Friday, January 29, 2010

The satanic versus

The core of the issue confronting us all is summed up
in the headline a few days ago on a Press article
examining the policy options open to the Government:


There we have it. A perfectly normal proposition, it
seems, based on the idea that ‘economic’ gains might
come at a cost to the ‘environment,’ and that there
must be tradeoffs between the two. But there is no two.
There is only one. The economy is the environment is
the economy. To say ECONOMY VS ENVIRONMENT
. It enables 'the environment'—actually, the air
we breathe, the ground we walk on, the world we live in,
everything that sustains life—to be consigned to a sort
of manipulable category like the price of milk or the
rate of unemployment. We will begin to make real
human progress the day that enough of us perceive that
is a meaningless statement,
and that continuing to give it credence is possibly the
single greatest impediment to the betterment of the
planet we inhabit.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Mark his words

Someone who gets a big mention in Kennedy Warne’s
article on Manapouri is Alan Mark, the Otago University
botanist whose assessment of the environmental effects
of raising the lake ‘revealed just how delicately poised the
lake-shore vegetation was, and that the consequences of
interfering were “a great deal more far-reaching and
unforeseen than the Ministry of Works engineers
suggested”.’ Forty years on, Mark continues to resist
what might be called economic overreach; just this month
he has been in the news for expressing astonishment and
revulsion at the idea, floated by energy minister Gerry
Brownlee, that Department of Conservation land should
be opened up to exploitation of its mineral resources.
Mark told the Otago Daily Times that he had written to
prime minister John Key warning him that, though New
Zealand was seen as a leader in the way it handled many
environmental and conservation issues, that image was
fast being eroded by proposals such as this one. 'We're
way back and losing ground fast,’ said Mark. ‘You could
almost despair.’ You could indeed—but we won’t, will we
—especially so long as Brownlee keeps bulldozing ideas
into the public arena. His latest is a highway through
Fiordland from Haast to Hollyford Valley, a road that, in
the view of Forest & Bird, ‘would drive a dagger through
the wilderness of southern South Westland.’ Says
Brownlee: ‘I'm personally supportive of it but it's not
something that the Government is actually considering at
the present time.’ For which read: it’s very much on the
agenda. Between Brownlee and transport minister Steven
Joyce, with the backing of Key and finance minister Bill
English, this government would happily pave paradise
and put up a parking lot.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The unraised lake

For an illuminating insight into the perils of industrial
‘progress’ I warmly recommend Kennedy Warne’s
article on Manapouri in New Zealand Geographic
(November/December 2009: the first few paragraphs
are here). It’s a masterly summary of the fight in the
late 1960s and early 70s to save Lake Manapouri from
being raised for a hydro-electric power scheme—a fight
that, in effect, gave birth to the modern conservation
movement in New Zealand. It begins thus—

On March 5, 1959, Charles Turner, engineer-in-
chief of the Ministry of Works, addressed the
Southland Progress League in Invercargill. The
country’s prosperity, he told the meeting, was
‘balanced on too narrow a base.’ The time was
ripe for ‘exporting our rainfall in some other
form than meat or wool.’

—and goes on to tell us that Turner believed it would be
a ‘crime against humanity’ not to exploit the lake’s
energy potential. ‘I cannot support the philosophy,’
Warne quotes him as saying, ‘that the natural beauties
accessible to the few should necessarily be preserved
to the detriment of the many.’

The few and the many: yes. How exactly do you define
those groups again? Turner, it seems, didn’t bother;
nor did the Labour and National governments of the
day, which unconditionally supported the idea of
raising the lake. Only a long and dedicated public
campaign was able to overturn the decision and save
the lake in the teeth of all the usual arguments about
increasing economic prosperity etc (‘economic’ being
defined in exclusively monetary terms, of course).
Warne has dug out a delicious quote: as late as 1971
prime minister Keith Holyoake was telling the people,
‘If you do not know why we do a certain thing, just
rely on our judgment.’

In these 14 pages of New Zealand Geographic you will
find the whole history of the Manapouri debate
concisely and memorably retold. But it’s not just a
useful source of information (the Southland Progress
League!): from first word to final full stop it’s a
beautifully composed piece of journalism, in which the
historical research is seamlessly interwoven with fresh
interviews and the writer’s own personal impressions
of a recent trip to the area. Having written hundreds of
magazine features myself, I think I know an
outstanding example of the craft when I see it—and this
is one. Kennedy Warne, these days a freelance, was the
founding editor of New Zealand Geographic: there’s a
handsome tribute to him from current editor James
Frankham at the back of this same issue. It closes with
something that still inspires Warne—the words on the
motto of an old newspaper he once came across:

For the cause that lacks assistance,
For the wrong that needs resistance,
For the future in the distance
And the good that we can do.

