“Uncivilising ourselves from our destructive civilisation and building something new is the great, undefined, creative challenge we face in the coming decades – which is a challenge both of opposition and renewal”.
Samual Alexander, Pg. X, Prosperous Descent, 2015.
I started looking into the future of Tāmaki Makaurau around 10 years ago. In 2010, my colleagues and I wrote a submission to the first draft of the Auckland Plan - Auckland Unleashed. A copy of our submission, with some minor amendments for grammar and clarity can be found here. The Auckland Plan was intended to be a comprehensive vision for the newly formed ‘Super City’ that would shape the city and region for the next 40 years. Our submission challenged the drive to being an internationally competitive city and the assumption that ongoing economic growth is desirable and a necessary precondition for our quality of life. We also critiqued the draft plan, on the grounds that it didn’t address the scale and range of global and local trends that will shape Auckland over the coming decades - economic uncertainty, climate change, energy and resource depletion, and increasing social inequality and instability. As the Samueal Alexander quote suggests above, our submission to the draft Auckland Plan was “a challenge both of opposition and renewal”.
We proposed a vision for a resilient and regenerative city that was grounded in the productive potential of the natural, social and cultural capital of Auckland while respecting the limitations and carrying capacity of our bioregion.
This vision was presented through twelve recommendations that included:
- Genuine Progress Indicators (GPIs) as a means of measuring progress rather than Gross Domestic Product, which only measures the circulation of financial capital and does not address environmental, social and cultural outcomes;
- Establishing a task force dedicated to better understanding the combined challenges of peak oil and climate change and establishing mechanisms for fostering and supporting grass roots initiatives to empower community development and build resilience;
- Creating a regenerative green infrastructure network of forests and wetlands to cover 20% of the Auckland bioregion to ensure the ongoing viability and functioning of our ecosystems and to support a range of production and recreation opportunities;
- Radically restructuring our built environment, rural landscapes, transport infrastructure and other forms of centralised infrastructure, including waste water and resource flows toward a human scale that is not reliant on fossil fuels to function;
- Developing a bioregional economy that systematically substitutes imports into Auckland with local production, manufacture and services and utilizes Auckland’s own raw materials, goods, services and expertise to enlarge local markets and increase the number and types of local jobs; and
- Developing strategies toward being an agile city that is responsive to the ongoing challenges of climate change - increased flooding, drought and coastal inundation.
At the time, our submission received attention and interest from a range of decision makers and elected members. We were invited to present to a select group, who included the Deputy Mayor and the Head of Planning. We were partnered with the councillor holding the environmental portfolio for the region to work with them to help coordinate an event - an event that would provide the platform to explore some of the ideas laid out in our submission.
You will of course not remember the event, because it never happened. As it turned out, the event was only vaguely mapped out, the global financial crisis of 2007 - 2009 was becoming a fading memory and priorities were changing. Economic growth was becoming the order of the day once again and in 2012 the new Auckland Plan was adopted and Auckland was to become “the world's most livable city”.
Fast forward ten years... The Auckland Plan has been reviewed and updated and in June 2018 Auckland Council adopted the Auckland Plan 2050 (Auckland Plan). The updated plan is more rounded than its predecessor. Amongst other things, the new plan has a wide range of desired outcomes and indicators covering economic, environmental, social and cultural outcomes. But the same underlying assumptions plague the new plan.
While not as explicit as the 2012 plan, the Auckland Plan still assumes that perpetual ‘progress’ is inevitable and desirable and that economic growth is a precondition to prosperity.
This is evident in the Auckland Plan’s reference to The Fourth Industrial Revolution. In case you missed the first three - the First Industrial Revolution started toward the end of the 18th century with the mechanisation of industry and the increasing use of fossil carbon for fuel, namely coal. The Second Industrial Revolution started midway through the 19th Century and saw the development and adoption of technologies that exploited oil and gas as well as electricity - the internal combustion engine, synthetic chemicals, the telegraph and the telephone, the car and later the aeroplane. The Third Industrial Revolution started after the Second World War with further development of electronics, telecommunications and the first centralised computers, the emergence of biotechnology, and later personal computers and the internet. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is assumed to be just as disruptive. This time we will see the convergence and ubiquitous integration of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnologies in ways that will radically change the way we make things, how we consume, move around, interact with one another, generate energy and even the way we think and behave .
This is problematic on several levels. For example, the Auckland Plan presents five ‘scenarios’ that explore the future of Auckland. None of the assumptions on which these scenarios are based have been articulated, but the biases and blindspots which inform them are revealing. While artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and biotechnology will continue to have a profound effect on our lives, proponents of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and by extension the Auckland Plan, never engage in any meaningful way with the equally profound effect ecological overshoot, excessive complexity, and resource constraints, particularly the fossil hydrocarbons oil, coal and gas are likely to have on our lives over the 21st Century.
For example, in one of the few references to energy, the Auckland Plan states that “The majority of energy used in Auckland comes from a distance, with petrol, diesel and jet fuel from Northland via the Refinery Auckland Pipeline and electricity via Transpower’s national network” . Sorry what?
Saying we get our petrol, diesel and jet fuel from Northland is a bit like saying we get our milk from the fridge.
It’s true if you still have someone buying your food for you, but for most people, no matter what type of milk you drink, milk comes from a farm. Auckland gets its fossil carbons from Northland… via an increasingly volatile global energy market. New Zealand is a net energy importer with approximately 60% of New Zealand's energy coming from fossil hydrocarbons .
