I wrote this article below in response to a promotional meeting for the Ruataniwha Dam held in Waipukurau in 2014. I’ve edited it slightly. In early March 2016, another meeting was held, and the same justifications were made – jobs, GDP, a healthier river. We have not advanced one step in analysing rural decline or alternative strategies. The question was asked “but what alternatives do we have?” Though it was presented not so much as a question as a challenge and a defence of status quo thinking. I responded with comments about the failure of the current models advocated by Massey and Lincoln Universities, the Ministry of Primary ‘Industries’ (oh, how I hate that framing of our rural communities and rich landscapes as factories), the farmers’ union Federated Farmers who advocate for corporate agribusiness but still con farmers into supporting them, and – of course – industrial commodity traders and thinkers like Fonterra.
The meeting in 2014 was touted as presenting ‘the facts’ about irrigation. Requests to get independent economists and commentators to also have their say were declined. We make the point that so-called ‘solutions’, like this dam, represent business-as-usual. Cheap stuff, lots of it, never mind the environment, commoditisation of everything, increasing industrialisation and corporatisation, no marketing point of difference, antagonism toward labelling, fear of environmentalists, denigration of ‘greenies’, denial of the trends demanding food quality and food safety, denial of the benefits the environment provides to market position and financial performance, and the treatment of all life – including human life – as a mere means to the end of an increasingly dehumanising and authoritarian world.
It is this business-as-usual that is causing rural decline – an economic, social & environmental downward spiral – and more of the same thinking will only exacerbate that trend. GM crops promoted by large corporates is more of the same.
The fact that business-as-usual has disturbing trends seems obvious to me, which is why it is so strange when operationally-minded farmers nod with the mob when someone chants ‘produce more to feed the world cheaply’.
Philosophy taught me to think deep (or at least deeper) into the conceptual world beyond the faux-objectivity of the spreadsheets, the engineering and the agronomic science. You would think that that conceptual world that lies beneath how we act operationally is first recognised as underpinning our actions, and second, that consideration of deep questions like ‘why?’ would be part of the modus operandi of strategists and policy makers.
But it plainly isn’t, and it has got worse over the last 30 years since the rise of the corporate models within the public and research sectors. It seems that to be considered a farming ‘leader’ you have to trot out the failed and failing mantra of gross production of naff products.
Philosopher David Hume once wrote that reason is a slave of the emotions. This is as it should be. Values and ideas start before you ask the so-called ‘factual’ questions. They always have. So get your values and ideas right first – and incorporate them in your strategy. But woe the wrong ideas.
When we consider the debate over the Ruataniwha dam – what some have claimed to be the answer to the rural decline of Central Hawke’s Bay with interminable promises of jobs, GDP, clean rivers and prosperity for all – the lack of thought about values and ideas becomes very clear, particularly when witnessing the evangelising over the increasingly desperate “now or never” gathering of the faithful, with all the apparently vital use of superlatives and corporate jargon (as if we will be fooled by the bullshit bingo of the narrow commercial minds).
As of our current date – March 2016 – there have been seven ‘financial close’ dates by which time investors in both the dam construction and the water purchase will be assured. Hope is enough for many. They set aside deep consideration of trends, causation, context and strategy, and just promote or do business-as-usual … but promise it will better, bigger, faster.
It is not good enough to throw more fuel on our primary sector runaway train. It is particularly not good enough when we are talking about outdated ideas of land use strategy, millions of dollars of our money, and the potential for real damage, including to the economy. Wait for the next mindless worship of the new wonderfix, GE.
Before we committed to this business-as-usual path, we have to understand the damn train that we are on.
Here is the essential illogic of the Ruataniwha Dam. Central Hawke’s Bay has a declining population and local economy.
No question there.
And then they leap to the answer, “so we need the dam.”
Logically, that doesn’t follow. Logically, we would first acknowledge the problem of decline (done), then seek to understand why it is happening using all the wisdom available. We then have at least a chance of solving it. If we don’t seek to understand the dynamics of the decline in rural well-being, then there is no chance of solution.
Not solving the problem is bad enough, but it is far worse if we exacerbate the very issues that are the cause of our decline, and thereby accelerate it.
Welcome to the Ruataniwha dam, 1930s thinking for 21st century problems.
Setting aside emotion, here are the issues. They are critical for the dam promoters to consider, though they represent inconvenient truths rather than reassuring spin.
Our focus on producing more and more should have fundamentally shifted after 1973 when we stopped being an extension of Britain’s food system. It didn’t. We were taught, and still are, the metric of primary production first; “feed Britain”, and then “feed the world!”
At least Britain before 1973 could afford to pay decent prices, but there is absolutely no future is producing ever-cheaper food for the wider world without a point-of-difference to set us apart from the ultra-cheap third world producers. It is insanity to hanker for third world cost structures, unless you are a corporate owner living in New York.
With that focus on cheap production came a number of other trends: first, we focus on short-term cost-cutting, greater scale and wide swathes of sameness as margins squeeze; resulting in larger landholdings eventually into conglomerates or corporates, less people employed on the land, the rich getting richer and the poor poorer, larger more-centralised processing factories with less local processing jobs, the centralisation of ownership and profit spend out of the region, and the considerable loss of the economic ‘multipliers’ you get with all the money that staff and owners once spent locally. We lose Adam Smith’s village and replace it with a corporate dystopia. We lose the flow of money through the local economy, and it acts as a vicious feedback – less generates less generates less.
Secondly, we have increased currently-cheap energy inputs in the form of particularly nitrogen fertilisers, increasing ‘fertiliser junky’ dependency, ever more stock concentrations, the forcing of land to behave like a hydroponic factory, environmental problems, and major future economic and natural risks.
However, the biggest problem is the fact that primary sector commodities cannot hold price – they spike and collapse with the long-term trend being downward – and without market position, every temporary cost-efficiency gain is eventually lost to the stronger buyer. There is a very clear message here ….. don’t trade commodities if you can ever avoid it.
Business-as-usual cannot see any other alternative to “this is what we do.” It knows one thing – production – and argues for the same but bigger, for large subsidised irrigation schemes, the right to pollute more, lower working conditions, larger plants, corporatisation, inevitability, anything to cut costs and increase a slim margin in the hope that – this time – it will all be different and the buyer will not reduce the price. They’ll be nice. And so we run faster and faster to stay in one place. Not very bright, is it.
There will be larger-scale winners, and they are the ones who will speak. But our focus on cheap intensive commodity production is a complete failure for the rest of us. Understanding that source of decline at least provides the starting point for generating new values, ideas and solutions. It is an absolutely vital starting point for developing policy around rural decline. It ought to be a key feature of any of the ‘bullshit’ financial models assuming a perfect world where power doesn’t exist, marketed with the most modern corporate Newspeak.
I have heard no reasoned counter to these points by dam promoters, other than a hope that, this time, it will be different. A miracle perhaps. I have seen no evidence that they have thought deeply about the causes of rural decline. I have seen nothing but dismissal of local-scale and on-farm solutions where there are no ribbons to cuts and corporates to schmooze. I don’t think they have a clue.
In Hawke’s Bay, we live in a potential paradise. But to see that potential, and then to make it happen, needs a new set of values and ideas, not the factory and production ideas currently growing more shrill.
Chris Perley has a background in primary sector and regional strategy, policy, research, and operational management across forestry, agriculture, community, economy and the environment. He stood as the Green Party Candidate for Tukituki in the 2014 general election.
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A version of this article was published in Hawkes’s Bay Today, 12th November 2014