You could do worse than pin that to your wall, along
with this, from Ogden Nash:

Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Double standard

A very good point is made here by the Labour MP Stuart
Nash. He simply makes a connection of the kind people
don't always readily make, even though it may be staring
us in the face. Nash points out that

(a) Not six months ago Social Development Minister
Paula Bennett released the income details of two solo
mothers after they publicly criticized the Government’s
decision to scrap the training incentive allowance for
welfare beneficiaries;

(b) and now we hear that the IRD reckons 300
property investors have dodged paying millions in
taxes by juggling their accounts—one is believed to
have not disclosed $8 million of profits. (Nash doesn't
say this but it seems some millionaire property
investors cook the books so cleverly that their official
income has been reduced to a point where they qualify
for Working for Families payments.)

So how come, Nash wonders, the tax dodgers aren't
named and shamed by a government minister too?
Because as things stand, you may say, it hasn't been
proved that they broke the law. But then, neither had
the two solo mothers...

At this point it seems appropriate to quote Sherlock
Holmes, who said: 'It is my belief, Watson, founded upon
my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London
do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the
smiling and beautiful countryside.'

For 'lowest and vilest alleys in London' substitute 'the
poor and the powerless,' and for 'smiling and beautiful
countryside' substitute 'the world of big money and men
in suits,' and there you have it. Elementary, my d.w.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Basin reservations

How John Key’s government responds to the
[tax] working group’s recommendations is
shaping as its biggest test.—Dominion Post 22.1.10

Maybe. But I think the Government’s response to the
Mackenzie Basin intensive dairying proposal is going to be
a more crucial one. Interestingly, there are signs that it will
put a stop to the idea, which, if implemented, would mark
a significant turning point in New Zealand agriculture. The
latter, for all its faults, and for all its propensity for
dumping artificial fertilizer on the land and vast quantities
of shit in the water, is still by industrialized-world
standards relatively benign. Already, as I’ve written, we’ve
seen the infiltration of US-style feedlots for fattening cattle,
but only on a tiny scale. If the Mackenzie Basin proposal
gets the go-ahead, it’ll be all on for indoor farming on a
European scale, with thousands of cows being kept in
cubicles for up to eight months of the year. Several cows are
already on record as saying: thanks, but no thanks. This has
nothing to do with agriculture in its true sense and
everything to do with profit maximization regardless of the
cost to beast or man.

So there’s that; and even other farmers are uneasy about it,
something Agriculture Minister David Carter publicly
acknowledges—a definite sign that the Government itself is
preparing the ground to block the plan. Even it knows not
to get offside with farmers. But there’s also the potential
despoliation of what one media outlet calls the ‘famously
arid’ basin, one of New Zealand’s iconic landscapes. That's
why the companies behind this proposal thought it such a
good idea, of course: the land, in their eyes, is 'arid' or
empty, vacant, unproductive, and therefore useless for
anything else. It's the Kiwi version of shopping at arids.

Did I just use the word ‘iconic’? I must be wound up about this.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Waring says it all

Marilyn Waring twitched aside the economists’ curtain
years ago: her 1988 book Counting for Nothing was
probably the first book anywhere, ever, to bring together
in one place all the tricks of the economics trade and
expose them as inadequate at best, false at worst. It was
particularly strong on how women’s work is invisibilized
by the bean-counters—how, in the big statistical picture,
they count for nothing. At the time, Waring says now,
she believed that the ‘way ahead was to use economics to
fight economics, through various estimating, inputting
and trading mechanisms.’ In other words, she thought
that it was just a matter of counting differently.

The above quote comes from a letter to the Listener of
16 January 2010 in which Waring goes on to write (and
I'll quote the next bit verbatim, because she nails the
whole issue precisely, and in any case I don’t think
letters are available online):

By the time of the book’s second edition in 1999,
I saw that this was an equally destructive path.
How would we value the Chatham Islands robin,
tuatara, wahi tapu, aiga (extended family)?
Would only the items that had marketable
characteristics, or replaced industrial processes,
be those that found their way into the equation?
All the estimating of values did not make it
easier to exercise judgment across a range of
variables: it just abstracted the new phenomena
to a market figure, rendering it meaningless for
an informed debate about the integral
characteristics of each piece of a complex

