Integrated Agro-ecological Systems Land Use vs the ‘dis-integrated’ industrial machine

There is a difference in kind between complex, integrated, low input, free range systems of land, soil, organic matter, fungi & macroinvertebrates, plants & animals, and ….

….. industrial high energy input feedlot systems which abuse each of those – well, and people, community & local economy as well. (And it’s destroys many functions and replaces them with yet more techno- and energy-inputs.)

Each provides functions to the other in an Agroecological system. This is one of the best pictures I’ve seen to capture that integrated whole.

The functions & flows that connect and build & restore & create something new.

Pinched graphic from Sara Keough 😊

Chris Perley


Posted in agricultural strategy, Environmental Philosophy, Industrial Mindset, Land Use, Land use policy, Thought Pieces, Ways of Seeing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thoughts on N. Scott Nomaday’s ‘An American Land Ethic’

If you’ve not come across N. Scott Nomaday – the native american poet, essayist and novelist – then reading him at first may come as a challenge; such is the world view he presents, at odds to that other view which so many of us are taught is ‘real’. It’s not, of course. We grow our lens from our culture, are ‘educated’ to see thus, and the western lens have been over-influenced by those who taught us to dissect life and its wonder more than embrace it. The forest marvel is reduced to the quantitative bits; the community to work units; cultural and historical paths to tarmac lanes of resource movement; the landscape to a warehouse and factory of ‘natural resources’.

And we’re not taught to ask questions that challenge what lies beneath, like: what is a forest?; what is a path?; what is a landscape?; who am I without the broth within which I am, and that makes me me?

Don’t misinterpret metaphysical depth as mere romance. It isn’t that.

Los Angeles-based photographer, Steve Engelmann.

Here’s a challenge. Read Nomaday’s essay An American Land Ethic. It is profound, and much anthologised. It requires rereading .. and then again. And it’s more than an epistle on relationships within a land-people complex, it is also an epistle on the meanings of generations, and self. Who are we without the links through memory?

There are lessons here.

And his last lesson in this essay is exactly what we need to be challenged with; to think about; to speak about. Because these questions and challenges are far far far far deeper than looking merely at segregated-from-meaning numbers we’ve been taught to set apart from the ideas that beget them. And yet the ideas come first.

Is that so difficult to appreciate?

Every sentence of his last paragraph deserves their own line.

In Ko-sahn and in her people we have always had the example of a deep, ethical regard for the land.

We had better learn from it.

Surely that ethic is merely latent in our- selves.

It must now be activated, I believe.

We Americans must come again to a moral comprehension of the earth and air.

We must live according to the principle of a land ethic.

The alternative is that we shall not live at all.”

Chris Perley

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.

The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
 From a machine able to be reduced to disconnected bits, to a complex system that is inherently indivisible.

His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly
Posted in Environmental Philosophy, Indigenous Philosophy, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Financial Crises and Forestry Financial Myopia (again)

It’s a cliché that history repeats. Clichés usually become clichés precisely because there’s an observable pattern through time.

This article was published in the NZIF Newsletter 2007/35, 7 September 2007. At the time the US Fanny May and Freddie Mac property mortgage companies were wobbling. And our own New Zealand finance companies were like stars imploding in the night sky ….. and a year later …. The GFC.

Is the pattern repeating again? The Chinese property market is wobbling, principally through the dubious financial position of Evergrande, the Chinese property development mega-beast. But, as the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, the Chinese property market issues go beyond Evergrande. The whole Chinese property market “faces a $US five trillion reckoning.”

I’m not republishing this simply because of potential historic parallels. There’s also the increasing fragility of the New Zealand forestry sector (the opposite of Resilience), with an export trade mix that has generally shifted down the grades from construction and some (dubious) finishing markets, to form work to keep in the concrete. The high quality Japanese trade through to the 1990s dropped in grade to the Korean trade, which then dropped again to the Chinese trade. So what’s next? Firewood to India?

Holding price through market position is far more important than financial ‘efficiency’ gains. Without the former, the strong commodity buyer always takes the latter. And so often, ‘efficiency’ equates with quality reduction. And so you chase the crap markets down the rabbit holes of your own mind.

Sometimes you’ll find me, if you go deep enough down the rabbit hole

And the forestry “agronomy/finance” sector – with notable exceptions from those fleet footed companies who can think beyond radiata pine and the spreadsheet oracle (those generally privately owned, rather than owned by some investment fund or mega-corporate) – kept on doing what it always does, like dedicated followers of fashion. Perhaps they’ll meet the hookah-smoking caterpillar, and all will be well.

Some of the complacency is due to the relative metaphorical biblical feast forestry has enjoyed over the last 30 years: cheap privatisations, the log price spike, Korean trading rising like a miracle as Japan fell, then China as Korea fell, then the ETS, and strong Chinese property development post the GFC in 2008. Happy days. Let’s not think of tomorrow. Never mind the biblical cycles. Famine, what famine?

Many foresters were trying to question the questionable industrial approaches and the emphasis on financially-driven tactics over wider strategy from more than 20 years ago.

And sadly nothing much has changed. In fact, the trends to head down a financial, tactical, narrow-and-now rabbit hole is arguably more apparent now than it was in 2007 when this was published.

These are the finance companies.  They offer what many consider the excellent return of 9.25% p.a., and they fail; nine in the last 18 months.  But how good is this return?  It is annually eroded by tax, that amount not being able to compound for you into the future.  Inflation erodes it.  If you take such a return and convert it to a real, post tax return (assuming 39% tax and 3% inflation) you get the annual return of 2.57 percent[1]

Although the nominal, pre-tax return appears reasonable, it’s associated real, post-tax return appears pathetic.  If, however, you ask an actuary what sort of average return you get on investments real, post-tax, they will tell you that for the whole basket of investment types, it is close to this 2.6 percent mark.

All of which begs a question; why in hell do we use the seven to nine percent real post-tax discount rates?  This is a figure that – theoretically – is supposed to reflect the real cost of capital, with an added risk loading.  The real, risk free cost of capital is usually stated as being between 2% and 4%, though even there, investment in solid things, rather than paper money, is not so subject to the vagaries of tax rate and interest rate changes as are interest deposits.  If you doubt that, try doing the calculations on marginal tax rates of 66%, inflation at 12% and nominal interest rates at 15% – more than a negative 7% return.  Tangible things like land, sheep, trees, & buildings (as compared to yachts, rugby league teams, and flash new cars), do tend to provide some element of reality to any investment.  But we live in the age of the get rich quick, flash Harry.  Few are happy with the get rich slowly approach.

I know one thing for certain; there remains considerable confusion between nominal and real interest rates.  People perceive a 7% or 9% return as “OK”.  In the next breath, they presume that the nominal one is directly comparable to the real other.  So interest rates are around 7 to 9 %, and forestry discount rates take their lead from that.  I’ve seen that implicit misunderstanding with university management professors, with accountants, with ministers of forestry, with Joe Average in the streets.  And even though we as forestry professionals – who will be forever damned for the fact that one of our own (Martin Faustmann) invented the damned things – are expected to know the difference, the choice of real forestry discount rates bears too much a similarity to those nominal interest rates for it to be just coincidence, afterwards rationalised by ‘risk’.  The financiers demand these types of rates (like those in Treasury), and the humble foresters follow, then we survey discount rates because they are of course a manifestation of the rational Lord Market, which provides an ‘objective’ basis for the perpetual motion machine.  Such delusions are not uncommon.  Values and core beliefs underpin the most ‘objective’ of research.  Think tulips, South Seas stock, George Bush’s foreign policy, Newton’s alchemy, Ptolemaic astronomy, Aristotelian physics.  It’s the power of ideas that dominate over our attempts at reason.  And once settled in our ways, we all would rather the heretic be burned.

Evergrande property development at risk

There were some commentators saying that these finance company nominal deposit rates were typically four percent higher in place like the United States.  Given the return of the financial chickens in our own markets – and in the US housing markets – perhaps they have a better handle on their risk profiles.  But even if given that 4% increase, to 13.25%, the real, post-tax returns would be 4.93% using the assumptions above.  And that is for an acknowledged high risk profile.  Now here’s the real test: in order to get a real, post tax rate of 8% – the one expected of forest growers – you would need a post-tax rate of 11.24%, and a nominal pre-tax deposit rate of ……. 18.26 %.  This is, some argue, where forestry risk sits relative to deposit rates.  Is it?

Which then exposes another note of poor logic from those that argue we need these high risk loading on our discount rates.  The same country – the US – that recognises finance company risks by loading 4% over and above our finance company deposit rates, also has forestry discount rates that are in real terms between 4% and 6% – i.e. considerably lower than our own.  So they recognise risk in finance companies which we apparently don’t, and don’t recognise risks in forest growing that we apparently do.  So who is right?  Given the crisis in finance, the evidence points to them, rather than us.  And it is also reflected in the facts that the US-based TIMOs are coming in buying our forestland, for what they may well consider a bargain. 

In Europe, the rates are even lower at 2% to 4% real, sometimes zero where forests are treated as different accounting entities – as going concerns with long-sunk costs.  This remains an excellent option, especially for existing native forests, but seems to be lost on most of us foresters always looking from a Greenfield investment perspective, viewing forests as capital entities alone – as we were often taught.  Are they?

But are we that much more risky as a forest grower than those in Europe and the US?  Yes, we have a geographical disadvantage – emphasised more by focusing on anything low value relative to bulk or weight – but a highly favourable growing advantage, with essentially excellent social, environmental, and physical infrastructure.  Do we rate up there with the finance companies offering 18 percent or more?  Because that is what our commonly discount rates are implying.

But let’s not be too hasty.  Ironically, perhaps we are more risky.  I say “ironically”, because it is the high discount rates we encourage that create high risk enterprises.  Take a case example: if you are required to have a non-negative net present value at a ten percent discount rate (an example of idiotic Treasury’s usual SNAFU applied to NZ Forest Service new land plantings – and why didn’t someone in NZFS point out to those autistic Treasury geniuses the consequences??!!), then you look for the thing that can theoretically achieve it.  Radiata pine can.  So can short rotation eucalypt (14% IRR on some prospectuses).  Douglas fir – or anything with a rotation length much over 45 years – cannot.  Discount a million dollars for 60 years at 10% and you get $3,280 – which means you can effectively – and of course ‘rationally’ – bankrupt your grandchildren by loading the million dollar cost on to them.  Do a discounted cashflow on the effects of radical climate change 200 years into the future using these real discount rates Treasury seems to prefer, and don’t give it a second thought; it’s not a problem.  A billion dollar cost then comes out as $5.27 now.  Cheap!  Why should we care, it’s only money after all.  A bit different perhaps if you happen to be there at the time.

But back to risk, and discount rates driving us to a more risky commercial environment.  At the moment, at a period of a high dollar and high freight costs, Ernslaw One can’t get enough Douglas fir, and their mill has hired 30 more staff.  Of course, Ernslaw One, the Queenstown Lakes DC, and Blakely Pacific are all irrational for planting Douglas fir, and their negative valuations illustrate this profoundly, and beyond any ‘rational’, or even reasonable doubt.  Unless you happen to have a bit of Douglas fir coming on to the market at the moment.

But we should count ourselves lucky.  It could have been worse.  If Treasury in their eternal HUD spreadsheet wisdom had demanded use of a 14% discount rate, we may have planted short term eucalypt pulp everywhere.  We can see that as immediately a nonsense, and perhaps even Treasury would have enough wit to realise it as well, but we don’t associate any nonsense with wall to wall radiata pine.  If they’d had a more sophisticated view of either the multifunctional nature of forests (which are more – I know I will be vilified by all the financiers for saying this – than just a manifestation of capital) or the complexities of real versus nominal finance, they may have helped set up a decision making culture in New Zealand forestry that was less narrow and doctrinaire, more inclusive, contextual, and thinking.

And that is, I think, the nub of all the questions that are raised above.  Our use of discount rates is nothing to do with some rationally derived assessment criteria taking into account the complexities of the issue – it is fashion; it is convention; it is follow-the-leader-let’s-not-step-out-of line conformity.  It is what Pierre Bourdieu calls habitus, the institutional values, beliefs, and patterns of behaviour that are unthinkingly applied, like some Taliban in prayer while stoning an infidel.  We advocate acts and are influenced by ‘ways of seeing’ that are so often accorded some façade of rationality to give them respectability.  It is Field Marshall Haig decision making, all the numbers correctly counted, all the formula correctly applied, all the ducks in their right position in the row, all the butts covered by our reference back to the appropriate techniques as illustrated by the Horse Guards Manual of Manoeuvre (1879), or the equivalent current day quantitative decision support system.

I’ve never held with financial analysis alone setting strategy.  That will always involve investing in the fashionable wringer washing machines while the opportunities in the future are ignored.  But let’s assume that finance is sufficient for the moment.  Try a thought experiment.  Assume that land rather than financial capital is limiting, which means that Discounted Cash Flow rather than Internal Rate of Return is the appropriate approach.  Then assume a 4% real post-tax discount is loaded with any amount of risk.  Then see what species and regimes we’d plant.  So much hinges on these financial assumptions we think so ‘objective’.

Chris Perley

[1] Calculated by 1. removing annual tax (9.25 – (0.39x 9.25) = 5.6425), then 2. by correcting for inflation using r =(1+ i/1+ p) – 1 where r = real rate, i = nominal rate, p = inflation expressed as proportion ((1.05625/1.03)-1). 

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.

The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
 From a machine able to be reduced to disconnected bits, to a complex system that is inherently indivisible.

His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Donation to Thoughtscapes

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $US10 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. Add as many as you like 🙂. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂.

Donations to Thoughtscapes

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $US10 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. Add as many as you like 🙂. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂.


Posted in Forestry, High value, Industrial Mindset, Land Use, Land use policy, Land use strategy, Neoliberalism & Corporatism, resilience, Strategic thinking, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

New Zealand Forestry: Getting off the Love affair with Simple

Through the better parts of 2018 to 2020 occurred a massive disruption of the British Columbia forestry sector. A true Annus Horribilis for the lives of many people. BC forestry, and not that province alone, was hit by multiple factors. Monique Keiran wrote a useful summary of the perfect storm, outlining pest epidemics, fire, salvage volume overcuts, US market disruption, and growing public concern from all sides. She makes the point that the debacle has been almost two decades in the making.

“A number of forces led to us to this point. They include wildfire devastation, with 2017 and 2018 both setting records for area of forest burned. High log costs and low prices due to a slowing U.S. market contribute.

We’re also at the end of the mountain pine beetle harvest — a period of high timber cuts permitted to salvage as much beetle-killed timber from the landscape as possible while it was still worth something.

The unfolding consequences were pronounced steadily and relentlessly. In my memory, the conversation has taken on the quality of a bell tolling.

In other words, he was describing a catastrophe — an inexorable, slow-motion catastrophe.”

Surprise after surprise. Surprise exacerbated by strategies that built fragility rather than resilience. Surprise exacerbated by the logic of efficiencies seen through spreadsheet eyes. Surprise exacerbated because people saw certain machines where complex systems lay.

Buzz Holling, the gifted ecologist who revolutionised ecological and wider systems thinking away from determinism and climax states – one of the pioneers in resilience thinking – actually predicted the demise of the BC forestry ‘industry’   An overreliance on only a few species and connecting structures were his key reasoning.  It was too simple.  Complex systems that are framed as simple – by engineers, financiers and agronomists – in the monocultural or one-dimensional mind, do not *remove* complex.   The complex world remains – the markets, the costs, the communities and their values, the weather events, the fires, the epidemics.

British Columbia forests are at growing risk of fire through climate change …. and forests are not just at risk through fire.

One dimensional thinking does not reduce surprise. Something will always happen.  The real problem is that we set up what is termed a ‘simple complex system’. We simplify the system, presuming greater control and order, more certainty. An agronomic machine *seems* more logical to the Newtonian mind of order. I’m sure General Haig thought the same about the Somme … until the battle commenced.

Simplification doesn’t reduce surprise; it exacerbates it. It also exacerbates the effects of that surprise. Surprise still happens, but because we have removed all those ‘redundant’ and ‘inefficient’ buffering rivets, the system cascades more rapidly and more unpredictably than before. Cause and effect leaps from one domain to another, outside the framework of agronomic analysis, spreads like a contagion, because one trip cascades to another, to another, to the point of extinction. 

When you simplify what are inherently complex systems[1]; when you presume to control the complexity rather than acknowledge and embrace it,  then you will create fragility, not resilience.   

In the case of land use systems, they are complex not just within the economic domain, but across and within social, community, environmental and economic domains.  Over intergenerational time scales.  Over regional and planetary scales.  Reducing this complexity to not just economics, but to finance using unsubstantiated high real discount rates that do not relate to opportunity cost or risk over time … is nothing short of lethal.  It blinds.  It fools.  It increases the chance of surprise and cascades … and extinction.

A large section of New Zealand forestry has stepped away from the social-scapes within which they abide. Apply a blinding blinker, look to the spreadsheet, and, when faced with the inevitable ire, plan a programme of sales and marketing through transactional thought, attempting to buy that public still presumed to be over the fence and ‘other’.

Even more bewildering, they have shifted away from the complexity of landscapes, geology and meteorology, and the quite obvious potential shocks associated with that landscape, and then cry “how could we have known?” Those who live *within* the same landscapes and socialscapes shake their heads in wonder.

If you want another example, think Fonterra; producing largely undifferentiated milk powder, from largely undifferentiated milk inputs, to largely one market.  The logic of a centralised industrial clone, engineered to ‘perfect’ efficiency’ for this one exact set of conditions. 

A clone, as fragile as a feather in the breeze …. believing there will never be a breeze.

It is far better to embrace complexity than to will simplicity on an always complex world. Complexity is real. Simplicity is anti-real.

Rebecca Solnit wrote about opening up the mind to nuance and perspective. But these are the strengths of the Humanities. Perhaps there is now too little of that; replaced by spreadsheets soothing the mind to think all is orderly.

Figure 1: Working with complexity and uncertainty; different mindsets, cultures & tools.

Using hierarchical-mechanical approaches (over-simplification) to an inherently complex systems, decreases resilience, and increases the chance of surprise and unpredictability.

What happened with the forestry sector in British Columbia provides a lesson for us all, including in New Zealand.  It’s a lesson about ‘resilience’ and ‘fragility’, and the thinking that is needed to sit in the resilience space.  It also relates to how the land use professions may change in the next 30 years. 

I think we’ll need our multifunctional breadth more than ever, our foresters’ sense of the wider.  We need to resist the attempts to make us radiata pine agronomists.  A forester is much more.  We’ll need our sense of forests as far more than manifestations of capital or fibre. 

And looking around the world, that is an obvious trend: the shifting sands from industrial fibre factories to ecosystem management and continuous cover; from centralised hierarchies to localism; from continuous to batch processing; from economies of scale to economies of scope; from divorced commercial power and the values of the spreadsheet to participation by people; from consumers who take what is offered to those that discern acceptable from not; from the colonial segregation/allocation approach to old-world functionally-integrated landscapes: away from blanketed 10,000 acres of ryegrass and Romney, and over the fence another blanketed 10,000 acres of radiata pine, both of which smother system scope. 

I think there is a trend to break down the simplified boxes of the mind built over the last 30 or 40 years.

There is also a shift away from the industrial headspace whose underlying metaphysics presumes certainty, control and the efficiency of one thing, to post-industrial resilience structures whose metaphysics are fundamentally different. 

The Planetary Boundaries work is based on that emerging systems thinking.  It’s a space that expects to be surprised, that expects things to happen that will be outside our control.  It is a space that doesn’t accept the excuse that “it was a surprise, who could have known?” because it is not about having perfect predictability.  It is about setting up thinking organisational cultures of awareness that are able to cope with complex, non-linear systems.   And that at least keep an eye on the trends and what they mean to strategy.   The nine boundaries of the Stockholm Resilience are at least a start.  And there are social and economic boundaries in play as well, from local to international scales.

Foresters used to do this well.  Be aware.  Look at the values, objectives, constraints and conditions here in this place – from ecological to social – and with knowledge of the wider world.  Then decide on options and best approach.  Don’t be a recipe agronomist working as if management means prescription. 

Learning to Think and Act Beyond Colonial Commodity & Scale

A colleague in the University of British Columbia had hopes from the mass disruption of the forestry sector there.  He told me that this BC crisis may be their chance to move away from the narrow, industrial, Economies of Scale commodity strategy and shift to a strategy that emphasises value, diversity, resilience, socio-ecological systems thinking and the potential we get from thinking in Economies of Scope terms, not mechanised Scale.  A policy turn.

Figure 2: Allocated to Integrative Landscape Functions

Source: Per Angelstam’s et al.’s (2006) vision of a policy turn from industrialised specialist scale to integrated scope.

Within landscapes, those scope economics come into their own.  Mutualisms that save costs, create diversity, provide value, connect community and give a market position, are potential features of self-organised systems. 

Reducing a forest to an isolated structure of certain controllable capital will replace mutualisms with the act of chasing fires no one has foreseen.   A case in point is the continued objectification of community, their objections to the consequences of industrial management reduced, in the best deficit model way, to a problem – usually of perceived ignorance.  Then it is given a label – ‘license to operate’ – and then ‘managed’ with PR and one-way communication (to inform the – presumed to be – ‘ignorant’). 

I would challenge that framing.  The root of the ‘problem’ does not reside within the communities, but within that very objectification of people and landscapes (give them a number and put them in a spreadsheet) that goes hand in hand with narrow industrial thought, be it dairy or forestry. 

The solution to the symptom of public annoyance is not a pamphlet campaign or other form of ‘re-education’; it is for us to see, think and act differently.   People are part of the complex system within which forests reside.  Removing community and their values from the spreadsheet does not make it magically simpler.  It merely creates a delusion, which might be convenient for the box-ticker, but delusions are not good for strategic thought.

A Future Forest Strategy

All of this relates to our future forest strategy.  There have always been two broad alternative strategies for land use.   Either sell on price bulk scale homogeneity – the price taker approach – or sell on quality, diverse, price positioned – the price maker.  New Zealand has a colonial past of doing the first; producing lots, cheap.  While the real commodity prices erode.  And yet we still hold to it …. “This is what we do.”

We hold to that model, even though the history of commodity prices is negative.  This was the problem observed by Willard Cochrane not yesterday, but in 1958 agriculture.  He analysed it and termed it the ‘technology treadmill’.  Various positive feedbacks in a complex system. 

Post-war intensification led to production increases, within an increasingly undifferentiated, corporate agribusiness commodity market.   Prices dropped, so the growers shift emphasis to cost cutting.  They presumed they would hold the ‘efficiency’ gains.  They aggregated for scale efficiencies, specialised and homogenised, used less and cheaper labour, with the spiralling down of local aggregate demand reducing community function, and long-term environmental function compromised. 

Or they took up the techno-fix; the new technology input to raise yields (which costs, and then creates other system effects no one tells you about), and the prices fall again because buyers have more power than sellers in commodity markets[2] … and the whole thing repeats. 

A treadmill.  Cochrane, who 20 years later was advising President Carter, said the imperative was to get off the treadmill.   Differentiate.  Position yourself in a sellers’ market.  Build relationships.  Look to mutualist efficiencies of scope and differentiated market position.  Focus on market position before you make costs savings to ensure the margin is maintained by the grower. 

Figure 3: International Agricultural Real Price Trends

Judging by the graph above, agriculture is still largely in the industrial commodity game. 

I remember discussing the relative nominal flat line (log price spike excepted) in the early 2010s.  Log prices had started to rise after the GFC as China provided a surge of infrastructural development spending.  He was surprised when I said I had been doing runs with pretty much the same stumpages 20 years earlier in 1992.  Even our nominal prices trended down until 2008.  So what about real prices?

This, over a 30 year period where a number of positive ‘miracles’ occurred that favoured NZ forestry enterprises.  From privatisations, log price spikes, Korean development to offset Japan’s slowdown, then China the same, the ETS etc. 

We should be openly acknowledging that these have been three favourable decades.   In literary terms, every time there is something to worry about the deux ex machina miracle comes along to save the protagonist.  Zorro magically appears in the nick of time.  Look, Korea.  Look, China.  Look, the ETS. 

Perhaps those decades have led to complacency, and what many foresters feel is – with the odd smaller company exception – a stifling homogeneity. 

Figure 4: Nominal Radiata Pine Prices 1992 – 2019 (no inflation adjustment)

 Source: MPI  data. Nominal decline until 2008 GFC.

Looking at the real picture, even the ‘log price recovery’ since early 2009 doesn’t look so impressive.  In point of fact, it looks more like a stabilising than a rise. 

Figure 5: Real Radiata Pine Prices 1992 – 2019 (PPI Adjusted)

Source: MPI & Stats PPI data.  Real price stability associated with rise in post 2008 China trade.

I don’t like looking back on the last 30 years of New Zealand forestry.  The sector had a number of fortunate breaks, but I see it as a time of wasted opportunity, of increasing fragility, of the narrowing of thought, and … yes, complacency.   The ‘business as usual’ imperative. 

I don’t know what the next 30 years will bring, but two things are likely.  In line with the biblical principle of famines and feasts, there will be a series of events that won’t be positive, and Zorro won’t appear over the horizon.   Given the way climate is shifting, with all these connections of pest epidemics and fires, I consider that ‘likelihood’ practically a certainty. 

I think there will also be fundamental changes in the ways we look at forests.  People will ask the question “What is a forest – in scope and meaning?”  A challenge to the metaphysics of land, of forests, of the simplified dispassionate uncaring industrial model.  Communities are already demanding it, around the world.  People and land matter.  They cannot be objectified.

To respond to those challenges to thought, they will need people who see forests as far more than a manifestation of a discounted cashflow or agronomics.  Frankly, they’ll need foresters – real foresters where the short-term is measured in years not months, and the long-term is measured in decades or centuries – and forests are not just seen, but known, as a subset of a much much broader complex system that extends beyond economic, environment and society, and well beyond the presumed regularity of a factory. 

I think the days of simple are coming to an end.  And many of us, frankly, will welcome it.  We don’t like being considered by the public as radiata agronomy technicians. Or carbon traders.

Chris Perley


Angelstam, P., E. Kapylova, H. Korn, M. Lazdinis, J. A. Sayer, V. Teplyakov & J. Tornblom. 2006. Changing forest values in Europe. In Forests in landscapes: ecosystem approaches to sustainability, eds. J. A. Sayer & S. Maginnis, 59-74. London: Earthscan.

[1] In the case of land use systems, they are complex not just within the economic domain, but across and within social, community, environmental and economic domains.  Over intergenerational time scales.  Over regional and planetary scales.  Reducing this complexity to not just economics, but to finance using unsubstantiated high real discount rates that do not relate to opportunity cost or risk over time … is nothing short of lethal.  It blinds.  It fools.  It increases the chance of surprise and cascades … and extinction.

[2] Price is not all about supply & demand.  That only occurs in a market without power – Adam Smith’s village, or the old Stock & Station firm mutual society & cooperatives.  In the real world, it is about power and knowledge asymmetries, where supply and demand is one factor in that differential of power between a buyer and a seller. 

Originally published in NZ Institute of Forestry Newsletter

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.

The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
 From a machine able to be reduced to disconnected bits, to a complex system that is inherently indivisible.

His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Donation to Thoughtscapes

Donation to Thoughtscapes

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $US10 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. Add as many as you like 🙂. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂.


Posted in Forestry, Land Use, Land use policy, Reimagining, Resilience Thinking, Strategic thinking, Thought Pieces, Wicked Problems | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Book Review: Hugh Campbell (2021) Farming Inside Invisible Worlds: Modernist Agriculture and its Consequences

The declining state of the rural lands – and their communities – is a growing concern for policy makers and researchers globally.  The concerns are real, more especially relating to the trends to high energy input intensification and industrialism, and the negative effects to both global and local environments, communities, cultures and economies. 

These trends and their effects are well documented, and continually highlighted as imperatives to be addressed.  Greenhouse gases, continued homogenisation and the loss of biodiversity and soil function, the ‘unsettling’ of once family farms, water quality and its retention, value chains that are seemingly fixed in a downward cycle of price-taking cheap bulk commodity and increasing economic marginality. 

The list goes on.  International reports are written on the needs to shift from ‘the industrial model’ of ‘agri-business’ to agro-ecological and socio-ecological practice; a shift back to the ‘culture’ within agriculture. 

