[ This speech by Jeanette Fitzsimmons, co-leader of the New Zealand nation Greens Party, is surely the most forceful and clear description of Peak Oil given by any politician anywhere in the world to date. (Not I suppose that there is much competition yet.) She says “the end of cheap oil is coming towards us with the force of a tsunami and New Zealand is not ready.” Acknowledging Peak Oil seems difficult for any politician, even Greens party members across the world, because it means acknowledging and challenging some the most fundamental economic doctrines and modern cultural assumptions of perpetual growth, while making it very difficult to promise a better, or at least more convenient, world. But the issue cannot be ignored for long. So acknowledging it is the only sane thing to do, and will no doubt serve Jeanette and her party well into the future as the reality becomes clear. I hope that this approach becomes a model for political parties around the world -AF ]
The State of the Planet
It’s good to be here on Waiheke with you, sharing what is at last a traditional New Zealand summer: sun, sea, families, home-grown music, fun and general goodwill. It’s also good to be back in Green heartland. Waiheke residents gave the Greens 21 percent of their party votes at the last election, doing more than your bit to elect our nine MPs in 2002. I thank you for trusting us to be your voice in Parliament.
As we enjoy our spectacular environment and privileged way of life, I know we are all mourning for those who have lost everything – their homes, their livelihoods, their families, and their lives – in the Boxing Day cataclysm. We will remember them later this afternoon with memorial messages, a minute’s silence, and a collection for Oxfam’s work helping rebuild their communities. For now, I just want to express our sympathy to the people of Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka, as well as to the families and friends of New Zealanders who have lost loved ones or are still waiting for news.
I am proud of the generosity of New Zealanders in reacting to the tragedy. It is forceful evidence that we relate to the rest of the world not primarily as economic units of production and consumption but as caring human beings. We have been moved by the personal stories of tragedy and heartbreak to open our hearts and wallets and to volunteer our time and efforts.
Even when it’s not blighted by disaster, summer is a time for quiet reflection, for taking stock, for asking ourselves how we feel about our lives and the communities we live in. For political leaders, it is traditionally a time to talk about the State of the Nation. However, for the Greens, that is not enough. Everything we know about the world today – whether ecological, sociological, or economic – tells us that humanity survives, thrives, or subsides depending on the nature and quality of our interconnections. If we are to cope with looming threats, and build a better future for our children, we must talk about the state of the planet.
You have all seen the image on the posters today: that wonderful picture of our planet, taken from space. After thirty years, it still catches our imagination with its beauty, its subtle colours, and its roundness. At ground level, this planet seems huge, indestructible. What that aerial picture brought home was our isolation, our vulnerability, and our planet’s fragility.
Beneath the surface of that beautiful blue ocean is devastation. Tonnes of fertilisers, pesticides, other chemicals and silt are poisoning and smothering marine creatures. In many places, the ocean floor is barren, where bottom trawling has clear felled ancient coral forests and unique marine communities still unknown to science. Many species of fish and marine mammals and birds are gone or rare. Ecologists worldwide are warning that we face ecological collapse in the oceans, and that means the collapse of our fishing industry too.
There are other changes too. Coral reefs have been bleached white as the coral dies. Antarctic ice shelves are calving off into the sea. Arctic sea ice is cracking and melting, revealing more ocean. These are just the most visible signs of the greatest threat to our planet: global climate change.
While the tsunami was not the result of climate change, it does remind us of some important truths about nature which we forget at our peril. It reminds us that nature can unleash enormous forces relatively quickly; that no matter how powerful our technology, we can never take it for granted. It reminds us that humans are fragile and vulnerable in the face of natural forces; that we need to have more humility in the face of nature, and work with it rather than against it. It reminds us of the need for precaution. While no-one could have prevented the tsunami, hindsight shows us that its impact could have been lessened if there had been an early warning system in place, and if homes had been built further from the shoreline. It is also reported that where the coral reef and mangrove buffers were still intact, the damage was less.
These are lessons which humankind needs to learn if we are to respond effectively to the greatest threats to our existence: those posed by ecological collapse, climate change and our reliance on oil.
Civilisations have come and gone over the millennia. Humans have grouped together to build cities, develop technology, specialise their labour, and create high culture. But all such civilisations have eventually expired: some because they overused their resources; some weakened by war; some we know not how.
Our civilisation is the first to be truly global. It is the first to reach out to other planets, and to develop technologies to manipulate nature at the sub-atomic and sub-genetic level. And it is the first to develop a level of personal comfort that creates the illusion and the expectation that, thanks to our civilisation and our technology, we can forever conquer cold, hunger, pain, illness and eventually death itself.
We have done this thanks to the use of one substance: oil.