In short, she concludes, ‘economics is not the answer
to the evil that economics has wrought.’ In this letter,
Waring does not say what she thinks the answer is,
but one is readily to hand: in an illuminating chapter of
Small Is Beautiful, published in 1973, E F Schumacher
writes about how matters of economic performance
and growth have become the ‘abiding interest, if not the
obsession, of all modern societies’ and observes, like
Waring, that ‘if economic thinking pervades the whole
of society, even simple non-economic values like beauty,
health, or cleanliness can survive only if they prove to be
“economic”.’ The answer? Meta-economics, which,
Schumacher writes, recognizes the existence of ‘goods’
that never appear on the market—eg, air, water soil,
‘in fact the whole framework of living nature’—and
also of people as they really live their lives, not just
as producers and consumers of manufactured
commodities. Not for nothing is Schumacher’s book
subtitled A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Business as usual

You've got to love the good folk at National Business
Review, whose first issue for 2010 should be required
reading for students of homo economicus, a doomed
species that once ruled the Earth but that now, like the
woolly mammoth, can only stumble blindly forward in
the wrong direction, incapable of fresh thinking and
barely cognisant of its surroundings. Connoisseurs of
the absurd will love the biggest headline in the issue
and if you need to practise your eye-rolling, try this:

New Zealand's first-world status is at risk unless
the government makes major policy changes to
improve economic performance, say the nation's
business leaders.

Well, they would, wouldn't they. You could write a
small book unpacking the coded assumptions in that
sentence—start with 'risk' and 'improve' before
getting stuck into the whole baggage train of
'economic performance' and 'first-world status.' How
often has this kind of drum been beaten in order to
scare governments into enacting policies that, by a
remarkable coincidence, benefit business companies
and big investors at the expense of the rest of us?
Remember the Wizard of Oz and make like Toto. The
curtain is there to be torn down.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Toto had the right idea

Progress is learning from your mistakes. Progress is
discovering the art of going nowhere. Progress is getting
getting along, and across, and through, and back.
Progress is growing up; and down. All these are valid
forms of progress, but the dominant, the hegemonic
concept of progress in our time is materialistic progress
measured by economic statistics and technological
developments. We are so in thrall to it that we don’t
even notice our enslavement most of the time. Perhaps
because we prefer to see our own lives in terms of a
journey towards something better or more successful we
need to believe that the society around us is, or ought to
be, going upward, onward, forward. This was not an
issue in, say, medieval times, when life was experienced
essentially as stasis, with the real action coming after
death; it is probably precisely in reaction to that attitude
that Western peoples, anyway, for the past three or four
centuries have been captivated by the idea of getting
somewhere in this life rather than the next one. Darwin
probably has a lot to answer for, too.

What inspires politicians, excites the media and brings
businesspeople, investors and bankers to orgasmic pitch
are reports of increases (good) rather than decreases
(bad) or no change at all (boring). Yet I don’t think it
would be such a huge mental shift if we adjusted to the
idea of the ‘steady state,’ as currently advocated here.
Events will force us to, anyway, sooner or later. What irks
‘gloomy Green Malthusian millennialists’ like me (I owe
this epithet to Sanctuary, in a recent comment on a blog
of mine; thanks, Sancs) is the sheer stupid waste, and
harm, of pretending that economies can go on growing
indefinitely, that crucial resources will never run out, that
the environmental damage done since the Industrial
Revolution, and still being done on an ever-increasing
scale, won’t somehow have to be paid for—and not just in
living standards but in lives, let alone anything else.

Each one of us could make a start by refusing to fall for
the conjuring tricks of modern economics, which,
purporting to measure the world’s wealth and health,
underpins the policies and actions of all governments
and all international institutions such as the IMF and the
OECD. Yet it does it in such a narrow cramped way, and
so entirely in the interests of unfettered global capitalism,
that it has come to be ahuman, if not downright anti-
human. The first step towards economic sanity, and
indeed a reclaiming of ‘economy’ in its true original
sense, is to expose this nonsense. I have used the image
of the king’s new clothes before; perhaps an even apter
one is the Wizard of Oz. With his hocus-pocus he held
his land in thrall; his magic seemed terrifyingly real.
Thanks to Toto, we now know that he was just a funny
little man hiding behind a curtain and cranking up the
volume. How scary was that?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

This just in: wealthy avoid paying tax

A charming error in this morning’s Dominion Post, in its
coverage of a report by a tax working group:

Finance Minister Bill English said some of the
information dug up by the group on how high-
income earners were dodging tax was startling.
That only half of New Zealand’s wealthiest
individuals were able to avoid paying the top
rate of tax would be ‘astounding to the layman,’
he said.

