Envirologue by Dave Hansford


Multi-no-choice – National’s Idea of Climate Consultation

Earlier this month, the Government invited New Zealanders to comment on the position Climate Change Minister Tim Groser should take to COP 21 negotiations in Paris come December. To help them understand the issues, it offered some context in a discussion document, available here.

Except that it didn’t. What it gave the public instead was the same tired old litany of excuses as to why we should wait and see. The same old thinly-veiled “this is going to cost ya” threats. The same old “so much of our energy is renewable already, so we can’t really do much more” platitudes. The same execrable “if we make our farmers pay for their greenhouse gas pollution, the world could end up starving” nonsense.

It tries again to convince people that anything New Zealand does about its emissions will make very little difference to the planet. Most irksome, it seriously expects us to believe that: “... we are committed to doing our fair share and taking responsibility for our emissions,” when New Zealand’s greenhouse pollution is now 21 per cent greater than in 1990.

As for New Zealand being a bit-player, consider that each EU citizen now emits 7.5 tonnes of greenhouse gases on average – down from nine tonnes in 1990 and set to drop to six tonnes over the next commitment round. In New Zealand, you and I – abetted by millions of Friesians – pump out 17 tonnes.

Far from being a team player, New Zealand is in fact polluta non grata at international climate rounds, because our neighbours plainly see that a reduction target of five per cent below 1990 levels, when the EU has committed to a 40 per cent reduction, the US to 28 per cent, and climate supervillain China to 20 per cent by 2030, closely mimics the sound of dragging feet.

UN multilateral provisions let nations each quiz other about their performance on climate change, and New Zealand has been facing some searching questions of late from those concerned that we might not actually be serious about this. Brazil, which noticed that New Zealand had tabled a target of between 10 and 20 per cent at COP 15 in Copenhagen in 2009, wanted to know: “Please, explain the reasons for reducing the target to 5%.” It also wanted to know why we couldn’t make any progress on even that paltry token: “Please, provide the reasons for the lack of quantified reduction of emissions regarding many planned actions that have been reported in Table 3 under the CTF.”

Others see right through the National Government’s dumb show of “meeting” its 2020 targets by buying up hot air credits from former Soviet states – emissions certificates widely considered to be fraudulent. This from the United States: “How do you plan to prevent double counting with the host countries of projects that generated CERs that your country plans to use towards meeting its pledge in the pre-2020 period? If a host country refuses to adjust its reporting towards its progress to its targets to reflect CERs it exported, do you still plan to count them?”

In reply, the New Zealand delegation pretended that we might not need to resort to CERs – something approaching a bald-faced lie – then offered this empty sop: “The best means of dealing with this issue would be for countries intending to participate in international trading to have processes in place to prevent double counting.”

This is the sort of context conspicuously absent from the Government’s consultation document. Instead it tries to present New Zealand as a hapless, but well-intentioned, victim of its own agrarian circumstance.

By the end of this consultation paper, anyone would be excused for thinking that action on climate change is a net loss, a leg-iron around the ankle of prosperity: “More ambitious targets will have a higher cost. For example, if New Zealand took a target of 10 per cent below 1990, then the cost of New Zealand’s target could increase by an additional $200 million per annum. For a target of 20 per cent below 1990, then the increase in cost could be an additional $500 million or more.”

So? North Canterbury is right now in the grip of yet another drought. These are an annual event nowadays, but over the last decade, they’ve begun to lengthen, extending into autumn and even winter. In the Hurunui, farmers short on feed will either have to sell capital stock at fire sale rates or buy in more supplementary feed. Dairy farmers will somehow have to do this on record low returns, following the crash in dairy prices.

The 2007-08 drought cost the country $2.8 billion. In 2013, we took another two billion dollar hit. That makes $500 million a year look like a bargain, but the public is not presented with any of this.

But, the paper warns, it’s worse than that: “Firstly, wages will grow more slowly, in line with the overall economy. Secondly, the price of some goods and services will be higher (e.g.; electricity and vehicle fuel). These effects decrease the amount of ‘household consumption’ possible, i.e.; the average household will be less ‘well-off’ than what would be expected without a target.”

Between 1992 to 2014, New Zealanders’ household consumption expenditure jumped by nearly 57 per cent (in 2009 dollars). In 2012, it was the fourth highest in the OECD, eclipsing even the avaricious Americans. Capitalists love such orgiastic consumption, because it makes GDP look good. This how they frame the depletion of resources (and, incidentally, crippling debt) as prosperity. If New Zealanders were to ease back on the credit card, it would in fact be a good thing for the environment and the economy.

The document warns readers that even a target of 10 per cent below 1990 (which, incidentally, would certainly be regarded with contempt at Paris) could, by the year 2027, cost families an extra $30 a year, while a 20 per cent cut might cost them $130. These costs are based on a $50-a-tonne carbon price – eight times higher than it is presently.