In 2017, New Zealand mined 11.3 million barrels of oil while the Marsden Point refinery refined 41.7 million barrels of imported oil . 60% of this oil came from the Middle East, 36% from South East Asia, 3% from Russia and 1% from Australia - not from “Northland”. A majority of this oil, approximately 80%, is used in the transport sector which accounts for about 40% of national energy demand. Of the oil used for transport 50.8% is for heavy tracks; 26.6% is for light tracks, vans and utilities; 15.8% is for cars and passenger vehicles; 3.5 % is for buses and 3.2% is for rail. While Auckland has been making improvements to public transport and cycling infrastructure, these investments only affect the 15.8% used for cars and passenger vehicles. As author of When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation, Alice Friedemann reminds us - trucks, ships and freight trains don’t run on electricity . This leaves the 77.4% of fuel used by the heavy and light vehicles to move the stuff we consume and throw away between ports, distribution, shops, homes, recycling centres landfill etc, relatively untouched by Auckland’s Plan for 2050.
The Auckland Plan links to Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: Auckland's Climate Plan for direction on Auckland's “decentralised renewable energy” future. Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri proposes phasing out fossil fuel energy sources between 2023 and 2030 and replacing it with “feasible and localised renewable energy options, such as hydrogen, wind and solar power” . To say this is unconvincing is a significant understatement.
While we might have one of the world's leading renewable electricity networks, we are also deeply dependent on oil, an energy source that we have little to no influence on, no way of replacing this energy with domestic stocks , no strategies for updating the industries and technologies that are currently dependent on this energy source and no meaningful plan to seriously address this challenge .
This may seem like nitpicking, but as I will continue to revisit over the coming posts, energy is one of several blind spots that the Auckland Plan has overlooked but is relying on to meet the challenges of the future while delivering prosperity to its residents. Unfortunately, in absence of this analysis the future scenarios explored as part of the Auckland Plan read more like thought experiments than serious explorations into Auckland's future. It is concerning that the guiding document for the Auckland bioregion 10 years on is still devoid of serious critical analysis or understanding of the fundamental system drivers that are going to shape our bioregion over the next 30 years.
As an antidote to the shortcomings of Auckland’s Plan for 2050, I am going to continue the project we started 10 years ago - a Dark Green Vision for Tāmaki Makaurau that shifts the focus from a “globally competitive city” towards a “bioregional settlement”.
Let’s take a quick pause to define these competing visions for Auckland. Where a globally competitive city seeks to participate and compete with other cities and centres for global capital in order to reap the benefits gained from ongoing economic growth, economic growth that is reliant on the energy and resources from other times and places . A bioregional settlement is shaped by the biocapacity and carrying capacity of the place it is embedded so that current and future generations have sovereignty over the ecological foundation on which they depend to build a prosperous localised economy in a healthy environment. Where a globally competitive city seeks quantitative increases in material consumption, a bioregional settlement seeks qualitative improvements with reducing, then stabilizing material consumption.
In returning to the project we started ten years ago, I am going to revisit the global and local challenges that are likely to shape Auckland now and in the future and dive deeper into Auckland's history to better understand it’s inherent wealth and potential. From here I am going to explore contemporary and traditional responses that shine a light on the ideas, strategies, practices and behaviors that will help Tāmaki Makaurau navigate the 21st century in a way that maintains a quality of life for Aucklanders while embracing the inevitable changes we will need make individually and together.
I invite others to contribute and I will ask my colleagues to collaborate to help paint a picture for a realistic future for Auckland.
A future that is elusive to the conventional wisdom of the day which assumes ongoing economic growth and uninterrupted human progress, to revisit the Samuel Alexander quote that I began this essay with:
“Together we must write a new future, a task that has already begun as individuals and communities begin to build the new world within the shell of the old. But this new future must look radically different from the past if the crises we face are to be tolerably resolved. There are no prizes, of course, for being the most ‘radical’ theorist or movement, yet if evidence, ethical reflection, and logic all demand a radical position, then as a matter of intellectual integrity, radical we must be – even if it is unclear why a position should be called ‘radical’ if the forces of reason and evidence are on our side. Such is the state of things”.
Samual Alexander, Pg. X, Prosperous Descent, 2015.
- The World Economic Forum. The Global Competitiveness Report, 2016–2017. Referenced in the Auckland Plan 2050 - page 190.
- Page 13, The Auckland Plan 2050.
- Energy in New Zealand 18, New Zealand Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.
- Middle East: United Arab Emirates (44%), Saudi Arabia (5%), Qatar (3%), Abu Dhabi (2%), Kuwait (1%), ‘other’ Middle East (5%). South East Asia: Singapore (24%), Malaysia (12%). Energy in New Zealand 18, New Zealand Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.
- Alice Friedemann, 2015 - When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation.
- As of 1st January 2019, New Zealand has approximately 71 million barrels remaining of the 600 ultimately recoverable barrels from proven and probable reserves - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_and_gas_industry_in_New_Zealand
- If you only ever read one article about energy, I recommend this one by Post Carbon Institute fellow Richard Heinberg - Our Renewable Future - https://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-01-21/our-renewable-future/
- Described as fossil acreage and ghost acreage by William Catton in his seminal book, Overshoot - The Ecological basis of Evolutionary Change. From the glossary: Fossil acreage - The additional farmland a given nation would need in order to supply organic fuel equivalent to the coal, petroleum, or natural gas products it now uses. Ghost acreage - The additional farmland a given nation would need in order to supply that net portion of the food or fuel it uses but does not obtain from contemporary growth of organisms within its borders - e.g. from net imports of agricultural products, from oceanic fishers, from fossil fuels.