I feel as though I have been living “the end of the world” since I was born. My father and his parents raised me with prophetic stories of the end times from the bible — as if the two world wars and depression they had lived through had not been enough to meet those bleak expectations.
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s offered plenty of bases for fatalism. While boys like me were full of the excitement of a space-travel future, a Cold War world was building nuclear fallout shelters.
It was a time when some very bad science was being inflicted on the nation’s children. From barbaric birthing practises and insane dental treatment, to the toxic chemicals that were seen as the smart new way to grow and process our food — we were naked before the wisdom of our elders. Smoking was fine, sexism was grand, and there was no quarter given to children, especially those who questioned the status quo.
Meanwhile, as we played under our damaged ozone layer, radiation rained down on us because our allies were testing their nuclear bombs in the southern hemisphere’s atmosphere.
Science fiction and David Bowie reinforced the view that the future would be exciting but would probably end badly. Punk voiced the feelings of being a misfit at the bottom of a lost consumerised society taunting back, “No future no future for you”.
By the time I was 19, something like what pulls a trout upstream was stirring within me to find a future I wanted to live in. As friends and peers decayed or killed themselves, I escaped the punk promise of dying before the age of 21 — via a family country cottage where a new, more hopeful direction began.
Like a plant that keeps struggling through the undergrowth to find the light, something in me had always rebelled against the idea that a bleak future was already cast in stone.
And as I left childhood behind, there did seem to be more light available.
An organic solution
Rural life awakened me to the magic of the natural world.
Gardening became a deep passion. A pile of back copies of Soil and Health found at a garage sale introduced me to the simple wisdom that healthy soil is the basis for healthy plants, animals and people. Working smart with the diversity and natural cycles of life could offer a dynamic harmony on the path to productivity.
I landed work gardening on some of the Wairarapa’s most gorgeous estates, spending all my spare time in my home garden. River swimming became a summer religion. I found nature at once invigorating and calming, offering the connection, truth and goodness I had struggled to find in the frenetic urban world of my previous life.
Eden was soon to reveal a familiar grim face: I discovered that 99.9% of agriculture was not organic — that industrious people, the salt of my country, had been conned by super-productivity into practices antithetical to life on Earth.
I could understand an overenthusiasm for technology and a critical need to remain viable — but not why New Zealand’s agricultural sector was in total denial about the destructiveness and limitations of chemical-based monoculture.
It gradually came to me that the chemical companies controlled the rural press, the agricultural colleges, the government agencies, the producer boards, Federated Farmers and, through all these, the mind of any progressive farmer.
In the early ’90s, while Sweden was setting itself the national goal of having the world’s cleanest produce, with 20% of all farms to be organic by 2000, New Zealand couldn’t even have an unbiased discussion as to whether Organics might have any merit. Talk about a nation missing the pass for the winning try.
Organic farming has since offered this country the biggest opportunity to maximise our clean green advantage in an age of food-safety concerns. Organic farms are more drought- and erosion-resistant, produce healthier plants and animals, have a reduced need for oil-based fertilisers and chemicals and effect less water pollution. Recent Australian research reveals that increasing the organic-matter content of pasture allows per hectare carbon sequestering three times that of forestry — in principle qualifying organic farmers for carbon-trading payments.
Becoming an organic nation would induce significant flow-on benefits in tourism and immigration and open up new industry opportunities in the trillion-dollar world markets for environmental products and services.
The genetic engineering industry, led by some of the most pernicious companies on the planet, is currently the biggest threat to any green future for New Zealand agriculture. When the price of oil reaches $150 per barrel, Organics may well be the only viable option left.
I was starting to lose future-hope on the farming plains of the Wairarapa, and fled once again.
Securing an abandoned farmhouse on 24 hectares in the foothills of the Tararuas, I spent the latter half of the ’80s drinking spring water and eating honey from my hives. For five years I established gardens and raised animals, practising permaculture, playing with biodynamics and harvesting wild foods, including the wild pigs that ran into my backyard.
Having found my ideal lifestyle, I scarcely noticed a less-than-healthy mindset creeping in. The worldview presented in my childhood seemed to have morphed with my new environmental awareness and in this isolated and rugged setting I was starting to see myself as a lone survivalist.
