December 10, 2023

Keeping it local for cyclone recovery

Keeping it local for cyclone recovery

It was local institutions such as churches and marae that provided support and hope to the community after the Auckland floods, and Cyclone Gabrielle also highlighted the importance of connection with others

Opinion: Amid the incomprehensible destruction and tragedy that has unfolded over the past few weeks – first the catastrophic North Island floods and then the apocalyptic scenes left after Cyclone Gabrielle – two glimmerings of a better future have bubbled up among the silt and debris-laden floodwaters.  

That is, the importance of localism and human connection.

Localism has been emphasised by community leaders as they stepped into the breach to support their communities. As mayor of the flood-ravished Tairāwhiti town of Wairoa, Craig Little, put it:

“This is a good wakeup for the country because localism is so important. Because we [the local community] look after each other in a situation like this, when we are cut off from the outside world.”

And in the wake of the Auckland floods, one community leader in Manukau, Colleen Brown, reflected how the community had to take care of itself in the absence of on-the-ground support from Auckland Council. She observed that since the amalgamation of local councils under the monolithic SuperCity, relationships with council have become more bureaucratic, distant and missing that essential ingredient – ‘human connection’. After the floods, it was local institutions such as churches and marae that occupied the void to provide support and hope to the community.

The second recurrent theme has been ‘connectivity’: the critical importance of the communications network to enable people to reach loved ones, to ascertain their wellbeing or reassure them of their own wellbeing. This became the burning priority for many.


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But these disasters also brought to the fore the importance of connection with others within the community – those who offered care and support at a time of vulnerability – and just how important these relationships are. At the root of this is the fact that, once we strip all the material clutter of our lives away, it is this human connection that most people yearn for, especially in times of difficulty. Again, straight-talking farmer-turned-mayor (himself badly affected by the floods) Craig Little captured this when he said three days after the cyclone hit:

“The number one thing to get on top of is our people’s wellbeing. These people need to be loved. And the love we are sending out in bucket loads today to see how we can help.”

And he is backed by the research. A long-running Harvard study following hundreds of men since 1938 found that the number one secret to happiness was not wealth or privilege, it is the strength of close relationships – partners, family, friends and social circles. In our efforts to progress in life – to earn more, to buy more and ‘better’ stuff to satisfy our every whim – we seem to have forgotten this.

As recovery progresses, discussion is inevitably turning to how we need to rebuild the towns, cities and rural areas that have suffered such colossal damage and heart-breaking loss. Unsurprisingly, the emphasis is on infrastructure – ‘building back better’. Higher stopbanks, bigger stormwater drains, better roads and stronger bridges, alongside managed retreat in places that are no longer safe to live.

But what about building back communities that are truly resilient and self-reliant in good times and in bad? Building back what we had, just with bigger stormwater pipes, is simply not going to stand up to a future buffeted not just by climate change, but also by ecological collapse and energy descent (the reduction of our total energy consumption).

My previous article A pathway out of environmental collapse introduced some of the policies that our government might implement at a national level to move our economic system towards one that has human and planetary wellbeing rather than exponential growth at its centre.

This article will explore some of the elements of truly resilient, wellbeing-centred communities and what we need to do to realise them.

But first let’s understand what our communities are missing today. It is vital not to romanticise the past, which was often a brutal place for those with no power, land or wealth. However, communities were once self-sufficient, self-regulating systems; they relied on what was produced locally to sustain people, livelihoods and the local economy. This included food, water, clothing, housing, entertainment and of course energy. The economy was circular – because it had to be.

However, through the colonisation, industrialisation and especially since the explosion of the growth-oriented economy powered by fossil fuels, communities’ ability to provide for themselves using local land and resources (often referred to as the commons) has been undermined by the overwhelming forces of the growth-oriented capitalist economy, pulling any last vestiges of self-reliance into its orbit.

Let’s take our food system as an example. In the 1980s there were about 24,500 food growers in New Zealand, producing a wide range of fruit and vegetables grown in the places best suited to these crops. Today, fewer than 900 growers remain and the diversity of produce has much reduced, with the supply of some produce concentrated in one or two areas. These changes have been due to all-powerful market forces – it is far more lucrative to subdivide horticultural land for residential development or to convert less profitable but more sustainable mixed farming to dairy. Not only has our food system become less diverse and sustainable as it has become increasingly industrialised and export-oriented, but a significant proportion of our food is now imported, including such staples as wheat.

Our ability to be nutritionally self-reliant – at household, community, regional and, indeed, the national level – has become much diminished. Whereas only a generation ago having a vegetable garden and a few fruit trees was commonplace in most household gardens, today a large proportion of New Zealanders would not have the wherewithal to grow their own food even if they had the space or time. Today, the source of the vast majority of New Zealanders’ food comes from a supermarket duopoly.

