Getting to a Flourishing Future Beyond Fossil Fuels Think Piece (draft 2.1)

Response by Hazel Ashton (PhD Sociology) to Dr Mike Joy’s presentation Biophysical limits to growth; the future of food and energy (2019). Its aim is to sow some seeds for a conversation about how New Zealand could take a lead in showing the world how it can reduce fossil fuel use by 10 percent annually as needed over the next ten years, and transition to a decarbonised society in a decarbonised world. Your responses are invited, both on, or if you prefer, off the record.

The following Think Piece, sent to 12 people for their comment, formed the basis of Transition Monday thinking. It was last revised in February 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic intervened. A letter with the Transition Monday proposal was subsequently sent to elected representatives. Your responses to both are warmly invited.

“Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them” (Albert Einstein)

In a series of talks in 2019, environmental scientist Dr Mike Joy made a compelling case for why we needed to understand and accept biophysical limits to growth in order to move beyond them. While many agree on the need to transition away from fossil fuels to a decarbonised world, Dr Mike Joy argues that missing from the discussion on Climate Change is a reality check: namely, while humans have become reliant on cheap fossil fuels for just about everything, the era of easy-to-access fossil fuels is over and renewable energy that many are looking to instead, cannot, in fact replace fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are needed to build and maintain renewables which will also come to need replacement. According to Dr Mike Joy, we have to find ways to drastically reduce fossil fuel use by at least 10 percent annually for the next ten years and construct new life-styles that enable all to live well in a post-fossil fuel world. Although Dr Mike Joy’s talks were well attended and his arguments on limits not challenged, his call to action appears to have come to nothing. As one participant put it, “it seemed there was no hope; there was nothing we could do that would make a difference, not even getting an electric car, so I haven’t done anything.”

Any fool can get the right answer; it takes real intelligence to first get the right question (anon)

Why is it so difficult to understand and accept and thus be able to go beyond our limits, when scientists have been putting out clear indications of these limits since 1972? In spite of much grand talk, and international agreements to reduce emissions, more than half of the carbon burning fossil fuels emissions currently in the atmosphere have been emitted in just the past 30 years. Which, according to David Wallace-Wells, means “we have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on climate than in all the centuries – all the millennia – that came before”. If, indeed, world scientists and politicians have been producing all the “right answers”, surely it is time to clarify and prioritise the right questions.

“Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them” (Albert Einstein)

Many of the present problems and difficulties in recognizing and dealing with them have arisen from large industrial scale, especially global, top-down, business and governmental organizations that are stuck in their business as usual approaches. Meanwhile, the solutions for drastically reducing fossil fuel use and adapting to a post-fossil fuel world must include local, small scale initiatives that use alternatives to fossil fuels and less energy-intensive technology. I wish to therefore propose an interweaving of ground up with top down approaches to create a new synthesis that can, in fact, enable a transition to a world beyond dependence on fossil fuels.

Building on New Zealand’s nuclear free moment

New Zealand is small, and many people feel anything New Zealand does won’t make any difference on the global scale, so why bother? However, historically, New Zealand has led the world in making changes that were needed, for instance, giving women the vote, pioneering social welfare and labour disputes legislation in the 1890s, and then in 1987, passing nuclear free legislation. Since then, previous and current New Zealand prime ministers have drawn attention to this nuclear free moment to focus public attention on the climate change issues. As the then Prime Minister Helen Clark said in the “Speech from the Throne” (2007)

I believe New Zealand can aim to be the first nation to be truly sustainable – across the four pillars of the economy, society, the environment, and nationhood. I believe we can aspire to be carbon neutral in our economy and way of life. I believe that in the years to come, the pride we take in our quest for sustainability and carbon neutrality will define our nation, just as our quest for a nuclear-free world has over the past twenty three years.

Soon after being elected in 2017, current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said of Climate Change,

This is my generation’s nuclear-free moment and I am determined that we will tackle it head on… I don’t accept New Zealand is a country at the bottom of the world that can’t play its part, particularly when we have the Pacific on our doorstep and they are so affected.

