I'm locked down in the country. There's a river, volcanic hills and mountains nearby, a small town with a supermarket and maybe a couple of dozen other shops. The ducks, shags and swallows have had the river to themselves these last weeks, but that changed on Tuesday when the anglers returned, wading to their usual spots.
Local anglers, not tourists. There are no tourists.
I've been here from nearly two weeks before the lockdown began, working remotely, and we just stayed on. With the internet, it's fine. It's more than fine, actually. It's very beautiful, with autumn on the turn and the empty streets. People walk their dogs, as everywhere, and call out hello.
The population of the town is largely young and Māori. Even at the best of times unemployment is high. Although the area is rich in potential for recreational and adventure tourism, forestry, farming, ecological initiatives and even some horticulture, no one has yet worked out how to turn all that into a thriving economy.
There are many of the problems you'd expect. The local police sergeant, a brilliant communicator, writes a weekly column in the weekly paper about what they've been up to. Always, it's dealing with family harm. Often, it's related to drugs and alcohol.
The beauty of the place is everywhere: it's not like Auckland, with that yawning gap between the leafy suburbs and the poorer parts of town. The autumn colours fill all the streets, great drifts of leaves piled in every gutter. But nobody can eat the beauty. Despite what the poets used to say, it doesn't create universal happiness.
When the lockdown lifts properly, what's going to happen in this town? Doubtless big roading companies are angling for more big roading work, but despite what you might think about people who seem to be employed just to rearrange the orange cones, road construction, per dollars spent, is not a big employer.
The tourists won't be back. At least, not the international ones. It's not yet clear about New Zealanders, though. Domestic tourism will surely be an essential element of recovery, but it's too soon for plans to encourage it.
Local tourism is not a nice-to-have. The almost boundless scope for outdoor recreational activity in New Zealand has become part of the essence of what we value about this country. Towns and cities and all the great wash of commerce they contain cannot survive without cafes, restaurants and bars.
But even if everything goes as well as anyone can dare to dream, it will take time to get everything reopened and back in business.
So, what else? Despite the beauty here, the riverbanks are smothered in blackberry, convolvulus, bracken, broom, willow, buddhliea and wilding pines. The toitoi and kanuka do their best, and there are stands of kowhai, but much of the native bush has gone. At the bends in the river, the stony beaches have largely been overgrown with scrub.
There's a lake up the road a way, with a beach we like to swim at. It's a long sandy strip in a wide bay, backed by a reserve, with mature kowhai along the foreshore, mixed with some big old pines and poplars and wild-grown fruit trees: apples, plums, apricots.
Better than heaven on a sunshiny day? Not exactly. You can't sit under the trees, which really would be heavenly, because the whole area is filled with an enormous, wild tangle of gorse, blackberry and broom. There's not much beach left, for the same reason.
Driving round the lake, you see more of it: magnificent kowhai, struggling to hold their own on hillsides of convolvulus.
This isn't a nature-in-balance thing. The convolvulus will, in time, kill the trees. The gorse will claim the beach.
Why are we so sniffy about employing people to clean this up?
Perhaps we're not. The Green Party has proposed a big revamp of the old Taskforce Green programme: a "people and nature" package that gives $1 billion over three years to "local communities, iwi, businesses, NGOs, councils and DOC to employ thousands of people across New Zealand to restore and look after our natural landscapes, native bush, birds, waterways and coast".
Good idea? "Nature-based jobs can be started relatively quickly," said environment spokeswoman Eugenie Sage. She said the work would include "fencing and planting beside streams, restoring wetlands and coastal margins, tackling wilding conifers and other plant and weed pests". Also: more native plant nurseries and working with farmers to restore and preserve the rivers, estuaries and wetlands on their land.
Sage mentioned the value of birdsong. It's a terrible irony of this country right now, that tui and other natives are returning to the cities, but you still don't hear much birdsong in the bush.
"These work opportunities are well suited to those who have worked outdoors," she suggested, "such as tourist guides currently out of work, who have people and project management skills or who want to quickly retrain and get their hands dirty helping nature."
