Emergency Action Plan for New Zealanders (and others)

We believe that New Zealand, like all other countries, is about to enter a period of extended crisis. The severity and timing of the events that will unfold are uncertain, but the likelihood of major change is increasingly hard to refute.

Because the possible drivers of change are multiple and interconnected — including global warming, resource scarcity and economic collapse — it is not easy to plot a course that will completely protect us from the effects. There will be many surprises. But the combined effect of the ways we each respond will determine the quality of life we can expect. Maintaining our current behaviour is asking for trouble. It will be no use leaving things for the government to fix. Nor will individual survivalism get us far.

We believe it vital that we learn to respect and nurture living beings — including one another — and the world that sustains our life. How well we appreciate the importance of working for the common good will be most clearly reflected in the economic policies we apply. Acknowledging the possible sources of change and consciously preparing for it together will help us make life-enhancing choices.

Being caring and thoughtful involves taking urgent steps to:

reinforce community links

  • practise more cooperative, inclusive and consensual ways of interacting with one another
  • devolve decision-making to the level of the people most affected
  • ensure vulnerable sectors of the community are adequately supported and resourced
  • localise health services and prioritise preventative health care
  • fully engage radio, television and community newspapers in educating ourselves for change
  • forestall any trends toward authoritarian rule

foster the regeneration of land, water, air and living communities

  • invest in personal and shared assets and endeavours to bolster resilience and biodiversity
  • develop long-term ecologically-sound land- and water-use programmes and infrastructure
  • recreate urban areas as integrated ‘village’ communities and reinvest in rural communities
  • use on-site and local resources to meet basic needs
  • implement considered limits to New Zealand’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions

reorient education

  • base education on an understanding of our finite ecosystem and humanity’s niche within it
  • cultivate a holistic perspective when considering responses and designing solutions
  • develop facilitation and leadership skills
  • refocus educational and research institutions to support local and regional needs
  • have vocational training support a stable economy by promoting regional self-sufficiency
  • implement general training in nonviolent defence and the peaceful resolution of conflict

guarantee the supply and quality of food

  • reserve land for, and invest in, the production of local food from
    living soil
  • establish seed and food banks
  • promote nutrient-dense food choices
  • protect genetic biodiversity in food production

develop appropriate technology

  • support local enterprise, manufacturing and industry, including clean energy technology
  • create functional, resilient and energy-efficient buildings using local skills and materials
  • invest in high-quality, low-tech maintainable machinery and tools for
    all purposes
  • divert resources from non-productive to life-sustaining infrastructure
  • concentrate infrastructure development in areas least prone to adverse events
  • promote, develop and maintain local broadband networks
  • refocus urban design to favour walking, bicycle use and public transport
  • extend and electrify rail
  • redevelop domestic shipping for bulk-goods transport
  • redevelop the breeding stock, equipment and skills base for working with draft animals

construct a stable (ecologically-based) economy

  • limit all economic activity to that which protects nature’s capacity to regenerate itself
  • embrace business, finance and insurance models based on reciprocity and cooperation
  • support local providers of products and services that meet basic needs
  • subject international trade agreements to strong sustainability and transparency criteria
  • dismantle the means by which corporations are privileged at citizens’ expense
  • dissolve the exclusive right of banks to create legal tender
  • develop local, regional and national interest-free currencies to forestall liquidity shortfall
  • progressively tax consumption – and its promotion – to minimise resource use
  • progressively tax accumulated wealth and wealth transferred out of
    New Zealand
  • prepare for increased immigration compatible with land use and infrastructure capacity
  • adopt comprehensive indicators to monitor local and national wellbeing.

We offer this list as a starting point for considering what strategies will best meet the challenges ahead, and invite the input of all concerned people to an ongoing conversation.

New Zealand Fleeing Vesuvius Project Team

Design for surviving Vesuvius – Atamai, a permaculture village

Joanna Santa Barbara

Atamai Village is an attempt to respond intelligently to the risks and opportunities outlined in other chapters of this book. Atamai villagers hope that the evolving responses in their settlement, in whole or in part, will be useful for many others, including those in urban areas.

The response needs to take into account the need to mitigate climate change and adapt to low or zero fossil fuel use, the constraints of sea-level rise over the next century, the need to step outside, as much as possible, the mainstream financial system and the importance of a local steady-state economy within the biophysical limits of the region.

