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Strong Sustainability

In order to achieve sustainability, we need scenarios of where we want to go: not only warnings and plans, but also reports as if we'd already made the transition. Who would have suspected they'd come from the south Pacific?

New Zealand, apart from supplying the setting for The Lord of the Rings, is a good place to think about sustainability. A small nation, it is relatively free from imperial delusions. Surrounded by water, it's heavily dependent on foreign trade, exporting (for example) dairy products, meat, wool, and wood. Foreign trade would be adversely affected by a sharp rise in the price of oil. One analyst who takes account of the global peak of oil production, argues that New Zealand may be one of the first countries to achieve sustainability, driven in part by need.

This island nation also has some advantages. Over half of its electricity is generated by hydro, which is renewable; and according to a recent study, the nation has enough land to feed its small population.

In any case, at least two groups in New Zealand have given us scenarios of their country as if it had made the transition to sustainability. An institution called Landcare published Four Scenarios for New Zealand in 2005 (followed by a second edition in 2007), and then Hatched: The Capacity for Sustainable Development in 2009.

New Zealand also has the advantage of containing more than one culture, so some people there are accustomed to thinking in terms of alternatives. (Landcare's name in the other official language of the country, Maori, is Manaaki Whenua.)

Another striking report comes from Sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand. (Aotearoa is Maori for "land of the long white cloud," an ancient name for the islands.) The report is called Strong Sustainability, though as SANZ board member K. Bosselmann notes, "In fact, there is only 'sustainability,' not a weak and strong version, just as there is no weak or strong version of justice, freedom and equality. You either follow these foundational principles or you don't." Bosselmann heads the Centre for Environmental Law at the University of Auckland.

SANZ adopted the rubric of "strong sustainability," I gather, to distinguish its approach from token or fledgling versions that began a quarter century ago with the sometimes oxymoronic phrase "sustainable development."

One of the scenarios published by Landcare, and much of the SANZ report, depict a New Zealand that is less integrated into the global economy, more able to stand on its own. The authors are aware of the economic theory of "comparative advantage," which holds that overall prosperity is increased when each place produces what it does best and trades freely. However, they are struck by the possibility that trade may become increasingly costly and what had been leading trade partners may experience declining ability to pay.

If this scenario happens, what is now the dominant way of life will falter, and new challenges emerge. Machines dependent on oil will become more costly. A different infrastructure will be required. Skills will shift in value. For an introduction to that new world, which is not a prediction but only a possibility, check out the gifts of foresight from New Zealand.

Scenario planning has a long history. For example, the end of the Cold War was imagined by the sociologist David Riesman, who, in his fake history, The Nylon War, reported on an operation that began with the U.S. "bombing" its adversary with consumer goods, on the assumption that "if allowed to sample the riches of America, the Russian people would not long tolerate masters who gave them tanks and spies instead of vacuum cleaners and beauty parlors."

Royal Dutch Shell uses scenario planning to amplify its corporate thinking about the future. Science fiction offers a version, as in Arthur C. Clarke's vision of a geosynchronous communications satellite. Aldous Huxley imagined a utopia in his last novel, Island. Ernest Callenbach wrote Ecotopia, about a fictional world visited by an increasingly less skeptical journalist. A book published by the Ark Foundation spoke of "jumping ahead and looking back at the future." In 2007, Harvey Wasserman published Solartopia, an airplane jaunt over a world no longer dependent on carbon-based energy. Transition Towns recommends "energy descent plans,"* and the town of Totnes in southern England has produced one.

When I spent a year after college registered at the London School of Economics, and read the current debate about what the United Kingdom could become after the loss of its empire, it never occurred to me that one day my country might be facing a not dissimilar question. In New Zealand terms, a related sadness and dejection appears in the classic movie, Whale Rider, when a Maori character speaks of looking for "somebody who's gonna lead our people out of the darkness, and who will make everything all right again."

Just as Maori traditions have been rendered less relevant by modern society, so much of consumer society could be threatened by the transition to a sustainable world. Calculations that make sense now would refer to practices that no longer exist. We'd all be feeling grief as the familiar was no longer supportable, and the sadness of which the anthropologist Levi-Straus spoke would then apply to the most economically advanced people.

Scenario planning if course is only one element of what we need to make the transition to sustainability: not sufficient, but definitely useful. In the words of Proverbs 29:18, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." Along with its other exports, New Zealand has given us a template, if necessary, for success.

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