If it were being truly honest, the discussion document would point out to readers that in fact, they’ve already shelled out more than this to bail out Solid Energy. If you want to know something of the real costs of old-school, fossil fuel thinking, here are some figures for you: $320 million – the amount state coal miner Solid Energy currently owes to banks. $153 million – taxpayers’ money shoved into the haemorrhaging wound. $103m – the amount you will pay to clean up the land despoiled by Solid Energy. $182 million – the SOE’s latest loss for the year ending June. Add restructuring costs and the social fallout from laying off nearly 900 people at Stockton, Spring Creek and Huntly East since 2011.

At least the Government has said it will no longer be propping up this doomed enterprise. And doomed it surely is: in the past few years, 26 US coal companies have gone bankrupt and 264 mines have closed. The US coal industry lost 76 per cent of its value in just five years. The share price of Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest private coal miner, fell by 80 per cent.

The world is changing fast. An economy that has for three hundred years been powered by fossil fuels is about to turn off the tap, and flick the switch instead on a new age of decentralised renewable energy. Eton Musk’s Powerwall has, practically overnight, made renewable energy cheaper at the meter box (and at the factory) than thermal, but its impact goes far beyond affordability – it hurls a gauntlet at China, which has for years been positioning itself as a renewable superpower. It will respond with still greater capacity, more development, still cheaper technology. Renewables, which have ever been a swell on the horizon, are starting to curl into a monster wave approaching fast.

This gives us an opportunity you won’t read about in the consultation document: we could use this energy revolution to power a smart green economy. This year, says global credit checker Standard & Poor’s, companies will issue green bonds for a record US$30 billion to bankroll low carbon industry. The market already tripled its value between 2013 and 2014, and significantly, has not slowed as oil prices slumped – it now has its own momentum.

A critical threshold has been crossed. Now, says our own Simon Upton, Chairman of the OECD Round Table on Sustainable Development “policies rather than technologies are now holding back progress.”

Neither does the consultation paper tell people about the cost of doing nothing, despite Treasury figures which show that business-as-usual – maintaining our present emissions trajectory – could cost us $52 billion.

 The Government is trying to present our climate policy as the choice between an arbitrary, meaningless percentage and what it might cost you. This is a gross misrepresentation: instead of a few bullet points about forest sinks and more hydro, it should be asking New Zealanders instead whether they want to be a part of the new industrial revolution. Whether they would prefer to keep bankrolling Government enticements to oil companies and funding coal clean-ups, or whether they would like to re-boot the economy on the back of planet-saving innovation.  

One thing is certain: if we keep doing what we’ve always done, the planet is going to cook. I’ll put my hand up right now – here’s my thirty bucks…


The Cry of the Indignados – Forcing Change

On an April day in 2013, 47 year-old Inocencia Lucha walked into her bank in Almassora, near Valencia. With level gaze and a steady voice she addressed the counter staff: “You have taken everything from me.” Then she poured petrol over herself and struck a match. Crushed by Spanish austerity measures, Lucha had been trying to live on NZ$550 a month. Interest on her hefty bank debt had accrued exponentially, and she had just been evicted from her home.

In just three months of that year, Spanish media reported 14 such suicides, before which devastated people had denounced austerity and hardship. Close to a third of Spaniards were out of work at that time, and public patience with the prevailing politico-economic system was at breaking point. A cluster of anti-austerity movements – Movimiento 15-M, the Indignados and Take the Square #spanishrevolution – had been staging demonstrations and occupations across Spain since 2011. They are still active today.

These movements are not pleading for economic clemency – they seek instead to overturn not just the political party that delivered them to despair, but the entire fundamentalist capitalist system. No more tinkering, no more social experiments. Total reform.

They are not alone: the Occupy Movement, born in Manhattan and duly emulated in more than 1500 cities globally, has sworn to bring down “the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process.” The aganaktismenoi of Greece, the cacerolada of Argentina, a million people banging pots-and-pans (cacerola means casserole in Spanish) and demanding release from cloying fiscal policy. The Icelanders, demanding the resignation of Government after the collapse of that country’s banks.  

From the Arab Spring to Occupy Hong Kong, people are demanding change. In the West, there is talk of the end of capitalism. Many no longer believe the true believers; the bankers, the brokers, the free market proselytisers. They are tired of waiting for wealth to trickle down, of watching opportunity and equality recede behind the rapidly widening chasm that now separates nearly 99 per cent of the global population from the power elite and the super-rich. Greed has become the central virtue of the capitalist ethos. While Lucha sank deeper into despair, the world’s wealthiest 80 people, says Oxfam, doubled their riches between 2009 and 2014.

Neoliberalism has driven other creatures to the wall, too. Earth is in the grip of a sixth great extinction – according to the IUCN, some 20,000 species are now threatened with oblivion. The planet’s capacity to absorb our waste, for critical live-giving systems to offset our harm, is coming to exhaustion. Terrestrial ecosystems, reports a recent study in Nature Geoscience, will by the end of the century be saturated with carbon dioxide, abruptly flipping from sink to source. That would mark a tipping point of no return, endorsing Sir Nicholas Stern’s observation that climate change represents capitalism’s greatest market failure.