Influences on design

The traditional village is seen as a resilient human settlement throughout human history, on a scale that permits some division of labour, specialisation and exchange. Villages in various cultures strike some balance between the privacy of family groupings and the benefits of direct cooperative effort for the common good. Atamai is designed as a traditional village, in that it aims at a high degree of internal food, energy and water security, and of economic exchange within the village and beyond.

It is a permaculture [1] design, adapting human purposes to the observed flow of sunlight, water and wind and to the soil and geology of the land, following natural systems in creating a diverse, multilayered food system, minimising inputs of external resources, energy and labour, using materials in cycles to produce no waste and continually optimising relationships between design elements.

Other influences on design of land use have been Yeomans’ Keyline Design principles [2] applied to water conservation. Organic and particularly biodynamic gardening principles are used in food production.

Influences on design of dwellings have been New Zealand’s Building Biology and Ecology Institute [3] and Christopher Alexander’s “pattern language”.[4]

A principle of technology use in the village was developed by Jurgen Heissner (see below): basic needs such as food production, water, energy, and sewerage must be served by simple technology, with enduring hardware, parts that can be repaired by non-experts or replaced by simple manufacturing techniques, and able to be fuelled by other than fossil fuels. Less resilient technology will be used while available and as it serves less basic village needs. Heissner calls the concept “layered technology”. All materials and machines used in the village are researched by life cycle analysis, energy efficiency, materials used, cost, durability, exchangeability of parts and so on.

The village is designed to foster a balance between independence and interdependence, social and private, and to run democratically. Extensive Common Land, about which decisions are made by consensus, fosters the communal aspect of the village.

Attention to beauty is highly valued in gardens, houses and shared areas.


The concept of a traditional village as a structure with potential resilience to climate change and peak oil was developed by Jurgen Heissner, based on observations of European villages. Heissner began to work with a small group of people in 2006, purchasing land outside Motueka, on the north coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The land saddles a ridge in the foothills of the Kahurangi Range. Much of it is steep degraded pasture land, with some gentle slopes and flats. The group, after observation and discussion of land use, began terracing slopes and planting fruit trees. A sustainable development company for the purpose of building the village infrastructure was set up. The next stage was the development of ‘Te Mara’ (The Garden), a food production area, with the creation of ponds and terraced gardens.

District Council consent was obtained for the first phase of subdivision in 2009, and prospective villagers began to purchase lots. Some began living in pre-existing houses on the land or adjacent rented houses. Construction of the first new home began in 2010. In that year consent for the second stage of subdivision of land was obtained. At this point the group was large enough to begin governing the use of the Common Land and to decide how the village would function as a social entity. The next stage will be the third and final subdivision of the planned village centre. This will bring the number of lots to about 50, for an expected population of about 150.

How does it work?

People join Atamai by purchasing their private dwelling site and a share in the Commons, and agreeing to four covenants attached to each title. Two of these apply to the physical infrastructure of the village and two apply to its social functions. They are:

Treatment of the land must comply with organic gardening (Biogro) standards.

Houses must conform with minimal eco-architecture standards regarding size, non-toxic materials, local materials, passive solar design, energy and water self-sufficiency, composting toilets and greywater use.

Decisions in the village will be reached using a consensus process.

Conflicts arising in the village will be dealt with by early resort to a process of conflict resolution. Prospective villagers agree to some training in consensus and conflict resolution.

To each lot is attached a Commons share. This land, larger in total area than the combined private lots, will be developed as a common resource for villagers.

The land – the vision and where we are so far.

Some adjacent land has been purchased by villagers joining the project with a view to eventually incorporating the whole in the village Common Lands. The lands, in total, comprise about 120 hectares, and include formerly gorse-covered degraded pastures, pine plantation, and flat land. The areas most suitable for community orchards have been planted and are already bearing fine fruit. Some of the area suitable for vegetable gardens has been planted and is producing well. The plan for a pine plantation is to progressively replace it with native and compatible exotic forest, more useful timber crops and some areas for selective firewood harvesting.

Lot sizes vary from just over half a hectare to smaller clustered lots, allowing for purchase by people of modest means, and for rental accommodation and co-housing.

The village centre plans include a plaza, a community hall, commercial-grade kitchen, café, general store and library.

