I can't help wondering whether the Government and the mining industry are using the same PR company, after hearing their chorus about the need to 'balance the ledger'. To be fair, perhaps Gerry Brownlee is just borrowing the industry's lines, as he did its inflated accounts of how much money is to be made digging up our national parks.
It wouldn't be surprising though. National has now admitted that it “may” have told the mining industry that it was interested in opening up mining in NZ a good two years before the 2008 election, and almost four years before it told the rest of us. Having read in Nicky Hager's well documented book 'The Hollow Men' about the cynical manipulation of the public by the National Party (including 'faulty memory' about its collusion with the Exclusive Brethren) in the run up to the 2005 election, you'd have to forgive me for seeing a pattern here. In particular because while Don Brash fell on his sword, other characters implicated in the book, including John Key and Steven Joyce, remain in place.
For all his relaxed approach to the facts, though, I haven't yet heard Mr Brownlee try to repeat the assertion made by Doug Gordon, the head of the Mining Industries Association, that mining is a sustainable industry. I had to laugh really. Mining is the epitome of unsustainable. Regardless of how sensitively you do it, mining consists of digging up non-renewable resources. It doesn't take a PhD in maths to realise that this means it has a limited future.
That is not to say that mining could not be part of a sustainability plan, if we ever elected a Government with the wit to develop one. Unfortunately both National and Labour's grasp of the concept of sustainability seem to be as shallow as Mr Gordon's. They all seem to think that sustainability is no more than a marketing brand.
There are two main approaches to sustainability – what are called 'weak' and 'strong' sustainability. A weak sustainability approach recognises the existence of different kinds of capital – manufactured, social, natural etc - and says that to be sustainable the totality of capital needs to be preserved. Under this perspective logging old growth forests will sustainable if we invest the scarcity rent into other forms of capital development, such as knowledge. Rod Oram makes an interesting case for a variation of this approach in relation to the current mining debate.
An ecological approach says that you cannot substitute natural capital with other kinds of capital. The total sum of natural capital must be maintained seperately. In addition some specific ecosystems are so important that they must be preserved. Herman Daly operationalised this by saying that to be sustainable we need to ensure that:
1/ We do not harvest renewable resources at a faster rate than they can regenerate
2/ We do not pollute beyond the capacity of the receiving ecosystem to assimilate the pollution
3/ We do not use non-renewable resources faster than we develop renewable alternatives
Self evident, I would have thought. Yet the thinking that is driving the government, including in the current debate around mining, fails to address these issues at all. It seems to come down to a desperate search for money to flush through the system. Yes, we do need to balance our national accounts, but to dig up our mineral wealth and use it to fund our current profligate lifestyles is both stupid and immoral. It is akin to inheriting a beautiful house and dismantling parts of it to flog off the timber to pay for dining out and fast cars.
When it comes to the need to balance the ledger, the most critical account to balance is the environmental one. We are living way beyond our means. The discussion around mining might not be so depressing if it was part of a plan to generate capital to move this country towards sustainability. It could have been part of a comprehensive rethink that included the recent tax review, the massive infrastructural investments in transport, the RMA changes, local government changes... these now wasted opportunities might all have been elements of a strategic plan to prepare New Zealand for the carbon constrained, low energy future facing the world this century. Instead it looks like the government intends us to dig up some of the most beautiful places in the world, consume the proceeds and flush the end product down the loo.
(from my TV3 blog)