Rod Oram: Earth's hopeful future
OPINION: With economies stagnating, politics polarising, societies shattering and ecosystems suffering, I felt an urgent need to go walkabout last September.
It was my best chance of making some sense of the news from around the world. I travelled to Beijing, London, and Chicago, three cities that have profoundly shaped my life, as much as Auckland has these past twenty years.
I came home feeling in some ways more despondent. The damage being done is so rampant, the vital changes needed so radical, the time left so fleeting. Righting our utter unsustainability seems impossible.
Yet if we give up we are already lost.
Thankfully, I also came home feeling more optimistic and purposeful, with a deep appreciation for the people I had met and the work they do.
They are recovering a sense of boundless opportunity, optimism, common good and, above all, values and moral purpose. They are keeping alive rationality, engagement, enterprise and freedom. They are creating political systems, social structures and business models that will help us achieve an unprecedented speed, scale and complexity of change.
It's abundantly clear we have to embark on deep change so we can achieve the biggest goal humankind has ever attempted. It is not to save the planet. It will survive – even if we don't. It will adapt as it has to previous geological eras. Over tens of millions of years vastly different life-forms and ecosystems will evolve, ones shaped by prevailing conditions.
Our goal has to be to save ourselves. To do so we must give this ecosystem that gives us life the best chance it has to recover, and to continue to support us.
I've captured the essence of this in my latest book, Three Cities: Seeking Hope in the Anthropocene. Achieving this enormous goal will take countless steps. Here are three crucial ones:
- Minimising climate change: This dictates we must drastically cut human triggered carbon emissions to net zero by 2040. We have to begin right now with communities, business and government working on ways to reduce our carbon emissions far more, and far more quickly, than the immorally minimalist target our government tabled in the 2015 Paris climate negotiations. Such transformation will create great economic opportunities for all.
- Sustainable land: This requires equally radical change in the way soil and freshwater are used. For farmers, this means developing practices that improve the health of soil and water and increase biodiversity, while eliminating artificial fertilisers and chemicals. Deep science and technology are vital to helping people understand and work with the vast complexity and abundance of nature.For city-dwellers, achieving sustainable land and water use means minimising urban footprints and bringing more of nature into our built-environments. This includes producing more food in towns, using natural processes to treat storm water, and greening buildings and streetscapes to enhance their biodiversity.
- Sustainable oceans: These are a still greater challenge, not least here in the South Seas. New Zealand is responsible for the fourth-largest oceanic zone in the world. It is more than twenty times our land area. Yet we know little about it. Given the great complexity of the marine ecosystem our fishery management practices are crude and probably not sustainable. Close to shore in places such as the Hauraki Gulf we are rapidly degrading the ecosystem by over-exploiting it and pouring urban detritus into it.
These ambitious goals can be achieved over coming decades if we commit right now to beginning the long adventure. We need hugely ambitious, long-term, stable policies, devised collaboratively with communities and companies. The policies need strong cross-party and public support, based on a clear understanding of their benefits, because of their intergenerational timeframe.
But treaties and policies are top-down. They alone can't do the job. We must also have bottom-up complementary, voluntary measures to enable companies, communities and individuals to go above and beyond.
All these projects would deliver substantial economic, environmental and social benefits. If we get them right, a galaxy of opportunities for our planet's remedy and renewal will open up.
Please join me for the book's launch and panel discussion: September 1, 5.30pm -7pm, Sir Paul Reeves Building, AUT, Governor Fitzroy Place, Auckland. More details about the book at bwb.co.nz/books/three-cities
- Sunday Star Times