The calls to shift practice stand atop something deeper, and without that appreciation of what lies beneath, those calls are less effective.  The roots remain hidden and unexposed. 

Professor Hugh Campbell has written a long overdue book that has exposed those cultural roots underlying what modern farming has become in New Zealand and globally.  He clearly outlines how those driving ideas, power structures and histories of colonisation, modernity and accelerating industrialism, drive the making of our landscapes and the places within which people can be, or not.   

Campbell points out the casualties, the promise unrealised by being made invisible.  He points out the conceptual boundaries of analytical thought that has shrunk to being the maker of machines, including challenging those boundaries of research structures and methodologies. 

The perspective that Campbell brings to these important questions is made more real and hard hitting by his own family history and deep personal connections to land, colonial settler history and community. 

Landscapes are not objective places.  They pulse with relationships.  Campbell’s personal connections highlight the consequences of moral agency within land- and people-scapes, and the boundaries of care being reduced to some or other ‘object’, or not seen at all; culture, soil, a people, a person, stock, a stream or anything else beyond the fence.  It is this personal perspective that shifts this book from an excellent philosophical synthesis of why we are where we are, to an outstanding book. 

Farming Inside Invisible Worlds will be future classic of land use, one which needed to be written to finally expose what we have made practically and morally invisible, and to open the way to a different future.   It is also a book that needs to be read by land use policy and research for the challenges it dares to make.

Chris Perley

Hugh Campbell (2021) Farming Inside Invisible Worlds: Modernist Agriculture and its Consequences.  Bloomsbury, London UK

Available on-line at

Previously Published in Organic NZ

Posted in Thought Pieces | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Biodiversity in an Age of Responsibility

The Foresters’ Forum – Further notes on what it is to be a forester …. rather than a tree agronomist.

2020 hasn’t just been about Covid-19.  The stories online that should most concern us as foresters are the significance of biodiversity decline, the European response to the urgency, and the horror that is the Amazon situation.  Short-term expedience meets the degradation of a functioning whole. 

Welcome to yet another existential threat which we won’t find where we’re not looking.

Many will say “so what?” because they do not understand even where their own interests lie.  Or because they won’t find it in this quarter’s income-expenditure statement.

But we’ve lived in an Age of Expediency for almost 40 years. We’ve reduced our concerns to the narrow and the short-term, to the quantifiable, to the agronomic and the financial. We’ve either purposefully or through the pressures of the workplace machine, reduced ourselves to obedient and focused cogs in the hierarchy of the unthinking behemoth of, more often than not, corporate commerce.

A narrowing of scope and breadth blinds the senses. And so we keep bumping into the black swans of system effects (which aren’t even black swans because they are easy to see if people lift their head from the screen). 

Should we wish a return to some sort of Age of Responsibility, then it would require some restoration of the old historic forester system breadth and long-term view, far beyond discounted finance and mere agronomy. 

Some base of concern and moral responsibility is also a damn sight better in its capacity to foresee risk, to adapt, and to visualise solutions that go beyond some narrow obsession with another whirl of The Technology Treadmill.

Breadth and moral responsibility are far wiser than any narrow spreadsheet. It’s why – by contrast – narrow corporates keep doing foolish things.

Areas of forest cleared for planting palm oil plantations in Aceh province in Indonesia last summer. Credit…Hotli Simanjuntak/EPA, via Shutterstock

So, a bit of thought ….. why does biodiversity matter? Unfortunately, biodiversity is saddled with a “nice to have” image problem.  It has too many syllables for a start.  Too technical.  It smacks of thing that are ‘nice’, but …  A few nice birds in the home garden, some trees, a stream. 

We don’t think of ‘biodiversity’ as the planet’s ‘life-support system’, and yet it is just that.  We breath it, eat of it, play in it, and it cleans up after us.  Remove the rivets one by one to serve the little gods Expedience and Efficiency (don’t get me started – bulldozers are ‘more efficient’ than shovels to ditch a stream; so tell me how that is ‘better’?), and you end up creating fragility. 

You’ll break more easily. Doubly bad, you will be less likely to see any threat coming.

And when surprise comes – which it will (even thought that also is not in the spreadsheet) – the loss of one rivet inevitably cascades, like a wildfire leaping. 

And biodiversity isn’t just a few birds.  It’s the landscape systems connected from mountain, hills, soils, streams, coastlines, and continental shelves to the deep ocean trenches.   It connects from native forest to farm field to city street, and through the pulse of seasons, good years and bad.  Soils and their biology who hold and filter the rain, keeping the streams flowing and filled with life, the pulsing flow of energy that feeds and shelters throughout the year, that reproduces and disperses.  The springs and streams where caddis, koura and cockabullies roam, and kids try to catch them. 

We as humans are a part of it, integral to it.  It isn’t some new age spiritualism to say ‘the land is us and we are the land’.  It’s a biophysical reality of health and wellbeing.   

We’ve diminished ‘biodiversity’ by thinking of it as ‘over there, beyond the fence’ instead of around us all, across our landscapes, within ourselves, integral.   We’ve jumped at a Modern Cartesian dualism, beloved of High Modern Treasury and preservationists, to put cultureless ‘nature’ over one side of the fence, and cultureless and nature-less commerce over the other side.  An industrial Tolkein Mordor and over the fence a Wilderness (sans Elves of course).

We’ve also diminished it by thinking of biodiversity not within a wider concept of space and time, but as merely some patch of bush, a thing, a noun, a structure, perhaps a bird, and where only ‘indigenous’ species may apply. 

Biodiversity is far more about connected flow and flux than ‘thing’.  It is verb and function more than native patch or bird.  A better biodiversity means accepting integrated landscape function as the important lens through which we see.  And that lens means introduced species, the so-called “working lands” and human spaces and systems as part of the whole, both as functional providers on the one hand and pest disrupters to those functions on the other.  

Those presumed to be human spaces are also a part of this landscape system.  Our cities are critical to autumn and winter feed for birds; nectar, insects and fruits.  And the health of our farmscapes, forests, woodlands, wetlands and healthy soil ecology (not a hydroponic medium for a crop) and homestead plantings are critical to soil and stream functions, and provide the habitat from invertebrate to ‘charismatic megafauna’ (aka tui, kereru and such).

A healthy biodiverse New Zealand requires us to see through this wider landscape scope, not just a few native reserves– which might well be oases within a landscape desert.  Reserves areas are important, but the imperative is to create a healthy whole, a connected functional landscape of healthy cities, healthy farmscapes, healthy landscapes, and native reserves. 

A healthy biodiverse New Zealand also requires us to realise our connections, and accepting that we are – hopefully and imperatively – shifting from a dull-of-thought Age of Expedience to a wiser Age of Responsibility.   

Back to integrative and moral thinking, where opportunities lie in plain sight, and the vulnerability to threats fall away.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.

The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
 From a machine able to be reduced to disconnected bits, to a complex system that is inherently indivisible.

His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Donation to Thoughtscapes

Donation to Thoughtscapes

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $US10 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. Add as many as you like 🙂. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂.


Posted in Land Use, Land use policy, Strategic thinking, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Shifting the Culture of Development Policy in NZ – From Linear Technocracy to People-Place Complex

Forestry is not about trees, it is about people. And it is about trees only insofar as trees can serve the needs of people. (Jack Westoby, 1990)

A fellow forester and I were having coffee – which he complained about because it wasn’t sourced green from some hillside plot in Uganda or Ethiopia and then mixed and roasted quite to his taste – and discussing the policy framing of what is unfortunately called ‘development’. He has worked in Africa and Asia on behalf of mainly European countries and world policy organisations like the World Bank. We were talking about ‘the experts’ to whom life was simple. You establish something primary, shove it through a linear processing chain, link it to a market, and Bob’s your uncle, ‘Development!’

I remembered Dennis Richardson, whose prose I miss, referring in 1994 to failed development. One example he gave was of some brilliant plan devised from afar, involving lots of quanta, wherein a fuelwood ‘resource’ should be established to provide heating for the tobacco factory. Unfortunately, and predictably, the tobacco plant closed down. And the Eucalyptus resource was incompatible with the local culture. Richardson suggested that the planting of something that was far more compatible with the culture of place, and their multiple needs, might have been worth a thought.

My friend laughed and said that they don’t work like that anymore. They look to the underlying functions that make up a place, and it isn’t simply ‘resource’ and infrastructure. There is a whole ‘political ecology’ framing. Look to not just the infrastructure and resource nouns, but the culture, politics, institutions and power relations within a place. The complex.

The idea of a 'socio-ecological system' is that people (Tangata) cannot be separated from place, the land (Whenua).   We are Tangata-Whenua, people-land.
Matt Quérée Body Landscapes Sophie.
The idea of a ‘socio-ecological system’ is that people (Tangata) cannot be segregated from place, the land (Whenua). We are Tangata-Whenua, people-land, a complex, irreducible, indivisible.

I was complimentary. Systems thinking. Looking at the broader framework of making life better. He said it was interesting that the systems approach of development was now coming back to we so much more sophisticated ‘western’ countries.

Hmmm. Indigenous thinking quietly challenges Western Modernity.

I cannot help but contrast that approach, broad and connected to a socio-ecological system, with the one we still take to woodland development in New Zealand. The most appalling example was the East Coast Forestry Scheme where the scope of potential of necessary woodlands in the landscape – the scope of all the socio-ecological mutualisms – wasn’t considered; wasn’t even imagined. Plants lots of trees, geared to scale and corporate agents.

In contrast, the best example from the past was arguably the NZ Forest Service Forestry Encouragement Grants in lieu of tax deductibility. That scheme was not – as some described it – simply a dishing out of cash. They had staff who were connected to the local agricultural culture, as much friends and motivators as instructive. Social, connected and technical. The soft and the hard. Similar to the political ecology framing of modern development work.

I welcome New Zealand forestry’s ‘right tree, right place’ look at the potential for other than one species in these hill country landscapes. However, we need an appropriate socio-ecological context. These places are not simply socially-divorced ‘resources’. And we need to use the appropriate scale that matches potential synergies. A farm-sized 500 ha pixel would be yet another disaster.

The real potential lies in the people and in the synergies of integrated land uses where you can get all of these positive – better economic, social and environmental – outcomes.

Woodlands – and we ought to include wetlands – are ‘keystone’ features within especially hill country landscapes. They suit the spatial patterns of pastoral costs and returns (often ignored in comparisons), they suit the environmental functions, they suit a varied approach to forestry, and they create mutualisms. But don’t evaluate them as two distinct and averaged dichotomies to be compared and contrasted, or added as a ‘crop’ without reference to spatial patterns and connections (using farm averages is a nonsense), because you won’t see the mutualisms that way.

There are so many mutualisms, and yet such strong cultural contrasts. A small proportion of farm forestry enthusiasts (who have retired on their forestry returns from ‘useless’ pastoral gullies), and a strong adversarial cadre of died-in-the-woodchip blanket pastoralists and foresters, throwing spreadsheet numbers at each other … signifying nothing.

There was nothing ‘rational’ here. It was deeply cultural. It makes me wonder about how completely immersed we are in our worldview. The ontologies of rural land. Blanket land use, socially-divorced, economies of scale not scope, seeing either/or competition rather than and-and mutualisms.

Which comes back to the coffee with my peripatetic friend. New Zealand needs more woodlands. But I think we need to stop thinking industrially, and start to see this land and its people as a complex system. Then, we might be able to achieve something good instead of driving wedges through peoples’ hearts.

S.D. Richardson 1994. Economics and ethics: approaches to sustainable forest management. NZ J Forestry, 39(1): 17–20

Jack Westoby 1990.  The purpose of forests: follies of development.  Blackwell Publishing, London

Version previously published in NZ J Forestry, August 2020

Chris Perley

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.

The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
From a machine able to be reduced to disconnected bits, to a complex system that is inherently indivisible.

His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Donation to Thoughtscapes

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $US10 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Building Regional Economies, Land Use, Land use policy, Reimagining, Socio-ecological Systems, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

From Land as Factory, to Land as System: Realising the Potential that the Factory Technician cannot See

This is a follow-up blog to my previous, where I examined the false assumptions agribusiness analysts continue to make, and continue to be taught.   Those assumptions and world views actively discourage any imagination of other elements such as woodlands, wetlands or individual trees having a place in New Zealand farmed landscapes.  And so they discourage solution and potential.

Our current paradigm is failing.  The central core of that failure is our teaching and practice of mechanical and narrow scale-focused agronomy (“get big, or get out,” “plant hedgerow to hedgerow,” “grow two blades of grass where there was one,” “grow more to feed the world,”) where we degrade our landscape functions (our soils, our hydrological quality, our patterned landscapes of real economic and environmental potential) in pursuit of what is effectively a simplified hydroponics, producing one thing …. and destroying the potential they can not imagine, let alone see.    

We have changed farming and forestry from being what we once were – husbandmen (and women) – creating multifunctional and resilience landscapes catering for many needs over the long term – to technical agronomy.   The farm foresters and the lovers of making soils a sponge for rainfall, rooting depth and low-input fertility have it right.  That is why their farms perform. 

I’m continually reminded of a colleague who succinctly summed up the challenge to our land use future, “there is no such thing as a good farmer or a good forester.  There are only good and bad land managers.

The following is one story of how thinking differently can achieve, not just profit, but the production many strive for through hydroponic thinking – just add more energy in the form of chemical, fertiliser and irrigation in homogenous scale.  There is a far better way to look at land.

The language of Landscape Jens Kruger

The Language of Landscape – Jens Kruger


The UK is having the same angst-ridden debates about more trees within agricultural landscapes as New Zealand. And, like here, it completely works against the potential of our rural landscapes. In a recent article in the UK, their National Farmers’ Union (equivalent to our Federated Farmers) were wary of trees within farms – let alone whole farm conversions – with talk of the “complexity” of “taking land out of food production.” Similar to those agronomic minds within the halls of education, policy research and commerce who see maximum production (of mostly commodity food) as their little god, no matter the wider negatives; you know, to profit, risk, productivity, synergy smothered by homogeneity, natural capital, environmental effects, rural decline.

And we have the same industrial blinkered homogeneous scale thinking within forestry as well. Industrialism on steroids.  Single functions and faux efficiency. Reducing a forest to the mechanics of agronomy and finance isn’t what professional forestry is about.  Narrow forest agronomy is not in any position to be smug.

The UK’s Fed Farmers think that by planting woodlands within their farmscapes, that they will lose.  Wrong.  They’ll win, it is just unfortunate that their education and dominant social norms work directly against the imagination they need to see how.

Wetlands on farms

Riddell’s Wetland, Northern Hawke’s Bay

It is a false narrative to presume that less area in agricultural production – what is referred to in New Zealand as ‘effective farm area’ (oh how I detest the implications in that phrase – “more scale, less wetlands!”) – will mean less agricultural production. It’s a mechanical and linear view. It’s part of this curse of Modernity – the assumption that complexity can be reduce to a few chosen variables – a child reduced to a calorie input/output machine perhaps. Newton did it for physics, so let’s apply it to humans and landscapes. Land is far more analogous to a child than a factory.

It parallels the poor understanding of landscape variation and connections, the farm money map where production varies 100% +/- the mean, the many costs that have 80:20 patterns.  If the UK Farmers’ Union is any indication, it seems farming in the UK has the same problem of identity as New Zealand land use …. an identity of production, in a factory sense of land, rather than land (and community) husbandry. Curious that, because the emphasis on scaled up production of *only* food using ‘human resources’ and other forms of machinery has had terrible consequences to individual farm finance, rural communities and the environment.

But it’s also curious because that poor construct of land – as uniform scalable homogeneous factory, not complex adaptive system – fails to imagine, let alone realise the scope of potential you can get by thinking differently. Modernity should be stamped to death within our education, policy and research entities, but – like Frankenstein – it is still alive, wandering around in the snows of Scandinavia somewhere.

Stories are far better than data when you’re dealing with complexity, so here’s one.  A colleague of mine came back from the UK a few decades ago. She had been working with the European CAP policy of the 90s, focused on the *over*production of food commodities.  Then, the EU encouraged the replacement of agricultural land with forests and wetlands, to – they thought – reduce agricultural production. On many farms, the opposite happened.

The incorrect logic is simple. Technocrats see land from afar in averages. Less land equals less production. They neither understand nor work within any understanding of patterns of complexity, combination, patch connections, feedbacks etc. related to this particular space and time. If they’re only thinking in finance (through averages) and not environment and social linkages, then the loss of potential is even greater.

However, many of these patterns and connections are completely obvious to those who live intimately *within* a landscape. There is wisdom in intimacy, in being a part of something. There can be foolishness in distant faux objectivity. To the distant technocrat, less land in agricultural production would obviously mean less agricultural production. It’s obvious to them, as other realities are obvious to farm foresters.

The agronomic technocrats are those who are wrong.  Their spreadsheet analysis is wrong because their assumptions are wrong.  But many technocrats never even question their assumptions because they are not taught to question philosophically.  Worse, they are taught that they are above metaphysics; that they don’t even have any in their supposedly objective bubble.  Life, to them, is a machine, reducible and deterministic. Which is fine for simple billiard table physics and the more complicated physics of getting a rocket to the moon and back; but wrong for the complex adaptive systems of land and people.  Or for community and economy for that matter. Wrong. Dead wrong.

Planting dissected gully

Planting a Dissected Gully, Northern Hawke’s Bay

Here’s what happened when the EU encouraged some farmers to take land out of agricultural production. Farmers took the not inconsiderable sum per hectare on offer to plant woodlands – more for deciduous broadleaves than for conifers. It was at this point my colleague smiled. She asked, “So what land do you think they chose to put into trees?” Well, obviously, the land they knew was poorer performing for whatever reason. And that’s exactly what happened.


Here, things get interesting. Rather than uniformity and regularity, you’re dealing in complexity, variation, pattern, connection, feedback, adaptation, thresholds, and system effects.

I go on about this a bit, but it’s the Modern worldview that simplifies life into fallacies of quantification that is blinding us to potential and synergy. Under the industrial model we see – and therefore make! – everything from land to a human being into a machine reduced to some nonsense but measurable variable (a general parameter rather than a particular one).  That is effectively subjectively choosing a number you have, and applying it to a context where it doesn’t apply, because you don’t happen to have a parameter specific to that area.

This is philosophically the same as taking the ‘average’ fuel consumption for the whole transport fleet (ships, trains, trucks, SUVs etc.) and applying it to your 1200cc car. An educated judgment would be far far more accurate, but judgments have become – apparently – career limiting. Mustn’t think and judge. You have no model to fall back on and blame.

O'Brien - Wetland Functional Wetlands

O’Brien’s wetland on left.  What was once a costly stock loss magnet, now the whole farm is more productive and more profitable

My colleague laughed, “Yes,” she said,” they converted their worst agricultural land, and then whole farm agricultural production actually went up!”

I knew why because I’d dealt with farm foresters for 25 odd years by then, and it was an extremely common finding (even though MAF officials shook their heads and tried to rationalise it from their own worldview).

The land people chose to put woodlands or wetlands on were – almost universally – high cost (directed ‘overheads’ included – like stock losses, weed control etc.) and low production areas; Often a fraction of the farm average. High cost, low return. They are effectively black holes for money.

So they turn unprofitable areas into woodlands (and are paid to do so – so they win twice with a grant *and* more profit besides the other positive multiple functions woodlands provide to the farm enterprise).  They also save all the overhead costs they once threw down a bottomless pit black hole in that side face, gully, bog, etc.

That’s another win. Suddenly, more liquidity.

They *adapt* to that new situation by investing in areas of the farm that provide a positive rather than a negative return. More bang for their buck. Better pastures etc. And so production rose.

That is an example of adaptation within a “Complex Adaptive System” view of land and enterprise.

Thinking this way is also part of the shift around the world from our mechanical homogeneous Ford factory ‘Economies of Scale’ emphasis, to the emerging post-industrial ‘Economies of Scope’ thinking that you get by owners realising the potential in their various complex worlds – their landscapes, their environmental and social functions, value chains, market position and the narrative that provides a premium, their communities, cooperative constructs, clusters etc., the pattern languages of space, with actual *humans* who are caring, engaged and motivated…

… rather than being ground into obedient uniform, perfectly measurable and immutable robotic cogs, etc.

We can achieve a hell of a lot of win:wins by not thinking of land, environment, community, people, and produce in that – frankly – backward Frederick Taylor mechanical way.

bridget-march terraced-fields-sa-pa-vietnam.jpg

Bridget March, Sa Pa, Vietnam

None of this is that difficult to understand; it only requires a questioning of assumptions. The assumption that higher production is always better is wrong. The assumption that production over landscapes doesn’t vary greatly is wrong. The assumption that many direct costs can be treated as indirect for land analysis’ sake is wrong. The assumption that there are no associations between low return/high cast and high return/low cost is wrong. The assumptions that costs don’t work in patterns and waves over the farmscape are wrong. The assumption that the environment is disconnected from the farm accounts is wrong. The same with social connections and social capital … wrong.

The assumption that there are no connection synergies, no ‘scope’ – only ‘scale’ efficiencies, is dead wrong. The assumption that there are no system effects, nor system adaptive effects, are wrong. In systems theory, you never do one thing. And if you’re not looking at what else you’ve done with any act – economically, socially & environmentally – then the analysis (well, synthesis) is incomplete. That is an understatement.

foxs & hedgehogsTo see potential scope requires a mind that sees curves not lines, tangents, patterns and connections – across and within social, biophysical and economic domains. This is the world of the proverbial Fox who sees many things, strategises and adapts, rather than the box ticking ‘this is what we do’ Hedgehog who plods doggedly toward the cliff like a good technician, focused on one thing in their world of immutable and reducible machine, ignoring all the patterns, connection, trends and exemplars all around them – to whatever doom awaits beyond the brow of the hill they cannot imagine, let alone see.

It ought to be the part of any ‘professional’ to be able to imagine – to induce, not deduce – beyond the constraints of a mechanical mind.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley grew up in landscapes. His playgrounds were hills, streams, fields and woods. He studied forest ecology because of the experience he had sitting within a complex forest. You can see, hear, feel, smell and even taste a forest. But those feelings were not taught in his science education. Something was missing. A rainbow was being unwoven. Quanta was all.
The quiet dissatisfaction grew while working to integrate the woodlands into what were essentially colonial factory landscapes, and later in policy and research. The marginalising of our potential, and our connection to place, was all too evident. He has called for a ‘Reimagining’ ever since.
His subsequent work was on the philosophy – old and new – required to reimagine our landscapes, to see and be something different as members of place and community.
Chris has worked as an editor, a writer, and is an affiliated researcher for Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂




Posted in agricultural strategy, Industrial Mindset, Land Use, Land use policy, Land use strategy, Landscape function, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

The Economics of Space in Land Use: and our Unrealised Potential in New Zealand

New Zealand industrial agribusiness uses a variety of false assumptions about the economics of space that works against the integration of trees, wetlands and other diversification elements into our farmed landscapes.  It conceptualises complex and multifunctional landscapes as simplified factories; a mechanical analogy that cannot perceive, let alone realise, the Scope of Potential – the Economies of Scope – within those landscapes. 

This lack of conceptual understanding is partly why there is a lock-in-trap that resists a redesign shift to integrated land use systems and continues to encourage an Economies of Scale industrialisation and energy-intensification of those farmed landscapes.  This is to the continued detriment of our local economies, local environment and local communities.  Further, it demonstrates a lack of vision and philosophical thought evident within land use education.   We need a paradigm shift in how we look at land.

I provide some background to the philosophical fallacies that dominate the industrial paradigm, and use a case study (the Stephens of South Otago) to demonstrate the potential within New Zealand hill country farmed landscapes.

South Otago landscapes

The hills and valleys of South Otago, New Zealand

Explain this.  Some of New Zealand’s farmers plant low pastoral production and high costs areas (they almost always go together) of their farm in a woodland, or put other areas in wetlands, and …. by so doing …. save costs, increase revenues, reduce risks, retain water, increase water quality and retention, increase stock health and performance, increase biodiversity and soil … essentially realise a potential Scope of many patterned things in association, which the mechanical agronomist dealing in averages will not even guess are there.  

They do better – their farm enterprises and they themselves – by their seeing, thinking and acting in this way ….. but they are at odds with the conventions of Modern industrial agri‘business’ (the husbandry ‘culture’ part of agriculture is grimly holding on).

Case Study: The Stephens, South Otago

The Stephens run a hill country sheep & beef farm in South Otago – Kakapuaka.  Much of South Otago is rounded tops separated by steeper U-shaped or V-shaped dissected gullies.  The gully bits love to return to gorse, the pioneer species precursor of an ecological transition to woodland.  In other areas of New Zealand the land morphology is different.  You can have wide flats and inverse V steep hills – or a descending landscape of face, plateau, face, plateau, etc. – or land as lumpy and irregular as a pot of thick porridge dumped onto the earth (Busby Hill coming in to Tokomaru Bay is like that – and that gluggy mudstone patch is *still* settling!!)

In other areas the species of pastoral succession is kanuka, but the principles of ecological forest succession are the same.  The stock grazing pressure (and preference) just isn’t there to keep it down.  When farmers  do clear the gorse, they’re lucky to get a few s.u./ha of poor grazing …. until they have to spend the $1000s per hectare to repeat the process every 15 years or so (in eternal pursuit of the ‘grass is king’, maximise ‘effective farm area’ paradigm).

Perley sketch Gully, face & wetland

South Otago sheep & beef hill country runs an average 14 stock units (su)/ha.  It’s a ‘head in the oven, feet in the freezer, but on average I feel fine’ kind of average.  Invermay pastoral agronomist and pattern thinker Gordon Cossens found production variation between paddocks within a farm at 100% +/- the mean.  He said the pattern variation within paddocks was the same.  So some areas produce near enough to twice the average, and some areas produce almost nothing.  Farm foresters will tell you exactly the same story.  They’ve walked this land.  Those that have looked up from the models will all tell you of non-uniformity and contingency – of this exposure, that wet, yonder piece of heaven.  Land is like that, with shifting patterns in time and place.

I’m convinced those farmers that plant trees are the best at observing those patterns.  You learn by being in their place, and listening.  I’ve been on hill tops discussing their observations.  They’ll talk of the pattern of grazing from dawn to dusk, from stock camps on northeast faces (out of the southwest and the frost, and where the early morning sun touches them).  Then grazing along the ridges and spurs until the sun warms the valley.  Then down the face they go, returning at dusk.  We put some GPS collars on a few sheep years later … and there it was.  Faces were secondary.  Shady cold narrow gut back faces were like offering tripe to a 10 year old.

Fitzgerald - the test of a first-rate intelligence

In these ‘bad’ pastoral areas within a farm you’re lucky to get 3 s.u. ha utilised.  Well, they’re not so much ‘bad’ areas as woodland areas.  Just as a bad pastoral boggy stock-loss-magnets are actually good wetlands.  But to think like that, you need to be able to hold more than one thought – even supposedly opposing thoughts – in your mind at the same time.  F Scott Fitzgerald said it the best.

Ken Stephens and his father Vic were heretics.  They planted trees on land that stock didn’t like so much, typically steeper than a particular contour line.  That is often cited as that contour where the tractor rolls over moving around the face.  Below that line, there be dragons.  Not just low production and very low pasture utilisation.  Also higher costs: woody weed control, fences and tracks blowing out, stock losses, wasted fertiliser, problem mustering areas.  But also soil erosion, water run-off, and a reduction in the quality and ecology streams.  Land without trees is both more flood prone, and more drought prone.  Clear a narrow dissected gully, and you are asking for environmental problems ….. and you’ll be throwing money down the drain.  Don’t listen to the maximise pastoral production agronomist (maximising production sub-optimises profits every time), or the maximise ‘Effective farm area’ advisor (that obsession ends up with a *loss* of effectiveness of the whole farm system.

Perley sketch - Dissected GullyThink and do something different, and the result will not be just a better profit/loss/risk & resilience profile; the benefits are multiple.  Better environment, better economy, better time management, better, better, ….  Run the easy contours on low costs, high return pasture, and give the stock shelter from that storm that hits every now and then right on lamb drop.

But back to the case study.  One memorable day, amongst a group of farm foresters (who are – I think – a special breed because they tend to be in my experience, maverick and very vocal and spirited thinkers …. so, yes, really annoying) Ken Stephens told us this story…..

