Climate optimism: the Agrarian Disruption.

 Blog No. 116

Endangered species

Blog no 110 dealt with the impending ‘Solar Disruption.’ and the extent to which it would be insufficient on its own, to solve the looming climate problem. Its inadequacy was summarised in this hyperlink, which was quoted in that blog

Just recently, my attention was drawn to the following article: It takes a bit of time to digest the article and all the hyperlinks that it cites. However, for those alarmed and depressed by their seeming helplessness in the face of the market forces driving us to a climactic, climatic extinction, the above article by Dr. Rosie Bosworth should give further hope that hope need not be abandoned. The article is New Zealand-centric, but that in no way detracts from its relevance to other economies.

Dr Bosworth at home.

The NZ agrarian economy is one of the most advanced in the world and the ratio of its total agrarian to its other greenhouse gas emissions is among the highest. New Zealand’s high standard of living is currently dependent on two main industries, both of which are significant contributors to climate change; the import of tourists and the export of animal protein. New Zealanders seem generally unconcerned by, or have failed to notice the extent to which both of these industries are vulnerable.

Failing the prior intervention of other economic crises, the tourist boom will subside as awareness of the threat of climate change gradually, or suddenly, spreads throughout global populations. Within ten or so years, one can envisage a situation in which it is no longer socially acceptable to burn carbon on long-haul flights to indulge a sight-seeing curiosity, which, in itself, will become increasingly susceptible to replacement by virtual reality experiences. Currently, tourism, employing 7.5% of the NZ workforce, is NZ’s biggest single sector earner of foreign currency (17.4%) with international tourism adding an estimated $12 billion to the economy in 2016.

So too, as set out in Dr Bosworth’s article, New Zealand’s current dependence on meat and dairy exports will become increasingly vulnerable to the development of cheaper and more environmentally-friendly, synthesized, plant-based replacements.

The taste of things to come

synthetic-meatWhen John Key addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, he was pointedly asked the question by one of the assembled plutocrats and their pet warriors and academics “What is New Zealand good for other than lamb chops?” Key’s answer could be interpreted as “the provision of mercenaries,” except that the mercenaries are provided at New Zealand’s own cost, rather than the cost of the powers whose mess they are deployed to help clean up.

New Zealand politicians now need to find a different answer to that question. Put another way, how will the nation function within a carbon-neutral or carbon-negative economy, to which international tourism and the export of animal proteins are no longer able to make a significant contribution? This 2014 chart gives an indication of just how dependent NZ’s ability to import goods is on these two export industries. Of the total of $68 billion in overseas earnings, approx. $10 billion came from tourism and $21 billion from meat and dairy with a further $7 billion from forestry, horticulture and wine. Were international demand for New Zealand’s meat, dairy and tourism to collapse, NZ’s purchasing power in regards to overseas imports would decline by 45%. Though, this chasm might be narrowed by a decline of as much as $6 billion in the requirement for imported fossil fuels, that saving would only be realised after the foreign currency had been found with which to replace the existing vehicle stock.

New Zealanders are famously practical and notoriously reluctant to theorise. It appears that amongst NZ politicians, farmers and indeed, the community at large, there is little thought going into New Zealand’s survival in the scenario outlined above. Indeed, an outside observer might surmise that the nation was practically illiterate when it came to reading the writing on the wall.

Having read Dr Bosworth’s article, one tries to imagine what will be the implications for NZ primary industries in the paddock. Certain sectors will in theory be less dramatically affected than others. One can assume that while the mass-export market for processing meat and dairy products will decline dramatically, a residual, high-end market will remain among those international consumers addicted to (and able to afford) ‘the real thing.’

However, with the growing sensitivity to climate change (‘product miles’ & ‘buy local’) and environmental sustainability, this remnant ‘luxury’ market is likely to come under increasing social, and possibly, domestically imposed tariff pressure.

For instance, the ability to synthesise wines in a laboratory has been around a long time. As long ago as 1982, I remember talking with the head of R & D at Bayer AG. He claimed that his labs could reproduce any wine on demand and that, produced on an industrial scale, it would be both cheaper than and indistinguishable from the grape-derived versions. He excused his company for not having advanced the project, simply because EU labeling regulations would render it unacceptable to consumers. Though no doubt, valid in the 1980s, such conservative inhibitions might soon no longer apply.

Huge capital investment is required for the high-tech start-ups to be envisaged under the agrarian disruption. Such investments are most likely to succeed when sited close to centres of population. Likewise, the feed-stock of soybeans, crickets, fungi and other nutrients for such operations is going to be sourced as close to the manufacturing plant as possible. Conversion of NZ dairy farms to soy beans for use in European food-factories is not going to be a practical option.

The sparsity of NZ population will decrease the viability of such investments within NZ and thereby, increase the probability of there continuing to be a domestic market for ‘real protein.’ In addition, while processed fruits might be synthesised, no one is going to synthesize fresh fruit. NZ’s horticultural sector should remain relatively strong – at least until the ‘product miles’ question starts to inhibit winter sales of NZ cherries in Tokyo, and, as technology advances and climates change, more countries realise the practicality of growing their own.