Only half? Sure is astounding. All of us ‘laymen’ have
been convinced for years that the whole lot of them
at the top of the money heap have been practising tax

An error of my own, to correct, though: the Clark Labour
government didn't appoint Jim Bolger ambassador to the
United States—its predecessor, the Shipley National
government, did. But Labour did make Bolger chairman
of Kiwibank and KiwiRail.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Washington post

Writing about Mike Moore yesterday, I had no idea that,
as I hear today on the news, he was about to be appointed
New Zealand’s next ambassador to the United States.
Well, good on him. I’m pleased that a long career of
public service will be rounded off with a posting that
ensures he won’t slip into the ignominy of being just one
more semi-retired member of the commentariat,
condemned to write opinion pieces for the popular press,
chipping in from the commentary box like the legion of
former All Blacks and test cricketers now behind the

Ironically, when I interviewed him for the Clark book in
November 2008, he was somewhat in the wilderness,
having been passed over for appointments by the Clark
government (he wasn’t even invited to the party’s 90th
anniversary bash, which, rightly, rankled). I asked him
if there had been offers at all from Labour and he
replied: ‘I don’t want anything. It would be nice to be
asked, but who wants to be an ambassador waiting at the
airport for Ruth Dyson? I mean, gimme a break.’

I guess waiting at the airport for Gerry Brownlee won’t be
quite as humiliating.

Anyway, the National-led government deserves credit for
giving a job like this to someone who has spent much of
his life attacking National. Clearly, it’s a quid pro quo for
the Labour government giving Jim Bolger the same job,
so fair enough. It does rather tend to reinforce the
outrageous notion I put forward in my last blog—that
National and Labour are more or less the same party now
—but what the hey. I wonder if, after she leaves
Parliament, the powers-that-be will find a way in which
Jeanette Fitzsimons can represent New Zealand too?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Hold the tofu

The Greens must now want the red meat of
Cabinet power. Even they must be tired of
condemning earthquakes in distant lands,
eating tofu and raffling hemp jumpers.
Lifestyle politics is fun, but to save the
world they may have to accept the pay rise.
They have a strong brand and only need 5%.

—Mike Moore, Otago Daily Times 11.1.10

Condemning earthquakes in distant lands? Mike Moore
still clearly hasn’t lost the ability to say things that don’t
make sense, or to wheel out stereotypes long past their
use-by date; and he does bang on about ‘Kiwi battlers’
and the virtues of so-called free trade a mite obsessively.
But he has an acute political eye, a great line in ironic
self-deprecation and an unbounded love of New
Zealand and its ways—for these reasons I’ll always cut
him a bit of slack as a politician. He was desperately
unlucky to inherit the poisoned chalice of the Labour
leadership and the prime-ministership that went with it
in 1990 when Geoffrey Palmer went belly-up. He had to
take it—he had no choice—and he made Labour’s
subsequent election rout less worse than it would have
been with Palmer still at the helm; but had fortune been
kinder to him, I think that, with all his flaws, he would
have made a good (and extremely entertaining) prime
minister for at least a couple of terms. I was also
impressed that he agreed to be interviewed by me for
my book on Helen Clark, given that he scarcely owed
her any favours, and even more impressed when he bent
over backwards (not always successfully) to be generous
about her. And he continues to write lively, provocative
opinion pieces, invariably with a memorable line or two
to savour (one I can’t get out of my head from a column
the other day is ‘Paula Bennett is the Susan Boyle of
New Zealand politics’).

Leaving aside the tofu and the hemp jumpers (??), Moore
is right to draw attention to the Green Party's political
situation and the hard choices it faces. Where the Greens
go from here is in fact one of the most critical questions in
New Zealand politics. In theory, they have the potential
(one might almost say the destiny) to be one of the
country’s two major parties, the standard-bearer for a
red-green alliance of parties, movements and leanings,
displacing Labour, which sadly has run its course but
which—as is the way of these things—may sputter on
obstructively for years. Yet after 10 years in Parliament
and a consistent percentage of the popular vote that
ought to have given it a piece of governmental power
by now—a couple of cabinet seats at least—the Green
Party remains pretty much on the sidelines, a respected
voice saying the right things and making a lot of sense
but condemned, it seems, to the role of carping critic
while National and Labour borrow or steal and (usually)
bastardize its best policies.

A brutal realist—Mike Moore, perhaps—would probably
say, well, like it or not, no one likes the Greens that much.
If they did, the party would get more votes. QED. This is
true. But by the same token, no one likes National or
Labour that much either; they just happen to be what
we've become used to as the least uncomfortable political
options. And just as civilizations don't last forever, nor do
political parties. With National and Labour looking more
and more like 20th-century (and early 20th-century at
that) parties incapable of coping with the realities of the
21st century, the door is open, probably for the first time
since the 1930s, for a major new political movement to
surge forward. It can only come from the left, because
between them National and Labour represent the right
and the centre-right (and will foreseeably coalesce at
some point in the next 20 years). The Greens, as Moore
says, have a strong brand—as strong as 'Labour' was in its
heyday. They need to take that brand (if we must use
consumerspeak) into the marketplace more aggressively
and risk getting their hands dirty with compromise and
coalition. They are never going to be handed power on a
platter—even one with tofu on it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The squire next time