Capitalism has long regarded Nature, as it has long regarded the labour force, as something to be mined, milked then abandoned. Extractivism operates as an open loop – what an electrician would call a total loss system. Something is generated, used, then lost forever. There is no mechanism to recharge the source, which is why we now face an unprecedented ecological, economic and social emergency.

What if we could imagine a new politico-economic order that addressed all those crises? That could reverse and restore by mimicking those very natural systems it might rescue? That’s the proposition from the non-partisan US think tank, Capital Institute, which released an alternative blueprint last month rejecting both capitalism and socialism, drawing instead upon “holism”; a natural phenomenon in which sums of parts invariably manifest as much greater wholes. In Regenerative Capitalism, Institute president and former JP Morgan managing director John Fullerton argues, as do the Indignados, not for “incremental change to a system that is fundamentally sound but for a few glitches”, but wholesale rejection of it.

First up, argues Fullerton, we must recognise that our future does not lie in one dominant dogma. Rather, holism looks for balance between seemingly diametric ambitions like efficiency and resilience, collaboration and competition, diversity and coherence. There are literally dozens of New Economy views out there: natural capitalism; sustainable capitalism; conscious capitalism; doughnut economics; circular economies; sharing economies; steady-state economies. Fullerton says the answers lie among an open appraisal of them all, drawing on the best elements of each.

Similarly, we need to discard the current economic practice of managing markets and industries in isolation: the kind of tunnel vision that allows us to drill for more oil even as the planet warms. In future, no commerce should be conducted without heed of the wider context, recognising “that the proper functioning of complex wholes, like an economy, cannot be understood without the ongoing, dynamic relationships among parts that give rise to greater wholes.”

And at the root, a new understanding that Nature must be more than a vending machine – we must enter a respectful partnership. That the fate of us all depends inextricably on the health of the environment, and that there can be no true prosperity until Nature is allowed to heal and thrive.

Right about now, critics will dismiss this is as too hippy, too hypothetical – argue that we need practical, real-world strategies, not Lennonesque appeals. Fair enough. In fact, all around the world, people have already made a start: launching sustainability initiatives and social movements that have re-imagined post-growth economies – divestment, B Corporations, ethical investing, slow food, fair trade and localism.

Pressure for change is emerging too, as a market force created, ironically, by the very corporations it will inevitably topple. Innovations in energy, communications and transport, the historical pillars of any economy, are already allowing small enterprise to compete with mega-corporations. Author Jeremy Rifkin, in his 2014 book The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, maintains that technology and collaboration now allows individuals to produce the goods they formerly had to buy, access technology they would have otherwise had to develop themselves (think Tesla’s open-source electric car technology).

Innovations like 3D printing, and cheap, decentralised green energy will herald the collapse of centralised production and supply chains, enabling what Rifkin calls a “collaborative commons.” Imagine a company that generates its own power from the roof of its warehouse, perhaps storing it in batteries like Tesla’s new Powerwall. Right there, it’s shrugged off a suffocating shackle – dependence on a centralised wholesale electricity monopoly. Imagine too, that the company then uses that solar power to fuel its vehicles. There goes another shackle – dependence on fossil fuel companies. A decentralised, self-sufficient economy built around such businesses, argues Rifkin, would ease the burden on overloaded natural systems.

There are already working models of regionalised collective enterprise. In Inocencia Lucha’s own country thrives a model of what could have offered her hope. Arrasate-Mondragon, in Spain’s Basque region is the headquarters of Mondragon Corporation (MC), the world’s biggest workers co-operative, and a bold middle finger extended to the capitalist oligarchy.

In 2013, MC made global sales of €15bn, generated by 103 subsidiary co-operatives running four prime innovation streams – industry, finance, retail and knowledge. Each enterprise is majority owned (between 80 and 85 per cent) and directed by co-op members. They select and hire their own managing director, but make all the fundamental business decisions themselves – the reverse of mainstream company structure.

The highest-paid director at MC can earn, by regulation, no more than 6.5 times what the lowest-paid workers take home. That’s the rule. Compare that with current labour inequity of neoliberal markets, where CEOs routinely earn 300 times the pay of their workers (closer to 1000 times in the case of some fast-food chains). Mondragon now has 15 technology centres, employing almost 1,700 R&D staff. Its 2013 Annual Report lists assets of €34m, with a worker-members share capital of €1.7m. In 2013, €13.5m were set aside for social programmes, including Mondragon’s own University, with a roll of 4000 students and several vocational training and education centres.

More than 43 per cent of Mondragon’s members are women, who enjoy precisely the same mandated opportunities, benefits and responsibilities as men. If you think all this sounds too good, too idealistic to last, bear in mind that Mondragon was founded in 1956.

That doesn’t mean it’s been easy. The Spanish economy has been contracting by nearly two per cent a year since 2009, and while one of Mondragon’s operations had to close, it hasn’t laid off a single worker. Instead, everybody negotiated wage cuts – the biggest being incurred by the highest paid – some were stood down on 80 per cent pay while others were relocated with assistance packages. Those companies that had surpluses lent them to other, struggling subsidiaries. This is a world away from Wall St.