Land restoration

Land restoration is a shared ethic. Land is contoured to minimise erosion and retain water. Thousands of native trees, bushes and grasses have been planted. Attention is given to planting bee, butterfly and bird attractors. Grazing of animals is managed consistent with land restoration.


Water for households is filtered roof rainwater used frugally. Household greywater is used on orchard plantings. There will be no blackwater because of the use of composting toilets.

Water for horticulture is conserved from rainfall by Keyline and Permaculture methods. Ponds have been constructed for beauty, water storage and as a fire safety facility.


The task of restoring the soil is a high priority for villagers. Organic principles of minimal external inputs are being applied. The orchard soil is being developed by biodynamic principles. An expert in large-scale composting is teaching other villagers ways of using “unwanted” biomass such as gorse, thistle and aging trees in compost heaps to increase soil fertility. A limited number of cattle have been introduced to provide manure for this purpose. There is attention to compensating for mineral deficiencies in the soil. A complex soil amendment has been developed by Heissner and others, including the use of biochar. This appears to have increased soil fertility when introduced into plantings. It will be desirable to demonstrate this in quantifiable ways.


Initial houses will be rather widely spaced to comply with district council rural residential regulations. It is planned that the later-built houses can be clustered around the village centre on small lots or as flats above shop fronts. The village uses a brick press to make earth blocks from its own soil for some of its structures. As well as attention to the several principles of eco-architecture mentioned above, there is the intention to create houses of exemplary beauty.


Thought has been given to how to produce a varied, nutritious diet on the village land. It is relatively easy to grow a great range of vegetables and fruit in the location. Olive and walnut trees have been planted for later oil production. A full-time gardener, assisted by WWOOFers,[5] works on food production. Grain production remains a challenge, with experiments proceeding. A flock of hens produces organic, free-range eggs.

Currently the harvest is placed in a small “shop” with some refrigeration. Villagers collect their food needs, record what they take, and are charged for the goods later. This will move to a box scheme, where villagers will receive a weekly assortment of the current harvest. Organic dry goods will be bought in bulk to provide villagers with lower cost food beyond village production.

One family has a milking cow which provides for several other families.

Thought is given to bioregional food production, with possibilities of using each microclimate to its greatest advantage, rather than having each household try to produce the full range of food needs. Several Permaculture designers are applying their minds to this issue.

A Community Garden is close to implementation. This will provide food and a forum for teaching and learning gardening.


Houses are powered by solar energy, active and passive, with the future possibility of wind power. Cooking is on wood-burning stoves, supplemented by gas cylinders. The wood is sustainably harvested from the land, with replanting. There is a need to develop sources of liquid fuel and gas.


The village will be car-free. Cars will be parked on the periphery. Residents will be encouraged to walk and cycle within the village and to the nearby town. There will be small electric vehicles for those who need less active transport. Electric bicycles are used to cope with the hilly contours. The intention is to move to a car-share system, with perhaps one car per four families.

Village economy

There is strong encouragement to turn first to other villagers for the provision of needs, and to improve goods and services by discussion of what is needed before purchasing from outside the village. A mechanical and engineering shop is already operating within the village, servicing the heavy machinery used for construction and land maintenance and other farm vehicles. A builder is deriving all his income from village work, as is a gardener and a landscaper. Some of these people, including the architect for several of the early dwellings and the orchardist, devote a portion of their payment to ‘sweat equity’ towards the purchase of a lot in the village. This subserves the deliberate intention to bring together villagers with the skills needed to build and maintain the village. Some of these skilled people are not in a position to purchase lots outright; the sweat equity option enables them to become part of the village.

It is hoped that a sizable proportion of villagers will have livelihoods based in whole or part in the village economy, extending from there to offer goods and services to the surrounding region.


Many villagers share the critique of the mainstream economic and financial systems ably expressed in this book. Several have been active in establishing a local currency system for the township and surrounds — Tasman Area Local Exchange Network System, or TALENTS. This system has decoupled its valuing unit from the New Zealand dollar. The value unit is one free-range egg. It is intended that villagers will be encouraged to use TALENTS in their exchanges. This will further encourage the village economy.


Decisions about the use of the Commons and about the evolving social structures of the village are made by Atamai Village Council which meets every three weeks. The consensus process is likely to undergo refinement as experience is gained. Training in facilitation will occur at intervals, along with training in consensus decision-making and in conflict management. A Code of Ethics dealing with issues such as respect, kindness, diversity, conflict and confidentiality is under development.