So the fertiliser man turns up, and Ken tells him his stocking rates for the 80% or so of the farm in pasture – all of it the good stuff.  The guy goes back to the office to do his sums, and rings Ken.  “Ken, you’ve got it all wrong.  You’ve given me Southland finishing farm figures – up well over 20 su/ha.  You’re a South Otago hill country farmer.  That can’t be right.

Ken says no, we farm the good stuff, put the pastoral loss-making stuff into trees – save overhead costs, create shelter to the tops for that storm where I lose a hundred and the unsheltered neighbour who listens to Lincoln lost 1000.  Ken bought two extra farms for his sons from thinking about land this way.   He made money and had a less risky farm with a better environmental profile, and one that sustained his family and community.  That’s Economies of Scope.

Let all the costs and returns fall to the particular patch

The awareness of the costs associated with these poorer pastoral areas is an interesting point.   Many of those costs that occur *within* those areas, are not ‘directed’ there within the farm accounts.  You cannot find a money map of many, if any, farms with different shadings for high, moderate and low costs (and returns).  We’re not in the habit of money mapping like that (frankly, such mapping would be extremely useful as one step along the encouragement of land use integration).

Traquair Station Outram Google 2007ish? copyThis map of Traquair Station outside Outram (Town at centre bottom) gives you an appreciation of the money map.  The trees are in areas that are rubbish for grazing.  Charles Reid once told me flippantly that “We could have filled up these gullies with Tordon drums by now.  They’re forest areas.”

Rather than money-map, we just grab all the general stuff that isn’t related to a crop or stock unit, and smack it into overheads (aka indirect costs).  That’s fine from an accounting convenience point of view.  There is no need – from a farm accounts point of view – to spatially allocate such costs as stock losses, woody weed costs, labour, repairs and maintenance, let alone the even more nebulous fertiliser effectiveness, soil losses, water quality, biodiversity, stream function or drought function.  The tax man doesn’t need those specifics.  They want the bottom line and the bare logic of how you got there.  

The problem comes when your mind starts to believe that what is done for accounting convenience sake is an actual *fact* out in the field.  Because that’s when you lose the ability to synthesis and analyse land use potential within a farm landscape.  That’s when you stop thinking and seeing, and then you act in dumb ways.

When that appalling conceptual mistake of not considering the whole suite of costs and returns associated with a patch is made (and believe me, Gross Margin [GM] analysis when ‘analysing’ a forest area on a farm is the *norm* – conventional ‘wisdom’ even), then mistake builds upon mistake.  Seriously, this is what’s normal.

What happens is that – *instead* of the high costs associated with this low pastoral return country being very much part of the puzzle and of realising the potential of the whole farm system – the high 80:20 principle high cost pockets are …. well, they’re not so much ignored as completely invisible … what high cost pockets?  They’re not even in the suite of mechanical factory concepts.  Overheads are spread remember.  Evenly.  Like butter.  Add to the list of bollocks.


Understanding land system functionality 

But looking wisely at land pattern goes beyond more accurate money maps of costs and returns.  Analysts (well, I’d prefer they were called Synthesists) should also understand the multiple beneficial functions of any new land cover – and particularly how they impact on the whole farm operation – finance, health, resilience, social, etc.

It’s through the introduction of beneficial multiple functions from, say, a wetland or woodland, or individual trees, or polyculture within patches, that synergies are created – shelter, shade, health, water, new revenue options, drought tolerance etc.  It helps if you’re a natural born ecologist – looking at patterns and connections in the landscape.

But what you *don’t* do if you want to realise the potential of polycultures among and within farmscape patches, is assume that – like high cost pockets, and like low return pockets – these functions, being contingent and annoyingly shifting, expanding and contracting like some starling murmuration, are best ignored.   Assumed to be zero.  Not even given an arbitrary value.  Simply presumed out of existence.

On Measurement - the McNamara Fallacy

And this – of course – is precisely what the agricultural ‘analysts’ do.  Assuming they don’t exist.  This is called the McNamara Fallacy (or the Quantitative Fallacy).  It is also a classic example of Alfred North Whitehead’s Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.  You think that you can deal in averages and only the relatively regular, universal and quantifiable, when you cannot.  Note, metaphysically we’re talking about a complex system – like a child – not a regular factory, a machine.  Fallacy.

The idea that there is no functional change in the farm environment associated with functions such as shelter, shade, water regulation, soil function, flood, drought, stock health, soil loss etc., is analytical blindness.  Blindness is what we do.

The Opportunity Cost Con

Add to the that the idea that taking any particular land ‘out of pastoral production’ is best represented by the precise and completely incorrect figure you know – the *average* of the whole farm (14 su/ha say) though it bears bears no relation to this patch – rather than the correct actual pastoral production and utilisation figure …. which you may not know precisely, but farm foresters will give you a far more accurate measure than the irrelevant farm average.  Many farm foresters have a real feel for those production patterns.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard them say that they took this particular face out – from the edge of the ridge at the top to the start of the colluvium line – the line from where soil deposits downslope –  and lost effectively no stock.  A farmer who knows his land might *judge* 2 su/ha.  The professional will use the average, to great precision and a sense of faux objectivity.  The farmer will be far more accurate.

So they use the false number because they have some measured data, irrespective of context, quietly ignoring that it applies to the whole farm, and not to the ‘feet in the freezer’ particulars.  This is doubly fallacious – and really philosophically annoying – because it doesn’t *just* hide behind ignorance wielding a sword named ‘Accuracy and precision’; it actually assumes a presumed objective professional smugness that is beyond foolish.

Fallacy.  Fallacy.  Modern, mechanical, reductive, uniform, Newtonian Physics Envy delusion.  Worse, the logically indefensible approach is repeated even after the fallacies are explained.  I heard of an example only a few years ago.  Same gross margin analysis.  Same ignoring of the low return: high cost reality.  Same blindness to multiple and beneficial farm system effects.  Their message?  If you plant trees or wetlands, there’ll be an inevitable cost to the farm enterprise.   That is precisely the opposite of most realities when people with a feel for the land choose within the farm the composition, location and management of woodlands and wetlands, etc.   The Fitzgerald quote above keeps coming to mind; just how many thoughts can those analysts keep in their head beyond one.

Summary of the financial fallacies of integrated land use analysis

MAF and Lincoln produced multiple studies from the 1970s that showed from within a false logic of land as a uniform factory rather than a living system, that examples such as the Stephens was impossible.  I once collected them, searching back through time for some trees on farms analysis that was actually in accord with all the real world experience of our farm foresters.  I found not one.  They were all in opposition to their example.  Their exemplar to be frank.

I wanted to know why, and discovered layer upon layer of false assumptions (it is unfortunately very common in most professions I’ve found – unfounded belief in some dogma or other).  But reality, speality.  Apparently, when given a choice between a reality and false and much worshipped theoretical framing, it is the reality that is wrong.  

Their simplistic approach….. ????  If you put 20% of your farm in wetlands or trees, then “obviously” you lose 20% of all the good stuff – production, gross revenue, profit, etc.  And because we conveniently assume that farms are are all perfect average flat paddocks of course – factories – then gross margin (never mind the unaffected indirect costs) tells you the truth about where the costs lie because all the overheads are magically spread over the whole area.

But wait, there’s more.  The mismeasurement of the hyper-inflated revenue loss from that cattle-beast drowning, weed-control nightmare gorse wilderness, is compounded by the assumption that there will be no change in the ‘overheads’.  Weed control etc., having nothing to do with this particular site.  So a lower ‘effective farm area’ (meaning pastoral and nothing else) will have to carry the undiminished indirect cost structure.  Add that to the negatives against anything that dares *not* to be pure pasture or crop.

But wait, there’s more.  On top of the incorrect loss of revenue, and the incorrect non-loss of costs, and the incorrect blindness to multiple and beneficial functions – from shade to drought resilience – any establishment of wetland or woodland is loaded up with a fallacious ‘opportunity cost’ within its own internalised finance.  So another negative cost – the agronomists presumed loss to the farm system (the opposite of the reality) – is added to the forestry cashflow – so it will look like a poorer investment (and I haven’t even mentioned how land value is assumed in that financial analysis for pastoral land that makes a negative return!).

So a suite of fallacious negatives and absolutely none of the real positives (measurable and not) to the farm system are loaded on to the non-pastoral patch.

One might almost suspect that Lincoln and MPI agronomists et al. have a bit of a downer on land use systems that aren’t uniform commodity-producing agri-business factories focused on the logic of Economies of Scale.

Or it could simply be that the industrial factory paradigm that has so obsessed New Zealand agriculture for decades – the “maximise production at all costs through homogeneity, scale, and high energy inputs no matter the costs to economy, community or environment” – is entrenched and unbendable.

To point out the obvious lack of apparent capacity to conceptualise ourselves out our rural economic, social and environmental declines goes without saying.

But this cannot last.   The poets say it best.  The current New Zealand obsession with land and all that is in it and of it as industry are the poet Keat’s unweaving a rainbow (a potential one) made flesh.

But perhaps WH Auden ought to have the last word.  It is this culture of Modernity, industry and narrowness – which takes complex life and makes it a simple grinding metal beast – whose worth is reflected in the landscapes it makes.  This unbending culture that industrialises life and is going to smash, and is no better than the woods it makes, or massacres.

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;
Someone is not disgusted, or at least
Is laying bets upon the human race
Retaining enough decency to last;
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

WH Auden, “Bucolics” part II, “Woods”

Hillend - rounded tops and dissected gullies

Typical South Otago – Rolling tops and dissected gullies

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in agricultural strategy, Alternative Vision, Building Regional Economies, Land Use, Land use policy, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Changing the Framing of our Lands and Forests …. and Hedgehogs – and Foxes

“The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.”

Sarah Smith Fantasy City - Waitakere to Auckland

Sarah Smith – Fantasy City

The Parliamentary Commission for the Environment (PCE) report Farms, Forests and Fossil Fuels: The next Great Landscape Transformation was released 26th March 2019. Amidst all the calls for clarity and angst over change, or even civil dialogue, a number of key ideas lay buried, or tossed aside, or even stomped to death. We do need to think differently. And that involves paradigm shifts in framing. A point made by the PCE in this report, as it was made by ex PCE Commissioner Morgan Williams in the 2004 PCE report Growing for Good.

That – 15 long years ago – was a response against the rising energy intensification of increasingly industrialised, Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emitting, high energy input, irrigated and monocultural dairy.  And a parallel shift from often moderately irrigated (or not at all) rotational mixed cropping to heavy nitrogenous fertiliser continuous cropping.  No need to restore the soil with a rotation of legumes and pasture, just add more N.  What soil & water degradation?  What GHG?  What climate change?  What increasing corporatisation, shelterbelt removal, migrant labour, indebtedness?  What continuing decline in real commodity prices?  What technology treadmill?

Why the relatively low input hill country sheep and beef sector doesn’t differentiate itself from the polluting, energy hungry and increasingly corporate intensive dairy and cropping I cannot fathom.  If the PCE could have done anything better, it might have been to make some qualitative differentiations between the various agricultural sub-sectors.

Michael Hodgkins - Near Dunedin

Michael Hodgkins – Near Dunedin

That is one point that needs to be acknowledged. The need to think differently about land. Forestry has a ‘keystone’ role in that paradigm shift from the nonsense colonial paradigm of ‘produce more to feed the world’ by producing bulk commodities that don’t use adjectives in their marketing. Landscapes need to be considered as agro-ecological systems (and socio-ecological systems) that include woodlands, wetlands, and healthy functioning soils.

Contrary to the current industrial paradigm that cannot think beyond one thing (the Hedgehog mode), such systems lead to synergies across environmental, social and economic outcomes. But you need to be able to think like a Fox. Think in systems, not machines, in multiple functions and shifting dynamics, not the single and the static. Think in adaptability, not in any stubborn Vogon mode. Think in Post-Industrial Economies of Scope of patterns designed into being, not Fordist Economies of Scale of the one, big, unthinking thing.

foxs & hedgehogs.png

There can also be no doubt that much more needs to be done by the major GHG emitters of fossil transport fuel. The PCE is trying to create that wake up moment. And there can be no doubt that New Zealand having forestry as an offset has done very little to encourage … why weasel the words – it has discouraged – either of the emitting sectors to fundamentally change, for the moment.

Motorways & industrial agThey haven’t had to. Business as usual. Motorways, irrigation, de-electrifying and discouraging rail, public transport the poor cousin still, Auckland trying to emulate the radial multilane structure of Los Angeles with Treasury urging ‘more land supply’ because they cannot think beyond their two-dimensional charts to anything as complex as urban design. Car-motorway suburbs as a nonsense faith in “land and energy are infinite, and technology will save us” are being replaced around the world by decentralised multiple village structures linked by walking, cycling and public transport. Yet we stick to our usual “this is what we do” Hedgehog mode – don’t adapt, think or dialogue, just roll into a ball and hunker down.

But Simon Upton also has another message. Historically, he has argued that forestry should not define or promote itself through the few simplistic lens – all money measures, including carbon.

And that message is what a number of us tried to get across to the hedgehog thinkers in MPI when the ETS was first being developed as the market mechanism for encouraging tree planting 15 odd years ago. There are multiple benefits from planting trees in landscapes, multiple reasons all beneficial to land owners, landscapes, communities and local economies, multiple dynamics and patterns and potentials in multiple contexts, multiple connections to hold in our heads at any one time – and they don’t have to be blanket forestry blocks of bland non-adaptive single function – the Hedgehog ideal.

The scope of potential in having woodlands as part of the patchwork quilt mix within predominately pastoral hill country systems is right there waiting for the Fox to come along – see the connections and possibilities, happy to extend into any domain, observing of patterns and place, changing with conditions – and replace the Hedgehog.

The_Hedgehog,_the_Fox,_and_Magister's_Pox.jpgAnd that’s the biggest change we need, away from the narrow and mechanical thinking and toward the integration of many things by design to create something new.  Something that actually works.  It’s also why we need to shift from our current belief that any strict STEM specialist is in any way a thought leader within complex contexts.  They’re not.  We need something more.  Synthesis is vital as a context for analysis.  Without the former, there is zero wisdom as a base for the latter.

I’ll leave the last word to Richard Lewontin, one of the most brilliant integrative thinking scientists you could ever read.

“The problem is to construct a third view. One that sees the whole world neither as an indissoluble whole, nor with the equally incorrect, but presently dominant view, that at every level the world is made up of bits and pieces that can be isolated and that have properties that can be studied in isolation. Both of these ideologies, one that mirrors the pre-modern feudal social world, and the other that mirrors the modern, competitive, individualistic entrepreneurial world, prevent us from seeing the full richness of interaction in nature. In the end, they prevent a real understanding of nature and prevent us from solving the problems to which science is supposed to apply itself.”

Richard Lewontin, Massey Lecture 1: Biology as Ideology

Biblio on Hedgehogs & Foxes

The Concept of Hedgehogs & Foxes in the Post-Industrial Thought
The same argument of accepting complexity and connection when making judgments, managing, etc. is highlighted by research and practice in:


Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a philosophy, governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and natural systems.

About Chris Perley

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in agricultural strategy, Alternative Vision, Building Regional Economies, Land Use, Land use policy, Land use strategy, Landscape function, Reimagining, Thought Pieces | 3 Comments

Reimagining landscapes as socio- and agro-ecosystems [1]

Preamble: Dr Mike Joy brought a team of people together to consider the question of how we can help solve New Zealand’s freshwater crisis.  The contributions were published by Bridget Williams Books as Mike Joy (Ed) 2018 Mountain to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis

I would highly recommend Mike’s work, and this book.  It is a great team of people.  The book is available as a Google Book within the link above.  But the book is nicer to have, and no, we don’t receive any royalties if you go out and spend.

What follows was my contribution.  Water is just one of the crises we face.  If you look environmentally, New Zealand’s challenges include: water quality and water function (the capacity of a landscape to hold water to maintain stream function, and prevent both flood and drought); soil conservation and function; soil and terrestrial carbon stocks and flows; biodiversity; Greenhouse Gases; ecosystem gifts such as pollination; and energy dependency and demands. 

To those environmental crises, all associated with land use, we should add the economic decline of rural communities and economies directly associated with a way of viewing our so-called working lands as industrial factories focused on economies-of-scale and techno-fixes to reduce costs and increase production without regard to long-term consequences. 

The crises are multi-dimensional, and interrelated.  The solutions can be the same.

These crises relate to not just how we act *within* the landscapes to which we belong, but also to the ‘ideas’’that *underlie* how we act.  We are all philosophical first, and ‘rational’ second.  This chapter backgrounds some of these ideas, and argues for a fundamental philosophical shift from the Modern industrial paradigm, to post-industrial ways of seeing that embrace both the ontology of complex adaptive systems (CAS) and the values of indigenous and eco-feminine moral philosophy. 

These ideas are at the core of the crises.  We need to change how we see our world before we can change how we act.


Reimagining landscapes as socio- and agro-ecosystems.

Landscapes as philosophically contested spaces

Landscapes are a contest of ideas. We ‘see’ them through a cultural lens – from sinister to transcendent, as resource or pure cultureless nature, as utility or memory, as ‘other’, outside ourselves, or integral to community, wider environment and self. Such cultural lenses – whether called paradigms, world views, framings or metaphors by which we see and live – are built within us through upbringing and education.

A landscape is no objective place. So what is the better lens through which to see, study, act and even be?

For those of us raised in the non-humanities disciplines, such deeper questions are uncommon. We deal in the implicit analytical and ‘positive’ traditions: in uncontested assumptions of objectively measured things. And we tend to measure what can fit within our methods, our assumptions of metaphysics and epistemology, and even what is easily measured in time and place. The path of least resistance is studied. The less easy road, however important, waits its turn.

Research questions flow from our world view, our methodological ideals, and from our normative ideas of what we ought to or can more easily study. Questions arise not only from what matters to us, but from the particular ideas of powerful interests, with dollars to invest.

The roots of the machine

The existence of a cultural lens is not the basis for an argument in favour of relativism. It is the basis of asking what is it to best know a landscape, as a logical prerequisite to inform our actions, and how best to act.

To that end, the Modern Cartesian view of the world – a mechanical world knowable by reducing the whole to analytical parts – is overdone. It is not the best way to know a complex landscape, and arguably results in less insight, not more. It makes us create factories out of places that are very far from being machines. It is partly responsible for the declining state of our environment. Complex landscapes are first reduced to the metaphor of utilitarian ‘natural resource’, and then further still to an even narrower set of resources we are asked to favour and measure. That focus on short-term agronomic production transforms a real complex socio-ecological landscape into the simplified factory. We make a factory because that is our subjective view of the world – of nature as reducible machine.

The consequences that follow from such transformations are either reduced in relative importance, or not considered at all. Agronomic concerns do not extend to landscape ecological function, sociology, climate, river, soil, energy, carbon or wider consequences. It is these real consequences – to environmental, social and economic viability – that have emerged over the last decades. Yet the narrow view that actually causes these consequences defends itself by claiming some measure of technocratic success; be it statistical significance or some assurance of being ‘science-led’. ‘Science-led’ is no recommendation if the question of ‘whose science?’ is not asked.

This mechanical framing can break down vital functional connections because within a synthetic connected space such as a landscape the notion of Ceteris paribus (all else remains constant) does not hold. You can never do just one thing. It follows that, if we want to understand and act wisely, we need to synthesise as much as we analyse. Effective analysis has a synthesising context. Our context-less focus is the problem, not the solution.

Knowing landscapes as interconnected socio-ecological systems

A landscape is connected, always connected, to other forms of biophysical life, humans included. We cannot fully know landscapes without a sense of the connections, of a functioning whole. If you remove the children playing, or the caddis flies in the stream; if you do not extend the effects of fertiliser beyond mere pasture growth – on to, for instance, soil biology and carbon, infiltration rates, risk of drought and flood, economic health – then we are less wise, not more.

All those connections and functions are part of the system. The cleverness of disassociated agronomy cannot compensate for the trade-offs it may create when applied without context. Without the wisdom to make the right choice instead of focusing simply on, say, increasing inputs to maximise yields, or increasing scale to reduce costs, it cannot see the consequences that are obvious to those who can connect. Reimagining includes ensuring you look to those patterns and connections beyond a single discipline. Ask the question, ‘What else have we done?’ Because there is always something else; there are always lines of connection and feedback rippling out from any act.

The cleverness of any act is as of nothing before the wisdom of the choice. Cloning Tyrannosaurus rex may be clever, but not wise. Looking at land as if it is a reducible machine has turned that truth on its head. Disconnected cleverness has come to trump wisdom, and for each problem it creates, another piece of cleverness is devised: what Willard Cochrane called ‘the technology treadmill’, where the economic, social and environmental health of a place degrades until we lose Arcadia.[2] That Platonic story of Arcadia’s loss is being repeated not because technology is bad, but because it alone cannot make the right choices without a reimagined concept of the whole.

Reimagining is a prerequisite to redesign

So reimagine. Look to land as an integrated whole. People live on it. Animals are born and die. Energy flows from the sun through all the trophic levels, through one gut to another. There are water patterns, harvest patterns. There are spatial patterns where the grassland edges to woodland, which edges to wetland, and then to a stream, each vegetation cover with its own polycultural pattern.

There are economic patterns where the profitable pasture in one area turns to the unprofitable in another. There are multiple values where the woodland gully is both profitable and protecting, while an economic and ecological disaster in grass; where ecological diversity is an economic benefit, and the wetland a giver of biodiversity, water regulation, recreation, stock health and more.

There are temporal patterns, seasonal and through disturbances big and small. There are thresholds of change, feedbacks, synergies where building diversity and pattern begets improved function begets social, environmental and economic benefits.

A reimagined healthy landscape and the land-use strategy that has so much influence upon it can create free ecosystem gifts (pollination, drought resilience, etc.) and reduced costs.[3] A healthy landscape provides quality and diversity, as well as a marketing narrative required for a price premium. A functioning landscape can create diversity of enterprise because something new emerges. Where there was once just grass, there may now be kai moana, game to hunt, and an aesthetic that attracts the horse trekker.

We can redesign these systems – as systems not factories – and both rebuild and create benefits, including a sense of belonging. Those patterns move far beyond the biophysical function and health of any landscape. They affect humanity in so many ways, both social and economic.

That is the great shame in looking at land and landscapes as factories. The technocrat focused on one thing is more than likely disconnected from life’s meaning, and certainly from the rural sociology of degrading communities and the real price decline of commodities. Why care about the future of farming families and communities as land continually aggregates into increasingly non-local corporate ownership, or care about the real decline in commodity prices, or the nature of commodity itself, or wider primary-sector strategy, if all we are focused on is the agronomy of increasing production? Or on yet another techno-fix to a problem created by a landscape dysfunction, itself created by a previous techno-fix?

Competing silos where both lose

By being told to keep to our discipline, and ignore the context of life itself, we both turn away from seeing and thinking about potential, and unwittingly degrade not just that potential, but what we already have. Taken to a place where there is no understanding of broader context, analysis alone creates yet more dysfunction. It not only destroys the connections and the functions it cannot see outside its own analytical bubble, it also creates a competition between disciplines – where the relationship is seen as necessary trade-off rather than potential synergy. The woodland and wetland are seen as a loss for pastoral animal production, when the synergies are legion. Stream health is seen as a necessary trade-off for financial return, when a healthy stream is one of the best indicators of land and financial health[4].

The mechanical view of landscape focuses on the word ‘or’; the agro-ecological and socio-ecological systems view sees ‘and’ at every turn.

It is because of the ‘and’ that reimagined and redesigned landscapes can repair the damage we have done through colonial ‘extensification’, and particularly through the acceleration of ‘energy intensification’ trends after the Second World War.[5][6] We can become ‘knowledge-intensive’, and create multiple beneficial functions.[7] And we can restore environmental, social and economic health to place. And we can restore the functions of water regulation to mitigate or avoid droughts and downstream floods. And we can improve aquatic ecological systems and water quality. And we can reduce the boom–bust cycle of feeder streams. And we can improve biodiversity and with it the . And we can increase input–output productivity, even increase the great god of pastoral production, while reducing energy inputs and building deeply functional carbon banks, and reducing greenhouse gases. And we can increase the quality of produce and reverse real price decline. And we can improve the economy of farmscapes and their resilience to the irregular events of climatic extremes and market shifts.

And when we do it from a reimagined world view, there need be no trade-offs between the land, community and enterprise; just synergies.

Reimagining an agro-ecological world view

Reimagining landscapes as complex adaptive systems is both socio-ecological and agro-ecological. At the core of agro-ecological thinking is the idea that both biophysical elements (soils, soil ecology, animals, vegetation land covers, water and its function, microclimates, etc.) and land-cover patterns can provide multiple benefits in a designed and managed land system. Those patterns are premised on both the natural variations within a landscape, and the connections between and within elements and patches with potential for synergies (landscape mutualism).

Land-cover patches include pastures, crops, woodlands, wetlands, tall herbaceous leys, etc. This is a polycultural world with heterogeneity both between and within land-cover patches at its core.

The industrial factory view of landscapes works directly against pattern and potential landscape mutualism. It forces the land into a homogeneous uniform, marching in step whatever the limits and potentials of the terrain. The consequence is dysfunction, an increase in inputs of energy and work in order to keep the ideal of the machine far away from anything remotely like a natural patterned and dynamic system.

The classic New Zealand example involves those farm areas that are dysfunctional when in pasture but beneficial when in other land covers, which were historically cleared of functional woodlands and wetlands in order to create pasture with never-ending problems. Combined with the bad pasture came the bad environmental consequences: soil degradation, the damage to both water retention and quality, the degradation of stream systems, stock losses, mustering problems, ineffective returns on fertiliser, and high costs in chemical weed control and repairs and maintenance.[8]

In direct contrast, agro-ecology designs from within an understanding of the wider system, for multiple gains across economy, society and environment. It dances with the land and rejoices in the patterns of variation and connection. Agro-ecological design is effectively a process of creating a ‘self-organised system’, where the system runs without continued energy input, without negative environmental outputs, and with social, resilience and economic benefits. The soil health, permanently flowing streams, water infiltration and holding, water quality, stock health, resilience, low energy input, carbon neutrality, community-friendliness, profitability, productivity, financial efficiency and high-value produce – all go hand in hand.[9]

Historical challenges and alternatives

Challenging the current industrial–mechanical paradigm requires some understanding of its history, especially with the rise of energy inputs, first increased after the Second World War, and then again with the dramatic rise in fossil-energy derived nitrogenous fertiliser from the 1990s. Coupled with the increased energy intensification was the continued aggregation of land to provide the economies-of-scale needed for a narrow range of commodity producing enterprises to remain financially viable.   Both patterns shifted agriculture away from the more traditional economies-of-scope approach, which emphasised maintaining a coherent system without the need for expensive inputs. That paradigm shift was never uncontested, and the challenge has become more immediate and far wider with time.

In the 1940s, Sir Alfred Howard contrasted traditional farming systems, particularly in Asia, with the emerging chemical-fertiliser revolution that treated soils more as a hydroponic medium.[10] America had a number of proponents of treating the land as a system, with better yields, lower inputs, fewer pest-control problems and a better local economy and social and environmental values.[11] Both Edward Faulkner and Louis Bromfield write from their personal experience after the Second World War about managing lands as patterned and integrated systems, in part to contest the contemporary shift in emphasis in the opposite direction, to less pattern and more inputs. Their singular and successful case studies were exemplars at the time of the extraordinary, opening our eyes to what we could have, and be. They also wrote from a perspective of belonging, and touched on the philosophy of home and community.

More detailed philosophy challenging modernity paralleled these land management exemplars. Aldo Leopold led the way to an integrated world view with A Sand County Almanac. Leopold’s message was about far more than his famous Land Ethic. He premised that ethic on the nature of the environment, as far more than agronomy, to which we belong..[12] Rachel Carson responded to the first real consequence of industrial land use with Silent Spring.[13] The consequences to biodiversity sat alongside a crisis of farm economics.

The cycles of accelerating landscape dysfunction were the focus of Willard Cochrane’s treadmill metaphor. In 1958, he defined the challenge of continued economic marginalisation resulting from a vicious cycle of increasing production, reductions in real prices, cost reductions through scale, yet more landowner aggregation, yet more techno-fix industrialism, yet more social and worker marginalisation (mere resources), ad absurdum: an absurd process to which unsynthesised analytical thinking is blind. It is not looking, so it does not see. But here’s another techno-fix for this particular symptom, better to increase production.

