Kennedy Graham

Dialogue with he of closed ears: Thanking Mr Brownlee for his insights

by Kennedy Graham

I had occasion today to speak in the Budget Debate.  What an inspiring eye-opener.

The Budget was, of course, introduced by Finance Minister, Bill English on 20 May.  The debate has spluttered along, on and off to reflect the changing weekly priorities of the Government in Parliament.  The final stage is this week. 

I took the opportunity to critique the Government’s policy devotion to economic growth.  I recalled the Speech-from-the-Throne of December 2008, the Budget Statement of May 2010, and the covering comment in the Energy Strategy released last week.  “The driving goal – overarching goal – of the new Government will be to grow the NZ economy in order to deliver greater prosperity, security and opportunities to all NZers.  It will be going for growth because it believes in the power of economic growth to deliver higher incomes, better living conditions and, ultimately, a stronger society for NZers.”  QED.

I ventured to claim that the excessive focus on economic growth was, at best, contestable.  With a global population that has grown from 2 billion to 7 b. in 50 years, and a steady increase in material consumption per capita, the global economy has become unsustainable.  The ecological overshoot of some 30% today makes it clear that permanent global economic growth is ‘uneconomic’.  A distinction needs to be drawn now, between the Global North (including Australia and NZ) and the Global South (including our Pacific island neighbours).  The challenge now to the ‘over-developed’ North was to maintain prosperity without growth.  The challenge to the developing South was to continue to grow materially, on a sustainable basis.

The key concept to link this, I said, was ‘sustainable development’, accepted by the international community since 1992.  We needed to have regard to sustainable development in every country on the planet.

The Minister ’s reaction?  “Left-wing rubbish!”

I thanked Mr Brownlee for his stunning insight into the human condition and our 21st century global challenges. 

It is sad that this is the level of debate we are required to endure in the present Parliament.  The question of the carrying capacity of Earth was addressed at the Rio Earth Summit of ’92 (which I attended).  Policy-makers acknowledged the limited knowledge available pertaining to the biosphere and the Earth’s ecological limits.  Since ‘92 there has been a veritable upsurge of research in these areas, which is increasingly informing policy-making.  This includes the relationship between neo-classical economics and ecological economics – arguably the most critical debate underway of all time.

All this has nothing to do with the obsolescent left-right political spectrum, spawned in 18th century revolutionary France and dying a lingering death in our post-modern world.  Minister Brownlee remains caught in the headlights, and the headlights are fading fast.  He needs to blink a few times, and read a bit more.

Although I had no time in the House to warm to the theme, it is worth pointing out to Mr. Brownlee, and indeed to other National colleagues who stare in bewilderment when Green statements are advanced in the House, that the left-right spectrum cannot inform 21st century politics.  Trying to understand Green politics, and how to separate us from Labour, is impossible through the sole use of the left-right analysis.  It is like peering at a Dali painting, with the clock spread across the canvas in mono-dimensional manner. 

Only when we have a vertical axis, a sustainability axis, will we all – party strategists, media, voting public – begin to understand 21st century politics and where the Greens are coming from, and where we are heading.

Meanwhile, we shall patiently explain things to Gerry Brownlee, as gently as we can.

Published in Environment & Resource Management by Kennedy Graham on Wed, July 28th, 2010   


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