A Strategy Group meets to consider the impact of local, national and global context issues on Atamai, such as how to prepare for the interruption of supply chains of essential equipment.

There are working groups for Permaculture Land Use, Food Distribution, Process (of meetings and relationships) and Finance.

Social life

At the time of writing, about a score of adults and a dozen children live on or near the land, with three more families poised to join soon, and participating in decision-making by email. The current pattern is to come together for a potluck meal after a Village Council meeting, along with children and guests. Seasonal feasts are also part of the evolving pattern.

Most villagers interact with other villagers on a daily basis, often in a context of exchange of goods and services, but also for social pleasure.


Children have an important place in the village. It is a safe place for them to roam, by foot or bicycle. Playmates are close by. All adults share some responsibility for their wellbeing. There are useful tasks they can do for the common good, for example, helping with stacking hay. Adults beyond parents are at hand to admire their accomplishments, and potentially to teach them things.


Learning is the priority task of children, but is important for every village member, at all ages. People joining the village so far have skills in horticulture, eco-building, woodworking, eco-architecture, business, landscaping, health (mainstream and alternative), psychology, heavy equipment use, mechanics, peace studies, education, engineering, computer hardware and software systems, project management, alternative energy systems and accountancy. Almost everyone identifies the need to advance in knowledge in some of their areas of lesser expertise.

Many of those with children are strongly oriented towards the Steiner type of education, and there is discussion about the possibility of having a Steiner school in the village. The village itself is seen as a fine context for education at all ages. Children can be included in various kinds of work as helpers, and learn as they go. Those with more knowledge in certain areas, for example, horticulture, can advise others as they observe their gardens.

In this early stage of village development, learning needs have been identified in the areas of meeting facilitation, consensus process and conflict resolution.

A problem of traditional villages in times before easy access to travel and communication has been their limited, constricted knowledge stock, and the absence of outside stimulus. For some villagers, the intellectual environment has been boring and stultifying. They have needed to go to centres of greater population concentration for more advanced education and many have been glad to get away. This has been one of the causes for the global decline of villages. Initially, this is not a problem for Atamai Village. Internet connection enables rich access to unlimited knowledge stocks, and interaction with others. Some village members work on international projects and engage in knowledge production with collaborators on the other side of the world. It is also the case that, while uneasily aware of the contribution to carbon emissions, members visit large cities in New Zealand and overseas.

Air travel is becoming more expensive and is a heavily carbon-emitting activity; our future is likely to involve much less movement across large distances. The permanency of Internet connection to knowledge stocks is not certain. In the future, Atamai and all other human settlements may need to put effort into providing cross-global knowledge and stimulation for learning, sending people out and bringing people in for cross-fertilisation. Maintaining a fertile learning environment may need attention and resources. We will need “vertical” transmission of knowledge to the young, and “horizontal” knowledge exchange with the rest of the world.


Much about village life exerts positive influences on health. A vegetable-based diet of fresh, uncontaminated food is a good start. The demand for more active ways of moving around — walking and cycling — will add to population health in the village group. Perhaps more important than either of these are two social factors. Firstly, the friendly social relationships possible in a village and the trust that there are people around who care about each person are strongly conducive to good health. Secondly, empowerment to contribute to decisions that affect one’s life is important to mental and physical health.

Currently, villagers get almost all their health care outside the village. As constraints take hold, it may prove very helpful that among the villagers, there is a significant stock of health knowledge of various kinds, including how to grow and use medicinal herbs.

Social responsibility

Villagers bring with them varying proportions of commitment to personal good, family good, national and global good. From the beginning, there has been the idea of an attempt to show others how it is possible to live in harmony with Nature, as a contribution to broader social good.

Some members see this as one level of action, and experience an imperative to act at a regional, national and global level. A third of the villagers has been involved in the Transition Town movement in nearby Motueka. The village sponsors a fortnightly radio show on Transition relevant issues, and provides significant players for the local currency organisation. Members are involved in projects of national or global reach in peace education, climate change activism, other ecological issues and financial system issues.

It has been felt important to foster a relationship with local Maori iwi; this has begun.

For many villagers, it seems that one of the best contributions they can make to the Common Good is to show how to live well and sustainably together.

