Back from Thailand: reflections on the need for transformational change

I’m back from Thailand and currently dealing with a chest infection. Travelling takes it toll, both on my health and on that of the planet. I live with these inconsistencies. From my arrival late on 19 October through to the morning of 23 October I was based in Bangkok, staying in one of my favourite hotels. By very good fortune it was 10 minutes walk from the United Nations Conference Centre, where the Asia Pacific Climate Change Adaptation Forum was held.

The forum was an interesting experience, particularly in terms of feedback from my Agri-Nature Foundation friends who were also in attendance. I’ll come to this in a while. The theme of this forum was ‘mainstreaming’ adaptation to climate change. The mainstreaming of adaptation into national policy frameworks, particularly in least developed countries, has gained significant momentum in the last few years. This momentum is a result of the significant, and increasing, amounts of funding for adaptation that are coming available. It is recognition that climate change is happening and there will be inevitable negative impacts on environments and people around the world. I see this increased attention to adaptation as a mixed blessing. On the one hand it reflects the need for positive action to address the effects of climate change, which if done properly could also provide benefits in terms of reduced emissions. But the speed at which things are happening, and the lack of genuine expertise, is a big concern. Funds are coming available almost faster than various agencies can keep up with. And suddenly there are a whole lot of ‘climate change experts’. The one big contradiction that I see is that a lot of people are talking about the need for action, and agreeing that they need to have more meetings to talk about action, but where is the action and who is doing it? And exactly what sort of action are we talking about? Are we talking about incremental changes to what we are currently doing? Or are we talking about transformational changes?

My posters on display in Bangkok - lessons from practical people who are involved in transformational change
My posters on display in Bangkok - lessons from practical people who are involved in transformational change

I view incremental changes as adjustments we make to partially offset the negative consequences, and potential vulnerabilities, of our on-going economic development focus. In many countries, including New Zealand, this includes continuing with activities such as high input agricultural systems (particularly our dairy industry) but doing things like improving irrigation efficiency or dealing with the consequences of nitrate pollution. We’re not questioning the future vulnerability and costs of sustaining such systems. Evidence from past civilizations gives us some clear lessons. In the words of Brian Fagan, author of ‘The Long Summer: How Climate Changed Civilization’ (It’s also worth reading this Guardian review):

“In our efforts to cushion ourselves against smaller, more frequent climate stresses, we have consistently made ourselves more vulnerable to rarer but larger catastrophes. The whole course of civilization … may be seen as a process of trading up on the scale of vulnerability.”

Whether we see it or not, our present actions are accelerating us towards a collision course. The economic rationalists tell us that we have no alternatives. I guess this makes sense if you understand the causes of tunnel vision. I liken our addiction to fossil fuels and the growth economy to the effects of alcohol and some drugs on vision. We’re in a world of rapid change and we humans are increasingly in need of transformational change. My view is that we either act willingly now, or be forced into change at much greater cost sometime in the future.

Transformational change means we step outside of the square. We shed our strong dependence on fossil fuels and start opening our minds to the world of possibilities that lies beyond what can only be described as addictive, and ultimately destructive, behaviour. The sooner we make this change the better. Yes, it might involve some short-term pain, changes in lifestyle and consumer behaviour. Long-term, the sooner we act the better placed we will be to benefit from a genuinely harmonious and productive relationship with the earth.

It’s taken me a while, but this is where I come to the Agri-Nature Foundation in Thailand. Through the practical application of the Sufficiency Economy philosophy they are actively engaged in transformational change. My friends, Ajarn Yak and Khun Wipa, were very frustrated with the adaptation forum. All of this talk about the need for action, and they are acting. Mainstreaming adaptation is a redundant concept for them. Their work isn’t driven by a climate change funding agenda. It was originally driven by a challenge from farmers to show that the King of Thailand’s ideas on the Sufficiency Economy had some practical merit. Their funding has come from people freely offering financial support because of the results they are getting. The Sufficiency Economy is a response to the forces of globalisation and the many environmental and other problems now unfolding in the world. This includes climate change. Practical application of the Sufficiency Economy involves planting a diversity of tree species, protecting precious water resources, living within the limits of your local environment, providing for your basic needs and sharing surplus. It follows fundamental ecological concepts. The foundation is a sustainable and resilient ecology. Through a conscious design process we develop greater stability, and buffering capacity, through well-planned functional diversity. Within this we develop a healthy social environment and then a sustainable economy. I know various people talking about these concepts. I know very few examples of practical application. In this regard the work of the Agri-Nature Foundation needs wider recognition and I’m dedicated to supporting that as well as I can.

Coastal challenges

I noticed a small article in one of the local newspapers last week, promoting an event to celebrate the Cape Coast in Hawke’s Bay (including the coastal communities of Haumoana and Te Awanga). The event is a fund-raising auction, which is being held this week, with a range of quality items. The funds are to support the Walking on Water (WOW) campaign for a hard engineering solution for coastal erosion protection.

Coastal erosion at Haumoana and Te Awanga
Coastal erosion at Haumoana and Te Awanga

The reality of the 21st century is that we’re going to increasingly see coastal communities like this campaigning for their survival. To put things in perspective, current projections of sea-level rise indicate that hundreds of millions of people will be at risk over coming decades. More than two thirds of the world’s cities are at risk. Asia is particularly vulnerable, as shown on this map. Bangkok, which I am travelling to next week, is one of the most vulnerable cities.