Ours is the only civilisation ever to be based on oil and it is the only one there ever will be. Oil has enabled us to use unprecedented amounts of other natural resources, mining huge quantities of minerals, vacuuming the oceans of fish thousands of miles away, farming intensively till the soil is just stuff you add chemicals to in order to grow mass-production food, felling vast forests, and transporting all this stuff, and ourselves, around the planet.
I recently came across a true story that symbolises to me what this oil-based civilisation is about. Before Christmas, developers in Hong Kong were about to demolish seven, forty-storey apartment towers, containing two and a half thousand apartments with great views built for low-income folk. The redevelopment was intended to produce a smaller number of luxury apartments. This was the tallest and largest building ever planned for deliberate demolition, producing 200,000 tonnes of waste, to be dumped at public expense. The punch line is that these apartments were brand-new, fitted out, furnished, and just waiting for their first occupants. Amazingly, the story has a happy ending. I learned just last week that pressure from Green groups in Hong Kong has led to the demolition being called off.
This is a story for our time. It shows how modern economics and cheap oil encourage a massive waste of resources. It shows the extent to which the widening gap between rich and poor denies those on low incomes not just the things money can buy, but also the things it traditionally could not buy, like a view.
It is oil that has enabled the global population and the ecological footprint of our civilisation to grow so large that it threatens the physical limits of the planet itself: its soils, forests, and fish, its beautiful and unique living creatures, and the chemical and physical cycles on which our lives depend. It is oil, along with coal and gas, that has raised the carbon dioxide content of the whole planet’s atmosphere by more than a third since the start of the industrial revolution – a blink in time in the history of the planet. It is oil, and other fossil fuels, that is causing glaciers to melt worldwide; and that appears to be associated with a marked increase in freak climatic events such as storms and floods and heatwaves. It is oil and coal that risks raising the sea level into your seaside homes; allowing tropical pests and diseases like malaria into New Zealand; and extinguishing our threatened plants and animals because they have nowhere else to go.
It is oil that makes it seem normal for two ships to pass in the Tasman Sea, one carrying Griffin’s biscuits and Tip Top ice cream from New Zealand to Australia, the other carrying Arnott’s biscuits and Streets ice cream from Australia to New Zealand. And with a net effect of what, exactly?
Our oil consumption has been so extravagant that we have used up, in just one century, around half of what the planet has to offer. When that half-way point – known as “peak oil” – is reached, it becomes physically impossible to increase production no matter how hard you pump it.
When we reach that peak, demand will continue to rise, not just from Western societies that have used most of the oil so far, but also from countries, such as China and India, trying to catch up with our level of motorisation and industrialisation. There is no technology on the horizon that can replace our present consumption of oil, though there are many that can make a contribution. We cannot afford to turn to coal without causing run-away climate change. The only answer is to learn to use energy much more effectively.
The point at which demand outstrips the capacity of the wells to supply is the point at which oil prices rise inexorably and countries at the end of the supply line with little military power are likely to miss out. At first, it will cost you three dollars a litre instead of one to fill up your car. Later, there will be absolute shortages, no matter what you are prepared to pay. The cost of farming, fishing, manufacturing and international trade will skyrocket, and our international markets will no longer be able to afford our butter.
No-one can say for sure when this peak will be reached. The Government has picked 2037 as its best guess, based on what oil companies, the US Government and the International Energy Agency are saying. To be frank, this is day-dreaming. Discoveries of oil peaked in the 1960s. For many years, we have been burning four times as much as we have been finding. When you look beyond the oil companies to independent, experienced petroleum geologists, you find a consensus that we may well have less than ten years before we reach this terrible tipping point. The end of cheap oil is coming towards us with the force of a tsunami and New Zealand is not ready. Only the Greens are planning for how to cope.
If it is oil that has caused the growth of a consumer society that threatens the physical limits of the planet, it is peak oil that is causing an unprecedented attack on the human values that we have, until now, associated with civilisation. History tells us that when civilisations are threatened, empires get nasty. It should come as no surprise, then, that the United States – an empire dependent on oil – is doing everything in its power to secure the world’s fast dwindling oil reserves, even though that means trampling on the very freedoms it purports to uphold.
Peak oil is the reason for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Peak oil is the reason for the war on terrorism, designed to make us so afraid of being bombed by Islamic fundamentalists that we co-operate in the destruction of our own freedoms. And peak oil is the reason our government, in acquiescing to US fear-mongering over 9/11, has pursued legislation under which you may be imprisoned without charge or fair trial, you may have your assets seized without proof of guilt, and you may be denied information on what you are even accused of, and denied a passport in your own country.
So, as I wish you the very best for 2005, I cannot disguise the enormity of the task we face. It is no less than to transform our civilisation so it can meet the challenges of peak oil, climate change and ecological collapse. More than that, it is the challenge of meeting these threats without letting go of the values of civilisation that New Zealanders so cherish: the values of personal freedom, peace, and justice.