It's not just clearing scrub from beaches and riverbanks. That's quite a small part of it. Restoration projects, walking tracks, the Predator Free 2050 campaign: all will be eligible for an immediate start of rapid expansion.
Work schemes programmes in the countryside have a history. In the early 1980s, project employment programmes (PEP), with workers on award wages, enabled much conservation and marae restoration work.
Neoliberal reforms in 1985 put paid to that. PEP was unfairly competing with the private sector, it was claimed.
Other programmes have started, stuttered and stopped. In the 1990s Work and Income established Taskforce Green; more recently that became Enhanced Taskforce Green, with a focus on emergency relief work.
Tariana Turia called for the return of PEPs in 2009, during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC). She was Associate Minister of Social Development and Employment in John Key's Government at the time, but her colleagues weren't listening. The convolvulus and blackberry kept growing and the rats and stoats kept multiplying.
The money in the Greens' scheme would be paid out as a 50 per cent wage subsidy. They expect this will create 6000-7000 jobs directly, and many more through the flow-on to local suppliers and contractors.
Where I am right now, it's exactly what's needed. For ecological reasons, and to create employment. Also, to make the place more attractive to visitors and therefore help it generate more employment, and to make it a better place for locals to live in too. To help build the social and economic infrastructure for a stronger community life, on the back of which other economic initiatives can prosper.
In my view, it's hard to think of a better response to the Covid-19 economic crisis. It could start tomorrow. It could be the beginning of long-term health and prosperity for this town. And a hundred other towns like it.
What about the railways?
Meanwhile, stand back, the road cones are on their way. Sort of. The Government has announced a major new programme to build more infrastructure, on top of existing Provincial Growth Fund commitments and the $12b spend announced just before Covid-19 struck. Councils and construction companies and think tanks all over the country have responded with their wish lists.
The new Infrastructure Industry Reference Group is processing those lists now. Chairman Mark Binns, a professional company director who worked his way up through the Fletcher companies, says most of the projects will be "horizontal". Roads and railways, waterworks and bridges, but not buildings.
The idea is that the projects will be "shovel ready", which means work that could start in six to 12 months.
Not a shovel in the ground before the election? Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones, who share the parenting of this big scheme, may not be happy about that.
The Sustainable Business Network has proposed a very shovel-ready project: Million Metres Streams, a countrywide restoration campaign "on land and water" that has some crossover with the Greens' proposal. It's still not at all clear if the infrastructure recovery programme will include this kind of thinking.
Will it just mean more roads? Twyford told me: "We'll be assessing projects on their stimulus/multiplier [potential] and alignment with our bigger economic goals (decarbonisation, fixing [the] housing crisis, clean energy…)"
He said "transport" was listed, "deliberately so as not to convey just roads". Good to know: freight and passenger rail services are crying out for improvement. We await developments.
The Greens are into this too. They've called for "fast intercity rail improvements" as a way to meet climate, job-creation and infrastructure goals.
The plan is for $9b worth of regional services, rolled out over 10 years. Hamilton, Tauranga and Whangarei would be connected to Auckland; Masterton, Palmerston North and Whanganui to Wellington; Rangiora, Ashburton and Timaru to Christchurch.
"Building rail creates more jobs than building motorways," said co-leader James Shaw, "and helps us tackle climate change at the same time.
"If this crisis has shown us anything," he added, "it's that the systems put in place to govern our lives can be quickly changed for our collective good."
Green Party Transport spokeswoman Julie Anne Genter compared the plan to the previous Government's transport stimulus programme after the GFC, when $12b was spent "upgrading a relatively small portion of our motorway network".
The plan is in two stages, with the first focusing on electrification and some track improvements. The second would be to build new track capable of supporting "tilt-trains": they lean into the corners and can travel at 160km/h. Queensland has had them for some time. Not bullet trains, but halfway there.
Binns has talked quite a lot about the importance of "innovation" in the big spend to come. Not just doing what used to be done, but looking for the better, faster and more future-focused ways to progress.
