We will remember 2020 as the year the Covid-19 virus swept around the world, akin to the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, or it will become just one of many future pandemics to reek havoc on our globalised world. There will undoubtedly be another new virus that threatens to wipe out huge portions of humanity, and disable global economies, but how we control the impact of these future pandemics is what we need to explore. With much of the world so connected, both physically through air travel, and economically through trade, perhaps we need to de-globalise our world, so that each nation can survive on our own the next time we have to shut our borders.
In a post Covid-19 world, can we create communities and nations that are primarily self- sustaining, so that when we face another pandemic we are all more resilient?
Could Aotearoa, our little island nation at the bottom of the world, shift our economy and the way we live from being less global, to more local? Is there a better economic model that is more equitable, sustainable, and in harmony with our environment?
With the likelihood that we may be physically shut off from the world for an extended period of time, the simple solution of bringing the majority of our manufacturing back onshore will help us be more resilient. Most things we import we could make here. Yes the cost of these goods would be greater, so we would have to adjust our expectations as to the amount of stuff we could buy. Rather than buying five $20 t-shirts, you may have to make do with two $50 t-shirts. But those locally made t-shirts would employ locals, and probably each last a few years, rather than your fast-fashion cheap tee having to be tossed into a landfill at the end of the season. The phrase ‘less is more’ would quickly become part of our minimal way of life.
Our exports would also have to change. With dairy making up one quarter of New Zealand’s exports, if global trade is restricted and a market like China suddenly stopped importing our milk powder, our economy would take a huge hit. Supplying our country with the dairy it needs and converting surplus dairy farms into growing crops that we currently import, would not only make our country less susceptible to volatile world markets and potential trade disruptions, but it would help solve our problems of polluted waterways and high methane levels. Another win for both us and the planet.
There are some things that would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for our small country to produce, including high end electronics, like the laptop or smart-phone you’re reading this article on, and certain parts for vehicles, such as lithium batteries for EVs. Providing all our everyday products were produced onshore, we could continue to import specialised goods and ride out any import disruptions. Adopting an attitude of repairing goods rather than replacing them would become an important part of our culture, creating more local job opportunities, and resulting in less ending up in our landfills again.
While the localisation of manufacturing could allow Aotearoa to become primarily self- sustaining, we still need to change our economic system so that we can live within an environmentally sustainable level of production and consumption. This is where we really have an opportunity for positive change.
Those of us who aren’t economists probably feel that we lack the authority to make such brazen suggestions, but let’s be honest, the economic status quo, based on constant growth and increased consumption, isn’t working for everyone. It’s making a few people very wealthy, and leaving the majority struggling to get by – just look at our increased homeless population – not to mention the huge toll capitalism is having on our natural world and finite resources.
“But wait!” shouts the cashed-up, retired Boomer, washing their boat in front of their holiday home, “If our economy doesn’t grow, it’ll go backwards, and that will lead to unemployment.” Not necessarily. There is another economic model we could shift to called a Steady State Economy.
Widely accepted to be conceptualised in the 1970s by the ecological economist Herman Daly, a Steady State Economy can refer to the economy of either a region, a nation, or a global economy. The Centre for Advancement of Steady State Economy (CASSE), summarises that a Steady State Economy “…aims for stable or mildly fluctuating levels in population and consumption of energy and materials. Birth rates equal death rates, and production rates equal depreciation rates.”
Before you start fixating on “stable population”, and thinking that we’d have to implement population control measures such as a one-child policy, it’s interesting to note that New Zealand’s natural population isn’t growing at an alarming rate. In the year ended December 2019, there were 59,637 live births and 34,260 deaths registered in Aotearoa, resulting in a natural increase of 25,377 people. While this is obviously a growth in population, the number of births today is influenced by the number of females that were born 20-40 years ago. A more important figure when projecting our future population growth is our Total Fertility Rate, or TFR.
The TFR indicates the average number of children each woman needs to have for a population to be stable in the long term (without migration). With a low infant mortality rate, New Zealand’s replacement level TFR is 2.1 children per woman. However in 2019 our TFR was 1.75 births per woman, and has been below replacement level since 2016.
