The Road to Utopia
8 May 2011.
As citizens of this planet Earth, as mothers, fathers, as people with loved ones about whom you care deeply, I ask you to consider what is to be done to get us from the present economic and social condition to a new condition that offers a perpetual and sustainable way forwards for future generations.
Some folk are anxious about the likely depletion of some critical resources or energy supplies; others are worried more by the possible impacts of changing climate and more extreme day-by-day weather events. These concerns are becoming heightened as the world and the people who inhabit it negotiate a new 'contract' on the availability and operation of the Earth's life-giving resources and functions.
For some the concern may revolve around the continued viability of their businesses, while for many others it is the desire to be a good parent; to set a good example to our children and grandchildren that is prodding us into action.
It is difficult for us to imagine how it will be during the transition; every scenario presents so many options - so many ways it can play out - that we cannot plot a clear path through the hazards to a safe end point. The more authors and commentators try and paint a singular picture, the more divergence we find in the probability of that view being true or not, that remedy for that disease being the right cure to apply or not. So contemplation of the transition period itself is often unhelpful.
Instead we can step back and see where it is that we would like to be when its all settled down again. I believe that we are entitled to paint a utopian view of how we would like it to be for our children and all after them; and with that distant view in mind we can then consider what it is that needs to be done to get us safely there; regardless of the many obstacles in our way. This is my view:-
An encouraging indicator of our national thinking in relation to the balance between what we take and what our provider, the Earth, can give is embodied in the Act of Parliament passed in 1991; the Resource Management Act. The purpose of this Act is stated as:
PURPOSE AND PRINCIPLES
5. Purpose---(1) The purpose of this Act is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.
(2) In this Act, ``sustainable management'' means managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and their communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural wellbeing and for their health and safety while---
(a) Sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and
(b) Safeguarding the life-supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and
(c) Avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment.
With the rider that 'minerals' including energy minerals should be included in the protective cover the Act sought to provide (and putting aside the actual outcomes of this well-intentioined legislation), this statement gives us a useful working platform for the function of our future Utopia.
In 1964 Sir Fred Hoyle put our condition rather bluntly:-
'It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.'
In this statement Hoyle is perhaps mixing the concept of 'intelligence' with that of 'high-level technology'. We are indeed hoping that we can continue to use this high intelligence on a planet that is in balance, albeit in a way that may be viewed as 'primitive'. But in terms of reaching a level of high technological competence in the use of resources and all the goodies that implies we have seen where our 'intelligent' use of the Earth's physical prerequisites has got us to.
We stand near the end of the Mineral Energy Era with virtually nothing to show for it in terms of the intelligent use we have made of all the resources we have consumed to date. Compared with man of 300 years ago we are no smarter, no better, no happier as people and we have constructed no everlasting bits of fantastic equipment to take us forward on a higher plane into a new era. The impact of this burst of resource consumption will last as long as it takes for a bolt to rust through or a bit of reinforcing steel to fail, or the battery to go flat, a dam to fail and it will all be gone.
I suggest that our intelligence can be used to take us to a perfectly satisfactory alternate destination that does not (indeed it cannot) entail continued depletion of the Earth's resources. We must apply our intelligence to husband the remaining and renewable resources to make the best of our planetary system's 'one chance'.
Discussing our ability to somehow dodge the oncoming times of change, Australian writer Reg Morrison observed:-
'Not only have our genes managed to conceal from us that we are entirely typical mammals and therefore vulnerable to all of evolution's customary checks and balances, but also they have contrived to lock us so securely into the plague cycle that they seem almost to have been crafted for that purpose. Gaia is running like a Swiss watch. ' (Morrison, 1999)
Putting it simply then; In our Utopia we have to be living within our means. And 'our means' is determined by the natural rate of replacement of the resources we use to ensure that we are 'sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations and safeguarding the life supporting capacity of air, water, soil and natural ecosystems' (from the Resource Management Act 1991).
Every aspect of our Utopian life must be governed by the rate at which energy arrives on the surface of the Earth day by day, and the bounty that energy yields in terms of the growth of plants, the movement of wind and water and the regeneration of soil and mineral resources.
If we are to survive long in our Utopia then one of the key provisions of the new system is the supply of food. Food produced in perpetual balance with the daily and annual cycle of solar energy inputs.
When we look at 'modern' agriculture we find that is unable to operate within this limitation. The use of fossil fuels for farm machinery and agri-chemicals is utterly incompatible with the constraints of our Utopia's energy and resource allocations, as is the maintenance of infrastructure like freezing works, vast dairy factories and the international transport of critical farm inputs such as phosphate and sulphur, and exports of surplus product.
In terms of its ability to sustain higher animal life the natural New Zealand bush is close to a 'green desert'. There are reports from early European explorers of tribal hunting parties almost starving to death when lost for a time in the bush, and the Europeans themselves, even with indigenous guides familiar with the area, found sustenance hard to find.
Recent research has found that within a couple of hundred years of their arriving the recent Polynesian migrants to the islands of New Zealand had burned off much of the land's pre-existing forest cover in an apparent effort to create better growing conditions for self-regenerating food crops such as fern roots (an important source of carbohydrate). This effort created an environment that led to the loss of some animal life (the Moa and the Haast Eagle), but which better sustained the local human population. Similar research has led to the appreciation that the forests of North America were heavily modified by the pre-European population to encourage the growth of fauna and flora to support human needs. The turkeys found by the Europeans wandering 'wild' were in fact part of the local people's complex forest food gardens; not some random distribution of wild-fowl.
