Ships from the North: Why autarky can’t be New Zealand’s answer to climate change

DAILY BLOG EDITOR Martyn Bradbury recently warned readers that climate change mitigation is now Aotearoa New Zealand’s only viable option. Reversing the steady rise in global temperatures might have been possible if the major industrial powers had taken action fifty years ago. Tragically, they refused to make the necessary changes, and now it’s far too late. Accelerating climate change is already upon us and its effects will only get worse.

The “vague affiliation of millionaires and billionaires” (to use Paul Simon’s superb expression) who actually run this planet know that it is far too late to save industrial civilization as we know it. Their strange preoccupation with spaceships and interplanetary travel betrays this grim realization.

They want to leave behind the mess they’ve created, spreading the deadly virus of ruthless environmental exploitation across the universe. All nonsense, of course. There is nowhere in our solar system where human beings could establish a sustainable colony remotely, and it is doubtful that the technology necessary for interstellar travel will ever be invented. Physics is physics – and physics says “No”.

All of this begs the question, “Can we live with climate change?” Right here in Aotearoa-New Zealand, is it possible to build an economy and a society capable of supporting a population of five million? Is autarky a serious option?

For those unfamiliar with the term: “Autarky is the characteristic of self-sufficiency, generally applied to societies, communities, states and their economic systems”. (Wikipedia)

Only Maori can speak with authority about the type of economy and society produced by living self-sufficiently in Aotearoa. From the beginning of the 14th century to the end of the 18th century, the inhabitants of these islands lived entirely without contact or outside help. All production of food, tools, and medicine was internal, as was trade in goods and services. For about five hundred years, in a multitude of small communities, the Maori lived entirely alone in these islands at the end of the world. However, at any time between 1300 CE and 1800 CE, it is generally accepted that the combined population of these isolated human communities never exceeded 150,000 individuals.

Can we hope to do better? Our first instinct is to say “Of course!” But a little reflection should be enough to dampen our optimism. New Zealand as we know it would be impossible without a rudimentary global system of transport and trade. If climate change were to fundamentally weaken industrial societies in the northern hemisphere, the supply chains that New Zealanders depend on would be increasingly disrupted. How long could our society last if the ships from the North stopped coming?

Now, at this point, many Kiwis will say that New Zealand is one of the most efficient food producers in the world – so at least we won’t starve. The truth, however, is that New Zealand really isn’t that agriculturally productive. Without the fertilizer we extracted from Nauru and now import from the Kingdom of Morocco, we would miss the grass that our entire primary production sector depends on. These ships of the North are essential to our well-being.

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Pharmaceuticals that keep deadly diseases at bay in the world are not the least important elements of all these cargo manifestos. Currently, New Zealand does not have any pharmaceutical production facility worth mentioning. So if the ships stop coming, tens of thousands of people will die for lack of medicines that we currently take for granted.

Among the first priorities of a self-sufficient Aotearoa-New Zealand would therefore be the creation of a basic pharmaceutical industry. The use of the word “basic” is quite deliberate, because in a global economy significantly disrupted by the intensified effects of climate change, acquiring the highly sophisticated technology needed to produce anything other than the simplest drugs would become increasingly difficult, if not impossible. .

This problem: getting your hands on vital machines and the machine parts needed to run them; can only get worse.

If you’ve ever wondered about images of ramshackle, rusty, overgrown tanks in desolate Third World landscapes, then you’ve already encountered the paradox of “parts.” Tanks are extraordinarily complicated machines, always breaking down. If the spare parts needed to operate them become unavailable, these terrifying combat machines become completely useless – mere scrap metal.

What is true of tanks is, of course, also true of John Deere tractors and all the other farm equipment that makes New Zealand cockies so productive.

This issue should give serious thought to anyone who argues that to prevent these islands from being overrun by climate refugees, we will need to arm ourselves to a degree never seen in our history. Defense spending, they say, will have to increase – by a lot. But unless we have the (unrealistically) intention of creating a large, vertically integrated arms manufacturing industry, the ‘Fortress New Zealand’ argument makes no sense.

Any country that arms itself immediately makes itself militarily and diplomatically dependent on the nation-state that supplies it with arms.

Just consider acquiring the most basic military tool, the automatic rifle. Once firing begins, a nation’s stored ammo quickly depletes. What does he do then? Basically, he’s begging his arms supplier for more. If for any reason the US, UK or Australia says “No” to New Zealand. Or, more likely, “Sorry, mate, we can’t spare any right now,” so those automatic rifles instantly become nothing more than expensive metal clubs. Obviously, if the weapons your nation is looking for are fighter jets or warships, then the supply and maintenance issues are multiplied a thousandfold.

“Fortress New Zealand” is a pipe dream – unless, of course, we allow ourselves to become a full-fledged colony of the United States or Australia (the most likely option, if only to ‘a geographical point of view) or, perhaps, from China. Even then, the whole survival scenario hinges on the assumption that armed ships from the North keep coming.

Anthropologists tell us that soon after the first Polynesian travelers made landfall on these islands, the large ocean-going canoes that had carried them here traveled back and forth between Aotearoa and their Pacific island homelands. Eventually, however, the canoes from the North stopped coming. The men and women who had arrived on these, the last significant landmasses to succumb to human occupation, were finally and entirely alone.

Until new sailboats arrive from the North.

If these ships had not arrived, “Aotearoa” would have survived. But, without its constant and extensive connections to the rest of the world: the very connections most threatened by accelerating climate change; “New Zealand” cannot exist.

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