A modern solar panel

We now have not only the wholly virtuous (at least, from the planet’s point of view)  impending Solar and Agrarian Disruptions, but also a fast encroaching Digital Disruption. This is what it is likely to do for those working in just one sector of the UK economy. All three disruptions, while greatly assisting the planet’s ability to surmount and survive humanity’s industrial phase, are going to require major social readjustments. In thirty years’ time, the world is going to be a very different place.

The digital disruption has already arrived

It would appear that there is likely to be a vast increase in the availability of a labour force that would otherwise be idle. In the industrialised societies, such as New Zealand, this presents no problem for the higher strata of society that has the means to invest in and own assets in the newly developing, capital intensive economy. However, on the wrong side of the ever-widening rich/poor divide, there is already serious talk of a universal, ‘living wage’ to allow the un- and under-employed to keep their bodies and souls together – (and them, off the streets?) Given the huge increase in productivity that these disruptions will bring about, such a proposal, if implemented globally, may well be feasible.

In view of the vast expanses of agricultural land that will become available as they are freed from livestock, such a dispensation of social largesse could well be made conditional on the planting and nurture of carbon-trapping trees. This might just be in time to bring the climate back from the brink it has been led to by the overshoot of neo-liberalism’s fossil-fueled folly and could be paid for by the recapture of some of the excessive profits derived from it. Such a project would have to be on a global scale and possibly subsumed within the mechanism of the Paris Agreement. Sadly, it isn’t easy to see how the global community will get from its current state of disunity and national self-seeking to such a harmonious point of agreement and implementation.

lab-meatOn NZ’s TV news a few days ago, the audience was treated to the morale-boosting spectacle of government funded helicopters in the NZ back-country, chomping through the fossil fuel as they laboriously flew from wilding pine to wilding pine, spraying each in turn with herbicide. Wilding pines are seedlings that escape from the forestry plantations to invade barren hillsides and areas of scrubby bush. They are frowned upon by New Zealanders, as they change the familiar and much appreciated rural landscape (but to nowhere approaching the extent that it has already been changed by intensive agriculture.)

In this instance, aesthetic considerations were not the excuse proffered for such profligate expenditure. According to the government explanation offered on the programme, such carbon-sequestering, arboreal encroachment might jeopardise valuable water resources and thereby, the future expansion of the wine industry! Clearly, NZ government thinking has far to go before it is going to get around to confronting the real problems facing New Zealand’s population.

After the agrarian disruption, New Zealand’s agrarian sector may well have a landing cushioned by an anachronistic persistence of domestic demand for traditional protein, the possibility of a lingering high-end, export demand for luxury protein and possibly, by the continued viability of horticulture.

Nevertheless, even ignoring the impending climatic changes, the magnitude of the three economic disruptions rushing towards New Zealand is such that any light that might be at the end of the tunnel, is almost totally obscured. Given their past and current performance, the thinking required to help NZ surmount the obstacles ahead, should not be left entirely to politicians.

The first real indication, among NZ’s politicians of a willingness to take practical steps to address the gravity of the situation, is the announcement in the past week of what appears to be a private initiative by Kennedy Graham, the NZ Green Party’s spokesman on global affairs. This is an extract from a statement he released earlier this week: “… I established a cross-party group (GLOBE-NZ) that cooperates on acquiring information and insight on national climate policy. To that end, I’ve commissioned a UK consultancy firm to do a study of ‘transformational pathways to carbon-neutrality for New Zealand’, to be shared by all parties and with the public.”

Given the blithe indifference to such concerns habitually evinced by the ruling National Party, Graham’s initiative is unlikely to win government support.  Without that support, it will likely be denied the financial backing, without which, given the urgency of the situation,  its timely implementation is likely to prove beyond the means of the Green Party, with its 13% of the national vote, and certainly beyond the means of its individual members. Things might improve, come the election in the second half of the year, should a Labour/Green alliance be called on to form the next government.

But even then, the greatest obstacle facing a government or  political party endeavouring to address the crisis, the electorate’s aversion to bad news, will remain in place. Even public expression of the ideas involved, let alone the implementation of the drastic steps that need to be taken, will endanger votes from an electorate that remains largely in blissful innocence – and is likely to remain so. The strife Helen Clark encountered when she tried to implement a ‘fart tax’ on the methane emissions of dairy cows, will long remain fresh in politicians’  memories.

Lest the electorate shoot the messenger, whatever government might come to power will still suffer from the inhibition of not wishing to embark on a  public relations campaign that would undermine confidence in the economy and  alarm the electorate to the extent that the situation warrants.

Think tank on a war footing. (by Hyperpotamus)

Kennedy Graham’s initiative needs all the support it can get from outside agencies not subject to electoral pressures and PR constraints. Academia and the private sector, supported by the media, where it still has freedom of thought and expression, need to get thinking on this matter. A national think-tank devoted to this crisis and uninhibited by party political considerations, is called for. Though New Zealand is particularly exposed to these risks, it is hardly the only country which needs to be urgently planning for the disruptions ahead. Humanity needs to put itself on an emergency war-footing.

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