This perfect storm of calamities…

This guest post is by David Round, lecturer in environmental law at the University of Canterbury. It first appeared in the Christchurch Press on March 18.

It was once a truth universally acknowledged that good times never last. But we now seem to consider ourselves immune from the laws of nature and history. Times have been good and getting better for most of our lifetimes. All but the very poorest of us enjoy comforts beyond our grandparents’ wildest imaginings. We cannot imagine anything but the good life.

But actions have consequences, and if even half the articles we read in this newspaper every day are actually true – and surely The Press does not lie – then chickens are rapidly coming home to roost. We face the end of cheap and abundant oil, on which our entire civilisation and way of life depends. Oil we cannot afford is, for most purposes, little different from no oil at all. No adequate substitute exists. How will we manage if we cannot even get to work in the morning, and bring the groceries from the supermarket, let alone send our goods to the other side of the world and bring large numbers of tourists here?

There is no doubt significant global climate change is happening. The “challenge” to climate change science recently whipped up by vested interests is only a quibble over a couple of footnotes. We will inevitably see more extreme weather events, crop failures, famine, economic collapse, mass population movements and war. The earth’s human population increases each year by some 90 million, all of them wanting not just life but a life as good as ours. As all of this happens, we are running out of the most basic resources; not just oil, but water, soil and fresh air.

And even nearer to hand is economic collapse, both national and international. New Zealand has been living beyond its means for decades, and sinks deeper into debt each year just to keep things ticking over. Is it possible to imagine ever paying the money back? What happens when credit dries up, as sooner or later it must?

Many other countries are already beginning to taste the crisis that awaits us. These crises, inter- related and feeding off each other, are beginning to bite now. No government can solve them. They are simply a consequence of the way we live. They are the nemesis that always follows hubris.

Two questions arise. First, is it possible to avoid this perfect storm of calamities? I doubt it. One thing alone will save us – not law, or politics, but universal and immediate self-denial and restraint in most nations, rich and poor. This will not happen. We show no inclination whatsoever to live more lightly on the Earth; indeed, quite the opposite. In any case, unless the rest of humanity were to join us at once, New Zealand would merely have put itself at a self-imposed and pointless disadvantage.

Calamity is well-nigh certain. New Zealand may not suffer as badly as many other places, but our future will be far harsher and poorer.

So, calamity is well-nigh certain. New Zealand may not suffer as badly as many other places, but our future will be far harsher and poorer. We will simply not be able to afford a fraction of today’s health, education and social welfare arrangements, holidays and recreations, luxuries or even some basic comforts. We will not be able to afford prisons, even though the crime rate will almost certainly rise. Life in large cities, in particular, will be inconvenient and unpleasant.

So the pressing second question is: how will we survive? What will we eat, and how will we obtain it? How will we make a living? Where and how will we live? Who will keep the peace and who defend us?

The simple answer is, that like most communities throughout human history, we will have to do most of these things for ourselves. This will not just be a matter of growing our own meat and vegetables, although that will be challenging enough. We will not be able to rely nearly as much on paid professionals – teachers, policemen, nurses, social workers, administrators and so on. We will have to return to older social arrangements whereby most necessary social services were provided by what Professor David Korten calls the “love economy”. Money may be involved, but these services are provided by community members, rich and poor, out of their sense of obligation to their fellow citizens.

We cannot live without social institutions, and so we must create our own. It will be difficult to fashion them from scratch, but we have many ancient models to draw on. Many of them – the forest laws, shire moot and hundred court, manors and feudal tenures, local magistrates, the posse comitatus, guilds, boroughs and local jurisdictions – we scarcely remember. Others – the family and the Church – are shadows of what they once were. We must fashion for the future, not merely recreate the past, yet when similar situations and problems arise, similar solutions naturally suggest themselves. In past social, legal, constitutional and economic arrangements, we can find ways to cope with future problems.

Our choice of future government is between a stern hierarchy and a truly vibrant, co-operative, genuine democracy. Outside these two options, there is only chaos.

We cannot even be certain that our future will be democratic. Underlying all democratic thought is the assumption of an abundance, or at least adequacy, of resources – that there will always be enough for everyone. The only issue, then, becomes one of distribution. But in a new age of scarcity, this assumption may no longer be valid. Equality will be impossible. On what principle, then, are we to administer society and ration resources? Our choice of future government is between a stern hierarchy and a truly vibrant, co-operative, genuine democracy. Outside these two options, there is only chaos.

The “precautionary principle” is a wise environmental rule. Be cautious – do not allow innovation and development unless we can be certain that what results is an improvement, or at least a situation where the good outweighs the bad. This is the only principle by which a truly sustainable society can live. It is a “conservative” principle, in the true sense of that much misunderstood word. The essence of conservatism is holding on to the past until we can be certain that the future will be better.

