government systems

Living within system limits

Dr Morgan Williams is Chair of the Cawthron Foundation, is on the NZ international councils of the WWF, the National Energy Trust. We discuss his background in ecological systems science, from Antarctica to Fiji, and from North Canterbury farm through being the second Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment to his ongoing work.

Talking points

The research challenges are actually in understanding us – Homo sapiens. All the ways they interact, their decision making processes, their valuing systems, their moral structures and everything in that realm – that’s where most of the effort has to be.

Our understanding of the physical world is racing ahead of our ability to reconstruct our values and belief structures to keep up with the changes that we need.

It’s a real challenge if you have a conservative view on life, then reshaping the language about how you utilise resources – which is what sustainability is all about – and recognising the science that says this tiny blue planet does have limits and we as a species can overthrow those limits.

We’re not particularly good at working out where the limits are, nor how we share the division of resources between all peoples.

How do we get to a society where we more fairly share the resources available?

A much greater level of equity across society really does help everybody understand it improves the chances of all of us surviving and maintaining a better lifestyle without trashing the planet.

I don’t think there’s enough going on in a policy and investment sense to involve people in society who are really finding life hard…questions such as emissions are off their radar as the day-to-day is what they rightly have to focus on.

(Green without social) Far too simplistic. It comes back to equity. If we’re going to get on top of how do we as a species walk more lightly on the planet, you’ve got to work out how do we have a fair access to resources. It’s not just liters of water, or sunshine, it’s resources that we generate and provide through every facet of our society – access to music or health, housing…

Asking the hard questions…has elements of representing the future.

The problem with the whole notion of being fair and living within budgets of a small planet, is putting that into a political framework.

The value of an office such as PCE is to till the landscape a way ahead of the policy of the day. Its real value is to be seeding thinking, being an evidential thought-leader, putting out the evidence on the landscape a way ahead of where any government is at.

(Can we democracy our way out?) Good question. The evidence to date is with difficulty. There’s so much evidence that when we get to these big wicked problems we get tensions, and we get a Brexit, Trump in the Whitehouse.

(Can we business our way out?) Business – all the mechanisms of provision of goods and services for society – has to be part of it. There’s no question that we can empower a whole lot of innovation and adaption and a whole lot of smart people , but how do we do that in a way that has a moral compass that is 100% better that those that have shaped Facebook and so on.

(On profit motive) They have to stay in business but there are groups of businesses around the planet who are working for values other than profit, things are shifting and they have to keep shifting. There has to be viability there, but the notions of what is viable needs to change dramatically.

Journey of living within limits

Looking more and more at the drivers – what the things that we are doing as a species that putting all the pressures? (the breakdown of systems).

Goal areas, mostly aimed at saving something, that’s appropriate, a mitigation model. But when you look deeper, it’s a capital problem.

Young people are quite rightly saying “this is our future we’re talking about”. Their leaders are going to inherit some pretty tough spaces. I’d be getting my boots on and starting to kick some tyres too.

We have to have conversations and actions that we can craft a sustainable world, we lift the expectations we can deal with the turbulence, we’re going to have to get hold of the tiger and believe that we can make a difference, and we’re going to have to go fast. And we can.

Sustainability: Activity through endless generations. That’s really asking whether the resilient characteristics of our ecological systems, our atmosphere, our species mixes…can they evolve to deal with this turbulence? It’s not about saving species, it’s about saving the capacity of ecological systems to change at the pace that the pressures are generating. Resilience is quite an important word here. Resilience of the ecological system to change.

Have they found the Narnia door? A totally different way of thinking, of talking.

Superhero: might be useful.

Activist: I didn’t until last year.

Motivation: Seeing that you can make a difference. I’ve been encouraged by a lot of people. Having a partner in a life journey.

Challenge: Water security.

Miracle: Education. That we build into our education system how to relate, share ideas, recognise power of communities.

Advice: Think about your day to day life. Your impact, waste and so on, but it needs to be much more than that, so think about your purchasing, particularly clothing.