Green is the new blue. Can blue be the new green?

[Comments to Bluegreens forum with environmental organisations]

Green is the new blue. Or will be for those who want to be politically relevant in the 2020s.

When the Green party started out as the Values party in 1972, green was a “nice-to-have”. It was local. It mostly didn’t get in the way of expanding gross domestic product – except when tweed-jacketed conservatives joined with radicals to block the high dam on Lake Manapouri in 1970, as they did again in 2010 when Gerry Brownlee wanted to dig up conservation land for minerals and metals.

In the 2020s green will be a “need-to-have”. It will be global. And, if we – all humans – don’t pay attention we will find that not being green – in the modern sense – contracts gross domestic welfare.

The days of the-economy-or-the environment are over. We are in the era of society-and-the-environment. (The economy is a subset of society, even if rather a large subset.)

I do not share the apocalyptic angst of some red-greens. I have planted a couple of dozen trees around my house but no one would call me green. But rational analysis is telling us that the anthropocene, the geological epoch in which humans have been the primary engine of environmental change, can’t go on as it has. That is one reason why the Green party has much higher and more solid voter support than in the 1990s and 2000s red-green days. (Another is that it has become more people-friendly in addition to being planet-friendly.)

And a growing list of global companies are tuning in. Fund manager BlackRock this month called on governments globally to make businesses pay a higher price for the climate pollution they generate. Nine of the biggest oil companies, including Aramco and Shell, have announced a nine-company consortium to develop renewable energy.

BlackRock has not suddenly gone green. It is still about as hard-nosed as a fund manager can get, anathema to nice liberals who want ACC and Cullen Fund investments to go to nice places. BlackRock’s motivation is its worry about the destabilising impact on its investments of sudden, politically driven switches in carbon charges and wide variations among countries. The oil consortium is a means of shoring up its businesses against similar political risk.

Put that in another context, the International Integrated Reporting Council, to which 240 global or large international companies and some stock exchanges have signed up. Signatories commit to fully account in their balance sheets for the use and modification of six types of capital: financial, manufactured, intellectual, human, social-and-relationship and natural. GE, not run by greenies, recently produced one. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development and three global accountants’ organisations are partners.

Clean-green New Zealand is not up with this game. We are at most a slow follower – though Paula Bennett’s rhetoric holds out some possibility of acceleration, if she can get round cabinet roadblocks. We could have got a fair way down the track to a low-carbon land transport system if eight years ago the cabinet had chosen to progressively shift its short-trip light vehicle fleet to electric. The real target is not 90% renewables but 130%, making use of the huge potential generating capacity consented but not in production. Simon Bridges gets that.

Being a slow follower would not matter, except to us, if we were still living in a world of sealable national borders, generally known as the Westphalian nation-state order. But hyperglobalisation – of information, finance, production, distribution, technology, terror and people – has exposed that comfortable hiding place. Issues have been globalised that were once a matter for national or local governments.

Global issues require global responses. In the absence of a global government, global responses and actions are extremely difficult to formulate, monitor, police and enforce. So they are rare – international aviation rules are an example. But they are beginning to evolve through semi-formal and informal mechanisms and through emerging “coalitions of the willing”. The pre-November 8 China-United States joint statements on climate change were an example, though now under threat from Donald Trump who has called climate change a Chinese-driven hoax.

Along with climate change, biodiversity on land and in the oceans, air pollution, water supplies, terror, pandemics and the internet are examples of global issues. They are local in impact but global in origin.

That local/global tension poses complex challenges for national governments. These challenges are lateral and longitudinal.

The lateral dimension is that governments have to work out where they want to be relative to the “pack”: leader, fast-follower, slow-follower, foot-dragger – or out. Is it enough to do our “fair share”, John Key’s position, or should we do a bit more than that fair share, having got rich plundering our natural resources when there were very few constraints while late starting poor countries now face climate constraints? Are we doing our fair share by buying other countries’ emission cuts? Are other factors in play: for this country a rules-based global order is important. So are our positioning in relation to major powers and important markets, our positioning relative to rich, developing and poor countries and their peoples, our “brand” for selling ourselves and our products, our capacity to pay the price and our evolving national “culture” or “cultures”.

The longitudinal dimension requires policymakers to take a long view. Environmental issues are not “now” issues, confined to a parliamentary term or even a human lifetime. They are trans-generational and in some cases multi-generational, reaching both back to past generations and forward to future generations. As Edmund Burke, often quoted by conservatives, laid down two centuries back: each generation has a responsibility to future generations, including those not yet born. The Key government has not been Burkean in its failure to look ahead into the 2020s to provide for post-working-age income, that is, pensions. Might it yet be on environmental integrity?

Climate change and biodiversity are obvious trans-generational issues. The environment and ecosystems are infrastructure for human existence. Logically, societies through their governments should invest in and maintain that infrastructure, just as they invest in roads, electricity systems and the “three waters”. Any investment in infrastructure logically takes a 30-year forward view at least. So, with climate change, natural resources and ecosystems.