Curves ahead

There is concern that it will not be possible to establish the village as a viable economic entity before tumultuous changes affect much that is taken for granted. The concern about severed supply chains of essential goods motivates Atamai to try to acquire these things as soon as possible. However, the costs of land development are enormous, leaving few funds for such purchases.

To be fuel self-sufficient as well as food self-sufficient, the village would need to double its land assets, and is beginning to examine this issue.

There is abundant research informing us of the importance of social equity for a multiplicity of social benefits, particularly health. While people enter the village with a considerable range of differences in wealth, it will be very important to be watchful about experience of inequity in the village.

A true steady-state economy within bioregional limits will mean a steady-state population as well. This means deliberation in limiting population growth, with adoption of a norm of two children per family, or fewer for regions that are already overpopulated. For the village, it is likely that continuing access to reproductive health services will lead to this level without need for further effort. But can we rely on the sustained availability of the means for fertility control?

In the direst projected scenarios of the future, where food production has been affected and people are deprived, hungry and on the move, it is possible to imagine a village like Atamai being invaded by aggressors. There are so many pressing developmental issues that this has not been seriously discussed. The tentative thinking at this point is that the best defence is abundance, enabling villagers to say, “There is room for you at our table, if you will work alongside us.”[6]


Atamai offers a promising (and exciting) experiment in living for those who are fleeing Vesuvius.


  1. Permaculture is a contraction of “permanent agriculture”, but has come to mean a good deal more. It is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that are modelled on the relationships found in natural ecologies. See Wikipedia.
  2. Yeomans P.A. (1954) The Keyline Plan. Free online version: http://www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/010125yeomans/010125toc.html
  3. Building Biology and Ecology Institute. http://www.ecoprojects.co.nz/
  4. Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein. (1977) A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Oxford University Press, USA.; The Nature of Order: Books 1-4 (2002-2004) Center for Environmental Structure, USA.
  5. Willing Workers On Organic Farms – an international organisation whereby half-time labour is exchanged for bed and board.
  6. Inspired by Starhawk in The Fifth Sacred Thing NY: Bantam, 1993.

Will New Zealand be the first developed country to evolve a steady-state economy?

Jack Santa Barbara

New Zealand will inevitably make a transition to a steady-state economy. The onset of energy descent — having less and less energy to use with each passing decade — will push it to do so sooner rather than later. The critical question is whether the transition to a steady-state economy will be by design or disaster.

It is a safe prediction that New Zealand will eventually develop a steady-state economy, one characterised by stable or mildly fluctuating levels in population and consumption of energy and materials, with birth rates on par with death rates, and production on par with depreciation, all within levels of material throughput that do not exceed ecological limits.[1]

This is the inevitable outcome for all nations whether they set this goal or not. The reality of a steady-state economy will be determined in the end by non-negotiable natural laws rather than government edicts. How well human needs will be met in this process will be determined by whether we accept the challenge of ensuring our policies and practices are compatible with these natural laws. If they are, we have some chance of evolving a desirable steady-state economy that meets human needs into the foreseeable future — the good design scenario. If we continue policies which violate these natural laws we will also get to a steady-state economy — but one which is so degraded that it provides little output for human wellbeing — the disaster scenario.

Human civilisation’s current economic growth paradigm is unsustainable and headed for the disaster option. Our economic activities are totally dependent on the global ecosystems they are currently destroying. Governments may delay the disaster scenario with inadequate “green initiatives”, but only at the cost of yet more life-supporting ecosystems and the human carrying capacity of Mother Earth. The critical question is whether the transition to a steady-state economy will be by design or disaster.

As a “developed” country, New Zealand is highly dependent on fossil fuels for its economy: international tourism, the production and export of food and timber, domestic transportation, agriculture and housing. New Zealand’s economy will change dramatically as it loses access, whether through geologic depletion or market exclusion, to relatively cheap hydrocarbon energy. Energy is key to a sustainable and just society.

New Zealand’s geographic isolation will be a major factor in its experience of energy descent. A relatively small market at the far end of the energy supply chain, New Zealand is particularly vulnerable to both reduced supplies and high energy prices — one of the easiest customers to drop in favour of larger, closer and more lucrative markets. A market-driven energy decline could be both unexpected and abrupt.