Just the same, Mondragon has had to respond, like everyone else, to competition from developing world labour markets by going offshore itself, to Vietnam, Chile, Morocco and Russia. Those 14,000 workers are not Mondragon members, but they enjoy much far pay and conditions than compatriots contracting to other western companies.

There is much in Mondragon the Indignados will applaud. For them, the political change they demanded in the town squares now has a voice in the European Parliament. Last year, the pony-tailed leader of the insurgent left-wing Podemos party and one-time Indignista, Pablo Iglesias, won 1.2 million votes from out of nowhere to take five seats in the European elections. In much of Spain, including Madrid, Podemos is now the third political force.

The Spanish are showing us that change is there for those with the courage to demand and drive it. We just have to want it badly enough. It’s for us to insist that the wealthy pay taxes at the same rate as the middle class. That corporations pay their fair share of taxes that reflect the true social and environmental costs of their profits – of the resources they appropriate from the public commons. We could stop the wholesale looting of public wealth by private interests.

We could insist that subsidies on – and investments in – fossil fuels cease forthwith: no more platitudes from Simon Bridges about “transitions.” That corporate salaries be capped. That workers get a living wage at the very least. We can and must say no to the TPPA, and to all hegemonic “free trade” artifice. We can demand the reinstatement and resuscitation of public services – health, education, transport, child care. We could insist that governments no longer use Nature as an emporium. We could all pick up a pot and start banging.

What we absolutely must not do is believe that this is as good as it gets; that there is no other way. That was the tragic undoing of Inocencia Lucha.


Too Big to Fail – Why National will Never Act on Climate Change

Californians, withering in the worst drought in the state’s history, are being exhorted to leave their urine standing in the toilet, to keep their showers shorter than five minutes and to replace their lawns with rocks and cacti. Meanwhile, figures released last Monday show the Californian fracking industry used nearly 265 million litres of water in the last 12 months in the quest for more oil and gas.

Californians appear to be living out some 21st Century equivalent of the tragedy of Easter Island, in which the state is using its precious, decimated water to sponsor the quest for more oil and gas – the very agents of its demise. Meanwhile, oil companies are exploiting the collapse of Arctic ice cover to drill for more oil. The big three US auto makers have sued electric car pioneer Tesla, blocking it from direct sales in Michigan, Ohio, Texas and at least five other states.

Such profound failures of logic make the carbon age a baffling time for the clear-minded. Why won’t Governments – bound by legislature to act in the public interest – intervene? Administrations around the world have serially declined to take the actions any primary school kid knows must happen if we’re to avert catastrophic warming. The global response ranges from simple inertia through greenwashing and double-speak to outright sabotage: Tony Abbot, who abolished Australia’s Climate Commission in 2013, citing budget constraints, last week found four million dollars to embed anti-environmentalist and climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg in a new “consensus centre” at the University of Western Australia.

Here in New Zealand, the Key Government continues to procrastinate, obfuscate. So disengaged from his portfolio is Climate Minister Tim Groser that he wrongly claimed last week that more trees were being planted in New Zealand than were being chopped down – an intolerable ignorance. In March, Energy Minister Simon Bridges invited oil companies to come drill across more than 424,000 square kilometres of New Zealand territorial sea.

Groser insists that we are “on track” to meet our albeit feeble emissions target – a cut of just five per cent by 2020 – even as our greenhouse emissions continue to climb (by one per cent every year since 1990). It has now become clear that he means to buy his way out of climate obligations by resorting to ‘hot air’ carbon credits – unverifiable and widely rejected get-out-of-jail-free cards from former Soviet bloc countries.

Critics usually put such cynicism down to mere climate denial. This is a serious underestimation, and one reason why governments have been allowed to get away with it for so long. Not only do conservatives believe in climate change; they understand it – or at least its consequences – far better than many liberals. All this time, we’ve slated them for being behind the eight ball when in fact, they’re way ahead of us. We’ve been played for a bunch of saps.

As Naomi Klein pointed out in This Changes Everything, neoliberals are not just blocking action on climate change; they’re sandbagging a global economic and political empire they took thirty years to create. Neoliberalism is the belief system of the global elite: the transnational capitalist class. It began as a right-wing counterattack against socio-economic reforms that began with F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, conceived to redistribute wealth and reverse the disastrous free market policies that led to the Great Depression.

It’s been a brilliant success. Since 1970, thanks to collusion with muscular institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank,  filthy-rich corporations and conservative political parties, the neoliberals have installed a free market plutocracy across the western world. Don’t underestimate how serious these people are about global economic supremacy: free market reforms were often imposed at the barrel of a gun, enforced under the distraction of bloody coups.

Multinationals, eager to get their hands on South America’s state-owned natural resources, funded a series of murderous overthrows led by handpicked dictators – Pinochet in Chile, Quadros in Brazil, Onganía in Argentina, Ovando in Bolivia, Suharto in Indonesia. These and many other countries, held to economic ransom by the World Bank, were forced to privatise state institutions and assets, de-unionise labour, deregulate their markets and open their borders to multinational looters.