If there is anywhere on the planet that can do it, it is New Zealand. We have a unique set of advantages, and so a unique responsibility.
We are a country with few people but many resources; an educated population with advanced technology and knowledge. We have more renewable energy per person than any country bar Iceland. We make our living closer to the earth than many nations and we have not entirely lost our connection with it. The ocean gives us some protection from neighbours. There is no doubt that we can feed ourselves, even without oil, though our diet may change somewhat. We are spared the extremes of climate some have to deal with.
Just as importantly, we have a tradition of democracy, freedom, community action, and a welfare state. We have a tradition that says no one should starve from misfortune, that everyone should have the opportunity of education and health care. We must guard these values jealously because, if we are to transform our civilisation to be less reliant on fossil fuels, then only those values will allow us to do so in a humane, inclusive, compassionate way.
However, there is only a narrow window of opportunity and we have to start now. I’m asking you to think this year about what kind of future you want to build, and who you think you can build it with. Sadly, there aren’t too many options.
The agenda of the four-headed monster positioned to the right of Labour is as outdated as it is dangerous. What these four parties have in common is that they seek to govern New Zealand divisively, by invoking fear and hatred of, among others, Maori, the poor, criminals, immigrants, homosexuals, and anyone who suggests that a culture of mass consumption cannot go on forever.
Don Brash belongs in another era. At a time when New Zealand faces challenges requiring innovative, future-oriented thinking, all he can think about is making more money for big business à la Roger Douglas and stirring up race hate, à la Robert Muldoon, in a doomed attempt to be popular in talkback land. At a time when New Zealand is imperilled by our dependence on oil, National wants to build more motorways and bigger cars for the very rich, and invest less in public transport for the rest of us; it wants less government spending, but more foreign investment and ownership; and it wants to withdraw from Kyoto, and burn as much coal as possible. When Don Brash takes the podium at Orewa later this month, he will not be proposing any solutions to the challenges of the 21st Century.
Act takes every opportunity in the House to poke fun at any suggestion of reduced consumption. It promotes more waste to get more growth, and recently accused the Greens of getting sustainability into every piece of legislation! Act is now clearly an endangered species, but one we won’t be trying to save.
United Future exists mainly to ridicule the Green agenda. They are implacably opposed to any kind of environmental protection. They support damming and diverting our rivers for hydro, and are major fans of coal burning. They have supported all the Government attacks on civil liberties that we have opposed.
As for New Zealand First: well, this stuff is just not on its radar. Or if it is, it’s all just a plot by Asian immigrants or ungrateful Maori.
The vision these parties offer is of an increasingly divisive, mean-spirited, and prejudiced nation. It is a New Zealand driven by fear, governed by policies that have failed in the past. This monster would divide New Zealanders on race; create prejudice with regards sexual orientation; deal with crime through ever-harsher sentencing rather than tackling the causes of crime and focusing on rehabilitation. But most damaging of all, this beast would do nothing to dodge the tsunami that is approaching of oil depletion, climate change, and ecological collapse.
So, what of the Labour Party? At the very least, it acknowledges that the major challenges I have been talking about actually exist.
Labour has taken encouraging steps, prodded by the Greens, to reduce the impacts of climate change and oil depletion, and for that they deserve praise. They have signed Kyoto, announced a carbon tax for 2007, made several new wind farms possible through carbon credits, recovered Kiwi control of our rail system and committed $200 million to start fixing it up. They have funded more public transport and we have worked with them to create a new, more sustainable transport strategy. It has been very hard work and involved tough negotiations, but we now have a legal framework that will encourage a transport system that uses less oil. Labour is also the only other party to acknowledge the fact of peak oil though it cannot afford to acknowledge how close it is, for fear of scaring the markets.
Unfortunately, Labour has disappointed us in other policy areas. They have underwritten a new gas-fired power station for which there is as yet no fuel; they have given the coal industry very mixed messages about its future; and they have given tax breaks to oil- and gas-exploration companies. There have been a lot of dry holes drilled in New Zealand waters recently, but Labour seems unwilling to admit that no amount of tax breaks will get oil from a dry hole.
Labour shows no signs at all of applying the concept of peak oil or the observance of basic human rights to their plans for trade, agriculture or economic development. They still want to be part of a global system that makes size the sole measure of the economy. They are prepared to give preferential trade deals to Myanmar, one of the most brutal regimes in the world. They will give up almost anything for the right to sell our dairy products to the US, which doesn’t want our butter or our milk anyway. They are following the US military most places it wants to go. There were no Kiwi troops to Iraq, and we have congratulated them many times for that, but they went slavishly to Afghanistan and are supporting the war on terrorism even to the point of taking away our own civil liberties and incarcerating a foreign elected parliamentarian for two years without charge or trial.
