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Sustainability: All we need is a revolution…

Aaron Packard



Ever since I was a little kid I was promised a sustainable future. But when it arrived in the mail a few days ago, I discovered that it’s all bullshit. I am now a broken man. There is also the fact that I recently found out that Father Christmas doesn’t actually exist, all this time it’s actually been my mum and dad! But fight on we must, so I’ve come up with a plan to get back the sustainable future I always dreamt of. But first lets discover why our sustainable future, as it is now, amounts to little more than a smouldering mound of rubble.
The word ‘sustainable’ is an environmental ‘buzz-word’, a very overused term that can be interpreted weakly, strongly or anywhere in between for convenience. The UN version of sustainable development is: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The crux of the argument is that we need to share our sweet cherry pie around, and save some slices for later.
While much progress has been made since the idea of sustainable development was first introduced onto the world stage in 1987 (with the UN sponsored Bruntland Commission) it has proved immensely hard to implement widely. New Zealand is supposedly the perfect crash test dummy for ‘sustainable development’ – a relatively small and affluent population, with a plethora of natural resources. However this has proved to be bullshit; little of New Zealand is left clean and green.
Since the creation of the earth roughly 3.8 billion years ago, astounding quantities of natural capital – be it crude oil, coal, or gold – have built up. There is not a shortage of resources; it is about how and at what rate we use this natural capital. Effectively managing our resource use and reuse is what underlines the idea of sustainability.
Our current resource use is immensely wasteful. Take for example a Tui can, made of aluminium. You hold it in your hand for a mere minute as you chop it back. Then you might hiff it in a nearby patch of bush, or if you give a crap, you might put it in the city council bin. Off it goes to the tip to join the mass of what could have been reused or recycled trash. So how much effort went into that can – as opposed to the liquid gold within it?
New Zealand has the largest aluminium smelter in the Southern Hemisphere, at Tiwai Point, way down in Bluff. It just so happens to be the biggest user of electricity in the country (using 15% of NZ’s total) – the entire Manapouri dam only just provides enough power to meet its needs! Bauxite is the raw material from which we get our beer can. Every ton of bauxite goes through intense refinement and eventually ends up as ton of aluminium metal, which is then further processed (including being heated to 900ºC) and then punched into can shapes. The moral of the story is that the can is far more resource intensive and wasteful than the beer itself – which uses a fraction of the resources. But we buy the product for the beer, not the can. Isn’t that a little fucked up?
In England for example, 84% of all cans are sent to the dump. This has been worked out by some waste nerd who also worked out that the overall rate of aluminium waste, after counting production losses, is 88%. It is 20 times more energy intensive to produce a can from raw material than to make it from recycled cans. Yet under our current political and economic system there is little incentive or infrastructure for this to happen.
Waste is part of our daily lives – traffic jams are a perfect example of waste – not only are hundreds of cars sitting there, burning fuel, but so too are the hundreds of passengers wasting their time. When one person drives their car, they are driving a 1200kg unit that uses the majority of the fuel to move itself, and just a fraction to move the driver. The AA have worked out that it costs 88c per kilometre to drive a car. That is six times higher than most people perceive the costs to be. This includes the costs of road maintenance, fuel, insurance, registration, pollution, and the exorbitant costs incurred by road accidents. To take a train is just 40c, and a bus just 48c per kilometre. Makes you think doesn’t it. Well if only our university really gave a toss.
The United States is the world’s most wasteful country – its total waste per annum exceeds 50 trillion pounds (to count to 50 trillion at the rate of one per second would require the entire lifetimes of 24,000 people!). New Zealand is lucky that we have such a low population density. However, if everyone in the world lived like us, we would require two planets.
Enough of the disturbing facts what can we do as students of this university?
There is already incredible technology that can make products that are designed for longevity and for post-consumer reuse or recycling. There are oodles of really smart and energy efficient options available – they are just too expensive up against the mainstream options. Our economy relies on cheap resources that do not reflect the true cost of production. Instead the environment subsidises our way of life.
At some stage all this subsidisation is going to compound and surely the sky will fall on our heads. And I haven’t sat through hours of lectures not to know that everything on this planet is interconnected – and we are a part of it – sitting there in our car contributes to and amplifies climate change. Not only do we have to change our ways, but we got to fight the system, (wo)man!
Resource use/abuse is the underlying factor of all environmental problems. This issue goes far beyond the call of environmentalists – it is the defining issue of our generation, the ultimate cause of climate change. Students are those who have to act. You know that as soon as you start your career, you are unlikely to do anything out of the norm. As things are going now, there will never be a move to true sustainability. As the future of New Zealand, and before you start a career, we need to make the changes that every generation before us has hoped for (but as yet failed to achieve). It is our right to get angry and throw shit around.
The government is unlikely to make any of these radical changes. The current government lives too much in the fear of big business. In what is typical of the Labour government’s attitude, the Minister for Climate Change, David Parker said that “there is no connection between building roads and climate change”. So it is up to us!
1. We need a revolutionary mascot
2. It’s got to involve lots of raging students
3. It’s got to be top secret (initially)
4. We’ve got to recruit and filter for possible defectors
5. It’s got to start local…meet in the quad at 12pm on Wednesday 26th July… that gives you a good week to prepare some banners. And spread the word… tag it on the streets!