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Russel Norman: Learning from Easter Island

June 4, 2006

Learning from Easter Island - crunch time for planet earth

Speech by Russel Norman, Green Party Co-Leader Green Party AGM, Upper Hutt

Tena Kotou History is the victory of remembering over forgetting. And it is by remembering the history of humankind that we can avoid repeating it. Sometimes, in order to remember our history, we have to tell unpleasant truths about the past, and in order to serve our community we have to say things that may make us look like doomsayers about the future. Of course we are not.

We are optimists and that's why we are involved in politics and are trying to do something about it, but we are also realists and are obligated to serve our community by telling the truth about the potential futures that may lie ahead of us depending on the decisions we make now. I wanted to start by talking a little about the history of Easter Island. Many of you will be familiar with this story, as it was covered in Jared Diamond's book Collapse and Ronald Wright's recent book A Short History of Progress. The story they tell of Easter Island is of course contested, as all things in academia area and should be, but it is widely accepted.

The story of Easter Island is the story of one potential future of the planet writ small. Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is an extremely isolated small Pacific island that was once covered in a thick forest and was settled by people somewhere around 900 AD. Rapa Nui's subtropical forest contained tall large trees suitable for canoe building, housing, fuel for cooking, and suitable for forming the rollers and other structures for moving and raising enormous carved statues.

The worship and production of ever-larger statues became one of the core activities of Easter Islanders. Over the course of a few centuries the statues became ever larger as competition for the biggest statue to worship intensified. A hierarchical society was built around the construction and worship of these giant statues.

The largest and heaviest statues were carved and raised just before the civilisation collapsed. And the civilisation collapsed because they had cut down every substantial tree on the island. Some of the last decent forests on the island would have been felled to erect Paro, a giant 75 ton 35 foot high statue.

Even bigger statues remained in the quarry where they were carved, with no wood remaining they could not be moved out. After the last tree was felled they could no longer build ocean going canoes to catch fish, they ran out of timber to build houses and keep themselves warm, the soil eroded into the sea, there was no wild fruit to eat, and all species of land birds became extinct.

Their civilisation collapsed due to civil war over resources and famine, resulting in the loss of 90 percent of the population. And the most chilling thing of all about the collapse of the Easter Island civilisation is that from the top of the tallest peak, Terevaka, you can see the entire island. The people who cut down the last tree knew that they were cutting down the last tree.

Now, our society has its own cult of the ever-bigger statue, and it's called the cult of never ending growth in material consumption and GDP. Each year we must build an ever-bigger statue consuming yet more resources taken from the forests and quarries and factories of the four corners of the earth.

Every year we must consume more of resources available from the planet in order to expand our material consumption. And our society is building its great memorials to the folly of short-sighted resource use and these memorials have four lanes and are made of tarmac and the great priests of the cult of GDP growth will cover the land with their roads as a memorial to their folly. And our society can see that we are cutting down the last tree but we do it anyway.

Our geologists tell us that the oil is close to half used up already, and yet still we are consuming it as if it were infinite. And our climate scientists tell us that the carbon dioxide we are pouring into the atmosphere is turning the air into a giant electric blanket that will cook us and yet we continue to increase our carbon emissions year after year. Our marine biologists tell us that we are strip mining the fish from the sea yet we continue to smash the reefs with bottom trawlers and collapse fish stocks.

And our society is riven by social inequality with our high priests earning vast sums of money overseeing this incredible resource consumption, this orgy of oil consumption, while many still live in poverty.

And our civilisation is like Easter Island in one other important respect. Our civilisation is isolated on a small island called planet Earth surrounded by a Pacific Ocean of empty space. And from the island called planet Earth there will be no rescue and no escape. We will sort out our own problems of finite resources or our civilisation will collapse into resource wars and famine just like that of Rapa Nui.