A serious danger is that New Zealand will increase its foreign debt to maintain energy and other vital supplies. The ensuing debt slavery would quickly erode the nation’s autonomy and accelerate the depletion of its natural resources. New Zealand’s natural endowments may attract imperial powers willing to use both economic and military advantages to secure its resources for their own use. This “disaster” path to a steady-state economy will enrich a few in the short term but devastate New Zealand’s land, impoverish its people and ensure a bleak future for generations to come. Unless it is challenged, the current growth-oriented political mindset, influenced as it is by wealthy vested interests, will see this course vigorously pursued.

There is an exciting and inspiring alternative to this negative scenario: New Zealand appreciates that it will be the first developed country to seriously suffer from energy descent and prepares accordingly. New Zealand has a unique opportunity to provide global leadership in the transition to a steady-state economy unfolding by design rather than disaster.

If New Zealand is to make the transition to a culture and economy that is ecologically sustainable, socially just, healthy and invigorating, it will need to dramatically change the structure of its economy. Instead of exporting natural resources, it will need to export practical sustainability knowledge and expertise for all facets of an energy-descent economy — an expertise likely to be in high demand as the world wakes up to the impending crises ahead.

Self-protection is another reason for New Zealand to make the transition. As the world’s impending climate, economic and social crises unfold, a business-as-usual New Zealand will attract climate refugees and wealthy security-seekers, hastening the destruction of our ecosystems. Setting a national goal of transitioning to a steady-state economy would attract instead those eager and able to contribute to such a transition.

Becoming a unique global resource for practical sustainability education and consulting may afford New Zealand international protection and its best chance of retaining its sovereignty and controlling its own destiny. Can New Zealand make this transition to a steady-state economy? And what would it take to do so?

New Zealand has many advantages over other nations in terms of becoming a leader in practical sustainability:

  • The capacity to feed itself (although it currently imports about half its food)
  • Geographical isolation from most population centres, making mass migration difficult
  • A small population relative to the biocapacity [2] of its land
  • A climate likely to be less affected by climate change than that of many highly populated areas
  • A minimal number of large cities obliged to undergo radical adaptations in the face of global change
  • Many small rural communities that could be expanded and redesigned to be sustainable
  • Traditional frugality and practicality, still flourishing in much of the population
  • A residual core of knowledge and skills required to restart essential local industries
  • A literate and well-educated population with access to technical training facilities
  • A tradition of parliamentary democracy helping to facilitate the increased levels of cooperation required for various groups to contribute to the transition.

A strategy also requires an honest assessment of liabilities. Some of the obstacles to such a new vision for New Zealand include:

  • A widespread commitment to economic growth which has been responsible for the crises New Zealanders now face (New Zealanders have all benefited from this economic model and a new paradigm will challenge some basic beliefs about what constitutes the good life — for example, the role of material goods for wellbeing; the efficiency and innovativeness of corporations; the possibility of a highly industrialized economy.)
  • Some vested interests intensely committed to maintaining the growth paradigm as it gives them considerable power (for example, some politicians and the elites that have undue influence over them)
  • International pressures to provide for needs abroad, such as food, coal and immigration
  • The nation’s current foreign debt and any additional debt it takes on
  • Uncertainty about the magnitude and timing of the impending crises on New Zealand (This makes planning difficult as planning at leisure is different from planning on the brink of disaster and New Zealand has little way of knowing how close it is to the latter.)
  • The possibility that the rate and magnitude of changes coming will overwhelm people and push the country to a disaster steady state faster than it can manage a transition that allows it to optimise its physical and social resources
  • Inertia and despair as a result of coming to understand the profound harm humans have collectively done to Mother Earth and the extent of change required for a healthy, sustainable future.

Daunting as the challenges may be, New Zealand has little choice but to eagerly and earnestly take them on, as the longer they are left the more difficult it will be as the country’s options diminish.

No developed country has yet made the transition to a steady-state economy. What might such an economy look like, and what kinds of policy initiatives would be required to move in that direction?

The rationale for such an economy and how it might function has been outlined by the Centre for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy.[3] All of the policy initiatives identified have already been used in one jurisdiction or another, but they have not yet been integrated into a policy suite specifically designed to transition to a steady-state economy. An economic simulation in Canada has demonstrated that an industrialised economy without growth can lead to many benefits: high employment, no inflation, poverty reduction — even meeting Kyoto GHG emission targets.[4]

A similar exploration of the implications for the New Zealand economy is currently being sponsored by Sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand (SANZ). SANZ has also developed a comprehensive set of national goals for a strong sustainability[5] scenario for New Zealand, taking into account the profound changes that will flow from a significant decline in energy availability over the coming decades.