Social historians and some economists describe what has happened here as the extension of the process of ‘enclosure’, the systematic and state-sponsored removal of access to common land and resources that sustained ‘commoners’ – rights that were protected under common law until the pre-industrial age. Today, the idea of the commons is often extended to all natural resources – our land, forests, freshwaters, oceans and air.

Only system-wide change will enable us to downscale our economy in time to have any chance of averting catastrophe.

Against the tide of ‘enclosure’, we have seen movements spring up to rebuild local resilience and self-sufficiency – such as the Transition Towns movement. And there are countless other ground-up initiatives mushrooming throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, including community gardens, repair cafés (a practical offshoot of the right-to-repair movement), papakāinga and co-housing initiatives (encouraging intergenerational living in which resources, knowledge and skills are shared), local energy generation initiatives, and community-based recycling and re-use initiatives.

In some places, the ‘village green’ is being nurtured back into life – a place for the community to gather, connect, and experience carnival and conviviality, central ideas promoted by post-growth economist David Fleming. Even the likes of the MENZSHED network – an unlikely bastion of radicalism – supports so much of what degrowth advocates promote: the re-use of materials, the exchange of knowledge and skills, and that all-important social connection.

But there is a limit to what can be done from the ground up within an economic system that is incessantly pulling at the loose threads of these initiatives, invariably run on the smell of an oily rag by volunteers. This ensures these endeavours and their networks are never able to grow roots big or strong enough to displace the all-pervasive system that exhorts us to buy more, consume more and waste more.

As these catastrophic weather events have shown us, our communities – including our biggest city, for all its edifices of concrete and steel – are hopelessly vulnerable: they are like helpless, naked baby birds wholly reliant on their parents to bring them the sustenance they need to survive

Yet there is a growing realisation that to make the transition to a low-carbon economy quickly enough to slow the accelerating effects of climate change and ecological breakdown, we must reduce our impact on the planet by consuming less, now. Isolated pockets of change, including the much-vaunted ‘behaviour change’ by the individual (which sits so comfortably within a neoliberal mindset) will not be enough. Only system-wide change will enable us to downscale our economy in time to have any chance of averting catastrophe.

So what does this mean? What can we do, practically?

Aside from supporting any local initiatives that aim to build authentic resilience and connection in our communities, we need to urge our local councils to wake up to the reality of energy descent and urge them to explore alternative economic models that put human and ecological wellbeing at the centre. In Europe, city governments such as Amsterdam and Barcelona are doing just this, through their implementation of Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics model. Here in Aotearoa, Dunedin City is also applying the model to its planning for the future.

Of course, councils will protest that they ‘do not have all the levers’ to make these changes – these lie with central government. While this is absolutely true, it is also a cop out. Local councils have the mandate and responsibility to advocate on behalf of their communities. If the right settings are not in place to enable communities to make the fundamental shifts we need to make, then our local representatives need to urge central government to change the settings.

These measures are likely to include the policies introduced in my previous article, but also ones that specifically enhance local resilience and self-sufficiency, including targeted government investment in local renewable energy projects, circular economy initiatives (not just waste minimisation), as well as more general policies that will create the right conditions for people to become more involved in wellbeing-enhancing initiatives in their communities (eg implementation of a four-day week, Universal Basic Income).

Localised job and training subsidies would enable people to contribute to a regenerative economy – for example, restoring wetland and estuarine ecosystems, which will be so critical as a natural buffer against future extreme rain events. Central government also needs to undertake the incremental removal of subsidies and settings that support industries that operate in ways that harm the environment and human wellbeing, creating niches for social-good enterprises to occupy at a local level.

The second rebuff will no doubt be ‘But what if our community does not want to make this kind of transition?’ This is a reasonable question, to which the obvious response is, ‘Then our communities need to be made aware of the realities of energy and material descent, climate crisis and ecological breakdown hurtling towards us, and yes, that is your job too.’ (Section 10(1) of the Local Government Act states that it is the purpose of local government ‘to promote the social, economic, environmental, and cultural wellbeing of communities in the present and for the future.)

As these catastrophic weather events have shown us, our communities – including our biggest city, for all its edifices of concrete and steel – are hopelessly vulnerable: they are like helpless, naked baby birds wholly reliant on their parents to bring them the sustenance they need to survive. But what if their mother can no longer get to them, what if their nest blows out of the tree? Here the analogy ends, because unlike our hapless nestlings, this is not a condition that must be accepted as ‘nature’. This helplessness has been created over a long period of colonisation, industrialisation and enclosure – processes that will continue if unchecked.

We need to start taking the commons back, nurturing our ability to sustain our communities in good times and in bad. And if this and future governments want to avoid racking up mountains of crippling debt to ‘build back better’ over and again, it is in its interests to support our communities to build true resilience and prepare for a future where connection to people and place will be all the more important.

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