Build back better
So easy to say. The big question confronting everyone planning the recovery is how to balance the immediate needs with the country's future realities. How to provide wage subsidies, rent relief, emergency payments and other measures – in a word, welfare – while transitioning to a reformed economy.
Not everyone has been affected in the same way. Our meat exports to China are already back to pre-Covid levels; the wine and kiwifruit harvests went okay. Airlines and media companies are in dire straits. The entire hospitality sector is in crisis and so are most other retailers.
Tourism and education, both dependent on inbound visitors, won't be able to play the role we've built up for them. We've been reminded how important to our wellbeing food production is. The Government has a long list of decisions to make on its approach to various industries and to the regions. What will be left to the market? How do we prepare for the next pandemic?
How do we at least try to prevent our poorest communities becoming the hardest hit by an almost inevitable recession?
How much should the Government spend to get us out of the recession? And how do we do all this and at the same time reduce carbon emissions?
The horizontal construction lobby is not the only one trying to get its voice heard. A group called Lawyers for Climate Action, which includes several QCs, has advised the Prime Minister that, in its view, the Government is legally obliged to consider "climate impact" when planning the recovery.
A think tank called the Lever Room has released a paper called Build Back Better, proposing a "holistic" framework. Author Rebecca Mills makes the good point that focusing only on the immediate goals could set us back within five to 10 years. She's talking about climate change, and more.
Hundreds turned up a couple of weeks ago to watch an online CEO forum called The New Economy: Resilience and Regeneration, organised by the Sustainable Business Network (SBN).
Afterwards, SBN's Rachel Brown wrote to the Government, setting out five key recommendations for investment.
1. Put the entire focus on initiatives that reduce carbon, pollution and waste, and directly improve the wellbeing of every New Zealander throughout the multi-generational long term.
2. Go quickly and heavily in ecological conservation and regeneration.
3. Target meaningful, sustainable, long-term employment.
4. Expand and accelerate regenerative food production. "Regenerative" farming means a focus on "improving people and nature, not simply sustaining them".
5. Build resilience and reduce emissions in New Zealand's small and medium-sized businesses.
That's putting it plain enough.
The Raworth conundrum
What's the Government's response? Finance Minister Grant Robertson seems to agree, in broad terms. The three guiding principles he's identified for the recovery plan are: sustainability, productivity and inequality.
As commentator Richard Harman at Politik has reported, ahead of the budget on May 14, Robertson asked Treasury to respond to his own five big questions:
• What should New Zealand make and do to ensure our sustainability?
• What institutions do we need to support our economy?
• What is the role of the state in all this?
• How do we trade with the rest of the world in the post-Covid environment?
• How will the local and global financial systems cope?
"Sustainability, productivity and inequality". Can it even be done?
The British economist Kate Raworth offers a stark warning. "No country has ever ended human deprivation without a growing economy. And no country has ever ended ecological degradation with one."
There is no recipe, shown to work in practice, for rebuilding the prospects and security of our own country, or the world, without growth. And there is no longer any recipe for growth that will not plunge the world into ecological catastrophe.
How do we resolve that? Covid-19 got up in our faces and ruined so much. But climate change will remain the bigger enemy and so will poverty. Developed countries can't continue to treat growing inequality as an inevitable condition of modern life.
That has to mean, one way or another, a return to the levels of wealth redistribution common from the 1950s through to the early 1980s.
This is no longer fringe thinking. In an editorial in early April, the Financial Times in London noted: "Redistribution will again be on the agenda; the privileges of the elderly and wealthy in question. Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix."
In this country, major tax reform is not likely ahead of the September election. The Prime Minister has already hinted it's off the table. But a focus on environmental measures that offer economic benefit? That's easily possible.
The Raworth conundrum hasn't been solved yet. The best anyone has come up with is that, whatever's happening to growth, we have to take every opportunity to choose the green option. Especially the opportunity we have right now.
Trapping rats and clearing convolvulus is just the beginning.