Putting both of those together, it will be obvious that New Zealand needs to work out not just where it is in the “pack” now but where it wants to be 10, 20 and 50 years – and how to secure that place, starting now. There is no once-for-all setting. As the Treasury’s periodic long-term fiscal forecasts show us, there is a need for constant revision and updating.

It will also be obvious that global positioning and long-term investment need broad political consensus. Policy so far on climate change has spectacularly lacked that. The Land and Water Forum of collaborating interest groups is an example of a genuine search for and by-and-large achievement of a consensus for policy foundations. That process doesn’t deliver policy inscribed on tablets of stone but it does mean subsequent changes are more likely to be in the detail so there is a more consistency over time. That is good for business, as BlackRock is saying about the cost of carbon.

That brings us to today’s gathering. The Land and Water Forum has shown the value of a multi-stakeholder process. The Bluegreens occupy a unique position in the party-political spectrum. In fact, in passing, it was at a Bluegreens breakfast at the National party conference a decade back that I first learnt from an address by Guy Salmon of the “collaborative governance” model that was later applied in the Land and Water Forum.

The Bluegreens’ value is as a semi-independent forum to explore ideas that can feed into the National caucus and, when National is in office, the cabinet. That semi-independence has allowed the Bluegreens to draw on people outside the party system, including interest groups and not-for-profits, as here today. The influence appears to an outsider such as me to be greater when National is in opposition than when it is in government. But the group’s significant political presence is evident in the photograph from 2014 of 38 aligned MPs.

Other parties have so far not copied the Bluegreens model. Even within National other policy groups have come and gone, with limited or no impact. The nearest has been Labour’s Future of Work Commission, which drew on people outside the party, including businesspeople. Even the semi-National mayoral candidate, Victoria Crone, featured at Labour’s 2015 conference in the future of work session. So maybe we are seeing the spread of a good idea.

The different way the Bluegreens operate in National’s policy deliberations is one example of the growing diversification of the political system. There has developed a wider range of ways of expressing opinion, organising and building the basis for making decisions and this looks like a trend, although still a very uneven one. Parties don’t dominate power and policy as they did half a century ago.

That political diversification is the result of social diversification, which is the result of hyperglobalisation, coupled with disruptive technological change. Some argue – and I agree – that this era is akin to the first industrial revolution which upturned societies and political orders. But it is many times faster than that first revolution.

That requires new ways of thinking – a new paradigm – just as the first industrial revolution did. Adam Smith, David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx reformulated analysis to relate to the new forms of production and the different society the industrial revolution wrought.

We don’t yet have the equivalent analysis, or if we do we can’t yet recognise it, which is perhaps a factor of the speed and depth of change. But one way of thinking that is gaining ground, notably here in the Treasury, is to think about economic activity in terms of whether we are maintaining, increasing or running down various “capital stocks”, that is financial, human, natural and social capital. That requires finding ways to measure and assess those capitals. The Treasury and the Ministry for the Environment, with other agencies, are trying to do that for our natural resources.

This way of thinking is transgenerational: maintaining adequate stocks of capital for future generations. It is a long step away from the current practice of measuring the “flow” of production as in gross domestic product, which in any case misses out a lot of what humans actually “produce”, not to mention “externalities” such as pollution and over-exploitation of “free” natural resources. That the Treasury is actively involved in this venture will suggest to any casual observer that this way of thinking is no longer way-out green-green territory. It cannot yet be described as the next paradigm but looks like a step on the way. Expect to see similar work on social capital.

The political risk for Bluegreens – and the National party – is to find yourselves out of date, constantly adjusting the old paradigm here and there and not anticipating the new paradigm. That is not to say the public will bone up on new thinking and shift intellectually to the new space. But if sea level rise, extreme natural events, droughts and floods and so on become more frequent and damaging and cause fright at some point, promoters of a new paradigm might get public traction because the old one will appear not to be working. That could well happen – abroad as well as here – some time in the 2020s.

So Bluegreens have some hard thinking to do: on biodiversity and predators; on forests and wetlands; on ocean and fisheries; on water allocation and pricing, conservation and recycling and quality; on pricing and charging for externalities; on farm practices; on detoxing land transport and fixing industrial and building heating; on packaging and waste; on population and urban form; on climate change mitigation and adaptation and the property rights conundrums in that; on how taxes could be restructured to focus on “bads” not “goods”; on how economic development is made consistent with environmental integrity; on the national “brand” and how we live up to it or not; and much else.

That hard thinking needs to examine if it is time to swap incremental adjustment for a step-change, to be ahead of the 2020s game (as the national “brand” implies) or a slow follower in the 2010s as Bluegreens alumnus Simon Upton grumps. It needs to look past political points-scoring toward national consensus-building. The environment is a long game, not a quick fix, book-ended in a single human lifetime.

The question for today is whether outsiders like me will see evidence of that hard thinking in the pre-election strategic document you put up to ministers early next year.

In short, can blue be the new green?