Currently, the average New Zealander uses the energy equivalent of several dozen “energy slaves” — the energy output of an average person on a 24/7 basis. Without fossil fuels this level of use cannot continue, not even with a combination of renewable energy sources — the only ones which are sustainable.[6] Consequently, as fossil fuels decline there will be massive changes to more animal and human power, as well as renewables, to meet basic necessities. 

Food is our most basic energy source. Food production will require many more hands and a programme of re-ruralisation to bring people and production sites together.  Other basic items — clothing, furniture and tools — will also need to be made locally. The more skilled labour that can be applied to these tasks, the more effectively and efficiently this can be done. So the questions become: what work is most essential for human wellbeing? How do people obtain the skills to succeed at this work? And how do people get distributed to where the work is (in rural areas, for example)?

The traditional Kiwi is multiskilled and practical. But with less energy available per capita, New Zealanders will have to stretch their creativity and relearn skills relating to simpler and more durable technologies. There will be many fewer white- and pink-collar jobs, more manual labour, more use of animals for work and transport. Relocating human infrastructure as a result of rising sea levels will affect much of New Zealand. Continuing to build infrastructure in areas of risk is a waste of increasingly precious resources.

An energy descent perspective recognises that the industrialised model of civilisation will eventually disappear. Without fossil fuels, much of industrial production will significantly decline. Our global culture based on a “mining” paradigm needs to be transformed to optimise a sustainable harvesting culture. Whatever remaining industrial production and goods we can muster need to be directed to this end. Simply prolonging industrial culture for its own sake will leave future generations with much less to harvest.  

Learning to provide locally for necessities will be crucial. Business models will change dramatically as business becomes localised. Local community firms will become more environmentally sensitive, rating environmental impact over efficiency as they adopt sustainable business processes.

The idea that large corporations can or should continue is questionable. Large corporations suck in resources from afar, for the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many. In less than a decade there will be less than half the petroleum currently available from conventional sources. Less and less energy will actually be available to do work other than to extract more energy. The only kinds of corporations able to continue working in this environment may be state-controlled ones. There is considerable danger that only the privileged few will have access to state- or corporate-controlled goods and services.

Healthy market competition involves many small producers, none of whom can set prices or make excessive profits. The subsidiarity [7] principle suggests that firms should be local or regional unless a larger scale is required. Corporations for specific purposes that cannot be met by small local or regional firms may emerge if there are essential goods or services that require some very specialised inputs or economies of scale. Such enterprises will likely be few and far between and could be versions of the temporary corporations originally established a few centuries ago to spread risk and dissolved as soon as the projects were completed. Different corporate structures such as cooperatives or employee-owned businesses may also be desirable.

Trade rules need to change. Sustainable trade requires that trade should occur only if a region is not exporting biocapacity required for its own basic needs; similarly, imports should occur only if they are not depleting biocapacity needed in the region where the goods are produced. Learning to live within the biocapacity of one’s region will become essential.

For New Zealand this means a complete review of its export model to ensure that biocapacity ceases to be exported and degraded. Forestry currently degrades soil, dairy farming degrades water and stock production degrades both. New Zealand’s current biocapacity excess will shrink as Kiwis living abroad return home and new immigrants arrive. Preserving this excess will be an increasing challenge; continuing its current export model will bring New Zealand to a biocapacity deficit.

To continue exporting non-renewable resources to raise revenue is self-defeating, because New Zealand will never again have access to resources it trades away. Retaining resources provides greater security than fiat currencies vulnerable to national or global financial market collapse. Above all, land, water and ecosystems should not be destroyed to extract non-renewable resources for profit or economic growth. Energy descent requires that New Zealand become much more self-sufficient.

Energy descent will impact governments dramatically. Less energy means less economic growth, less government revenue and fewer government support services. The unravelling of the global economy is already evident in the rising national debt and widening austerity programmes of several nations.

Crises increase the risk of more authoritarian governments, the shrinking of individual freedoms and the confiscation of resources for the use of the elite few. In the aftermath of Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake, for example, the New Zealand parliament passed legislation waiving individual ministers’ accountability to parliament.[8] Could such powers be continued or extended to confiscation of public and private resources in times of “national emergencies”, however defined?

