Show blog for Too Fat for Our Pants on Radio One, 91 FM, Dunedin, New Zealand. Airs Mondays 10 am - 12 pm.

If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.
~ George Bernard Shaw

Monday, 18 July 2011

Local is Lovely!

Listen to the podcast of my interview with Jinty MacTavish here.
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately, as we at Radio One struggle to obviate the benefits of our existence, about how much of our relevance rests on our size.  We are small.  By definition that also makes us local, and being small and local is very quickly becoming a necessity. Not just for radio stations, but for pretty much everything – federal politics are lost to corporate interest and increasingly hamstrung by partisan ideologies, none of which seek to overthrow the corporate hijacking of government anyway.  Energy depletion means that our ability to think and operate globally will inevitably be severely curtailed; we will no longer be able to ship bananas from the Philippines or everything from China because we simply will not be able to afford the fuel.  Likewise we will find avenues of travel closing to us as fuel becomes scarcer and international travel becomes a luxury of the very rich before fading out completely.  Climate change means, and has already meant, increased frequency and severity of natural disasters, the survival of which will require renewed relationships with our neighbours and a tighter community structure.

What that means for Dunedin: first and foremost, we must get smaller.  To say nothing of the need to disentangle ourselves from a debt-and-interest based economy which demands perpetual growth, we need to open our eyes to the problems of comparative advantage.  Comparative advantage is the idea that everyone is really great at something: someone makes shoes cheaply, so they make shoes, and someone else grows great tomatoes for next to nothing so they grow tomatoes – it makes sense, on a local scale.  On a global scale, however, it leads to a perpetuation of slave labour and unsustainable shipping structures, in addition to effectively devaluing currencies of countries that must trade in US dollars on the international market.  As with so much else, theories that work intuitively on a small scale become destructive on a massive one. The point here is to re-localize lines of production and consumption.  Re-localization, as an idea, can be met with a great deal of resistance; perhaps understandably, as it necessitates the acceptance of some frightening principles.  Certainly I struggle with it myself sometimes –  I do not for a minute question the necessity of turning to local communities or the fact of energy depletion and climate change, which is usually the underlying argument made by detractors.  But I do lament the breaking of some unkeepable promises that were made to my generation – that I could travel the entire world for as long as I was able to, that I would be able to retire one day, that my education would be useful to society and that it would enable me to find a job where I would be able to provide for my family, that my children would have it better than I did – none of these things are true for us anymore.  Change of any kind means something is gained and something is lost - while I know that there are real, tangible benefits to the new-old way of life that we must turn to now, there is a part of me that mourns.

However, Dunedin, as a city, is particularly well-positioned to survive the shift to a lower-energy future – we have a single main downtown corridor in a fairly walkable city, not a lot of suburban sprawl, a temperate climate and we are  adjacent to some of the most productive farmland in the country, not to mention the ocean.  By re-localizing our economy in town, we can keep a lot more of the capital generated by our abundant resources within the city itself, and not just the service jobs that tourism generates.  According to a study by theNew Economics Foundation in London, a dollar spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy. When a business is not owned locally, money leaves the community at every transaction.  Bill McKibben puts that figure even higher; he cites a study that found that “10 pounds spent at a local british food business is worth 25 to the local economy, but only 14 if spent at a supermarket”.  Besides which, local businesses are small enough that the owner knows their employees, which makes things like discrimination and maltreatment much more difficult, and it eliminates the economies of scale which can drive down market prices and adversely affect farmers and producers.  A pretty easy way to make a huge difference in this regard is to stop shopping at the countdown or new world, as much as possible, and start shopping at the farmer’s market.  That is a direct transaction where you pay the farmer for the food that he or she has grown, meaning that for pretty close to the same price you’d pay at the supermarket, the farmer gets to keep all the money. The Otago Farmer's Market just won best market in New Zealand! I buy all my food there once a week, year round, and my money goes much, much further. 

But perhaps the most overt example why we should feel optimistic about Dunedin’s ability to weather the coming years with dignity is the fact that both Port Chalmers and North East Valley are registered Transition Towns.  What’s a Transition Town, you ask? “Transition Town initiatives are part of a vibrant, international grassroots movement that brings people together to explore how we – as communities - can respond to the environmental, economic and social challenges arising from climate change, resource depletion and an economy based on growth. We don’t look for anyone to blame or anyone to save us, but believe our communities have within themselves the innovation and ingenuity to create positive solutions to the converging crises of our time. We believe in igniting and supporting local responses at any level and from anyone – and aim to weave them together into a coordinated action plan for change towards a lower energy lifestyle. By building local resilience, we will be able to collectively respond to whatever the future may bring in a calm, positive and creative way. And by remembering how to live within our local means, we can rediscover the spirit of community and a feeling of power, belonging and sharing in a world that is vibrant, just and truly sustainable.”