The air quality in a bunker is determined by those who are breathing in it. Being willing to kill to protect your last can of baked beans is hardly an expression of the aspirations that make life worth living.
Events were conspiring to lead to liberating changes. But as signs that my solitary life was about to end began to emerge, the thought of letting it go almost killed me.
My predicament reflected the challenge of our times: to abandon a way of life we desired and have become accustomed to but which is no longer good for us.
A relative, aware I had written humanity off, introduced me to Greenpeace. Here was an emerging movement of people that did get it, did care and were getting busy. Hope beyond my borders seemed an interesting concept and I started to dabble.
In 1991 I read an article on Anita Roddick, the successful entrepreneur who had combined her Body Shop marketing strategy with business ethics evangelism. Lights came on for me. I envisaged people — with the right information and the right economic mechanisms — changing en masse.
Within 18 months I would be sitting at a table with Anita Roddick and the heads of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce as I launched the NZ Environmental Business Network. But first the world I was living in had to end, and it did.
Digging a new patch — the greening of business
Beyond my weirdest expectations, I moved straight from the Tararuas to just off Queen Street, downtown Auckland.
The freedom from my utopian prison and the excitement of city life was invigorating but I did feel a bit lost. The previous decade had given me a deep sense of connection to nature and a desperation to find a way to overcome the greed and ignorance befalling it.
Outside what is now Britomart a modified backyard glasshouse announced itself as the EPI (Environment and Peace Information) CENTRE. A poster of the blue Earth caught my eye. Maybe there was purpose in this strange landing.
A conversation at that little kiosk about my visions for world change connected me with a committee sending NGO representatives to the upcoming 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) — a sequel to the 1972 Stockholm Conference where the planet’s development issues were first recognised as a looming crisis.
UNCED brought together the largest gathering of heads of state ever and 30,000 NGO representatives. Affectionately referred to by the commentators as “Earth’s Last Chance”, its outcomes were farsighted prescriptions for the courses of action we should have embarked on immediately to avert catastrophe. Our government took a few catchphrases from Rio and embarked on a business-even-worse-than-usual decade.
Our group had been formulating the idea of a green business forum but, in the absence of the expected support from central government and struggling to marry the environmentalist and business divide, we disbanded after eight frustrating months. Fuelled by a sense of mission, I was not about to let the vision go.
I saw industry as a team of blinkered horses feverishly chasing the carrot of profits — and dragging the world toward a cliff. In my mind, if the carrot lay in the direction of sustainability, industry would take the world that way just as quickly and powerfully. I figured it was as simple as making business more profitable; the world would be green by lunchtime tomorrow.
With the help of a sharp Italian suit, a bit of chutzpah and a whole heap of purpose I launched the NZ Environmental Business Network, proceeding to build it to represent eight regional networks and over 500 member companies.
With so many inherent commercial benefits from going green and with the willingness of so many businesses and some local authorities to embrace the challenge, I could see a new green industrial revolution unfolding. If central government were to move its incentives from unsustainable to sustainable practices the gates would open. Particularly hopeful today is the recent rally of several leading Kiwi entrepreneurs (led by Philip Mills) calling for a smart green revolution for this country.
A whole nation takes the step
I was privileged to host the founder of The Natural Step, Dr Karl Henrik Robert. Dr Robert was a cancer researcher concerned that the declining state of the world’s environment was undermining medicine’s advancements in improving human health.
As he pondered the inaction of his society, it became apparent to him that there were no agreed scientific principles for sustainability. With incredible determination, Dr Robert obtained a consensus from leading scientists and, with the support of the country’s King, key organisations and a media campaign fronted by leading celebrities, delivered information on the principles to every household and school in Sweden.
Dr Robert’s methodology was inspired. Recognising that people ultimately reach some point where they disagree, he had groups set goals for action based on wherever they found they were still in agreement. He had a knack of simplifying things with questions like, “Is it good for living cells?” And he persuaded organisations to not only set long-term goals that would fulfil The Natural Step principles for sustainability but determine the first achievable steps to take on that journey.
Under the influence of The Natural Step, OK Petroleum set the long-term goal of eradicating oil from its product and the short-term goal of manufacturing the cleanest petrol in Sweden. One of the largest trucking companies bought half-shares in the rail-freight company, with the goal of having freight on the roads for the minimum of time.