The radical temperament, by contrast, is arrogantly ready to jettison the painfully established institutions of the past for the dream of paradise just around the corner. But our ideas are all of a piece. We cannot, in relation to the environment, say, require that we should be cautious, while in other spheres of life we take the opposite attitude that we should be free to do whatever we like. Inevitably, one philosophy prevails. We will be conservative – conservationist – in our environmental attitudes only if we take the same conservative approach in all our living.

Ours has been a glorious age of untrammelled, irresponsible, individual liberty. This must soon end. That may perhaps seem the most grievous price of all to pay for community, and the most difficult to make, for that liberty too seems second nature to us. Yet the price must be paid.

David will be giving a public lecture on Legal, social and political options in an age of environmental crisis on Wednesday, March 24 at 7pm as part of the School of Law’s The Law and You series.

34 thoughts on “This perfect storm of calamities…”

  1. We will have to return to older social arrangements…..shire moot and hundred court, manors and feudal tenures, local magistrates, the posse comitatus, guilds, boroughs and local jurisdictions …

    Fresh ammo for those deniers [Poneke] who claim the conspiracy of IPCC and its scientists exists to throw us back into the dark ages?

    1. The difference, of course, is that David sees these as a response to the “calamities” caused by the very inaction Poneke seems to espouse, not the wish list of some green cabal.

  2. As I read it, David it simply a conservative saying that the current crisis is a vindication of his political outlook.

    I frankly expect the GOP in the US to switch quickly to this line when they are finished with their current denier stance.

    Much like John Howard’s rapid adoption of big nuclear power as a solution just as soon as he was finished with denial.

    Progressives / greens should be explaining loud and clear that rationing and restraint now are critical to avoid a very big intrusion in private freedoms later. Or as David’s article seems to hint at, a new serfdom.


  3. I’d be interested in David Round timelining the ‘age’ (in terms of) ‘irresponsible’ activities, actions.

    Congrats the article, reminescent of older pieces he wrote in The Press.

  4. If David’s arguing that when the petroleum party’s over people are going to have to go back to doing real work (productive work) – as opposed to the shuffling around of the wealth created by a few – I couldn’t agree more.

  5. Interesting.

    If your room says a lot about you, your prognostications for the future surely say even more! I suspect that future ruling elites will evolve from current ruling elites, so I reckon there’ll always be resources made available for prisons!

    I also find it hard to credit that anything resembling a feudal structure could re-establish itself. Technological society may be curbed in scope, but once it’s established a reversion from it seems inconceivable. The arrow of time soars on, self -induced disaster notwithstanding…

    However, I’ve long thought that those who fear that ‘warmists’ are closet totalitarian socialists are on the wrong track entirely. I fear that if disastrous AGW scenarios really did fulfill themselves mass technological societies will revert to rationally managed, total regimes of varying degrees of egalitarianism and hierarchic stratification (communistic and fascistic, if you will, but they won’t be the same as these convenient namesakes – we are not fighting the last war here!), and that these will make contemporary China seem like a liberal paradise in retrospect!

    But generally I agree – it’s either self restraint now, or in the not-too-distant future nature’s limits and authoritarian rationalism will be calling all the shots!

  6. There is an irony here.

    Authoritarian China is making the necessary changes, but its system is also a pointer to what will be required everywhere if we dont move on this issue promptly.


  7. Real bundle of cheer and optimism there isn't old David. I'd love to invite him round for a barbeque. I'm sure he'll be the life of the party.

    Oh well roll on the Apocolypse I say and bags the feudal Lordship position that will become vacant.

      1. You've kind of touched upon this before Gareth when you made references to the flaws in our current system of Democracy but neither you nor David Round has articulated what this "truly vibrant, co-operative, genuine democracy" actually is.

        It would be like someone stating that they want to implement a society where everyone is truly free. Easy enough to propose and something that most of the general population would be able to agree with, (who doesn't want a truly free society?), but essentially meaningless without detail.

        1. Well, in many respects it is adversarial as opposed to collaborative (I believe this because you believe that). It is also genuine, expect where the rules mean it isn't fully participatory (as with the minor party rules which gave ACT five seats while denying any to NZ First, despite attracting more voter support).

          1. An adversiarial system is the natural by-product of any party political system where you have majoritarian governments and official oppositions. You could have a system where you require all the major parties to form a super-majority coalition government but that doesn't necessarily lead to better outcomes. Both Germany and Zimbabwe have had such an arrangement recently and it can't be stated that they were well served by this arrangement. In fact it can lead to policy inaction as it is so hard to get agreement on important matters.

    1. You could argue that the current system at least allows for policies to be put in place realitively fast. The ETS was passed by the last government for example, whereas other nations like Australia have nothing. The problem you have is that there is nothing stopping a new government from amending or repealling the particular policy. While this might be true at least the policy is able to be implemented and any changes go through a cycle of discussion and debate. The alternative might mean that the policy never sees the light of day as it is too difficult to get the necessary consensus.