The article by Catherine Harris quoted in my last blog
also touches on the trend towards the aggregation of
farms, which are becoming bigger and bigger: the
average dairy farm, apparently, now carries twice the
number of cows it used to. In that regard, there is a
remarkable statement by former Landcorp director Lex
Henry, who is quoted as saying that he believes New
Zealand is simply returning to its roots as ‘one big
corporate farm’ before its big estates were broken up for
returning soldiers. ‘All we're doing,’ says Henry, ‘is
repeating history.’

Hallo? You mean the good old days when farming was
dominated by giant sheep-stations and cattle runs
owned by a wealthy squirearchy, the very system that
the Liberal government broke up as long ago as the
1890s so that ordinary New Zealanders might get to own
a piece of the country and farm it in a more modest way?
Well, yes, he does. That’s clearly what he wants. Henry
speaks with the same voice as those frustrated by the
co-operative structure of Fonterra that they regard as an
antiquated obstacle to the greater glory of global capital.

Let’s not kid ourselves that farming as we have known it
in New Zealand over the past 100 years has been some
rural romance—the clink of the milk-cans, the click of the
shears—unsoiled by grubby commercialism. No, the land
has been industrialized, near as dammit, and agriculture
made over into something resembling an assembly line.
But I’d take that model any day over Henry’s one, which
would amount to factory farming on a nationwide scale.

‘In our time,’ wrote E F Schumacher 35 years ago,

the main danger to the soil, and therewith not only
to agriculture but to civilization as a whole, stems
from the townsman’s determination to apply to
agriculture the principles of industry.

Schumacher, in Small Is Beautiful, makes a passionate
and, to me, convincing case for a nobler concept of
agriculture that keeps humankind ‘in real touch with
living nature.’ Go the way of industrialization and
depersonalization of agriculture, he says, ‘and the wider
human habitat, far from being humanized and ennobled
by man’s agricultural activities, becomes standardized to
dreariness or even degraded to ugliness.’

This is the fundamental reason, besides many other more
local and immediate ones, why the proposal for intensive
dairying operations in the Mackenzie Basin
(16 new farms,
18,000 cows housed part of the year in cubicles) should be
fiercely resisted. We still have some semblance of genuine
contact with the land and nature here; factory farming on
the scale proposed would make a mockery of ‘beautiful
New Zealand’ and ‘clean and green’ and ‘100% pure’ and
all the other mantras we love to chant.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

With sugar

If there's any lesson to be drawn from history, it's that
the powerful will go after what they can get when they
haven't got what they think they need. And they will
take it. Already yet. Korea's Daewoo Corporation has
leased half the arable land in Madagascar.

Any idle notion that manifestations of the above
phenomenon, about which I wrote a few days ago, will
be confined to 'developing' countries should be
dispelled by a feature article in yesterday's Dominion
about the expansion of corporate farming in New
Zealand and the growing appetite of foreign investors
for a piece of it. Writer Catherine Harris quotes Chris
Kelly, chief executive of the country's largest corporate
farming business, Landcorp, as saying that 'security of
supply of food' is an emerging geopolitical factor today,
and that Middle East countries in particular are
suddenly realizing that their populations are expanding
but their agricultural land is not—and they need more
food from somewhere. Singaporean, Japanese and
Russian companies are all listed in Harris's article as
having stakes in aspects of New Zealand agricultural

On top of that, the Chinese company Bright Food has
expressed an interest in buying the sugar-cane assets of
the Australian firm CSR, which owns 75% of the NZ
Sugar Company, manufacturer of the Chelsea brand. The
Chinese are of course only doing what European and
American imperialist enterprises have done for centuries
but they're not doing it out of the kindness of their hearts.
Whatever they do is ultimately for the benefit of Chinese
investors, producers and consumers. As competition for
the world's food (and water) resources heats up, New
Zealand may find that it has as little power to resist such
depredations as any 'developing' country does.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


This is the year, says Prime Minister John Key, back from
holidaying in Hawaii, when the Government starts
‘delivering on the faster growth agenda that we want.’
And in an article published under his name in the New
Zealand Herald on 4 January, Finance Minister Bill
English talks up the case for economic growth, declaring
that the Government has identified ‘six key areas as
potential drivers of growth’ and concluding that, as New
Zealand ‘emerges from the recession,’ the challenge now
is to ‘get the economy growing again at a stronger rate.’

