Monday, September 13, 2010

Ecological overshoot

Last week the human species went into debt. Not financial debt, but in something far more important – the service flows of the environment. Money is just something we made up, useful but ultimately illusory. If we go into ecological debt, on the other hand, there is no government or lending establishment that can bail us out. There are no appeal rights against the laws of nature.

It's a simple idea. Think of it like a business. If it spends more than its income, eating into its capital, it will eventually go bust. A family budget is the same. If times are hard you may have to spend some of your savings on groceries and rent but sooner or later you have to learn to live within your income.

Natural resources are the same. We cannot continually take more resources than the environment can regenerate, yet most wealthy countries live far beyond their environmental means. If everyone in the world lived like the average American we would need the resources of at least 5 planets. For the UK it is 3.4 planets, and New Zealand is probably somewhere around there. The per capita consumption of China is estimated to be close to one planet living.

I personally don't aspire to the lifestyle of the average chinese, so I'm interested in how we reduce our consumption without losing our quality of life? Which begs the question of what it is that makes the 'good' life. It's something that we don't seem to much ask ourselves these days, obsessed as we are with living the 'big' life. We have locked ourselves into a growth frenzy that makes us work harder for less happiness. Most people have less time to spend with their family or their friends, less time to walk along the river bank or share a meal together and less financial security despite the economic growth of the past few decades.

Much politics is focussed on cutting spending on the things that make people happier in order to boost spending on things to increase economic growth. It is assumed that this will make us better off, although there is no evidence to think so. In my opinion, it is time that we began to invest in infrastructure to improve the well-being of our people. Not because it will boost tourism, not because studies show that happy citizens are more productive, not because it will give savings in the health sector, but simply because it will make us all better off in the only terms that really matter – enjoyment of life.

One of the candidates for Hamilton City Council, Mark Servian, has said “A community is a home, not a business, so council spending decisions should be based on 'cost-benefit', NOT 'profit-loss'. Neither a household or a firm can let itself go broke, but the city is first and foremost where we live our lives. The council is our shared project for making our collective home much more pleasant”. I agree. It is a pretty bleak vision that sees pavements, drains and rubbish as the only things councils should be interested in. In my view we will learn to live within our ecological means by living better lives and local councils have a major role to play in that..

One obvious strategy in Hamilton is to invest in making it a more walkable, cyclable city. With our flat streets, our gully system, our river banks and our parks it is hard to imagine a place better suited for it. This could be combined with a functioning passenger rail service to Auckland and better cycle and public transport connections to outlier towns to make getting around a joy rather than a source of road rage. I wouldn't be the only one that would be both happier and greener because of it.

(from my Waikato Times column)

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