Still greater were the victories of the eighties: the enforcement of Reaganomics in the US – tax breaks for the wealthy, slashed public spending (except on military contracts) – gave Margaret Thatcher some implied moral authority to tear down the British welfare state. Assisted by her lieutenant, Rupert Murdoch, she began by kneecapping the two institutions that stood in her way; the unions and the liberal media. Reagan’s legacy was a three-trillion-dollar national debt. Thatcher’s was the despair of more than three million unemployed.

By the end of the eighties, neoliberalism was the entrenched economic doctrine of the west. But it wasn’t about to end there: wherever the status quo faltered, the neoliberals were waiting to plug the constitutional gap. First, South Africa, with a suite of offers the incoming African National Congress found itself unable to refuse. Then came the Holy Grail; the collapse of the Soviet Union – neoliberal intervention allowed the rise of Putinesque capitalism and the Russian oligarchs.

It’s clear then, that an awful lot of time, money and zeal went into the annexation of the global economy, though much remains to be done: the last remaining barriers to multinational mastery are currently being stripped away by non-military overthrows disguised as ‘free trade’ agreements like the TPPA. In New Zealand, there are still some irksome echoes of the welfare state to be silenced, assets to be privatised, environmental protections to be stripped.

So what has any of this got to do with climate change? Everything. The right wing understands that fundamental capitalism has not only greatly exacerbated climate change: it has no mechanisms progressive or inclusive enough to address it. No: business-as-usual got us into this mess, and left to run its course, will deliver us to ruin. The fact that people are beginning to understand that reality keeps fundamental capitalists awake at night.

Worse, the sort of global-scale action needed now to avert disaster can only be brought about by sweeping reforms led by governments, progressive businesses and empowered, engaged communities – the very sectors neoliberalism despises most. Greenhouse emissions must be regulated for, and that’s an intolerable anathema to the economic right, as are the kind of interventions and incentives necessary to tip the playing field back to level – and perhaps beyond – to allow alternative technologies and clean energy to finally compete. Because climate change will only worsen the global inequality neoliberalism created, combatting it necessarily entails the redistribution of wealth and the reinstatement of a more equitable society. Don’t expect the right wing to roll over on that.

A still greater terror is the prospect of polluter pays: the very notion that climate-hostile businesses might be penalised – God forbid, taxed. Corporations, let off the regulatory leash by market reforms, would once more have to take responsibility for the social and environmental costs of their profits. Restoring a leadership role to government in any new green deal is an outrage that simply will not be brooked.

But above all, the realisation that we cannot continue this reckless pursuit of the aphorism that is infinite growth – that the Earth cannot go on bankrolling the orgiastic consumption on which free-market capitalism so desperately depends; that we must draft a new contract with Nature in which we set limits – this is a heresy that strikes straight to the heart of the neoliberal empire.

As Klein has pointed out, climate change is the one – the only – crisis of sufficient magnitude to galvanise just such a global revolution. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that neoliberals have given millions to conservative think tanks to manufacture doubt, distortion and denial. That right-wing governments everywhere, including New Zealand, have stonewalled meaningful action. That they instead do all they can to perpetuate a free-market continuum. That they are, if anything, forcing through the outstanding tasks in their manifesto with renewed urgency, straining the legality of standing orders and the leash of public tolerance to breaking point.

We have wasted precious years trying to appeal to some sense of propriety, of responsibility, of stewardship. It is not there to be tugged at. It is futile to keep pointing to the destruction we’re inflicting on the poor nations of the world, the small island states. Neoliberals are social Darwinists; they genuinely believe that those who will not adapt – by which they mean those that do not subscribe to their ideology – will die, and they’re fine with it.

And don’t try imploring any sense of legacy. These people will judge their benefaction only by the totality of their domination – the completeness with which they were able to eradicate solidarity, welfare, community, opportunity, the state.

Neoliberalism is an economic hegemony, a vicious social fundamentalism – I described it in my previous post as a broken belief system. Adherents abide in a quasi-religious jingoism, in which they chant their mantras in a collective reinforcement – as such, they are utterly deaf to reason, blind to the overwhelming global evidence of their failure.

There can be no changing their minds. Instead, they blame their failures on us, because we interfered with their experiment. They will persist as long as we allow them to.

The only way to turn things around now is to reject, then reverse their political influence, their self-serving instruments, their skewed privilege, their pitiless policies. There is no other way. The only thing that will save the planet now is nothing less than global revolution, and it may just have started last week, when nearly 900 Dutch citizens filed a lawsuit against their government for failing to act against climate change. Their case, based on human rights laws, argues that the Dutch Government has not acted in their interests.

Who knows? It might just serve as the precedent for a global class action – an emphatic renunciation of the politics of cynicism and greed. That’s very much up to us, and what we do next.

This post is the second in a three-part series about the implications of neoliberalism. The first part is here.


What has Neoliberalism Done for You Lately?