Yes. One could hardly ask for a better illustration of
progressolatry, or worship at the altar of materialist goals
predicated on ever greater exploitation of the Earth’s
resources and an unshakeable faith in the capacity of
those resources to ‘grow,’ apparently without end. As
previous blogs have sought to show, what we humans
have extracted from fossil fuels has grown just about as
much as it can—it can only shrink from here on. And
fossil-fuel energy is so central to the kind of society we
have built that, without it, we face—to put it at its politest
—a radical readjustment of expectations. No sign of that
in Key's or English’s outlook. English’s article, published
barely two weeks after Copenhagen, makes not a single
mention of global warming, peak oil, fossil-fuel depletion,
the full ecological cost of the Western way of living. It
seems to have been written inside a sealed cocoon with a
supposedly impermeable shell. As if the Government’s
best thinking was: if we keep our heads down and
concentrate on going from A to B and then to C and,
whoopee, maybe even D, we won’t have to worry about
the fact that the whole fucking alphabet is collapsing.

One can understand this mindset and sympathize with it
to a certain extent. Key and English’s kind of thinking is
the same kind of thinking that has (apparently) made New
Zealand prosperous and secure, compared with many
countries. It’s worked before, you can hear them saying,
so why change it? Especially given that we’ve ‘emerged
from the recession' in (apparently) good shape. Let me say
only this for the moment. Countries like New Zealand
aren’t prosperous and secure despite other countries being
hungry and poor and conflict-ravaged. Countries like New
Zealand are prosperous and secure because other countries
aren’t. No mention of that in Bill’s article either.

Friday, January 15, 2010


Peak oil is not just about running out of petrol for our
cars; far from it. This from The Omnivore’s Dilemma
by Michael Pollan:

Industrial agriculture has supplanted a complete
reliance on the sun for our calories with
something new under the sun: a food chain that
draws much of its energy from fossil fuels
instead… Petroleum is one of the most important
ingredients in the production of modern meat.

In his devastating analysis of the American beef
industry, Pollan stands in a Kansas feedlot—the kind
of place where they fatten cattle on corn, and corn
only—and concludes:

So this is what commodity corn can do to a cow:
industrialize the miracle of nature that is a
ruminant, taking this sunlight- and prairie grass-
powered organism and turning it into the last
thing we need: another fossil fuel machine.

An economist told Pollan that to raise a typical steer
to slaughterhouse weight takes about a barrel of oil—
and millions of steers are processed that way every
year. You have to factor in the diesel fuel involved in
transportation, the petrochemicals in pesticides and
fertilizers for the corn, the power for the feedlots etc.

We’re not at that level in New Zealand, but there are
feedlots here—from memory, there's a big one down
Ashburton way—and growing pressure for the
equivalent in dairying. At the very moment in history
when we should be de-industrializing the land and the
treatment of the animals on it, the insane capitalist
drive for MORE, BIGGER, FASTER is pushing us in the
other direction. This drive is so reliant on fossil-fuel
energy that it scarcely seems credible that the big
industrializers can’t perceive the folly of carrying on
this way. Even on their own terms, it's a recipe for
disaster. As with the major-party politicians, however,
they are utterly the creatures of the master-myth of
‘progress’—so shackled to it that, to them, it’s ‘freedom’
(hence their fantasies of the ‘free market’). All of us in
countries like New Zealand are prisoners of it too, this
writer as much as anyone. Anyone for an escape bid?
I believe we could yet build a glider in the attic.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The old story

Curiously, Avatar may be a conscious expression of the
subconscious yearning for a new story that may be
behind the outbursts of rage and frustration referred to in
my last blog; hence, possibly, its box-office success. But
alas, it’s a truly appalling movie. I agree with Peter Calder
and indeed Karl du Fresne about its utter inanity and
internal inconsistency even by its own standards; and I
find Judy Callingham’s enthusiasm for it inexplicable.
She acknowledges that it’s formulaic but loves it all the
same. Well, yes, sometimes formula does the trick, like a
good detective story or an airport thriller. But $300 million
(at least) of formula? Come on. (Not to mention the $30m
tax break kindly donated to the cost of production by the
New Zealand taxpayer.) Above all, it’s a titanic failure of
the imagination. I think James Cameron’s Terminator
films are great fun, terrific action movies, but it seems he
used up all the imagination he had on them, and had none
left for Titanic, let alone Avatar. Yes, there is some
significance in the fact that the greenies are the goodies, as
it were, but that’s not exactly new either—think Dances
with Wolves
for a start—and in any case the idea is barely
developed before being discarded almost contemptuously.

