Understanding ourselves is the first step to solving climate change and tackling global challenges.
As plant ecologist Heinrich Walter (Born 1898) wrote in his 1st edition book (1973),
"The population explosion and subsequent urbanisation, as well as the ever-increasing disruption of nature including pollution of air and water, currently present the greatest dangers to the physical and psychical well-being of mankind."
Fifty years on, we are still clashing over the impacts of human activity on global challenges like the climate and affordable, accessible food.
Short-termism, well, it's election year...
In Aotearoa New Zealand, we're gearing up for elections in mid-October. This provides the perfect opportunity to dissect the nation's mood, critique politicians' shortsightedness, and express our collective outrage when our perspectives aren't mirrored in their media sound bites or decisions.
Being from the UK, Welsh in ancestry, and having attended a university in Scotland, I get a double/triple opportunity; I still can't move on from the 'Truss' debacle.
Against the backdrop of the cost of living crisis (No. 1 issue according to the Essential Report), Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Finance Minister Grant Robertson recently announced budget cuts, including a significant slash of $236 million from Aotearoa's climate action policy. Meanwhile, the opposition (National) is toying with a 'carbon dividend' concept mirroring the Canadian system, which has been met with scepticism by James Shaw, the Greens Co-leader and current Climate Change Minister, who scoffed,
"If anything, the last few years have shown us that actually the revenue that you've got coming in from the Emissions Trading Scheme itself isn't adequate to the scale of the challenge."
The key phrase amidst all the economic jargon is "the scale of the challenge." The language of economists and politicians often obscures it, but it's critical.
Scale for what we face (global challenges beyond just climate change),
Scale for what we need to do (get our natural ecosystems back in sync and reduce social inequalities),
Scale to persuade people to act (for their well-being, health and happiness).
New Zealand reporter Marc Daalder succinctly said,
"The two big parties have clued into the fact New Zealanders are increasingly concerned about climate change – but they're also aware the average voter has little real understanding of it."
This factor has been used to muddle the narrative and create uncertainty here in Aotearoa and also globally.
The role of social capital in supporting climate action in Aotearoa
Academics often discuss the erosion of social capital (trust) and growing inequalities. It's well-documented that distrust in public institutions creates volatility in society, and financial inequalities lead to spatial segregation, re-enforcing our echo chambers with likeminded people who share our beliefs and values and expanding the gulf between how people live their lives - increasing the risk that we can no longer understand each other and thus prefer the status quo.
Living in an uncertain world spurs some people to embrace reality, explore different worldviews and be progressive. In contrast, others often struggle and fight change because they fear their identities, beliefs and lifestyles are threatened.
Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, amidst this sea of change, lies the reality that climate volatility threatens the very livelihoods of those who have long defined Aotearoa's identity – its farmers and growers. The Free Trade Agreement with the European Union underscores the gravity of this situation. Signed by Damien O'Connor in July, the deal was a first for the two parties in that it commits both entities to their climate commitments under the Paris Agreement. Bottomline - if New Zealand doesn't reduce its greenhouse gases by 30 per cent by 2030 - it could face sanctions or be cut off by the EU.
Despite this, some rural leaders cling to short-term market solutions, ignoring global trends in sustainability and population peaks and the development of in-market agricultural and food processing expertise, as witnessed in China.
Navigating this volatile world, therefore, becomes even more complex when the loudest voices drown out quieter, diverse perspectives.
Innovation and our mental model
In Aotearoa New Zealand, and the UK, we talk a lot about 'Innovation'; in fact, it's a word that is on the lips of most government development agencies and politicians globally to explain increasing productivity, competitive advantage and how nations will keep growing their economy.
This industrial worldview is held by most business schools and mainstream marketing, who believe in unlimited economic growth, free markets, the value of increasing consumption of products and services, and that technological solutions will solve all environmental problems.
Sustainable development, while it believes in growth, differs from the traditional view of 'growth' at all costs. The key is very much about reducing consumption and production and using new and 'innovative' business models to keep us within the nine planetary boundaries, and protecting our communities and society at large.
Developing a paradigm shift
This week, I listened to the sage economist Prof. Jeffery Sachs on well-being, expert in carbon pricing Dr Christina Hood on the ETS and carbon credits and farm systems expert Dr David Chapman on Pasture productivity. Why? Because as pragmatists in the sustainability space, our role is to apply systems thinking to challenges and think outside the box, disrupting business as usual and designing new and sustainable business models.
Going back to Marc Daalder's point, it is no surprise that New Zealanders and other nationalities don't understand sustainability - the nine planetary boundaries, social justice & how to grow based on sustainable development and the circular economy. Why? Because the education and knowledge-sharing for fact-led debate at the citizen level had been largely ignored. Instead, in Aotearoa, like many other nations trying to create pathways for Net Zero, GHG emissions and, in particular, methane have overtaken the dialogue, held together with a good smattering of misinformation.
Well-being and its place in the modern economy
This brings us to well-being - Aotearoa New Zealand, is one of six national governments - Scotland, Iceland, Wales, Finland, Canada and New Zealand - that comprise the Well-being Economy Governments partnership (WEGo). The purpose is to shift thinking from just using GDP as the main economic success metric to focusing on metrics to measure people and the planet's well-being and sustainable growth. Hence, solutions are people-focused and geared toward environmental protection. It's nothing new, Aristotle, came up with the idea many centuries ago.
So why are we still fighting about climate action and think inequity in society is okay?
It seems the cost of living crisis has reinforced the cost narrative towards sustainable practices rather than focusing on an investment narrative typically adopted in a business environment. From a consumer point of view, we don't always see the woods for the trees, and realise that sustainable lifestyles can actually save us money, are healthier and help to solve other issues we are concerned about.
Awareness of our biases. By this, I mean businesses and individuals haven't been supported to understand how their existing worldviews, identities, and biases limit a shift in thinking to solve global challenges. Instead, we are applying past economic models which have, in many ways, caused the global challenges we face today.
Aotearoa's competitive advantage
Aotearoa has a unique opportunity to embrace:
the international perception that we are clean and green,
society's growing understanding of manaakitanga and mana, cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge,
to create sustainable (socially and environmentally) value-added products and services decoupled from fossil fuels and working in sync with nature. But in a data-led, & social media-driven world worried about overreaching 1.5 Degrees, this needs to be authentic and transparent.
A modern economy
Regardless of political affiliation, worldviews, identities, and biases dictate the reactions of politicians like Chris Hipkins and Chris Luxon.
The path forward, though, requires a transformation of leadership, communication, and mindset. With strong and diverse leadership, Aotearoa can lead the way, demonstrating to economic partners that sustainability isn't just a concept linked to GHG emissions and Net Zero but a tangible reality embracing well-being, innovation and care for the world around us.
However, as social science reminds us - mindset shifts must precede policy changes.
If you would like to find out more about SDG Changemakers's work, please get in touch.
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