Thus there is already a strong and ancient pattern of deliberate large-scale modification of our local plant and animal life as a means of sustaining human habitation, and this points a way to suggesting that again our national food production can be based around the broad productive capability of the entire sunlight-receiving surface of the country from the coast to the alpine bush-line.
There are many recorded sites of formal gardens near places of pre-European habitation (some older than the recent Polynesian arrivals) and of course the continued operation of the kitchen garden as a source of much of the required food supply will persist.
The Polynesian settlers were limited in the nature of plants they could introduce as they had a fairly limited pool of viable species to draw from, and transport and propagation of new plants was difficult. We are now comparatively fortunate that in addition to those plants so carefully tended and understood by the pre-Europeans we have a wide range of useful 'exotic' perennial food plants from root vegetables, greens, berries, medicinals, fruit and nuts that can be planted in viable locations to grow 'wild' until they are needed. This will allow us to re-establsh the national forest food garden as a 'common good' for the people of New Zealand to replace the resource-hungry mechanised factory-food-farming of today.
Beyond food of course our Utopia's gardening efforts will provide various fibres for clothing (harakeki, linen flax and cotton should be broadly re-propagated) and timber sustainably coppiced for energy, tapa cloth (as the climate warms) and building materials.
Thus our Utopia has its food and primary material needs addressed in a way that demonstrates our intelligent utilisation of the resources we will have available.
Our Utopia will not have many of the employment opportunities of today; national electricity supply will collapse within a few weeks of the last tanker-load of crude oil arriving at Marsden Point, and with the loss of electricity will go most forms of commerce and employment. Instead we will find work for idle hands in gently guiding the national forest food gardens (the 'commons') through its annual production cycles, caring for each other and maintaing the modest infrastructure of our new more intelligent civilisation.
We will find time to be gentle with ourselves. We will listen to our bodies and recognise for example that the majority of our population have blood types and genetic backgrounds that find ingestion of gluten (wheat) and dairy products compromises our immune systems. This stress leads to many illnesses and disabilities that can be resolved by adherence to a simpler diet of fresh green vegetables, fruit and nuts and moderate protein intake for some.
We will live quietly in balance with nature and with each other. No raiding parties, no resource wars, no felling of our forests to provide spars for foreign warships. We will sit in the sun a lot and exchange knowledge with our children and grandchildren, we will come to know the land again and our place within it.
We will understand that no-one can take more than their share of the 'common' without prejudicing us all. We have tried ignoring this natural rule, and this is where we are today. Thus the intelligence and wisdom of Utopia will be passed on from parent to child, and our performance will be watched over and if need-be softly realigned by those who still remember the cost we paid - that is the cost we will pay in the next few decades.
We will know that peace that transcends all understanding, the peace of surrender, of faith, and of true companionship with man and with nature. Utopia.
But. Are we ready for Utopia? Can we simply drop tools, shut down the laptop, say goodbye to the nine-to-five job, step out of the queue at the job search agency, and catch a bus to become a model citizen of Utopia? I think not.
In New Zealand we are blessed with a vast array of people with different geographic and social backgrounds. Some of us are less than four generations distant from cannibals, while others are direct descendants of those arrogant economic imperialists who enslaved and devoured the souls and spirits of the uncomprehending populations of entire continents of the 'new world'. When we push the pin into this heap of history, of layered cause and effect, we find that in the end no one's pot is really any blacker than the any one else's. Its just not a pretty picture.
We are not nobly defined by our land, by our government, by our flag, or by our behaviour as citizens. We kill too many children, we murder too many friends, we disobey too many laws. The fact that we have so many laws to disobey is a clear indication of the failure of our moral education at the most basic level. We don't need laws relating to 'Careless use of a motor vehicle causing death' if everybody respects and obeys the basic principle that no one should kill anybody else. We don't need laws relating to 'Converting to his own use ...' if everybody respects and obeys the basic principle that no one should take what doesn't belong to them.
We give our power to elected representatives knowing that those exercising the power only represent the views of a minority, and then grumble at the outcome of government. We surrender our most basic needs as human beings into the hands of 'the system' and then rial at our sense of powerlessness and cry out "Why doesn't the government do something...!"
Why do we fear loosing our jobs, dropping off the dole, standing up for ourselves when to do so will mean we cannot buy food for our families, we cannot pay the water supply, electricity and sewerage utilities? Because we have given the power of life and death over our families to the supermarket supply chain, the council, the energy company!
If you grow your own food - they have no power over you! if you collect your own rain water - they have no power over you! If you convert human waste to humanure to fertilise your garden - they have no power over you! If you use a solar cooker and a small solar electricity unit - they have no power over you!
Yet how many of us are so independent of 'the system' that we no longer need to care if it exists or not? Very few. Yet therein lies our rite of passage to Utopia.
By taking these and many other powers back to ourselves we can begin to assume the responsibilities we as adults pretend to our children that we have, but know we don't have. It is for us to determine how much food we eat, and to never fear 'the price of milk', the price of water, the price of energy. But until we are in that position we will always demand that 'they' do something to make it right. We will always be a mouse, rather than a man.
Yet in our hearts this is not where we want to be is it? In each of us resides the Noble Savage; the Provider and Protector. The Father or Mother figure proud of its brood of well-manered fledglings.
So now we have a destination; somewhere to aim for. With this knowledge we can define our new direction; we now know in which direction lies peril, and in which direction we will find Utopia. How do we move from where we are today? As usual; we take one step at a time in the right direction.