Unsustainable dairy

I have often wondered how long the dairy boom around the world could be sustained. In New Zealand an industry that contributes more than N.Z.$13 billion to the economy, employs tens of thousands of people working across a myriad of industries as diverse as farming, banking, irrigation supplies, processing companies and transportation, experienced a golden period between about 2004-2012. It was driven by a combination of good prices, steadily increasing demand both abroad and overseas and assisted by friendly Government. Three years after the boom ended I am wondering if more serious symptoms than those identified could be to blame.

Before we look at the potentially more serious problems, let us first examine the known ones. Dairy, important as it is to New Zealand, is not everything and I have always thought it wrong that so much of our available resources are being tied up in it. Two major crises in the last couple of years have made this really stand out:

  • A drought that has just about brought some farmers in north Canterbury to their knees, and thus shown that climate and the environment really do have bigger impact than some in the farming community have admitted
  • The parlous state of the global economy, with substantial slow downs in the economies of some of our biggest trading partners

A dairy farm is as much a potential lifetime investment as it is a potential way of life. When farms convert to dairying, it is more than just removing the other livestock or changing from cropping to livestock – removing boundary fences, vegetation and making sure that streams are fenced off, setting up milk sheds and developing irrigation all need to be done. On top of that, getting ground water/surface water dam/diversion consent to use fresh water needs to be applied for. Because of the high pressure on fresh water resources, there is no guarantee that the consent will be granted or that if it is, it will be what one wants.

Farmers say that the continuing slump in dairy prices has taken them by surprise. Perhaps that is because years of overlooked unsustainable development in the industry world wide is playing hard ball catch up. Perhaps the slow down in various major economies around the world has also reduced demand. For it is not just in New Zealand that dairy is becoming unsustainable. In the United States the metric tonnage of milk product going to waste simply because there is not enough demand for it is increasing substantially.

But perhaps in the long term more sinister environmental issues could be at work. It is well known that irrigation is reliant on a reliable water source – usually ground water or surface water taken from a river. If climate change is really becoming more severe as the International Panel on Climate Change suggests, then droughts in New Zealand could become longer and individual events could be more frequent and possibly more intense. Dairy farmers complain as it is when we have a drought. I wonder how more much pain droughts of the sort that have given north Canterbury farmers so much grief would cause were current predictions of a 2°C rise to come true.

And even before that, how long will it be before the cost of declining fresh water quality starts biting. It will. Many streams, rivers and surface fresh water bodies are considered to be under severe duress right now – something that despite growing pressure and awareness looks set to worsen.

The price of suicide

There is no doubt that for the families, friends and colleagues of people who commit suicide it is an absolutely dreadful thing. It leaves them to do soul searching of a kind that might never find an adequate answer, and which possibly only the deceased could answer.

Suicide can be caused by a host of problems. And a wide spectrum of age brackets experience it. A good example is at youth level. Here peer pressure to be like others, or coming from an unstable family background where there is not much parental or guardian input into ones life, are major causes. Another major problem is bullying, whose damage might not fully display itself until one reaches adulthood where they might find it difficult to comply with the social norms and may become a sort of outcast.

At adult level it could be a whole range of causes, from failure to provide for family or disintegration of family unit, depression that was perhaps caused by loss of employment. Particularly vulnerable are those in isolated farming communities where issues such as drought, crop failure or economic viability of a farm can all cause financial and personal crises. Others in high pressure sections of employment such as banking or those who have served in the military and saw combat or other events that traumatized them.

The cost to society from suicide is substantial. In 2002, the estimated cost to New Zealand society from acts of suicide was almost N.Z.$1.4 billion.

In Japan there is a forest at the foot of Mt Fujiyama, which for reasons not well understood, has seen over 100 people commit suicide. So many have done so that it is now patrolled by volunteers in order to prevent its grisly toll increasing. Japan has a very high suicide rate that despite regular publicity over the years has in no way seemed to diminish. The Japanese Government seems reluctant to address the issue. A major portion of suicides stem form just two groups of people:

  • Students who feel societal pressures to perform well and get good jobs so that they may look after their parents and grandparents
  • Men, especially middle aged men who have lost their jobs for one reason or another – a certain stigma seems to be attached to losing a job in Japan, with reports that in one location men who are unemployed will get up and go to work, except that instead of going to work, they go and loiter around a park to hide their shame

As shown in Japan, certain behaviours might be an indicator of potential harm, such as hikikomori – a person that seems to withdraw from view, often for the same or similar reasons as the causes of suicide. But it is the socio-economic reasons in Japan, as well as some cultural ones, that seem to highlight the problem most clearly. One is that not being a Christian nation with high emphasis on life, suicide is not seen in a negative light. This is highlighted by the samurai practice of seppuku, or the kamikaze pilots who deliberately crashed into Allied warships during 1944-1945. And in a rule oriented society, complaining or otherwise showing ones true feelings is discouraged.

If the cost in New Zealand of suicide is so high, one can only guess how much – despite cultural and socio-economic differences – it must cost Japan.


Politics of fear defeat democracy

Recently I have seen some acts around the world that I have had a very hard time reconciling with the Governments of supposedly democratic nations. One of these acts was the recent threat by the Australian Government to jail medical professionals who speak out over the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Even harder though was accepting the rationale for doing so – I simply refuse to, and this is why.

I am very pleased that I live in New Zealand, a country where Government has not yet succumbed to the politics of fear, though the Government of Prime Minister John Key shows an increasingly high risk of doing so. Not so lucky are nations that normally espouse democracy, such as Canada, the United States, Britain and Australia. Following the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 all of these nations passed law to strengthen the hand of the State in dealing with terrorism. Whilst New Zealand did as well, a combination of geographical factors and a cool public reaction to the “war on terrorism”, meant that the drums beating of the call to arms was not answered with the same enthusiasm.