So when we in the Greens are asked which of the two major parties we will support and work with, we judge them against rather stringent criteria. We ask are they heading down a path towards a sustainable economy or are they sending us down a dead end like Easter Island. We ask what are they doing to future proof New Zealand so that we can avoid the obvious oil shocks and climate change that is heading our way.

We ask how are they working to reduce the social inequality, which will undermine our societies capacity to cope with this uncertain future. Now on some of the biggest issues there is barely a whisker between National and Labour. On trade they have virtually identical policies. The commitments that these parties have made under the World Trade Organisation are drawing a tighter and tighter net around the capacity of national governments to act in the interests of their citizens.

And they are limiting the ability of governments to act in a sustainable manner. Let me give you just one example, which demonstrates in practical terms exactly how the WTO rules limit the capacity New Zealand Government. In the 1990s the National Party Government made commitments to the WTO under the audiovisual services section of the General Agreement on Trade in Services. Now this rather obscure commitment means that the New Zealand government can no longer introduce compulsory New Zealand content quotas on radio and television without being in breach of its WTO commitments.

And these WTO commitments are effectively irreversible within the WTO rules because any country which tries to withdraw trade liberalisation commitments must compensate every other country in the world that thinks it may suffer somehow as a result. So when the Labour-led Government came into power in 1999 they sought to implement mandatory minimum New Zealand content quotas on radio and television.

They had promised to do this in the election campaign and such local content quotas are very common around the world as countries seek to defend their cultural identity. But the new government was told by their officials that they could not without breaching their WTO commitments. They were forced to back down.

Had they proceeded they could have faced action taken against New Zealand in the WTO by countries that sold television programs into New Zealand, like the US, claiming that their television production companies were being discriminated against by this New Zealand content quota, in beach of New Zealand's WTO commitments, commitments remember that were made by the previous National Party government.

And if such a case had gone ahead then the decision would be made in secret by three trade lawyers sitting in an office in Geneva. New Zealand would almost certainly have lost the case and we would have had the option of changing the law to remove the mandatory local content quotas or face WTO approved trade sanctions against New Zealand exports.

So let's spell this out. The National Party government made WTO commitments that effectively bind all future governments and parliaments and prevent them from introducing minimum New Zealand content quotas on radio and television. A new government was elected on a platform of introducing local content quotas but were told they could not because of the commitments of a previous government. And if they had proceeded anyway, then trade lawyers meeting in secret in Geneva would have told us to change our law or face trade sanctions.

This is not conspiracy theory this is actually how trade law and the WTO actually works. Now if we are to avoid the fate of the Easter Islanders then we need international environmental treaties that empower governments to discriminate on the basis of how products are made - that is whether they were made in an environmentally harmful way or not.

But currently if governments do this then the WTO will rule against them in the same way that they would rule against New Zealand if we tried to introduce mandatory minimum New Zealand content quotas. So I my challenge to National and Labour - will you support the right of countries to sign up to international environmental and human rights treaties that overrule the WTO commitments.

Because if we as a planet are to find a sustainable future then we need binding international environment treaties. Governments must have the right to discriminate on whether an imported product has been produced in an environmentally and socially sustainable way.

Otherwise New Zealand businesses will be driven to the wall by imports from sweatshops and toxic hellholes where the labour and environmental rules are non-existent. And my challenge to Labour and National is it's time to recognize that unlimited growth in material consumption is not possible in a finite world.

Whichever of the two major parties first acknowledges that we would be very happy to talk to! And my challenge to National and Labour is which of you will make a commitment to put New Zealand in the top half of the OECD in terms of sustainability. We would be very happy to work with a party that wants to make New Zealand a leading light in sustainability.

Now on many of these questions there is little difference between National and Labour. On some of them we are closer to Labour than National - Labour at least acknowledges that there is climate change even if their response to it is to build an extra $1.5 billion in roads.

