In a time of governance failure, citizens’ powerful imagination will be a much-needed boost

Photo credit: “My life through a lens” on Unsplash.

(This article was first published 27 June 2019 at

On June 27, Whangārei residents (led by local group Extinction Rebellion) were the latest to publicly address a meeting of their District Council and make an impassioned call to declare a climate emergency.

Affected citizens are optimistic that in the near future their ongoing lobbying will see WDC agree to adopt the declaration.

Systemic transformation vs change ‘lite’

In the meantime, the public WDC meeting also provided valuable insights into what political and governance barriers exist to creating urgent, meaningful action to mitigate and adapt to the worst effects of climate crisis. 

By coincidence that same day, WDC happened to consider a late Agenda item concerning its submission to the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill.  Aligned with Extinction Rebellion’s statement about the need for a 2025 timeline to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, Councillors debated the merits of calling on the New Zealand Government to bring its emission target forward to the year 2030.

Over the course of the debate, and to their credit, Councillors displayed a firm appreciation of the gravity of our climate predicament.  However, despite this understanding, there was still concern with at least two systemic level problems which, it became clear, will need to be resolved if a comprehensive and highly integrated ‘whole of society’ response to our climate emergency can be implemented.

Transforming how we do resource management

The first relates to legislative failure. The Resource Management Act was raised as a prime example.  Having been exposed as utterly incapable of preventing runaway ecosystem and environmental decline, we can only assume that the RMA will fail spectacularly under the added pressure of climate crisis. 

And we haven’t even begun to factor in the complexities of Trade Agreements which further hamstring Governments and intimidate political leadership into watering down what might otherwise be effective environment protection law.

Aotearoa will need a radically transformed, coherent and well-resourced constitutional and legislative framework that actually puts environmental values first and enforces a precautionary approach to environmental management.  In other words, reduced weight must be given to harmful economic growth and development (especially highly industrialised and extractive activity) which has been a key driving force of environmental and / or social destruction.  Many argue we must go even further, and that our 6th mass extinction Age requires a regime that enforces environmental regeneration.

Where’s the money coming from?

Second, Councillors questioned how all the climate mitigation and adaptation action would be funded, recognizing that it would be unfair and unaffordable for local residents to bear the burden of those costs.

This bleeds into a policy issue, the discussion of which has long-persisted in society, and is gaining momentum as the gap between the have’s and the have not’s in Aotearoa grows ever-wider: equitable wealth distribution. 

While some Councillors advocated more central Government funding for local level climate action, they had to admit that local residents will still inevitably pay through their taxes.  So as the need for climate response becomes more urgent, where will all the cash come from to pay for all these new local government liabilities?

Time to imagine beyond ‘what is’

Climate crisis is so unprecedented, for many it’s incomprehensible. But as much as we hate thinking about such an intensely bleak scenario to motivate us to creative thought and action, recidivist climate procrastination and more inertia is surely no answer.

So how will we create a significantly improved political climate action environment to support much-needed grassroots initiatives? 

We use our imagination.

It’s easy for a conversation to grind to a halt when all the options for optimising conventional political, legislative and economic spaces appear to have been exhausted, and there’s no-where left to go.

Except, outside the box.

And, believe it or not, what’s outside the box may be more familiar than you think.  Remember when merchants insisted that ending slavery would bring down the economy, but radical legislation was finally passed – and the economy went on to thrive?  Remember in World War times when New Zealand families and communities as a nation made huge sacrifices to mobilise for the war effort?  Remember in the depression era when President Roosevelt in the United States raised taxes on the wealth of the super-rich to pay for ‘New Deal’ programs that offered relief to those in poverty? Remember when American banks were bailed out to the tune of billions of dollars in 2008 during the Global Financial Crisis? Know about the trillions of USD$ Pentagon spending that no-one can even account for? Are you aware that money’s just a fiction created out of nothing (so New Zealand could create as much as we want)?

I’m not saying outside the box is easy. In fact, if it were, everyone would be out there solving our climate crisis now, right?  We may also assume that, as with all change, there’ll be resistance to switching to a new way of doing things – especially by those interests who stand to lose power in the reconfiguration of that ‘new world’. 

But the alternative of societal and environmental collapse is, let’s be honest, way worse than dealing with selfish or insane interests who would might spit the dummy.

So let’s not delay: it’s time to put our thinking caps on, and start imagining.

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