After his visit, I was ready to take a New Zealand version of The Natural Step to every household in this country but that did not fit the vision of the people holding the rights to it here. The Natural Step continues today in New Zealand as an educational trust offering training and support to interested organisations (www.thenaturalstep.org/en/new-zealand).
We can’t escape if our minds are trapped
One of the last events I hosted with the Environmental Business Network was a visit by Dr Sharon Beder, in New Zealand to promote Global Spin, her exposé of the way big business uses high-powered public relations strategies to undermine the environmental movement. Rather than deny environmentalists’ claims, these specialists focus instead on creating an element of doubt, which serves to keep public opinion and legislation at bay for decades. Climate change denial is one of the big successes of an industry which boasts, “If we are successful you don’t know you have been touched”.
Dr Beder had written her book to find out why responsible people were not following the overwhelming scientific prescriptions for urgent action on the big environmental issues.
People’s perception is the biggest determinant of outcomes on the planet; what people believe decides history. That’s why China has a city of internet censors working day and night and why the Pentagon has an army of special agents infiltrating internet groups and comment boards to “cultivate certain attitudes and perceptions”.
The information age has made truth easier to obtain but harder to discern. Our potential for cultural evolution will stay stunted if our worldview remains in the hands of oil companies, armament manufacturers and the makers of crunchy cheese balls.
As daunting as systemic collapse is, it does offer the real potential to expose some of the big lies through a dose of undeniable reality.
Impassioned purpose without any form of funding soon runs its course; after five years in Auckland trying to swing the stampeding horses in the right direction I was feeling somewhat burnt out. My new wife and I took up an invitation to try to transform Kerikeri’s agricultural sector from a toxic nightmare to something more befitting its beautiful locale. After four months of being sprayed with organophosphates we accepted defeat, fleeing to Amsterdam and declaring ourselves environmental refugees from New Zealand.
After my departure the NZEBN evolved, under the guidance of Rachel Brown, into the Sustainable Business Network (www.sustainable.org.nz) which continues today.
Local community – the basic unit of human survival
In 2007, while building a local green network in Whanganui, I began working in partnership with a researcher who had become deeply concerned about the impending collapse of the United States economy.
We sent a newsletter presenting our combined research to department heads and every parliamentarian encouraging the Government to develop a strategy to get our nation through the coming hard times. As with efforts to alert them to peak oil, there was no interest.
As I seemed to be someone who had given a lot of thought to impending doom scenarios, my colleague offered me funding to do what I could to make New Zealand more prepared.
I decided we needed to begin with local responses, since that would be a key prescription of any national strategies to raise awareness.
I opened The Environment Centre in a large warehouse in downtown Whanganui. Half the space was given over to a replication of Palmerston North’s successful Green Bike scheme. The rest became a showroom and networking centre for all things supporting environmental sustainability and community and household resilience: green products, energy-efficiency models, urban food garden systems, a seedbank, a local currency base and a venue for film screenings and workshops.
Transition Towns (TT), with its similar focus on relocalisation and community resilience, launched in New Zealand within weeks of the centre opening, and we moved to incorporate its 12-Point Plan.
What TT rightly identifies is that every community is people-rich; the movement brings them together in the awareness of the challenges we face, then coaxes out of them creative can-do responses. As the veil lifts on our economic and resource crisis, holding TT Open Space Forums may be the best mobilising response the communities of this nation can utilise.
In many ways the TT movement fingers the failure of our civic leadership to make the appropriate responses to information it has had in front of it for 20 years: UNCED had clearly decreed that local authorities across the planet must inform and engage their citizens in concerted local responses to the crises we face. Waitakere City’s effort under Mayor Bob Harvey is one of the only sincere responses on record.
If we are ever to make the transition to sustainable lifestyles or have any chance of successfully negotiating the avalanche of economic and energy issues ahead we are going to need working models. The Environment Centre worked quite well but it didn’t have the green space around it to properly showcase food gardens and green building and energy systems.