Few were listening to these commentators on what was happening to the functional health of the wider landscape system in either America or New Zealand. The 1970s brought the call to industrialise further. ‘Get big or get out’ and ‘Plant fencerow to fencerow’ was the call of US Department of Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz. Wendell Berry wrote his classic The Unsettling of America in response, lamenting the industrial effects on communities, families, local economies and the land.[14]

Agro-ecology emerged in the 1980s, as some academics saw the broader issues and the social, environmental and economic potential tipping points becoming uncomfortably evident. They were intent on looking at science-based alternatives. The science of agro-ecology pioneer Miguel Altieri was followed by an increasing number of researchers looking at the potential to work with rather than against the environment, while enhance productivity and other mutual values within and between patch polycultures.[15] Ecological approaches to land use as a challenge to a failing industrial paradigm have only expanded since those early endeavours to solve the problems of industrialism, from Wes Jackson to work by Jeffrey McNeely and Sara Sherr.[16] The academic literature is now considerable.

Novelists joined in to highlight the moral questions and the loss of values for the benefit of a few, Jane Smiley and Annie Proulx particularly.[17] Rural sociology arose as a serious discipline examining the social and economic consequences to farming families and communities.

The New Zealand Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment directly challenged the current and increasingly industrialised paradigm, and raised the need for a ‘redesign’ of agriculture in 2004.[18] The result was a resounding dismissal by policy makers and the farmers’ union Federated Farmers.

From the late 2000s, the international reports began to emerge, the most significant being UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Olivier De Schutter’s report to the 2010 General Assembly.[19] The evidence he accumulated, which has been expanded in the years since, is clear. The industrial approach to landscapes that treats land as a factory, simplified to suit the mass production of undifferentiated commodities at low cost using high-energy inputs, is unquestionably contributing to significant and planet-threatening environmental problems for water, soil, biodiversity and the atmosphere, as well as social and economic problems.

So why isn’t It changing?

Change has yet to occur. Agro-ecological thinkers remain marginalised. Modern ideas dominate, despite their errors and their negative consequences. Those ideas, ironically considered value-free, are deeply embedded within the culture of New Zealand land use.

Wendell Berry was right to frame the crisis in American agriculture as ‘a crisis of culture’. New Zealand is no different[20]. Unfortunately, the culture has shifted from one mode – the modernity of colonial thought producing commodities from commoditised land and commoditised people – to another not dissimilar mode, the modernity of corporate agribusiness. Both have an interest in mechanical and homogeneous production systems (factories); both support cost-efficiency through scale rather than building the potential scope of values provided by healthy lands and landscapes. Both support increasing production and throughput of single financially marginal commodities; using (and marginalising) people and landscapes as sets of cheap resources to utilise for the efficiency of one thing, at the expense of all the other potentials.

Both impose those subjective reducible-factory beliefs on our landscapes with the justification of supposedly ‘objectively’ measured reports.

We need to decolonise and decorporatise our minds before we can decolonise our landscapes. Our problems lie deep within the metaphors we see by. Reimagining that mythology of machine is where the solutions lie, hidden from sight, obscured by seeing and doing what we always see and do, without thinking about why.


Chris Perley


[1] Published as Chapter 9 in Mike Joy (Ed) 2018 Mountain to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis. Bridget Williams Books, Wellington.

[2] Willard W. Cochrane, The Curse of American Agricultural Abundance: A Sustainable Solution, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, London, 2003, ch. 2.

[3] Reimagining landscapes is strongly associated with the broader primary-sector strategies adopted by a country. In broad terms, there are two competing strategies: 1, the homogeneous, low-value commodity approach, focused on cost of production and high production marketed in bulk (e.g. Fonterra focuses on high volume ‘continuous’ throughput where input differentiation based on traits such as point of origin, quality of somatic cell count or organic certification is – essentially – a bother). This is in contrast to 2, a focus on retention of and increase in value rather than ‘cost-efficiency’, by emphasising the narrative, diversity and differentiation of the ‘batch-processed’ products (e.g. branded and crafted beers), with a variety of marketing (direct, local, cooperative, etc.). Our landscapes – as cheap factories or batch producers – are integral to the primary-sector strategies we choose. It follows we need a re-imagination of those production and supply systems along with our landscapes.

[4] An excellent surrogate indicator because a healthy stream – water quality, extended flow and rich ecology – indicates a healthy feeder catchment retaining its natural capital, soil and landscape function.. Generally, what is good on the land is bad in a stream. E.g. stream health indicates that the land is acting as a ‘sponge’ to infiltrate and hold water, the opposite of a hard rapid run-off ‘plate’, and soil, organic matter and nutrients are not being lost from the landscape system.

[5] ‘Extensification’ increases the amount of land under primary-sector production systems, primarily imported pasture at the expense of woodland, wetland and ‘unimproved’ grasslands. Termed the ‘First Food Regime particular to extending the world’s food system through the age of colonisation where large tracts of lands were transformed into agricultural productive landscapes – New Zealand included. These essentially colonial production systems distributed increasingly commoditised agricultural products for export to highly populated wealthy countries. The dominant meaning of land was as producer and supplier for distant markets, with land commoditised, as was its produce (and arguably its people). The Second Food Regime relates to the intensification of those lands primarily using increased energy inputs into the system (fertiliser and mechanisation), increasing yields. H. Friedmann and P. McMichael. Agriculture and the state system: the rise and fall of national agricultures, 1870 to the present. Sociologia Ruralis, 29(2), 93–117, 1989.

[6] ‘Energy intensification’ increases the energy input (chemical and mechanical) into a given land area in order to increase yields per hectare. The two major phases in New Zealand were the post-Second World War increase in aerial and ground application of mined phosphate using war surplus material, and the shift, with urea production from the Motunui plant, to increased intensification of both dairy (augmented by supplementary feed, particularly from palm kernel extract) and continuous-cropping systems. Mixed-cropping and mixed-dairy systems that used temporal rotations to manage their system health markedly reduced. Both of these intensification steps made landscapes seen and managed more and more in the factory image. The environmental, social and long-term economic consequences, in terms of ownership and local spend, are dramatic.

[7] ‘Knowledge-intensive’ refers to a refocus on the wider knowing required in order to manage ‘working’ landscapes, as well as the social and economic systems from which they cannot be segregated. The refocus involved a new science that is considerably more focused on connection than simply working within silos. It is more multi- and inter-disciplinary, including the humanities like philosophy, history and sociology, and the knowledge of local people within a particular place – a transdisciplinary approach, because complexity is place-based. It involves a directed sociological programme (‘learning by doing’, ‘action research’), including such examples as ‘integrated catchment management’ and ‘innovative communities’. This is a challenge to the current corporate CRI model and to our public-sector policy and university systems. It involves a re-imagining of our science, policy and tertiary-education models.

[8] Many of these costs are considered ‘overheads’, and so the agricultural profession – obsessed with grass – has repeatedly ‘analysed’ growing trees on such dysfunctional pastoral sites as ‘uneconomic’ in their factory eyes because they do not direct the overhead costs to site, and presume that, being a factory, the land production is uniform and without pattern. Nor are environmental costs considered. So a gully that may at best carry three stock units per hectare is presumed to carry twelve, and all the financial and environmental costs mentioned above are presumed not to apply. Using that logical framework, re-establishing wetlands and trees in certain highly suitable areas is ‘analysed’ using fallacious assumptions and data that such a change in land cover removes a profitable pastoral area, and therefore an opportunity cost (of pastoral returns foregone) needs to be applied. New Zealand farm foresters, as well as those who have established wetlands where they once wasted money and lost stock repeatedly, have debunked this myth and pointed out the analytical fallacies for two decades, but the modern factory view prevails. As well as a reimagining of landscapes, we need a reimagining of the within-farm economic teaching within university agricultural science.

[9] For agro-ecological examples from around the world, books by Jules Pretty are recommended. See

[10] Albert Howard, An Agricultural Testament, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1943.

[11] E.H. Faulkner, Soil Restoration, Michael Joseph Ltd., London, 1945; Louis Bromfield, Pleasant Valley, Wooster Book Co., Wooster, Ohio. 1945.

[12] Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1947.

[13] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York, 1962.

[14] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1977.

[15] Miguel Altieri, Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture, University of California, Berkeley, 1983.

[16] Wes Jackson, New Roots for Agriculture, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, London, 1980. Jeffrey A. McNeely and Sara J. Scherr, Ecoagriculture: Strategies to Feed the World and Save Biodiversity, Island Press, Washington, 2003; Sara J. Scherr and Jeffrey A. McNeely, Farming with Nature: The Science and Practice of Ecoagriculture, Island Press, Washington, 2012.

[17] Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres, Anchor Books, New York, 1991; Annie Proulx, That Old Ace in the Hole, Scribner, New York, 2002.

[18] Parliamentary Commission for the Environment, Growing for Good: Intensive Farming, Sustainability and New Zealand’s Environment, 2004, (accessed 5 August 2018).

[19] Olivier De Schutter, Agroecology and the Right to Food, report to the United Nations General Assembly, 20 December 2010, and the Human Rights Council, March 2011, (accessed 5 August 2018). ‘Based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature, the report demonstrates that agroecology, if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. The report therefore calls for a fundamental shift towards agro-ecology as a way for countries to feed themselves while addressing climate- and poverty challenges.’

[20] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, Cal., 1977, p. 39.

Starling Murmuration Shazz

Posted in agricultural strategy, Alternative Vision, Building Regional Economies, Commodity trap, Land Use, Land use policy, Linkages, Reimagining, Resilience Thinking, Socio-ecological Systems, Thought Pieces, Water retention, Wicked Problems | 2 Comments

Seeing our Water: Our Solutions may lie in Another World

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?” 

David Foster Wallace “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life”

Tears of Rangi

Most of us – we of the West marinating in our modernity – don’t recognise that we live in a reality that is anything but objective. We see through the lens of culture, upbringing and experience. Dame Anne Salmond writes so well about this. And her latest book, Tears of Rangi: Experiments across Worlds, has been short-listed for the Nayef Al-Rodhan Prize for Global Cultural Understanding 2018.  Dame Anne was interviewed by The British Academy about how she came to write the book here.

It is Māori, far more than Pakeha, who recognise different world views. There is a Pakeha reality (Modernity – te ao Pakeha) and a Māori reality (te ao Māori).  I think most (Pakeha) presume a modern mechanical world because, 400 years ago, there was a revolution of thought in the European West.  Some have argued (like Bruno Latour) that we have never been completely modern (though he was critiqueing scientific faith in modernity and its inability to work in practice because separation between framing an object, and being a subject is simply not possible).

V0017128 A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog. Oil

A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog.  Emile-Edouard Mouchy.

At an extreme, the early modern experiments in live vivisection of the (presumably mechanical soulless) dog were never accepted by the general population, and hence they stopped.  But a special case can be made for those Europeans who left the homeland myths of their European villages, and ‘settled’ (in body if not in mind) in a Tabula Rasa land – blank of story, empty of moral implication and devoid of humanity – that could be treated as pure modern ‘resource’ to the colonial mind.

And so we treated it so.  Arguably far more so than would be permitted within the surrounds of their European village.   A free-for-all bonanza without moral implications is very much a part of colonial history in New Zealand (and perhaps all ‘new’ territories), starting with the seals, and continuing today with the exploitation of land, water and fisheries.  They are just things, resources, stocks, money, utility.

The characteristic of the predominantly modern mind is that we don’t necessarily recognise our own cultural lens. We’re not taught to.  Certainly not in the STEM disciplines. And so we don’t even see the lens through which we see. Therefore very few question it, or expose it to the light, let alone acknowledge its existence.  I think ‘we’ (certainly most STEM trained professional Pakeha) are taught not to even consider alternative world views. And so we’ve forgotten that we once held another, far more ‘indigenous’ view from a moral and philosophical perspective. One that was far closer to the Māori reality.

Some of us want to relearn what it is to be ‘indigenous’, native to a place. Some of us are there already, or part way there. Some think it’s about race, when it isn’t at all.

Western-and-Indigenous-World-views.jpgMany of us now believe that the problem we face, environmentally & socially – *and* in the way we ‘manage our home’ (eco – nomy) – are rooted in this Western modern world view that dissects, disintegrates and determines our whole into measured bits – with all the trappings of ‘progress’. And within that locked-in bubble ‘we’ (the professional elite) propose solutions (as technofixes) within that same destructive paradigm, which simply perpetuate our problems.  We shuffle deck chairs on the Titanic while keeping direction and arrogant certainty intact.  We live in the certain controllable world.  All aberrations are just fine tunings of the next technofix epicycle to refine the model and explain the wobble, a new perfectly circular cog to place on the perfectly circular machine.  But dont question the underlying model.   Philosophy is for hippies.


Ptolemaic Astronomy: Earth as Centre of the Universe, anomalies explained by the continued application of ad hoc epicycles.

Read Anne Salmond. I think our salvation is in finding our humanity again *within* a community, a collective sense of something beyond, a history, a place.

I think the solutions lie in re-embracing the indigenous philosophy and past of all cultures, in synthesising a new science, in those feminist environmental philosophers like Val Plumwood & Carolyn Merchant (Merchant takes us back before modernity to the Renaissance) who questioned our Western nature of reality, and why the ‘male’ virtues like objectivity, quantification, utility – all the trappings of reason – have any right to think themselves ‘better’ than ‘female’ & ‘indigenous’ virtues & interrelationships; better than nature, or passion, or care, or belonging, or kaitiakitanga, or whanaungatanga or manaakitanga – those virtues of interaction and right behaviour that are a pattern of most past cultures, not specific to Māori.

Manaakitanga - mycommunities

Within our Western modern mechanical mythology we have rationalised immoral acts (thinking the world an instrument to us, to me, now) and the accumulation of power through measured utility to self for far, far too long. We need to think again. Explore these alternative ideas. Experience those artists like John Berger and anthropologists like James Scott who challenge how we ‘see’ and feel.

I’ve told this story often. I loved land as a child. Wandered over miles with my brother from when he was only four and I was six. Allowed to roam. Sat in stunned awe in Ball’s Clearing – a podocarp/hardwood remnant. Studied forest ecology and forest management because of that …

… and was *never* taught about those feelings. Something clangs as wrong there. It is a discord – a dys-chord – in my education. There is no harmony there.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a philosophy, governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and natural systems.

About Chris Perley

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Reimagining, Thought Pieces | 3 Comments

Getting Politics (and Life!) off the Titanic

William Ophuls has written some very thoughtful books about our political age. Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology is one of them.  He challenges our world, not just at the level of tinkering with deck chairs (e.g. biofuels to power the Titanic – when the problem is the Titanic and its direction).  The deckchair techno-obsessions are part of the problem.  But it goes deeper.  Ask yourself why we fiddle while Rome burns.
Plato's RevengeOphuls challenges the whole basis of government back to Thomas Hobbes – you know, his view that we’re all individualistic scum who need to be controlled or else our lives will be nasty, brutish and short – but first we’ll measure you as well.  Units in the machine assembly line of life.  Soulless.  Other.  And so vice is less a consideration because it can be measured away by instrumental rationality – the ‘other’ being reduced – always reduced – to an ‘instrument’ for me.  How can you harm a thing reduced to a soulless digit.  What vice?
He writes this ….
… “.. the modern political paradigm – the body of political concepts and beliefs inherited from Thomas Hobbes and his successors – was bound for self-destruction even before the emergence of ecological scarcity. That paradigm is no longer intellectually tenable or practically viable because any polity that abandons virtue and rejects community necessarily becomes the author of its own demise. The tendencies toward moral decay, social breakdown, economic excess, and administrative despotism that are evident everywhere in the so-called developed world testify to the need for a new public philosophy – on political as well as ecological grounds.”
I couldn’t agree more.  We are being run increasingly as if we are disconnected, individualistic units, resources in a storehouse ….. where greed and power are applauded, the shortest and narrowest blinkered perspectives are given weight above the knowing and feeling and wisdom of people who belong to a place …. and where archetypically male ideals of quantification and certain, directed order are assumed, not just the way to make good decisions, but the way to be.

Life is more than the path

There is more to life – more to see – than just the path

And with each cock-up, we shuffle some more deck chairs, while going full steam ahead.  I’m not sure it is any lack of wit that keeps us ‘on-board’ so to speak.  So what is it?  Are we raised and so strongly constructed in the social reality of the day?  Can we not break out, be indigenous again, think it is ok to say that, yes, the numbers say this, but my heart says something else because this place is me, and the numbers rationalise yet another madness?  

I keep seeing a convergence of thought – away from Modernity and the machine, the dispassionate, disconnected world, reduced to some meaningless spreadsheet that doesn’t include wisdom, virtue or belonging.  And the critics of ‘othering’ and dominating hierarchies by thinkers about gender, race, class, indigenous philosophy/culture, environment etc. are all calling for a re-connection of sorts.  

What waters are you.png

In Māori, to ask who you are is to ask what waters you are.  Ko wai koe? (Who are you? What water are you from?)  Nō wai koe? (Where is your place, your river, lake, spring?)  Mā wai rā (Who are you doing this for?  What waters are you doing this for?)

Realise we belong.  Get away from the dualisms – the us and them, the me and the other, especially where they are quantified to some small irrelevance of meaning, just because we can find a number …any number will do, somewhere … and we’ll call it ‘objective’ after we make the entirely subjective choice.

Reimagine.  Look to the world as connected.  Question what ‘it’ is.  It is not, say, just a ‘water resource’.  It is not even an it.  It is us.  It is you.  You have to look to the construction of reality that comes from culture and language to realise there are other ways to see.  Better ways.


I’m reading Val Plumwood, Carolyn Merchant, F David Peat, Freya Matthews, Gregory Bateson, political ecology books, new economic thinkers, indigenous philosophers, and they’re all saying the same thing.  Converging feminist thought with indigenous philosophy, emphasising relationships not parts whose whole meaning cannot be reduced to measurement and mechanics – reimagining what it is to be and know.

Dancing in sunbeams

Get off the Modern obsessions with mechanical measured marching.  Learn to dance within and amongst the motes in the sunbeam.  Learn to feel.  Deal in quality and virtue and belonging, not measured utility to self. 

Because we are not just selves.  And the world is not an instrument outside, set apart, over the fence, in the spreadsheet, bounded by this Modern defining.  Re-imagine.


Chris Perley


Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

About Chris Perley

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂




Posted in Reimagining, Thought Pieces, Virtues, Ways of Seeing | 1 Comment

Seeing Rightly

I watched, last night, the animated film of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

And I stopped the recording with this quote … and replayed it.

Because it is the truth that we have, perhaps, forgotten in our increasingly technocratic and “let’s rationalise some madness and a Gulag somewhere using only our heads and some carefully chosen numbers … which we’ll call ‘objective’ & ‘professional’.”

… hmmm …

Loved The Little Prince. As I loved de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars. He writes about his aeroplane crash in the desert in the latter …

… and on lying on his back in that Saharan dark stillness looking ‘down’ at the stars, floating in space.

David Abrams writes about that sensation as well – walking on those narrow paths in a Balinese paddy field with the stars in the water beneath you … and above you … surrounding you – in his The Spell of the Sensuous.

Chris Perley


Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Thought Pieces | 2 Comments

Reimagining our Insane Policy Worldview

The Saturday morning ponderings after reading with coffee amongst the finches in the basil seeds.

Yesterday I read a quite beautiful Guardian article – a summary of a Neil Gaiman lecture – about reading and the necessity to dream and imagine.  It is still hitting me.

In our currently insane policy world we have so often reduced meaning to numbers and what we were taught to call ‘instrumental rationality’ – the technocratic way – all numbers in a spreadsheet and the reduction of life to so much potential rendered down soap.  Rendered and reduced from some ‘resource’ to another ‘resource’ you choose to reduce meaning to (and then have the ignorance and arrogance to call it ‘objective’ because it’s a mere number).  All to serve someone’s ‘utility’ – measured in dollars on the false presumption that a dollar is a surrogate indicator for happiness or ‘good’.

A dollar isn’t an indicator of good or happiness at all.  Beyond a point the instrumentalists’ idea of ‘progress’ – polluting the river, cutting down the child-wonder-bush patch for monuments to ego, etc. – reduces not just life’s meaning but the social and environmental functions that underlie our once and future wellbeing.  We need to reimagine what a better policy/strategy approach might be.  Recognise good from bad – in business, in the way councils think and act, in communities, in the environment. And then encourage and build the good and dismantle the bad. Dollar utilitarianism and ‘instrumental rationality’ won’t do that.

Virtues and duties to our wider world really do matter.  Aristotle’s Practical wisdom. ‘Value rationality’ – the Aristotelian idea of asking “what is the right thing to do, here and now, in this complex that can never be reduced to mere measured instrument?” cannot be satisfied by our current quantitative and mechanical obsessions – whether those on the extreme right (as the world lives now) or on the extreme left (where the corporate logo on the factory is merely replaced by one depicting Stalin or Mao).

Both neoliberal right and state communist left are Modern and mechanical. Both deterministic.  Both technocratic.  Both disconnecting of people from each other, the land, the future, from dimensions that standardardised measures cannot see let alone grasp.  Both ultimately diminishing of life.  Both reducing value and virtue to some power’s ‘utility’.  Fortunately, there are strands of thought coming from all directions that are weaving a new and far better rope.  The old one is unravelling .. not before time.

As some bright spark once wrote, when you use instrumental rationality …

(think spreadsheets and oracle models that only deal in numbers; essentially all headspace Modernity and no heart or feeling or dialogue or imagination)

… then you create a Gulag somewhere.

We’ve been creating Gulags in our country for decades, on steroids since 1984, following the US and the UK as always.

So I reread Neil Gaiman on the necessity of dreaming, reading and the imagination.  I’d add open ego-less dialogue to that list. Neil spoke this, and it took me right back to the need for virtues, obligations, a sense of place and belonging in that place and within community.  The need to reimagine a world that doesn’t depict us all as soulless cogs in a machine.  That doesn’t define our world as measured ‘resources’.  How I have come to detest that industrial word.

A need to reimagine society and place and ‘economy’ (which is, after all, simply the ‘management of home’ that logically needs an ecological ‘study of home’ basis if it wants to get it right – more than that, socio-ecological!, because humanity is part of this place).  We need to get far far away from the various mechanical reductionist Modern obsessions, whether mechanical mega-corporate or mechanical State that both treat you and me, the river and the tree, as cogs.

Stop trusting a suit with a spreadsheet who can see nothing beyond.  Those types build Gulags.  Read a book and discuss an idea with someone instead.

Think beyond. Reimagine.

Or just …. imagine.


Take it away Neil.

“We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream.  We have an obligation to imagine.  It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field.  But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it.  Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in.  I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten.  It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined.  Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair.  Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.  This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful.  Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation.  We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.”


Amen Neil.  Take the leap.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

About Chris Perley

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Choice: A Bigger Machine, or Democracy & Culture

The issue of local council culture and the failures of the Treasury-inspired corporatisation of organisational structures is reentering the policy dialogue. This new government has obviously helped. The public sector is in trouble and something needs to be done. More scale, standardised procedures and hierarchy are not the answer, they are the problem.

An updated version of a blog I wrote at the time of the Local Government Commissions self-serving roadshow on council amalgamation. It was a total farce, though the people saw through it for what it was.

Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Victorian Fire

Years ago I drove up the Hume highway through the aftermath of the Victorian fires of 2009.  All the epicormic shoots had burst forth, empty branches with bottle brush stems.  At least, here, the eucalypts could demonstrate their resilience and evolution to a fire ecology.  I’d written reports to select committees on the effects of some of the fire management changes that were being suggested in the late 2000s.  All procedure and hierarchical box-ticky thinking, never mind local wisdom and the reduction and readiness that good fire management requires.  The Australian ACT reforms were responsible in large part for the 2004 Canberra fires.  A complete debacle very much exacerbated by the corporate management styles that had swept through the public sectors of the world because of the delusions of some mechanical policy makers.  

We’re going to see more fires.  They are inevitable.  I wrote this below some years ago after 2009 Victoria Fires, with all the lessons of the 2004 Canberra fires giving pause to those in suits who think in a cultureless space without regard to the wisdom of the local. 

We’re still doing it.  Mad management styles where the central administrators rise and the thinking locals leave.  Where you don’t listen, you direct.  Blindly.  With arrogance.  With a belief in certainty and control. 

And so they fail.


Fire twisterFire in the landscape is like weather: unpredictable, able to shift from an easily manageable drizzle to a full blown tropical cyclone, or worse.  The most horrifying nightmare for any rural firefighter is when a bushfire turns into something that resembles nothing less than a huge twisting tornado sweeping all before it in a path of destruction, while able to leave unscathed a chicken coop not metres from where it passes.  Only it’s something more than a wind-fed tornado.  What rural firefighters call a “blowup” adds fire to that wind.

A blowup is extreme fire behaviour, and the biggest man-killer.  It is fire as weather, a spinning vortex up to 400 metres wide, several thousand metres in height, and with the wind strength to rip trees out of the ground and send them into a convection column. You can imagine how far such columns can disperse burning material once they exit the top.  They can toss burning logs all around them.

Smaller blowups act like fast moving fireballs, accelerating up valleys, one of the reasons rural firefighters avoid spending time in saddles on ridgelines.

Roleystone fire, south-east of Perth on February 7, 2011

Roleystone Fire, Southeast of Perth, Australia, Feb 2011

If one blowup is a nightmare, a series of them is hell unleashed.  That is what hit the Australian state of Victoria on Black Saturday, February 7th, 2009, fed by 47 degree temperatures, humidity of six percent, drought conditions, and wind speeds of more than 100 km per hour.  Add to that mix a hill country terrain with high fuel loads and valleys that can funnel uphill and you have perfect conditions for blowups.  More than 180 dead, hundreds of houses destroyed, comparisons with the firestorm of the German city of Dresden in World War II, stunned looks on the face of a Prime Minister, the town of Kinglake mauled, with its more prosperous hillcrest houses particularly badly hit.

A crown fire, where a fire moves from the ground to the forest canopy, is bad enough.  It burns at a greater intensity than a ground fire, and can travel at walking or jogging pace. A blowup fire-whirl can travel almost as fast as the wind.  That’s why there were stories of cars being outrun by the fires.

Once a blowup starts, there is only one response.  Flee very fast, preferably sideways.  You cannot stand in front of a tornado with much chance of surviving. You’d have considerably less chance of surviving a blowup.  The descriptions of houses literally exploding in wind and flame is a blowup in action.  If it can do that to a house, imagine the effect on people.

Mann-Gulch Fire MonumentFirefighters have been sucked into these blowups. Some have even survived. The Mann-Gulch tragedy in Montana 1949 saw the death of 12 of a crew of 15 smokejumpers, the US Forest Service’s elite airborne firefighters.  They were immortalised in Norman Maclean’s Young men and Fire.  One ranger, Robert Janssen, survived.  He was picked up by a blowup, dropped unconscious in its vortex, and revived only metres from the flame. He described the experience as being surrounded by a vast uproar trying to break the sound barrier; sounds were tapering off, and becoming silent.  It’s not an experience many would want to repeat.

Fires are still burning in Victoria as I write this, but they’re manageable by comparison with Black Saturday. Now is a time of taking stock, of asking how it got so bad, and what could be done to prevent such an event occurring again.

After the 2004 Canberra fire the coroner was scathing of the fire authority.  They had done what the last New Zealand government was proposing to do, to amalgamate rural and urban fire authorities under the leadership of the boys in the towns.  In so doing, they missed the point that rural fire is not just about putting fires out, it is obsessed with preventing extreme fire conditions in the first place, communicating with rural communities, preparing where you cannot prevent through ensuring access to likely areas.  If you get an extreme wildfire, you’ve lost a big part of the battle.  Rural fire management will actually use managed low-intensity fire as a tool to reduce the risk of less manageable high-intensity fires that have the potential to blowup.

After Canberra, the coroner found that warnings from rural people were ignored, firebreaks and access was overgrown, fuel loads in forests were at dangerous levels, and the cooperation with rural communities had declined.  The tactics for fighting the fire demonstrated a lack of understanding of bushfire behaviour, with fire fighters sent to initial outbreaks leaving no reserve for the inevitable surprises.  During the inquiry the fire authorities did themselves no favours by pleading ignorance of material being raised by the coroner, and accepting no blame.  They were as arrogant afterwards as they had been beforehand.  In that situation, luckily, only four people died.

This Victorian firestorm was different.  The conditions were extreme, even beyond extreme if that can be possible.  We will have to wait for the coroner’s report, but the response of firefighters is unlikely to be cited as a causal factor.  You cannot look upon those who give their all without an emotional response.  Well, perhaps some can.  But they are not us.