I am stuck in a failed, dysfunctional relationship. I’ve heard promises for years that things will change for the better, but they never do. Sure, every now and again, my partner extends some small overture – a brief ray of warmth and propinquity. But these always reveal as the same contrivance; a ruse to win another week of tacit subscription.

Recently, it became clear that my partner has been lying to me, and doing things behind my back, almost like there’s a hidden agenda. I now accept that this relationship has not been good for me; it’s left me impoverished, undermined, compromised, distrustful. I’ve surrendered treasured assets and deeply cherished beliefs. I feel dirty.

We’ve been together now since 1978, when I joined the workforce. Back then, we got along well. We had a lot in common: for one thing, we shared a vision of a better place – a model democracy where everyone enjoyed equal rights, opportunity, security. That year, a guy called Bruce Beetham talked about modernistic government and progressive society, and ended up winning the Rangitikei by-election. So I committed to the relationship. I paid my taxes. I worked hard. I participated.

My partner – our beneficent state – enjoyed a reputation for egalitarianism and social mobility. Pretty much anybody who could work, did, and most owned their own home. If they couldn’t afford one, the state rented them one at negligible rates. I didn’t see a beggar until I did my OE. But it turned out my partner was bad with money: by 1984, New Zealand was nearly bankrupt. There was a drinking problem too, which led to a snap election that June.

The honeymoon was over. My partner became mercenary, dictatorial, at times savage. Empathy withered. The fourth Labour Government of David Lange and Roger Douglas lashed out, hurling decades of regulation to the floor and smashing the welfare state. I didn’t recognise this new tyrant, nor their ideology. Only later did I learn it was called neoliberalism, and that my partner had secretly been listening to the likes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

Neoliberalism, in a nutshell, is about stripping away the mantle of government, and handing the functions of the state to ‘free enterprise’ so that they can be performed at a profit. It’s about selling off Government assets, often at fire-sale prices, to private interests. Slashing public spending. Deconstructing the public sector. Privatising public institutions like schools, hospitals, prisons and state housing.

It’s about removing any impediment to international trade and investment, allowing multinational corporations unfettered access to markets through instruments such as free trade agreements. Reducing wages by undermining unions and collectives, imposing punitive contracts and annulling workers’ rights and conditions. Hacking down regulatory instruments such as price controls. Granting tax relief to the rich while lavishing handouts on corporations.

This, said the neoliberals, would create the right stimuli and environment to increase economic growth and build wealth. Yes, it would inevitably make the richer still richer, but all that money, they assured us, would eventually “trickle down” to the working classes and the poor.

The opposite has happened. For a decade after Rogernomics (including its successor, Ruthanasia) the New Zealand economy languished, stagnant, even as the global economy boomed. If you were born after those fateful few weeks in 1984, you became a citizen of a diametric state, a member of what has been called the “baby bust” generation. You would have arrived in the midst of economic crisis and the deepest recession seen since the Great Depression. You would have seen dole queues, closures, layoffs, mortgagee sales, evicted farmers. In the rapid shift from a production to a finance economy, roughly 76,000 manufacturing jobs vanished between 1987 and 1992. In 1987, former Government Departments became profit-driven state-owned enterprises: the Electricity Corporation shed 3,000 staff; the Coal Corporation 4,000; the Forestry Corporation 5,000; New Zealand Post 8,000.

Families were shattered by debt and desolation. Poverty, which had once been an aberration, was now an intergenerational blight. Home ownership rates, reliable indicators of economic health, began to tumble. You would have been handed a hefty bill for your tertiary education, and if you graduated anytime after 2008, you’d have been lucky to find a job. If you did, you would have discovered upon receipt of your first pay packet that you were being paid less, relatively, than your parents were at your age.

In fact, Household Economic Surveys compared before the Douglas reforms and for years after, show they left just 20 per cent of New Zealanders better off – those who were already wealthy. In other words, neoliberal policies enacted one of the single greatest transfers – let’s just call it theft – of wealth from the public estate to the coffers of the privileged since the colonial confiscations of Maori land.

Wherever the neoliberals have wrenched apart the cradling arms of the state, and left citizens instead to the tender mercies of the market, they have suffered. With protections gone, vulnerable New Zealanders are placed squarely in the path of ruthless speculators: a book released last month, The Child Poverty Debate, contends that the 2008-2012 Global Financial Crisis left 22 per cent of New Zealand children living in poverty. Entrusting the safety of mining operations to a deregulated market cost 29 miners their lives at Pike River.

Liberalisation of the financial markets opened the vault to massive profits for banks. People whose wages had frozen turned to debt to get by. By 2012, New Zealand’s household debt-to-GDP ratio was the fourth highest in the developed world, while Government overseas debt has nearly tripled since 2008. In New Zealand, banking is a protected oligopoly, one the most profitable in the world thanks to the political leverage they can exert on a tremulous economy. Last year, the big four Australian-owned banks recorded a record $4.1 billion profit. Yes, they pay tax and stimulate the economy, but the bulk of that $4.1 billion – desperately-needed domestic capital – was sent overseas to their parent companies.