It would serve New Zealanders well to have a state-of-the-art Sustainable Living and Business Centre in every region, each with displays of new and retrofitted ecobuilding options, resource recovery facilities, a commercial kitchen for people to make marketable food products, workshop space for light engineering and carpentry and craftmaking. The centres would foster innovative thinking and act as business incubators while showcasing all the ways people can live healthier, more sustainable lives and reduce their financial overheads. Local schools could rotate their involvement.
To set up and run 25 such regional centres for five years would cost $125 million. Compare that to the $850 million net loss for the momentary thrill of hosting the World Cup.
The Green Bike scheme had me looking for a way to make our predominantly flat urban centres into cycle cities. Having lived in Holland, I was acutely aware that a progressive culture can meet a significant level of its daily transport needs using bicycles. The key impediment is the safety concern: drivers do not become sufficiently conscious of cyclists until there are enough cyclists on our urban roads.
The obvious way to get many thousands of people onto bikes is to issue thousands of bikes for free in all large towns and cities that are relatively flat. If orders were placed in the tens of thousands, the cost would be around $100 per bike. In a town like Whanganui, 10% of the population could be on bikes for just $400,000. The cost could be shared between various trusts, the district and regional councils, and the local Health Board.
The annual value of economic, health and environmental benefits would be in the millions of dollars before you count the reduction in roading costs. The resilience of a bicycle-rich community in days of prohibitive oil prices cannot be underestimated.
To ensure that bikes are valued, recipients could be required to participate in a workshop on bike safety and community values. A bike’s value could also be used as credit in a community currency scheme focusing on neighbourhood-improving projects.
It’s all about the money – the Community Currencies Conference
With impending economic collapse as the backdrop to my Whanganui work, it was only natural to seek to gain more understanding of the monetary system, its failings and alternatives. I became involved with Living Economies and in 2009 coordinated the National Conference on Community Currencies.
Our keynote speaker, Thomas H Greco Jnr, explained that the current monetary system is not only chronically unsustainable but fraudulent, parasitical and most undemocratic. Greco, with 12 other presenters and 120 participants, considered a wider range of alternative, saner models.
Hearing Robert O’Brien discussing technology-enabling systems for direct trading made me realise that the monetary system we are using today is as archaic as using black-and-white film reels for our multimedia.
As it is now technologically possible to launch and run multiple non-centralised local, national and international currencies at the drop of a hat, there is the real potential for the people of the world to simply walk away from the current failing system.
What our community-based focus didn’t include was the important national policy work of enlightened economists such as Dr Bryan Gould and Professor Tim Hazeldine, the work of Dave Breuer of Anew NZ on Genuine Progress Indicators, The Sustento Institute, or Marion Heather Smith’s tireless efforts to raise awareness of the Reserve Bank’s ability to grant low- or zero-interest loans to local authorities — a precedent set by Michael Joseph Savage to rebuild the nation after the Great Depression. Local communities are currently, and needlessly, left to indebt themselves to foreign banks.
I was able to undertake my projects in Whanganui and run the conference with the financial support of one concerned individual who considered it worthwhile to be part of a resilient community and nation in these times — which leads me to wonder why most people miss the links, choosing to invest their wealth only in the unsustainable systems which are undermining any future security we might have.
A new end and a new beginning
I accept that we live in a time of massive collapse of unsustainable systems, and I bear witness to the ignorance, stupidity, apathy, corruption and lies which have denied us the opportunities to change in time.
I have often joked that I have been trying to throw a thirteen with two dice. While accepting the odds against outrunning Vesuvius, I keep believing that life wants us to succeed and somehow we have the capacity to transcend our seeming impasse.
I don’t believe that the endpoint of three and a half billion years of our evolution from primordial slime to some self-knowledge is a species choking to death on an overdose of Big Macs and fries watching Crime Watch on a Tuesday night at home.
The foreground will seem like the end of the world but I see, through the smoke and ruins of that which must fall, a wiser, more humble, more determined humanity with 10,000 years of social and technological success stories to draw on, setting a new course for the future.
As a child, I saw the first beautiful pictures of Earth from space; as a man, I saw the liberation of the global brain through the internet. Now I am seeing a world movement that is choosing to turn off whatever doesn’t work and switch on what will. With internet campaigners like Avaaz, whistleblowers like Wikileaks, Middle Eastern people on the streets, communities mobilising, green entrepreneurs rising, and money open for reinterpretation, potential is in the air.