The Greens put out a press release a few weeks ago, “welcoming the Government’s renewed commitment to safe walking and cycling across the Waitematā Harbour, but warning that new highway investment puts our response to the climate change emergency at risk.”
Good stuff for where New Zealand is at (we want the government to take action on climate change but we don’t want anything to really change). The Greens are pushing for more cycling, walking and trains, less roading infrastructure that prolongs our excessive car culture.
Living in the rural South Island, I don’t follow closely. Nearly everytyhing I see discussed is about big cities up North. Not being familiar with the terrain much of the discourse seems abstract and I’m ok to let people get on with it, while waiting for the confluence of events that will push New Zealand to more radical change.
Obviously there’s a population density in the North Island, especially in the big cities, and there’s the idea that our climate response must be quantified first by population. Get emissions down, and the best way to do that is via the largest or most problematic emitters (don’t mention the dairy war!). But this misses that our crises are the result of such reductionist thinking and it’s the inability to consider the relationship between all things that both causes climate change and prevents us from taking the necessary but entirely possible right action. If the solutions to climate and ecology crises necessitate a big number counting approach, they also require us to learn about the connections that make radical change possible. In other words, dropping emissions to x level is necessary but not sufficient, and we haven’t gotten to the sufficient conversation yet.
All of which is why I’m starting to get antsy about the almost complete focus of transition on cities. If the push is to end car culture, how do people conceive of rural people getting around? Will rural areas be able to set up public transport systems? Is central government going to leave this to local bodies? Will country folk be the only ones enabled into retaining car culture? Or will country people have their own replacement for car culture, not modelled on what Auckland and Wellington can imagine? Country pioneers are already leading the way.
Which also brings me to the whole EV thing. Is the intention that lots of people will still own cars, they just won’t drive them as much. How does that work in terms of the embodied energy that goes into mining, manufacture, pollution mitigation, and eventual disposal, not to mention the fossil fuels used and GHGs emitted in all of that*? How do we justify, or even pay for, such embodied energy to sit in the garage for most of the week? Or is the current focus a stepping stone to new models of collective car ownership that we haven’t thought of yet? (If we can share a bus why can’t we share a car?)
Underlying all this is two things. Whether our actions are close to being adequate even with the move in the right direction? And if we need to accept changes to our lifestyles, who gets to decide what is fair? The place with the most people?
That last bit was prompted this week by a Gen Zero champion going hard core Aucklander on twitter by saying that nobody needs a ute or 4WD. In the ensuing discussion there was an assertion that ignoring the outliers was understandable when producing policy. Yeah, townies calling rural people outliers is really going to go down well. And a ton of Aucklander’s owning SUVs they don’t really need isn’t a reason to deny those that do need them.
Thing is, if the solution to Auckland’s large emission profile is working with the dominant classes of emitter, then rural solutions are going to be all about community, and in that, individual people actually matter. We won’t have the numbers to afford commuter trains, and the geography and weather mean that cycling solutions will look very different. The country is ripe for models driven by local needs.
Lest this seems too anti-city, I’ll point to the South Island’s largely rural based tourism sector that still thinks we’re going back to the way we were pre-covid, as if the pandemic was a blip rather than the entree for the climate crisis. Although to be fair, while Wanaka managed to block the council plans for airport expansion, it’s Christchurch that’s pushing for a large airport on the banks of the Clutha River near Tarras. This is obviously completely bonkers (don’t mention the flying war!), but is it any more nuts that the rest of New Zealand thinking green tech BAU is going to be enough (an EV in every second garage, and visions of happy cyclists on the Harbour bridge).
All of which is to say we’re a long way from home Toto. We’re still stuck in the capitalist nightmare hoping for the best and few are willing yet to talk about such things as relocalising economies so that staying close to home makes sense, that we can move less instead of building more and still be happy. Imagine that!
I don’t think the Greens are on the wrong track, we have to do something about infrastructure and they’re doing a good job all political things considered (current policy sitting in the context of the previous Labour/NZF government and the currentl Labour majority one). But green tech BAU is the least we can do and it’s a mistake to think it’s the solution rather than the stepping stone. The real question here is how long and what is it going to take to grasp the nettle of the kind of societal restructuring that will drop GHGs fast and far enough while also rebuilding a fair society that is meaningfully sustainable and resilient rather than greenwashed on the way to collapse?
*let’s not mention the child labour either.