Despite these difficulties, the Greens will work with Labour after the next election. If New Zealanders give us the numbers in September, we will use our influence to support the steps Labour is taking to protect our country from these threats and build a sustainable future. We will stand between Labour and their worst attacks on our civil liberties, and encourage them to join with us in pushing further and faster towards a world that is future-oriented, humane and sustainable.
What would that future look like?
In a Green future, we will comprehensively rethink our way of life to reduce and then eventually eliminate our consumption of oil. We will double the efficiency of our car fleet over the next ten years. We will send long-distance freight by rail or ship not truck, and we’ll use buses, trains and ferries to get to work in cities and towns. We’ll get on with repairing and extending the rail track, and investing in new buses.
We will no longer trade low-value goods in bulk around the world. We will trade less and do more for ourselves. We will use air less and high-tech wind-assisted shipping more. We will abandon the free-trade agreements we are seeking and develop fair-trading relationships for those products we really need.
Our food production will be more local, and use less petroleum-based fertiliser and pesticide and more integrated pest management strategies. An organic farming strategy will keep production up and increase quality while reducing oil inputs. We’ll have more training courses on low-energy, sustainable farming and invest in more soil science. We’ll maintain New Zealand’s GE-free status.
The diminishing yields of distant, high seas fishing will not pay for its fuel costs. Pressure on coastal fisheries will increase, so we better get some marine reserves in place to sustain a marine ecosystem that will replenish the fishery. We’ll place controls on fishing technology so we don’t trash the other creatures in the sea.
Forestry will thrive as long as it is not dependent on long-transport distances. We’ll grow a much wider variety of higher-quality timbers, which can be sustainably managed and don’t need treatment. Wood wastes and low-quality fast-grown logs will become an important fuel source for industry and even transport.
Used resources will be prized and recovered for further use. Products will be designed for reuse, repair and refabrication.
Our tourism industry will learn to attract fewer tourists but persuade them to stay longer and to spend more on higher-quality experiences.
The arts, culture and sport will thrive so long as they can also adapt to using less transport. After all, the physical limits of the planet place no limit at all on human ingenuity, imagination, creativity and love.
We will encourage our best and brightest to come home and help with this effort, by reducing the student loan burden. We will work to heal the rifts between Maori and Pakeha, which have been widened by the Foreshore and Seabed Act and by false claims of preferential treatment. We will include tangata whenua as equal partners in the transformation of our society.
In a Green future, we will do all these things not because the Green Party thinks it is a nice idea, but because it is the only route to a vibrant, prosperous and humane way of life that can be supported with much less energy.
Out of this crisis could come a new sense of national identity, new business opportunities, less material junk and more time to do the things that matter. As individuals, we can plan to grow more food, make our homes more energy-efficient, find a local source of firewood, get a bicycle, get to know the people in our local community, live closer to work. But while we can do a lot for ourselves, we can’t survive as a nation except in partnership with a government that is also pursuing the right policies. Therefore, the key decision we will make this year, as a nation, is who will form that government.
There are three basic options. The first one, a National-led coalition, would take us backwards socially and economically and straight into the arms of US foreign policy, complete with nuclear fission and GE foods. A cursory look at the polls suggests that this possibility can be dismissed out of hand. The other two options are around what kind of Labour-led government can be formed.
A Labour government formed either by Labour alone or with the support of United Future or New Zealand First will not address the crucial issues I have described this afternoon. It will muddle along with some positive steps but with policies that contradict one other. Labour will talk about sustainability but their overriding goal will be a bigger economy, not a better one. And if Labour has to rely on either United or New Zealand First, they will be taken even closer to National’s authoritarianism and intolerance.
Which leaves us with the third, and most heartening option: a Labour-led government supported and influenced by those New Zealanders who believe in a sustainable, humane future for our country.
There is only one party for the planet. There is only one party that is committed to maintaining a democratic, humane, free, fair society in the face of severe threats from climate change, peak oil and environmental destruction, and to tackling those threats as though they were serious. That party is the Greens.
If you believe in our agenda, we need your help. It’s not enough just to vote, though that helps. You can be part of the movement, spreading the word to others, helping plan the campaign, adding to the thousands who are already enthusiastically working for a Green future. You can become part of the solution.
To achieve that solution, we have to work with Labour. We have to encourage them in their infant steps to sustainability, convince them of the urgency of the energy issue, oppose them strongly when they panic and slip back to authoritarian and unsustainable ways. We will lose some of the battles. But we are asking you to give us the numbers and the power this year to give New Zealand, and the planet, a future.