Future Goals and Options in NZ Land Management – A Transdisciplinary View

A brief argument from some years ago to rethink land use in New Zealand

“If we go through a list of some of the main problematiques that are defining the new Century, such as water, forced migrations, poverty, environmental crises, violence, terrorism, neo-imperialism, destruction of social fabric, we must conclude that none of them can be adequately tackled from the sphere of specific individual disciplines. They clearly represent transdisciplinary challenges[1].

To Max-Neef’s quote you could also add that the solutions for one place don’t necessarily apply in another. The world is complex, adaptive (especially where people are concerned), indeterministic (any particular state cannot be necessarily reduced to underlying laws or rules), highly connected, and contingent on time, place and history. Which is why land is so interesting.

Reconciling the environmental, the social, the cultural, the economic

Goals in land management should not relate just to the biophysical. If you accept that community is a part of land, and that economy is part of that community, then as there are ‘holonarchical’ links within the biological system, so there are links that integrate people and their present and future wellbeing with the biophysical aspects of land.

The two strategic alternatives for this wider view of land demonstrate the strong links between environment, society and economy. Drawn simplistically and unashamedly polemically, the choice, as metaphor, is either (Refer Figure 1):

  • (Nebraska Inc. – large scale, specialised, cheap, corporate): a segregated mechanical model of land (single-function spatially allocated plantations – with offset preserves – producing product focused on scale, homogeneity, high inputs, commodity, compromise of other local extant values; cultural and environmental), or;
  • (Tuscany, integrated, multifunctional, environmental diversity providing economic options, high value market position, and free ecological services) an integrated systemic model of land that views resilient community, environmental functions and economy as integrated and mutually reinforcing. Tourism, fine wild food, artisans, fine beverages and cuisine, and culture are emergent properties of an integrated and functional wider system.

The Least cost, High-energy use, Low value Commodity Strategy

The Nebraska Inc. (Mordor?) alternative is energy intensive, and is profitable while energy costs are low and product prices are high. It tends to be highly capitalised and demanding of a return on investment to service debt. If energy or compliance costs associated with maintaining environmental and social standards rise, interest rates rise, or product prices fall, these systems can be highly vulnerable.  We have seen these dynamics happen a number of times in New Zealand, most recently the drop in milk solid prices of 2014-2015.  This industrial land use model tends to concentrate and centralise ownership outside of the local, to marginalise both the environment and social values, to homogenise landscapes, to simplify the complexities of life to agronomic formulae, and rely upon technofixes and off-farm inputs to compensate for the loss of free ecological gifts.

Over-production leads to its own positive feedback of price reduction, with highly capitalised and specialist structures being less flexible to changes in the market or community (social) demands (often associated with environmental standards). The response is often to produce even more as the only option available to get out of poor liquidity, when the market signals are actually to produce less.  This increase in yield is often encouraged by policy, science, purchasing processors and suppliers of inputs.  This dynamic was famously evident in the 1930s US Dustbowl where low price lead to increased rather than decreased production which lead to land degradation an eventual environmental, social and economic collapse through a vicious and highly linked positive feedback.  President Herbert Hoover even encouraged the increased production, and by implication the degradation of land, as patriotic.

In the face of declining prices the other option to maintaining margins is to reduce costs through:

  • incremental (and sometimes radical) innovation,
  • increasing scale and specialisation even more,
  • deferring costs into the future through land degradation, or
  • externalising costs to the public.

A number of these options include reducing yet more future options and natural capital, including the ecological ‘gifts’ (some term ‘services’) that provide free functions (e.g. pollination, soil productivity and resilience, detoxification, biological pest control, etc.). The loss of these ecological gifts leads to yet greater demands for artificial inputs. In the face of changing market and community pressures, the result can be a ‘race to the bottom’. The ‘commodity’ status of much of the production is particularly vulnerable to any efficiency gains in cost (even those costs transferred to society or deferred into the future) being negotiated away by the more powerful buyers.  So the pursuit of wider margins by either reducing standards or through producing more poorly-positioned product leads to a greater chance that margins will be squeezed again in the future. These are the symptoms of a lock-in-trap.  They emphasise that price position is a far more important focus than production, or the self-serving industrial and political rhetoric of ‘feeding the world’.

The option of radically shifting to a strong price-making (rather than price taking) market position may not be readily available within an industrial landscape because the very prerequisite for that strong market position often relates to food differentiation, food quality, the care of and state of the environment, and the very community values that have been eroded in the pursuit of production at least cost. One of the solutions to reducing costs in an energy-expensive future – building free ecosystem gifts – requires diversity and smaller scale rather than large scale homogeneity, and the degradation and loss of those gifts takes time, local expertise, and yet more investment to restore.

This industrial system is not resilient in a future world where costs and prices fluctuate, more especially where their high dependency upon energy risks future price rises in the face of oil peaks.  Its lack of resilience suggests it is not the best option for the future economy, community or environment of a region.

It is important to note that this industrial model – as the natural antithesis to preserves –  is implicitly endorsed by some environmental interests focused on preserves and universal regulation as the answers to the environmental problems, rather than a rethink of environmental, land use and social policy.  Both the productivist industrial and the hard preservation world-views are philosophically ‘modern’ in their framing.  They demonstrate a reducible mechanical view rather than an integrated complex adaptive system view.  In effect, the preservation ideal endorses the model of the productivists, and then argues about where the fence ought to be between each of their single-function realms.

The alternative to this model is a socially, economically and environmentally integrated system, relying on building social, economic and environmental ‘capacities’ and synergistic linkages (win-wins) within a region.

