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

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.

19 Comments Posted

  1. The challenge is to get away from the thinking that living standards are directly related to the level of economic activity and material consumption. It can be done – just consider the impact of light bulbs that last longer, which would reduce economic activity and resource consumption but would lead to an increased standard of living.

    Once you have achieved that shift in thinking, then you can consider a sustainable living standard similar or probably better than our current living standards across North and South, with less resource consumption.


  2. Well done for raising the topic, Kennedy. I’m apalled at Brownlee’s response but it proves, yet again, that collapse is almost certain, since very few people want to have to deal with the finite nature of our planet.

    However, you seemed to be saying two conflicting things. Firstly you claimed (and that seems right) that humans have overshot the carrying capacity of the planet by 30% (given current behaviours). But you then appear to be saying that living standards should not be maintained for the prosperous north and allowed to be increased for the less prosperous south. I hope you realise that that is not a sustainable position, given our current overshoot condition?

  3. Hi Toad, I certainly can’t argue with your comparison of Brownlee to Tolley. In terms of where I am coming from with my comments, I have two NZ Green heroes. They are Rod Donald and Jeanette Fitzsimmons. Kennedy’s post irritated me because I cannot imagine either Rod or Jeannette ever taking so high-handed a tone as Kennedy does in the headline or his final sentence. Nor can I imagine them choosing to make a point as esoterically as Kennedy does in the final two paras. Rainman objected to my post as ‘obnoxious’. That’s exactly the way I interpreted the tone in Kennedy’s post and I don’t think it serves Green politics to be high-handed. My reaction to Kennedy’s post is partially connected to my massive disappointment when the Greens went ‘Labour or no-one’ pre-Election 08. In my view that was stupid in that if (As Kennedy argues) Green politics is neither left nor right, then positioning as anti-Nat does not further the cause. I reckon hte Greens should be in a position to represent the environment and social justice to anyone at anytime regardless of who is in power.What if Mr Graham comes up with a good idea thats under Brownlee’s remit. Is Mr Graham going to get a hearing? Probably not. WOuld Rod and Jeanette have got a hearing? Very probably because they were clever politicians who knew that belittling people who didn’t agree with them should only be done with a very, very good reason. I don’t see a very, very good reason here. Phew….

  4. “socialists and capitalists – neither group seems to grasp that those are old political philosophies and are not really relevant any more.”

    Actually they are hugely relevant – and the basis for Green party thinking – you can’t just pretend “we’ve got something new” when you are really just trotting out a re-hashed melange of socialist, capitalist and (mostly) social democratic policies.

  5. “Unless you would like to tell me some of your right-wing non environmental policies?”

    I thought the Greens were fairly right-wing on the climate change response policies, tending towards a ‘free-market’ solution with the price of carbon defined by an international market (nothing to do with the cost to the environment). And assuming that any carbon credits for forestry or whatever would be the property of owners rather than workers – i.e. it’s a capitalist policy rather than a socialist one.

  6. I’m quite happy for Ken to strut his stuff, I see no reason to dumb ourselves down to the lowest common denominator and write/speak in soundbytes. Rod Donald maintained that the Greens had the highest educational and intellectual attainment of any political party so Ken is merely highlighting another point of difference.

    I used to say that if you laid the brains of Jim Sutton and George Hawkins alongside one another they still wouldn’t be as thick as two short planks; Gerry Brownlee is the economy version, three for the price of one.

  7. @Skinman July 28, 2010, 6:21 PM

    I think it’s fair to say that Brownlee doesn’t come across as the sharpest pencil in the box – either intellectually or strategically.

    That said, compared with the incumbent Minister of Education, Brownlee comes across as an intellectual and strategic giant.

    I don’t think there is any harm in pointing out lack of intellectual rigour. That’s part of politics – as long as it is not done in an abusive manner and as long as it is done in response to actual incidents of demonstrated ineptitude.

  8. @Skinman, I thought the post was reasonably clear. What bit did you want explained?

    If you want to know about the concepts that the idiot we currently have for an Energy Minister pooh-poohed as left-wing rubbish, read “Prosperity without Growth” by Prof Tim Jackson. In fact, that’s all you need – the discussion about the relevance of “left vs right” is but a commentary of Mr Brownlee’s response. And the book is very good indeed.

    And I gave you a thumbs-down on your first post, for reasons of leaping to assumptions about Kennedy’s motives for the post, and being a bit obnoxious about succinctness and clarity.

  9. this vertical axis – something more than a y-axis I take it – one would surely require well-grounded whilst not reaching the clouds… since, as some in and about parliament have said, one cloud-hopper is enough for any country large or small..

    the thort also occurs of might it be like the ladder game in the latest Japanese sport craze.. where I understand players(participants) undertake ascending highrise block residences in record times.. from the outside.. as I said undertake(n) better than possible… and uninsurable..

    we would need our government Ministers to at very least recognise the limitations of growth, more particularly of the vertical sort..

  10. Skinman,

    is it your opinion that Mr Brownlee, a PM-chosen Minister of the prevailing government, is intellectually inferior to Mr. Kennedy Graham? If so, be so kind as to explain this view.. Behoves you.

  11. True. But so what? I’d be surprised if any Green supporter active on this blog doesn’t realise economic growth is finite, that environment and society prop up economy, nor that Green politics is human politics and as such is neither left nor right. And I’d be surprised if any Green supporter doesn’t think that anybody who doesn’t ‘get it’, is a bit dim and in need of enlightenment. My point is that enlightenment isn’t going to happen if our Green MP’s consider other MP’s who don’t think the same way as needing to have things patiently explained to them, as gently as we can’. The fact is that the ‘unenlightened one’ also happens to be the elected official in power so patronising him, implying he’s a twit, and intellectual snobbery is hardly the way to further the cause, is it? Even if the Minister IS a twit! That’s why this post got my goat. In my opinion, it is just an unnecessary swipe at the Minister and I expect a bit better from Green MP’s than that.

  12. Hi Rimu, perhaps you can enlighten me as to what the topic is? Is it “economic growth is unsustainable”, “green politics is neither left nor right”, “Brownlee is stupid”?

  13. I can’t speak for the other guy but I’m going to give you a thumbs down for not addressing the topic.

  14. Hey, who gave me a thumbs down for that last post? Do me a favour and post your reasons please. I’m pretty keen to get into a debate about the style and tone of Kennedy’s post. My view is that it comes across as intellectually superior and that ‘intellectual superiority’ isn’t a good way to win votes and positively influence people to change their views.

  15. Hi, could you have a go at explaining this in plain English please? I’m keen to understand whether you are writing this to prove your intellectual superiority to Brownlee, or to explain where the Greens are coming from .I’ve no doubt you are brainier than he. Unfortunately I reckon he is better at making his point succintly and in plain English than you.

  16. This is a great source of frustration for me as well when talking to both socialists and capitalists – neither group seems to grasp that those are old political philosophies and are not really relevant any more. I think we need an Green Karl Marx to help define the philosophy of our beliefs. I am sure there is a lot of works out there – but we need someone to capture the essence in a single treatise…

  17. 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.

    However, even if you factored all that in, the Greens would still come across as being a left-wing party. Your social policies, your policies on social welfare, your policies on justice, your policies on just about everything is still left-wing. If it wasn’t for your environmental bent, then you would just be a redder version of the Labour Party.

    Unless you would like to tell me some of your right-wing non environmental policies?

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