Such profiteering is the very essence of Neoliberalism – policies that practically guarantee wealth for the elite condemn the rest of us. New Zealand once boasted one of the most egalitarian societies in the world (although nobody pretends that Maori and Pasifika people enjoyed anything like that status). But the neoliberal experiment has prised open the fastest-growing gap in the developed world between the rich and the rest of society.

The top one per cent of New Zealanders now owns three times as much wealth as the entire lower 50 per cent. In barely three decades, the average income, adjusted for inflation, of the top one per cent has more than doubled to $337,000. The average disposable income for someone in the bottom 10 per cent, after housing costs, is lower now than it was in the 1980s.

Neoliberalism has left most New Zealanders little to aspire to. Our social fabric is in shreds; our debt-driven economy now depends desperately on the fortunes of a single volatile commodity. Opportunity and social mobility, once abundant commodities, have all but vanished, replaced by grinding servitude and zero-hour contracts. Some of our proudest achievements, built up over decades of endeavour, with billions of dollars paid in taxes, have been torn down or handed over to corporate raiders as kickback for campaign funding.

I entered this relationship in good faith, emboldened and inspired. I signed a social contract. The free market promised me choices and freedoms, but delivers only faits accompli. I expressly asked my partner not to sell off the state electricity generators, pointing out that they were my property as well. So did a million other people, yet they were sold regardless – much too cheaply. I suspect too, that it is complicit in some secret hegemony being brokered with US oligarchs under the euphemism of free trade, but whenever I ask about it, it refuses to discuss it.

I pay more for electricity than ever before. I cannot take the transport of my choice because the national railways were sold off and stripped. The state was forced to buy the national airline back before it fell into total ruin. I lost tens of thousands of dollars to shysters wearing builders’ belts after my house leaked. When I sought reparation, they were nowhere to be found, no longer bound by any form of regulation.

Where the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation used to offer me hours of quality current affairs programming every day – Panorama, Column Comment, Gallery (later Compass, Inquiry, The Brian Edwards Show, Perigo, Nationwide... – I now have to suffer fatuous advertorial and celebrity trivia. The departure of the last survivor of a once-proud journalistic tradition – Campbell Live – marks the final few slashes of the frenzied attack on quality content that has been the deregulation of New Zealand television.

My local DHB recently informed me, not that I would face a long wait for a consultation, but that it would not receive me at all.

I gave the best years of my life to this relationship, and it has left me much the poorer: embittered, disillusioned. I’ve been used. I should leave, of course, but it’s scary. I need to imagine, then create, a better life. The enormity of that, and the uncertainty of the outcome, would freeze me to the spot if it weren’t for the galvanising realisation that this must not continue. Neoliberal policy has delivered us to a poorer, greedier, uglier and unjust place.

Worse, we find ourselves staring at something close to global environmental collapse – a catastrophe neoliberalism not only exacerbated, but one it is hopelessly inadequate – never mind unwilling – to address. We must not fall into the trap of believing that this simply how things are; that this is as good as it gets. Every day we stay, the Government assumes renewed license to behave this way.

Roger Douglas once wrote his free market ideology into a book, which he called There’s got to be a Better Way. There is, and we must conceive it, then embark on it urgently. We must reject his free market orthodoxy, the looting of the speculators, the excoriating, dehumanising policies of the conservatives, the hegemony of the politico-corporate complex.

Neoliberalism is not an economic blueprint. It is simply a broken belief system, clutched tightly to the chest of the power elite and prosecuted by their sock puppets in spite of inordinate evidence of failure. It is a toxic relationship that we must leave, for our own sakes.


Branding a Post-Predator Dream – the Language of Extirpation

It was the early morning of 17 January, 1770, and Joseph Banks was having trouble sleeping in. From his bunk aboard James Cook’s Endeavour, then swinging gently at anchor in Queen Charlotte Sound, the expedition’s naturalist was:

“...awak’d by the singing of the birds ashore ... the numbers of them were certainly very great ... their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable.”

Banks was listening to the melody of a largely intact mainland forest – something no New Zealander has heard for more than two hundred years. Even Banks’ choir was by then missing a few critical sections – Maori, and their dogs and rats, had by then exterminated at least 35 species – native swans and geese, pelicans, adzebills – and of course the moa and its mighty foe, Harpagornis, the biggest eagle that ever lived.

Cook was already busy releasing pigs and goats, but far worse was to come: in his wake came British and European settlers, and they brought ruin with them: cats, mice, ferrets, stoats, weasels, rabbits, hares, hedgehogs, possums, deer, chamois, thar and disastrously, more rats – and these ones could climb trees.

In just 750 years, half of New Zealand’s vertebrate fauna disappeared. At least 51 bird species, three frogs, three lizards, a freshwater fish, four plant species, and an unguessable host of invertebrates are gone forever. No one will ever see a living moa, a piopio or a laughing owl. The songs of the huia and the South Island kokako have long stopped echoing. All are now just dusty bones and skins, the relics of oblivion. New Zealand’s list of extinct species is one of the longest in the world – only Hawaii has suffered greater losses – and the file is far from closed. There is no corner of the country, no matter how remote, steep, or frigid, that has not been overrun by the pests of the pioneers.