The ‘Agro-Ecological’, Integrated, Multi-Functional, Ecosystem-gifts, Positioned-product, High Value Strategy

The alternative model to ‘Nebraska Inc.’ is a challenge to the colonial focus on cheap production and specialisation, and to thinking within a reduced mechanical frame of reference. This model effectively views the environment both as:

  • A cost reducer through ecological services, particularly of energy, and
  • Integral to a ‘price-making’ market position through the narrative surrounding the environment, the landscape, and the community associated with any products and services from the land.

A major report to the UN General Assembly in 2011 by Olivier de Schutter emphasised the need to shift from industrial agribusiness models to localised agro-ecological methods because of the superiority of this system for rural communities, climate change, environmental benefits, and gross production.  De Schutter has since emphasised the need to address how food systems are shaped by political and economic power, and how the needed shift in emphasis is effectively stymied by powerful lobbies.

These agro-ecological systems still represent an ‘intensive use of land’ in the sense that output per unit area can still remain high, with gross production matching or exceeding energy-intensive systems provided that all outputs are measured[2]. The intensity relates to using knowledge to optimise self-organising functions and value within a system (knowledge intensity) rather than substituting free ecological gifts for cheap energy (energy intensity).

There are a number of key principles to integrated high value systems:

  • Positive (husbandry) practices to diversify across landscape and within patches & get off vicious cycle of reliance on off-farm inputs – woodlands, trees, wetlands, integrated practices, building soil C, managing for water retention, within & among-patch heterogeneity, utilising meso-site properties to create properties for the whole – e.g. well-located shelter can provides risk mitigation for stock, climate amelioration, longer growing seasons through warmth, reduced evapotranspiration, increased grass production, reduced stock maintenance levels and feed demands, soil conservation, shade, water quality improvement, biodiversity, fodder, and amenity – multiple functions from a single element with environmental, social and economic benefits;
  • Substitution of farm-generated or locally available inputs for outside inputs;
  • Values feed off each other – e.g. the use of wetlands and woodlands creates amenity, economic opportunity (pheasant shooting?), environmental positives, and cost reduction;
  • The importance of values (including institutions, social capital[3] and capacities) and knowledge systems (incorporating local knowledge and information systems from different sources).

Integral to the development of high value systems is a social dimension to policy making and implementation (refer Peterson work).

One Example – Key Environmental Considerations for Hawke’s Bay

An example of a multiple-function approach relates to drought within the Hawke’s Bay landscape. Hawke’s Bay is summer dry and projected to get more floods and droughts with a similar rainfall total. Heavy rain events with high evapotranspiration loss (as occurs in Hawke’s Bay spring and summer through solar and wind effects) can lead to ineffective retention of rainfall. This is exacerbated by a history of trying to drain land, even affecting flood damage and soil loss, rather than retaining water within the wider land and waterbody system. There are strong links between improving the landscape functionality of water and the landscape functionality of soils, biodiversity, carbon, and energy use (see holonarchical[4] Figure 2 below).

The potential within landscapes is not only not being realised by our colonial emphasis on gross production and industrial agronomy, it is being actively eroded.  That represents an economic, social and environmental loss, alongside a marked increase in vulnerability and loss of resilience to uncertainty.  Tactics have trumped strategy.

I do not know how the shift will occur, but the need for that change is vital.

Chris Perley

[1] Max-Neef 2005 Foundations of Transdisciplinarity. Ecological Economics 53 (2005) 5– 16

[2] The enclosures of the British commons are often associated with claims that production increased. Production of certain transportable products such as grains did increase, but more recent evidence argues that that increase was more than offset by the loss of other goods and services utilised by local communities (firewood, fodder for house cows or poultry, wild game, edible flora, etc.). These goods and services were not measured in previous analyses. The enclosures acts were, however, connected with the concentration of ownership of rural land, and the shift of people to towns providing the labour necessary for the industrial revolution.

[3] The work of Robert Putnam showed that social capital is essential to economic performance, and that economic policies that lead to reduced social capital lead to poorer economic performance. Social capital includes: trust, participation, innovation, foresight, the capacity to foresee, adapt, and change, learning & knowledge systems, motivation, energy, sense of permanence, aspiration, inspiration, cooperation, and confidence.

[4] A complex system is not understandable by reducing it to parts. Many of the properties of wider systems are explained by their associations and connections, and may include ‘emergent’ properties (such as ‘life’ or ‘consciousness’ or ‘society’ or ‘resilience’) that are not derived from any inherent property of any one of collective of its parts, but represent adapted self-organisation. Therefore, to understand and achieve certain goals, we need a systems view that looks both down to the parts within any one discipline, and across the separate holons (subsystems) that make up the greater whole. ‘Holons’ and ‘holarchy’ are concepts developed by Arthur Koestler to challenge the thinking inherent in the concept of a hierarchy; specifically that a part is merely a sub-assembly, fragmentary and incomplete, and with its rightful place in the ascending orders of importance and complexity. Rather than use the more usual anti-reductionist notion of Holism, which Koestler argued is as one-sided as atomism, he invokes Janus, whose two faces look in opposite directions, to describe a part as both a whole looking toward and influencing its parts, and as a part looking toward and influencing the whole. An individual is a holon, both a part and a whole. Koestler, A. (1967). The ghost in the machine. New York, The MacMillan Company.

Figure 1: Where does New Zealand sit? Which way are we trending? Where do we want to be? (from Angelstam et al.)

Angelstam Figure

Figure 2: Environmental Functionality in a Drought & Flood Prone Environment – Transdisciplinary Holonarchy

Landscape Holon

Swaffield Landscapes

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1 Response to Future Goals and Options in NZ Land Management – A Transdisciplinary View

  1. Makere says:

    Reblogged this on The Turning Spiral and commented:
    Great post by by Chris Perley

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