The effectiveness of prevention and risk reduction is likely to get the greatest scrutiny, and that in itself could create a culture change, particularly in urban communities.  If there is anything that would have lessened the risk of blowup fire conditions it is fuel load.  Reducing that fuel load requires disturbance of what many presume are pristine environments whose value is in the ideal – or delusion – that natural environments are static and undisturbed.

Rural communities have a much greater appreciation that disturbance, variability, and change are not only what defines any environment, they are also necessary to maintain the health of that environment.  This runs counter to the popular urban myth that any change or harvest is bad.  And so we get the conditions of the highly destructive Yellowstone National Park fire of the 1988, and Black Saturday, because fuel builds up until we get conditions ripe for the perfect firestorm.

These upland Victorian landscapes used to be periodically disturbed by grazing and cool ground fires.  That human-induced disturbance was removed by well-meaning people.  It may be time to bring active management of disturbance back into these landscapes.  And keep the bureaucrats away from the rural fire authorities and their much needed local knowledge and specialist skills.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂



Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Shredded words

A flower gifted is like a poem
written on a paper scrap,
then torn to tiny shreds,
cast to the wind and the worlds beyond
where it will live forever
for someone else to,
some day,
call it forth.


Posted in Poems | Leave a comment

Looking After Local Enterprise and Life (Part I)

Now we have a new government, perhaps they might consider that all those well-dressed corporate executives that come calling might not have the answers to regional development, our community wellbeing, or our environmental health.

Let’s start talking around the smoko table, not the boardtable. Know who your friends are.

Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Changing the Culture of Our Councils

We have had debacle after debacle within our councils.  Hawke’s Bay is only the start of it.  We keep promoting the most pedantic and amoral train schedulers who have no idea about where those cattle wagons filled with people are going, or why.

Our repeated problems highlight the fact that the public sector reforms of the last 30 years have created far more harm than good.  I’ve written before about the Slow Death of the Public Service and about the Fragility of Authoritarian that is the result of the neoliberal reforms.  Infrastructural issues relating to water, roads and sewerage, services relating to animals, and bewilderingly unimaginative planning, are just the symptoms.  Councils are looking more and more like unthinking hierarchical behemoths focused primarily on lining all the little ducks up neatly in a row, each within its own silo, ticking little boxes as they go, to please something – some measure or other, for some well-dressed Emperor mayor or other.  That type of unthinking, rigid machine is a complete failure in a complex and uncertain world.

Time lapse danceCouncils are now more structured to march across a dance floor while some fast waltz is playing; on the strict orders of some chap blind in the next room. They get hit every which way by all the other dancers because they are ordered as if there are no surprises, only control.  They are not allowed to feel, foresee or adapt; they are discouraged from dancing within the complex dynamic system which would allow them to get to the other side without a hitch.

God forbid you listen, care or form an opinion.  That’s not mechanical.  You can’t count culture.  Better to assume it’s not important.  All those virtues are replaced by one – obedience to the measured task.  And council people are certainly not encouraged to talk to the public dancers or each other.  Maintain your sense of hierarchy and perfect order.  No wonder they fall.

All of this pedantic detail looks so admirable on paper; so mechanical, so procedural, so linear and accountable, so doubtless and certain.  As ordered, linear, doubtless and certain as General Haig must have felt before the Battle of the Somme. Imagine the confidence and the supercilious arrogance; “I don’t need to ask the opinion of the troops – let alone adapt to what the other side might do; everything is on order,” … before there were 60,000 casualties on the first morning.

The Battle of the Somme is back.

The world is inherently complex and uncertain; an adapting system, not a constant machine. Think like the machine and we will continue to fall. It is a recipe for both missing opportunities and realising threats, neither of which are being looked for, let alone seen.


If you presume the world is certain and controllable, and set up systems accordingly, then you will destroy the very social systems and human capacities that you need to dance within an uncertain and complex world – those flexible and empowered “freedom within a framework” models.

If you are not looking for the unknown, don’t worry, it will find you. In autocratic hierarchies, foresight, questions, imagination and discussion are all treated as a threat by the box-tickers, and so, like a good Vogon, dialogue is quashed. And you can bet your boots that if dialogue and initiative is suppressed and all thought centralised, you will have fall after fall after fall.

It isn’t mechanical ordering that makes a council perform, it is a culture of service, discovery, purpose, resilience and connection.

These are the questions we must ask of our councils.  What is the culture within?  Are they lumbering hierarchical dinosaurs of little brain motivated by petty accountabilities or some megalomaniac sense of grandeur?

Do they smell of arrogant hierarchy?  Do they encourage motivated people focused on the future of our home in a complex and changing world where foresight and adaptability comes from caring, thinking and talking with others – especially beyond the silo walls?  Or do they value obedience above dialogue and thought?

Do councils recognise that wisdom and knowledge is held throughout an organisation and within a community who lives beyond the council walls?  Do they look for the value in people and foster their talent across silos, or are people defined merely by their job description?

Currently, many of our councils are filled with people who care, but their judgment is compromised by a fundamentalist doctrine and delusion of total control; foresight is banished, practical wisdom is kicked for touch, and adaptability is beaten to death with a very blunt stick.

The problem with that type of management style is that the real world is like that complex dance floor of life.  You cannot preordain every move.

Office life

Office life: business team during a meeting

That style also cripples the souls of people who do not come to work to be a slave to some order.  People want to belong to something, to do a good job.

We are not just creating incompetent falls with this obsession we have with command and control, we are crushing the spirits and potential of our people.

It is a form of totalitarianism.  It is a total structural and cultural failure.  And we deserve far better.  If we want better service for ourselves and future generations, the answer is not yet more measured controls; it is changing the culture to one of caring, purpose, thinking, dialoguing, connecting and making partnerships; and with the constant foresight and adaptability we need to be resilient in the face of an uncertain world.

We need our councils to relearn how to dance.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is running as a councillor candidate in the 2018 Hastings District Council by-election.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

An edited version of this article was published in the Hawke’s Bay Today on 27th February 2018

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Building Regional Economies, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

The Trans-Pacific ‘Partnership’ and Our Environment

Given that the CTPPA is once again in the news, I thought this was worth reblogging. I think we need to make a very clear differentiation between small & medium enterprise commerce – the local variety – and large C mega-corporate – who don’t pretend to belong and tend to see things the way neoliberal economists do. As dollars and units in a spreadsheet – where exploitation is still a profitable game. We really need to think about how we are viewing the ‘economy’ – and this differentiation is a very necessary step

Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Solving New Zealand’s Problems of “Underachievement”

Ran out of coffee this morning.  I know.  Disaster.  Heading for a café – Hawthorne’s – the best.  Pondering our PM Jacinda’s desire to help solve problems of incarceration and educational non-achievement.  Admirable intentions.  But ……

Why because - root_cause.gifSigh.  I can just see the dullards (not Jacinda, her policy advisors) charging at the symptoms.  Change nothing deep and react.  Add a drug to the next effect of a system in trouble.  Ponder not the underlying dysfunction.

You’ll have to get to the root Jacinda, not throw pennies at the symptoms of a frankly stupid economic & social order.  There are monsters in the deep.  Change the current order.  Shift us from treating people like cheap & obedient slave-cogs to help some rentier one percenter produce undifferentiated cheap commodities.


What lies beneath?

Bring back hope.  Build social capital.  Purpose.  Community.  Trust.  Justice.  Freedom as integral to personal, social and economic development.  Participation.  Networks.  Optimism.  Cohesion.  No fear.  Cooperation and coordination.  Let ideas and conversations flourish and watch things happen.  Enterprise.  Realisation.  A virtuous circle toward something that doesn’t look like the insides of a grey and autocratic machine that grinds people to dust.  Incarceration ain’t the start of what you get.

Social networks have value.  None of these fundamentals of a better functioning society will you find in an economic policy analyst’s model.  None.  Nada.  Zilch.  And yet social networks are the vital blood that flows between and within the organs of our society and the economy that is a subset of that society.  The Neoliberals went into conniptions of denial and Vogon-like statements masquerading as deep thought when faced with Robert Putnam’s evidence that a strong society is what leads to a strong economy, and the realisation of individual potential.  For the neoliberal, what society?  There is *only* the economy.  All else, people and planet, are merely resources in the machine of commerce.

Would you accept advice from someone who thinks in such a tiny wee box.

Social Capital2.jpg

Money mindThat social capital research made their extreme mutterings of asocial Homo economicus wading around inside a machine (literally – a model – who needs to look out of the window and wander the streets when it’s right there at your desk) making ‘rational choices’ in an infinite world of ‘producers’, ‘resources’ and ‘consumers’ with ‘perfect information’ and ‘equal powerlessness’ where merit rises, seem a little …

.. Baseless?  Simplistic?  Unthinking?  Unobservant?  Prosaic in the extreme?  Rationalised insanity?  I mean, no sense of society and sociology?  Seriously?  No sense of a functioning planet?  Of what makes it whole?  Reduced to supply and demand?  *That* logical fallacy?  What, like a child reduced to calories in and out?  Can you seriously be serious?  This is serious!  Because it’s delusional.

If you want to work on our incarceration rates and educational underachievement, rebuild our society Jacinda, please.  The one the Neoliberals and the mega-corporates have tried so hard to destroy since 1984.  Rebuild social networks in our towns and streets.  Rebuild the Parihaka spirit.  The cohesion, the belonging, the dedication, the focus on purpose, the moral strength, that joyous rage you get in the best of teams.

Look to the community initiatives that happen even though the Treasury models cannot predict them.  Look to the SMEs as models where the owners muck in beside the ‘staff’, and where they argue about the work with a shared sense of purpose.  Rebuild our social networks in our public sector organisations.  You’ll be rebuilding democracy as well.  Something else that isn’t in a Treasury model.  Who needs democracy when “the market will provide.


For heaven’s sake, Jacinda, get rid of hierarchical thinkers who walk the wannabe corporate halls like Little Lord Fauntleroys.  Repeal the State Sector Act and the Local Government Act.  Authorities in peacetime always end up filled with the self-interested and mediocre types.  Spread the networks to the regions.  Bring back Directors General who build engaged, thinking, discussing, listening, connected organisations, and kick the sycophantic CEO types to touch.  Rebuild dialogue and long discussions in the smoko rooms.  The board table intellect is often dull by comparison.

The work emphasising the importance of social networks and social institutions by Robert Putnam and Amartya Sen came out in the 1990s, 20 years ago.  Twenty years after the nonsense root cause of our poverty, asset gifting, rise of the immoral mega-corporates, incarcerations and non-achievement began.

And my, haven’t the neolibs tried to bury that work since.


Get to the roots


If we rebuild society Jacinda, we can bring the Picasso out of their crushed spirit world some moron in Treasury calls “meritocracy” … “equal opportunity.”  It’d be hilarious if such claims came out of some lunatic cell in a monastery.  Only mad fundamentalist seminary schools can put such nonsense in people’s heads.  You know, Commerce Departments worshipping Friedman.

Recognise poverty as a symptom of bad economics.  It is a far better indicator than GDP of how well our economy is doing – you know, an economy that serves the people and all that.

Shift our economy to long local locally-owned differentiated, batch-processed value chains whose market-position caters to the mega-trends of safe food, quality, produce with a narrative, a whakapapa to cherish.  A creative economy, not an extractive one.  Realise and emphasise human creativity and the joy of work that doesn’t feel like work because you love it, not stultifying MPI compliance bullshit that puts Biddy and her wonderful cheese out of business and makes Fonterra executives smile.  Realise the potential scope within a landscape, a cluster, a raw material that ranges from pure to puss.  Please don’t mix it all together undifferentiated and make Colby cheddar out of it anymore.

Quizzical Brown Cow

You did *what* with my milk?

Yes, I know you pasteurise it to kill all the bacteria, but you can do that to sewage as well, and I’d rather have Biddy’s quality and cheese story thanks all the same.  Differentiate the pure to make something premium, and make the puss-laden stuff into some bland cheddar a Fonterra executive might appreciate.

Realise the potential of our people.  Recognise they have a purpose in life, and life is so much better when you do what you love.  Stop thinking in bits and units and cheapness and scale and measured things that do not feel.  For heaven’s sake, avoid spreadsheets unless you very very clearly state that they are a tiny part of policy making, and can rationalise the insane.

In fact, put a sign on all policy analysts’ computers, “THIS MACHINE SOMETIMES RATIONALISES THE INSANE.”

Think the very opposite of our undifferentiated, centralised, increasingly corporate-owned, extractive, short or non-existent continuous-processed undifferentiated mediocre cost-focused zero-positioned (so real market prices only go down) commodity volume.  All with the right to pollute, extract and reduce wages and conditions because cost-plus is the only way they can think.

Only corporate and colonial minds (blind to their own re-colonisation by corporates) think like that. Which one are we?

Ball in a bowl shifting thresholdLearn to integrate the natural, social & economic as a system.  Never focus on some mindless economic model of transactional nouns.  Understand uncertainty, resilience, the social, natural and economic *capacities* we need, feedbacks, thresholds, what moral principles and qualitative contingent functions are core to the integrity of a social or environmental – or socio-ecological!! – system.  Understand the history of environmental, social & economic collapse.  Tip our social and environmental systems beyond the thresholds and predictability is lost.  And so might be reversibility.  Another thing neoliberals know nothing about.

For heaven’s sake, stop treating our land, our communities, our towns & cities as factories – grey grey grey monochromatic scale scale scale boring moronicville Mordors.  Emphasise the Arts and Humanities.  Without it, the STEM subjects are rudderless.  Worse, they tend to RATIONALISE INSANITIES!

Learn about the indirect approach to strategy, not more mindless charging at the machine guns with the same old thinking of last time.  There’s more crime.  Charge at it with more prisons.  There’s more poverty.  Charge at them with a lecture about how bad they are (in our exemplary meritorious world of perfect information, powerlessness and equal opportunity) and look at the wonderful ‘job creators’ that like to have lots of innocent gins with the ministers.

KingGeorgeV Passhendale.jpg

How did this happen?

If anyone suggests such a ‘charge the machine guns’ approach, give them the General Douglas Haig award for unforgivable stupidity, and force them to watch Blackadder goes Forth over and over until they realise that Baldrick’s poem is a parody. Boom boom boom boom. Boom boom boom.

Change the current system of bad economics and corporate power.

Then you might be able to solve the problems of incarceration and educational underachievement.

Oh, and get rid of Treasury advice and the State Sector Act.  I wouldn’t let them advise me on anything strategic or policy.  Just turn to them and ask about the beans when you need to budget or report.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has experience in the field, management, policy, consulting and research with a background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities.  Chris is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.  If you want to be added to an email link for this blog – or if the email link above isn’t working –  you can contact Chris direct.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Land Degradation – One Insidious Step at a Time

“Once again, the principal villains across Greece, Southern Italy, Southern France, and Spain, were fires, goats, and timber felling. … Able to thrive anywhere, goats often create an environment in which little but goats will survive.” Ronald Wright. A Short History of Progress

History is sobering.  It rocks us out of those favourite delusions that what is now will ever be, and that our present ideas and social structures are natural and eternal.  Hold to those delusions, and we may never change… not willingly.


Cole Thomas: The Course of Empire Destruction, 1836

That’s the thing about change and history.  We look to the experience of land degradation – and with it social and civilisation collapse – and wonder; how did this happen?  So often it wasn’t a matter of explicit choice.  History did the choosing for us.  It wasn’t explicit because we did not see it; did not think about it; hid behind the now and the shallowness of specialisation and small lives that in today’s world we think of as ‘wise’, even truth.

We did it then, and we are doing it now.

We respect focus and clichés more than philosophy.  We even encourage that least resilient of social capacities – obedience to authority and attention to instructed tasks and narrow job descriptions.  A bounded view of life, of experience.  Huxley’s Soma, drugging us into dispassion and apathy.  Teach to this standard.  Attend to these step-wise mechanical procedures.  Do not speak outside your speciality.  Do not think, act as instructed by The Man.  Think of the world is a set of objective and analytical bits, where synthesis and wonder are merely subjective.  Merely art.  Merely the Humanities.

And when we look back with anything resembling smugness of these repeated historical collapses, ponder the systems of box thinking and hierarchical and specialised knowing we encourage today, and ask whether we are better or worse than our once civilised ancestors.

Today, we do not encourage critical thought, outside-the-box thinking, open dialogue,  art, the Humanities, synthesis, mad dancing and self-expression.  Obedience is promoted.  The Eichmann’s scheduling trains without any ability for critical thought.  The National Party advocating more STEM subjects taught because they make better cogs for their patrons in the corporate machine.

And this makes the insidious steps of decay even less visible.  The willful blindness of Modernity.  ‘Education’ as an exercise in closing minds and killing experience and wonder and thinking of something new, something that might just happen tomorrow, over the horizon.

You don't know what you've got till it's gone.jpg

It is so easy to rationalise another step closer to the abyss as nothing to worry about.  Treat the doubters and speakers as dissidents.  Label them hippy, Greenie, latté suppers.  Hilarious.  It was just a little bit of degradation, nothing to worry about … and you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.  It’s partly why we maintain a blasé attitude toward climate change.  Humanity deals in what Jane Jacobs referred to as “exclamation points”, a wake-up-call from an indisputable shift in a system – an ecological, social or economic collapse.  Until that happens, all the insidious step by little step evidence of a problem is rationalised away.

None of this means it cannot be us that makes the choices and does the shaping of our future.  It starts with thinking beyond our today – back to the lessons of the past, and forward to the banquet of consequences upon which our children of tomorrow will feast.

Or perhaps not.  Perhaps it starts with learning to be free in our thoughts, to look at any industrialised mechanical hierarchy whether corporate or public sector as about as bright as a lumbering dinosaur with a tiny brain.

But first of all, the context and the warning.  I’ll look at one example in one place – Hawke’s Bay – of insidious degradation made ironic because of the potential in this place; a potential the dinosaurs cannot even begin to visualise.

Hawke’s Bay is about as close as we’ll get in New Zealand to a Mediterranean climate and landscape.  We have the limestone and the mudstones, the craggy mountains, the hot dry valleys, the droughts and floods.  That combination is both a curse and a blessing.

Land degradation Embalse de la Cierva, Spain

Land degradation Embalse de la Cierva, Mula (SE Spain)

It’s the reason why the Bay has potential problems.  We need only look to the worse examples around the Mediterranean to see a potential future; waterless hills feeding waterless plains, eroded valleys, silted up harbours, few forests, many goats, and those periodic Greek fires.  These areas would be very unpromising if it wasn’t for the fact that the Mediterranean is where travelling East meets the travelling West, and the history and natural beauty draws the tourists.  And the Mediterranean has around it arguably *the* most studied examples of environmental and civilisation collapse.

There is our context.

Then there’s the upside.  We could look to other parts of the Mediterranean as our future model.  We could make Hawke’s Bay the Provence or Tuscany of the South Seas if we really wished; a model of the good life.  Think vineyards, olives, apple cider, cheese-makers, cafés serving artisan coffee‚ local foods and boutique beer.

Think the opposite of the industrial brain-dead models of scale and cheapness.  Think growing high value, multiplying it, retaining it so the dinosaurs don’t take it away, distributing it so local enterprise does even better, attracting even more because people want to live and be within a place where living is not about being a cog in a machine.  We draw culture, art and the odd busking Bohemian nose flautist just to make life a little more interesting.

That better example is being shaped right now, but it doesn’t mean that the worse scenario won’t happen as well, the Eastern and Southern Med.

It’s easy for us to assume that we now have knowledge of the causes and consequences of land degradation that the old civilisations didn’t have.  Those old Cretans, Sumerians, Greeks and Persians were perhaps a little dim.  Especially the Cretins.

Soon bas relief.jpgThat’s another delusion.  Solon, the Athenian that got rid of that nasty piece of work Draco and his laws, tried to sort out the land management problems that were clearly evident then.  That was in 590 BC, 2600 years ago and almost at the height of Greek power.  Solon tried to ban over-grazing on steep slopes, and a generation later Pisistratus, another Athenian ruler, offered grants for olive planting and encouraged terracing.  To no avail.

To no avail.  Sound familiar?

Not bad thinking for the day.  Pity they didn’t ban the bloody goats.

Plato lamented the result two hundred years after Solon.  He called the resulting country “the skeleton of a sick man, all the fat and soft earth having wasted away.” Where once the land was – as he put it – “enriched by the yearly rains, which were not lost to it, as now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea; but the soil was deep, and therein received the water, and kept it in the loamy soil…feeding springs and streams running everywhere. Now only abandoned shrines remain to show where the springs once flowed.”

Sierra_de_la_Gessa - Land degradation.jpg

Sierra de la Gessa – The Skeleton of a Sick Man

What’s interesting about that quote is that the focus of Plato’s lament was on the retention and flowing of water.  That results from both soil loss and the degradation of soil to the point where rainfall no longer easily infiltrates or stores so well.  So streams dry up and springs don’t recharge.  We repeat the mistakes of the past with our focus on removing water quickly.  We ought to be working to store it and slow it in our hills.

Land degradation is associated with economic and social loss, and often complete social collapse.  It is no coincidence that Greek power and achievement began to wane just a little later than Plato, after the last bright flame of that megalomaniac Alexander, hell-bent on world domination.

What’s interesting is why the decline in those more erodible Mediterranean landscapes continued when people knew what was happening.  Partly it’s those delusions; what is now will ever be; our present ideas of how to manage land are natural and eternal.

Or, putting it another way; we can keep on doing as we are at the moment, and soil erosion and loss of water holding capacity from our hill country isn’t really that much of a problem.  After all, the big storms only happens every few decades, and those little storms that make the farm streams run brown with topsoil are just our form of normal.  Don’t even think about it.  It’s what we do.  So easy to dismiss or forget.

Unless you know your history.

We can choose to believe those delusions, or we can look hard at what we do on our steeper lands and gullies, work to keep water in the landscape, work on that vision of a South Seas Provence, and get rid of those damned goats.

But first, can we please get rid of the unthinking dinosaur hierarchies, and bring thought and discussion back into the centre of a resilient social fabric?  The machine is a failed model.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Land Use, Neoliberalism & Corporatism, Reimagining, Thought Pieces | 7 Comments

Shelter from the Storm

It is hard to remember during the sunny days of summer that we had some freak snow storms back in August, and a few wintry blasts in early October.  The television news ran lamb death stories, as they did the year before – dead lambs on the transport trays.

Coastal shelter Southland.jpgThere is always a lot of talk about shelter after those storms occur right on lambing, some of it apparently suggesting it is a new idea. Not so.  I was trudging through mud in Mid-Canterbury around Highbank in the early 1980s studying old radiata pine shelterbelts planted in the 1880s and 1890s.  Like the old guys on the cheese advertisement, the mixed cropping farmers in the area were saying the trees were just about ready to mill.  You don’t want to be hasty with these decisions, especially when that shelter meant the difference between growing barley or not.

Without shelter, the northwest winds would come down from the Rakaia Gorge and beat any unsheltered barley into submission.  The farmers there relied upon a mix of barley and wheat to hedge the climatic risks; dry years giving good wheat returns, wet years suiting the barley.  Without protection from the wind, the barley lodged, and farm risk increased.

Shelter and wheat

It has all changed now with the move away from mixed farming to continuous cropping and the rise in irrigation.  Just increase inputs.  Don’t use stock and legumes in the rotation to rebuild the soil quality before the grain cash crop.  Just add soluble fertiliser and demand more irrigation.  Never mind the low input and resilient system we once had.  Never mind the effects on the climate, the soils, the streams, downstream water supplies, kids playing in the brooks.  Industrialism, industrialism.  And when the prices drop, demand more production, more inputs, more energy, less democracy.  Demand we see the world as a machine through soulless corporate eyes.

Some of us look back on the farm foresters of old and wonder at their wisdom – whatever Lincoln taught in favour of simplistic agronomy without the wit to see consequences.

Shelter was only part of that wisdom.  And it wasn’t just for stock losses.  The increases in crop yield are real. The late Joan Radcliffe found a grass production increase of 60 percent in the calmest part of the well-sheltered paddocks at Hororata, on the opposite bank of the Rakaia from Highbank. It’s an often quoted figure, but at the high end of the range. That’s because Hororata is subject to the same northwest winds that hit Highbank, channelling down the Rakaia Gorge and fanning out over the plains once free of those pesky mountainside constraints.

Rakaia Gorge.jpg

Rakaia Gorge, Canterbury, New Zealand

Not far from Hororata, just outside the Gorge, is a place called Windwhistle, which just may suggest something to those of you who are not in a coma.  The soils were light Lismore stoney silt loams, variously described as four inches of dust over river gravels, or as “having the water holding capacity of your average sieve.”  (I liked that one.)  Reduce the evapotranspiration effects of the hot, dry norwesterlies on those sorts of soils, with those sorts of winds, and you’ll have big gains.  But elsewhere, depending on winds and soils, you might get a gain from effective shelter of up to 35 percent.  ‘Effective’ is one of those wonderful variable things that is elusive to technical study.  Length, height, porosity, alignment relative to wind, relative to the crop, relative to the time of year, relative to stock, relative to the soil, relative to the storm and the vulnerabilities right here, right now (which if you ‘measure’ for merely three years you may never observe), relative to the type of wind – its speed, its heat, its dryness.

Relative, contingent, conditional, variable, irregular, developing, growing, falling down, place-based.  You have to feel the land and know its nature to make the call in these wonderful complexities of land.  You have to listen with open ears to the people – to the wise old gaffer who points out what happened in the blow of ’75.

Define knowing in that context.  Don’t listen to the mechanical agronomists with small trials on regular pieces of land with simple variables – more irrigation, more fertiliser, more inputs of x and y and z, measuring only yield and never the contingent – never the neverending rambling story that is land and the people who belong to it, who are within it.  Shelter is like that.

action-research-diagram.jpgI could go on about appropriate ‘research’ and the need to stop putting small-scale, few variable statistical designs on a complex that will hide her secrets from such telescope minds …. but I won’t be able to stop.

…… OK, just a short paragraph.  In complex spaces – like landscapes where communities, politics, nature and economies combine (a complex as irreducible and unpredictable as a child or a game of cricket) – we need to rethink research; embrace Action Research, Learning by Doing, adaptive, integrated approaches, 4th Generation Assessment, socio-ecological systems views, the embracing of anecdote and all the traditional and local knowing of the people of the land.  Forget trying to regiment art and seeing, forget trying to reduce what cannot be reduced without destroying something significant – like ordering a child’s purpose and “its” ‘management’ as a mere calorie factory.  (More objective to treat ‘it’ as a thing of course, a unit, a consumer of resources, a machine ….)

If you want to learn, ask the old gaffer.  Get in a vehicle with him and let the talk of land come out of its own accord.  And feel it yourself.  Step away from the spreadsheet and feel.

We confront some very serious questions about what it is to know, and how you build knowledge when you are faced with complexity.  You cannot but recognise it within landscapes, and what you can do to make it better.  You can realise a scope of potential if you know the patterns and connections of land.  But you won’t see them – let alone realise them – if your view is specialist.  We focus on mechanical factory ideals and scale of course.  Our colonial and corporate – and university technocratic – mythology.  The nonsense of production as a prime focus rather than value potential and resilience to the inevitable surprise, the storm, the market shift, the political awakening, the public backlash.

And so we cut down the shelter …

We treat land as a regular unit, a factory.  Potential scope doesn’t get much chance.  The factory mind bulldozes it all.  Destroy the potential created by shelter, the free gifts provided by a healthy environment, or the gully woodland, the wetland, the water absorbing soil; the healthy herb.  So much of this potential polycultural functionality is trumped by the poisoned agronomic mind, blinkered, buried in a bunker far underground, never seeing the beauty of the hovering skylark.  Measuring inputs of soluble fertiliser, water and yield.  With all negative system effects dealt with by adding another input, and another, and another …

We make the world in that bunker image – thousands of hectares of shelterless dairy factory, regular paddock sizes, regular water, regular fertiliser, a regular Gulag with regular vulnerabilities requiring regular political and commercial power to keep them afloat, ever more teetering on the edge of some abyss they cannot see in the model.

Ask the gaffer.  He’ll tell you about the abyss.

Was that more than one paragraph?