There are other places in Dunedin which are not registered Transition Towns which nonetheless operate according to the same principles – Portobello, Waitati, etc, represent methods of life and work that rely on sustainability and community.  This is of course the extra-parliamentary half of the activism-dyad, and the one I believe will end up doing us the most good. I have no faith in parliamentary action, which by no means indicates that we should stop fighting for federal change.  But Transition Towns share my belief that governments cannot or will not alter the path that we are on, and that it is up to us as citizens to take matters into our own hands so that when the whole structure crumbles we will not be destitute.  The point is both to build relationships and to pass on knowledge – by sharing our abilities with our neighbours and teaching practical skills like gardening and cooking to children, we are creating a pool of knowledge, a sort of reclamation of tradition.  To get there we treat it like writing a mystery novel: we start by identifying the world we want to see for ourselves and our children, and then work backwards from there.  Pretty simple, eh?  It seems incredible that this is in fact highly subversive of the dominant economic narrative, which not only disregards planning for the future, but also the idea that humans could be motivated by anything other than rational self-interest.  The transition town scheme proceeds from four basic assumptions:

•That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise.
•That our settlements and communities presently lack the resilience to enable them to weather the severe energy shocks that will accompany peak oil.
•That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now.
•That by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognise the biological limits of our planet.

On the other hand, the hugeness of the Rugby World Cup has re-awakened the National government’s PR instincts, leading them to revisit the Love NZ scheme introduced by Labour and scrapped by National.  In Dunedin, that means that we finally get recycling bins on sidewalks in the centre city.  Installations of recycling bins began on the 28th of june and will be completed by the end of july – putting in 56 bins in the city centre and reserving 52 for rental by events.  Why they wouldn’t just put in 108 right off the bat is beyond me. While this is a good first step, it’s about 30 years too late to be taking first steps, and therefore the steps we are taking need to be proportionately larger.  This is, in fact, a very small first step: my hometown, a Southern Ontario backwater called Kitchener-Waterloo, just celebrated its recycling program’s 40th anniversary.  52 recycling bins around the centre does mean that I have to sneak around less to recycle my household waste, which is not collected because I live on George street, but it is a pretty weak entry.  Why is my recycling not collected kerbside? What about the businesses and bars on George St. that are chucking bags and bags of recyclables into the landfill every day? And what happens to the recycling itself, once it’s collected? Is it recycled? Who knows?  Plastic gets sold to buyers in Christchurch, which then ship to China, and inquiries into the observance of international health regulations around the handling of hazardous substances, as well as the not-so-minor question as to whether or not anything is actually being recycled, are met with assurances, but not much else.

I argue a lot for recycling, but I worry about that, as well. I accept recycling as a necessary and easy first step, the very first thing a city council can do to reduce their city’s waste – the garbage equivalent of putting in bike lanes; cheap, easy, obvious.  It should not be a PR stunt, which is what this latest initiative is, all couched in terms of ‘maintaining our clean green image” rather than “having a country to live in ten years from now, instead of a giant landfill”.  And I worry that, in a place like this where recycling and thinking about waste and garbage is not as bred-in-the-bone as it should be, widespread recycling will be the end of the conversation, rather than the beginning.  That this could be one of those things that leads to greater consumption, like energy efficiency, when it is packaged on its own.  There is a well-documented tendency to view increased efficiency or sustainability as an invitation to consume more and more.  If this initiative does not come with very strong messages about the relationship between consumptive lifestyles and climate change, which it will not if it’s about the image, and not the environment, then we almost certainly are ending the discussion before it has begun.  New Zealand is in the same dangerous position that Canada has been in for years – we have a small population, so our numbers in absolute terms are smaller than countries like the U.S. and China.  But, per capita, we are not small consumers, and we are not small wasters, and we have been allowed to think that we, if no one else, can continue to live in this incredibly wasteful, harmful way.  Mostly we have been lead to think that our consumption is somehow different than the consumption in the States or India; that we are somehow exempt from their concerns because we are clean and green.  We can no longer afford to think like that; this must be a cultural shift towards active sustainability in all aspects of life in Dunedin.

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