[spoiler alert]

The supposedly unspoiled tribe of beautiful people at one
with nature triumph in the end because why? They’re way
better at (as Calder says) ‘blowing shit up.’ Brute force wins
the day again, and the last frame shows the greens on top
with guns in their hands. Meet the new boss—same as the
old boss. Imagine that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

No wonder

And Karl du Fresne wonders why people are so angry these
days: why such unprovoked or out-of-proportion rage. He
cannot account for it. J M Greer (see my previous three
blogs) has an idea or two about it, though. Noting, also, the
‘extraordinary level of anger that surges through America
these days,’ this erudite and clear-headed writer suggests
that what really angers us is the ‘fact that our preferred
story doesn’t fit the universe everywhere and always, and
those who disagree with us simply remind us of that
uncomfortable fact.’ And it’s unlikely to be a coincidence,
Greer says, that this anger has intensified ‘over a quarter of
a century when the grand narratives of both major
American political parties failed the test of reality.’

The same remark can be applied, mutatis mutandis, to New
Zealand’s major political parties too. Neither is capable of
addressing what’s really happening now, let alone tackling
it. As oceans rise and oil recedes, they can only offer baubles
and beads from the same old economic bag of tricks. If I
may quote Greer again (I will get off him eventually),
‘Despite occasional bursts of lip service, every major
political party in every major nation in the industrial world
supports economic policies that effectively subsidize
increases in fossil fuel use, and thus move the world further
away from a transition to sustainability with every passing

As they say, you're never going to solve problems with the
same thinking that got you into them; but it’s not so much
that the major parties won’t change their ways—they can’t.
They are the creatures of a narrative—a very powerful and
convincing one for a long while—that is now past its use-by
date. The new narrative currently being written by a million
anonymous authors has yet to take fully realized form, and
may in fact take decades if not centuries to do so. For the
moment, I agree with former Christchurch mayor Garry
Moore, who, asked by the Press on New Year’s Day for his
thoughts on the year ahead, said: ‘Ordinary people will tire
of waiting for clay-footed politicians to lead on
environmental matters.’

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Again I wake up, and again I look at my world, the world
that has nurtured me very nicely thank you since 1946,
and again it seems impossible to think of this society,
this civilization in terms of 'decline' or 'descent.'
Everything seems to be geared to go-forward.
Materialism rules the Earth, and even if we in the West
have lost a little impetus, good old China is taking up the
slack, boasting as proudly as the most diehard capitalist
of its output, its growth, the fact that it's now the world's
biggest exporter, biggest car market (13.6 million sales
last year). Meanwhile, this just in: the number of lions in
the world is estimated to be no more than about 20,000,
compared with 450,000 50 years ago (hat-tip: the latest
National Geographic
). If that raises your eyebrows, try
these stats. Total number of cheetahs: 7500. Total
number of tigers: 4000. In the world. So many; I had not
thought death had undone so many. But what a foolish
romantic I am; next thing, I'll be going all gooey about
human survival. The main thing to remember is that God,
as it says in Genesis, having made man in his own likeness
(nice touch), gave 'us' dominion over the fish of the sea,
and the fowl of the air, and over all the earth, and licensed
us to pretty much fuck it over. And look how far we've
come on that licence; only a gloomy old ageing-baby-
boomer-doomster would moan about the damage done.
Life outside our windows and on our TV screens keeps
rolling along like nothing could ever go seriously wrong.
Which is what the Romans thought, too (minus the TV
screens), about 200 AD. Within 200 years they were toast.

For a moment, let's wrench our gaze off the (relatively)
prosperous present and picture a couple of possible
scenarios. One is that oil supplies begin to get so tight that
the price rockets up: either you pay double or triple what
you pay for it now and start going short in other areas of
your life or you use the car less and less and start catching
the bus or the train. What buses? What trains? Oops,
sorry, the governments of the previous 80 years have laid
down miles and miles of road for fast car traffic but
neglected the infrastructure of public transport. What now?

Or: global warming starts wiping out islands, cities, low-
lying nations. Millions of refugees look for somewhere
safer to live. Where do these people go? And what kind
of pressure will they put on the societies where they land
up, welcome or not? As for resource competition (water,
food, oil, minerals etc), if there's any lesson to be drawn
from history, it's that the powerful will go after what they
can get when they haven't got what they think they need.
And they will take it. Already, yet. Korea’s Daewoo
Corporation has leased half the arable land in Madagascar.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A new story

Reading back what I wrote yesterday I can see how
fantastical it must seem: the idea that our civilization,
so solid, so expansive, so apparently unstoppable, is
in decline and even headed for collapse. I find it hard
to believe myself when I look at the props on our stage:
the cars, the roads, the global wheels of commerce, the
sheer amount of plastic everywhere. To stand up and
say that it can’t go on like this is like saying the king has
no clothes. Yet say it and see it we must, if we are not to
go on believing, as John Michael Greer says, that history
consists of a ‘linear ascent from primeval pond scum to
the American suburban middle class,’ and that the best,
indeed the only course of action is to join ‘our political,
economic, and religious leaders [in] following the path
of least resistance toward a head-on collision with
ecological reality.’ Essentially, he concludes, the crisis
is not an economic or even ecological but a religious
one; since the Enlightenment we in the West anyway
have worshipped at the one true church of material
progress and sacrificed to the god of growth. Time, he
says, to start telling ourselves a new story, because the
wind is whistling through the holes in the old one.