Back to shelter.  Down south the concern is more to do with protecting stock than reducing winds for herbage growth. After the pictures of dead lambs there were some suggestions that farmers could do more to look after their stock. Some probably could. There are still those who think that any square foot of land planted in a tree or shrub represents a loss of a potential grass patch.  A few agronomy professors I could name used to speak like that.  If anything, that mindset has hardened with the rise of the irrigation lobbies and their political friends.

Stock shelterBut most southern farmers appreciate trees. Otago and Southland host the strongest farm forestry communities in the country.  If you go out and ask them why they plant trees – but don’t bother, because we already have – they place shelter at the top of the list. And not just low stock shelter, but tall shelter to stop the northwesterlies drying up the soils, and for the cold southwesterlies reducing the growing season. Farm foresters will tell you that their country is warmer with shelter, that they can grow more types of plants, that the birdlife is better, and that the grass grows sooner in spring and longer into the autumn – and that’s without mentioning the benefits when the blizzard hit right on lambing in 1989.

The trick with shelter is to make sure it is effective from the ground up. That means no gaps from dead trees or from a browsed area beneath which just accelerates the wind – and the wind chill. That means fencing both sides, and keeping the stock out from under the trees.  If they need shade, put some trees out in the paddock.  Some brilliantly thinking agroecologists like Dr Marion Johnson were suggesting just such internal paddock systems for deer; using blocks of trees planted within paddocks along with properly designed shelterbelts to provide multiple functions: shade, stock shelter, grass shelter, fodder, animal health benefits, reduced deer stress, fawn cover – not to mention the odd bellbird and walnut.

It’s not just about lambs and spring storms.  There is such scope in our landscapes.  Building the social capacity to realise it is our constraint; the capacity of ideas and the hearts that can see.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


A long following note …..

The bulk of this article about shelter was written in 2004 for the Otago Daily Times.  We had had a bad winter, with storms at the worst times around lambing.  

It’s an unusual thing to study, but I did my honours 20 years before this on shelter within a complex landscape system:  what it meant to the strategy and management options of the farms; what it meant to animals; how conditional and contingent the effects of shelter were; how complex and shifting.  Add shelter to the system, or take it away, and what do you get?  

I think I was always a systems thinker – “but what about?” – and I loved connecting the landscape to social, as well as environmental, as well as economic domains – rather than reduce down into looking at a bug in a bush, or conversions in a mill.  It’s why when I read Aldo Leopold’s essay Thinking Like a Mountain it so resonated with me.  He was advocating the viewing of life within its complexity, without which we do the unwise things – and shoot all the metaphorical ‘bad’ wolves because we want more of the ‘good’ deer …. and then the mountain falls down.  

We cleared woodlands and wetlands because we saw them the same as Leopold’s ‘wolves’.  Our Modern Colonial obsession, augmented in the last 30 years with our Modern Corporate obsession.  We planted ryegrass and radiata pine because we thought they were ‘good’.  We are taught by mechanical theories of analysis not to see, or we are blinded by our own short term and narrow avarice, that we cut away the thing that keeps the whole functioning.  

I saw it very clearly when jumping from an education in forests as multifunctional systems linked to society, environment and economy in many ways, to agricultural fields whose only meaning was to produce more for Mother Britain (who had left by then … but never mind).   And so agronomy professors at Lincoln pointed to shelterbelts and arrogantly stated, “That is a waste of good land.”  The storm, or the resilience of the farm to limiting winds, or anything for that matter that didn’t involve a myopic study of crop production and land area in production in a perfect mechanical world, was completely outside the analytical thought of the great man.  The irony being that he built lower production and more fragile farm enterprises that put farmers out of business.  

His inability to think like a mountain meant that the mountain fails.  Welcome to colonial New Zealand, where to discuss complexities and building the landscape’s – the socio-ecological system’s – “functional integrity” to immeasurable uncertainties brings all the analysts out wanting you to give ‘evidence’ by numbers.   The gaffer didn’t need numbers, nor are numbers the language that can communicate his wisdom, the land’s knowing.

That is the thing with shelter.  Its worth is so dependent on contingencies.  Measure it for five years based on stock deaths from a storm, and a storm won’t occur.  Pack up the gear, and the storm on lambing will arrive the next week.  Meanwhile you don’t measure the other things it does, because you are only looking at one thing.  Your stats say there is no significant difference between shelter and no shelter.  And the farmers who know – because they live *in* a place rather than just visit with myopic measures for short periods every now and then – just sigh and shake their heads.  

It is why I am so suspicious of any utilitarian keep-all-the-parts-leopoldapproach to life …. because compartmentalising life in units of value or happiness will end up with more of the same mistakes as Leopold’s culling of wolves.  We are doing it now in our world, reducing the functional integrity of the whole because we have some view of life in bits, disconnected – actually dys-functional – where some things are placed in the ‘good’ column and others in the ‘bad’, and everything has to happen *now*.  

It is culture and intelligence to keep all the parts.  It is wise to understand the contingencies of life over time and place.  It is the least you would expect to know what uncertainties are a reality, and how we as a people, and we as the land to which we are embedded, will cope with the inevitable surprise.  Meanwhile we march in ordered steps in our mechanical construct of the world, with all the unmeasured bits discarded as being of no value – and we destroy the potential and the integrity of our landscapes, and our cityscapes, and our communities, and our economy.  

We convert what is perceived to be unimportant to what is perceived to be important.  The kauri forest for a dollar (and grass), the aquifer health for my extracted wealth, the soil and water conserving woodland for water-shedding grass (and then cry for irrigation because the water-holding function is destroyed), the huia for its feather ….. 

….. the shelter of trees for enough room for the irrigation pivot to swing in an ‘important’ arc.  Factory thinking reduces complexity to the simplest mechanics – land to hydroponics and units. 

Scale, scale, scale – because someone thinks overheads are fixed and unrelated to the functionality of land and people (but that is another story – a shift from scale thinking to scope of potential thinking – from transaction to transformation).  Bigger is better.  “Get big or get out.  Plant fence row to fence row.”  The legacy of Earl Butz written across our mass-production factory landscapes.    

Place a value on a thing, especially with a dollar attached, and you very soon stop thinking about wider system effects; you reduce your vision to the part without constant reference to the whole.  The whole is not of any interest in our analytical minds.  We analyse without a context of synthesis; of bringing thing together as a necessary step to understanding; the opposite of reductionism to random measurable bits.  A cricket match reduced to bats and balls; to ‘things’ without reference to how they combine – dynamically and unpredictably – creating something more.

Be assured, the whole still has a very great interest in the part.  Reductionism assumes that the parts build the whole.  Complexity and systems thinking reveals that the whole also builds the parts.  You are a function of your environment.  You do not just shape society, society shapes you.  Or the organs and cells in you.  Or the shaping of the economy by the people and the people by the economy.  Stop building things in some silly nonsense hierarchical order of parts TO wholes.  See a wider view – the Humanities and Art – as critical to any analysis that can ever hope to be wise.  See synthesis as vital to good analysis.  


You can see stories within stories, the mindsets that lie beneath the visions and actions that so so many of us think are so so ‘rational’.  

That is ever the theme here, and ever our challenge if we are to have a better world for our grandchildren.  

That current thinking creates our storm.  And there is a bigger storm coming.  The predominant way we think – the Modern technocratic artless way of seeing – rips the raincoats off our kids, removed the walls and the roof, and points at the cost savings, and the money the commission salesmen have made … Black things made virtuous by a bankrupt way of seeing and being.

And “When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud…” sang Bob.

Chris Perley

Come in I'll give you shelter from the storm

Bob Dylan


Posted in Land Use, Thought Pieces | 3 Comments

Corporates Behaving Badly: What to Do?

Is it extreme to suggest that corporates of a certain size and motivation (demonstrated by behaviour) should not be tolerated anymore?  I’m curious.  What do people think. Seriously.  No knee jerk hate.

Reflect on the feudal lords of the past, especially those of Eastern Europe that lasted until the 20th century, like the Chinese warlords pre Mao’s takeover as Warlord Supremo.

Medieval conservativesBut back to the new Lords, the mega-corporations and their feudal behaviour.  Excuses are made for their viciousness.  We are the peasants of old, in different guise.  With lots of latter-day Medieval Conservatives tugging forelocks to those they think their ‘betters’. “The market will provide, it’s a meritocracy, it’s the way it is, there is no alternative, they have blue blood.”

I’m curious because there was a time when Kings and Emperors were just accepted, along with the idea of the Great Hierarchy of Being – God, the Angels, the Kings ….. down to mere us.  It was a given of an age that those ‘superior’ and worthy entities had some god-given right to exploit and parasitise on the people and the land.


And they are either no more, or their powers have been curtailed by constitutional reforms.  Even the Kings that remain know that they must live in a moral way, or be gone.

We – the people – did this because we could not tolerate their parasitism any longer.  You can have a place – we will not necessarily cut off your head – but it is a place that we define. And we decide.

Is the growing power of impersonal and – let’s be frank – psychopathic behaviour of mega-corporations something that has a ‘right’ to be?

Or is it we who have the right – because we at least have the ethos of care to be concerned for our grandchildren, and our place, and our community.  We are the wise.  They are the sociopathic narrow who struggle with the virtue of living with any reverence at all toward anything other than their own pathetic short term gain …. whatever the expense.

If mega-corporates do not act in a defined way, then don’t we need to do what is needed to make sure they use their power in positive ways, or lose them completely?  As we did in the past with the feudal robber barons.  These corporate giants are no different. So legislate, constitutionalise, or heavily sanction “Pour encourager des autres”?  Or just break them up because any concentration of power must be stopped?

the-glorious-revolution-by-herrera-paola-1-638.jpgI think we need another Constitutional reform, another ‘soft’ Glorious Revolution, another Magna Carta to protect the commons – the forgotten Forest Charter.  That means recognising corporations as the new power, motivated by a desire for absolutes, for less and less constraints on behaviour.  Think the Stuarts and the Bourbons before one ran away in a dress and the other set up the legacy for Madame Guillotine.

We need a specific constitutionalising of mega-corporations and the boundaries within which they can act, as monarchies were once constitutionalised.  I think we need a bill of rights for both communities and nature, perhaps a set of core duties as additional bases for laws to protect us and our mokopuna from the Hyenas of Commerce.

What we have at the moment is patently not good enough.  Even some of the plutocrats know this.  They see the pitchforks on the horizon.  They see the potential for a hard revolution – a potential Terror –  if we do not work together toward a soft one that might save our world.

This is about power, and particularly the reality that power and bad scruples are about the worst combination you could wish for if you wanted to have a planet and a community in a few generations.  Power always needs to be balanced.

Meritocracy - not.jpgIt is also about economics, and shifting the policy analysis framing away from the nonsense currently holding sway – all the rational choice and mechanical reductionism that only glimpses a part of life, and not its heart.  What always amazed me about Neoliberal fundamentalist assumptions is the ‘equal powerless’ one which sits snugly alongside the ‘meritocracy’ one; Adam Smith’s tiny village taken to a global scale, as if that is in any way realistic.

With those nonsense assumptions, being big is a reflection of merit, not power; so might is right; empires are cool; colonisation is grand; Viking raids are just the berries; fish pillaging, forest destruction, the legalised theft of the commons – all powerless market transactions – and it’ll all trickle down and provide the best environmental solution.  The King is superior to the Duke.  The Mega-corporation is superior to the local artisan baking the best bread in the county.  And before you know it, you get a cult of entitlement, and a hair job.

Python Holy Grail

“Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”  Dennis

All of which – the equal powerlessness, meritocracy, might is right, hair job entitlement cults – is complete and utter bollocks.  Bollocks so enormous`I have no doubt that fundamentalist economics is mere religion – funded to stay in policy power by the commercial power it unleashes.

Power is everywhere, and its abuse and inevitable comeuppance (by kickbacks via the environment, society or the economy) has been arguably the theme of history.  Don’t wonder whether fundamentalist economists have any sense of history or geography – it isn’t in their models.

So what do we do?

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂





Posted in Building Regional Economies, Neoliberalism & Corporatism, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

There is Goodness in our World

There is goodness in our world.  Never let those who seek a measured ‘objective truth’ tell you otherwise.

You can recognise it – and its opposite – when you feel it in your soul.

The better artists can emphasise that truth.  I think Anthony Doerr is in that rank. All the Light we Cannot See is an extraordinary novel. You come away reeling at the truth of love, and art, and goodness, and humanity, and the threats from those who think of their power and our world as their machine.

I often wonder about our obsessions with Modernity – the measured, predictable, reduced-to-bits machine, eating the joy and love and good some will themselves not to see. Why do we put it on a metaphysical plinth?  I wonder why we think technocratic subjects deserve that exalted position in so many minds, as if saying it is ‘science led’ makes a thing right, or good.  As if pointing to some number generated from selective data in an economic model of nonsense Modern assumptions makes it right, or wise.

We don’t need to read Frankenstein or Doctor Strangelove to question that mythology around science and other STEM subjects (note to technocrats – putting one type of knowledge on a plinth is not a ‘measured objective truth’ – you swim within a metaphysical bowl, we all do – if you had some Humanities education you might note the irony). You don’t have to read John Ralston Saul.

You only have to look to the excesses and the wrongs of our Modernity-obsessed history. The destructive WWI Western Front with generals playing with numbers, making human mince.  Nazism reducing people to another form of meat.  State-Communism the same.


Robert Bork

And now the Corporate machines with their sponsored politicians and that pinnacle of a Modern thought they endorse and support for their own ends – the fundamentalist economic policy makers who rose above wisdom and good from the early 80s.  Our latter-day substitutes for 20th C despots.  More human mincemeat.  And let’s add some planetmince to the mix.

Without art or the Humanities, science and all the other number-obsessed disciplines are like a dry tongue counting calories … and never the taste and quality of a thing, the good and rightness of an act or a thought.

Let us reduce child rearing to calorie counts, because we cannot put love and joy and spirit and confidence and belonging and culture into the model.  Let us do the same with society, community, the river, the land, the fish in the sea and the forests in the valleys.  Let us call it economics, or objective science.  Never mind the birdsong, or lying down in a wildflower meadow listening to the hum of tiny wings gently stirring the scents.  Never mind feelings. Let’s call it a ‘resource’ instead.

The Positive myth ever trumping the Normative truth, to someone’s foolish end.

There is good in this world.  And if we try to count it and apply some measured ‘utility’ to it … then, like fixing the position of a quantum particle … it will disappear from view.  More than disappear … we will destroy it.

And that is the truth.  And it is not good.

Chris Perley


Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Thought Pieces | 6 Comments

Review – The Secret Life of Cows by Rosamund Young

Rosamund Young’s The Secret Life of Cows gives far more than a simple description of animal personality, behaviour and communication.  It speaks also to and of humanity.  What animals eat impacts on their health and the quality and taste of their milk and meat.  And we are animals.  Land health is our health.

The Secret Life of Cows.jpgBonds of relationship, compassion and love impact on performance and health.

Young so well demonstrates that there are other ways to ‘see’ land, people, animals, plants, soils, all manner of combinations of things, which could enable us to make a wonder-filled, robust and quality whole.  Create a functional mix of very many things in combination (a system that goes beyond just the material to the behavioural), and we can realise so much potential.  Yet we tend to reduce complexity to a physical machine of units and numbers (and murder the potential in our dissection) of a very few things to suit the technocratic mind – like dry matter production and metabolisable energy and homogeneous scale.

And by so doing, we stuff it all up with the arrogance of a blinkered worldview, as so well demonstrated by one science reviewer who disdainfully referred to Rosamund Young’s observation as ‘anecdote’ rather than ‘science’.  If I might be permitted to use a bovine term – what bollocks.

What is science if not in-depth observation of complex and changing interrelationships over time and space?  Deep knowing isn’t found by taking a cow out of a complex environment, putting it in a standardised laboratory with all the variables removed so you can get precise statistics, and asking some small question that never gets to the heart or the whole of a thing …. “How many times does a cow blink when under the stress of a laboratory environment?”

Yes, her book is anecdote, glorious anecdote, wisdom, observation of what was there to be observed without limits to her curiosity, to avoid at all costs the trait of specialists who see nothing they didn’t come to see.

More important than all this though is the way Rosamund opens us up to the intricacies and examples of communication.  This applies to ‘human to human’ communications, though human communication is never mentioned.  Along with ‘animal to animal’ and ‘animal to human’ connections, all those subtle layers of non-verbal communication are a language of its own, understood through movement, relative body position, eyes and body changes, sometimes not even that – just a feeling, a sense.

There is an almost mind reading communication here.  A knowing that cannot be taught but through experience and a connected and open heart.

On an occasion when the weather was doing wonderful things in the sky, my once partner watched as I sat outside looking out across the land, got up and came inside – and as I went past her (on the way to get a notebook) she simply said “you’ve got a poem, haven’t you.”

She was right ….. but how did she know?  Rosamund Young might have an answer to that.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

A time lapse of the Young’s Kite’s Nest farm in the English Cotswolds.  It could be New Zealand ….. except of course that there are far too many trees ….

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Land Use, Reimagining, Thought Pieces, Ways of Seeing | 1 Comment

Returning our World back to the Grace that is The Golden Rule

Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy emphasises the point that the Golden Rule transcends cultures.  This is deep wisdom.  Do unto others.  The thinkers of the Ages have come to the same conclusions.  Living with hubris and selfish ego has no future. Spartan Greeks are not the model for a meaningful & lasting life.

Our pre-modern myths are replete with parables where self-centred, entitled, ‘above the gods’ hubris has led to a fall.  It matters how we care for others.  If you centre your life on only the self, then do not expect that life to end well.

The Golden Rule.jpg

We’ve lived in a modern world where the very reverse of this rule has been treated as a virtue. Especially since the rise of a Gordon Gecko economic creed of egoism.  Neoliberalism; an economic creed as destructive, as mechanical, as power-concentrating and as unstable as the worst totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century.  The *vices* of selfishness, avariciousness, coveting, otherising, exploitation, extraction, privatising gains and socialising costs – have all been treated as virtues.

We know those who position such vices that way.  Most of us can work out that the consequences are dire – to our future as well as to the others we exploit.

These vices enable the true vicious (vice-filled) scum to rise, those without a care for others or tomorrow.  They rise on the back of our world and our communities.

And it is oh so profitable to exploit and destroy in the short term.  To drift net the ocean, ransack the Kauri, degrade society and working conditions.  It looks oh so ‘rational’ to do so with dollar figures in a narrow spreadsheet that sees nothing complex, no connections and feedbacks over space and time.

Mine, mine, mine.

I really think there are change in the winds.  Back to a more inclusive, broader, more long term, connected, wise, resilient, sustainable way of seeing, thinking and being.

It requires us to look far more broadly than the technocratic world.  Put the technocrats back in the position of servants.  Bring wisdom, the Humanities, the arts, the poets, the Spiritual and deeply wise Perennial Philosophies back as the rudder to direct us in our complex and ever-shifting, ever self-organising, dancing, seeing, feeling, joy-filled murmuration world we live within, on which we depend, and in which we share.

Time lapse dance grace

There is where lies grace.

Chris Perley

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Thought Pieces | 2 Comments

Watch cricket, and save the world

Reading Thich Nhat Hanh and watching the test cricket.

It’s a Zen thing. Have always loved the beauty, the quiet and changing pace of cricket. You can listen to the birds, marvel at the grace, determination or skill of a shot, a ball, an innings. Feel the mood of the crowd.

You can be very present watching or playing cricket. Meditative. In the moment. All senses open to the colours and the sounds.

“The quality of our presence is the most positive element that can contribute to the world.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Watch cricket …. and save the world 😊

Chris Perley


Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Fed Farmers Need to Flush in some new Thinking

If the speech summary of Federated Farmers President Katie Milne is anything to go by, the farming lobby group needs a bit of radical thinking. Ms Milne effectively laid down a challenge to the government to allow land use to continue as before.  No change. “This is what we do.  There is no other way.”  All our past senseless Lincoln-borne industrial maximise-production mediocrity, where each failure is rationalised using selected metrics as justification to stay on the treadmill.

Stagnant pond Fed Farmers

Katie Milne’s rhetoric was wrapped up in clichés of “certainty,” “properly thought through,” “solid evidence,” “sound analysis” and “the business of farming.”  Many of us bridle at those so-often poorly thought through, unsound and empty phrases.  And life isn’t certain.  We can either delude ourselves that it is and strive to develop some soulless machine of perfect fragility – or we build those capacities that make us resilient within our communities, enterprises and farm landscapes.  Resilient to inevitable change; the drought, the flood, the fertiliser price leap, the commodity price crash.

Resilience and scope are the new paradigms, replacing fragile commodity and the delusion of factory scale efficiencies.

Her comments that the government’s recent decision not to permit mining on DoC land as “a surprise announcement and policy made on the hoof,” beggars belief.  If that comes as a surprise, so I would presume will be the next drought.

The currently prevalent view dominating all the discussion within land use is to make us all cogs of course; all ‘efficient’ producers of lots and lots of cheap stuff on bigger and bigger land holdings run like corporate businesses, processed though large centralised factories, to “feed the world.”  And, naturally, without having to worry about things like water pollution, climate change or the effects of those trends on community and local economy.  The mechanical construct will support the delusion of certainty.

Let the treadmill keep spinning, ever faster.  Never think of getting off.

Where does “evidence-based” fit within that particular model?  There is no ‘objective’ framework outside a particular worldview, a paradigm gold fish bowl where the fish don’t see the water within which they swim.  If Katie Milne’s comments are anything to go on, Federated Farmers are still very much in the economies of scale, cheap production paradigm dominated by corporate and colonial thought.  With all land rightfully open to extractive practices — including DoC – so never mind building creativity and realising a world where healthy commerce, community and environment can co-exist.

Federated Farmers need to change their water.  The stagnant backwater of thought over which they preside is part of the reason their membership is dropping.  They do not represent the viewpoints of all farmers, for which we ought to be eternally grateful.

Their corporate view of farming is a culture in crisis.  It isn’t working. We face vulnerabilities in our markets and our business structures because discerning markets want safe, quality food.  Our farms are aggregating, farm families are leaving, real prices are in long-term decline, our large processors lack imagination, we marginalise the ‘scope’ within our landscape systems, the potential of our marketing structures, the creativity of our people and the value potential of our processing chains.  A focus on scale ‘efficiencies’ destroys our potential to reduce costs, increase enterprise options and provide the market narrative to dictate a premium price.

In the light of our potential future, Ms Milne’s comments that “there are very limited mitigation measures farmers could take,” is very far off the mark. Let us be specific.  A farm can mitigate green house gases by reducing energy inputs particularly of nitrogenous fertilisers – many of which are at levels far above optimum profit and risk – and by building soils, establishing wetlands and adding woodlands.  We can do this for climate change and make more profit and lower risks and lower costs and increase enterprise potential and enhance the environment and provide the narrative for market premiums.  Think scope, not scale. Think systems, not machines.  Think knowledge intensive, not energy intensive. Think soil systems, not hydroponics.

Of course, many will see that as “not what we do,” perhaps even a bit hippy or greenie.

And that is the problem.  New ideas that fundamentally challenge the structure of that faith in the “feed the world ever cheaper” mythology, with all its wariness of a tree or a wetland spoiling the monochromatic symmetry of grass, are marginalised.

It is not the potential within our agricultural landscapes and enterprises that is limiting, it is the dominant mindset within land use that we must only think and act as we have always done.

Accepting a little uncertainty would go a long way.


Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural communities and land use strategy.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Thought Pieces | 20 Comments

Shifting to the Enlightened Age

I’m trying to be zen about yet more reveals of what is a deeply corrupt world dominated by large corporates.  Those who can pay to place their lackeys into political power, all the better to erode our democracy.  All the better to ensure they can exploit and dispossess more, and more.

It’s hard.  It seems so incredibly immoral.  It seems so incredibly short-sighted and unwise.  It is as if they have no idea of the consequences of extractive thinking and the degradation of our society and planet on the long-term.  Are they that disconnected from community and place.  We see people whose actions surely threaten their very souls, or perhaps they have none.

Wes Anec - Culture of Awareness

Wes Annac – Culture of Awareness

There are very good reasons why there is a perennial philosophy through all spiritual thought – forget the fundamentalists.  Selfishness, greed, and believing you are above the gods – or believe you live sacrosanct from reaping any “banquet of consequences” – are always bad.  Always vices.  I do not care how you can cleverly rationalise them within a spreadsheet with dollars as measures.  You rationalise insanity and immorality.  You rationalise the incredibly unwise.

Cloud Atlas evil - natural - good

David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the historical and future contest between good and evil.

But there is consolation.  More people are aware.  And the whole of history gives us evidence that it will not last (history which these incredibly unwise and vicious people know nothing about apparently).  There is a growing realisation of the fact that the system has been tilted to an extreme in favour of the worst of people who are concentrating power, encouraging corruption, and degrading our (and their own) life support systems.

What sort of shift we get is what worries me.  It could end up as the Terror – a radical swing to another form of fundamentalism – a hating, othering, violent dystopia with lawyers and CEOs swinging from the poplar trees.  We know this could happen.

And we know how fear and outrage can be manipulated.  We know how effective scapegoating tactics are.  The malevolent may thump podiums and turn the anger away from themselves, to the innocent.  The Brixton rioters went after the ethnic small store owners rather than the City bankers et al.  We could end up with an Animal Farm scenario – a replace of arrogant selfish greed by arrogant selfish greed.

Or we could see a complete environmental collapse – a worldwide evolutionary dead end where the line that is humanity is expunged by the incredible stupidity of the best dressed people with the poorest minds and morals.

Or – hopefully – we could see a fundamental economic and constitutional change – an acknowledgement of a few facts and the need to address them.  A social change that brings back into centre stage those perennial philosophies – belonging and the so-called ‘feminine’ virtues of love and care – seeing hubris as the vice of tyrants.  Make the powerful quake when immorality trumps responsibility and the reality of their own connection.

Our lives are not our own - David MitchellWe could see that age old battle between the best in humanity and the worst, between those who see us all as connected, bound to others *and* ourselves through every act of kindness  – and those who use power to treat their own world as mere grist in their own petty mill.

When we inevitably shift, I hope that kindness wins.

A few practical steps to a new enlightenment ….



1. Large Commercial political power must be made ‘illegal’ – they have the worst of minds and morals.  They will destroy our life-support systems.

2. We need an economic framework that see the economy as dependent upon both our society and our functioning environment.  You extract from life and turn it into cash and concentrated power, and you eat the heart and soul of yourself.

3. We need an economy that is a servant to the people, rather than people as a servant to the economy.

4. We need to rebuild our individual moral responsibility.  It is a vice to treat people and the planet as a means to your own selfish end – whether ‘you’ are a corporation or a person.  Working for an organisation can never absolve an individual from their personal responsibility to be moral.  I fear that Hannah Arendt’s functionaries are again on the rise – those who unwittingly or willingly partake in the Banality of Evil where the culpable hide behind their orders from the hierarchy above.  “Just obeying orders.”  “Not my fault.”

5. We need to extend democracy to local levels.  Make it real, and about knowledge systems where there is not the arrogance of hierarchical Herr Professor-types who think they hold everything relevant within their increasingly specialist and technocratic narrow minds.  We see it in the CEO cults, in the Prime Minister and President worship.  Leaders who are not humble are not wise.  Despotic authoritarianism and wisdom are mutually exclusive.

We need these rights of people, rights of nature, control of power, personal responsibility to be good, devolved democracy.

But I think there is another necessity – redistribution of what the powerful have stolen – yes legally stolen, and sometimes not even that if you bother to read about William le Batard (William the Thief and the Invader, not the Conqueror).  A reform of ‘ownership’.  Create new ‘commons’ where a sense of ownership is replaced by a sense of local belonging ad care. There is a revolution of ownership concepts around the world, a rethinking of relationship.  Gar Alperovitz has written extensively on it, and all the work on the management of commons is brilliant.

All this is effectively a rejection of the Neoliberal consensus, which pits the market as in direct conflict with democracy, as it pits the short-term and expedient against long-term social and ecological function.  You can have one or the other, but you cannot have both.  Neoliberalism will degrade democracy as well as other fundamental functions of society and the planet.

Changing that way of governing our world represents a key shift in the relationship we have with both the earth and our society.  The Modern Western thought disease is the metaphysics of mechanical determinism with all the assumptions of reductionism, disconnected dichotomies of self-community-land-other, predictability, mechanical constructs of life without meaning.  We need to re-embrace what all indigenous people understood – whether Polynesian, Asian, Germanic, Native American or Celt.  Re-embrace the idea that we do not ‘own’ the land, or staff, as ‘resources’.  Re-embrace the truth that we are integral to these functioning systems, whose integrity is our integrity.  Stop feeling other than, apart from, dis-integrated.