If New Zealand’s birth rate continues to be lower than the rate of replacement, combined with an overly large generation of Baby Boomers due to depart in 20-30 years, we can assume that our population will steady over the next few decades. Of course this also depends on our migration vs immigration numbers, which could be adjusted to achieve a population balance.
With a steady population employed in a local economy, there is no longer the need to constantly create more jobs, a common excuse for capitalist growth. In a steady state economy jobs are more secure, and local businesses are directly contributing to the local economy, creating thriving communities. People invest locally, and become involved in local entrepreneurship, circulating wealth and resources in their communities, enabling each community to become more connected, self-sustaining and resilient together.
According to Washington University’s project Rethinking Prosperity, who’s aim is to “communicate economic models that work for more people, within planetary boundaries”, achieving a steady state economy would require us to follow four main rules:
- Maintain the health of ecosystems and the life-support services they provide.
2. Extract renewable resources like fish and timber at a rate no faster than they can be regenerated.
3. Consume non-renewable resources like fossil fuels and minerals at a rate no faster than they can be replaced by the discovery of renewable substitutes.
4. Deposit wastes in the environment at a rate no faster than they can safely be assimilated.
Not only is this economic model intrinsically linked with the limits of our ecological systems, it seeks to work with the planet that we inhabit, rather than relentlessly take from it. You don’t have to be a greenie to recognise that continuous economic growth on a planet with finite resources cannot continue for much longer. We have seen the strains our lifestyles have had on our environment for decades, from the plastic waste that is infiltrating every corner of our oceans, the accumulation of climate warming carbon in our atmosphere from the continuous burning of fossil fuels, and the degradation and loss of our soil from damaging fertilisers and over tilling, to name but a few. Economic growth isn’t the answer to all our problems, in fact it creates many of our problems.
Though we are attempting to rectify decades of abusing our planet through green solutions, such as clean energy, regenerative agriculture, and biodegradable consumables, these attempts will never be enough whilst we continue operating within an apparently limitless growth model, driven by supply and demand. The only way to sustain life on this earth for every living being is to change to a model that is driven by the equitable sharing of our environment’s limited resources, which would allow for the rapid implementation of sustainable practices, currently resisted by the global capitalist system.
Once Covid-19 is over, it will be incredibly difficult for capitalism to claw its way back to the way it was. Every country in the world will be drowning in debt from bailouts, and face years of recession in an attempt to recover. Post Covid-19 is our chance to change the failed system corporate greed has been struggling to keep alive, and embrace a new system that benefits us all. A system where were are citizens of this earth, not consumers.
Achieving a Steady State Economy can’t happen over night – first we face a period of de- growth, where we will have to downscale our consumption, and begin to embrace a simpler way of life. Instead of thinking that you’ll be missing out, think of the liberation you can have from no longer buying the lie that more stuff will make you happy. We’ve already begun to break our consumer habits through the pandemic lockdown, so let’s keep up that momentum and vow never to return to our over consuming ways.
Hand-in-hand with a steady state economy is a sharing economy, ensuring there is enough for everyone, and increasing prosperity for all. Though we all live off less, our lives are richer for it, with more time, freedom, and connection with our communities. Yes you can have a work-life balance after all!
If you’re a neo-classical economist I’m sure you’ve picked a hundred flaws in this proposal. I’m not claiming to have all the answers, but rather seek to suggest that neither does our current economic system. We need to question the way we’ve been doing things, and use this opportunity to move towards a more equitable, sustainable, resilient and prosperous eco-system for all.
The only way to rise from the ashes of this catastrophe is to implement a new economic system, one that puts the health and wellbeing of people and the planet first.
Alison is a writer and film director, who seeks to move, challenge and inspire people through her work. She lives on the Coromandel Peninsula with her partner James and their lively 7 yr old. Together they create narrative and documentary films about the relationships between humans and nature, and work to implement positive change for the good of people and our planet.