A glass of new thinking about sustainability

Just ten days after the launch of the Sustainable New Zealand Party (SNZP) MEttle spoke to leader Vernon Tava about his fresh view on how sustainability and business can work together for a prosperous New Zealand.

For some he’s come out of nowhere, while others have been listening to his brand of sustainability for many years.

After a Party launch, he’s had his fair share of media attention, but his views still seem new, innovative and even exciting. But how is it possible to successfully blend sustainability with society and economy – isn’t this like mixing oil and water – or is there a chance they can work well together?

Vernon is a lawyer by training and has done some hard yards in community law; now he works as a business broker. He’s an been a university researcher, a local board member on Auckland Council and, for a time, a professional coffee roaster.

He says his background has prepared him for the rigours of communicating his vision in the lead up to next year’s election.

He’s Italian/Irish – “good Catholic stock” he says. His family moved to New Zealand when he was five years old and he grew up infused in the family manufacturing business.

“We were a city business family so I was acutely aware from a young age about the responsibility owners have to keep the lights on, look after staff and pay on time so they can look after their families. The need to provide at every level is a constant, and if that goes, everything falls over.”

It’s a lesson that’s re-emerged as a foundation for where he is now.

Life as a kid was typically Kiwi, being outdoors, nagging parents to go camping and joining the Scouts – “Even now if I have downtime, I will go as remote as possible.”

He studied in Auckland, travelled and landed up in Melbourne as a coffee roaster – “it’s funny the things you end up doing,” he quipped.

“But it was here I first encountered practical sustainability. In the mid-2000s people really started asking questions – where do the beans came from, were they organic, were workers looked after? So, I started to delve deeper into the trade.”

He discovered a commodity that’s one of the world’s most heavily traded and the social and environmental impacts of the industry. It was a double shot discovery and he returned to University to continue his studies.

“Despite an early dream to be a criminal lawyer I was drawn to environmental law. I finished a Master of Laws degree looking at the rights of nature, or more accurately the legal personhood of non-human nature. I won the prize for my year and stayed on as a researcher, doing some lecturing and tutoring at the University of Auckland. I became very focused on environmental thinking.”

However, he realised the changes that need to be made were not going to come from tutorials and writing academic papers that would only be read by other lawyers and academics.

“I couldn’t enclose myself in legal academia and understood that the change we need to see, at the pace we need to see it, would only happen at the political level. So, I went searching and found the Greens – they’re the environmental party, right? What I realised is that it’s a socialist project through and through, and I simply didn’t agree with that world view.”

It was this that led him to contemplate a fresh approach to sustainability.

“I want to encourage business leaders, those in governance and all Kiwis to think about reframing their ideas about how sustainability can work, within society and the economy, so we can prosper as well as regenerating our environment.”

“I want to encourage business leaders, those in governance and all Kiwis to think about reframing their ideas about how sustainability can work.”

His core contention is: “Until now, if you wanted to vote for the environment as a top priority – and you are concerned about the state of the world and what you are leaving your kids, you’ve had to vote for a party that is strongly left-wing and a clearing house for left-of-Labour activist movements.

“We are told what’s wrong, but not given a solution. What we challenge really strongly is the “limits to growth” hypothesis which fails to distinguish between different types of economic growth and falsely presumes that there is always a direct correlation between growth and resource consumption and pollution. In many sectors this is becoming less and less true over time and in some growth is almost completely environmentally benign.

“SNZP believes we can deal with the challenges we face by working within that proven combination of capitalism and liberal democracy to raise people’s living standards in unison. We will need to re-prioritise and transition to a more circular economy but this can happen within the current system. Both ‘business as usual’ and ‘no growth’ views are misguided.”

“SNZP believes we can deal with the challenges we face by working within that proven combination of capitalism and liberal democracy to raise people’s living standards in unison.”

Vernon has heard some “bagging” of his new party, which he accepts with an “of course” and then emphasises the need for a party focused on the environment, society and the economy – the three together.

Then he receives the big question – can you reach the 5% threshold when many others have failed?

“Our launch is actually answering a public call over the last few elections – which was particularly loud in 2017. Why can’t an environmental party govern with both sides of Parliament? We prioritise the environment because it’s essential to get these ideas across but we also have eyes on social and economic needs and have already announced key policies with much more to come.

“Take conservation for example where we have a $1billion programme. When you ask Kiwis what they really care about in the environment, fresh water is always number one – and kudos to the Government for its freshwater strategy – this is an issue that’s been kicked down the road for a long time.

“When you ask Kiwis what they really care about in the environment, fresh water is always number one.”

“There are others including: conservation, fisheries, protecting native plants and animals, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, nitrogen cycles and nutrient overloads. These are not being dealt with to anywhere near the extent that people would like.”

Vernon also appreciates that being given an accommodation would be the best way to attain a seat, but he’s not banking on it.

