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Sustainability: glass half empty or half full?

Media Release

October 20, 2006

Sustainability: is the glass half empty or half full?

The opportunities and challenges facing New Zealand as it embarks on the path to sustainability were the topic of wide-ranging discussion at a forum held at Waikato Management School this week.

Speakers at the Asia Pacific Academy of Business in Society (APABIS) forum focussed on how governments, businesses and civil society can contribute to a sustainable world, with topics ranging from the environment to international trade.

Doug Clover, from the Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, said the challenges were huge, but New Zealand had to create an environmentally sustainable energy sector.

“Climate change is happening, and we’re already seeing the end of cheap oil,” he told an audience of 50. “So we’ve got to change the way we’re doing things because it’s not sustainable.”

The ‘business-as-usual’ model, said Clover, would not deliver a low carbon, low emissions future.

“Around the world infrastructure systems are creaking under the expectations of a three to four per cent compound growth in energy consumption,” he said. “It’s a very challenging time, but here in New Zealand if we’re creative, we ask the hard questions and are honest, we could be looking at a very nice future.”

Business commentator Rod Oram spoke on the relationship between business and society in New Zealand. “The image I have,” he said, “is of a semi-detached house in which you pretend you don’t have neighbours, but in fact you’re very dependent on each other.”

Oram said he saw a nuanced relationship between business and society, which he said was reflected in the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board 2004 report. He said while the report showed New Zealanders valued quality of life, education and environment most highly, it was clear people did make the connection between the health of the economy and quality of life.

Looking to the future, he said he saw examples of ‘climate change’ across the economy and society.

“New Zealand has a manic-depressive tendency,” he said. “We veer between thinking we’re wonderful and thinking we’re hopeless. But since late 2000, the mood has been significantly positive, and this is what I’m seeing around the country.”

Professor John Dryzek from Australian National University took a more international and more provocative view. He suggested that to create a world where economic and environmental values can be mutually reinforcing, then perhaps nations should get rid of centralized governments as we know them and instead have governance networks that transcend boundaries and include public and private organisations, activists and pressure groups. “There’d obviously be issues, such as low visibility politics and a lack of accountability, but it is worthy of consideration.”

Professor Dryzek, who’s a leading authority on environmental politics, said countries that had more cooperative or coordinated market economies, where they involved business, government, unions and NGOs in policy and planning were more likely to consider sustainability a core priority.

For the world’s poorest nations, environmental issues are not always a priority when many struggle to feed themselves. Waikato Management School’s Dr Anna Strutt is a consultant to the Asian Development Bank and spends a lot of time in the Greater Mekong Sub-region. An economist, Strutt said these poorer nations, like Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, do want to be involved in trade but international trade laws need to be fair to them.

“There will always be losers with trade reform, but I have worked in these countries and I know they want the opportunity to compete in international markets. Closed economies do not grow… and we will not have global sustainability until we raise the standard of living in developing countries.”


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