I want also to say that ‘descent’ and ‘decline’ are
relative terms and not necessarily doom-laden or
disastrous. We have made such a mess of things on this
planet that a great deal of further unnecessary suffering
is inevitable, as post-peak-oil societies start to struggle,
but many good constructive things will happen as new
ways of living emerge from the ruins of the old (or
should that be ‘older ways of living re-emerge from
under the impress of the newer’). Some of these are
happening already. As Giovanni says in his comment on
my previous blog
, 'if we have to ditch cars and reinvent
our cities around other modes and philosophies of
movement transportation,’ then bring it on. The day the
last shopping megacentre closes its doors for want of
customers no longer able to drive will not, I think, be
such a bad day.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Beginning our descent

In his book The Long Descent (A User’s Guide to the End
of the Industrial Age), John Michael Greer makes the point
again and again that the age of cheap, abundant fossil-fuel
energy is over, and that we in the richer countries, at least,
had better get used to it. People take ‘progress’ for granted,
he says, but it’s time—way past time—to wake up and
realize that the bounty off which we have lived for the past
two or three centuries, especially the underground oil
reservoirs created by millennia of decomposing organic
matter, will never be there again in such quantities and,
ultimately, won’t be there at all.

So what? you may say: ingenious Man, who has unlocked
the secrets of nature, who has brought us the marvellous
comforts of civilization, who has created the motorway
and the megalopolis, the laser beam and the Laz-y-Boy,
clever Man, all-conquering Man, who has, in the words of
Derek Mahon, ‘tamed the terrier, trimmed the hedge/and
grasped the principle of the watering-can’—this species of
ours will surely come up with other ingenious ways of
keeping the show on the road and those of us in the lucky
countries, anyway, secure in the lifestyle to which we’ve
become accustomed? Why, even as we speak (you may
say), electric cars are being developed, new sources of
energy tapped. Build that road! Buy that car! All will be
well, because, well, it just will.

Greer will have none of that. Everything we take for
granted today as the essence of industrialized
civilization, he says, is based on a once-and-once-only
oil bonanza that can never be replicated. Nothing—
repeat, nothing—comes even close as a substitute. Oil’s
net energy ratio is something like 200 to 1, ie, for every
unit of energy it takes to generate usable oil you get 200
more, whereas a solar cell, say, has a ratio of 10 to 1 at the
most optimistic. That's precisely why we exploited it so
greedily. And don’t think that nuclear power might yet
save the day, whatever the waste problems: uranium
resources are severely depleted too. In any case, to tap
and develop alternative energy sources has—up to now
anyway—required a great deal of machinery powered by,
but you knew this, fossil fuels.

In short, as the oil runs out, our way of living is going to
have to change dramatically. Greer emphasizes at great
length that this doesn’t mean we’ll revert to primitivism
and go back to living in caves, because the history of all
previous civilizations is that they don’t vanish overnight
but go into a steady, sometimes centuries-long decline
(hence ‘The Long Descent’) punctuated, even, by
upsurges. But it does mean a tremendous readjustment
of expectations and indeed actions now, because, baby,
your nice little Western ways are simply not sustainable.
Maybe in your lifetime, yes, but you wouldn't want to
keep partying at your children and grandchildren's
expense, and leave them to pick up all those popped
balloons—would you? Of course you wouldn't.

Greer's book, essentially, is a sustained attempt to help
us in the early 21st century get over the ‘conviction that
our civilization is exempt from the slow trajectories of
rise and fall that defined all of human history before the
industrial revolution.’ Unfortunately, as he says, ‘We
have lived so long in a dream of perpetual economic
and technological expansion that most people
nowadays take progress for granted as the inevitable
shape of the future.’

One could go on. I won’t. This all the world knows well—
it was spelled out comprehensively nearly 40 years ago in
the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth—yet none knows
well to shun the apparent heaven that leads men to this
hell. ‘Oil,’ says Greer, ‘provides 40% of all energy used by
human beings on Earth, and it powers nearly all
transportation in the industrial world.’ And we are now at
the historical moment of peak oil: there will never be as
much of it again. Your task for 2010: go figure.