Dame Anne Salmond: Help steer us away from disaster

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We should take note of the B Team and safeguard the future even as our leaders are heading for the iceberg

Sir Richard Branson (rear) and Derek Handley are part of the B Team. Photo / Chris Gorman
Sir Richard Branson (rear) and Derek Handley are part of the B Team. Photo / Chris Gorman

Over the past thirty years, there has been an erosion of democratic rights and freedoms in New Zealand. At the same time our collective life has been re-imagined as a market, driven by the pursuit of short-term profit. These two trends have placed us in danger.

Last week, Sir Richard Branson launched an alliance of world leaders called the B Team, whose founding CEO is a proud Kiwi, Derek Handley. The risks that confront humanity at present have been compared with "the Titanic heading for the iceberg, except the captains of planet earth actually know the iceberg is there; cracking, melting, disappearing. It's going to take a very powerful force for good to steer us out of troubled waters".

At the launch, Sir Richard and his colleagues urged business leaders across the planet to safeguard the future by moving beyond short-term thinking, a focus on limitless growth and profit at all costs, and to "find their moral backbone".

The B Team is a formidable group. Its members include Jochen Zeitz, Co-Chair and former CEO of Puma; Ratan Tata, of Tata Group in India; Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland; and the United Nations President Kathy Calvin. At the launch they declared: "We believe that the world is at a critical crossroads. Global business leaders need to come together to advance the wellbeing of people and the planet. Business is now waking up to the reality that if we carry on using the natural resources of the world unsustainably, they'll quite simply run out.

"With a burgeoning population, more people are still living in poverty than ever before and inequalities are increasing in many parts of the world. Unemployment rates are at frightening levels. Non-profits alone cannot solve the tasks at hand, while many governments are unwilling or unable to act.

"Much of the blame rests with the principles and practices of 'business as usual'. These are not the outcomes we envisioned as we grew our companies; this is not the dream that inspired us."

These leaders are echoing a chorus of warnings from the scientific community, who report that humanity is on a pathway to disaster. The world's oceans are warming and becoming acidic, threatening many marine life forms and the food chains that depend on them, including our own.

The plants and animals that lived in these islands for millennia before human arrival are dying, with New Zealand having one of the highest proportions of species at risk of extinction in the world, threatening the viability of many ecosystems.

Although fresh water is fundamental to life, waterways across New Zealand are being degraded, depleted and polluted. Our small society is increasingly unequal and uncaring, with children dying of third world diseases in the midst of prosperity, while almost daily, democratic freedoms are threatened. We are in the process of turning off our own life support systems.

And in the face of these challenges, what are our captains doing? With the iceberg in full sight, they are pushing the throttle to full steam ahead, racing our small country to the point of collision as fast as possible.

In the process, many of the things that have made me very proud to be a New Zealander are being eroded.

It has been difficult, for instance, to watch New Zealand earn international opprobrium for refusing to ratify the Kyoto protocol, and a 'Colossal Fossil Award' - first equal among 194 countries for the worst performance on climate change.

Add to that the cancellation of State of the Environment reporting; proposed amendments to the Resource Management Act to weaken protection for the ecosystems that sustain us; and a rush towards fossil fuel exploitation, and we are on a trajectory that is contrary to where New Zealand should be heading.

There have also been attacks on scientists who report on the state of our streams and rivers; moves to legalise and strengthen surveillance over New Zealand citizens, and a punitive ban on peaceful environmental protests at sea rushed through Parliament, in breach of the Bill of Rights and international conventions. These assaults on democratic freedoms are disturbing.

As a scientist who attends many conferences in which the relevant science is discussed, I see our environmental strategies as irrational. As a mother and grandmother, I consider them a betrayal of future generations. To echo Mary Robinson, of the B-Team: "When my first grandchild was born, it had a huge physical impact on me. I just had a different perspective. I now do think 80, maybe even 100, years hence, because that now is the horizon of my four grandchildren.

"It worries me, because those four grandchildren will be in their forties in 2050. If we don't take the steps to stay below the two degree Celsius above pre-industrial warming by becoming more climate-resilient and having a low-carbon future, it will be catastrophic. I wonder what they will say about us if we don't act now."

As citizens, parents and grandparents, we can't sit by while our leaders drive straight at the iceberg. Nor should we let them bully and silence those who warn of imminent dangers, or strip away democratic rights in the process. We all need to take a good, hard look about where our country is heading, and the future that we are facing.

Just as the B-Team has urged business leaders across the planet to 'find their moral backbone,' New Zealanders need to urge our leaders - of all political parties and persuasions - to do the same. New Zealand must act as a responsible global citizen, not a foolhardy fossil on these issues.

We should make the most of our rich resources, and find innovative ways of creating a prosperous, sustainable future. In fact, many of our young people are leading the way.

I think of Gen Zero, a movement of young people who seek a country 100 per cent powered by renewable energy; Sam Judd, Young New Zealander of the Year, with his organisation Sustainable Coastlines; Dan Hikuroa from Nga Pae o te Maramatanga; Sam Johnson of the Student Army; Claire Browning and others who are battling for participatory democracy and good environmental outcomes; Elliott Blade of Ted-X New Zealand, along with inspiring young business leaders like Derek Handley, the Kiwi CEO of the B-Team, and others too numerous to name.

Like our young leaders, we need to find innovative ways of doing business; new kinds of science; new sorts of communities; and better ways of caring for members of our society. A small, inventive, intimate country like ours should be helping to build a bright future - the kind of New Zealand of which we can all be proud. The time is now. The choice is ours.

Dame Anne Salmond is a distinguished professor of Maori studies and anthropology at the University of Auckland and noted historian and author.

Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

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- NZ Herald

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