologies. There has been absolutely zero evidence of a slowdown in the rate of technological progress and you are not going to convince me one is imminent anytime soon.

        1. There has been a huge slowdown in the rate of technological progress measured against money/time/resources used in research. It is only by throwing more people and money at research that we’ve maintained the impression of growth. There is a law of diminishing returns for investment in research. The easiest and most profound pieces of knowledge are gained earliest and with the least input. Now, our experiments require the construction of huge multi-billion dollar underground laboratories many kilometres long, or massive supercomputers. You can look at Joseph Tainter’s work for evidence and an analysis of this trend.

          1. Can you please post a link to this work you speak of. All the work I have ever seen points to an exponential rate of technological improvement.

            While you can point to some projects that have required huge investment, many innovations such as new computer programs and technology have happened almost by evolution at zero cost. I find your comment lacking substance but if you post links I will look into.

            1. You could also try this lecture for a brief intro to Tainter, but all the data on research and resources is in his book The Collapse of Complex Societies. I believe he is coming out with a new publication soon that will extent this aspect of his argument with more up to date data.

  4. Let’s say one begins to understand R2! He’s for “more” – the supposed and herein advocated driver of innovation – and so far as I know it was firstly need that motivated better.

    Like health, wealth and community.

    Danger is it appears to me that “more” in these times is likely the un-needed. Whilst sufficient and sustainable has once again become desirable. Yes, admittedly, my own advocacy.

  5. I would like people to know that they can now watch presentations from the Signs of Change National e-Conference. There were over 40 short presentations from many different angles. You can watch my presentation of the fundamental ideas embodied in a heresy against the Business as Usual, and where these ideas came from. They were gleaned from the numerous presentations by every-day Kiwis who are figuring sustainability out for themselves. Not one of them was responding to a policy initiative or a tax incentive (or a religious doctrine), but all of them are prosperous.

    Part 1 & 2

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