The mechanical construct is so wrong-headed – you cannot sustainably view a functioning life-support system as just a set of material quantitative things, nouns.  Such systems are fundamentally verbs, shifting and integrated relationships – a murmuration of starlings.  We live within, as part of, a functioning system.  It follows that if we harm it, we harm ourselves.

Any new economics has to appreciate this, as well as any science, and policy, and engineering, and all the other increasingly dangerously narrow technocratic disciplines.  What that represents is a shift from our Modern view that “Science & Technology” is the leading paradigm of management and policy – to Aristotle’s far more important human abilities to ask what is a connected and good life for us all, and what is the practical wisdom (Phronesis) we need in order to choose the necessary policies to achieve that good.

Humanities and spirituality are very necessary to that end.  They provide the rudder and the perspective.  Science and technology does not have the wisdom to be either that rudder or provide wider perspective, though it provides necessary information and knowledge – so let it be on tap, not on top.

I don’t know if we will achieve a new Enlightened Age after the inevitable social, economic or environmental collapse.  I fear that the most stupid people are in front of the camera.  But we have to live as if it is a possibility.

Very little else matters – your mortgage, your job, your retirement savings.  Because if we don’t get the change right, all that mere process and toil may have been all for nothing.

Chris Perley
Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

The Art of Flying ….. and Life

I am a sucker for murmurations, that greatest and most beautiful metaphor on life. They are so representative of the new (and old) way of seeing the world, of the fundamental metaphysics underlying life.

Watch this amazing two minute excerpt from Jan van Ijken’s short documentary The Art of Flying.

Ijken Art of Flying

Yes, you can *simulate* a murmuration by assuming a set of individuals acting under mechanical patterns of close response. But you cannot *predict* an actual murmuration of sentient and deeply social creatures, actual life, actual human society, actual ecology, actual human economies.

I wish the model-bound economists and other technocrats would realise this. I wish they would seek to understand the capacities we need to build into our people, communities and environments in order to maintain life-fulfilling functions upon which a resilient – and joyous – future depend.

And so you change the metaphysics to complex systems, to uncertainty being the ruling paradigm, to music & dance not all ‘ducks-in-a-row’ marching in step, to self organisation not regimented order, to conversation that can go anywhere not to command and control, to the trickster keeping you humble not the arrogance of the tyrannical Ozymandiuses, to beauty not machine, to building capacities to adapt not fragility to the merest unforeseen change, to experience of life and love not a wage slave existence subservient to some megalomaniac power.

This is both the indigenous world views (yes, including the Germanic & the Celt) of old (be respectful, be wise) and our future.  We are stuck in a Modern abyss where we think those male virtues of order, rationality, quanta and control are the underlying structures of life – God’s formulaic System of the World.

That unfeeling heartlessness trumps the experience of what it means to fly.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainabilitywith a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. He was the 2017 Green Party candidate for Tukituki.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Reimagining, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

The Economics of Poverty, and the Poverty of Economics

A few years ago, a couple of local politicians made an extraordinary offer.  Come to Hawke’s Bay and invest, they said, for we have low wages and conditions.

This thinking imagines that economic success comes, not from the creative dynamism of our own local culture and enterprise, but when some outside ‘investor’ comes into our place like some latter-day colonist.  All the better to be cheap.  Hail cheap ‘human resources’, cheap environmental ‘resources’ (even free, if you can get it), cheap compliance costs.  Hail their ‘freedom’ to take the land and whatever lies beneath.

This is a seriously visionless view of our commercial world, whatever the propaganda of jobs and prosperity for all.

305K kids in poverty.jpgWe can think and act a whole lot better than this.

It was also more confirmation of what we have known for some time: there are many men in suits who see the wage rates of Bangladesh as our economic goal. Let us have poverty. Poverty is good for business. And let’s put the blame on the victims, make it a sport if we can. Perpetuate the myth of the undeserving poor and laud those who drive a Maserati.

Seriously, this approach to life and the economy is very dumb. It is stupid because it degrades the very basis of a strong local economy. It is morally and intellectually bankrupt because child and family poverty is our poverty, just as the degradation of our natural systems is our degradation. It is myopic because it kills opportunity, creates costs, and makes life worse for local business. It is deluded because it promotes the takers and the short-term wheeler-dealers who work in boardrooms, and makes life harder for creative enterprises that have smoko tables.

We lose community cohesion and quality, get less enterprise, get additional costs, and less money going around local business.

Here’s how. Kaumatua Des Ratima once told me that our people have lost hope. We were comparing the feeling of optimism and opportunity we once had with the feeling today that life is now different. When people lose hope and optimism, then society is worse, and the realisation of talent stalls.

The four capitals.pngWe are poorer.  Our social and human capital is degraded, and hand in hand goes the exploitation of our natural capital and our underfunding of essential infrastructure and service.

Social Capital Eroded: Potential Unrealised
This loss of social cohesion and belonging is the first and major cost of poverty. When we make policies that reduce hope we degrade our localised ‘social capital’; the very thing that creates economic prosperity – trust, participation, belonging, social and individual responsibility, justice and caring.

Social networks.jpg

Enterprise comes from a culture of trust, confidence and belonging

When you feel good about life, you meet, you trust in justice and each other, you exchange ideas, discussion flows – and things happen. Start-ups, clusters, art, expression, value-chains, new connections. And enterprise leads to more enterprise, hope to hope, a virtuous circle.

Social capital – or its lack – is more than related to the realisation of enterprise.  There is no such thing as a ‘rational’ thought outside a sociological system of belief and feeling – about yourself and the world.  When you are feeling like one of the ‘Precariate’ shifting from one short-term casual gig to another, or your expectation is that the next gig will be another controlled, thoughtless and unfulfilling job without any shred of commitment to you in the way of training, recognising what you are good at, or your personal development, then you can very quickly give up.

You build people Ziglar.jpgThese are sociological phenomenon understood by the best economists, those who focus on people-led development. Build a community, a team, not a mechanical factory staffed by unthinking and obedient Orcs.  The worst economists and corporate dealers do not accept sociology, because it doesn’t fit into their asinine models that reduce the complexity of life to a dollar number.  And so they perpetuate and accentuate failures that are very much their own, and presume those failures are all related to the individuals whose potential lies dormant.  The “Rational Choice” of “Human Resources”.

Social Costs Increase
To compound the idiocy of crushing potential, we get costs instead. The personal cost of misery when children are sick with preventable diseases. The public cost of having an ambulance at the bottom instead of cheaper prevention. More mental health problems. Wasted education investment. Violence, theft, police and prisons all increase.

We are poorer, though the GDP may rise with all the extra work we need to do to repair all the damage.

Local Purchasing Power Lost & a Shift from Local Firms to Cheap Bulk Retail
The last negative effect of poverty is in reducing economic demand upon which our local firms depend; less money to cycle and multiply, a vicious cycle. The Great Depression is a classic example of what happens when you reduce demand to a trickle. But we had our own mini-example when New Zealand’s local economies tanked after National Party Finance Minister Ruth Richardson stripped $1 billion off welfare support in her 1991 “Mother of all Budgets”. It tanked because poor people – who tend to spend locally – could no longer buy, and so those enterprises laid off staff, compounding the reduced spend and the layoffs.  And Big box retail came in to compound the problems for local business.  We become a more corporate uncaring world compounding the problems for local economies.   Communities dominated by local enterprises do far better on all metrics.

WalmartRichardson made the lives of the already poor even more miserable because economic fundamentalists in Treasury believe in the bollocks that people ‘choose’ to be poor and we all live in some Yellow Submarine world of equal opportunities. It follows from those cloud cuckoo land assumptions that any reduction (or elimination) of welfare payments will allow the market to adjust, and people will go out and get the jobs that are no longer there. Genius.

So let us start a conversation. Poverty is a choice we make; a very bad one. It is both a symptom of a stupid economic creed and a key driver of our own material and spiritual poverty. Poverty suits the takers, not the creators. Poverty is not the consequence of some moral or meritorious karma; it is a clear sign of an economy in trouble, and a need to think and discuss new ideas.


Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. He was the 2017 Green Party candidate for Tukituki.

An edited version of this article appeared in Hawkes Bay Today.


  1. Key Facts from the 2008 Ontario Study
    – Poverty disproportionately affects certain populations, and has a complex mix of institutional and individual causes.
    – Poverty has a price tag for all Ontarians.
    – The cost of poverty is reflected in remedial, intergenerational, and opportunity costs.
    – Reducing poverty with targeted policies and investments over the life course generates an economic return.
  2. According to a 2016 report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, poverty costs the UK £78bn a year. 
    From the Guardian article
    They “estimate that dealing with the effects of deprivation costs £1,200 for each person in Britain. ….. estimates that the impact and cost of poverty accounts for £1 in every £5 spent on public services.”  The biggest chunk of the £78bn figure comes from treating health conditions associated with poverty, which amounts to £29bn, while the costs for schools and police are also significant. A further £9bn is linked to the cost of benefits and lost tax revenues.”Julia Unwin, the chief executive of the foundation, said: “It is unacceptable that in the 21st century, so many people in our country are being held back by poverty. But poverty doesn’t just hold individuals back, it holds back our economy too.“Taking real action to tackle the causes of poverty would bring down the huge £78bn yearly cost of dealing with its effects, and mean more money to create better public services and support the economy. UK poverty is a problem that can be solved if government, businesses, employers and individuals work together.”
  3. Report Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward 2013 estimated the cost of US Child Poverty at $US 500 Billion per year.
  4. The banal view that we live in a Yellow Submarine world of equal opportunity and meritocracy is only believed within Neoliberal Economists’ models – the very empty vessel discipline that determines much of public policy, and is supported by corporate wealth and the political far right.John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reports “Linking extreme poverty and stunting among children to poorer educational outcomes and earnings as adults, researchers said that failing to invest in early child development is blocking about 250 million children globally from reaching their potential.”  The findings were published in a series of reports in the Lancet in October 2016.
  5. Child poverty is only a small part of the whole poverty story, but the statistics compiled by New Zealand’s Child Poverty Monitor make bleak reading, and are deeply embarrassing.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂



Posted in Building Regional Economies, Neoliberalism & Corporatism, Thought Pieces | 6 Comments

Leibniz, a Library, and Neoliberalism

Random thoughts you need to write down.  A discussion on three things.  First, Leibniz’s concept of Monads – a single view of a complex whole, say London looking West from the Tower of London. Leibniz’s Monad concept is about seeing and knowing.  Of course, we intuitively know that that one view of that complex thing “London” is insufficient as a source of knowing.  A complex thing needs a sense of knowing from a complexity of points of view.

The concept of Monad is a critique of analysis.  Too narrow, too singular, and you are in no position to make a judgment.  You intuitively cannot be wise.

Yet Modernity has put us on a path to exactly that delusion of knowing. “Analyse and you will know,” is not dissimilar in many contexts to “Look at the world from only one position, and you will know.”  Then only select the measurable things, and lose even more wisdom.

Welcome to our world.

Trinity College Library

Trinity College Library

Second, a library.  It’s just a set of books, right. Nouns. Things with objective properties, independent from the observer. Stored within a machinery of order. You could put a value on them, a dollar. Or categorise them by size, age, author, age, paper, smell, feel, subject.

Or you could treat them as a functional system interdependent with the subject, a complete conflation of value and object, with meanings relating to touch, love, fond memory, moments of aha, links to a writer of the past, to wisdom, to beauty of prose, to the rhythm of words.

But of course, we live in a world where all that soppy stuff is not ‘objective’, nor easily measurable, so it must not be borne. Better – more ‘scientific’ (let us delude ourselves further that ‘science’ is the only intellectual virtue) – to see them as merely ‘resources’ whose only meaning is price, and whose only function is to be allocated according to price in the “free market”. They can only function in a market, not in a persons soul.

Third …… would you ever consider taking that library analogy and looking upon life, society, a planet in the same way – by reducing it to the Monad of a warehouse store for allocation and price? Absurd idea. That would never happen. We are too civilised and intelligent to be that blind.

And yet ….

…. that is exactly what we have allowed to happen to our world through the delusion and arrogance of an economic creed. And they can provide all sorts of numbers and mathematics to describe their Monad in details, to demonstrate that it is the only view that matters.

This is why we talk of corporate Viking Squids in the cathedrals, and economic fundamentalist priest in the libraries of our society and our world, selling and privatising in rational order, and burning anything that isn’t measurable, burning anything that hints of a function of life or love.

This is why so many of us want to fundamentally change the way we see our world.

Chris Perley


Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Wall of books

Posted in Neoliberalism & Corporatism, Thought Pieces | 1 Comment

Are Lower Wages Better for Business? Will they Shift us to a Creative Society?

Morning rant after listening to Steven Joyce et al. on Morning Report (25th October 2017) claim to be the friend of business.  Tosh.  Increasing wages are linked to building economies through building *both* social capital and demand.  Yet we’re already hearing that a lift in wages will be a business cost for Small & Medium Enterprises (SMEs).  This is reactionary, unthinking and dinosaur thinking.  Simplistic.  Mean.

We’re hearing that SMEs will suffer?  Will they?  Who buys?  Who are those who create and think within a commercial team?  Who *actually* benefits?  The one slave owner who can produce the cheapest cotton for export to a disconnected social system?  Ever cheaper milk?  A race to the bottom of third world costs structures?

Consumptive to creative.jpg

Source: Takashi Iba: Pattern Languages as Media for the Creative Society

There is a dialogue happening around the world that links so strongly to this discussion.  Our world is changing.  The abuse of corporate power with the loss of unions and the rise of the Neoliberal religion has lead to undeniable disparities.  Add to that technological shifts with the potential for huge implications for the future of work.

But it is more than that.  There is a fundamental shift in thinking – from the Productive/Consumptive society (the Neoliberal’s wet dream) to the Communicative society, and then to the Creative Society.  Suddenly systems thinking and the Pattern Language and ecological systems of thinkers like Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl and Christopher Alexander are coming into the policy space.  (This shift necessarily requires that Treasury Neoliberals be told to go and make the tea after counting some beans of course).

This is a shift!  A shift from Having and mechanical measures, to Being.  And this does not mean some idiot trade-off assumption so loved by the technocratic mind.  It can mean a significantly better place within which local commerce thrives.  Strong societies make strong economies.  Creative people make creative and attractive places, make creative economies.

OK, the Corporate Colonial Industrial Slavers may lobby hard (and spend money on media and deal-maker far right politicians) to see this terrible thing never occur, but …

….. fuck them.


Source: The Economist, quoted in an article from Business Insider that argues technological shifts requires us to completely rethink minimum wages.

A number of people have researched what makes an economy tick, and it isn’t about putting corporates at the centre of things.  Adam Smith’s suspicion of them was very well placed.  And there is so much research out there.  I’ve written a number of blogs about building regional economies by thinking differently here.  Others have looked at low wages as both the cause and the consequence of low productivity.  In other words, a poverty trap, a race to the bottom, to Mordor and the Third World.  The unions of the past that argued against the power and short-term of the robber baron types (the types that have been welcomed back under Neoliberalism with open arms) did a great deal for the economy as well as for society.

To think of staff as just a cost (lower the better) is ridiculous unless you want a slave style economy.  Narrow.  Unthinking.  Mechanical.  Such thoughts highlight the linear myopia of the technocratic class who so often cannot think beyond the spreadsheet by looking at only the numbers they can count.  If it’s not in the accountant’s spreadsheet, it apparently doesn’t exist.  Fallacy.  Fallacy.  Fallacy.  There is an interconnected system out there if anyone can be bothered to look for it.

Two examples to think about – 1. Henry Ford raises wages in 1914 or thereabouts. 2. Ruth Richardson cuts benefits in the Mother of All Budgets (Neoliberalism gone completely barking mad) to below subsistence.  In both situations it wasn’t just the dollar demand figure that was affected. There was a significant social and psychological component.

One had a significant positive effect.  One had a significant negative effect.

Why?  That social/psychological component is at least as important as the effects on aggregate demand – if not the most significant according to Robert Putnam – trust, participation, expression, cooperation, sense of belonging, hope, esprit de corps, the freedom to be creative and act, with self-organised clustered collectives for recreation or commerce etc.

And so says Amartya Sen – justice and the freedom to be is vital to enterprise, and especially justice for the thinking and actions of women and cultural diversity.  Both Sen and Putnam argue that strong economies are built by treating people well – treating them with morals – as an necessary condition for creating resilient, thinking, adaptive enterprise (whether commercial or community).  They’re also built on favouring SMEs over outside-owned Corporates (and here) – the locally-owned enterprise over the Walmart.  Creative verses Extractive enterprise.  A vision of Tuscany or the Shire rather than a corporate Mordor.  Here and here and here.

These are people-centred economies, not resource-centred dystopias.  They go beyond the measured machine and bring the Goddess back into our thinking.  Kick Milton Friedman to touch and invite Manfred Max-Neef or Jane Jacobs to speak.  The Corporate Dystopian slave economy is not the vision most of us have in mind.  So think soft systems.  Think Humanities and humanity, and what it is to be human living within a world that cannot be objectified without losing our souls.  Never think of people as merely ‘resources’. Ignore any models that are framed that way.  They are bullshit.

You won’t find *one* *single* neoliberal economist discussing this soft social part of our economic system – because if they recognised its importance, they couldn’t accept neoliberal axioms.  Neoliberals hated Putnam’s research that demonstrated that Strong Societies build strong economies, not the other way around.  It completely refuted their direction.

On Measurement - the McNamara FallacyBut if you cannot think outside the machine, or autistic measures, then you’ll never get it. I pull my hair out when people think that only the measurable matters – or even *exists*!!!! See the McNamara Fallacy – “we’re winning the Vietnam war! Look at the respective body counts! I have created a model of the results, and predict VICTORY!”

Neoliberalism essentially dismissed all the research and understanding of workplace sociology (let alone what it means to be in a community) – because they cannot deal with anything that isn’t part of a measured, predictable, mechanical, Physics-envy, machine. That is their metaphysics and cosmology – but they think they rest on a solid objective plinth of rationality and truth because they are not taught to test assumptions, logic and corollaries.  They are not taught to think philosophically about their subjective metaphysics. Better to presume it’s ‘objective’ and ‘factual’.  Less messy.

Narrowly technical and tactical without any strategic sense. The nightmare of action without vision.

Let’s corporatise all public departments, schools, hospital, universities and research organisations.  Let’s cut benefits.  Let’s sell assets.  Let’s subsidise those big & therefore meritorious mega-corporates (under Neoliberalism, big is better, might is right).  Let’s allow the pollution and degradation of the environment, because, “the market will provide!”  Let’s give carrots to the axiomatically deserving rich and beat the axiomatically unworthy poor with a big stick.  Let’s call it “freedom.”  And let’s never examine our axioms, naturally.  But we’ll still call ourselves a science.

Total bunkum. Those economists shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near policy making; put them in the “don’t call us, we’ll call you” room along with the Stalinists.  They don’t understand the complexity of our home – and how our societies and our ecosystems function as verbs self-organising into life.  Our world is not just a warehouse of stacked ‘resources’ for allocation and price.  Actors in the simple ‘market’ can rationalise the destruction of those qualitative functions (even if they acknowledge and understand them! – it’s still profitable in the short-term to destroy, sack and pillage) if all they look at is supply/demand and price – production and consumption without a shred of understanding of what it is to be a communicative and a creative society.  I’d rather ask a dustman’s advice than that of a Neoliberal economist.


So 1. In 2014 Henry Ford significantly increased the wages of his workers.  He got less turnover, happier people caring a lot more, less costs, more productivity.  Profit. “Hang on, my little spreadsheet doesn’t say that …. surely higher wages, means higher costs, means less profit.”  Presuming Ceteris Paribus of course – all else remains the same. Which it absolutely doesn’t!  Kick that assumption to touch as well.

I remember being taught about the shift in thinking from early 20th Century Frederick Taylor’s mechanical incentives to work – piece rate reward and punishment – to the motivational approaches of Hertzberg, Maslow, McGregor and Edwards Deming in the middle and later 20th C.

(MY GOD, these people are *people*, working in a workplace and wider *community*. They *care* and want to belong!  They aren’t cogs in the machine!)

And then the appallingly ignorant Neoliberals – who are taught not to think in social systems, only mechanical individuals who are ‘resources’ and ‘consumers’ (in all aspects of life – because, of course, the market defines life – all hail) come along and take us right back to Frederick Taylor thinking – long debunked in work place sociology.

The market defining life …. Remember Dr Gift from Jane Smiley’s Moo who calculated the NPV of marriage and children and decided not to invest?  Hilarious, and a little glimpse into the withered mind of the Neoliberal Professor.

Of course, neoliberals don’t want to hear about hearts and minds and communities with a collective moral sense and inspiration in their souls, never mind cooperative communication and creativity – they are frustratingly inconvenient in putting in your model.

So with Ford, higher wages in workers’ pockets created more value, less costs, and – by some commentators view – the creation of the middle class who could buy the cars.  They also nurtured the creative.

This demonstrates a system of feedbacks where no one is on the top, the system is socio-ecological and self-organising.  And that system is not just about measurable ‘male virtue’ linear hard measured bits.  So much of economic success comes from the heart of people – their motivation and vision in life – their desire to be and belong and create as much as to have – the archetypically ‘female virtues’ of belonging, love, care, nurture, sharing etc.  People have a sense of morals, they either trust or don’t, they participate or not, they express their ideas and have the confidence to speak and act, or they hunker down and be the cog the idiot corporate bosses want them to be (because they really lack anything like a complete worldview).  We need the Goddess back.  The wisdom and the caring and the purpose and the qualities as well as necessary (as distinct from convenient) measures.  Not just the measures.


2. Darling Ruth and her slavering adherence to Milton Friedman’s nonsense. Cuts the benefits and the economy tanks.  Less money in the economy, and so SMEs go DOWN!!  Then they had to let staff go.  So more unemployed on below subsistence benefits.  So yet less money in the local economy.  Idiots.

But it gets worse.  Our people lose hope and connection – some of those social and psychological things that are fundamental to the realisation of both individual and collective creative potential.

WalmartAnd guess what. That’s when the Warehouse rose because we need to buy cheap – our very own Walmart corporate style operation killing the SME retailers.


So treat our people well.  Pay them decent wages that don’t require the subsidisation of Corporations by Working for Families, and refocus on the whole of what makes a society and an environment tick and function, rather than the most asinine accountant measure that presumes that lower wage costs means more profit because they haven’t the wit to see the connections that go beyond the number on the sheet.  It is simplistic bullshit; the bullshit that has become so prevalent in this least Wise of ages – the Age of Neoliberal Madness.

In a system you never do one thing. Ceteris Paribus is bollocks. And assumption that needs to be explicitly assigned to the scape heap.  That is not how systems work.  You tug one strand of the spiders nest, and the whole things moves.  You might even wake the spider.
Ask yourself what else you do to the system when you raise or lower wages.  Ask what you do to the motivation, sociology and psychology of people, as well as to your customer demand base.

Are you supporting a productive/consumption society.  Emphatically, no.  You undermine both production and consumption.  Are you supporting a communicative or a creative society from which we – local people and enterprise – benefit?  Categorically, no.

Low wages support the Corporate, Colonial, Industrial Slavers.

If you listen to the nonsense accountant logic of lower wages simply meaning more profit (the thinnest slice of our social and economic system you could imagine) then the logical corollary is slavery, with the ever present hope that the Lords at the top will buy your SME shoes.
Mind you, some would say we have already that.  Under our Neoliberal madness, that dystopia of obedient cogs, living within an authoritarianism fear-based slavery is exactly what is being promoted.


Can you follow the trend lines?  Think about it.  That’s why we need to change.  That’s why we need a vision of something a whole lot better, with very different policy making frameworks.

Make the differentiation between SMEs and outside-owned corporations.  Treat decent wages as a part of that vision of a better world – economically and socially bettter.  Adam Smith’s village and a Tuscanesque Shire is what we ought to be striving for – not a Corporate dystopia run by obedient and expendable Orcs for the benefit of a few Sarumans and Saurons telling us in we are “free!” in the media machine run by the Uruk Hai.

Chris Perley


Chris Perley has a background in embedding himself in our landscapes and fields, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Building Regional Economies, Neoliberalism & Corporatism, Thought Pieces | 1 Comment

Jacinda, can we please have the Goodnight Kiwi back!

Jacinda, can we please have the Goodnight Kiwi back. And while you’re at it, can we have our once superb, public service, independent questioning broadcaster back.Goodnight Kiwi

Load it again with bags of satire and documentaries where the face of the questioner is never seen (find someone with the dulcet tones of Ian Johnstone or Dougal Stevenson – but please – no Garners or Gowers).  Bring back that deep search for truth and wisdom, that questioning ethos, the courage of Simon Walker taking on the PM. Bring back the celebration of what public *service* means.

You’ll have to nobble Treasury of course. They were the ones who told us that it was impossible for us to have a public service ethic … because they couldn’t find one anywhere in their models of selfish, all-knowing, asocial, utility maximising individual automata from the Planet Urras.

Walker vs Muldoon.jpg

Can we please have a broadcasting system that has a duty to educate, inform and build civics.  Can we please have a public system that owns the paramount duty of holding power to account – government and corporate power.

You can keep the rest of the reality tv greed-fodder crap promoting housing speculation and – let’s face it – the worst tastes imaginable.  And take the sugar advertising off the kiddies’ cartoon programming.  That’s just pure corporate scumbag evil. Nasty.

Speaking of scumbags …. Hoskings.  I mean, really?  He has the perfect mind, as well as that shrill, arrogant, uneducated, cliché-laden, reactionary, back-of-the-pub-bore voice that is perfect for Talkback.  Such a waste of talent.

Rinehart Murdoch.pngTo that end of controlling the abusive power of the mega-corporate media magnates – who care not one whit for this world and its future, only their salivating selves and their filthy lucre – can we please ensure that no one Murdoch, Packer, Rinehart type can own any more than 10% of the print, TV & radio media in our country.

I fancy a bit of decentralised ownership. Forget “too big to fail” – try out “too big to be allowed to continue existing if your practice is to rort the system for your own immoral ends.”  Hold them to account.  Try the unique idea of allowing the people to make the laws to suit the future of our children rather than this filth paying politicians to make the law to suit their next quarter’s profit.

Checks & balances

We’re not talking about these types of checks & balances

Try the idea of a thing called ‘democracy’ with checks and balances on power.  The nation builders and constitutional reformers of the past knew that if you didn’t balance and control power, that all hell would eventually break lose.  Jefferson and his lot – Danton and Camille before they had their very fine heads removed by the Nero of the day, Robespierre.  Those brilliant few who designed the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The idiots who desire power never seem to understand the All-Hell-Breaks-Lose reality. Blinded by baubles and a delusional sense of superiority and entitlement perhaps. A Statesperson – and I think you could be one of those Jacinda – might practice a bit of balancing, for the sake of our Non-Hell-Breaking-Lose future.  Call it self-interest if you like.  I really don’t care.  Just do it, please.  We had land reforms once.  We broke up the big estates.  Corporates have been broken up before.  Let’s do it again.  Never mind their bleating, or their claims of “the market will provide” or “you’re being elitist; it’s what the public wants.”  That’s just the mechanical chatter of proto-fascist neoliberal corporatism.


End of Transmission

Can we please come back to a paradigm that will actually ensure our survival instead of a short term rush as the Vampire Squids raid and burn the Cathedrals.

Perhaps this can be our core premise – “that our people are neither the servants of, nor the resources for, ‘the economy’.  The economy is the servant of our people.”  Yeh, Service! Giving, not taking.  Creating, not exploiting.

That’s where it starts and ends.

But the Goodnight Kiwi is on the top of the list.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a background in embedding himself in our landscapes and fields, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Wellington Public Service

Posted in Neoliberalism & Corporatism, Thought Pieces | 2 Comments

Instead of Dam Thinking from the 50s, Look to the Landscape

Reblogging with edits away from the previous focus on just the Ruataniwha Dam.


Rethinking, reimagining land, community & economy. Unless we fundamentally change away from the dominant ideas expressed by Treasury, the current public service model, the right wing political parties and their corporate sponsors, then I think we will be fighting environmental, social and provincial degradation for a very long time.