If only this were simply a cautionary tale of old. Sadly, New Zealanders are still bystanders to extinction: it’s going on all around us, right now, every hour, every minute. By current reckoning, 2788 native species are threatened with nihility – a third of all those we know of. The Department of Conservation, stripped in 2011 of $54 million over the following four years, and a further $9.3 million a year* from natural heritage management, can now minister to fewer than 200 of them. So we’re reduced to triage: trying to pick likely survivors, and turning our backs on the basket cases.

Conservation in New Zealand means killing things: trapping and poisoning pestilence so that native species might just get enough breathing space to breed. But the conservation estate is vast – at eight million hectares, nearly 30 per cent of the country – and only a million hectares receive any kind of intervention. Elsewhere, populations are left to die. Kiwi are disappearing from such neglected corners at the rate of six per cent a year.

As it stands, then, pest control is too little, and for many will come too late, if at all. More species will go extinct, which is why the notion of a predator-free New Zealand, conceived by the late Sir Paul Callaghan and upheld by a think tank of conservationists including Rob Fenwick, Gareth Morgan, and Charles Daugherty, is one we simply must have, and hold close.

But before we embark, we need to be crystal clear about what we mean, and honest about what we want. In much of the literature to date, “pest” and “predator” have been freely interchangeable, but they mean two very different things, and the distinction is a deal-breaker. For the purposes of publicity, “predator” appears to mean rats, possums and mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels).

This is unquestionably the unholy trinity of pest control. Collectively, they do the bulk of harm to native birds, but there is a whole host of other imports out there doing proven and significant harm to native species – cats, hedgehogs, wasps, wallabies, wild pigs, goats, deer, thar, chamois, and while we’re committing blasphemy, we may as well utter the unutterable: trout and salmon.

But few are prepared to publicly brand these animals as “pests”, despite reams of peer-reviewed literature which clearly shows that, ecologically, that’s very much what they are. That’s because one person’s pest is another’s recreational resource, stuffed trophy or even their prime income. There is simply no Government, trust or NGO, real or imagined, that will risk taking on the hunting and fishing lobby, nor ordinary household cat lovers. That’s why the predator-free NZ web site is silent about these creatures (although Gareth Morgan has publicly campaigned for cat control – and was predictably vilified): to advocate for their removal would be to lose the PR battle before it begins.

The elephant of conflicted interests has ever stalked the conservation boardroom, and practitioners have tiptoed round it. But is it ethically acceptable to engage the New Zealand public with these game-changing aces firmly concealed up your sleeve? A pest-free campaign will depend critically upon public support, moral and financial. But many people will assume they’re sponsoring the final, enduring salvation of endemic biodiversity when in fact, mustelids, stoats and possums are really just the top priority.

Even if we put aside the damage caused by browsing animals and sport fish, our flora and fauna face many further threats. Nobody can accurately predict the impact of climate change on native ecosystems, but projections are frightening: early work by botanists Stephan Halloy and Alan Mark found that New Zealand’s alpine habitat – reckoned in 2003 at 30,000 square kilometres, or 11 per cent of our land area – could shrink to just 6700 square kilometres, or 2.4 per cent – by 2100.

That loss of habitat, combined with displacement by exotic weeds exploiting the new opportunity, could see the extinction of between 200 and 300 native alpine plant species. And that was based on conservative warming estimates.

Ocean acidifcation, kauri dieback, the truly neutron time-bomb of invasive pest plants, loss of genetic diversity, illegal introductions and translocations of game animals and fish – all these things will go on to sapping any recovery, regardless of how many rats are killed.

And then there’s habitat loss. Native forest continues to fall to the axe on private land, taking crucial local populations with it. Wetlands, incomprehensibly, are still being drained, despite the fact that we’ve already lost 90 per cent of the original extent. Rivers and stream flows are forever appropriated for irrigation, and filthy, nutrient-sodden effluent allowed to run back into them.

Because the Government shows no inclination to act (thereby following a long, shameful tradition) it’s left to the public and enlightened businesses to bankroll any new vision for our Nature. So yes; we manifestly need initiatives like predator-free New Zealand. It must happen.

But if the public is stumping up the cash, they deserve more than a PR strategy. If we’re selling them a future of some ringing, abundant utopia – a reprise of Banks’ shoreline cacophony – we do them, and biodiversity, no favours by sanitising the action plan. They need to know that it will demand much more than simply extirpating a narrow suite of predators.  

We should warn them that it will get ugly, that some species will be lost regardless, and that they will need to make some tough choices. Cats or wildlife? Hunting or healthy forests? Sport fishing, or hope for the three-quarters of our native fish facing extinction?

Intact, diverse ecosystems? Or a compromised, dysfunctional theme park?


* There was a last-minute $20m top-up in the 2013 Budget to try to stem a haemorrhage of jobs in the Department.