These nations are also perhaps more deeply in the grip of the Rupert Murdoch-influenced news media, which constantly runs a xenophobic theme of black lawlessness, Muslim terrorists that contrasts starkly with a white law abiding, God respecting hard working society. Fox News in the United States is particularly bad at doing this. Mr Murdochs media interests however exist also in Britain, where he runs News Corp, New Zealand where Fairfax Media used to be owned by Mr Murdoch and Australia where he has been associated with Sky News. The Murdoch media are often quite virulent in their attack on the political opposition as evidenced by their support for Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott at the last Australian election.

To me, the politics of fear is as damaging to the well being of a nation as an actual attack on it. To pass an agenda that permits wars to be fought, enables suppression of human rights to occur, one needs a population that is scared. To make the population scared, one needs an enemy – the question is whether it is a potentially fake enemy, or one that exists but is grossly exaggerated. It needs to have a national security apparatus that is on a constant state of alert with regular threats – fake or otherwise – being reported. To show his Government’s support for defeating the enemy, about which he is not very exact, Mr Abbott is constantly shown on television by sympathetic media beating the drum of national security and Australians are falling for it.

This is what Tony Abbott is doing in Australia with refugees being imprisoned at detention centres. Mr Abbott claims that they are a threat to Australian society and security. He claims that the best way to stop the boat people is to turn them around on the high seas, whilst ignoring and even trying to silence the numerous critics that are springing up and who are as diverse as human rights activists, medical professionals, social workers and Opposition Members of Parliament.

This is not the work of Governments that genuinely want a more socially stable society, but that of those Governments which have a deep and abiding distrust of anyone with a different agenda. We should be scared.


Flogging off New Zealand housing

It seems almost too outrageous to be true. An event that lends credence to the claims of New Zealand First leader Winston Peters that New Zealand is being sold off to the highest bidder, in the most literal sense, will happen if Parliament pass legislation to permit the sale of state owned housing to Australians.

The New Zealand Government says it is going to be selling state housing, bypassing the agency nominally responsible for such activity – Housing New Zealand – completely. In the most literal sense, the National led Government of John Key is selling off New Zealand. The arrogance is astonishing. But right before our eyes in the New Zealand Parliament, the Minister of Social Housing is bringing legislation that will seek to permit exactly that. But not only is the legislation proposing to do that, it is also proposing that land acquired under the Public Works Act cannot be sold back to the original owner.

The Minister of Social Housing, Paula Bennett, claims that the rights of refusal held by Iwi still exist. She says that it simply clarifies that the provisions of the Public Works Act have never permitted the handing back of state housing properties to the original owner. Ms Bennett insists that it is quite difficult to arrange the transfer of specific properties.

But why is she wanting to arrange a transfer, and of what properties?

To me this is a Ministerial power grab. It is not about clarifying provisions in an Act of Parliament. It is not about improving the regulation of the New Zealand state housing stock in any way. It is about the growing housing crises caused by a combination of the Government not wanting to intervene in the market, the market being overheated by outside interests to the point it might soon have a meltdown and no long term plan for the sustainable development of the residential market.

An old Garrick Tremain cartoon depicting an earlier Government letting investors tunnel their way into New Zealand without the public’s knowledge comes to mind….


National’s transport priorities messed up

Today, the Government announced a $13.9 billion plan to invest very heavily in road transport. Such announcements are rare in terms of the amount of funding that is made available and the scope over which that funding can be used. There was one when National first came to office that laid down the idea of R.O.N.S. But, despite New Zealand First’s best attempts, no one covered the announcement by N.Z.F. Member of Parliament Denis O’Rourke that N.Z.F. had conceived an alternative rail-based policy.

This plan is simply daft in so many different ways, not least because it shows a HUGE bias in favour of road transport. It is also biased in that it seems to promote an unhealthy reliance on a road network that is constrained in ways National simply refuse to recognize in terms of physical geography and the population distribution of New Zealand.

How many of these so called roads of national significance do we actually need? I wonder somedays whether ressurrecting a rail link between Nelson and Picton would not be better. Or one down to Westport that can take passengers and freight. How much could it take off the road? Could it assist the Port of Nelson?

I flat refuse to support this. It is hugely messed up and in terms of spending priorities we should be:

  • Vastly expanding the merchant marine – we are a maritime nation and should be taking maximum advantage of what this means for transport
  • Invest in sustainable fuel options for merchant marine; buses and trains
  • Assist any Port that has plans for heavy dry docking facilities so that when ships are in need of maintenance and/or repair, they do not have to travel thousands of kilometres for it to be done
  • Investigating the feasibility or either a rail link connecting Nelson with the main trunk line or feeding into the West Coast line; restoring Napier-Gisborne line and/or investigate feasbility of a route to Whakatane
  • Restoring the Southerner rail service between Invercargill and Christchurch as a daily or weekday service; restoring equivalent service in North Island if necessary
  • Ending R.O.N.S. (Roads of national significance), and replacing it with R.O.N.I. (railways of national importance); redirecting the remaining road funding to roads of regional significance – roads have a role, but it is not as significant as National claims
  • Investigate feasibility of nation wide biofuel programme for road based transport
  • Look at measures to get school aged children out of cars and onto bikes/foot/scooter – the number of people who would let their children walk to school if stranger danger could be contained is surprising
  • Engage with disabled/special needs/elderly about how they can go about their lives without being shut out of the transport system

Righto. If anyone can come up with an alternative and/or better set of proposals, they are welcome to put them here.


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