Coming back to a New Zealand perspective, the Royal Society of New Zealand recently released an update of current knowledge regarding future sea-level rise. Emerging evidence suggests that sea-level rise greater than current guidance could occur. The current Ministry for the Environment guidance recommends a base value of 0.5m for sea-level rise, with assessment of consequences up to 0.8m. The more recent evidence suggests that it would not be unrealistic to consider a higher level rise by the end of this century. In some countries, such as Australia and the Netherlands, higher levels (in both of these cases 1.1m) have been set for risk assessment and planning purposes

Given this bigger picture, and the already vulnerable situation at Haumoana and Te Awanga, I personally don’t believe that investment in coastal barriers is a viable long-term solution for these communities. Erosion is already happening and with allowance for sea-level rise there will be accelerated erosion. Unfortunately the most obvious alternative solution to coastal barriers, managed retreat, isn’t an easy one for people to accept. Some perspective is needed in this regard. Like everywhere else in New Zealand we are fortunate to have options that the majority of people in the world don’t have. With the right spirit and focus this local coastal community has an opportunity to provide some genuine leadership. In my view this leadership isn’t going to come about from resisting change and wanting to construct barriers. Rather it will come from positive engagement in finding realistic, long-lasting solutions. For this to happen we need to recognise the psychological dimension of change. That’s a very big challenge that we as a society need to start working on together. We’re a long way from where we need to be in this regard. To get there we’re going to need the artists and all the others who have generously donated to the upcoming fundraising activity. That’s the crux of my concern in reading about this event, that we’re putting so much time and energy into resisting change in a world that is undergoing very rapid change.

Thoughts on carbon trading

The following was published in the January 2010 newsletter of the New Zealand Farm Forestry Association. It was written in response to an editorial in the previous newsletter. I’ve subsequently made some minor modifications.

Carbon trading was never a sensible response to climate change. As quoted in a recent report prepared by Climate Risk for WWF International “the current emphasis on carbon price as the key element of the climate change solution is dangerously misleading”. Instead I believe we need an approach that is founded on policies that support the development of resilient local communities.

The very first IPCC assessment, published in the early 1990s, talked about the potential co-benefits of a combined approach to adaptation (responding to the effects of climate change) and mitigation (reducing or offsetting GHG emissions). Somehow talk of co-benefits got lost, a handful of scientists focused on impacts and adaptation assessment through the 1990s, and a heap of people got interested in mitigation, particularly the economists. As climate change has become more of a reality (for those who believe the science, and I am one who does) there has been increased attention to adaptation over the last decade and more talk of ‘co-benefits’. So what do co-benefits mean?

In a practical sense it means doing what smart farmers, including farm foresters, have been doing for decades. If you draw together the lessons from practical farmers, which I have been doing for the last nine years, you get a comprehensive picture of farm resilience. A resilient farm with trees for multiple benefits, with well managed soils (eg. minimal or no reliance on N fertiliser, a focus on building or maintaining organic matter and deep rooted pasture) and well managed pasture, stock and water, has in-built capacity to buffer against climate extremes (and climate change) and is providing multiple benefits in terms of carbon storage and reduced emissions. It’s common sense to the farmers who are doing this sort of thing.

My view is that if we want to be really serious about climate change and our collective future, even if you don’t believe in climate change, then investment in developing what the American farmer and writer Wendell Berry refers to as a true ecological mosaic as a foundation for a truly sustainable economy (the two go hand in hand) would be a far more sensible approach. It would be the best investment any government could make for our future. We need to be looking at everything we can do to protect and enhance our land and water resources … building long-term resilience is the real solution. If we get the ecology right the economics will follow. To achieve that will require a level of intelligence and wisdom that exists within New Zealand if you know the right people, but we’re not yet listening and acting in the way that we need to be.

The importance of working together

Climate change is real and we humans have contributed significantly to this. I have no doubt in my mind now. The scientific evidence is there. More importantly people on the ground are experiencing profound changes. Hearing this from local people is one of the most important things that I gained from travelling through Asia to Europe with my family in the first half of this year. If you haven’t read our blog from this journey check in the archives.

Another important thing that I gained was a deepened sense of hope amidst the very clear evidence of overpopulation, pollution and environmental degradation in many countries. There are people, a minority still, who are acting for the future now. I’ve talked about this as I shared stories from our journey.

What I also gained was a deepened understanding of the long-term connection to nature that exists in many countries, both eastern and western. This connection is not always obvious, but it is evident in some landscapes and in the things that some people are now doing. There is a renewal, a reawakening, a rethinking of things that is beginning to emerge. My experience of this was cause for reflection on New Zealand where we are still working out how to live together and with our unique, but hugely modified, environment.

With only 4 million people and an abundance of natural resources, surely we can get it right? If we can’t, who can? What we need to do, and this is a very big challenge for New Zealanders, is to embrace our past, look beyond our differences and start working together for our collective future much more than we are. I hear it said that we can’t look forward until we have effectively dealt with the past or resolved our differences. Will we ever? There is a different way. By working positively together for our shared future we will also find ways to address the many social, economic and environmental issues that we have. In my view it is a matter of urgency that we do this. Change is happening in the world to a much greater degree and at a much faster rate than we fully appreciate here in New Zealand. I’m not a doomsday person but I do believe that we are either going to choose or be compelled to work together much more than we presently are. If we do this by choice and with vision then we have real potential to provide leadership for the world.