The root causes of decline are in the simplistic, linear and mechanical thinking they remain wedded to. Fiddling around the edges will not suffice.

The trouble is that the shadows on the wall they see are the only world they know. And if someone should point out the colours and life beyond the cave entrance, they will continue to recoil with horror. I’m not sure how you change this within the time constraints we have.

We could get a change in thinking from our obsession with quantified homogeneous industrial scale to realising that building capacities in landscapes (and social-scapes) creates a more resilient, sustainable, meaningful and prosperous future.

There are so many wonderful thinkers, doers and writers who have demonstrated that truth – in landscapes, in communities, and in regional economies. But they all have Humanities souls. They feel and connect, and are happy within the complexity and uncertainty of life.

Perhaps we ought to start with teaching our children that.

Source: Instead of Dam Thinking from the 50s, Look to the Landscape

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Thought Pieces | 4 Comments

I want to write about ….

I want to write about how we cannot afford poverty, how stupid it is, how it degrades our economy and our spirit.

I want to write about the trends in our New Zealand economy to a power-crazed, corporatist, extractive, one-dollar-one-vote destruction of democracy; the destruction of local enterprise and family owned farms – and why those targets of the corporate agenda would even think of voting for their own turkey christmas.  There is nothing good in this trend.  There is no creativity, nor meaning, nor soul.


I want to write about how a strong community is your business friend, how treating people as things is stupid if you want a future for your own town and region.  The only people – if you could call them that – that benefit from treating us as third world colonial slaves are the corporates who do not live here.  Wake up.  We are being colonised – and that colonisation is supported by the right because they are paid by the colonisers and the media is owned by the colonisers.

I want to write about how the environment is your friend.  Not just in building your soul and a meaning in life, but in your business as well – unless you are an absolute scumbag who will pillage the kauri, the water, the soil, the fisheries for your immediate self-gratification.  Vice.  Business does not have to be vicious.  It can be virtuous.  Realise that building the hope and dreams and connections and laughter and spirit and trust and participation and esprit de corps of people – community – staff – *creates* and drives our world.

I want to write that only an unthinking moron would throw the capacity and value of their land down the stream by washing away soil and nutrients. Pure and utter stupidity. Dumb and dumber.  Fed Farmers type moronity.  I want to write that land capacity to cope with drought and flood is your friend. I want to write that you get benefits from a functioning landscape where diversity and biota are your friends. Free gifts, cashflow options, resilience, beauty, function, stock health, less need for inputs – more dollars made for less dollars spent.  I want to write that the environment means you have a story to sell, a market position essential to a premium while commodities continue their downward slide.  Better environment, more resilience, better economics, a better place within which to create and be.

I want to write about systems thinking and strategy and getting your head out of the technocratic falsehood of only looking at the measured things in a spreadsheet. At the insanity of discounting your future by 10% real.  The immorality.  The death of art, and with art, wisdom.

I want to write about the need to be able to differentiate lies from truth, to dig into the root causes and not – ever – be influenced by some empty cliche like “a war on P”. I want to write about scapegoating, and the nonsense of some economic theories, and the history of stupidity within various economic extremes. Beware of economics, especially when it involves absolutes – “the market will provide,” “the state will dissolve to a worker’s collective,” “there is equal powerlessness in the world,” and “people make rational all-knowing asocial choices to be poor.”  Think for yourselves.  Learn for yourselves.  Dig into the assumptions.  They are easy to find.  You’ll quickly spot the bullshit there and realise that the smartly dressed men in suits do not have superior minds.  They have no authority of thought – and we should never give them that.  They live within a social paradigm of unquestioned belief without internal critique.

I want to write about Modernity and finding our way back home to becoming native to place – to return to *being* *in* and *of* our lands and our communities where they are never defined by the measurement of stocks.  We do not raise children by measured calorie flows alone.  Why would we do that for economics or society.

I want to write about the radical radicle root core philosophical depths of wisdom.

And how we are not being wise in our political choices.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a background in embedding himself in our landscapes and fields, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Neoliberalism & Corporatism, Thought Pieces | 5 Comments

Neoliberalism and Rawls’ Theory of Justice

How would you structure the justice in our society today?  One method is to look at a blank canvass of what might become a moral society from an “original position” behind what John Rawls described as “A veil of ignorance” [A Theory of Justice, 1971].

john-rawls original position

Imagine you do not know who you will be in the real world – you might be poor or rich, black, white or brown, male or female, young or old, felon or victim, born today or in 150 years time, etc.

Then consider what sort of justice system you would think is fair for whatever your real position in life will be.  Justice is fairness.

Now ask yourself a few questions about how the justice of the world is structured now – take particular note of power structures – and how that contrasts with your view from behind the veil.  Is our justice – built into the structures of social norms, behaviours, sentiment and legal frameworks – fair?  Think particularly of your ignorance of whether you will be born today, or in 150 years time.

I ask this because – in my view – we have structured deep injustices over the last 30 to 40 years in New Zealand and around the world.  We have allowed more exploitation of our people and our land & sea natural systems upon which – ironically – our long-term society and economy depends.

Ironic because we were told by the priests of the Neoliberal faith that it’s all for the best.  The ‘market’ – all-knowing as it is – will magically allocate and price ‘resources’ as they ought to be allocated.   So if the system is exploited, that is right.  If you are poor, that is right.  If power accumulates and you invade or buy another part of the world far far away, then that is right.  Might is right because the market recognised your ‘merit’, and made you mighty.

John Rawls Veil of Ignorance

We have ‘justified’ that exploitation – an exploitation that cannot be sustained without eventual economic, social and environmental collapse – by 1. that Neoliberal faith, 2. the glorifying of mega-corporate business entities who act for their short-term expedience at the expense of any value that gets in the way of making an immediate profit (never mind even their own great grandchildren), and 3. the scapegoating of the victims; the poor and dispossessed.

Their poverty is apparently either their own choice, or a reflection of their merit in an equal opportunity world where all have the same power and options.  They could have gone to the banks, I was once told, and talked to their old school buddies there, and asked for the billion dollar loan, just like anybody else (I was given that actual excuse once when pointing our that only the already wealthy have the opportunity to buy billion dollar public assets at fire-sale prices, and thereby enrich themselves and impoverish the rest of us).

Then the felons who perpetrate this ‘fair deal’ are given knighthoods.

Neoliberalism is very much implicated in this system of injustice.  Let us consider the following.  Neoliberalism presumes there are no power differentials because that is convenient to model.  Power is far too complex and relational to model easily.

Smith Beware commerceWonderful.  The market is presumed to be always fair.  Problem solved. Who needs an original position behind a veil of ignorance when there is no chance of an unfair outcome.

And so arithmetic convenience overrides truth & questions about reality.  We presume that the world of business is like Adam Smith’s village of bakers and candlestick makers.  Let’s also presume that we can just ignore Smith’s warnings of the need to control the power of corporations and aristocrats, to publicly educate an enlightened and moral populace (What?!  State intervention?!) and to be highly suspicious of merchants anywhere near the making of our laws because they will try to exploit if they are given half a chance.

Neoliberalism also presumes that rational decisions are made through exchange of goods and services within the market.  So if someone makes a lot of money in the short-term out of pillaging the kauri for personal gain, or drift netting the ocean, or depleting or polluting the finite or slow-cycling water ‘resources’, or – sigh – destroying the soils that will not recover for many millennia (in the case of our hill country soils), then that is all fine and good.  People will – apparently – rationally discount the future cashflows at a rational rate, using rational calculations of Net Present Value, and the benefits will accrue to future generations in accordance with the wisdom and justice of the market and private investment.

Except that if you have anything to do with discounted cashflow over intergenerational periods of time using any real rate much over 2% you see the moral nonsense that you can rationally advocate the bankruptcy and extinction of your own family’s future.  Rationalised insanity.

Cutting your own roots.jpg

What bunkum.  Meanwhile the fisheries collapse, forests are pillaged, soils wash or blow way, water systems are depleted and degraded, species go extinct, the functionality of our natural systems teeter on the edge, we run out of key nutrients, and the globe warms and warms.  What could possibly go wrong when we cut our own roots from under ourselves.

Never mind that history has demonstrated that for finite or slow cycling natural systems it is exceedingly profitable to pillage to the point of system collapse, and that such collapses have happened time and time and interminable time again and again and again.

Newfoundland fisheries collapse.jpgNice to ponder upon this when discussing with Neoliberal economists that a forest or soil natural *system* is not the same as a bean farm with a canning plant attached.   Short-term market cycles can be fine for short-feedback systems.  They can be destructive and terminal where the feedbacks take generations, or occur over distant geographical scales, or are positive feedbacks – such as happens all the time in agriculture where a price decline leads to a production increase, which leads to a price decline, ad infinitum – until the social, environmental and economic system collapses (most demonstrably in the US Dustbowl of the 1930s).  The Neoliberals, living as they do with faith, not empirical evidence, will tell you that this couldn’t possibly happen.  Must be the government’s fault, obviously.

Yet it happens …. I’m sorry, I mean to say it happens in the real world, outside the models.

[Also note – please Mr Neoliberal – that you do not adequately describe such ‘natural systems’ by describing them as ‘natural resources’.  The latter (resources) reduces complexity to an inert set of things without function.  Natural systems evokes the considerably more accurate view of processes of energy flows, feedbacks, thresholds and emergence of something with entirely new properties not inherent in any part.  This is the dynamic complex that provides for trivial things – like life itself.  Life is – perhaps unfortunately – not often included in discounted cashflow accounts.  It’s often more profitable to do without it.]

quote-a-just-society-is-a-society-that-if-you-knew-everything-about-it-you-d-be-willing-to-john-rawls-81-28-14Neoliberalism is in direct conflict with Rawls original position in presuming that there is a true meritocracy in play.  Isn’t that wonderful.  Problem of justice solved.  The market will provide.  There is no need for a government-determined justice beyond property rights and obvious violence crimes – because the perfect market and a world of presumed equal opportunity will ensure all the dice of life fall where they ought through fully informed rational choice.

Because there are no power differentials in their models, then there is no need to recognise the real, empirical, industrial, feudal and colonial exploitation of people and natural systems.  All, apparently, willing buyer-willing seller structures of equal powerlessness and rational acts by benevolent firms.

As someone in a wheelchair one might expect that I would be outraged by this.  I am outraged, but it has nothing to do with the dice I know people suffer from; it is because it is a deeply unjust and philosophically ignorant view.  It is pure and utter bollocks justified for the sake of a convenient mathematical model.  And that is both deeply, deeply immoral as well as far more a fundamentalist faith than the normal academic critique you expect from both the sciences and the humanities.

The long & short term selfSo let us presume that there are some problems in the Neoliberal view.  Let us presume that power does concentrate and can and does buy political parties of the right, degrades democracy where it suits (who needs elected local body councillors in Canterbury anyway) and effectively buys the policies they desire.  Let us presume that the success of that rort by the powerful, as allowed and actively encouraged under Neoliberalism, has concentrated the worldview (or rather the me-me-me-view) that short-term profit is far more fun and acceptable than worrying about future things like the life of the planet, functioning natural systems, and the future of society.

Let us presume that expedience, the abuse of power, and greed will lead to everyone losing in the long-term and fewer and fewer people ‘winning’ in the short-term – if by ‘winning’ we mean gambling on a living in meaningless luxury and dying before the consequences take hold.  Let us presume that there is patently not a meritocracy in play, somewhat the reverse if by ‘merit’ we presume some moral dimension – that is, a good person who thinks about the future of community, and the need for meaningful lives beyond their own short spell on our planet.

This is the world in which we have been forced to live for over 30 years.

Knowing that, and putting yourself in Rawls’ original position, behind that veil of ignorance, what then would you do about it?


Would you view the concentration and abuse of power as antisocial, far worse than minor theft because it has the potential to destroy our world?   Would you treat that abuse as a root cause of evil, and put in place constitutional means by which such commercial absolutism was prevented, as has been done before with various constitutional permutations from the Magna Carta?  Would you retain or discard the economic ideology of Neoliberalism that has let loose these Hyenas of Commerce upon us and those unborn?  Would you safeguard the functioning of our life-support systems as paramount, and treat them as systems, not mere stocks of ‘things’?

Would you ensure – should you be born in 150 years, brown, women and poor – that there were unwritten and written norms of justice in our society that allowed you to be the talent that you are?

What would those be?  Or do you think the market with all its power distortions and lack of concern for consequences – even to your own individual survival – will suffice?

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a background in embedding himself in our landscapes and fields, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Rawls, J. 1971.  A Theory of Justice.  Belknap Press, NY

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Neoliberalism & Corporatism, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

The Joy of a Moment

I need to say something.  We all need strength at times, and it’s nature and people that give us that.  They feed the soul.  They provide meaning.

Our world seems strangely to treat these blessings – people and nature – as mere ‘things’ to use, rather than the whole of whom we are, inseparable, the place within the sum of us where we can ‘be’, within.

It is worse when we see ‘them’ – the destroyers of worlds – take a whole like nature and community combined, and deny their very existence; deny the quality and the function, and reduce to quantity and noun.

It is so strange that we have elevated those who do this.  We have promoted the visionless and the least feeling to positions of power, and allowed them to tell us that this is how we ought to see and be in this world.  The dominant narrative ought to be this truth; that the really valuable things are those that are as fleeting as the joy of a moment, and which we cannot measure – and nor should we bother to try – for any longer than an instant, in this place.  Even thinking of measuring these moments diminishes them; destroys the joy of them.

The burst of a golden pheasant, the smell and light of a forest, the absolute joy of leaping from a height into a river, feeling a fish on the line, going through a gap running for all hell and passing for a try.  

Our friends, the meeting of eyes and the smiles you see every day, the sparkle of voice and the humour of a glance, a melody, unspoken connections, hearing a poem read with emotion, a piece of art that moves you.

I do not like that we have put measures above these things.  We need to keep reminding ourselves not to listen to those who would reduce life’s meanings to some form of measured control.

Be wild.  Be free.  Feel.  Love.


Little Truths Studio

Chris Perley


Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Thought Pieces | 6 Comments

Is This our Neoliberal Meritocracy?

More on the theme of Neoliberalism, and what enormous damage it has done to the very culture of New Zealand society and our organisations. We are far less encouraging of talent, wisdom and thought. Our country is less a meritocracy than it once was, and we should remember that when we see immoral wheeler dealers with knighthoods, and those who have exited today’s concentration camps for the sake of their souls.

Chris Perley

Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

The Housing Crisis and Neoliberalism

The housing crisis – Crisis? What crisis? – is still with us after years of denial by the National Government. I wrote this a year ago when they were claiming there was no crisis – denial being the mantra de jour – no housing problem, no homeless, no child poverty, no job problem, no economic problem, no water quality problem, no climate change, no provincial problem.

Crisis what crisis.jpgThey are promising us now that they will fix housing, yet they are doing nothing that differs from the neoliberal and corporatist delusions they and Treasury have followed since 1984. Those same delusions that created all the problems. It is pathetic that they are going after the populist treat the symptom policy option, instead of trying to identify and treat the root causes. Here I discuss some root causes.

We need to change the framework, not just add populist surface policies that seek to empty the toxic river with a bucket, while doing nothing about the toxins flowing in at the top.

Frankly, I seriously doubt that National have the intellect to see, let alone critique the dysfunctional ideologies through which they see the world. Gold fish in the goldfish bowl …. what water?

Posted in Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

Neoliberalism and the Bullying of the Poor & Dispossessed

The National Party’s latest bullying of the poor and the punitive threats to those without hope needs more than just our outrage for their ignorance and immorality.  It also deserves a critique of what the hell is going on in their heads and our society where such idiocy can be seriously put forward as a supposedly ‘rational’ policy.  Any sane person – one with empathy that doesn’t see humanity as a mechanical automaton in a Neoliberal Treasury model – can imagine the consequences very readily; more problems; more costs; less hope; more despair; more suicides; more mental health; more people losing the plot in a WINZ office near you.

Glynis Sherwood’s thoughts on scapegoating shines a light on National’s continued attempt to blame the poor for their lot.

Scapegoat.jpgThe most vulnerable are scapegoated, not the most powerful.  It is ever so.

We ought to reflect on that.

Scapegoating the most sensitive, the most unhappy, the most vulnerable, or those that speak out when something is morally bankrupt, or a distorted untruth, is straight out of the Neoliberal worldview of course; the lie we have been told to believe in, and worship, for 33 years.

Do not care for others.  Be selfish.  Be judgmental of the embarrassing poor, the homeless and Third World child health diseases – the things who stand in stark relief against empty and dishonest claims of a “strong economy” – those who do not deserve because merit rises in their models, and so the only explanation is that those who are sick, or poor, or die, lack merit.

Under Neoliberalism we are told by people who call themselves economists in Treasury and the corporate media, not to adversely judge the other end of the asset and income spectrum.  Those destroyers of worlds, the Koch brothers and the rest, are simply “maximising their utility,” and we all will prosper from their meritorious works.  So it is written in the good book of Milton Friedman.  When that patently doesn’t happen, no matter.  We’ll rationalise it by blaming the ones we exploit,

psychopaths_vs_humanityor hold conferences looking at The New Zealand Paradox (shouldn’t we be rich by now?) like a bewildered flock of hen pecking chickens.  Everyone is to blame except their completely bonkers theory.

Neoliberalism frames of the poor as undeserving, as choosing to be poor within their models of asocial rationality, equal opportunity, perfect information and no power differentials, where all the dice of life fall where they ought.

Nonsense all.  Complete and utter delusional nonsense.  Extraterrestrial, off the planet, outside this galaxy, in a universe far far away, beyond bonkers.

Yet they teach this crap, and their students worship The Lord Market (Hallowed be Thy name) as the arbiter of all, where we and the planet are just sets of things, resources, for the efficient allocation of.  Then they get a job in Treasury, join the National party, or go trading derivatives in London.

The poor are undeserving, lacking merit.  But the uber-rich non-tax paying buyers of politicians and world trade policies are the best of the best.  This is a pernicious evil, and the National Party apparently cannot think in any other space.

We have set up a society that gives knighthoods to – let’s face it – some pretty ghastly scum, and a society that vilifies those who are poor, and brown, who’ve lost hope, and who do things they might, once they dig themselves out of their hole, regret.


But many will only be driven deeper into that hole by National’s quite incredible stupidity.  And we wonder why we have a P problem.  And bursting prisons.  And health issues.  And mental health.  And suicides.  And child poverty.

If you have no other reason to change the government, then choose this.  Their complete inability to see society, community, sociology or psychology.  Their apparent complete inability to feel empathy.

What are the respective definitions of a sociopath, a psychopath, a narcissist?  I’m trying to work out which one best fits this government’s policy making and distortions of the truth.

They, and their fellow travellers in Treasury, need to go.  We need a morality back that puts people and the future of our communities back at the centre of things.

We need a government that has some measure of common decency and thoughtfulness.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a background in embedding himself in our landscapes and fields, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Evil begins Pratchett

Posted in Thought Pieces | 2 Comments

The UN Declaration of Human Rights: We need this Moral Compass back.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights was ratified in 1948.  It is a measure of any government.  Just how well are our people doing?  It is a measure for any commercial behaviour as well.  Are you a contributor to this world and its people, now and forever, or are you here to extract, abuse and take, whatever the cost?  Do you govern and manage with some element of soul, some moral base to what you consider right or wrong …. or is it just expedience and the short term deal that spins your wheels?

UN Declaration on Human Rights.jpgI got politicised in the early 1990s when Ruth Richardson came along and continued (on steroids) to rip the soul out of our society – and these, our human rights – continuing the Neoliberal agenda of Treasury and Rodger Douglas since 1984.  People and place were no longer at the centre of things – of economics and policy.  No, the dollar was, and those who owned most of those dollars, and had the contacts, and could buy all the public assets that were gifted to them.  They were those who wanted more and more for themselves, and were applauded for their greed.  They were and are those with the least morality, the greatest selfish, and the most manic madness for power.  

The eaters of worlds.

When would all this madness end?!?!?!

I got politicised *and* contemptuous – because of the obvious rogues that clasped their new ‘freedoms’ to exploit and make our world more nasty, brutish and short-term in outlook – and far less moral or wise.  The rouges are very much alive.  We heard the some ACT mouthpiece only recently suggest giving money to schools whose teachers were not unionised.  They used the word ‘freedom’ of course.  Their freedom, grounded on the shackles they put on others.

Freedom.  There is always some loss to our culture when a word that means so much is taken and twisted by some fanatic to represent its opposite; Arbeit macht frei.

I became increasingly contemptuous also because in the 1990s I was witnessing 1984 (the book, not the year) and Brave New World in one – with some people blowing deeply dishonest Newspeak smoke in the eyes of the public while claiming

Work will set you free

“Work will make you Free,” at the gates of a Nazi concentration camp

all these fatuous clichés involving ‘freedom’.

The clichés came thick and fast: “There is no alternative,” “no gain without pain,” “we all have the same opportunities and the same power exercised through the market,” “meritocracy” and “rational choice” (even the presumption that the poor ‘choose’ to be poor) – while thought and expression of any disagreement was increasingly stifled – or you were pigeonholed as extreme left if you questioned all the nonsense assumptions.

“You don’t believe in the long list of completely spurious assumptions of Neoliberalism?  Well, then you must be a baby killing Stalinist obviously.”

But I don’t think there would be more than a handful in Treasury – let alone Richardson or Douglas – who had ever read either 1984 or Brave New World, and perhaps they wouldn’t have understood them even if they had (I think Brave New World won btw – their system is much less overt than the totalitarianism of 1984 – which is what we have; a form of covert thought control and consumerism and reality TV soma to keep most people in some state of acceptance).  The Treasury-types certainly didn’t get any of their own ironic parallels with fundamentalist state communists and their oh-so-similar fraternal totalitarian methods of ensuring obedience, group-think and thought control.

I realised how far politics in this country had lurched to the far right, and it just kept on lurching – with all the ‘third ways’, and oh-so-deep wheeler-dealer commission salesmen like John Key calling himself “centre-right.”  He probably had no idea.  Our governments


Eleanor Roosevelt holding the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights

since 1984 (the year, not the book – confusing coincidence that??) have leapt so far to the right that they could no longer look at this UN Declaration and presume that they were in any way directed by the people-centred moral rudder it provides.

It was as if we tore up our UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and began working on some Declaration of the Rights of the Powerful and Never mind the Rest.

Faced with the inevitable abuse and decline from such a shift in our moral compass, you have to speak.  The world needs its moral compass back.  It needs to think in human rights terms both for the people alive today and for those yet to be born.

That will be a particular challenge for the powerful commercial interests of the world, simply because you make more money – if that is your sorry obsession – by degrading the worth of tomorrow for the cashflow of today.  And you make more money – until the pitchforks inevitably come – by using your power to suppress the rights of people and the natural systems of the planet you would prefer to be defined as measured ‘resources’, mere ‘things’; means to your singular end.

David Orr wrote that these brain stem behemoths,corporate_palaeontology“… spawned gargantuan organisations with simple goals, roughly analogous to the body/brain ratio of the dinosaur … lack[ing] the ability to think much beyond business equivalents of ingestion and procreation.  The monomania drove out thought of the morrow, warped lives, disfigured much of the world, and dominated the intellectual landscapes.”

Such minds should not be in any position to rule.  They have no moral rudder, nor a shred of wisdom.  We have put the fools on a pedestal and called them statesmen.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a background in embedding himself in our landscapes and fields, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Orr, D. 2002. The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture and Human Intention. OUP, NY p69-70

Manaakitanga - mycommunities

The Perennial Philosophies of the world all involve treating people as people, as ends in themselves,  and never means to your own ends. Treating people as mere things, means, resources, is immoral.

Posted in Strategic thinking, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

The Future of Belonging in This Place

This gallery contains 12 photos.

Beneath all the politics, increasingly shrouded in the mist that hide both truth and meaning, there lies the bedrock upon which our landscapes, our peoples, and our economy depend. They are philosophical. Everything depends on a philosophical base – yes, … Continue reading

More Galleries | Leave a comment

The Myth of New Zealand’s Strong Economy

I keep hearing the repeated emptiness that New Zealand has a ‘strong economy’. It has become a cliché, a soundbite that has become unthinkingly repeated, a lie that is now absorbed into the national psyche.

Homeless in NZI was writing something on the stupid economics of poverty (lost potential, so lost value, increased costs & anti-social behaviour, less money in the local economy, favouring the colonial corporates over local businesses, loss of democracy & therefore wisdom), and ended up writing about the Smoke and Mirrors deceit we keep hearing.

New Zealand’s economy is a cocaine-fueled rush, on a base without a future – a low wage, low value, low diversity, short value-chain, socially-degrading, environmentally-degrading extractive economy that suits the colonial/corporate model of Cecil Rhodes – take the cheap resources using slave labour, leave the environmental & social costs in the colony, and take the money and multiply it back ‘home’ to a country or a disconnected gated community far far away.

I ended up writing this ….


The rise in child poverty & inequality from 1988 is a direct consequence of the emergence of the Neoliberal agenda imposed on New Zealand since 1984.  The economic negatives are considerable


There are disconnects in New Zealand between the sobering stories of poverty, inequality, housing and child deaths from Third World diseases, and those who stand on podiums in suits claiming we have a ‘strong’ economy.  How can both coexist?  Isn’t an economy there to serve the wellbeing of us all?

These social costs associated with poverty and death are indicative of a number of things.  The economy is clearly not working as it should.  It self-evidently no longer serves us all; it serves the few who are increasingly disconnected, both geographically and psychologically.  Claims of merit rising and the poor choosing their own poverty are arrant nonsense, much like ‘trickle down’.

Most of us have become increasingly subservient servants to the economic beast.  It is

Rhodes - cheap resources & slave labour

Statesman, my arse

also self-evident from the smoke and mirrors and the denials of various problems that the current government does not care.  And all to further a frankly dumb economics of poverty that only serve the interests of the international corporate elite who are emulating a form of latter-day colonisation – cheap resources and slave wages.  Cecil Rhodes will be cheering from his Zimbabwean crypt.

In making these claims of a ‘strong’ economy, the government hopes that people will look away.  It hopes that their cynical – even deceitful – use of smoke and mirrors will work.

There is a danger in that approach.  The right wing propaganda machine of Lynton Crosby has already faltered. People began to laugh at Teresa May’s ‘strong & stable’ political tag line as it was increasingly exposed as empty blather.

And it is empty blather in New Zealand as well.  For instance, what growth we’ve had is due to immigration, house price rises and earthquake rebuilds, while the current direction of our low wage, low value colonial and increasingly corporate-dominated economy continues.  In that context, our economic performance has been worse than

Auckland house speculationordinary.

But on top of that mediocrity have come our social costs, including child mortality.  Some of us are involved in politics because we are determined that we have to change from our vicious cycle of mediocrity.

Similarly, the smoke and mirrors of ‘job growth’ ignore inconvenient definitions.  A one-hour, casual, temporary ‘job’ so common amongst the under-employed ‘precariat’ is markedly different than a permanent full time position.  But the spin-doctors hope that the public will interpret ‘jobs’ as full time equivalents. Meanwhile, under-employment has tripled since 2008, and the precariat grows and grows.


Rhodes - our duty to take it

It is our *duty* to take?

Perhaps the most ludicrous claim is the right’s non-inflation indexed wage growth that takes no account of the massive increase in top salaries and the static or decreased bottom.  On ‘average’, we’re told it’s all fine when it patently is not.

It really is time we looked deeper at where New Zealand’s economy is going.


You cannot look at our extractive increasingly outside corporate-owned and directed economy without hearing the distant echo of Cecil Rhodes. We are heading into a new colonialism.

Rhodes - Annex the stars

While the agent of power has changed, the ideas of superiority, entitlement, taking, exploiting, reducing of land and people to resources, even the ‘duty’ to take, is *exactly* the same.  The mega-corporate mind would annex the stars if it could.  These are the immoral sentiments of the gluttonous psychopath.

Chris Perley


1st September 2017

Chris Perley has a background in the field, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.  He is a 2017 Green Party candidate for the Tukituki Electorate.


Donation to Thoughtscapes Blog

Donations are welcomed with my sincere thanks. You can simply click the multiples of $5 donations, then click on the Paypal or any of the Credit or Debit Card symbols. It also allows me to get rid of the pesky advertisements! And it’s a nice way to say thank you. So thank you 🙂


Posted in Building Regional Economies,