  8. The difficulty is that you need the policy settings to be consistent and long term in order to have the desired effect. This means that there is no alternative to building consensus, if effective policy is what you want. Labour certainly didn't do enough in that respect, and National shows no interest whatsoever.

    1. All joking aside Gareth I'd suggest N.Z. has one of the least worst political systems available. It can be used to build consensus if political parties can be bothered to do so. As you pointed out this didn't happen with the ETS legislation but that is hardly the fault of the system.

      Would you now agree that the "truly vibrant, co-operative, genuine democracy" David Round mentions is just meaningless waffle without any substance? If you don't then perhaps you would be able to expand a little more on what you have done to date on what it actually means.

        1. LOL!!!

          You first state that "I would prefer to focus on creating the truly vibrant, co-operative, genuine democracy he sees as an option." and then you write that you don't actually want to indulge in a lengthy debate on the subject.

          So why did you want to focus on it if you didn't want to discuss it at any length?

          Why are you having such a hard time articulating what it is that David Round, (and youself seemingly), think is so important to our future?

          1. LOL yourself. You're the one who started off with "roll on the apocalypse". My preference in general, not in this discussion. Though "discussion" is perhaps the wrong word for an exchange with you…

            1. Nice attempt at avoidance again Gareth.

              I made light of David Round's pessimistic tone because frankly it adds nothing to the debate on potential solutions. You state you would prefer to focus on his views on 'genuine democracy' yet when it is pointed out that he hasn't really specified what this actually means in any practical way you turn around and state you don't really want people to discuss this at all.

              Would you prefer a bunch of positive statements about how bright David Rounds must be to come up with the amazing concept of a 'truly vibrant, co-operative, genuine democracy' even though what this is is ill defined at best.

            2. Once again you miss the point. Round presents a dichotomy. I prefer one approach. Simple.

              Why not address his central contention: that we need social structures that will endure the resource crunch that's coming?

            3. I think I have when I have pointed out that there is fundamentally nothing wrong with out current social structures in N.Z. as they are. Certainly neither David Round or yourself have actually articulated how they can be improved beyong mere stating that there is something wrong and hypothesising theat they can be improved somehow.

  9. "The same could be said for the NZ system, particularly in the case of emissions policy." – Gareth

    Gareth, what makes you believe a perfect democratic system would have kept the Labour Government’s ETS?

    It seems to me you are judging the strength of the system with the assumption that we should have kept the old ETS, but I have never seen any evidence the majority of New Zealanders would prefer the old ETS to the current one.

  10. That's not at all what I said — or think. You're erecting straw men. It's not imperfections of the system that saw one imperfect ETS replaced by a worse one – it's imperfections of the politicians.

    1. So… if we had perfect politicians they would have put in your version of a perfect ETS?

      How is that a democracy? Please explain how the ETS we have is the result of non-democratic process.

    1. Sorry if I misrepresented you, that was not my intention. I am just trying to understand your mentality on this issue. This issue has arisen a lot in the comments section of this blog in the last few weeks and I want to get to the bottom of it.

      Can I ask you a question to get to the bottom of it: do you think that if we had a government that represented the peoples wishes exactly they would have passed emissions legislation that is stronger than the old Labour Government ETS? (by stronger I mean likely to create faster reductions)

  11. Whether a government's actions are wise or not does not depend on the nature of representation (or its absence). Nor can you assume that an electorate will always be wise. As I've said before, those are things that make dealing with the climate issue uniquely difficult. We have to build a national and international consensus on both the need for action, and the actions to be taken. As NZ demonstrates nicely, this is non-trivial. My role, such as it is, is to try to ensure that the facts are faced.

    1. You and Bryan both do an excellent job when it comes to presenting the Science around Climate change. Hence why I have no problem with your threads dedicated to that particular topic other than I believe you are excessively defensive of criticisism of some people involved in the debate. However this is your right and I can certainly understand why you might be this way.

      When it comes to discussing policy options for dealing with the challenges of climate change though you both take a far more hands off and indirect approach. You seem to be happy enough to allow a selection of other peoples ideas on the topic to be put forward without a proper analysis of what it is they are proposing. It is as if you are worried about soiling your reputations by getting down and dirty in the debate on what specific steps need to be taken.

      While there have been small setbacks recently on the case for AGW I think there is still a broad international consensus that the probability if is happening is incredibly high. The key is now to develop a consensus on what to do to tackle it. By being unwilling to discuss the pros and cons of specific policies does not help in building this consensus.

      I am far more amenable to the discussion on solutions to AGW than some people yet if I think that what David Round's has postulated here is a load of nonsense then what chance do you think there is of achieving a wide agreement on what to do?

      1. You make a reasonable point. I do not dwell too much on policy matters, except where science impacts that policy (targets for CO2, for instance), and in the specific NZ case, where I am keen to dissect policy as it is made (or not). That's not because I don't think it's important — it's a reflection of personal interest and limited time to do the stuff justice. A climate policy blog would need a different blogger. 😉

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