Both Prime Ministers are right to refer to New Zealand’s nuclear-free moment for inspiration and aspiration, but missing, still, is how New Zealand is to make the needed reductions in fossil fuel. In both instances, leaders propose mainly top-down solutions, to be administered from a bureaucratic level, which is very different from the nuclear-free quest, which was driven from the grass-roots. Most importantly, it was driven by an on-going, active engagement of ordinary people throughout the country. It was collective learning that involved active learning together; learning embedded in the process of seeking to achieve a collective purpose and learning that brought about a major institutional change that people wanted. The local nuclear-free zone campaign led to local governments and organisations debating the fate of the earth and what they could do about it. In his book, Nuclear Free – The New Zealand Way, the then prime minister David Lange, acknowledged the educative effect and therefore the decisive effect of such public pressure behind his introduction of the nuclear-free legislation in 1987 and his holding to this nuclear-free moment whilst under massive international pressure to back down.
As for making a difference on a global scale, at a nuclear security summit in 2010, US President Obama came to praise New Zealand’s nuclear free efforts, suggesting it “could offer leadership on the nuclear issue.”

After a year in government, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said of the Nuclear Free moment, then

“we were unified … and yet what we’re doing on climate change – it is just that much harder, because it’s a call to action for everyone. And so I’m hoping we can get to the place of having that same unified moment that we had around nuclear free for climate change”.

I’d like to propose that we make it possible to get to this unified moment by giving ordinary people a time in which all can connect to understand, together, the challenges involved in this new “climate change moment”, including what needs to be done, and especially what they, themselves, can do to effect a successful transition to a future without fossil fuels.

“There’s nothing so practical as a good theory.” Kurt Lewin

Let’s create some limits to the use of fossil fuels in a way that is safe, effective, and possibly even enjoyable in order that people to experience life without fossil fuels so all can understand the practicalities involved in transitioning to a post-fossil fuel world.
Let’s focus on implementation – how to transition to a life without fossil fuels, creating cycles of learning between local, practical and theoretical knowledge to create well-informed policy decisions.
Let’s petition the government to make Monday a car-free day, & a 4-day week, and offer a carbon-free dividend, some kind of monetary remuneration to support people and businesses and organisations to reduce their use of fossil fuels and participate in such a Transition Day.
Let’s set aside Monday, every week, to focus, together, on the need to transition to a life without fossil fuels, and what we can do, together, to help to bring this about, from our own households, streets, localities, towns or cities, country and ultimately, the world.
Let’s call this day, “Transition Monday”. To quote Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern oft-used phrase, “Let’s do this”… Let’s make every Monday a day when we all, together:

  • Slow everything down. This could be something like what many in the older generation called Sunday, a day of rest. One day where we give the planet a rest. This could also incorporate the idea of the four-day week which people in more nations and large organisations are now discussing as a way to cut carbon emissions and boost productivity.
  • Connect with life – our own and those of our family, friends, and community – and all that’s really important to us.
  • Connect with where we live – we all live somewhere with our fellow human and non-human inhabitants.
  • Experience limits and create lifestyles that work without using fossil fuels. Some New Zealander’s will remember the carless days of the 1970s where they couldn’t drive their car on certain days of the week.
  • Share learning, how people can meet their needs locally, and adapt to the post-fossil fuel future. Our indigenous Maori people could play an important role here by sharing their invaluable knowledge living successfully in Aotearoa New Zealand in a pre-fossil fuel culture.
  • Create regeneration zones and corridors to support life that still lives to flourish with supportive networks and teaching around this.
  • Commit to one day, once a week, to focus together, on what we need to do to make a successful transition to a post-fossil fuel world.

Will our government invest in a Transition Monday? Will they offer a carbon-free dividend, some kind of monetary remuneration to enable people and businesses and organisations to participate in such a Transition Day? Will our government support local communities and learning institutions to develop practices for this needed transition, so that they in turn can implement helpful well-supported policies that work? Just as when the New Zealand government came to declare New Zealand nuclear free in 1987, with wide-spread public support, it would find it similarly helpful to be widely supported to declare and implement a Transition Monday.

Readers who want to help advance proposals in this document can help by:
1. Offering critiques and ideas for improving this document.
2.Inviting others to join this conversation.
3.And when this proposal is good to go, helping to attract practical, “Let’s do this” type people with the skills and motivation to make Transition Monday a reality.

Thank you for reading. We look forward to your responses

* Photo by Olwyn McGibbon

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