“Absolutely, of course that would be true of any party. But people tend to forget there is a huge mobile vote in the centre of about 10-15% – that’s around 300,000 people who will chop and change from party to party each election. There is room for us in the centre and there’s a large catchment especially when you are talking about a topic with universal appeal – let’s care for our environment – and we believe this can be achieved in a way that doesn’t require a revolutionary overturning of our economy and society. That’s appealing.”

He’s aiming to catch the attention of sectors being backed into corners by the current sustainability debate. This includes the dairy sector that’s caught between a shed and a fence post when it comes to emissions targets:

“Farmers are being asked to make changes that will put many of them out of business. There’s no choice – halve emissions. But you’re not allowed to apply science and adopt new technology.”

This brings up another point of contention with current political approach to the environment – it’s selective with the science:

“Farmers have done a huge amount, out of their own pocket. They’ve done the riparian planting, fenced, moved from intensive farming and reduced nutrient impact. They produce some of the lowest environmental impact commodities in the world – we are very efficient farmers. But people don’t understand this and without being able to innovate freely, there’s nowhere to go.

“They are also not being listened to – they are asking how they can be better at sustainable farming and being told to stop denying there’s a problem and cut emissions when they are running up against the limits of what can be done.”

Vernon advocates for letting farmers decide the details within broader parameters.

“They know their land, let them be freer to decide. There are a lot of good farms doing what’s needed. No one size fits all and governments need to appreciate this.

“A good example of this limited understanding is grass and soil being massive sequestrators of carbon – but this is not adequately considered. As a result, we have a grandstand forestry panic policy to just plant as many pine trees as possible. This is an environmental Kiwibuild, an approach that hasn’t looked in detail at the impact and implications of this approach.”

Having veered on to the topic of carbon emissions, some people have observed that launching the SNZP post zero-carbon legislation was terrible timing, but Vernon couldn’t disagree more:

“The Greens have done some great work here – the architecture is excellent and recognises there are some things that are too technical and complicated for politicians. The same model has been working in the UK since 2008. We have very complex and challenging issues to deal with. A lot of it is engineering and it needs to be given to a genuine body of experts who can map out a long-term transition pathway for us – this is the only way to manage it.

“The concern, though, is that the current politics has a bob each way – we are going to make policy moves before they are properly considered and hem in industry. The unilateral offshore oil and gas ban is a great example. The minister setting methane targets based on arbitrary figures is another. In the meantime, there is limited support for innovation to achieve our goals.”

He also highlighted concerns that some extreme environmental policies could put whole industries in danger

“Our country needs domestically produced building products, especially in the middle of a boom.”

“Take concrete for example, if you are going to put a tax on concrete manufactured here and not tax imports lots of people will lose their jobs. Our country needs domestically produced building products, especially in the middle of a boom.

“What this boils down to is the need to work with business on these issues. We’ve seen a troubling callousness towards business, and this has justified being hard on big and small businesses to make unrealistic changes.”

The SNZP’s position is it’s possible to nurture the environment and business growth, at the same time.

“We need to build a binding and lasting coalition between the environment and business.

Sustainability also needs to be at the centre of all political discussion. It’s an increasing part of everyday discussion so politics needs to be there too.

“I’ve watched with alarm how environmental concerns, particularly climate change, are debated in Australia. Obviously, there are very serious problems across the Tasman, but it’s become a political football – we can’t have environmental issues handled like this.

“Politicians also need to appreciate that in many respects business and academia are miles ahead on this topic. So, the idea that economic growth can’t be sustainable is outdated. It’s wrong to think growth must come from degrading our environment when about 85% of company value globally is made up of intellectual property.”

“If we shut off the avenues of exploration such as certain areas of science, including gene technology, then we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Scientific progress is incredible but if you set parameters you will limit the extent of innovation. People are very innovative but need to be given some leeway. If we deal with these things sensibly, set standards, the innovation that’s possible is remarkable.

“We (SNZP) understand that environmental protection and regeneration is possible within a modern, open growing economy and our future is in innovation, particularly cleantech. The future doesn’t mean we need to turn our back on existing industries and shut them down, limit them, and move away – we need a shared vision.”

Looking to next year’s election Vernon Tava highlights the existing foundation of understanding for the ideas being presented by the SNZP.

“Senior leaders in business and governance already understand that it’s entirely possible to save the environment and become wealthier as we do it.”

“Senior leaders in business and governance already understand that it’s entirely possible to save the environment and become wealthier as we do it. Economic growth and capitalism itself aren’t the enemy. Centrally planned economies tend to fail and when this happens the environmental, social and economic impact is severe.

“We don’t need to have any revolutionary over-turning of the system, particularly when the alternative is so poorly articulated.

“The answer is well regulated, free markets, with capitalism and liberal democracy working together to prioritise sustainability. It’s not perfect but it is by far the most successful system and is best placed to get us to a circular economy in which we all prosper.”

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