The environment is changing — even for Greens

On Sunday the Greens will mull adjustments to their political clothing. They may need more than a nip or a tuck or slight change of shade. Technology is changing the Greens’ environment.

Greens used confidently to claim the future. Only by going green would humans escape an apocalypse of disease and poison as resources run out, ecosystems are decimated and food sources despoiled and desiccated.

And Green MPs have by and large lived their principles, in food, housing and lifestyles. Few in politics can say that, hand on heart.

So it is no surprise that Greens jumped on Nick Smith’s Resource Management Act (RMA) reform proposals. That act, a world first in 1991, subjects human material pursuits to judgment as to the effects on the physical environment.

New Zealand First, the Maori party and Peter Dunne and Labour, with a qualification, have also jumped on Smith. Dunne injected a swear-word — democracy — by insisting National and ACT should not ram a cornerstone change to a cornerstone act on a bare parliamentary majority of 61.

Smith’s RMA proposals are of two sorts.

One is process improvements, to remove or reduce the fiddly, inconsistent, sometimes nonsensical and often unduly expensive bureaucratic problem-creation for people trying to do commonsense things. Phil Twyford said last year Labour would vote for most of those proposed changes, giving the lie to National’s claims Labour was blocking reform.

But Smith also said he wants to radically rewrite the criteria in sections 6 and 7 for local plans and decision-making to include natural hazards (among which he did not include climate-change-driven sea-level rise), “careful design” of urban environments, the “importance of more affordable housing” and “provision for appropriate infrastructure”. He did not include Amy Adams’ abortive proposed insertion in 2013 of economic growth but said he thought it should be recognised.

Critics say Environment Court rulings have made a place for economic development and say rewriting sections 6 and 7 will likely mire planning in 10 years of case law to define exactly what is meant.

Labour, the Greens, New Zealand First, the Maori party and Peter Dunne all object to a section 6-7 rewrite.

But beneath Smith’s showmanship and rhetoric there is a point: human-made law is for humans’ wellbeing and future, not the preservation of some frozen-in-time environmental mix. We live in the human-shaped anthropocene epoch, not in an overhang of some idealised historical period. We started the shaping millennia ago with shovels and fire.

Technological change comes with pluses and minuses. And that is the Greens’ conundrum: not how to stop all future minuses but how to get more pluses than minuses.

They might, for example, ask themselves what “public” transport will be in 2020. For Greens public transport is good and cars are bad.

Around half of the cost of buses, trains and commuter ferries is subsidised. Well-off public servants in Wellington feed off fuel taxes from those low-earners who have no choice but to drive cars to work. Auckland’s rail loop might be quaint old-tech by 2040.

In the Uber age and the super-Uber or post-Uber age around the corner (say 2020) there might be an individualised “public”, something accessed by app to go from J to R instead of only from A to B: a shuttle or taxi or “public” car or other device.

This digital dimension poses very different questions from the relatively simple ones of motor technology: hybrid or all-electric. But even those questions are not as simple now: advances in photovoltaic film (as opposed to panels) and storage (batteries) are changing the economics and environmental-impact of individualised travel and those and other innovations are changing building technology.

The issue for Greens is that personal habits might well be going to change in ways they approve — but for motives other than environmental preservation.

There is some interesting thinking in parts of the public service (not the Treasury) on some of these issues. Business New Zealand last week called for “innovative supporting regulation” for new technologies. There is even a ministerial glimmer here and there of the positive possibilities in backing electric light vehicles — though not, so far, on the Beehive’s plenipotentiary seventh floor where Bill English and Steven Joyce sit.

The risk for the Englishes and Joyces is that, viewed from 2030, they will be seen as luddites, missing opportunities by fixating on costs. Policy and practice are far adrift of emerging advances.

There is a converse risk for the Greens: that, for all their talk of a “smart, green economy”, they too often see material gain as environmental cost and so may miss left-field green opportunities.

Technology’s curse is that to some it is a cost and to others a gain. The Green’s big question on Sunday is whether they are preservationists of 1970s-2000s worries or visionaries of a 2020s reshaped by disruptive technologies.