If rising oil prices are the challenge how can more roads possibly be the answer? While a small amount of the money will go to necessary safety improvements the bulk of it will go to more motorways. And we do currently have some small budget initiatives with the Labour Government, such as the Buy Kiwi Made. But while we may be closer to Labour, Labour and National are closer to each other than we are closer to either of them. The Greens are an independent principled voice in parliament and in society and we will not trade our voice or our independence or our principles for a footnote in a Cullen budget.

Now Jared Diamond's book about collapse isn't all gloom and doom, thank goodness. There are societies that are successful at surviving environmental challenges. And one of the key features that he identifies that enables those societies to address the environmental challenges that come their way is that there is not a clear separation between the elites and the rest of society.

The people with power are not separated by gated communities from everyone else. And I think that we are currently seeing a separation between the political elites and the rest of the community when it comes to public transport.

I think that the people in this Government need to get out of their limos and catch the bus or the train sometimes. When you are chauffer driven around the place in a ministerial limo all the time, at whatever speed, I think you can lose touch with the everyday.

I don't think that a government that just announced a massive increase in road spending while projecting a long term decline in public transport funding really understands the everyday experience of people caught between rising fuel prices and an inadequate under funded public transport system. So I'm going to write a letter to Michael Cullen to invite him over for dinner one night but there is one condition.

He has to join me on the bus home first - the number two at around 5pm on a weeknight. He can see how overcrowded the buses are. He can watch the full buses go by or squeeze onto an already overcrowded bus. Perhaps, just perhaps, when he has experienced the reality of people caught between rising fuel price and inadequate and under funded public transport he might realise the mistake he has made in not funding public transport adequately.

Train services that break down, buses that go past you in the pouring rain. The bus stop across the road from my house doesn't have a bus shelter so in the mornings as I stand in the pouring rain watching full buses go past I think of Dr Cullen, sitting in his warm and dry ministerial limo, with his big spending on roads.

And I wonder if he has lost touch with what it's like for the rest of us. The Michael Joseph Savage memorial is an obelisk at Bastion Point; will the Michael Cullen memorial be empty motorways from the top of the country to the bottom? Time to get out of your limo Dr.Cullen and understand the true reality of everyday people stuck between higher fuel prices and inadequate public transport.

It is an environmental issue and a social justice issue. It's an environmental issue because the way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions is to give people the option of catching buses and trains to get around their cities and towns. And it's a social justice issue because as petrol becomes more and more expensive, people with limited means will only be able to get around by catching public transport.

Michael Cullen has had the vision to look into the future with his super fund and while we don't agree with the fund in many ways, we do agree with the idea of looking well into the future. If you can look 20 years into the future with the super fund why is our transport system looking backwards 20 years?

The existence of Green Parties around the world is evidence that our civilisation will not necessarily follow the path of the Easter Islanders, that maybe we can follow a sustainable path. The existence of the scientific community crying out for Governments to take their warnings seriously about climate change and biodiversity destruction and resource depletion is evidence that we may not go down the path of the Easter Islanders.

But National and Labour need to get out of their old ways of thinking. We had Keynesian economics, we had neoliberal economics, now is the time for some Green economics. Now is the time to harness the undoubted power of the market to internalise the costs of pollution.

I was hearted to hear former National Party minister Simon Upton call for Labour and National to reconsider the carbon pollution charge as a way of internalising the costs of pollution.

The existence of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand is evidence that from the blackened fields of the ideological slash and burn of the new right in the eighties and nineties some resilient plants have survived and green shoots have sprouted forth to show that there's more to life than the bottom line.

We have a vision of walking lightly on the Earth and having a good time of it at the same time. We have a vision of a society in which parents have time to spend time with their children rather than rushing out working 24/7. We have a vision and practical solutions for clean rivers that our kids can swim in, for forests and suburbs where the call of the tui and the bellbird ring out once again.

For an economy and society based on sustainability and social justice. The Green vision is more urgently needed now than ever to keep this beautiful blue and green island in the middle of the Milky Way one of the best planets money can't buy.

ENDS


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