Strategies for change which focus exclusively on politicians and the media will miss the real power centres which have the capacity to make, or obstruct, the kinds of radical changes needed — the largely invisible oligarchy.[9] An effective change strategy must include a focus on identifying who they are, how they operate, how they disproportionately benefit from the existing growth paradigm and how they are disproportionately responsible for many of the ills this paradigm has wrought on Mother Earth.[10] While New Zealanders support and benefit from the current growth paradigm in many ways, the oligarchs ensure that policies are in place to make it continue and expand — they are the only ones who have the influence to make, or obstruct, significant changes as rapidly as needed.

It is prudent, given the uncertainty about the timing and magnitude of impending changes, to adopt a risk management approach — to assume that significant change can be rapid and to be as prepared as possible as soon as possible. The majority of New Zealanders is in denial about the nature and scale of the problems the country faces. When crises hit the majority, people will need massive support. Preparing stores of essential resources such as food and water, along with a capacity to teach the basic skills people will need to survive and thrive, would be both prudent and helpful.

To prepare is to take significant steps toward a sustainable lifestyle — such as participating in a Transition Towns initiative [11] or starting an ecovillage.[12]  Such actions would: 1) offer some security for a family; 2) provide a secure setting from which to continue broader work on a steady state economy; 3) constitute an example for others to follow or at least learn from; 4) lighten the burden on ecosystems. Bold actions will be noted — ‘being the change we wish to see’ can be a powerful and inspiring motivator. Conferences and books are useful only insofar as they lead to action toward strong sustainability and a steady state economy.

The significant changes all New Zealanders need to make will not be easy. But the most important changes are under personal control, for they are internal — for example, where to place priorities and where to expect our genuine happiness, wellbeing and security to come from. Both planning and monitoring progress in this transition requires a focus on meeting universal human needs: survival (food, water, shelter), comfort or freedom from drudgery, freedom (of association, beliefs and expression), and identity (language, religion and ethnicity).[13]

For fellow New Zealanders: however challenging the path ahead, it will be joyous and satisfying to work with other like-minded families and communities to ensure our collective survival and wellbeing. We know what has to be done — let’s do whatever aspects are in our power, now.


  1. Daly, H. (1991) Steady-State Economics, 2nd edition. Island Press, Washington, DC.
  2. Biocapacity is the capacity of natural ecosystems to provide services important to human wellbeing — from food, fuel and fibre to flood control and biodiversity, etc. (See Wachernagel, M., and Rees, W. (1996) Our Ecological Footprint, Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada: New Society Publishers)
  3. See www.steadystate.org
  4. See Victor, P. A. (2008) Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design Not Disaster, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
  5. Strong sustainability is defined and described in Strong Sustainability for New Zealand: Principles and Scenarios, published by Sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand Inc (SANZ) (2009), Nakedize Limited publication. See also the SANZ website www.phase2.org
  6. See Heinberg, R. (2009) Searching For a Miracle: Net Energy Limits and the Fate of Industrial Society. Forum on Globalisation and The Post Carbon Institute.
  7. Subsidiarity is an organising principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least-centralised competent authority. This is the level with the most intimate knowledge of the situation, the level with the greatest interest in the issues, and the level most likely to be affected by the issues.
  8. See “Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Bill”
  9. See Domhoff, G. W. (2011) Wealth, Income, and Power, September 2005 (updated January 2011) http://sociology.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html; Winters, J.A. (2011) Oligarchy, Cambridge University Press; McQuaig, L. And Brooks, N. (2010) The Trouble with Billionaires, Viking Canada.
  10. See Kempf, H. (2007) How the Rich are Destroying the Earth. Editions du Seuil.
  11. See Hopkins, R. (2008) The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience, Green Books Ltd, Totnes, Devon, and the Transition Towns New Zealand website
  12. Santa Barbara, J. (2011) “Design for surviving Vesuvius — Atamai, a permaculture village”,
    [This book]; also visit www.atamai.co.nz
  13. Galtung, J. (1980) “The Basic Needs Approach”, in Lederer, K., Antal, D. and Galtung, J. (Eds), Human Needs: A Contribution to the Current Debate, Cambridge, MA. Oelgeschlager,
    Gunn & Hain; Königstein: Anton Hain, (Science Center Berlin, Publications, 12.)